As they stood on the bank looking out, the surface of water was troubled, a further turbulence not caused by the water roiling around rocks or submerged logs. To Derin, it looked as if the river's bottom had risen to the top. Fish began to surface, the glistening backs of dolphins, swordfish, the hard white shells of surf clams like stepping-stones. Holding parallel to the current, their sleek scaled and armored bodies shimmering in the grey light, they seemed like a rainbow rising from the water. Octopi wrapped their slithery suction-cupped tentacles around bluefish and halibut to keep them steady. Sponges the color of dried blood wedged between lobster and shark. Some of the fish brought seaweed in their mouths to use as anchors, to fasten them together. Derin watched in wonder as more and more creatures joined the rainbow, scallops and mussels mooring themselves to the sponges and eelgrass, spinning a web of byssus threads, barnacles anchoring themselves to mussels until a solid passage of fish appeared where there had been nothing but water.
The river splashed over the bridge, spume was thrown high in the air, but the fish held against the river's tug. "Are you ready?" Vera asked.
Without waiting for an answer, she waded into the water and deftly leapt up onto the backs of the fish. She slithered from cod to bluefish and they rolled their large round eyes upwards as if to wish her well. Under her, the bridge rocked and swayed as the current ripped at it. She was drenched by the flying spray which hit the fishes' tails and swirled above her.
Derin watched the fox, mesmerized, until Matthew gave him a shove, almost knocking him headfirst into the river. "Hurry!" Matthew said, "They can't hold forever."
The boy thrashed through the few feet of water to where the bridge began. He put his hands on the back of a shark, irs kin rough as sandpaper, and lifted a foot out of the water. Balancing precariously, he stood, almost fell, crouched, and steadied himself. Beneath him, the bridge gave way a little, flexible, sinking into the water. He took a step and the fish held, another step, and another.
The river was as cold as he remembered. Ice formed in his hair and crusted his eyelashes. He twisted to look and saw Matthew clambering up on the first fish. "Just keep going," Matthew screamed. "Don't look back."
The fish were slippery, as though covered with slime, and his feet slid across their scaled surfaces. Ahead of him, he could dimly see the fox padding carefully across, shrouded by mist, and he tried to keep her in view. Below him, the surface of the bridge kept changing. He stepped from the soft bodies of fish to the harder rocklike shells of surf clams. Once he stepped on a skate and felt himself falling as its thin body refused to hold his weight, but he jumped to the back of a dolphin and continued.
Refusing to follow Matthew's command, he looked behind him to see where the satyr was. His hooves were giving him trouble. They hurt the fish who writhed under the sharp wedged horn. Matthew saw the boy watching him, and tried to scream something, but Derin couldn't hear him. He could barely see the satyr's arms flailing in the air. The only sound he heard was the roaring of the river. It came from upstream, sweeping down upon him, borne on the back of the wind. Water sucked and nibbled at his feet, whitecaps slapped over the backs of fish before him, obscuring them in a wash of water. He couldn't see where he was stepping.
Suddenly he realized he had lost sight of Vera through the flying spray, and when he turned, Matthew, too, was obscured. Below him, the bridge bucked, nothing but a loose confederation of slippery fish. He saw the tentacle of an octopus writhe in the air and he thought of the vines coming loose, the raft disintegrating, being thrown into the air and falling. The fish seemed to be moving under him, and the waves, lashing his ankles, rocked him as he stumbled forward.
A wild fear seized him. He began to run, lunging ahead, wanting only the steadiness of ground beneath his feet. Out of the mist, he saw the opposite shore loom. Vera was safely there, looking back at him, anxiously awaiting his emergence from the river's fog.
Underneath him, the fish cringed at his heavy tread, and then began to fall away. He was scrambling, hardly able to hear his own screaming. He was about twenty feet from the shore when the bridge disappeared altogether, and he was thrown into the water. It filled his ears, entered his mouth. The river slapped him down, under, but he struggled to the surface, his legs scissoring at the hip, his arms reaching out in broad strokes, not so much like swimming as like reaching a lifeline. He saw the land in front of him begin to move; he was being swept downstream.
Vera ran up and down the bank yelling, but he couldn't make out the words. "Up!" she seemed to be screaming, and then he heard. "Stand up! Stand up!" He stopped swimming, bent at the hips, and hid feet touched bottom. Under him was a thick ooze, but it was firmer than water, and though the ooze tried to swallow his feet, he pulled them loose and the water sunk beneath him, now at his chest, his waist, his knees.
He looked behind him for Matthew, and then he realized that as he'd run and scattered the fishes, he'd left nothing for Matthew to cross on. "No!" he screamed. "Matthew!" He stumbled upstream to where Vera was standing, looking out over the water.
There was the satyr, struggling against the raging river. He was holding his own against the current; it was not sweeping him away, but he was making no progress toward shore. He looked like a horse bucking a floodtide. He reared from the water, and then disappeared into a trough as a hand of wave came down upon him.
Wildly the boy looked around. Near the base of a fir near the water's edge, a vine hung. He ran to the tree, gasped its thick leathery bark in his hands. Above him, the branches swayed but refused to give up their hold on the vine. He jumped into the air, grabbing it, putting all his weight on the vine, and it began to slip. He hung there for a minute, and it ripped loose, throwing him on the ground, the vine rattling loose and falling over him.
He threw his sodden pack from his shoulders and staggered into the water. It churned around his knees, his waist. "Matthew!" he yelled, and this time when the satyr reared above the waves, he saw the boy.
Derin had wandered out so far the waves lapped at his elbow. He whirled the vine around his head and threw it toward the satyr. It fell short, was taken downriver. Hurriedly he hauled it in. This time, the boy threw upstream and the vine floated past Matthew as he grabbed out for it. The third time the throw was good. Whipped by the water, the vine raged into Matthew's outstretched hands and the boy flung himself backwards, holding on with all his strength. He almost lost his footing and went down, but moving slowly, he felt the water recede.
The satyr stopped struggling against the current as soon as he gripped the vine, so the river took him, playing with him like so much debris. Water crashed over his head. The boy finally reached the shore and began to pull him in.
Matthew was the biggest fish he had ever tried to land. Arm over arm, he grasped at the vine. His biceps ached, his breath came in short gasps, and just when he thought he could hold no longer against this weight, this river, this task, he saw Matthew touch bottom, unsteady as a tree limb in a storm, and plunge ashore.
The satyr collapsed on the bank and slowly rolled over onto his back. His chest heaved as he tried to fill his lungs with air. He pushed himself up on an elbow and retched, salt water spilling from him. Derin knelt beside him, pushed the satyr's muddy hair back from his forehead where the blood streaked his nose and cheek.
It was a superficial cut, but it bled crazily. Matthew lay back and pressed the heel of his hand against it to staunch the blood. He stared above him at the grey sky, the tops of the firs shaking with the wind.
"A lovely swim," he gasped. "But it's good to be ashore."
"Matthew," Derin said.
"I was hoping for a minute you'd save me," he said to Vera, who crouched on his other side. "I've always wanted to ride a nymph."
"Maybe some other time," the fox said, smiling.
"I'll look forward to it," Matthew said, and closed his eyes. "Derin has all the luck."
* * *
There was no longer any doubt about it, the sun thought. Something had happened to her sister. Another day had passed, and the clouds below her were, if anything, darker, more dense. Yesterday, as she'd traveled west, she kept looking for a break in the grey blanket beneath her, but not once did she get a glimpse of earth. It was time to take this matter upon herself.
The sun did not like to travel. She had a regular course, and the slow curve of her motion over the earth, fixed and familiar, pleased her. She disliked disruption in her routine, but she saw no way around this. If her fool sister had gone on another of her journeys and had gotten in trouble, the sun would have to be the one to rescue her.
So it was with a good deal of disgruntlement that she left her orbit and went to look for the moon. She knew the value of her light to the earth, that her trip would have to be quick.
Under the cloud cover, the earth turned dark. It was just past midday, but night descended like the blade of a hunting knife. Derin, Matthew, and Vera stood up in alarm. They huddled together, waiting for the world to end, sure their journey had some too late. In the Deadwood Forest, the moon hung caged in her oak and she cried out as the blackness settled over the trees. Around her for miles, she heard the ravens awaken from their daytime sleep and take to the sky. The noise of wings, of hoarse cawing tore at her. The owl, alone in a clearing to the moon's north, puffed his feathers in wonder. Had his plan come to fruition so quickly, days sooner than he had planned? The world was his! He gave a cry, a high shriek, which rang throughout the Forest.
And Deirdre, where was she? As the false night settled, she awoke with the other ravens, but as they went screaming into the sky, she stayed on her branch, folding her wings around her more tightly. It's only a nightmare, she thought. he sun does not disappear in the middle of the day. And she closed her eyes and tried to sleep again, but the ravens wheeling in the air above her, the shriek of the owl which curdled the air, disturbed her.
So the world waited, breathless, while the sun disappeared. From the meadowlands, there the jay flew in circles screaming, "Hobnail! Milquestoast! Pigeonfeathers!" to the southern reaches of the Deadwood Forest where Maxwell, his wings broken, sat on a branch, terrified of the starfish who lunged through the blackness below him, everything was plunged into premature and unexpected darkness.
The sun's journey lasted only a short while. She soared above the earth until it was a darkened ball floating free in space. Ahead of her, the lights of other suns glowed and shimmered. She flew among them, looking everywhere for the moon, past great balls of molten lava, spinning frantically, trying to hold their centers. She saw other planets with moons and suns, they as barren as her planet had been years ago. Some moons were full and bright and others were odd shapes, lopsided ellipses, irregular blobs of light. And here and there, she saw the moons from which her sister had taken the vain idea of changing shape. She looked in the galaxies of fire and air, she hunted the confederations of stars and moons, but no matter where she looked, no matter who she asked, her sister was nowhere to be found, had not been seen.
The further the sun flew from earth, the more anxious she became, and the more convinced that somehow–but how?– her sister was not out here in the vast reaches of space, but under that cover of cloud, on the surface of the earth itself. And that was the one place the sun could not go. It would be dangerous enough to the earth is her sister were there.
She swung full circled and headed back. From around her, a brilliant nimbus shone. She illumined the bottom of black holes. She cowed the other suns and moons, still unsure of themselves and their power. And with the speed of light, she hurtled back to earth.
As she came closer, slowed down, jolted back into her orbit, the earth below the layer of clouds brightened. The terrified moon gave a sigh of relief. The ravens settled back to an uneasy sleep. And the owl rained curses around him. He cursed the moon and her sister; he cursed the fact that his plan had not yet reached a conclusion. For a moment, he had been ruler of the world. The darkness at midday had thrilled him with a sense of his strength. He swelled in the darkness: power, lust, pleasure were his. But the light had returned. He would have to wait.
Below her, the sun saw the clouds seethe. They were impenetrable. "Are you there, little sister?" she thought. "Is it there you have come to rest?" The moon felt a strange tugging at her heart, as though someone were speaking to her, but around her, the forest was silent as it had ever been. She was alone, she was bereft, but in the midst of her despair, she felt a slight warmth, a tinge of hope.
* * *
End for now. More = later!
P.S. In the last paragraph, the sun's thoughts were not quoted. I consider that a mistake, so correction ensued.