Harmonica

This piece got me into the final round of the New York Midnight Challenge 2016 (40 from 2300)

by Robin K Hickson

She followed the spear, diving at a shallow angle. With a flick of her feet she propelled herself deeper, sighting the bright shaft against the sand of the seabed and ripping the impaled fish free of the kelp. A haddock: rare this close to the shore.

Back at their shack, Boy would have the stones fired by now, expecting crab. She imagined his gummy smile when she brought fish — although Boy was also sure to say a haddock was the harbinger of storms.

When she returned, he was sitting on his big wooden box. He’d been painting it again, she saw.

‘They were here. Looking for you.’

She sighed and sat cross-legged in front of him, presenting the haddock at his feet. He nodded, his glazed eyes finding hers.

‘Haddock? That explains it.’

She shrugged and looked away.

‘The Captain’s going to punish you this time, May.’

Nobody else called her May. When her grandparents first came ashore, the Captain found jobs for everyone. Her mother was Hunter, as was Boy before that. These days the hydroponics gave them all the food they needed — nevertheless, she took her inherited title seriously. No one swam further, dived deeper or for longer.

‘Farmer’s weird. He’s sick in the head, not just in the flesh. He’s always following me around. I just scared him a little. I’m not a child: I understand what he wants.’

Boy nodded.

She backed away, ostensibly to escape the smoke of the algae glowing beneath the slate slabs of the pit. Borrowing her spear, Boy pinned the fish and carefully shifted it to rest on the coolest of the slabs, squinting into the fire.

‘Better get that gutted, May.’

Obediently she took back the shaft, and slipped the blade free. One neat incision, and viscera tumbled into the firestones. Ill-scented smoke obscured her vision, so that Boy’s voice arrived across the white space.

‘When we first came ashore, May, I wasn’t much older than you. The ship’s boy I was, and Boy I remain. But what I was too young to understand then, I do now. The old Captain carved us a life. I had children, and a beautiful grandchild.’ Hunter smiled. ‘But I won’t live to enjoy my great grandchildren, and for that I’m strangely grateful.’

Hunter swatted away the white clouds so that she could see Boy’s face, despite the camouflaging wisps of his grey beard.

‘Why do you say that?’

‘I’m saying — we did our jobs. Fired our missiles. Destroyed cities. But the skipper still had two hundred men and women in his care, with no homes, no safe harbours. He gave us a reason to exist.

‘But with the new Captain? That’s not what I want for you, May. The Vanguard no longer values the very freedoms that we fought to protect.’

‘I still don’t understand,’ although she did. Many times, growing up, she’d considered stealing away, escaping the tyranny of the Engineers and the Farmers. But there was nothing out there except dust and sickness. ‘What’s freedom, anyway? When I’m out there,’ she pointed towards the water, ‘I am free.’

Boy cackled and coughed simultaneously.

‘What’s freedom? Good question.’

He fell silent. Hunter pushed the fish onto the central slab, its skin puckering. She began to believe that the conversation was over. Then his voice cracked.

‘Freedom is choice, May. Freedom is love and family and music and — ’

He stopped abruptly and she reached for his shoulders.

‘I’m not leaving you, Boy. Ever.’

Farmer’s garbled voice interrupted them. ‘Hunter!’ He was flanked by Chief and Mate. ‘Captain wants to speak with you.’

‘Why?’ asked Boy, stepping around Hunter.

‘Sit down, before I knock you down, old man,’ Farmer spat, saliva dripping from his bucked teeth.

Hunter slipped the blade into the palm of her hand, pushing the edge along the back of her forearm.

‘Touch him, and you die, Farmer,’ she growled.

She felt her face flush as she spoke, and her legs shook with adrenaline. She’d crossed a line, but she no longer cared. Chief marched closer, his frame looming over hers.

‘Captain says it’s high time you married.’

‘Married?’ Boy and Hunter gasped together.

Hunter winced as Chief’s hand clamped onto her wrist. In her other palm, she felt the blade slide into her grip.

‘She’s got a knife!’ bellowed Farmer.

The Chief released her and backed away, his expression wild. He pointed a finger while he kept his range, and wheeled around to the other two.

‘Fetch the Captain.’

Farmer hurried away, while Hunter’s rage dissipated as quickly as it had built. Her shoulders slumped. If she went before the Captain again, she’d be exiled. She’d die alone in a sea-cave, or be sent east to die of the sickness. She realised something else too, and the blade clattered from her grip to the ground.

‘No, wait!’ she cried out to Farmer’s back, ‘I can’t leave Boy. I’m all he’s got.’

She felt weathered fingers on her shoulder, attempting to turn her around, but she shrugged free.

‘May! No—’

She had no choice, she told herself, else Boy was as good as dead too.

‘Wait, please. Listen! I’ll marry Farmer!’

Farmer halted mid-stride, and with exaggerated care, he returned to circle behind them. Head hung in shame, she heard a cry, and spun around in time to watch Boy’s form crumple, his nose cracking with a puff of blood as it contacted the stony ground.

‘No!’ she screamed. ‘Why?’

She reached for the blade, but a large foot beat her to it.

‘I warned him,’ said Farmer.

She recognised the violence, the hunger, in their faces. She looked back down to the unconscious Boy and swallowed.

‘Just let me get Boy to bed.’

They shared a glance.

‘Take him. But be in my quarters before dark.’

‘Yes, Farmer,’ she blinked demurely, hiding her fury.

She watched the backs of the men as they swaggered away down the hill.

 

Boy sat up.

‘May, listen… ’

‘Just rest, Boy. There was never really any choice, was there?’

‘Listen to me,’ he gulped a breath, ‘I know where the sub is.’

‘Sub?’

He tutted impatiently.

‘The submarine — the ship, May.’

‘I see,’ but she didn’t, not really. What difference did it make?

‘We scuttled it, but there are maps and charts aboard, May. Supplies. It’s not too late for you — there are others out there, across the sea.’

‘I don’t understand,’ she replied, more honestly.

‘May, I know there are other survivors. I heard them once on the ship’s radio. But none of us wanted to go back — we had new lives.

‘You can take the wooden box. There’s oars on the sub, too.’

‘Your box?’ He nodded, and finally it began to make sense. ‘It floats?’

‘You can get inside the sub via the open missile tubes.’

‘And find freedom?’ Her tone failed to betray her cynicism, eclipsed as it was by raw hope.

‘Yes, May. Real freedom.’

‘Love? Family? Music?’

‘There’s nothing for you here, not any more,’ Boy said.

‘I can’t leave you here, though. I won’t.’

There was a long pause, and Boy’s eyes slowly blinked.

‘May, you don’t understand. You’re not leaving me: I’m leaving you.’

He cupped her face in his rough palms, and brushed away the tears from her cheeks.

‘Take the box. Go north, May. Across the sea.’

 

Pushing the wooden box in front of her, she swam farther than she’d ever swum before. She was already tired when she reached the rippling surface that indicated the sandbar; alongside and beneath which, Boy promised, lay the ship. She trod water, testing the buoyancy of the box while she collected her breath. At the same time, the cold water sapped at her strength.

At last she dived, pushing herself with minimal strokes, down, down, then banking flat.

There it was. The shark-like violence of the huge ship.

Keeping her movements calm, she wasted no time finding her way to the tubes. She squeezed through a hatchway. Cylinders of light filtered inside, revealing a seating area and the captain’s cabin, just as Boy had explained.

A flash of chrome light caught her eye. Steel, burnished by the sea. Dribbling air from her nose, she angled to the floor, her hand reaching out for the rectangular block. Her fingers closed around it, and she pushed it into her belt.

Continuing to the captain’s cabin, she grabbed an armful of plastic charts. By now, her chest was pressing. She let air go, bubbles curling away from the corners of her mouth. The pressure was pounding in her ears, and her arms and legs were cramping.

She’d find the oars clipped to the wall of the conning tower, Boy had said.

She couldn’t make it. There wasn’t enough time.

She’d wasted seconds diverting for the metal. What a fool! Boy would die alone, while she drowned in the old ship. She kicked hard, giving up on preserving energy, chasing the final few seconds. There!

She made a grab, snatching one oar clear of its clips. The other fell away, towards the slanted floor of the control room. There was no way she could reach it in time. The temptation to snatch a breath from the cold water was almost irresistible.

The resistance of the single oar’s blade slowed her and she was forced to stop to slide the shaft inside her belt, squandering more oxygen. She pulled herself forwards on a hatch handle, accelerating, twisting her body up towards the nearest tube of light. Freedom, she thought.

She came to lying afloat on her back, surrounded by white chart pages. The sun had set, and the first stars were flaring behind high cloud. Memories caught up and she twisted around in the water. The wooden box was a few metres away. Reaching her hand to her side, she found the oar.

She climbed up onto the box and sighted back to land, where a few fires glowed. One of them could be Boy’s, she thought, then she arched around, facing the darker north. Black towers climbed from the horizon, losing their anvil tops in the deeper blue of the northern sky. Out to sea, she could see squall lines approaching the coast. A sick weight settled in her stomach. There was no way forwards, and no possibility of return. A storm was coming, after all.

The forgotten metal block was jammed into her pocket. She removed it, and turned it over in her hands. There was no obvious hinge, but she noticed a grill along one side concealing empty tubes that reminded her of the sub. She shook it, and water splattered out. She put it to her mouth, intent on blowing the tubes clear, and nearly dropped it back to the depths when a sound spiralled into the night. What on earth, she thought, and tried again. A sharp squeal made her laugh, and she wrapped her lips around the width, gripping with her teeth. Music, she thought, and her head snapped back to the shore.

Without hesitation she shoved the metal block back into her pocket, grabbed the oar and paddled as hard as she could towards the sound of the waves grinding on the beach.

It was almost dark, and the wind was helping to drive the wooden box ashore. She raced across the sharp stones, up the slope to their shack. As she’d hoped, a fire was glowing in the pit, and ducking inside she found Boy sitting up, bleary-eyed and still bloodied.

She thrust the mouth organ into his hands, and he stared dumbly at it for a moment, before lifting it to his lips. After several trial blasts, he cupped his hands, and a melody sang free. He grinned. She smiled back.

Hunter eased herself beside him on the bed, releasing her exhausted body to the rising and falling notes. She wrapped an arm around her grandfather.

‘Love… family… music… ,’ she said, and closed her eyes. ‘Our freedom.’