The Fishing Shack
Soon after this fades away I soon will feel better just as soon after this drowsiness soon fades away. Wesley had slept for two days with his eyes open, watching the world wind in slow, deliberate circles around him. A stench of rotten swamp water filled the air, and sweat stuck his cheek to the metal floor. Why are those chirpy crickets chirping and chirping? Things were just beginning to align in his vision. The cage floor stopped spinning but now seemed to ripple like water. A blue ant explored its way along the grain crumbs in front of his nose; its tiny antennae felt out against his cheek. His body thawed from the paralysis—first a finger, then an arm, then a toe wiggled over the letter opener in his boot. The spinning sensation eased to a wobble, and he realized the carriage wasn’t moving at all. He turned his chin into his shoulder. The caravan’s hatch hung open. Wesley overlooked a steep hill with a quagmire at the bottom. Shrubs flecked with purple swept down the ridge and beneath a stilted fishing shack. A long, sagging plank of wood led up to the front porch. Somebody pulled the blinds shut on one of the oval shaped windows lining the front of the shack. Green flames burned in hanging braziers up on the front stoop. Even from this distance, he could hear the songs of drunkmouthed men and women inside.
“We’re to go in and behave exactly how we observe others behaving,” the Sheriff gave out hushed orders beside the caravan. “Say nothing unless spoken to. React how others are reacting and agree with whatever anyone says, just keep nodding your head. If anyone asks, we’re entertainers stopping through to rest.” The Sheriff stepped around to the back of the carriage. He wore the most unfortunate of bright gypsy attire. Wesley snapped his eyes shut and remained still, watching little red bursts of light behind his eyelids. “Shall we give him another prick with the thorn or do you think he’ll keep until tomorrow morning?”
The Foster girl spoke up, “Given this boy’s file reads, and I quote, ‘he has a unique proclivity for violent outbursts,’ I say we give him another thorn now.”
“We have two thorns left and they aren’t as easy to find as you’d think,” the drunk said.
Actually they grow on the bramble all around you, Wesley thought. The sap was beginning to melt out of his system and his body was becoming more of his own. Still, his eyes felt crossed behind their lids. It was difficult to maintain still posture with an elbow twisted beneath him.
“If Chambers gets out of that cage at any point in this journey, he’ll see to it that we’re all slaughtered. This is the safest place to risk not giving him the thorn,” Kensington continued. “He wouldn’t dare step into a shack full of Gallows’ men, I promise you that. Not even the immortal Wesley Chambers would venture into that shack wearing his own face.”
Wesley felt the bars of his cage rattle.
“At least help me move him further inside so he won’t be seen,” the Foster girl said. “I’ll be damned if someone else finds him here and gets paid for our prisoner’s head.”
The shadows of boots darkened through his eyelids, and with a collective effort of thrusts and grunts they carried him like royalty further into the cabin. He opened his eye a sliver to see them jam his cage between the back alcove and a giant cask. There was a sigh inside the cabin and somehow he knew it belonged to the girl.
“Why are we going down there?”
“There’s a coward for hire named Chester Hemlock, he’s the kind of man whose everything to everybody, he can get us safe passage.”
“Let’s just pass by this place,” she said.
There was a pause.
“By now, the whole continent knows that Wesley Chambers is heading to the Kingdom. I’d rather sneak there than sprint there.”
The sound of their boots crunching down the hill faded to a lonesome cricket chirping to the same cadence of Wesley’s breathing. He got right to work. He pulled himself up along the bars. Even on the toes of his boots, he couldn’t see over the cask, but he could see around it well enough. The ridge bent down into a peninsula that reached into an open basin of turquoise lotuses. A film of blue pollen collected along the surface, all around the strip of land beneath the shack.
The trail to the shack was lined on both sides with spidery red maple trees. Countless bodies had been strung down from the branches like tinsel ornaments. Thick braided nooses disappeared in the foliage of red leaves. Men dangled like “No trespassing” signs; they got the message across better than words could ever hope to. Hundreds of hangmen, some soldiers, drooped from the branches. It looked as if the trees themselves had reached down and pulled the men from their feet. Whatever the soldiers encountered, they had not been equipped to fight it.
This was the fabled fishing shack of Jimmy Gallows.
Wesley did the math in his head—they had just entered the Hollow when he was pricked with the thorn, now they were all the way at the shack. That meant two and a half days travel at the least. He’d been stunned on the floor for two and a half days. His muscles were lame and rubbery on his skeleton.
“Two bastard days,” he groaned to himself, crouching back to his knees. The bowl of oats was overturned on the ground. He picked at the bits of oats between hay straws on the floor and chewed them pathetically. His stomach gurgled. He slipped out of his boot and grabbed the letter opener. With a quick twist the lock was picked on the cage, but the giant belly of the cask pinned the door shut. He planted both palms on the black wood and pushed. Nothing. Nothing but black dust on his palms. He threw his shoulder at it between the bars, but his feet slid along the floor. He sized it up. The damned thing weighed at least ten times more than him and was twice as handsome. He should have noted that they didn’t move the cask in front of his cage; they moved his cage behind the cask.
Beside his foot, the ant hoisted an oat onto its back that was far larger than its own body and walked off with ease. He spit at it, missed, crouched down, and spit a white glob on the ant. Wesley bit the handle of the letter opener, slipped his foot into his boot, and yanked the laces tight. He rammed his heel into the cask. A faint spritz. Just a gentle sprinkle, like the hiss of salt from a shaker.
He booted the cask once more and tilted an ear forward. Another brief hiss. Peering around the cask, he saw small kernels of black gunpowder trickling down the ramp in front of him—there must have been a small chink or crack in the front of the cask. Another firm kick sent tremors up his bones, but another pinch of gunpowder trickled onto the wooden panels of the ramp. Wesley laughed, jaw stiff from sleep.
What do you put inside a barrel to make it lighter?’ was one of the oldest of Vesper riddles. Idiots at his old orphanage would answer candle or lantern. He learned the answer by watching the minister study religious manuscripts. The minister would create a symbol—a small line with a dot above and below—to mark vague words in the scripture. Some words can have double meanings, the minister had explained. And how you interpret them will dictate the world you live in. The boy carved the symbol into the swirling grooves of the wood with his letter opener.
He kicked the cask once more.
The answer to the riddle was solved with the pivot of a single word; one that could change the integrity of the entire sentence.
A hole; puncturing a hole in a barrel was what made it lighter. He rammed his shoulder once more into its thick panel with a grin. He rammed and kicked and rammed and kicked.