Long, Pale Fingers

Here is an excerpt of my current novel in progress. I hope you enjoy!

Long, Pale Fingers

by Clinton A. Harris

The old tree stood alone on the riverbank.  If not for the tresses of moss which hung down from its branches, the tree would have been lifeless.  Except for the moss, the wood was bare, the bark having long ago fallen off of it.  Not in Genevieve’s fourteen years and not in her parents lifetime either.

She walked with long, determined strides through the marshy grasses of the floodplain, the fetid water making squashing sounds in her boots as she pulled them out of the water and put them down again, scattering pollywogs and minnows, skating waterbugs, and flushing out the occasional killdeer.

The other children followed behind, some older, some younger.  Her little sister, Hannah, tagging along with her silly orange cat, Corella.  The tabby hung limp in her arms, glowering, long ago having given up any protest to wearing the calico dress which matched her own. The older boy with the untamable cowlick and the overalls that had been his fathers.  Last were her friends, her cohorts in any kind of mischief they could drum up.  This time, she had been dared and she aimed to make good on her word.  It was less a matter of bravery and more of a matter of winning.  Lena had yet to lose a footrace with anyone her age, and only a few of the the older boys had beaten her out.

The other children in their pack followed, yammering on and on, taunting her, daring her, telling her she was too afraid to do it.  But as they got closer to the tree, some of them fell behind.  They threw out excuses.  They heard their mothers calling them. Or it was going to rain. Soon it was only Lena, Hannah, Jacob the boy with the unruly mop of hair, and the Friessler twins, Johan and Klaus.  The twins were new to the Charter and didn’t know any better.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,”  Jacob had been saying.  He tried to push that luxurious hair back and out of his face, but it just fell back into place, like a big sheep dog.

“No one has to do anything,” she answered.

“Lee-nee,” Hannah said, “I’m cold and want to go home.” Lee-nee was the name that had stuck, even though Hannah could have pronounced Lena now if she put in any effort.

“Then go home,” she answered.  “Nobody is stopping you.”

“I’m scared.”

Lena didn’t answer her sister.  The tree was getting closer.  The long white trunk, the moss which hung from the branches.

Some said it was a hanging tree.

Then there were the stories about how it was a ritual site from when the Others used to live in these parts.  They would bring the children they had taken from their beds at night to this place and hang them by their heels.  Let the blood run from slashed throats into hungry, open maws.  Lena didn’t believe the stories.  Just myths to frighten children from playing too close to the river.  It was swift with dangerous currents.  The tree on the other side was the only one worth climbing for miles, and on the other side of the river, it was irresistible to any little girl or boy from the Charter who wanted to climb it.

The Manitou River was low at this time of the year.  The surface of the river itself was a good two feet below the riverbank.  She looked up and down the banks to see any indication of a shallow, or somewhere she could walk without the water going much higher than her knees.  The riverweed swayed gently in the current.  Red-winged blackbirds argued in the branches of the tree she had been dared to climb in front of the boy she liked.  She was here and in spite of getting a little bit more wet than she already was, she wasn’t about to go home now.  The Friessler brothers stood on the bank in silence.  Jacob stuffed his hands into his pockets and eyed the tree, shaking his head.

It wasn’t just the allure of a tree to climb and a river to cross.  On the other side of the river, their town charter ended.  The land on the other side of the river belonged to the Americans and was not part of their lease.  Hannah clutched Corella to her chest.  The fabric of her calico dress dark and soaked all the way up to her chest.  Her usual ringlets of blonde hair which usually bounced in a cascade of springs were now plastered to her face by sweat and damp.  An unuttered whine was perched on her lower lip, just about to be set loose upon her older sister.

“Stay there,” Lena ordered.  Even Jacob took a step back.  Hannah was good at listening most of the time.  She had to suppress a smile when she noticed that Jacob wasn’t half bad at listening either.

“But you can’t swim!”

“Shush or go home, Hannah! You have a choice.”

The Friessler boys were tossing big stones into the water, and watching the splashes they made.  She stripped down to her long white shirt and left her dress on the banks.  Lena missed her buckskin breeches she had to give up for dresses not long ago.

She eased herself down into the water, feeling the riverbed beneath her feet just as the water reached up to the middle of her chest.  It was cold, but not much colder than the water they had slogged through on the way across the swamp.  She felt the pull of the current as she tried to work her way across. It was impossible to ford the river straight across, so she found it easier to let herself drift and walk.  She would have to make up the distance on the other side of the river and walk back to the tree.  In one hand, she carried a bright red handkerchief. A flag that she had promised to tie onto the topmost branch to prove she had done it to anyone who doubted her.

Then she he heard something big hit the water and wondered what the Friessler twins could have thrown in to make that kind of splash.  It was the scream that made her turn to look.  Hardly a scream.  More of a yelp and then nothing.  She looked back and saw the Friessler boys standing as though frozen, Jacob running towards the bank and the mud and earth that had slid away and fallen into the river.  Hannah.  Where was Hannah?

Jacob was already on his knees, spearing a long, lanky arm into the water, his hair flopped over his face.  He was shouting Hannah’s name.  Lena fought the current and saw the flash of blonde hair.  The current was dragging her straight across the river!  One little hand appeared from the water and then the cat which she still clutched in her tiny fist by the scruff.  Over and over in a struggling, stubborn stroke.  She was dog-paddling.  Lena fought against the current, fear rushing through her veins, urging her forward.  The water forming a wake behind her as she pushed one foot ahead of the other.  The branches of the Wight Tree loomed overhead.  Its mossy tendrils dragging across the surface of the water, chilling her as they touched her face.  Her shoulders.  She pushed on until she was within arm’s reach of Hannah.  The water got deeper, and soon she was up to her neck.  She didn’t know what would happen if Hannah fought her.  She decided to think about that later.  Her sister hadn’t been above the surface yet and her arms were no longer windmilling like they had before.  Another half-hearted lunge and the little girl was still.  The cat was clutching her back, with only its head visible above the surface. Something continued to drag Hannah towards the tree.

Lena reached her and held her up and out of the water, using all the strength in her arms she could muster.  She carried her sister to the bank and pushed her up to dry land.  Hannah was coughing and crying now, lying on her side, sputtering.  The cat sprinted off as though it had caught fire, only towards the river!  It hit the water with a wet plunk and the dress pulled it under. Lena reached under the surface to catch it before the current could pull it away.  A simple orange smudge quickly disappearing beneath the murky surface of the muddy river.

Something long and pale, like a fish turning its belly towards the sun and betraying its natural camouflage passed between Lena and Corella as she caught hold of the cat’s dress.  At the end of that long shape was something that looked like a hand.  It came at Lena and latched onto her arm.

With a grip like a bear trap, the fingers dug into her flesh and jerked her down to her knees.  The clear blue sky overhead turned to rust as her head went below the surface.  The world was upside down.  A murky world of swirling sand and sediment.  Reeking of fish and low creatures living among the rot.  The hands had long, pale fingers, slick and shiny like the belly of a salamander.  Powerful and strong.  They pulled her under the embankment, knocking the wind out of her from the force, dragging her through tree roots and deep into the darkness of the undercut where no light could reach.  The sound of water was replaced by the sound of her own heartbeat.  She felt the loops of treeroot being looped around her neck and body, quickly, efficiently, like the time she and Hannah had watched a spider wrap up a fly that had fallen into its web.  She felt her body convulse.  She needed to take a breath.

Hannah she thought.  And then she could no longer fight the reflex.  The water rushing into her lungs felt like a ten pound hammer hitting her in the chest.  She coughed.  Then there was only darkness.

She heard the sound of a woman weeping.

Looking up, she could see only blue sky and the nodding heads of tall haygrass.  The bark of a dog.  The commotion of people bickering.  Then she pulled herself up to her elbows and looked around.  Her shirt clung to her skin and she could see the flesh beneath.  On her forearms, ten purple bruises spotted her.  She looked around and saw the heads of men wearing straw hats, rising just above the grasses.  In the distance, she could see the reflection of sunlight against the glass windows and rooftops of town.  Her teeth chattered and she clutched herself out of reflex against the cold air. The sun hung low in the sky now.  When she sat upright, a flock of blackbirds were startled out of the grasses.  The heads turned towards her.  Shouts of excitement and alarm followed.  The world swam before her.  The men emerged from the water, their shirtsleeves rolled up past their elbows, their overalls dark and heavy with water.  She turned and saw the tree about a hundred yards off.  Something was hanging from it.  Like a big pale fish, only bigger than any fish she had ever seen.  It had arms and legs, which dangled.

She recognized a mop of unkempt hair on a tall, lean man chasing after a little girl in calico with ringlets of golden hair.

They were on the same side of the river she was.  The same side of the river as the tree.  The little girl had been crying.  She knew that face.  The way her eyes would get red and her nose would run.  But she wasn’t one of the weeping ones.  She was holding it together, just as she had been told.  The boy ran quickly, those long legs eating the distance with each long stride, big clunky workboots pulling him ahead.

“Lee-nee!” the girl was shouting.  The boy said nothing. He had caught the girl and was holding her back.  His eyes were wide with fear.

“How in tarnation did she get up here?” someone was saying.  “You kids said that thing pulled her under!”

“She must have gotten out somehow when we ran to town to get help,” one of the Friessler brothers was saying when they approached. But they didn’t get too near.

“It just pulled Hannah right off the bank!  Then it went for the cat!” the other said.

The townspeople circled around her, yet kept their distance.

“We aren’t supposed to be here,” was all Lena could manage to say.  “We aren’t allowed on this side.”

After that, Lena and her family had to leave the Charter.  There was talk among the townspeople about how she smelled of the river.  They talked at length about how the bog man had taken her under and there was no way anyone could come back from that.  Jacob would no longer speak with her.  He could barely bring himself to look directly at her and when he did, the fear she could see in his eyes was almost worse. The tree had been cut down and sent down the river, the corpse of whatever had been in the water lashed to it with leather cords, nailed to the wood with long iron spikes.

The bruises from where it had grabbed her healed in time.  Papa and Mama would harshly reprimand Hannah at any mention of it.  Lena, on the other hand, never spoke of it.

That old orange cat showed up a few days after the accident, but it never let Lena near it again.  It would rise up in the corner and hiss and spit whenever she came near.

 

Also posted at Gettingoutmore.org.

 

 

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