Noodlin’

A Fantasy Short Story by Richie Billing

Noodlin’

by Richie Billing

Website  –  Fantasy Writers Toolshed Podcast  –  Ducks

 

Dusk brought a storm to mirror Edaw’s mood. He wiped away the rain arrowing into his eyes, fighting for his footing on the muddy bank leading to Hylkyn. White smoke, fragrant with peat, rose from the chimneys of the squat stone houses ahead, the glow of fires breaking through cracks in curtains to light the trail. Edaw hawked and spat.

Since before dawn, Edaw had sat in his narrowboat, watching, hoping, lamenting. The only cause he had to move was to scoop out the water which seeped through the patched cracks of the hull. He’d second-guessed everything his forty years of fishing had taught him, from hooks and lines to bait and fishing spots. He’d not even had the slightest knock on his line to stoke his dwindling flame of hope.

His own house came into view, windows dark, thatched roof decaying, chimney stack lopsided. He walked straight past, thoughts on one thing alone: rum. He heard the creak of the sign of Tymo’s Tavern before he saw the decrepit building. He was drawn to the place like a moth to fire.

The din of conversation died when he stepped inside, a dozen pair of eyes casting their gaze upon him. He was used to the stares and moving into the room the chatter soon resumed. The stench of stale mead greeted him first. He ducked under the raven-black beams of the ceiling through instinct after countless bumps on the head. With each step he fought to lift the soles of his boots, the floor seemingly carpeted with sap. It altered some people’s walks, particularly after a few tankards of ale. In their usual corner beneath a window which appeared to have never been wiped he found his friends, Rej and Yemé.

“Nice of you to join us,” Rej said as Edaw took off his oiled coat and hung it on a set of antlers upon the wall. “Yemé’s been eyeing your rum.”

“How fared the fishing?” Yemé asked, handing Edaw a wooden cup.

“Shit.” Edaw knocked back the dark liquid in one, savouring the burning taste of honey and spices.

“Any sign of that monster fish yet?” Rej asked, stirring a chuckle from Yemé. Edaw was too sober for jokes. He made for the bar.

“Your round, Ed,” Yemé said.

Edaw weaved through rickety chairs and tables. He passed Egg and Tam, the pair frowning at their game of Generals. Almost every day for two decades they had played each other and still their competitive edges remained sharp as a whetted blade. Deep in conversation at the bar were the two Pats, sat upon stools which groaned with the weight of their paunches. The duo had spent their lives fishing the Great River, but now, like most men in Hylkyn, they worked the ferries, shipping soldiers and travellers east across the Great River.

“‘lo Ed,” they said in chorus, raising their wooden tankards.

“How’s it going, fellas?”

“Nay bad,” the smaller of the Pats said. Despite a head of grey hair, his moustache remained charcoal black. Rej called him the ‘Hearth Sniffer’.

“How’s yourself?” the taller Pat slurred in a congested voice which drove Edaw to the brink of madness.

“Can’t complain.”

“Good haul?” moustache Pat asked.

“A few small ones.” If small meant non-existent.

“Seems to be the way now,” nasal Pat said. “When I was a lad they jumped on the hook. Suicidal bastards. Ever since those trawlers from Pietalos moved in its fell off a cliff.”

“Good things never last,” moustache Pat said.

“Here, here,” said his namesake, raising his drink.

“If you’re thinking of hanging up your hooks, my lad said there’s plenty work going at the Pietalos farms. They’ve just started clearing three miles of forest for fields. You’d have to move to that shithole of a city, mind,” moustache Pat said before taking a swig of mead as if it was his last.

“You’ve got the ferries too. Piss easy work and it pays for the ale,” nasal Pat said.

Edaw gritted his teeth. All he heard nowadays was ‘ferry this’ and ‘ferry that’. “I’m a fisherman. Always have been. Always will.”

As if sensing the rising tension, Tymo limped into view behind the bar. “Three if you will, Ty,” Edaw said.

The bronze-skinned landlord nodded and went off to fetch the drinks. Edaw admired Tymo. The only man in Hylkyn never to complain. He’d lost an arm fighting the Ickadeans in the Northern Wars decades ago, and with his discharge pay opened his tavern. Edaw often wondered if he regretted it.

The legs of a chair scraped against the floorboards over by the hearth. Mykel, a squat, ageing man, waddled toward them, trying to dodge chairs but striking every one with his arse and cannonball gut.

“‘lo, Myke,” the Pats began again.

Edaw nibbled at his nails, thoughts of how he could make some coin swirling like smoke through his mind. He knew nothing of farming, and after a life on water working on land seemed a strange prospect. The ferryman option was his least favourite. Every time he looked to the main flow of the four-mile wide Great River, the image of his father and brothers being swept away by the churning waves flooded his mind. Not a shred of him wished to cross that unforgiving stretch. Rej and Yemé should know better. They were with me that day. That left him with one option: fishing.

Tymo reappeared carrying three cups in one bear-like hand.

“One n’ half cops please, Ed.”

Edaw leaned in, elbow on the bar. “Any chance you could stick it on the tab?” Tymo frowned, barrel chest rising.

“You know I’m good for it. I’ve got a big catch coming. I can feel it.”

“This is the last time.”

Edaw nodded and hurried off before Tymo changed his mind.

“Cheers, Ed,” Rej and Yemé said in chorus as he set down the cups. As Yemé opened his mouth to speak, Mykel erupted into a verse of an old fisherman’s song—One Hundred Kappa a Day—his bass voice filling every corner of the room.

Ohhhhh…

One kappa,

Two kappa,

Three kappa,

Four,

I’m gonna beat my record score

Edaw rubbed his temples.

Five kappa,

Six kappa,

Seven kappa,

Eight,

I’m gonna need a bigger plate

The two Pats joined in along with a few of the others, but after the third rendition, the song lulled, much to Edaw’s relief.

“Do you remember Berytha?” Yemé asked him, licking the upper incisor which had a habit of protruding over his bottom lip. It made Edaw conscious of his own disfigured teeth. He scratched his beard. Hard shells had formed over the bottom row leaving him with a boar-like under bite.

“Didn’t she live next to you when we were lads?”

“That’s the one. She’s dead.”

“Dead?”

“The Paler,” Yemé said, lighting his tabac pipe with the candle upon the table. Edaw didn’t know what to say. So many succumbed to the Paler nowadays he’d grown indifferent.

“Nasty end,” Rej said. Edaw agreed. Incessant vomiting and diarrhoea both the colour of eggshell, skin turning translucent. “I remember her well. Lovely rosy cheeks and blonde hair. I’ll never forget that day she shot you down, Yem.”

“What happened again, Rej?” Edaw asked, forgetting his woes. Yemé’s cheeks flushed.

Rej strummed his fingers on his chin, feigning forgetfulness. “Ah! It comes back to me now. Didn’t little Yem go pickin’ daffodils for his lass. Got stung by a wasp if I remember correctly. Right on the nose. But that didn’t stop him. He wiped away his tears and waited outside her house with a nose like a smacked arse.”

“I didn’t cry,” Yemé shouted, cheeks beetroot red.

Rej continued. “And when she finally showed up and he asked her to go for a romantic stroll along the river bank, what did she say?” Edaw shrugged, though he knew the answer. “He’s too small!”

They burst into bronchitic hysterics. Rej slapped the table, sloshed his drink. Edaw’s sides burned. Yemé glared at them, jaw clenched.

“Pipe down would you!” Egg shouted across the room. Always the moaner: too loud, too bright, too dark, too hot, too cold.

“Alright, you bald bastard,” Rej shouted back.

“What’s that on your face, Ed? Is that… a smile?” Yemé asked. “You’re better off with the frown.” Edaw laughed off the joke, but it brought an end to his mirth and a quiet fell around the table.

“So when are you gonna’ join us on the ferries?” Rej asked.

Each time Edaw heard the word ‘ferry’ a pain stabbed in his temples, like a hook sinking into it.

“No point asking him that, Rej,” Yemé said. “He’s still chasing this monster fish he reckons he saw.”

“I did see it,” Edaw snapped, rousing laughs from his friends. “How do either of you know? You don’t even fish anymore. You don’t see what I see.”

“Which is nothing…” Rej said.

“I’ll prove it to you.” Edaw’s anger flared like a geyser.

“Oh yeah? How you gonna do that?”

“I’m going to catch it.”

“Piss off, Ed. There’s not even a lily pad left in that river, let alone a monster.”

Edaw downed what was left of his rum, stood.

“Where you goin’?” Rej asked.

“To catch this fish.”

“Now?! It’s pitch dark.”

“And it’s pissing down,” Yemé added. Edaw paid no attention. He donned his coat, strode to the door, and stepped into the night.

Edaw marched along the muddy road. He hawked and spat again at the sight of the houses and their contented inhabitants. Hylkyn wouldn’t exist without fishing. It had paid for roofs to keep them dry, fires to keep them warm, fed them when hungry. How could they turn their backs on the thing which made them? They should have fought back against the bastards from Pietalos. Instead, they accepted it. He would not become one of them, toiling in mud, labouring in stifling heat, risking his life to shepherd soldiers across the river. He would show them all the foolishness of their ways.

Edaw turned onto the path leading to the Great River. Old friend, old foe. Its swollen waters gushed by in the darkness, eating away at the bank. Over the rush he heard shouting, and turning around spotted Rej and Yemé jogging toward him, lanterns swinging, shoulders and necks bunched; a futile attempt at shielding themselves from the wind and rain.

“Ed, let’s go back. We can do this tomorrow,” Yemé said between wheezes. Edaw paid no attention.

“You fellas ever been noodlin’?

“What in Tervia is noodlin’?” Rej asked.

“Some fishermen you are. Didn’t your pa’s ever show you?” He tutted, but such a slight sound was lost amongst the roar of the river. “Noodlin’s the oldest way to fish. You don’t need no bait or tackle, just your arm, a sound grip, and a whole lot of might. This time of year’s the best to do it, when they’re nesting.”

“When what’s nestin’?” Rej asked.

“Catfish. You stick your hand in their nest and it snaps at you to protect its eggs. When it bites, you grab its jaw or gills and pull like mad.”

“You’re bloody mad,” Yemé said.

Though he would never admit it, Edaw had only tried noodlin’ a handful of times back when he was a teenager. He still remembered the first time, how the catfish had grabbed his wrist, thrashed, and pulled. For days after his arm had hurt too much to move. He didn’t feel drunk, but what he intended to do held all the hallmarks of a drunken idea.

Where are you taking us?!” Yemé demanded. Deaf to his protests, Edaw led them down a game trail. He hopped over a fallen tree with Rej close behind. Branches snapped, followed by a thud and a squelch. “Garghhh,” Yemé groaned. “Help me up!” Rej folded over in laughter. “Look at the state of me?!” Mud covered Yemé’s back, hands, elbows, even speckled his balding pate. His lantern had extinguished too. A smile even managed to break through the darkness of Edaw’s mood. “This is such a stupid idea, Ed. Let’s turn back. There’s rum waiting for us back at Tymo’s. It’s Rej’s round.”

“No it ain’t,” Rej said.

“We aren’t far now,” Edaw said.

“You’re a stubborn old bastard,” Yemé muttered as he wiped his soiled hands on his jumper.

They reached an old willow hanging over the river, its winding roots submerged in the ink-black water.

“Here it is.” Edaw began to take off his boots. “You joining me?”

“What? In there? Are we heck,” Rej said.

“Well, when the fish grabs my hand I’ll need you to stop it from dragging me under.”

If a fish grabs your hand,” Rej corrected.

“But if it looks like I’m strug-“

“We’ll jump in and get you. Now get on with it. My balls are turnin’ to hailstones.”

“And don’t be pretending just to get us wet,” Yemé said.

Rej punched his arm. “Why you givin’ him ideas like that?!”

Edaw lowered himself into the shoulder-high water, body shuddering with the cold. His toes sank into the silty bed, softer than any woman he had known. He groped the bank, seeking the nest his father had shown him, if it still existed.

“What you looking for?” Rej asked.

“A hole.”

“What about behind those reeds?” Edaw shuffled over to where Rej pointed. Sure enough, there it was. This is bigger than I remember, he thought, feeling the edges a few feet beneath the surface. In what felt like a futile effort to bar the hole he placed his legs before it. Eels flopped about in his stomach, threatening to escape from both ends. Turning back wasn’t an option. If he did he might as well burn his tackle and drop a boulder through the hull of his boat. “See you soon, fellas.” Edaw took a deep breath and dove.

Water rushed into his ears and deadened his hearing. What little light there was faded as he knelt before the abyss-like hole. He counted himself down, pausing at the last, and thrust his arm inside as far as it would reach, hand in a fist. He waited. Further he strained, chest burning. Still as a pond on a summer’s day.

Edaw returned to the surface, gulped in air. Come on. Rej and Yemé said something, but he returned to the dark, fluid world before they could get out more than a handful of words. This time he stuck both head and shoulders into the hole, stretched his arm even further.

His heart throbbed in his ears, skipped a beat. A ripple. Or his imagination? He moved his hand around, enticing, provoking. In response came a surge. It didn’t just take his hand; it swallowed his arm. Jaws clamped down beneath his shoulder and a head like a rock crashed into his own, pushed him back into the river. Lights flashed before his eyes. Nausea hit his stomach. Darkness consumed him until pain exploded in his arm.

The catfish shook from left to right with a tightening grip. Edaw broke the surface, spat water, cried out, breathed deep. Barbels stabbed his cheek. Enraged grunts sounded in his ears. It hauled him back down, provoking another wave of intense pain. His arm was almost certainly broken; he could barely feel his fingers. He couldn’t let this beast take him without a fight.

Hand numbing inside its mouth, he tried to grab onto its gills, to gain some control. His fingers caught on its bony gill rakers and the catfish grew more frantic. It began to rotate its body. A death roll.

Pain like no other pushed Edaw to the edge of consciousness. The coldness of the water kept him awake. Water poured into his mouth, up his nose, and he began to sink, the fish pulling him down. What a fool I am.

Something grabbed his other arm, a firm, familiar touch. Hands. Edaw hung in the water, pulled in two directions. Pain consumed his body, but he was spent. He needed to rid himself of it, to give up and let go. And as easy as releasing a breath, he did.

Edaw plummeted into a darkness deeper than a starless sky. It shifted about him like a slow current. He could hear no sound save his own breath and the slowing beat of his heart, could feel neither warmth nor cold.

He spotted a minuscule light flickering amid the gloom, growing brighter. It was approaching him, and as it did it began to flash like lightning. Each one burned an image in his vision: empty nets laid out in his boat; scores of trawlers with their giant nets trailing behind; the faces of those he tried to forget—his mother, father, brothers, wife, daughters.

The light flashed once more. The visions disappeared and he found himself standing on the bank of the Great River, water unusually still. Perfect fishing conditions. A brilliant sun rose over the mountains of the opposite bank, sent a streak of orange light across the surface, a light that intensified until it erupted in a blinding, silent explosion.

Muffled sounds came to his ears. Voices, and the flow of the Great River too, though it sounded different. Gentle as a stream. He forced open his eyes, lids like weights, and saw the moons hanging above him. Around them the stars burned like a legion of fireflies. It seemed such a long time ago when he last looked at them.

“Ed!” His friends shouted.

“Did I get the bastard?” he mustered the strength to say. To his side, he heard a guttural growl and something slapping mud. It seemed like hours before Rej replied.

You got him, Ed.”

 

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