Sunday, June 13, 2010

Still in the Dark

I did get to meet Mr. Pelirika tonight, as it turned out. Mrs. Pelirika was cooking some sort of improvisational stew over the incubator's oven, adding little bits and pieces that her children found in the dark. Their night vision is obviously much better than mine. They would wander off and return with plants, fish, snails, assorted crustaceans, and numerous other things I couldn't identify. I think one of them may have brought back a snake at one point. It seemed to be a rule that they gave everything to their mother first, so she could check that it wasn't poisonous. She thanked them warmly for everything. A few times, after the children left again, I saw her discreetly drop a few of the unidentified things back into the water.

I donated some salted cucumber squid that I got at the coast. It would have been rude to share dinner without contributing something. The stew seemed to be almost finished, the children beginning to be more interested in eating food than finding it, when there was a disturbance in the water nearby. It was just a splash at first, but it quickly grew into a great rushing sound, as if something huge was emerging from the water. It was practically underneath us. Before anyone could move, a huge dark shape rose out of the Shwamp, blocking out what few stars were visible through the trees, and sloshed up onto the wagon. The whole thing rocked crazily. The children screamed. I was about ready to do the same until Mrs. Pelirika said, quite calmly, "Don't be so theatrical, dear, we have company. Did you bring anything for dinner?"

"Oh," said the dark shape. "Sorry - didn't know we had guests. No one's jumped overboard this time, I hope?"

The screams turned out to be excited ones. By that point, all five children were climbing on the enormous silhouette. I still couldn't make out any details. I introduced myself, and an extension of the shadow came out of the dark to engulf my hand in a massive and rather damp handshake. This, it seemed, was the nocturnal Mr. Pelirika.

It turned out that he had brought something for dinner: a sabertoothed marsh pike, three or four feet long. The fish appeared for the children to admire, then promptly vanished back into the dark. I could hear him chopping it up to add to the stew. I couldn't see whether he used a knife or not.

"It took me half the day to catch this fish," he said as he worked. "I hunted it into the ruins of a sunken village three miles from here. It was clear it had been there before. Every big fish needs a lair, a deep hole to lurk in, and this was one of the biggest. I must have chased it through hundreds of flooded rooms. It knew the place better than I did. It was fast, darting into hidden openings and doubling back on its trail over and over again. I nearly lost it several times. But it could never quite outrun me. Slowly but unstoppably, I kept up with it, gaining a bit more with every failed evasion. Finally, I was close enough that I could almost grab its tail - if I'd been foolish enough to do that to a pike - and it slammed into a rotten timber, breaking it in half. The whole tunnel collapsed in seconds. It was lucky I was so close behind the fish, or I would have been buried alive!"

The children gasped. Mrs. Pelirika seemed unconcerned.

"As it was, I lost my net in the chaos. I was trapped in the last room, the only entrance buried under a ton of rubble, facing the most vicious fish in the Shwamp with only my bare hands-"

"If that was the only entrance, how did you get out?" Mrs. Pelirika asked.

There was a brief pause.

"I'll get to that in a moment," said Mr. Pelirika with great dignity. "Don't rush the story. Now, when the pike attacked, I was quick enough to jam its mouth open with a piece of wood..."

I don't remember all of the rest of the story, but it got steadily more dramatic from there, adding underwater tombs and cave krakens and curses from ancient drowned empires. It was quite clear where the children had gotten their love of talking. This was the way things went on all night. Every conversation inevitably grew into a wilder and wilder tale, with Mr. Pelirika going on at length about his adventures (or those of other people - he was actually only the hero of two or three stories), or the habits of exotic (in some cases mythological) creatures, or creative retellings of history. The children were enthralled and interrupted frequently with questions. Mrs. Pelirika was silent most of the time; it almost seemed as if she wasn't listening at all. Every so often, though, she would speak up to point out some inconsistency in the current story. This would stop her husband for a moment. He always managed to come up with some explanation, though, usually something even more outlandish than before.

Eventually, Mrs. Pelirika took advantage of a rare gap between stories and announced that it was time for bed. The children protested and were silenced with a look. I got the impression that Mr. Pelirika might have done the same, but knew by now that it wouldn't work. He filled all the available space in the wagon when he lay down. I still couldn't make out anything of him but a vague silhouette. The rest of the family went to sleep on top of him, as if he was a mattress, a vast expanse of solid black with bright lumps of feathers curled on top. I set up a hammock in a nearby tree. By the time I woke, the sun was up, and Mr. Pelirika was gone again.

We spent the entire evening listening to his stories, and I still haven't the faintest idea what he looked like.

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