The Write Stuff: Riverkeep by Martin Stewart

Martin Stewart
Martin Stewart
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WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from Martin Stewart’s Riverkeep

To keepe the Danék.

To presserve lyfe and to retreeve those claymed by its watters.

To reckord the happnings in the river’s oan voyce.

To ackt with dignittie

– Riverkeep ledgers, Vol. 1, p.1

‘Your hands are shaking, Wulliam.’

Wull shrugged and shifted his grip on the mug.

‘It’s cold.’

Pappa laughed, releasing a stinging breeze of lakoris tobacco.

‘That’s no’ cold. Cold is when yer eyeballs scratch when ye blink, when it hurts to breathe. Ye’ll be Riverkeep soon. Ye’ll get used to that quick enough.’

‘I’m no’ Riverkeep yet,’ said Wull. Never, he thought.

Pappa secured a knot and sat back on his haunches. ‘But a week’ll no’ be long passin’, my boy,’ he said. ‘Time feels long for the young, but don’t worry – ye’ll no’ be young for long.’

He grinned and went to get the boat ready, ruffling Wull’s hair as he passed. The deep creak of his rubber boots faded into the gloom beyond the lamp.

Wull put down the mug and looked at his hands, already thickly scarred with the burns of rope and snow. Over the voice of the river – sucking knocks and shifting wood – he felt the needles of sound as the new ice along the banks of the Danék cracked.

Ice meant winter and darkness, and for water-folk a new kind of danger. Pappa saw it as a great enemy to be feared and defeated with flames and rods. But it brought Wull respite from the river’s black void, its thick scum and little puddles of treacherous clarity – and the huge, sharp rocks fringed with weed that swirled like a corpse’s hair.

In the heat of summer perfumed wildflowers grew along the banks, insects skittered on the leaf-padded surface and silvery clouds of fish burst through the water – chased by the seulas whose wet little heads dotted the surface like stepping stones, their golden summer eyes glowing in the sunlight.

But Wull could never think of the river as something living. He had seen what happened on the rocks: the floating bodies, arms raised and mouths howling against the surface as though restrained by thick glass.

It was the Riverkeep’s job to push his arms through that barrier to embrace the dead, to lower his face close to theirs and taste the bilge-stink of their breath before lifting them from the water. Pappa did so with a martyr’s grace, blind to gangland markings and forgiving of sinners who took their own lives. Wull had watched them since he could remember: propped in a grotesque parody of sleep, as though they were snatching a nap in the back of the little bäta.

Now he sat with them. Sometimes the bodies were old and the flesh slid from their shining bones like the skin of a poached fish.

Wull did not want this wilderness life. With Pappa’s help he had read the ledgers in their entirety, right through the ninth volume and Pappa’s own careful hand. The ledgers didn’t just list the dates, they told the stories, detailed bodies’ decomposition, and kept the words of the rescued and their reasons for jumping: sweethearts, fear, sicknesses of the mind and often, so often, ‘coin’. At first Wull had taken this literally, as though they were jumping into a wishing fountain to fish for pennies. Then he had realized and felt like a foolish child.

Every entry was the same. To Pappa this was priceless – a means of creating something that would stand forever as a monument of pride and respectability. To Wull it was a prison of words – repetitive, rotting words.

He reached over and touched the ledger that sat open on the desk. Their last discovery had been just over a week ago: 3,101, a widow, face up and floating on rot-swollen breasts, her cheek cut with a debtor’s mark. But as always the most recent entry was the next number, 3,102, offered with the prayer of the Riverkeep: that the number might never be filled.

He closed the ledger. The mould-warped pages, swollen with moisture, fell with a report that bounced round the boathouse like the slamming of an enormous door. Wull heard the creak of Pappa’s boots in the darkness.

‘Yer coming tonight.’

Wull shook his head.

‘It’s too cold.’

‘Ah’ve told ye, that’s . . .’

‘I know, it’s just . . . not tonight, Pappa, please.’

Pappa regarded him a moment, shifting the wad of lakoris leaf around in his mouth. Then he shook his head.

‘Yer nearly sixteen,’ was all he said. The air was sharp and hard in Wull’s lungs. Even wrapped in a seula-gut shift, he felt the chill on the exposed flesh inside his boots and round his waist like the cut of wire. The white, still world communicated itself through his frozen eyelids as a sharp whine outside of his hearing, and he stamped his feet on the bäta’s exposed ribs and buried his face in his elk-fur collar, peeping over when his eyes could stand the cold.

The lanterns, staked in the riverbed where the currents met and the flotsam gathered in eddied clumps, made glowing islands in the velvety darkness, their flames fuzzed in the haar like dandelions. The industrial might of Oracco was silent, the howls of its foundries and smithies carried away on the west wind. The only sound in the smothered world was the rhythmic clicking of the oars and the soft noise of the blades moving through the water.

By the fifth lantern they had discovered a greygull, torn open by a seula – ‘Not much else left for them,’ Pappa said – and the broken spokes of a carriage wheel. The gull was flapping limply, trying to fly on shattered wings while it bled on to the ice. Pappa reached down and gently snapped its neck between his thumb and forefinger. Wull watched him ease the body into the water on scar-twisted palms.

As far out as the edge, at lantern twenty-two, they still had found nothing more than knots of weed and grass clinging to the ice rods. Wull peered into the unseen and untended wilderness beyond the last outpost of the keep’s realm, in the depths of which lurked the bustle of Oracco’s docks, the flashing steel of bandits and, past a scattering of hamlets, the Danék’s estuary and the wider sea.

He trailed his glove-tips in the water and flicked droplets out towards the beyond. Pappa saw him, tutted, then – as he turned the bäta towards the boathouse and its warmth – they found 3,102.

It was male, fat-backed and face down, white flesh streaked with a pattern of cuts and bruises Wull knew came from the fierce, swirling currents near the footbridge where Mamma had drowned. It had been wearing a uniform that still clung to it in scraps, and there were murky tattoos spilled along its visible skin. Pieces of its scalp were missing and leaks of blood and fluid coloured the wafer of snow-dusted ice that had crept round it.

Pappa looked at Wull.

‘The footbridge,’ said Wull.

Pappa nodded solemnly. The flames cut his face into slices of light and dark, one eye hidden in the black wedge behind his nose. ‘May Lavernes keep thee,’ he muttered, lifting the oars from the water. ‘Here, Wulliam – row.’

Wull took the massive oars, turned the bäta and heaved it forward. Even now its great weight pulled at him as though it might shatter his wrists. He looked down at the floating form of 3,102. It looked bunched, not loose, and sat tightly in the water.

The ice must be holding it steady, he thought, dropping the oars and stilling the bäta.

He stood as Pappa stood. The painted eyes on the bäta’s prow faced stoically forward. Half shut and focused, they peered into a darkness that, beyond the reach of the lantern, was absolute. Wull turned from them to the reassurance of the flames. Without the movement of the boat the silence was so empty he felt the weight shift in his stomach and the hair creep on his back.

‘Pappa,’ he said.

‘Shh, Wulliam, a minute.’

Pappa tipped back his hat and muttered the Riverkeep’s prayer, then, broad back braced and legs wide, he reached down to hug the wretched lump into their boat.

3,102 hugged back.

In a flurry of movement that lasted no more than a gasp the two figures disappeared beneath the surface and Wull stood rigid, his breath billowing and his skin tight. In the instant his pappa had vanished he’d seen a brown mouth, opened wide like a snake, and two eyes that glittered like razors.

The eyes had met Wull’s. The water was still. There weren’t even bubbles.

Fighting the sudden lightness in his skull and with a kick of painful nausea taking his wind, Wull began to sweat, feeling panic speed his heart. He stood still for a timeless age, unable to move, listening to the silence and staring at the space in the water through which Pappa had vanished, trying to force his lips to form Pappa’s name and sending only the tiniest wisps of breath into the freezing air.

It was the cold that brought him back to himself, needling wakefulness into his muscles. For the first time in his life he was aware of the thinness of the planks that separated him from the black void beneath, and he felt the emptiness of the world like a fist in his gut – felt the distance of other people as he never had before.

Wull heaved the oars into place and sat in the keep’s chair, tears freezing on his cheeks, his gaze locked on the spot where Pappa had vanished. Pappa had shown him how to row – then made him practise until his knuckles bled – but his return journey took an age; he was weakened by terror and blind to his destination, branches scraping the prow behind him.

A seula broke the water beside the boat, its golden summer eyes now a piercing winter’s blue, and Wull dropped the oars in fright. The grabbing shadows of the banks reached across the white water, and beneath him the river moved unusually, each swell and press of current renewing the feeling of the razor eyes slicing into his, and he prepared himself for the water to rise up and take him.

3,102 was waiting for him on the sand.

Face up, the sight was no better: the skin was fish-picked and rotten, the guts torn by an adventurous seula so that its stomach hung open like a bag of wet coal. Its uniform was that of a seawarer, and a broken musket still hung from its belt. It wasn’t moving, and seemed to be quite dead. With a huge burst of courage Wull threw a stone at it. The pebble bounced harmlessly off the hollow body as though it was nothing more than a sponge. Fearing to expose himself to the thing unguarded, he backed into the boathouse and closed the door.

By the time he reached the window it was gone.

Wull stood at the window for as long as he could before releasing his breath and clouding the glass. Then he went and made himself tea, focusing on the loose leaf and the water and the stove’s flame to ground him, to bring him back to normality; in a world of tea and unreliable matches there could not also exist corpses that moved. There could not exist an absence of Pappa, as there could not be an absence of sky or air or water.

He pictured Pappa, thought his voice.

The ledger, Pappa would say. It’s the soul o’ the Riverkeep. Of us.

Wull drew the book to him and lifted the enormous cover. As it fell open he thought of the movements that might be hidden by that sound, and he glanced around him, into the corners left by the flickering lamps.

The bodie of a mann found by lanttern twennty two, he wrote carefully, elbow pointed, swolen and white haveing been tampered with by the rockes and fishes and a seula. Stomack open and black.

He paused.

Unabel to returne bodie. Gonne.

Wull lifted his tea, then lowered the mug without drinking. He raised the pen again and wrote the next number – 3,103 – then sat back, tears creeping on to his face. It felt that his blood, rather than ink, had stained the parchment.

‘May this number be never filled,’ he whispered, eyes closed in prayer.

The timbers of the jetty creaked, steadily, and the sound grew larger until the footsteps reached the sand and ceased.

‘May the waters spare whomsoever a-crosses their path from here unto eternity . . .’

There came a new sound, of creaking rubber boots. They reached the door of the boathouse and Wull could sense the angry weight on the other side, a thickness of a plank away, and he knew it was his pappa as he had always known him – heavy with lakoris and slow of movement – but there was something else there now too. Wull began to sob, forcing his eyes to remain closed.

The handle turned.

‘And bless the Riverkeep on his journeys,’ said Wull, fighting his fear as the smell of the river filled the air and the weight of the thing moved towards him, ‘as he endeavours to keep thy waters safe from causing harm or from being themselves a-harmed.’

The movement behind him stopped.

‘Amen,’ said Wull.

• Martin Stewart lives in Glasgow.His debut, Riverkeep, (Penguin, £7.99) is inspired by the city’s rivermen.