فصل 24

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CHAPTER 24

Rill

The whippoorwill call tries to take me from my dream, but I push it away and hold on. In the dream, we’re all on board the Arcadia…Briny, and Lark, and Fern, and Gabion. We’re drifting down the wide Mississippi full out in the middle, just like we own the deed on the whole big river. The day is clear and fine, and there’s not a tugboat or a barge or a stern-wheeler in sight.

We’re free. We’re free, and we’re letting the river take us south. Far, far away from Mud Island and everything that happened there.

Silas and Zede are with us too. And Camellia and Queenie.

That’s how I know the whole thing isn’t true.

I open my eyes and toss off the blanket, and for a minute I’m sun-blind and lost. It’s the middle of the day, not nighttime. Then I realize I’m curled in the skiff with Fern, and we were squirreled up under the ragged canvas, not a blanket. The skiff is tied to the back of the Arcadia, heading nowhere. It’s the only place we can go to rest during the day and be sure Briny won’t sneak up on us.

The whippoorwill call comes again. It’s Silas, I know. I look for him in the brush, but he’s got himself hidden.

I wiggle from under the canvas, and Fern wakes up and grabs my ankle. Since we’ve come back to the Arcadia, she’s scared to be by herself even for a minute. She’s never sure whether Briny will push her away so hard she falls down or grab her up and hold her so tight she can’t breathe.

I answer the whippoorwill call, and Fern scrambles up trying to see into the woods.

“Ssshhhh,” I whisper. When we snuck out to the skiff this morning, Briny was rambling around with a bottle of whiskey. He’s probably asleep on the porch by now. I just can’t be sure. “We better not let Briny find out Silas is here.”

Fern nods and licks her lips. Her tummy rumbles. She probably knows that Silas’ll bring us something to eat. If it weren’t for Silas and Old Zede and Arney, we would’ve starved to death in the three weeks we’ve been back on the Arcadia. Briny hasn’t got much need for food. He mostly lives on whiskey now.

I lift the canvas up for Fern. “You go back under there a minute.” If Briny sees that Silas came over and starts into a fit about it, I don’t want Fern in the way.

I have to peel her off to put her back under the canvas, but she stays.

Silas is waiting in the brush. He hugs me hard, and I bite my lip to keep from crying. We move off a little farther together, but not so far that I can’t hear Fern if she needs me.

“You all right?” Silas asks when we sit down in the clear spot under a tree.

I nod. “Fishing wasn’t any good this morning, though.” I don’t want to ask for food, but I’m hoping that’s what’s in the little poke he’s carrying.

He hands over a bundle no bigger than two fists, but it means a lot. Zede’s supplies are running low, and he’s got Arney to feed too. She’s moved onto his boat, where she’ll be safe. Zede wanted Fern and me to go too, but I know Briny won’t hurt us.

“Some flapjacks and a little salt fish. An apple you can split up.” Silas leans back on his hands, pulls a breath, and looks through the brambles toward the river. “Briny any better today? He comin’ around at all?”

“A little.” I’m not sure if it’s true or if I just want it to be. Briny mostly wanders around the boat and drinks and yells at night. Then he sleeps it off during the day.

“Zede says we’ll have rain this evenin’.”

I’ve seen the rain signs too. It worries me. “Don’t come back and try to untie the lines again, all right? Not yet. Maybe in a few more days. A few more days, and I think Briny’ll be ready.”

For two weeks, we’ve stayed in at the bank across from Mud Island while the weather’s turned colder. Even though Silas and Zede warned Briny it’d be easy for the police to find us here if they come looking, Briny won’t let anybody unhitch the shore lines. He almost shot Silas’s hand off for trying. He nearly shot poor Arney too. I gave her some of Queenie’s clothes to use, and Briny decided she was Queenie, and he was mad at her for dying.

“Just a little longer,” I plead with Silas.

Silas rubs his ear like that’s not what he wants to hear. “You oughta bring Fern and come onto Zede’s boat with me. We’ll move her down into the main channel and see if Briny don’t come along.”

“Just a few more days. Briny’ll get better. He’s gone out of his head for a while, that’s all. It’ll pass.”

I hope I’m right, but the truth is that Briny doesn’t want to leave Queenie, and Queenie’s buried in the thick Mississippi soil not far from here. A Catholic priest said final words over her, Zede told me. I never even knew my mama was a Catholic. Until I lived with the Seviers, I didn’t even know what that meant. Zuma wore a little cross like the one on our shanty wall. She’d hold it and talk to it sometimes, just the way Queenie did, but not in Polish. The Seviers didn’t care for that too much, because they’re Baptists.

I figure, either way, it’s a comfort to know my mama was buried proper and a preacher was there to say prayers at her grave.

“Zede wants you to tell Briny that, in four days at the outside, he’s moving our boat, and if Briny don’t want to come along, he’s taking you and Fern off the Arcadia. You’re goin’ downwater with us.”

“Who’ssss out’ere?” Briny’s voice booms from somewhere near shore. The words are thick with leftover liquor. He must’ve heard Silas talking. “Who’ssss out’ere round?” Briny comes crashing through the brush and dead grass.

I grab the poke, tuck it under my dress, and shoo Silas away. Briny staggers around while I slip away to the skiff, gather up Fern, and take her to the shanty.

Briny finds us there when he finally comes back. I pretend like I’ve just fried the flapjacks up in the skillet. He doesn’t even notice there’s no fire in the stove.

“I got supper almost ready.” I make a show of dishing up plates. “You hungry?”

He blinks and scoops up Fern and sits down at the table and holds her tight. She watches me, her face pale and scared.

A fist grabs my throat. How am I going to tell Briny that Zede’s only waiting four more days? I can’t, so I say, “Flapjacks and salt fish and apple slices.”

I put the food on the table, and Briny sets Fern in her place. It feels just like we’ve been having a proper meal together every single day. For a while, everything’s like it should be. Briny smiles at me through dark, tired eyes that remind me of Camellia.

I miss my sister, even if we did fight all the time. I miss how tough and stubborn she was. How she never gave in.

“Zede says, four days yander, the currents’ll be good, and it’s time to take to the river. Go downwater where the fishin’s fine and the weather’s warm. He says it’s time.”

Briny braces an elbow on the table and rubs his eyes, shaking his head slowly back and forth. His words are muddled, but I hear the last few anyway. “…not without Queenie.”

He gets up and heads for the door, grabbing his empty whiskey bottle on the way. A minute later, I hear him rowing off in the skiff.

I listen until he’s gone, and in the quiet that’s left after, I feel like the world is coming down around me. When I was at Mrs. Murphy’s and then the Seviers’ house, I thought if I could just get back to the Arcadia, that’d fix everything. I thought it’d fix me, but now I see I was fooling myself, just to keep on going, one day to the next.

Truth is, instead of fixing everything, the Arcadia made everything real. Camellia’s gone. Lark and Gabion are far away. Queenie’s buried in a pauper’s grave, and Briny’s heart went there with her. He’s lost his mind to whiskey, and he doesn’t want to come back.

Not even for me. Not even for Fern. We’re not enough.

Fern crawls into my lap, and I hold tight to her. We wait out the evening listening for signs of Briny, but nobody comes. He’s probably gone into town to hustle pool halls until he can get some more to drink.

Finally, I tuck Fern into her bunk and slip into mine and lay there trying to find sleep. There’s not even a book to keep me company. Everything that can buy whiskey has already been traded off.

Rain starts before I fall asleep, but there’s still no sign of Briny.

I find him in my dream. We’re whole, and everything’s the way it should be. Briny plays his harmonica as we picnic in the sand along the shore. We pick daisies and taste honeysuckle. Gabion and Lark chase after little frogs until they’ve caught a whole jarful.

“Ain’t your mama pretty as a queen?” Briny asks. “And what’s that make you? Why, Princess Rill of Kingdom Arcadia, of course.”

When I wake up, I hear Briny outside, but there’s no music. He’s hollering into the deepening storm. Sweat sticks the bedsheet to my skin, so I have to peel it off as I sit up. My mouth is pasty and dry, and my eyes don’t want to clear. The air around is black as pitch. Rain rattles the roof. The woodstove has been filled and the damper must’ve been turned wide open, because it’s crackling and whistling and the room is boiling hot.

Outside the shanty, Briny cusses a blue streak. A lantern flashes by the window. I swing my feet around to get up, but the boat sways crazy wild, knocking me back onto the ticking. The Arcadia bobs side to side.

Fern rolls clean over the rail on her bunk and tumbles onto the floor in a heap.

All of a sudden, I know…we’re not tied up onshore anymore. We’re on the water.

Silas and Zede came and cut us loose after Briny got back. That’s the first thing I think. He’s out there hollering because he’s mad they did it.

But just as quick, I’m sure they wouldn’t set us adrift at night. It’s too dangerous, with the logs and sandbars and the wakes from the big boats and barges. Silas and Zede know that.

Briny does too, but he’s half out of his mind out there. He’s not trying to get us to shore. He’s daring the river to take us. “C’mon, you blaggard!” he hollers, like Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. “Try ’n’ win! Take me! C’mon!”

Thunder booms. Lightning crackles. Briny cusses at the river. He laughs.

The lantern disappears from the window, then bobs up the side ladder as Briny climbs onto the roof.

I stumble across the room to check on Fern and put her back in her bunk. “You stay there. Stay until I tell you different.”

She grabs my nightgown, croaks out, “Noooo.” Since we’ve been back on the Arcadia, she’s been scared to death at night.

“It’ll be all right. I think the lines came loose, that’s all. Briny’s probably trying to get us back ashore.”

I hurry on, leaving her there in the bed. The Arcadia wobbles as I stagger across the floor, and a tug blows its horn, and I hear the creaks and pings of barge hulls, and I know that bigger wakes are coming. I reach out for the door and grab on just in time. The Arcadia rises up a wake, then tips hard coming down. Wood slides through my fingernails, driving splinters underneath. I fall forward, land on the porch in the cold. The boat nods the other direction, spinning sideways to the current.

No, no! Please no!

The Arcadia rights herself like she’s heard me. She rides the next swell clean and slick.

“You think you can take me? You think you can take me?” Briny yells from up top. A bottle shatters, and glass tumbles down from the porch roof, glistening in the night rain and the tug’s searchlight. It seems to fall slow. Then it plinks into the black water.

“Briny, we’ve gotta get her ashore!” I yell. “Briny, we gotta tie up!”

But the tug’s horn and the storm whip my voice from my mouth.

A man someplace yells curses and warnings. An emergency whistle sounds. The Arcadia rises up a huge wake, balances like a dancer on tiptoes.

She lists as she falls. Cold water rushes over the porch.

We spin sideways to the river.

The tug’s light sweeps and catches us.

A piece of drift aims itself for our bow—a giant strainer tree with all the roots and dirt still attached. I see it just before the light moves on. I scramble for the boathook to push it away, but the pole isn’t where it should be. There’s nothing I can do but hug the porch post and yell to Fern to hang on and watch the tree hit, its roots spreading around the Arcadia like fingers, catching my ankle, turning, and pulling hard.

Inside the cabin, Fern screams my name.

“Hold on! Hold on tight!” I yell. The tree pulls and rips, twirling the Arcadia like a spinning top, whirling her around, then breaking free and leaving us listing in the current. The wakes come over us hard, rushing through the shanty.

My feet slide out from under me.

The Arcadia moans. Nails bust loose. Timbers splinter.

The hull hits something hard, the porch post jerks out of my hands, and next thing I know, I’m flying through the rain. Breath kicks out of my chest. Everything goes black.

I lose the noise of splintering wood and yelling voices and far-off thunder.

The water’s cold, yet I’m warm. There’s a light, and inside it I see my mama. Queenie reaches for my hand, and I stretch for hers, and just before I can get to her, the river tugs me away, yanking me back by the waist.

I kick, and fight, and come to the surface. I see the Arcadia in the tug’s lights. I see a skiff coming our way. I hear whistles and yelling. My legs go stiff, and my skin’s icy cold.

The Arcadia hangs wedged against a huge drift pile. The Mississippi goes after her like the mouth of a giant dragon, slowly eating up her stern.

“Fern!” My voice gets lost in water and noise. I swim for all I’m worth, feel the swirl and the downward pull as I ram into the drift pile. The eddy tries to yank me back, but I fight against it, climb on top, and balance my way to the deck and scramble uphill to the door.

It falls inward with a crash when I open it.

“Fern! Fern!” I yell. “Fern! Answer me!” Smoke chokes my voice. The woodstove lays tipped over. Hot red coals roll across the floor. They sizzle on the wet deck and hiss under my feet.

Everything is turned around, and I can’t see. I go the wrong way first, end up at the table, not Fern’s bunk. The flour-sack quilt from Briny and Queenie’s bed swims by like a colorful whale, carrying a lick of flame. Nearby, fire flicks up the curtains.

“Fern!” Is she gone? Did she fall off into the river? Did Briny get her out already?

A wave rushes in, grabs the red coals, and sweeps them out the door. They pop and squeal as they die.

“Riiiiill! Get me! Get me!”

The searchlight sweeps over us, pressing through the window in a long, slow circle. I see my sister’s face, wide-eyed and terrified under her bunk. She reaches for me, and then the next second I’ve grabbed her hand, and I’m trying to pull her, but the water’s got us both. A chair skitters by and hits me hard in the back, knocking me onto the floor. Water flows over my face and ears. I cling to Fern for all I’m worth.

The chair tumbles on. I grab my sister, stumble and crawl across the cabin to the side door.

The searchlight goes through again. I see the picture of Briny and Queenie hanging on the wall with Queenie’s cross below it.

I shouldn’t, but I pin Fern there with my leg and grab the picture and my mama’s cross and shove them down the front of my nighty and into the top of my drawers. They bump against my skin and dig in as we climb out and shinny over the rail and make our way onto the drift pile, scrambling over the tangle of branches, plank wood, and trees. We’re quick as mice. We’ve done this all our lives.

But we both know enough to understand that a drift pile isn’t a safe place to be. Even when we get to the other end, I can feel the heat from the fire. I hold Fern’s hand, turn and look toward the Arcadia, and lift an arm to shield my eyes. Flames curl and stretch upward from the shanty, burning through the roof and the walls and the deck, skinning the Arcadia down to her bones, stripping her of her beauty. Pieces float on the air. Up, and up, and up they whirl until they fly overhead like a million new stars.

Cooled by the rain, they fall and settle over our skin. Fern yelps when one lands, still warm. I wrap a hand around the neck of her nighty, squat down, and push her into the water, tell her to hold real tight to the tangled branches. There’s too much current here for us to swim to shore. Her teeth chatter, and her face goes pale.

The drift pile is starting to burn. The fire’ll work its way to us soon enough.

“Briny!” The name rips from me. He’s here somewhere. Surely he’s gotten off the boat. He’ll save us.

Won’t he?

“Hold on!” somebody yells, but it’s not Briny’s voice. “Hold on. Don’t move!”

A tank explodes on the Arcadia. Cinders rocket out and fall everywhere. One lands on my foot, and the pain drives right through me. I scream and kick and stick my leg in the water and hang on to Fern.

The drift pile shifts. It’s smoldering in a dozen places now.

“Almost there!” the man’s voice calls out.

A small boat sifts out of the darkness, two rivermen with hoods pulled over their heads straining hard at the oars. “Don’t let go, now. Don’t let go!”

The branches crackle. Logs whine and whistle. The entire drift pile shifts downriver a foot or two. One of the men in the lifeboat warns the other that they’ll get swamped if the drift breaks loose.

They come on anyway, snatch us into the boat, and throw blankets over us and row hard.

“Was there anyone else on the boat? Anybody else?” they want to know.

“My daddy,” I cough out. “Briny. Briny Foss.”

Nothing feels quite so good as the shore when they drop us there and go back to look for Briny. I cuddle Fern close inside my blanket, the picture and Queenie’s cross between us. We shiver and shake and watch the Arcadia burn until finally the drift pile breaks loose and takes what’s left of her with it.

Fern and me stand up and move to the edge of the water and watch as Kingdom Arcadia disappears into the river bit by bit. Finally, it’s gone altogether. There’s not a trace. It’s like it never was.

Against the dawn gray to the east, I watch the men and boats. They search on, and on, and on. They call out, and their lights sweep, and they row.

I think I see somebody standing down shore. A slicker flaps around his knees. He doesn’t move, or call out, or wave at the lights. He just watches the river, where the life we knew has been swallowed away.

Is it Briny?

Cupping my hands around my mouth, I call to him. My voice carries through the morning mist, echoing over and over.

A searcher in one of the boats looks my way.

When I squint down shore again, I can hardly make out the man in the slicker. He turns and walks toward the trees until the dawn shadows cover him over.

Maybe he was never there at all.

I move a few steps closer and yell again and listen.

My voice echoes away, then dies.

“Rill!” When there’s finally an answer, it doesn’t come from downriver. It’s not Briny’s voice.

A jon boat motors up to the sandy bank, and Silas hops out before the Jenny even makes it to a stop. He tugs the line at a run, hurrying toward me until he grabs me in his arms. I cling to him and cry.

“You’re all right! You’re all right!” He breathes into my hair, squeezing me so tight the picture frame and Queenie’s cross push deep into my skin. “Zede and me and Arney was scared half out of our minds when we seen the Arcadia gone.”

“Briny cut us loose last night. I woke up, and she was on the river.” I sob out the rest of the story—Briny on the roof talking out of his head, the near miss with the barge, hitting the drift pile, the fire, ending up in the water, seeing Queenie, then coming back up and climbing onto the Arcadia as the river was eating her whole. “Some men pulled us off the drift before it broke loose,” I say, finishing our sad tale, my body shivering in the cold. “They went to look for Briny.” I don’t tell Silas that I think I’ve already seen him and that, instead of coming to find us, he walked away.

If I don’t tell anyone, it’ll never be true. It’ll never be the way Kingdom Arcadia ended.

Silas then holds me at arm’s length to look me over. “But you’re all right. Y’all two are in one piece. Thank the saints! Zede and Arney will be bringin’ Zede’s boat downwater soon’s they can. We’ll find Briny too. You’ll all be with us. We’ll go where it’s warm and the fishin’s good, and…”

He chatters on about how Zede and Briny will gather boards and scrap from the riverbanks and build us a new boat. A new Arcadia. We’ll start all over again and always travel together from now until forever.

My mind wants to color in those pictures, but it can’t. Zede’s boat is too small for all of us, and Briny’s gone. Zede’s too old to run the river much longer. He’s too old to raise Fern. She’s just a baby yet.

Hanging on my leg, she burrows under the blanket and tugs my dress. “I wannnn’ Mom-meee,” she sniffles. Her fingers almost touch the edge of Queenie’s picture, but I know that’s not who she means.

I look Silas full in the face as the dawn rays catch him. My heart squeezes so tight it hurts. I wish we were older. I wish we were old enough. I love Silas. I know I do.

But I love Fern too. I loved Fern first. She’s all I’ve got left of my family.

Just down the bank from us, the search for Briny is simmering down as the early sun sheds its glow on the river. Any minute, the men will see that there’s no hope of finding another survivor. They’ll come back for Fern and me.

“Silas, you’ve gotta take us out of here. You’ve gotta take us now.” I pull away from him and move toward the jon boat, dragging Fern along.

“But…Briny…” Silas says.

“We have to go. Before the men come over here. They’ll take us to the children’s home again.”

Silas understands then. He knows I’m right. He gets us in the boat, and we move off quiet until we’re far enough away that no one notices the motor revving up. We keep to the shore on the other side from the cotton warehouses and docks and Mud Island and all of Memphis. When we get to our little backwater, I tell Silas I don’t want him to carry us to Zede’s boat except long enough to say goodbye.

I have to bring Fern back upriver and hope the Seviers will take her in again. It’s not her fault we left. It wasn’t her idea to steal things. It was mine. What happened wasn’t Fern’s doing.

If we’re lucky, they’ll let her come back…if they haven’t already got some other little girl from the children’s home. Maybe even if they have, they’ll still keep Fern. Maybe they’ll promise to love her some and keep her safe from Miss Tann.

What’ll happen to me after that, there’s no way to know. The Seviers won’t want me for sure—a liar and a thief. I can’t let Miss Tann find me again. Maybe I can get work someplace nearby, but these are lean times. I won’t come back to the river. Old Zede can’t feed any more mouths, but that’s not the real reason I can’t stay.

The real reason is I have to be close to my sister. We’ve been stitched together at the heart since she was born. I can’t breathe in a world where she isn’t near.

I tell Silas what I want him to do for us. He shakes his head, and his face gets longer and longer the more I talk about it.

“Take care of Arney,” I tell him finally. “She hasn’t got anything to go back to. Her people treated her in a bad way. Find her a place, all right? She don’t mind workin’ hard.”

Silas looks down at the water as it passes, not at me. “I will.”

Maybe Silas and Arney will marry in a few years, I think.

My heart squeezes again.

Everything I wanted my life to be, it won’t be now. The path that brought me here is flooded over. There’s no going back. That’s the real reason, when we find Zede’s boat, I tell him that the Seviers will sure be glad to get Fern and me back. “I just need Silas to take us upriver.” I don’t want Zede to come along. I’m afraid he won’t let us go when it gets right down to it.

He looks through the open door into his shanty like he’s trying to decide if he can keep all of us for good.

“Fern’s got lots of nice clothes and toys back at the Seviers’. And Crayolas. I’ll start up with school pretty soon.” My voice quivers, and I swallow hard to steady it.

When Zede’s eyes turn my way, it feels like he’s looking right through me.

Fern reaches for him, and he picks her up, tucking his head over hers. “Li’l bit,” he chokes out, and then pulls me in and hugs us both hard. He smells of ashes, and fish, and coal oil, and the big river. Familiar things.

“You ever need me, you get word to the river,” he says.

I nod, but when he turns loose of us, we both know this is goodbye forever. The river is a big place.

Sadness lines his face. He wipes it away before he nods, then sets his mouth and puts Fern in the Jenny so we can leave.

“I oughta go along, seein’s you don’t know the slough,” Arney says. “But I ain’t stayin’ once we get there. I’ll take my pa’s jon boat and leave it tied up someplace near. You can let him know where to find it. I don’t want nothin’ of his.” She doesn’t wait for an answer but goes after the jon boat. Even with all her family’s done to her, she’s been worried how they’d get by without it.

I don’t cry when we shove off again. The Waterwitch has to fight our way upstream, but eventually we make it to the mouth of the slough. The trees lean close after we turn, and I take one look back. I let the river wash away something inside of me.

It washes away the last of Rill Foss.

Rill Foss is princess of Kingdom Arcadia. The king is gone, and so is the kingdom.

Rill Foss has to die with it.

I’m May Weathers now.

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