2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge #1
“How does it work, mister?” The old helmsman was in a daydream and found himself startled by the young boy’s question. He turned around.
“Well, that is a very interesting question, isn’t it? But, how does what work, exactly? How does the wind blow? How does the water flow?” The helmsman raised an eyebrow and swept his arm outward. “How does this mist form? And, why does it always smell so much like some wondrous childhood memory that I can’t seem to remember?” The old man’s face carried a puzzled look.
“No, sir. I mean, none of those things. How is it that the boat knows the way across? Mother says that only this boat knows how to cross The Shannon. She says that all other boats get turned around and wind up right back where they began. She says that only this boat can reach Albion.”
“Well, now, is that what she says? Well, tell me this: how do you know it is the boat what knows the way across and not the helmsman?” He studied the boy’s face while the boy pondered his question. “Hmm… Have you ever heard of magic?”
The boy looked up and his eyes came alive. “Oh yes! We had a magician in Beland! He could heal people and make fire! He made the sky explode every year at the festival of Bel! Oh, but…” The boy’s face turned sullen and tilted downward. “He… Well, he died when the… Well, mother says he saved us, anyway. She says we’re going to Albion to start over.”
“Oh, is that so!? Well… forgive my disbelief, but, I can scarcely believe that you know no magic. You are practically brimming with it like a tea kettle about to blow its whistle.”
The boy was taken aback. “N… No, sir,” he replied as he shook his head.
The helmsman grinned and winked at the boy. And then, with a wave of his fingers and a mumble of some words the boy did not understand, he drew some of the mist into his palm. The mist began to take shape–the shape of what the boy thought must be a fairy. A misty, winged ballerina pirouetted on the helmsman’s freckled, wrinkled old hand. And then with another wink, the ballerina was gone. The helmsman leaned down and whispered in the boy’s ear, “Magic exists in everyone if you know where to look.”
The boy’s eyes might have bulged out of their sockets had the helmsman not interrupted the amazement running through the boy’s mind. “Now it is time to get back to your mother, if you don’t mind. I have a ferry to attend.” The boy turned to run back to his mother. The helmsman brought his hand up to his temple in that sort-of half-salute one does when they’ve remembered something. “But, before you go.” The boy stopped and the helmsman pointed toward the far corner of the deck near the bow. “You see that man slouched in the corner? He must be asleep, and sleep on the Shannon is the most peaceful of sleep. It is said that it can conjure the most fantastical of dreams. Do try to not disturb him, if you please.” The boy nodded, thought better of running, and decided to walk back to his mother, instead.
The ferry drifted along the water as if floating on a cloud, with nary a hint of list or pitch or some other disturbance in its course. In fact, if not for the sound of the lapping waves, the passengers might have believed they were truly sailing the skies. No shore could be seen in any direction and it was often difficult to tell which direction they drifted, causing unspoken doubt and fear to propagate throughout the passengers. The helmsman suffered no more disturbance until the ferry reached the other side.
He plopped the gangway down on the shore. The passengers made no attempt to hide their relief and then their excitement redoubled at having reached Albion. They departed post haste, nearly barreling over the helmsman before he had a moment to step to the side. He stood at the gangway and wished them a good evening and thanked them for their patronage. He noticed the boy was being shuffled along by his mother and gave the boy a wink and a grin. After the last passenger stepped off the gangway, the helmsman raised it and the ferry departed.
After a time, the helmsman stopped the ferry, weighed anchor, and sighed. Not one of the departed passengers had taken note of the man sleeping by the bow as they departed. He approached the sleeping man, bent down, and gave him a shake.
“No doubt you’re wondering why you can’t move.” The helmsman pulled out a projectile device and tapped it on his arm. “This is what you call a tranquilizer gun, and it is the best investment I have ever made for this job. You see, I shot you with this as soon as you sat down and the dart was small enough and the gun quiet enough that nobody noticed. It’s a shame nobody checked on you before they departed. If it’s any consolation, they never do.”
The helmsman grabbed the man under his arms. “It’s about time for the effects to start wearing off, so here, let me help you to your feet.” He heaved the man up and leaned him against the side of the boat. “The truth is, this ferry belongs to the Lady of the River, and it requires neither passengers nor helmsman to find its way. However, she requires payment, and some folks have need to cross, so I am here to ensure that payment is made. The tranquilizer gun is so great because, well, she wants you alive.” And with that, he pushed the man overboard.