The clouds tell stories. The clouds tell the past. I can see it all now. Lying on my back, barely conscious as we move forwards, cutting through hidden tributaries. Some of these we made ourselves. They afford camouflage, which gives us surprise, which gives us advantage.
Shadows pass across my face. Occasionally, the sun intrudes. Such is its way. I swat my arm and it leaves me be. Another gnat.
I watch the sky pass above. The clouds tell the future. And why not?
The old man says we’re river folk. That’s the phrase he uses. I don’t know about any of that. I speak for myself. But the bones of our ancestors rattle beneath the hull. When you go down below, you can hear their music. Pa says they guide him.
When I first learned about our bone daddies, I used to imagine I could hear them all the time. Not just when I was below deck. Not even just when I was on the barge. Those rattling bones followed me everywhere. I walked with my ancestors.
Pa wasn’t surprised when I first asked him about the bones. Everyone wanted to know more when they first heard. What he didn’t expect was for my curiosity to grow and not diminish. When I asked to see them, he lifted me off the ground in an embrace. None of my brothers had taken such an interest, he told me.
In the murky waters, I ran my fingers over the smooth bones. They seemed to glow. I looked into hollow eye sockets and jagged ribs. I couldn’t tell how many were down there. I entwined my fingers with those of one of them and swept my kegs slowly below me. I knew then that this was my future. That I was a part of this river.
Ma says I should grow up already. Says I should be looking to marry by now. Start my own family. Let my husband take to the water. She already had a child by my age. The second on the way. She tells me the other boat men talk about Pa. It’s not a girl’s place to go out with her old man. As a small child it was cute, Ma says. But now it’s time to grow up.
She says this with growing frequency. I don’t fight back anymore. Just listen in silence. I used to argue. We would shout and fight. It got nobody anywhere. And after I was supposed to be asleep, the blanket pulled up over my head, I’d hear Ma and Pa take up the fight. That was the worst part. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I am me.
The longer we spend on the water each trip, the further I get from those arguments. The more removed I feel. I don’t feel that we go home. I feel that I am home.
Word comes down from the scope that another barge is coming. A trader this time. Not like the small time fisherman who passed by earlier. We are amongst the reeds, in the shade of overhanging branches.
The men call me their talisman. I sit front and centre where anyone can see me. When I was a child, small and cute, they said it put the other barges at ease to see me playing at the bow. Such innocence. I may not look that way now, but the effect still works.
I wave to the men on deck and call hello. I’m friendly like that. Someone always responds. Usually it’s the younger men. Or the older ones. Grey haired and tired.
People would always drop their guard when they saw me. Now, not so much. Word has gotten around. Some of the way at least. But that’s only to be expected.
I call over a greeting to the barge and they call back. We exchange pleasantries. I hold up a pole, strung with half a dozen fish, and ask if they want any. I tell them we have eels too. And even a gila, if they can afford it, but they just laugh and say they can’t. But maybe I could smoke them something. At this I pout. “You think I’m just good for cooking?” I ask.
The barges are close now.
“I’m sure you’re good for other things,” one of them calls back, to raucous laughter.
I pretend to giggle. To blush.
Timing is everything.
In the lull as their laughter die down, the seconds when attention is at its lowest, before it has time to reset. That’s when I move.
I drop the pole of fish and whip two pistols out of the folds in my skirts.
It’s an old movement now. Well practised. A fluid twist and swivel of the hips, the twist and swirl of coloured fabrics distracting from my hands until the barrels are level and everything changes. Their faces freeze. Joz and Gant are up from where they were crouched, levelling weapons, and everything is running like clockwork.
Pa swings us across their path and one of these fools goes for a rifle. A rifle. At this range. With guns trained on him. It’s like he wants to be shot.
So I shoot him.
One in the shoulder to sprawl him on his back. An example. You couldn’t ask for better. And I leap the gap.
The moment of flight. Water beneath me. Deck on either side. Just me. The vanguard. It’s magical. It’s what I do this for. I land lightly with my arms outstretched, and these little men cower.
I am awesome.
When I was young, they called me the little captain. They all laughed at that. These big brave men who towered above me. They’d pat my head as I tried to hold a blade, both arms trembling under the weight. They don’t laugh anymore. Pa might be the man, but if I tell them something, they jump.
I’ve got the best shot in the crew. And what I lack in brute strength, I more than make up for with my speed and agility with a blade. Or with my fists. Or my feet.
We are quick and efficient. A machine. They have a lot of fabrics and Gant holds up a bright pink piece and asks me if I’d like it. One of these traders smiles at that, but I don’t say anything. I just raise my pistol square at Gant’s forehead and he turns away and continues. Boxes and barrels are hurled over to the old man, standing there with his hands on his hips, overseeing everything like he owns the whole river.
Sometimes, I joke that I’m going to take one of them with me and make him my wife. The crew love this. The holler and whoop. But Pa is not impressed. He’s told me it slows us down, breaks focus. Not that it matters here. It’s pretty slim pickings. The one I shot’s kind of cute, but he keeps crying. Seems to think he’s dying.
The whole thing lasts a matter of minutes. We’re on our way back into the undergrowth, which opens into another in our secret network of tunnels and tributaries. There’s a reason they call us water snakes. You won’t see us coming.
We pass another crew, moored under a tree, cooking on a sandbank. They wave us over. There’s patrols to the north a couple of bends. They don’t know how many, but best to steer clear.
They wave to me, reclining on the pile of fabrics we took. I snarl and one of them throws me a stick with a charred jumper skewered on the end. I wink at him and he holds his chest over his heart and falls dramatically to the sand.
Ma still thinks I’ll come around. Settle down on shore and spend my days at the pot. Caring for the children. Mending and making.
But I am this boat. I am a part of it and it is a part of me. When I let my hand drop over the edge and my fingers trace lines in the water, I imagine it washing the skin from my bones, day after day, year after year. It will cleanse me of all these worldly concerns.
She doesn’t know me. She thinks I’m just along for the ride. I tried to tell her what I do, but she doesn’t see it. To her, I’m her little girl. Her princess. But I’m not a princess. I’m a queen.
I think I already mentioned: I’m awesome.