Joseph was staring into the distance. His mind burned hot with memories barely suppressed. It almost hurt. He remembered ghostly grey trees, and thick river mud tugging at his shoes. He remembered sitting in their hastily-constructed shelter, and watching as Gavin took his turn drinking from the creek. He remembered hearing the echoes of his father’s ghost stories – stories about the creek, and sinners, and judgement, and the Fisher. Stories about dark things, evil things. His father had told him the Fisher was a gigantic holy beast, a great creature-deity with eyes that shone with golden light and armour cast from emerald.
As Gavin had knelt to drink from the softly running waters, a creature entirely unlike what his father had described had risen up.
It had been enormous, and he had screamed. Gavin had tried to scream too, but in a lightning flash the Fisher had taken him down into the depths of the water. Joseph’s last clear memory was of sheer terror gripping his throat, squeezing it tight, and a hot flow of urine soaking his pants.
Tobias stood suddenly, reaching out and gripping his son tight by the shoulders, shaking him roughly. He screamed at the boy, and spittle coated his son’s face.
“DID YOU SEE IT?”
Joseph screamed, and cried, and for Tobias that was enough. The boy had indeed seen the Fisher. He remembered his own first time, the dark and furious realisation that every story his father had told him of the Fisher had been a lie. But he understood now that they had been necessary lies. No one, not even the son of a Fisher Man, could understand the majesty of the Fisher’s true visage. Not until they had seen it with their own eyes.
A nurse pushed open the hospital room door, startled by the noise. She looked from Joseph, to Tobias, to the heart rate monitor by the bed. It had calmed down.
“Is everything okay in here?”
Tobias hugged his son close, and waved the nurse away.
“Everything is fine. He just had a bad dream. He’s awake now, though. Thank you.”
The nurse looked at them for a moment longer, then backed out of the room. Tobias leaned in, and whispered in his son’s ear.
“The harvest will be here very soon, Joseph. And I will need your help. It is time. You are a big boy now, very nearly a man, and it is time you learned to be a Fisher Man.”
He squeezed his son tight, pressing the boy’s face to his chest. He felt the boy’s warm tears soaking through his on hospital gown.
“I am so proud of you.”
With that, he stood, and left the boy alone. He had preparations to make.
Lunch service at the Wanderer was over, and Carter was finishing the last of the cleaning. It had turned out that the Wanderer was a popular choice for lunch that day, and he had been almost unable to cope with the increasing volume of orders. He had managed, though, and was feeling good. He had put aside a small meal for his own dinner – Carter didn’t really have an appetite today, but knew he should eat something – and planned to go for a short walk over the break between lunchtime service and dinner service. He replaced the last of the cutlery, stretched out his stiff arms and fingers, and stepped out into the Wanderer’s main area.
He immediately saw why he had been struggling to keep up with the number of orders. The Wanderer was packed. He thought there might have been just as many patrons as there had been on his first night – if not more. As he exited the kitchen, three dozen pairs of eyes turned to look at him, gazing at him with a look of awe. He stood, stunned, as a pair of middle-aged women stood and approached him, their hands extended to shake his own.
“Thank you so much for finding those boys. Our town can never repay you.”
More patrons were approaching him now, and he saw that many were carrying bottles of wine, food, and other small gifts. They approached him and handed him their gifts, almost reverentially, many giving a slight bow or nod of the head. He was quickly overwhelmed with gifts, and Gwen hurried over to take them away, storing them behind the bar. One little girl ran up to him and hugged his legs, before quickly returning to her mother.
Soon the last of the Wanderer’s patrons had shook his hand and given him a gift, and Carter found himself standing in the centre of a semi-circle of people, all looking at him expectantly. He looked around. Gwen was behind the bar, and Henry was with her. They were watching him as well. They caught his eye, and Henry shrugged. He turned back to the crowd, and felt he had to say something.
“Um… Thank you for all these gifts, but it’s really not necessary. I just had a hunch.”
Carter stared at the ground. He couldn’t bear to meet anyone’s eyes.
“Anyway… I couldn’t save them both.”
One of the middle-aged women approached him, and gently took his hand. Her eyes were a bright blue, and Carte thought she was quite beautiful. She spoke in a soothing voice.
“You did something no one here would have done, or even could have done. You walked near the creek, despite the danger, and you brought those boys back. For that, you have our gratitude.”
She patted his hand softly. He looked from the rest of the room to her, and back again. It seemed he had become a celebrity again, literally overnight. One thing stuck with him though.
Don’t swim in the creek.
No one in the room moved, no one even blinked, but Carter got the sense that if they could do so without him seeing, they would be looking to each other for guidance at that moment. The woman, who was still holding his hand, never broke he gaze with him.
“The danger of slipping, and drowning in the creek, especially in the dark. And the danger of getting lost.”
Bullshit, Carter thought. The middle-aged woman went on, her blue eyes remaining locked to his face.
“This town needs you, Carter. The harvest approaches, and we are weak.”
Carter scanned her face for any sign of emotion that could give away her true motives. Her face remained carefully blank. There was no information to be gleaned there. It would have to be Lauren, then.
The patrons of the Wanderer seemed to be waiting for an answer. He nodded.
They seemed satisfied with that. The woman patted his hand again, then let him go. Slowly, the crowd dispersed, until only Carter, Gwen and Henry were left, surrounded by gifts. Henry picked up one of the bottles of wine, and eyed it critically.
“Do you want these? Otherwise I might add them to the menu.”
Carter turned to face Henry and Gwen. He was still reeling from the experience. The whole scene had reminded him of news footage of religious figures visiting their disciples.
“What did they mean about the danger of the creek?”
Gwen and Henry shared a look. Carter interjected.
“And no lies or avoiding the truth this time, please. I think I deserve to know.”
Henry shrugged, and set about cleaning up the wine bottles and food baskets, while Gwen made her way around the bar and sat with Carter at the table. She took a deep breath.
“The creek is a holy place for a lot of Fisherman’s Creek people. They started thinking that because the hot springs in the hills cause the water to be strangely warm, and a local priest in the early days of the town spread the rumour because it got people involved with the church. That’s all true, at least as far as historians know.”
There was no sound in the Wanderer but the musical clink of wine bottles as Henry picked up the trove of gifts. Gwen continued.
“But over time, the rumours evolved. People got it in their heads that something lived in the creek. A kind of god. Not, like, THE God, the Christian one. Although that kind of got mixed into it too, after a while.”
Gwen was looking not quite at him, avoiding his gaze. She seemed embarrassed, or possibly frightened.
“But a kind of god-like creature, responsible for judging the actions of people and then luring the sinners into the water to be drowned over and over for all eternity. The Fisher.”
Henry had paused, and was listening to Gwen talk. Carter could see him standing behind the bar, staring at the back of Gwen’s head.
“A lot of people in the Creek kind of believe in the Fisher in the same way that most people believe in God – they think something’s there, and they participate in all the rituals, but they never really expect to actually see God, or even direct evidence of God. Believing in Him is a matter of pure faith.”
Carter nodded, and Gwen hesitated for a second, then plunged forward.
“But there’s a certain group of people who not only truly believe in the Fisher, but they really think that it’s actually out there, living in the creek. And if you try to enter the creek, or even drink from it, and you’re found to be a sinner… then the Fisher catches you.”
HE CAUGHT MY BOY!
Tobias’ screaming voice echoed in Carter’s mind. No wonder people had been so suspicious of him. He hadn’t just been accused of kidnapping – the town’s priest had directly accused him of being an envoy of a river-demon who had sent his son to hell.
Gwen was speaking quickly now, as if she didn’t want to linger on the story.
“So a lot of people are afraid of it, and afraid of the creek because of it. But some people – Tobias and his group, mainly – worship it. They don’t think it’s God, exactly, but they think it’s sort of an… aspect of God, or maybe a servant. It’s hard to say – I don’t think any two of them has the same belief.”