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An old fisherman leads Eric down a whirlpool to an ancient and beautiful world in the core of the Earth.
The country of Twill lay on the sea, its coastline as treacherous as any in the world. Sharp claws of rock stretched out from the beaches, and riptides and murderous currents churned the water in-between.
These currents had carved deep pits in the ocean floor, where whirlpools howled and sucked from the water's surface whatever log or buoy or bird chanced to float within reach. Sometimes a whole ship was lost in this manner. Over the years, many ships had met their end along the coast of Twill. Most had gone on the rocks. Their smashed hulls could be seen dismally rotting on ledges, a reminder to sailors passing to keep their own vessels far out to sea. No captain in his right mind ventured near Twill's coast during the Season of Storms, which made up half the year. And even during the relatively peaceful Season of Calm, which was the year's other half, Twill's one port languished for lack of trade.
The people of Twickham, as the one port was called, often went without oranges and sugar for months at a time, such was the terrible reputation of their coast. A person who could not make his own soap, went without. Anyone who was too tired at the end of a long day to make candles, or too sad, as the case sometimes was, went to bed early in the dark.
The people of Twickham bore their share of sadness. They were fishing folk and had to deal with their coastline every day. Everyone fished in Twickham—men, women, and children, who were allowed to skip school during the whole Season of Calm, so important was their contribution to the catch. Hardly a month went by when someone wasn't drowned or crushed or battered or crippled or swallowed up by the terrible tides.
They went forth in slim boats designed for scooting between the rocks. They climbed up the rocks from the beach and dangled long baited lines over the ledges. They set traps for crabs near the swirling water's edge. They hurled complicated nets from their cliffs onto seething ocean pools below, whereupon they rushed down the cliffs to pull on certain ropes, which drew the nets through the water and gathered up the fish.
The people of Twickham were ingenious beyond measure in the catching of fish, and they were careful beyond measure to protect themselves from danger. But however ingenious and careful they were, accidents happened. A father was lost to the whirlpools or a mother disappeared under a wave or a brother or sister fell off a rock and was swept by a current to an unseen place. Then black curtains were hung in all the windows of the town, and everyone in Twickham wept for the lost ones. They held one another's hands and brought supper to one another's houses and shared the precious candles so that they could stay up later at night to talk and tell sad stories.
"Who will be next?" they often asked, looking around with fearful eyes. "How can we ever go on?"
Nevertheless, the next day, they did go on. They had to go—back to the rocks, to the boats, to the fishing that was their way of life. There were the hardworking children to be fed, and the babies to be made to grow up strong with fish chowder.
There was the doctor who must eat so that the injured could be tended and returned to work, and the netmakers who must be served so that the important tasks of net weaving and net repair could go on night and day.
There were the gardens to be fertilized with ripe fish heads so that the beans and corn would grow, and the fishhooks to be carved from the red bones of the giant lampfish. And there were a hundred other necessities to be extracted from the daily catch—fish oil and fish tallow, fish glue and fish sauce, fish powder and fish salt—all these so that the people of Twickham might eke out a living, week after week, on the cruel coast of Twill.CHAPTER 2
"Eric," said his aunt Opal very early one morning during the Season of Calm. "I was thinking that you might set the crab traps today on Cantrip's Point. The wind is down a bit, and the tides are running low. I don't suppose you'll fall into any trouble."
"Of course I won't," Eric replied, looking across the breakfast table at his aunt's worn face. "Can I take the big net, too? There's a deep place off the rocks there where I think a lampfish lives."
"A lampfish! Well! We could certainly use some new hooks. By all means, take the net and sound the bell to tell the others. But do be careful, Eric, of the swell around the point. Cantrip's Spout is just offshore and, Season of Calm or not, it's churning in its bed."
"Yes, Aunt," Eric said politely, though he'd heard this warning many times. Everyone in Twickham knew the black boil of water that was the whirlpool off Cantrip's Point. Of all Twill's whirlpools, it was the largest and most treacherous. Its toll in sailing schooners alone stood at four hundred twelve, according to town records. And this didn't include the countless smaller boats swallowed over the years, or the rafts of careless children that had drifted too far out from shore.
Only one person in Twill's history had gone down the spout and come back alive. This was a long-ago man named Cantrip, for whom the whirlpool and nearby point of land were named. How he'd escaped, no one ever found out, because afterward he'd talked in crazy circles and could not be understood. It was said in his day that a person need only whisper "Cantrip's Spout" in his hearing for him to lose sense completely and begin to shriek with laughter.
"Good-bye, then, and keep your eyes open," Aunt Opal said, heading out of their small cottage with a knapsack full of fishing gear slung on her back. She was a skilled fishcatcher who'd learned to fend for herself on Twill's coast and never needed anyone to help her. But one windy day, Eric's parents had gone out fishing and not come home. Though he waited and waited in their cabin by the sea, and kept the kettle hot as he'd been told, they never came to make supper that night, or the next. So Aunt Opal had trudged across the fields and brought him back to live with her.
"I never expected to take on a partner," she'd announced, eyeing him uneasily when they arrived inside her house. "But seeing as you're here and likely to stay, how about going into business with me?"
It was a question most people would consider cold under the circumstances. Eric understood exactly what she meant. There'd be no mothering, no cleaning up after, no complaining, and an equal share of work. He guessed it wasn't the best of all possible worlds, but then again, as lives went in Twill, it wasn't the worst either. He certainly couldn't go back to his empty cabin. When Aunt Opal made her offer, he'd pulled out a bench and sat down quickly in her rough, workmanlike kitchen.
So long ago did this seem now that Eric could barely remember it, and even his parents' faces had become vague moons in his mind, though he would never admit this to anyone. Only his memory of the first blind terror of losing them traveled with him through the years, making him a careful person, a boy who'd rather rely on himself than the plans and promises of others.
Now Eric watched his aunt's long strides as she went off down the road. Night still clung to hollows in the land, for the sun had only just begun to rise. Fishing in Twickham began early and went on till dark, so great was the need of the people.
He watched her turn and call back at the stone gate, "I'll be surf-netting at Dead Man's Beach if you want me. Clap your bell in that direction if the lampfish shows up." A moment later, she vanished down the south road to the coast, and Eric, scanning the sky with a wary eye, wondered what sort of day it would be.
Not such a bad one, maybe, from the look of its beginning, he thought—then wished he hadn't in case it brought a change of luck. You couldn't be too cautious when you lived in Twill. But the sun's first rays were streaming rosily across the fields. The air was clear and cool on the skin. A salt breeze blew through hedges and bush clumps, giving the scene a tossed, flag-waving look.
Most likely Eric's thoughts weren't the only cheerful ones on the coast of Twill that morning, because this was the kind of weather that made spirits rise. The people of Twickham might live cruel lives most of the time, but every once in a while a day like this would come along to put a snap of color in the palest cheek. Then the coast folk would hail one another on the roads and smack each other on the back.
"Congratulations!" they would cry. "Many congratulations!" It was the time-honored greeting along the coast of Twill. "Congratulations" meant "Hello. Nice to see you." But it also meant, "Well, so we're still here, you and I, in spite of everything. Congratulations to us and let's enjoy it while we can!"
As soon as his aunt was gone, Eric turned and went through the cottage and out the back door. Here, he paused to check the sky again. This time he seemed to be looking for something more than good weather. He ran his eyes slowly around the horizon. With his foot, he probed a cluster of bushes growing near the back steps. He glanced up at the cottage roof and then across the yard to the weather-beaten thatch of an old tackle shed. Finally, with a frown, he raised two fingers to his lips and blew one long, shrill whistle.
A flustered noise of something taken by surprise erupted from the direction of a large woodpile standing in the yard. It was followed by a rattle of dry leaves, and then a teetery-wobbly sound, as of something losing its balance.
"Qwawk!" A desperate cry broke from somewhere near the top of the woodpile, and at the same moment, a large gray and white body appeared, hurtling down through the air. There was a last, pitiful screech, followed by the sound of a crash landing on hard ground.
Eric thrust his hands in his pockets and looked away in embarrassment.
"So there you are!" he said, fixing his eye on a low-flying cloud. And then, as if not a thing were wrong with this sort of entrance, he added, cheerily,
"Sorry to get you out of bed so early. We're going to Cantrip's today. Remember that lampfish? I was just heading to the tackle shed to get the big net. Have you had breakfast yet? And what do you think of the weather?"
All this silly prattle gave the rumpled, feather-strewn shape at the foot of the woodpile time to gather itself, as Eric certainly intended. What arose from the ungainly heap of wings and bill and eyes and webbed feet was the noble profile of a large sea gull.
Once on its feet, it began to strut around the yard, composing feathers with impatient shrugs and lifting its handsome bill into lordly poses—a little too lordly for good taste, perhaps, but after such a ridiculous fall, who could blame him for trying to improve his appearance?
"Sir Gullstone," Eric murmured respectfully, at which the sea gull seemed to pull up straighter and to walk with even more terrible dignity. Then Eric held out his arm, which was a signal between them, and the gull flapped his wings twice and landed there. His weight was so great that the boy had to support his one arm with the other.
"Do you remember when you were small enough to sit in my hand?" he asked the bird. His usual guarded look was gone, and his mouth showed the trace of a smile. "You were the smallest, skinniest little orphan gull, and no one expected you to live more than five minutes. You were wet all over and coated with sand from getting rolled up the beach by the surf. Aunt Opal said you were a goner. And Mrs. Holly, who was over for supper, said you were wretched and nasty and to take you out of her sight so she could eat her fish stew.
"Which I didn't do, of course. I wrapped you up in a dish towel and put you near the fire. Do you remember, Gully?"
All the time Eric spoke, the sea gull stared haughtily around the yard and showed no interest in the words lavished upon him. Eric could have been a fence post for all the notice the bird seemed to take of his perch. But at the mention of his pet name, Gully, his heavy yellow bill swung around, and he gazed at Eric with unblinking, adoring, lemon-colored eyes.
"I bet you really don't," Eric said. "I bet you were too little to remember anything, even what your mother looked like, and now you're just pretending because you don't want to admit it."
Sir Gullstone Sea Gull turned his bill away, upon hearing this, and took up such a proud, stiff-legged pose on Eric's arm that he seemed in danger of falling a second time. But Eric, who knew all the difficulties and oddities of his great bird (and one was a tendency to topple off perches), lowered him gently to the ground.
"Come on! We've got to get moving," he announced, glancing up at the sky again. He set out across the yard to the tackle shed, where the big net was stored.
Of all their many pieces of fishing equipment, this one was the heaviest, bulkiest, and most difficult to manage. The big net had a special cart of its own to travel about in, and it was not unusual to see two grown men pushing such a cart along the road to the sea. Inside the shed, Eric grasped the wooden handle of the "net trolley," as it was called, and with a great heave put its wheels in motion. Through the door, across the cottage yard, down a small slope and out to the road the trolley rolled, while Eric ran along behind, guiding it expertly. There he brought it up short without a squeak or a pinch, so that the crab traps could be loaded on. Getting a trolley in motion and keeping it on track was hard, but not so hard as bringing it to a stop. Stopping required precision, a deft flick and yank on the handle to break the wheels' momentum.
With a fine show of skill, Eric halted the trolley just opposite the pile of crab traps near the old stone wall and loaded three of the wooden traps inside. Then, signaling to Sir Gullstone, who looked perilously close to going to sleep again and falling off his own two feet, Eric set off, keeping the big net moving at such a clip along the north road to the coast that there was barely time to exchange a word with the folk he met.
"Congratulations, Eric. Going to Cantrip's today?"
"Many congratulations to you, and yes, I am."
After he had passed, people turned their heads to watch him, since it was unusual for a boy alone to have charge of a big net, and more unusual still that he could manage it so well. And then again, many remembered Eric's mother and father, and the tragedy of their early end.
"That boy's father had a reputation for handling the big net as a youngster," one fishcatcher murmured as Eric thundered past.
"For all the good it did him," muttered another, with a shake of his head.
From above, the bleating cry of a coastal gull pierced the air, but neither fishcatcher bothered to look up. Only Eric, hearing the sound from further along the road, shot a worried glance over his shoulder. Sir Gullstone was all right, though. He was following at his own pace, embroidering his flight with elegant swoops and curlicues. No bird on the coast flew more beautifully, Eric thought with a surge of pride. It was amazing how all sign of the sea gull's earthbound awkwardness vanished the moment he took to the sky. Gone, too, were the strutting and fluffing and vain posturing. Gully looked so breathtaking up there with the morning light flashing off his wings that Eric wished he could stop for a moment to watch.
No time for that, though. There was never any time for breathtaking moments in Twill. There was always the fishing and trapping, the netting and scaling to be done, and in between, the nervous eye to be kept open for a change of weather. Eric knew the rules as well as anyone.
"Faster!" he shouted to the great wheeling form overhead. "Stop that fooling around. The sun's almost up! Hurry or we'll miss the ..." and he lowered his voice.
"Lampfish," he whispered, because it was not the sort of word a person went around yelling, especially if wanting to catch one.
Excerpted from The Lampfish Of Twill by Janet Taylor Lisle. Copyright © 1991 Janet Taylor Lisle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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