Then above the sounds of river and sea, of his chanting and the splash of his paddle, Water Gourd heard voices. His heart clenched like a fist in his chest, and for a moment he did not have the strength to lift the paddle, but merely kept it in the water, the blade turned flat against the side of the boat.
Bear-god warriors. He saw their torches lining the banks of the estuary. One man then another lifted his fire until the torches cast light in long sheaths across the water to his small boat. The warriors raised their spears, threw. The spears were thrusting lances, not good for throwing, and one fell into the water, but another thwacked hard inside the boat, cutting a gouge into Water Gourd’s thigh before the tip embedded itself in wood.
He knew then there was no hope. He raised his paddle and brought it into the boat, laid the blade over his belly. Better to take a spear in the chest or throat and have his life end suddenly than to suffer a wound of the gut. He felt the river current thrust him toward the sea, but then the boat turned sideways and a wave brought him back. The Bear-god men threw more spears as sea and river played with his boat, like children throwing a pig bladder. A spear hit the outrigger and another clattered into the bow.
Suddenly the earth again heaved. Water Gourd saw it first in the flames from the Bear-god torches, the light moving in odd circles, one torch dipping down until it had extinguished itself in the estuary water. As though the river were inhaling, the boat was suddenly sucked toward land. He closed his eyes, tried to prepare for the onslaught of spears, but then just as unexpectedly, the river exhaled and thrust the boat and Water Gourd out into the sea, far beyond the reach of Bear-god spears.
Water Gourd peeked over the edge of the boat. The torches were only tiny needle pricks in the night. In his relief Water Gourd began to laugh. Better to drown than to face the tortures the Bear-gods would inflict. Better to throw himself into the sea and have it done quickly.
Or best of all, he would wait until morning, rest a little, then turn his boat toward the next village, warn them that the Bear-god warriors were coming. They might see him as hero, and if they were successful in fending off the attack, would welcome him to their village. Surely they would want him as one of wise elders. Perhaps he would even find a wife and get himself sons in his old age. Hadn’t his own grandfather once put a son into the belly of a young wife? And he had been older than Water Gourd was now.
Water Gourd lay back in the boat, retrieved his woven rush shirt from the stern and pulled it on over his head. He tried to sleep, but demons visited his dreams. He blinked himself awake, sat up in the boat.
The moon had risen, lending light, bouncing it from wave to wave. The wind cut across the sea, not strong, but cold enough to raise the flesh on Water Gourd’s arms. His eyes fell on the bundle of supplies in the bow, and he realized for the first time that they were covered with a deerskin blanket. He crept forward, but suddenly the blanket began to move, raising itself as though it were alive.
Water Gourd had once seen a deer that had been chased into a river, and he had not forgotten how hard it struggled to get back to the sure footing of land. Perhaps this blanket, too, wanted to find its way back to shore. He thought for a moment about plucking it up and dropping it into the waves, but he was cold. How foolish to throw away a blanket just because it had a little life of the deer still in it! Better to wrap it around himself, subdue whatever weak power it claimed.
He clutched the blanket, and with a quick jerk flipped it up and swaddled it around his legs.
The blanket settled over him warm and still. Water Gourd nodded his approval. Even an old man had more power than a deerskin blanket. But suddenly the boat itself began to wail. First the blanket, then the boat. Could they not be glad with him that they had escaped the Bear-god warriors?
Water Gourd lost his temper. “You want to go back and be captured?” he shouted. “Those Bear-god know nothing about boats. They would not take good care of you. Soon you would be only rotten wood.”
The wails continued, louder now, surely not the sound a boat would make. Then Water Gourd’s old ears remembered the cries of his sons when they were babies. He leaned forward, groped through the pile of supplies until his hands came upon flesh, warm and soft and round. A child!
He felt until he found the head, the mouth an open, gaping square. The cheeks wet. The child was well-haired, the mouth filled with small, hard teeth. Water Gourd pushed his hands under the baby’s shoulders, lifted, prodded and pulled until he managed to get it to his lap. Two years, perhaps three, he thought, for the number of teeth in the child’s head. The baby rooted and thrust against his chest.
“I am not a woman,” Water Gourd said. “There is no smell of milk about me!”
But the child continued to cry. Finally Water Gourd twisted one corner of the blanket and stuck it into the baby’s mouth. The child began to suck and the wailing stopped.
Water Gourd patted the baby’s back, mumbling his consternation. The boy’s mother must have hidden him in the boat when the Bear-god People attacked. Water Gourd sighed. The baby began to fuss again, most likely frustrated that the blanket was not giving milk.
The old man pulled the plug from one of his water gourds and took a swallow. He sucked out another mouthful, then lowered his head to the baby’s, pressed his lips to the baby’s lips and released a stream of water. The child choked at first, but then he drank, and Water Gourd chuckled to himself at his own cunning. After several mouthfuls, the baby seemed content, and Water Gourd leaned forward, patted through the bundle of supplies that had cushioned the child in the bottom of the boat.
The night was too dark for him to see, but he could tell that there were several blankets as well as the thin, soft skins mothers used to pad their babies’ bottoms, the fluff of some plant or another to catch their wastes. A few dried fish. A woman’s knife. A packet that was probably a good luck charm for the baby. A small one, it was, smaller than most women carried for their sons.
Water Gourd’s stomach suddenly lurched, and he fumbled at the skins that swaddled the child, worked his way through them until he could feel the baby’s soft, damp rump. He thrust a finger between the baby’s legs, then withdrew his hand, moaning softly. What had he done to deserve all the curses that had befallen him this day? He thought back through his life to the sons and wives he had outlived, to the lazy niece he depended on for food. To the wicked Bear-gods, and now this. The baby was a girl. A worthless girl.
Surely, there was no hope. What sea animal coming upon them would allow them to live, an old man who could no longer throw a harpoon, and a young girl, a baby who would curse the very wood of their boat with her urine?
Water Gourd set the child back into the nest her mother had made her in the bottom of the boat. He did not allow himself to think about her as he watched over the bow of the boat, looking east, waiting for the sun.