Arika's toes sank into the mud like melting butter. That squelch when she curled her joints into soft earth and whatever decomposing plants and worms and water had worked its way into the soil-it meant home. The canopy above her head was laced with primal screeches and buzzing and croaking and it was an utter cacophony to any newcomer, but they had all gotten used to the sounds of the rainforest. Without it would have been wrong.
She was on her way(the long way) to the little pool she'd dug three summers ago when it was time to make another, lined with carefully chosen river rocks and her little whittled fence, held together by woven reeds, still stood sentry at the mouth of the bowl in the earth. It showed alluring hints of the bait waiting inside-fish could swim in, but not out. There were only a couple of these around their village scooped into the earth like some sort of giant dirt-colored melon-the river Ascorbia was pregnant with fish, but there wasn't a need to catch more than was needed. When there were the periods where the swelling, painted boats from upriver left for months at a time, they set up great, rolling dams powered by the river to sell smoked fish to the sailors. Those boats never stopped, and its people were too busy to fish.
The hollows in her feet curved around smooth stones, and Arika let her net-bag drag through the last bald-hairs of grass before the river bank's rocks claimed territory. There were three lazy fish curling around each other in the pool, and it was no trouble to dip a hand under the surface and lay them on the rock to receive a measured thump with her club. Into the net-bag they went. It was her last stop before she was due at the village to take their smooth sunshine-colored canoe out into the main artery of the river. That was the routine once a week for as long as she could remember. Arika had been bestowed the honor of going on her own and speaking for her village at fifteen-speaking was a generous word. But she took after the occupants of the dock-port upstream, who only traded with natives of the area and chose few words. The rest of her time was filled with tasks and Kachiri following her around like a shadow.
It was one of the few times where she got to be alone. Kachiri, she had said, playing kind sister past pangs of exhaustion one day, Only one person can go to the pool. You'll scare away the fish. Never mind that the fish had nowhere to go.
Arika tilted her head back and let the moisture in the air settle on the apples of her cheeks. The river rushing like an impatient toddler to her right drowned out the sounds of local fauna for a minute, and then she let her chin drop to her chest like a snapped neck. Back to the village.
Kachiri was sitting cross-legged and leaning against the back of a hut, eyes half-lidded like an caiman's. It only took a whip of Arika's fingers to get her standing and quick-stepping in her wake. The neatly stacked pile of what they were trading that week was already by the slow half-moon slip of the water into their village, her lone canoe protruding like a jaundiced tongue. Without words the two of them moved the various sacks and bags into the end of the boat, tuning out the general murmur of the village, until Kachiri took her place at the front-perched like some delicate fern-and Arika at the back. She curved her fingers around the smooth, painted wood which had not yet begun to flake and gave a shove. The cold water welcoming her shins gave an happy thwuck as her feet released from mud and she hauled herself into the boat carving a path out of Pear Creek and into Ascorbia, releasing an oar from its hook under the lip of the side. The canary-yellow slip of wood moved soundlessly with the current into the main vein and Arika propelled them with long strokes, her mind with the birds cheep-cheeping far above their heads.
They passed a war boat, self-labelled by the zig-zagging patterns of red on its swollen sides. Its occupants stared down from a great height above with jaded, glittering eyes, the last one raising a few fingers in a salute. Arika returned the gesture, and Kachiri's limbs went flying as she scrambled to turn around on the tiny bench.
"A war boat?"
They didn't speak for the rest of the way. Normally, her adopted sister would talk anyone's ear off, but they had an unspoken relationship that meant few words. They passed a few more boats-no one they knew. Still, a scraped up orange paddler approached on his longboard and traded a few dull coin for one of the fat fish in her net bag while they were still moving. Arika moved her long hair over her ears as she gave a long stroke that propelled them away, and Kachiri's eyes tracked the miniature whirlpools in the water before they disappeared. She was supposed to be taught about...things. Trading. Hunting. Crafting. No one had the heart to say it, but Kachiri was too squeamish to kill and too clumsy to do anything but talk. She did have a natural gift with a needle and thread, but for the most part she was content to follow around her assigned teacher.
The ride back, if possible, was even quieter. The silence was thick like a mosquito cloud, laden with tension. Kachiri couldn't stop fidgeting and Arika's lips were drawn in a tight line-their main correspondent, a man named Leo, had given them about three fourths of what they were usually paid for the same haul. When Arika had protested, an uncommon event in itself, he explained that most of his trading money had gone to taxes. Taxes haven't changed, Akira had told him, her fingers wrapping around the handle of her carved club as a reflex. Why are you cheating us? The way his head had fallen was foreign to them, and Arika suddenly felt tiny in their big canoe, anchored onto one of the skinny poles supporting Leo's dock. His port was oddly quiet that morning, and he ran a hand over a thinning head. I'm sorry. I can't afford any more.
Arika had yanked Kachiri from her standing position back on the bench prepared to head back downriver with swift, cutting movements that mirrored her attitude. It took a sharp yank to unanchor them and before they disappeared beyond that curve of the river Leo had cupped his hands around his mouth-Times are changing-before retreating.
More taxes was the only thing that escaped from tight lips in the form of explanation for a lighter coin sack when they got home. Times were changing, her foot-and if Leo thought he could use that excuse for losing the rest of his money on betting again, he was getting drunker than she thought. The way things were had been as solid as the pebbles that lined the bank of the river forever. Pear Creek and Ascorbia would never change, as sure as sand. To think otherwise was the type of thought they were told to chase away from their busy minds like a premature fish.