Chapter 88: Steering Through The Flow

on May 17, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 3: Figments & Fragments, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Hazel Doesn’t Miss A Trick

Two’s exclamation left me briefly shocked, then flooded with relief and more than a touch of embarrassment at how self-absorbed I’d managed to be… again.

“That’s why you’ve been so… focused… today?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, nodding earnestly. “I said I would help you find clothes that you like.”

“Oh… thank you,” I said. “And I’m sorry for being difficult.”

“You’re welcome,” she said. “I’m sorry for not doing a better job.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “I just have a lot on my mind… and not a lot of room in it for this kind of thing.”

“More like you haven’t had enough on your stomach,” Hazel said. “When people on both sides end up sorry, that’s a clear sign that it’s about time to take a break and then start again. How about we stop for lunch, and then start again with a new approach?

“Okay,” Two said.

“Yeah, that’s a good plan,” I said. I paid for the jacket, and once the anti-theft wards were wanded away, we headed out in search of food.

The street market had food vendors scattered throughout, but there was also an area in the middle of it that was nothing but food stands, with round wooden tables and chairs that were too heavy to be conveniently stolen in the center of it and we stopped there for lunch. I got myself two orders of chicken planks fried in golden cornmeal batter, because that was basically comfort food and I thought I deserved a double order of comfort. Two went straight for a frozen yogurt stand where she got a banana split.

Now that Two was no longer so single-mindedly focused on her goal, the appearance of aloofness had completely… uh, disappeared. She still seemed more confident and self-assured than she would have a year ago, but she seemed more herself. She was cool in only the positive senses of the word, but not like ice.

Seeing Two getting happy over a little thing like ice cream was a pretty joyous thing any day of the week, because she was so completely unguarded about it. It was even more of a kick when it served to reinforce the fact that as far as she’d gone and as much as she’d grown, she hadn’t actually left me behind. She could grow up without outgrowing me.

“That’s your lunch?” Nicki asked her, watching her daintily and precisely digging into it… a feat that you’d pretty much have to be a golem to replicate.

“It’s my dessert,” Two said. “But it would melt if I got the rest of my lunch at the same time.”

“Can’t fault that logic,” Hazel said.

“Couldn’t you have gone for the ice cream after you ate the other stuff?” Nicki asked.

“I suppose that I could,” Two said slowly, not elongating the syllables but slightly increasing the pause between them. It seemed that she’d begun to master the trick of thinking as she spoke, though it showed when she did so. “But… then I might not have been hungry enough for a banana split. This way I’ll be able to get exactly the right amount of other food to allow for it.”

“Dessert is kind of a priority for Two,” I explained to Nicki. “It was the first real pleasure in her life, outside of work and obedience… the first thing she ever learned to do for herself.”

“There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing your meals,” Hazel said, rearranging the plates and baskets on her tray as if to illustrate the point. “I wouldn’t strictly go for the sweeter stuff first every single time, but it’s like this: the world is full of good things, and there isn’t time enough nor stomach enough to hold them all. You know? Of course, there is such a thing as overthinking… you can spend the whole time planning a meal and never get to eating it. That’s why it’s important to know your course, but also not be afraid to go where the flow takes you. In eating, as well as in rivers.”

“I didn’t think gnomes liked rivers much,” Nicki said.

“Well, it isn’t what you call ‘respectable’, the river life,” Hazel said. “You get viewed as shiftless, untrustworthy. People don’t think riverfolk can be part of a real community… and they especially don’t want us to be part of their community. My mum was from a hill family, which meant the folks in town had to accept us there. Nothing could have made them respect us, though.”

I watched the silent moment of realization on Nicki’s face when Hazel made the shift from talking about riverfolk to talking about “us”.

“Your mother’s side of the family was the side that disapproved of your decision?” Nicki asked.

“Of me in general,” Hazel said. “They’d always made an effort to bring me into the fold, but they also too pains to make sure I always knew what an effort it was. We had what I’d call a final falling out over the summer hols, but it wasn’t really a falling out… it was more like a giving up. I gave up on them, they gave up on me, we gave up on trying. The only reason I didn’t do it sooner was I felt like turning my back on them would be turning my back on my mother. I felt like they were all I had left of her… I’ve come to realize that there isn’t really much of her in them, least not the things that made her her. The best of her is in me… I’m what I have left of her.”

“Sounds like you’ve been talking to Dee,” Steff said.

“Does it, now?” Hazel said. “She’s one for talking about the value of motherhood, but she doesn’t often speak of her own mother, that I’ve heard. It’s more a feeling than anything, but I’d guess her mother didn’t have much to do with her upbringing.”

Dee had told me that her mother had paid her less attention after the death of her brother and she’d been basically raised by a nursemaid, but that seemed like too private of a thing to reveal.

“Well, she doesn’t get along well with her mother’s wife, as I understand it,” I said.

“Wouldn’t that also be her mother?” Nicki asked.

“She prefers to translate it as ‘stepmother’,” I said. “I think there’s more duty than bond there.”

“You aren’t far wrong about that, I’d wager,” Hazel said.

“Is this… gossiping?” Two asked, both genuinely confused and genuinely concerned.

“I think it might, at that,” Hazel said. “There’s no ill intent, of course, but I don’t think Dee needs our sympathy any more than our scorn. Well-spotted, Two.”

“Thank you,” Two said.

“You’re welcome.”

We fell to eating in silence for a bit after that, but only a bit. Almost inevitably, it was Nicki who broke the silence.

“So… what was it like, living on a boat?” she asked Hazel. “Was it like a houseboat, or did you put in at night and sleep in inns?”

“We didn’t have the money to spare for inns, but when the weather was fine sometimes we’d tie up for the night and sleep under the stars. Though we could do that on deck,” Hazel said. “And did, sometimes. Fine weather doesn’t necessarily mean safe country. But we had all the comforts of home onboard. We berths below deck and there was a galley in the stern, but mostly we lived in the big cabin. We’d make our way up to Logfallen in the spring and summer, and then just flow down south when the weather started to cool.”

“How did you go upriver?”

“Goats,” Hazel said. “Three to begin with, though we lost one and never could replace her.”

“They pulled the boat?”

“They turned the paddle-wheel,” Hazel said. “The nannies were good for milk, too… and cheese, though after a certain point, my mother put a lid on on-board cheesemaking. We could use them to go downriver in a hurry if we needed to, but it was generally safer to let the current carry us at the pace that best suited it.”

“Did you have jobs?”

“Well, my dad and his brother took turns piloting, until he was able to get married and build a boat himself… my uncle, I mean, not my dad,” Hazel said. “I was old enough to take some turns at the wheel on clearer stretches by then, and when I didn’t, I would stand at the bow and call out the snags sometimes.”

“I wouldn’t think steering a boat on a river would be that difficult,” Nicki said. “Isn’t it mostly like you said… going with the flow?”

“Oh, no, love,” Hazel said, shaking her head. “A river isn’t anything like a lake or an ocean, it’s more like a pond: just a low spot of land with a bit of water washed over it. That’s why we tend to call everyone who doesn’t live on a river ‘hillfolk’, even if the patch of ground they live in doesn’t look much like a hill to them. If you look at the sides of a river, everything you see… trees, rocks, ups and downs… it’s all there, just under the surface, and it can tear the bottom out of your boat before you can blink. If you walk into a tree you just stop, but the river doesn’t stop for anyone.”

“Oh,” Nicki said. “That’s… I never realized that. I guess what I meant when I asked about jobs, though, is what did you do for money? I mean, I know you said inns were too expensive, but you must have had some.”

“Well, you’d be surprised as to how much business you can do without money when you’re doing it with folks who don’t have any, either, but we did pick up odd jobs as we went along,” Hazel said. “And we’d take stuff on when we traveled. Usually loads of apples in the fall. Letters and things, too. A lot of gnomes don’t trust the imperial post. We’ll use it if we have to for communicating outside the shires, but they never seem too fussed about actually delivering to gnomish addresses, and they aren’t too regular about the pick-ups, either. So we’d carry mailbags to the nearest post office in a human town, and we’d carry letters and parcels to gnomes up and down the river.”

“Just from other… riverfolk, or from hillfolk, too?”

“For riverfolk, it was mostly other sorts of messages we carried… we called it the ‘mooring post’. We’d leave signs at all the landings about new snags and other items of interest, you see. But the actual post, that was mostly for hillfolk and cityfolk… metro gnomes aren’t particularly well-thought of among the hilliest of hillfolk, though some of them have more money than George.”

“Who’s George?” Nicki asked.

“I don’t know, really,” Hazel said. “Some old bloke who had a lot of money? That’s just what people say: he’s rich as George. Or when someone’s after an unreasonable amount of money from you, you can ask them if you look like George to them. Anyway, there are colonies of gnomes in most big cities, some of them even organized like shires. There are seven shires in New Port Chartres, for instance, and they’re all friendly to riverfolk because most of them washed up there. That’s why I always liked going south.”

“Did you spend a lot of time in Blackwater, or did you just pass by it?” I asked her. I felt awkward that the conversation had mostly been between her and Nicki… some of this was stuff that the rest of us knew and she didn’t, but that didn’t mean that the additional details weren’t interesting.

“Usually passed through,” Hazel said. “It’s only a bit southerly, so the weather there’s almost as chancy as it is up here… as I’m sure you know. But we regarded it as friendly territory. Better for boats than burrows, as they say. The hillfolk all live on the Treholme side of the river, mostly. It’s all marsh clans down in Blackwater proper. Even the ones who were more settled than us were still in the same boat, as it were.”

I nodded, because that made sense. When I had been a child, my mother had occasionally pointed out areas that she swore were gnome dens, though I’d never seen anything to support that. I’d regarded the gnomes as a kind of faerie folk… not quite of the world, not wholly existing within it, and maybe not even quite real the way that other things were.

I knew a little bit better now. Gnomes could be a little bit… sideways… to things, but they weren’t fae folk.

“So, what’s your story?” Hazel said to Nicki. “Is my life really all that interesting, or is yours just boring?”

“My life?” Nicki said. “Um, my life… well, there’s nothing really wrong with it, I guess. It just isn’t the live I thought I’d be living, by this point.” She shrugged. “I don’t really have anything to complain about, really, but…”

“But you’re not happy, just the same,” Hazel said.

“…yeah,” Nicki said, sounding like she’d been caught out at something. “I guess I probably sound like I’m whining?”

“Not at all,” Hazel said. “Well, not much… but it isn’t as though you go around saying ‘poor me, poor me’. I asked and you answered, and you’ve the good sense to wonder about how you sound, doing so… but in any event, not having any reason to mourn your existence isn’t the same as having a reason to be happy. What would make you happy, do you think?”

“I don’t know, really,” Nicki said. “I mean, I could name off a bunch of things that I want, but things never quite turned out the way I expect them to, I guess.”

“So by this point, don’t you kind of expect that?” Steff asked.

“I guess I’ve kind of resigned myself to it?” Nicki said. “But I still keep hoping I can find a way to turn things around…”

“My experience is that a life is too big and loud and messy of a thing, generally, to make it move any one way for a wider of a span than a lazy afternoon or so,” Hazel said. “I mean, you can just about plan out a day, if your plans aren’t complicated, but any longer than that and there are just too many things that can go unexpectedly wrong… or even unexpectedly right. Or just plain unexpectedly.”

“Then why does everybody expect us to have a plan?” Nicki asked. “That’s really all anyone did to get me ready for college: tell me that I needed to have a plan. ‘You’ve got to have a plan. If you don’t have a plan for after you graduate, you’ll be lost.’ Sometimes I think the only difference the plan made was that it kept me marching confidently in the wrong direction for longer than I would have.”

“I don’t think a plan is a bad thing,” Hazel said. “It just has to be the right sort of plan. Instead of trying to live the life you want, think about what you want most out of the life you have, and figure out how to get it.”

“I wish you would have been my guidance counselor in high school,” Nicki said.

“When you were in high school, I would have been rubbish at it,” Hazel said. “It took me sitting down and looking at what I was doing with my own life… and what I want to be doing… to sort any of this out. I hope for my sake that this is half as wise as you think it sounds, because it’s all advice I gave myself.”

“But you have real problems!” Nicki said.

“Don’t you?” Hazel said. “Listen, if someone had come up to me while I was mourning my mother to tell me about his GPA and losing his scholarship, I’d think he was a right prat, but now imagine he’s just sitting there trying to sort out how to pay for school and I come over out of the blue and say, ‘Yeah, well, my mum’s dead.’ Even if I would trade my problems for his like they were nothing, that doesn’t make them nothing. I’ve had my troubles, but I have my health and my friends.”

“But don’t you have to worry about all the things he does, on top of your problems?” Nicki said.

“Does that make things easier for him?” Hazel asked. “Anyway, I had to take on a loan to complete my own schooling so I could pay for it myself, but I had a choice where others don’t, and that makes a difference.”

“How would you have paid for school, otherwise?” Nicki asked. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Still don’t mind, though we’re maybe edging into the territory where I might… so mind you don’t ask me to elaborate where I’m simplifying, okay? Anyway, there was a sort of a deal involving looking after my cousin,” Hazel said. “On my mother’s side, before you ask… they don’t exactly trust me to keep after her, and she doesn’t need keeping, if you ask me, but they won’t have it be said that they don’t pull on their end of the rope.”

“But didn’t they disown you?”

“Oh, no, that’s the one thing they’ll never do,” Hazel said. “I’m my mother’s daughter, and if they wanted to ignore my blood, that would be like saying theirs doesn’t count for anything. And if they didn’t claim me, they couldn’t impress each other with how well they bear up under the burden of it all… no, they’ll never renounce me, because then they wouldn’t have any reason to talk about me. I’ve stopped claiming them for myself, but not in what you’d call an active way… no speeches, no stomping around or slamming doors. I’m just… I’m done with them.”

“What about your cousin?” I surprised myself by asking. I knew Honey… not as well as I knew Hazel, and Hazel and I weren’t exactly close. I couldn’t say that I was fond of her, but Honey was the only person in the drama that I knew at all besides Hazel, though, and I found myself wondering how she fit into it.

“She knows where I am,” Hazel said. “She said some things that were pretty unforgivable, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t forgive her for having said them if she were to apologize.”

“I don’t understand,” Nicki said.

“I do,” Two said. “Things are unforgivable. People aren’t.”

“That’s about the shape of it, yeah,” Hazel said. “How’d we end up talking about me again, anyway? I’m afraid I’m coming across all sorts of self-involved here…”

“Oh, no, in my experience, it’s not really that hard to get people to talk about themselves,” Nicki said.

“No?” Hazel said. “You’ll have to show me how, sometime.”


Tales of MU is now on Patreon! Help keep the story going!

Or if you particularly enjoyed this chapter, leave a tip!


Characters: , , , ,





30 Responses to “Chapter 88: Steering Through The Flow”

  1. Burnsidhe says:

    My question is: Are metro gnomes known for their love of music? 🙂

    And the bit about planning… yeah. Definitely yes. I know I would have *loved* to have someone help me come up with one. Colleges seem to put very little emphasis on helping their students *plan* for more than the upcoming semester and courses needed to graduate.

    Current score: 3
    • Velurian says:

      No, but they never miss a beat.

      Current score: 1
      • Ducky says:

        *rimshot*

        Current score: 0
      • Miss Lynx says:

        They’re an up-tempo folk, with a firm grasp on the rhythm of life, and if you need help, they’ll be at your side in a tick.

        Current score: 0
      • Leila says:

        That’s just not punny.

        Current score: 0
  2. Martyn says:

    Re: “but there was also an area in the middle of it that was nothing but food stands, with round wooden tables and chairs that were too heavy to be conveniently stolen in the center of it and we stopped there for lunch”

    Repetition of “in the middle of it” and “in the center of it”.

    Current score: 0
    • erianaiel says:

      No, I think it parses, but is is almost German in its complexity …

      Current score: 0
      • Burnsidhe says:

        It would probably scan better as “stolen in the center, and we stopped there for lunch.”

        Current score: 0
    • Brenda says:

      It’s repetitive phrasing, but it’s not repeating the same thing twice – there is an area in the middle of the market, and in the center of that area there are tables and chairs.

      Current score: 0
  3. Null Set says:

    I suppose metro gnomes have to be better at keeping time than their pastoral counterparts.

    Current score: 0
  4. Luke Licens says:

    “They’d always made an effort to bring me into the fold, but they also *too* pains to make sure I always knew what an effort it was. We had what I’d call a final falling out over the summer *hols*,”
    Should those be ‘took’ and ‘holidays’?

    “We berths below deck”
    I think there’s a missing ‘had’.

    “It just isn’t the *live* I thought I’d be living, by this point.”
    Life?

    Current score: 0
    • Burnsidhe says:

      ‘hols’ is a colloquialism for holidays. No issues with it in dialog.

      “had berths” or “berthed” would both work.

      Current score: 0
      • Luke Licens says:

        Never heard of ‘hols’ as a colloquialism before. Learn something new every day, I suppose. Is it a regional thing, or is my region strange for not using it?

        Current score: 0
        • Burnsidhe says:

          Obviously, it’s a regional thing. Or a cultural one. It’s something that distinguishes how Hazel speaks from how other people speak.

          It’s like calling carbonated flavored sweetened beverages “pop” in the midwest and “soda” in the east. It’s like calling thinly sliced potatoes that are fried “crisps” in England and “chips” in the USA.

          Hols is obviously the shortened form of holidays.

          Current score: 0
        • Lunaroki says:

          I haven’t heard it before myself, but I thought it was pretty self-evident. It only took me a second or two to pick up on it.

          Current score: 0
        • ayla says:

          ‘Hols’ is, like many of Hazel’s colloquialisms, British. (Also Irish to an extent.) My favorite example of it is in this silly song, sung by Neil Gaiman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxgbPXkcG-w

          Current score: 0
  5. Burnsidhe says:

    “I do,” Two said. “Things are unforgivable. People aren’t.”

    So many layers to that. I like.

    Current score: 1
    • Lyssa says:

      I’ve been running this around in my mind for days. It is such an elegantly put way of seeing things.

      Current score: 0
  6. TearsTheWingsOffAngels says:

    I’m really liking Hazel in this chapter. Two too, of course. Surprised, a little, that there wasn’t a pun connected to the metro gnomes – or did I miss it? Great chapter!

    Current score: 0
  7. helen rees says:

    liking Nicki more and more – and she was cute to start out with.

    Current score: 0
  8. Joshua says:

    “But don’t you have to worry about all the things he does, on top of your problems?”

    A good reminder for all of us about privilege and what it means (or maybe I just spent too much time today being irritated by a lot of the comments on John Scalzi’s recent piece on the topic).

    Current score: 0
  9. pedestrian says:

    An interesting conversation. I hope Alexandra gives more detail background on Nicki. Also an OT about Honey, her clairvoyant?/precognition? subtle arts talent sounds like it would have story thread development possibilities.

    When you are potential prey for a multitude of hungry predators; the abilities to forecast, invisibility {including quiet and no scent}, and projecting forgetfulness are important survival traits.

    Current score: 0
    • Brenda says:

      Nicki seems to be resisting any attempt to explore her background. I don’t know if that’s the author’s doing, or the character’s…

      Current score: 0
  10. Zathras IX says:

    There’s nothing wrong with
    Prioritizing your meals
    With or without wheels

    Current score: 0
  11. readaholic says:

    Om nom nom. Yes, Nicki does seem rather reluctant to talk about her past. Is this significant, or not? Or is it sort of significant, but not really? With Ms Erin any, all, and more are possible.

    Oh,and loving the punishment the metro gnomes are taking in the comments 🙂

    Current score: 0
    • pedestrian says:

      I kinda am in favor a punitive punch, especially when it involves a punctiliously puny punter in a punnet whether or not I succeed at punchinello with a punctilious punchline.

      Proof positive that we pundits are often punch-drunk.

      But please do not punish or even punk my pungent punctuation.

      Somebody please stop me before I thesaurus all over the page again!

      Current score: 0
  12. anon y mouse says:

    “My experience is that a life is too big and loud and messy of a thing, generally, to make it move any one way for a wider of a span than a lazy afternoon or so,” – for any wider of a span, or for a wider span?

    Current score: 0
  13. Sher says:

    Niki is awesome.

    Current score: 0
  14. tijay says:

    I don’t know why, cos I’m not even a bit American, but New Port Chartres, to me, sounds like New Orleans

    Current score: 0