Storytime with Stidmama

Chapter Eighty Seven

Pancho hadn't seen Sebastian all day.

The other man had set off just after breakfast to patrol the beaches. He had expected to be home by mid-afternoon, but already the sun was moving lower than the taller trees and Sebastian wasn't back. The birds that were normally chatting back and forth were also strangely absent.

Pancho sighed and lowered himself over the edge of the platform, swinging gently before dropping the ten feet to the soft floor of the forest. A soft puff of dust and leaf litter startled a nearby snake that glided a few feet away, and then settled again, watching Pancho warily. Without thinking, Pancho grabbed a small rock and lobbed it at the snake, landing it expertly close to the head.

Insulted, the snake meandered off toward the middle of the forest while Pancho set off for the edge where the tallest tree afforded a good view of the path he expected to see his friend strolling along any moment.

The tree shook gently as he shimmied up, dropping a few needles here and there. The bark smelled good, not unlike a spice he remembered his mother using in her baking. He stopped a moment and stuffed a handful in the little bag he kept for gathering.

The platform was covered with leaves and twigs. It looked like some of the large rodent-like creatures had been using it for a storage and party room. Pancho brushed off a little space at the edge and sat, swinging his legs absentmindedly as he scanned the horizon. No sign of Sebastian, but it looked like there was some movement along the long road. He shaded his eyes, trying to figure it out, but whatever it was slipped off the side and down the other side.

Pancho pulled out the little pipe Sebastian had made and started to play. It was a remarkable instrument. If he held it at one end, it played a major scale. If he held it at the other end, it played a minor scale with a diminished seventh. He wasn't sure of the reason, just that it made for a different way of thinking about his music.

His uncle had first taught him to play, on the stringed instrument he played at the local tavern for drinking money. It had three strings and a drone, and Pancho learned it quickly, taking over in the evenings when his uncle had enough to drink and earning a few extra coins for his family.

His father had a farm on the outskirts of town when Pancho was a young boy. He remembered vaguely the wide veranda at the front of the farmhouse, how cool it felt in the afternoon with the slightest breeze. He remembered the fields of cloth-wool they grew, the fat bolls exploding into puffs of gray and pink when they were ready to harvest.

He remembered walking the long lines behind his mother, picking the bolls, tossing them into the basket and carrying it, heavy for a child but manageable, to the end of the row where a cousin or uncle would empty it into a cart. He remembered coming home in the evening after harvest, eating a simple meal of beans and tart sauce with flat bread and then sleeping in a large bed with first one then another brother as they joined the family.

But then his mother left his father and moved into the town with Pancho and his younger siblings. She worked for a while as housekeeper in the council leader's home, then in others until the children were all in school and she began working at the tavern as their cook. The business in the tavern had increased, and she stayed until she became ill.

His father had left town soon after his wife and children moved out, and Pancho hadn't seen him again. His uncles and the men in the town had done their best to guide the young man, but he was wild. He didn't have trouble learning to read, but didn't see the point of reading, and appreciated still less the lessons memorizing facts about numbers and places. He finally was sent home from school one day with a note to his mother that she read and quietly folded and put away. Then she sent him out to chop wood.

The next morning, she woke him up before the others and told him that he needed to fetch water, chop wood and feed the animals. And when his brothers and sister walked off toward school, she pointed to the kitchen and gave him very specific instructions on his duties for the day. She asked him to count every item in the pantry each day and record them on a sheet. It took him only a few minutes to realize he wasn't going to escape reading or math.

A week later, she put him to work serving customers and carrying heavy loads as they came in. He wasn't fond of waking early and working late, but he relished the hours mid-day when he could sit and talk with the older men while they played their peculiar board and dice games. He picked up the intricate rhythms of the tambor that accompanied every dance, the longflute and the tubepipe. He tried, but never mastered the strange horn they played, so contented himself with singing in a strong, pleasant voice.

Everything was pleasant, and soon settled into a comfortable routine. He became known for hard work, honest dealings, and a good sense of humor. And then one day a band of marauders had visited the village and found him alone limbing trees near the road.

Pancho's eye caught a flash of bright light from near the beach, and he stood. Perhaps a trick from a wave, he thought, rubbing his eyes. He scanned the horizon again, and then slowly watched the path he knew Sebastian would come home along.


Worried now, Pancho climbed down and set off for the beach, carefully turning the marker posts they had set up along the main trails to indicate his location. Sebastian's markers hadn't been turned along this road, so he hadn't slipped past...

The light was beginning to vanish, and a breeze was kicking up. From the direction that storms came from. Pancho broke into a trot, whistling their call periodically and stopping to wait for answers.

He reached the ring of dunes and climbed up, looking behind him to see if there were any signs of movement.

Nothing. Not even a breeze at the moment.

And no birds were singing. Or flying. It would be a big storm, when it hit.

Pancho scratched his head, and slid down the other side of the dune to the beach. The sand was smooth and glistened behind each wave. The water was higher than Pancho expected, and he noted the white caps on the waves even close to shore. There wasn't much time to spare.

Cursing his slow start, Pancho set his stick in the sand where Sebastian would see it. They had quickly learned how easy it would be to pass each other on the island when they were trying to make contact, and had agreed that if Pancho (who was older) set his staff somewhere, Sebastian would stop and wait by it until Pancho reappeared.

Pancho hoped that by the time he got back Sebastian would be there. He broke into a run, swiftly covering the beaches, stopping to look in caves or climb to the top of the dunes to look inland.

It grew darker, but the moons came up, giving him enough to see by. He saw some large logs at the margin of the water, and had to slow down to be sure he didn't bump into them as the tide came in.

A quarter of the way around the island, he found the bag Sebastian had been carrying, partially filled and set at the margin between seagrass and marshgrass.

Pancho called, but there was no answer.

Halfway around, the clouds were scudding across the moon, dimming the light considerably. A breeze was starting to gust across the beach, kicking up sharp, salty flurries of sand.

Three quarters around the island. Pancho was tired, and his side hurt. He called again for Sebastian, truly worried now, and listened long for an answer.

He almost missed it.

A rustling in the grasses on the dune above his head, a whispered reply, then silence. Then a small rock tumbled down, and Sebastian turned one more time, to see the outline of a body against the clouds, lit from the moon behind.

Pancho scrambled up the dune, cradling his friend in his arms for a moment, checking for injuries. Sebastian groaned, and motioned toward his head, then went limp and silent.

It was going to be a long night.