xander rowe, chapter 11

From across the bay I watched the fishermen prepare their boats. You know, lines of young men hoisting cargo onto their backs and carrying it from the shore to the ends of the long wooden docks that jutted out into the shallow waters of the harbor. It looked like a parade of two-legged pack mules. At the end of each dock was a pair of narrow planks that bridged the gap between the dock and one of the boats. There, at the end of the docks, another line of young men, one-at-a-time, would hoist another load of the cargo onto their backs and carry it across one of these narrow planks from the dock to the boat and the young man would return on the other plank from the boat to the dock with their arms empty and ready for another armful of cargo. Back and forth and round and round they’d go, hoisting cargo, loading boats, balancing on planks, in a ceaseless dance of busyness. They carried the sorts of cargo one needs to live on the sea for a few weeks, you know, crates of food and spools of rope and barrels of ale and things like that. And walking across these narrow planks was dangerous too, because the docks were firm and the boats gently bobbed up and down with the ebb and flow of the waves crashing into the shore. And the planks would flex in the middle too, you know, from the weight of the young man and the cargo and all, which gave the appearance their steps were bouncy. I watched them for a long time, the young men that is, carefully carrying what seemed to be endless armfuls of cargo across the docks and across the bobbing and flexing planks. 

Of course, wherever there’s young men working there’s old men telling them to work faster. Loading boats is no different I suppose. The old men stood on the docks and pointed with the unmistakable gestures of the old men commanding the young–pointing with their fingers, or whatever object they held in their hands, you know, sticks or canes or handfuls of rolled up important papers or anything really–jabbing the air and waving their arms and barking commands all trying to get the young men to work faster. The young men did too, work faster that is. I couldn’t really hear them, you know, the old men barking orders because I was all the way across the bay, but it was obvious that’s what was happening. 

This was a familiar scene around the docks where the hamlet met the sea, you know, young men working and old men barking for the young to work harder. Much like how the apprentice hunters risk their lives pursuing a norwulf that could win them approval of the elders, the fishers go out to sea in pursuit of their prize too. The sea was full of prizes for the fisherman too, you know, bear sharks and thornfish and great barbed whales and all sorts of other sea creatures that I’d never heard of before. 

I made a note to learn more about the types of sea creatures the fishermen catch.

Anyways, these young men were the apprentice fishers. When they were boys, they listened to tales of great fishermen and pretended to fish when they played and dreamed of fishing when they went to sleep. Now that they were young men, they welcomed the backbreaking labor of loading the cargo because it was their way to ensure a place on a boat, you know, they get to live out their dreams. What a hard smack of reality that is, you know, dreaming of becoming a great fisherman and catching great fish and visiting exotic ports and all, just like in the stories, but you end up loading boats and eating salty foods and getting yelled at by old men instead. But each fishing expedition is a chance for these young men to become a great fisherman. One great catch would change their lives forever. You know, one day you’re an apprentice fisherman and then you catch a big fish and then you’re just a fisherman. If the catch is big enough you can end up a great fisherman. And that possibility of instant success has great appeal for eager young men. Society hums based off the naive eagerness of young men chasing success. 

These old men, the ones standing on the docks barking orders, were the master fishermen. That’s what they call fishermen that have been around a long time, master fishermen. They captained the ships, led their crews, mentored the young men in the ways of the sea, and, of course, they barked orders to keep the whole operation running smoothly. At least that’s what they tell themselves, you know, that the operation couldn’t run smoothly unless they barked orders. These old men were young once too, which is one of the things they barked. It’s motivating I guess, to the young men that are in their command. You know, the young men want to grow up to be master fishermen when they grow old and they can think about how their mentor was just like them once. Just one catch of the right fish and a young man could never have to load another boat for the rest of his life. 

You could always tell which old men were fishermen because they usually were missing a finger or an eye (which was probably from an accident and not an act of bravery, or so I’ve been told, so the old men hardly ever told you how they lost a finger or an eye because they wanted strangers to go on believing that it might have been due to an act of bravery). But even from far away, like I was, you could tell if an old man was a fisherman by the way he stood. You know how people say labor is back breaking. I think that’s actually true for fishermen because old fishermen always stood crookedly, like one leg was longer than the other and they have to lean their shoulders the other way to compensate for their uneven legs and tilt their head to compensate for their uneven shoulders and then sort of tip their hat to compensate for their tilted head. All of this leaning and compensating just to keep them from falling over. It gives them the posture of a heap of rocks stacked on top of one another, you know, wobbly, like the whole thing could collapse into a heap of rubble at any time. Perhaps it’s from carrying the cargo as a young man or perhaps it’s from trying to stand upright on a boat that is tossing and turning on the sea. I’m not really sure I guess, why the old fishermen have crooked backs that is. 

Anyways, I watched the young men load the boats and the old men stand crookedly on the docks and bark orders at the young men to work faster. It’s funny, I knew these fishermen loaded their boats each spring when the ice thawed, but I’d never really taken the time to watch them work. I was just sort of aware that it was happening down by the docks. But it might as well have been in a different world because I’d never sat and watched the fishermen work. Probably because I’d feel odd watching other men work. I guess it would make me feel lazy or something, you know, me sitting and staring while other young men are laboring and all. But I could watch them now because nobody knew I was watching you see. Anyways, I actually liked watching it all happen. It was like it’s own little world, you know, young people laboring and old people barking orders and everybody knew their place and their job. The whole scene reminded me of seeing the innards of a fine-tuned clock, you know, like I was watching the gears and springs and sprockets and whatnot all moving together in perfect harmony to make the machine work. Each piece wasn’t too important unless all the other pieces are doing their jobs. 

Anyways, the salty smell of thawed ice filled the bay air. I couldn’t believe the icy waters of the bay had opened and it was fishing season again. It didn’t seem like it, but I spent three months with Roki. Resting. Recovering. Talking. Thinking. I took walks each day too. You know, I would just leave Roki’s cabin and head in a different direction and be mindful of the changes happening in the wilderness and smelled flowers and felt the sunshine on my face and stuff. And I’d just walk until my body was tired or until I ran out of daylight. His questions about why hunters hunt really stuck in my mind too. I meditated on them all day, Roki’s questions that is. 

So the sun hung in the sky longer, my walks got longer, my body got stronger each day, and I just thought and thought about his questions until I couldn’t think any more for the day. And then I’d head back to the cabin. Roki pretty much left me alone too. He was a real quiet man, but he had this wisdom about him, like he could ask a question that cut to the heart of an issue. 

It wasn’t just healing my body though. The time with Roki was a time of reflection. You see, nobody knew I was alive. Thoren and Sem and all the other men in my hunting party probably assumed I was dead, you know, because I’d left into the mountains and never returned and all. At least I assumed they assumed I was dead. And nobody in Norwick knew that I’d been gone. Sure, they might have known that it was the time of year hunters went into the mountains for the norwulf migration, and they probably assumed that I, Xander, an apprentice hunter, went on the hunt, but they’d never know that I didn’t come back from the last hunt. And so I had a window of time where I was both alive and dead that allows you to think about things without the concerns of the people who are merely alive or dead. It was kinda nice, you know, to be both alive and dead because you could have as much time as you needed to think. It was a time to think real clearly. 

Anyways, by the end of all these walks, my whole apprenticeship seemed the height of silliness, you know, hunting norwulves and all. So you got teams of young men venturing out into the mountains and stalking these beasts and trying to kill the ones with the biggest horns. And why? To be seen as brave? To impress elders? So that a wealthy patron could brag that his hunters killed the biggest beast? There was a whole system of busyness and rules and traditions that was just made up wholecloth, like how many tattoos you have, but there was nothing that really served a purpose other than to be busy or to follow rules or to carry on traditions. Nothing was being built. Progress wasn’t being made. You just hunted because that’s what hunters do. 

Eventually fresh skin had grown across the wound in my stomach, and strength returned to my body. The frozen ground softened. Green shoots of life sprouted from the soil. Springs of water bled from each small cleave in the mountainside and gathered into streams in the valleys below. Streams flowed from many directions and met to form rivers and those rivers eventually emptied into the sea. The same sea these boats would live in for the next few weeks. 

So one day I was on a walk. One of those nice long walks too where nature really energizes your soul, and my strength had returned to my body and my mind felt clear and all. And I came up on this norwulf carcass that was peering out from a melting pile of ice that collected on the north side of a tree. The carcass was in this position like it was huddled into a ball and it’s claws were tucked into its ribs like it died trying to stay warm or something. The face had this gnarled look too, like it was in pain, and its teeth were showing. And there was this real long horn that ran from its nose all the way back to between its ears. And I sat and looked at this poor beast for the whole afternoon. 

The thing that really hit me was that there was a curved blade stuck into the frozen back meat of this dead beast. And the short strand of twine that was tied to the curved blade was frayed off from being dragged so far. It was the blade that Sem had given me. This was my beast. 

It was kinda interesting, you know, getting to inspect the beast up close and all. I got to measure his horn, it was as big as my arm. And the muscles were hulking. This truly was a great beast. But here it was, this great beast, and it was rotting into dirt. And there was a chunk of meat missing from his back from where a rodent had gnawed. And it was at this time I realized that I’d built up this norwulf in my mind to be some mythical and God-like beast that was gonna make all my dreams come true, but it was only flesh and bones. 

I didn’t know if I should feel proud that I killed it or sad that it was slowly rotting away. I wanted to feel proud, you know, that I didn’t fail on my hunt, but I didn’t. I just felt kinda sad. Sad for me and sad for the beast. I mean, the beast didn’t know that it was my prize, it just wanted to live. I murdered an innocent norwulf. For what? For having the misfortune of being in the wrong field at the wrong time? For being too big and magnificent? I couldn’t answer that anymore. I guess for pride, but that didn’t seem like a good answer. Tradition? That answer seemed only superficially satisfying.

The funny thing is that I could have sawed the horn off the beast’s carcass and taken it back to my hamlet by the bay. With the story of my adventure and everybody thinking I died and the giant horn I would surely impress the elders. But I just didn’t care anymore. My future was right here for the taking and I just didn’t care. It’s not that I didn’t care about anything, it was just that I didn’t care about the horn or becoming a hunter anymore. 

So I returned to Roki’s cabin without the norwulf horn. I guess seeing the beast’s carcass did something to my mind. I thanked Roki for his kindness and bid him farewell. I descended the mountain on which his cabin sat and followed the streams and rivers until I reached the sea. I then followed the shoreline south to my hamlet by the bay. 

For four days and three nights I walked south all day and slept under the stars at night. Well, I almost walked all day each day. On the second morning I came across the field with bluegrass, the same field where I shot the beast of a norwulf three months ago. I kicked around the grass for a bit and let my mind wander. And then I set up a resting place for a midday meal and let my mind wander some more. The field of bluegrass was just, well, a field of bluegrass. There were no remnants of my hunt other than my memories. The grass where the norwulves laid was not matted and the trail of purple blood had long been washed away. So I sat there, ate my midday meal, kicked the dirt as I meandered around the field, and let the thoughts of what-if roam through my mind. You know, “what if I killed the beast of a norwulf with my first arrow?” and “what if I never escaped the angered sow?” and “what if I never went on this hunt in the first place?” and thoughts like that.  

I don’t know why I do this, meditate on these what-ifs and all. I suppose it helps to understand why you did what you did. Perhaps you can learn a lesson or something that could be applied in the future. And people might think you’re a wise old man after a lifetime of learning these lessons. You know, you could pull these lessons out of your mind like pulling a book off a library shelf and people would be impressed because you look old and say wise-sounding words. I suppose that’s how it’s supposed to work. But this sort of lesson-learning seems like just an excuse to let my mind wander. Time is passing, that’s for sure. But I don’t know how many lessons I actually learn and I don’t know how wise I’m really getting. My mind just wanders from thought to thought. I have a hard time controlling my thoughts sometimes and then I come up with a story about learning lessons or something that makes me not feel so bad about wasting all this time. 

So I slowly meandered around that field of bluegrass in circles. You know, I just shoved my hands in my pockets and I watched my feet kick the dirt and I just ran these what-ifs through my mind over and over the whole afternoon while I walked in a circle. Imagine that, just walking around and around for a few hours kicking dirt. Talk about a waste of time. Anyways, the real interesting thing is that I wasn’t even that mad at myself. A few months ago I would have cursed myself real good for not killing the beast of a norwulf on that first day, you know, really lit into myself for ruining my chance at becoming a hunter and all. And I suppose I did that a bit on my walks around Roki’s cabin, especially my early walks before I found the beast’s carcass because I did it less and less as I walked more and more. But now I felt at peace, like I knew that I tried my best and that I actually did kill the beast and I didn’t feel like I needed to curse myself anymore. So I kicked the dirt for so long that the sun got low in the sky and I ended up sleeping in that field that night. 

Anyways, I made my way down to the hamlet by the bay and perched atop the steep bluffs on the opposite side of the bay from my hamlet and watched the fishers work. The hamlet is this nice hamlet that is sandwiched between the sloping mountains and the sea. The trees are all cut back, you know, where all the houses are. And as the hamlet grows, the treeline recedes in this jagged uneven fashion like the swings of men’s axes had slowly and unevenly gnawed away at the treeline. 

So I sat there waiting and watching. It’s funny, my mind and body were at a stalemate. I walked for four days to get here and now I was frozen with indecision, you know, about whether I wanted to walk the last hour to actually get to the hamlet. I think I enjoyed being both a dead man and alive. I felt free. And I didn’t want it to end. But my mind knew that all good things must end even if my body didn’t want it to end. My mind just had to command my body into motion and it would all be OK. Sort of like when you leave a fire behind and enter the cold wilderness, you just gotta start walking and not really think about how cold your body is gonna be. 

I didn’t know how my life would unfold, you know, once I returned to the hamlet by the bay. Would I be received as brave? Or would I be seen as the foolish hunter who didn’t bring back the norwulf horn? But I felt at peace for once in my life. More than drinking sponami and singing the songs of the hunters and shooting a norwulf, I found the true spirit of being a hunter. A man pouring his soul into his craft. A man exhausting all his energies into hunting a beast. Truly trying at something with all your abilities. The patrons support hunters not because it brings them meat or horns or stories, but because the hunters do things that inspire other men. There’s something about watching a man push himself to the extreme that expands what we believe is possible. Once in awhile a man pushes himself and achieves something great and his story is told and retold. And that is worth celebrating and patronizing. But sometimes men try their hardest and their stories are forgotten. Trying your hardest, that, my friend, is true bravery.

So my mind commanded my body to walk to the hamlet by the bay where I would begin my life anew.