The first chapter of my as yet unpublished book.
To the Left of Your North Star.
His heart pulsed blue through transparent skin and his eyes, unblinking, bore into my soul. In my head, he scratched around, feeling for life, searching for information.
I woke shouting into the frigid air. Swinging my legs off the bed, I fought to control my breathing as the door to the crannog creaked open.
‘It is time,’ the native boy said.
Finally, I could get the fuck off this God-forsaken planet.
Unfortunately, my father had neglected to tell me that the best way to the Landing Plains where his heap-of-junk spaceship waited, was by river. The blister-popping trek across what could’ve easily been anywhere on Earth to get to the Fire Glade had been bad enough. It had taken three long weeks to move my father’s scientific team—a biologist, a geographer, a botanist, and an ecologist—plus all their equipment from his ship to the village. It struck me that the most boring people on Earth would fit well into the most boring place on Abaytor.
During that whole time, I think my father and I only exchanged a handful of words as he either had his head stuck in a book or his nose in a flower studying bees. His studies had shown they were resistant to our insecticides and this, apparently, was significant. I’d developed a loathing for the fuzzy little dive-bombers simply because they were important to my father.
Those three weeks were on top of the month long journey in my father’s scrapheap spaceship. There are only so many times you can ooh and aah at the billions of star clusters. Towards the end, with no privacy, no real heating, and fuck-all to do, it seemed preferable to open a hatch and float off into those stars. One particularly boring day when I felt like I was asleep with my eyes open, I pretended to spin the locking wheel and open a door, but nobody noticed what I was doing so I sulked back to my corner.
Stepping out of the crannog, I pulled on a jumper. I wouldn’t miss this odd copy of Earth with its cold mornings and sweltering days, or the smoky fish smell that penetrated my expensive clothing or the God-damn cheerfulness of the locals, or… the list was endless.
The expedition would take six months my father had said. I’d managed two and thought I’d done pretty well considering the brain numbing boredom and my strained relationship with him.
Slinging my bag on my back, I strolled to the end of the rickety walkway that connected the little thatched house on stilts to the land. Shielding my eyes from the sun, I looked for the native boy, Burn. He was by the river stacking wooden crates one on top of the other. The water shone copper in the morning light with little flashes of golden fish darting in and out of the shallows. Jumping onto the sandy bank, I gave the crannog one last glance. Why would anybody build a house that creaks alarmingly when the river rages? As far as I was concerned, these people had a lot to learn.
Burn grinned and waved a long hand. I ignored his greeting, dropped my head, and stamped across the soft sand towards him. ‘Ready?’ I muttered.
He pointed towards his creation bobbing eagerly at the water’s edge. ‘It is all yours.’
‘Lovely.’ I placed a foot onto the wooden raft and immediately stepped back. ‘It wobbles.’ When Burn sniggered, I glared at him. ‘Seriously. It’s not funny.’
‘I am not laughing, Ed.’
‘It’s Ed-ward, you dim-witted native.’
Burn’s cheery face was fucking annoying. ‘Do not worry, I built the raft myself, and it is safe.’
I scowled and turned my attention from the native boy back to the floating piece of junk. It had a broad base of long thin logs knotted together with twine. On this was a triangular structure with a mucky brown canvas slung over it. The whole thing looked like a bad attempt at a Boy Scout’s tent sitting upon a piece of flotsam.
‘Here.’ Burn reached out. ‘If the raft scares you, I will hold your hand.’
‘Sod off, Burn. It doesn’t.’ Yet there was a knot in my stomach as I marched onto the deck. The entire contraption reared like an unbroken horse. Swinging my arms in circles, I had to do a crazy dance to stay upright. I couldn’t fall in, I wasn’t a good swimmer. My father never had the time to teach me and my mother hadn’t liked to get her hair wet.
‘Careful, you will have her over.’
‘Yes, I have called her The Copper Queen.’
I turned to face the boy again, but as I moved, the raft listed to one side, unbalancing me. I hopped on one foot across the deck, and then with the grace of a new-born foal, I fell into the shallows. Little flashes of gold surrounded me. Batting them away, I stood up in the knee-deep water. ‘For fuck’s sake.’ The water was as frigid as the morning air.
Burn stepped onto his Queen and she remained steady. ‘I was born on a raft like this.’ He reached out a long hand and dragged me aboard. ‘I grew up on the Copper River.’
‘How interesting.’ I sat on a barrel, took off my sneakers, tipped out the water, and glowered at my new transport. Burn’s people were obsessed with living on or over water. The Copper River was a big deal to the people who lived in the Fire Glade. It was their road, their larder and one of their gods. I, on the other hand, hated it—the roar of the water scared me and the colour was worrying. I’d insisted on boiling my drinking water three times over. I heaved a sigh.
Stacked on the deck under the canvas tent were a bundle of furs, six wooden crates, and two honey barrels for seats. Heaped at my feet was a leather bag containing what I presumed to be Burn’s personal items and my own rucksack—a top of the range Silverstrak with built-in music player.
Humming an out-of-key tune, Burn gestured towards his village. ‘Are you ready?’
Turning around, I glared at my father. This was entirely his fault—the raft, the annoying native boy, and the backwards planet. He was standing on the walkway of his crannog, fingers gripping the rail and towering above Naylor, the tribal elder. I liked Naylor; he had been kind to me during my stay in the Fire Glade and was one of the few people who’d even talk to the strange alien boy. He had a naughty sense of humour, which I loved, and many partners, which he loved. I had a feeling that most of the kids in the Glade were Naylor’s.
Behind them, the scientific team stood in a huddled group. I knew they were desperate to get on with their studies and were only there to see me off through duty to my father. They never hid the fact that they didn’t like me, referring to me in whispers as Herb’s spoilt son.
My father’s face was weathered and set in a permanent frown, and with his hunched posture, his whole body language said ‘disappointed’. Nothing I did was good enough for him. I could get top grades in all my subjects at college but he’d grill me endlessly about the only subject I didn’t excel in—science. Of course, this was his field of expertise, Herb Kemp the renowned scientist and now famous explorer.
Discovering Abaytor had consumed him. He’d wanted me, his only child, to see what he saw and feel what he felt. Dragging me along on this trip was the result. He said it would be good for us, we could spend quality time together—but he was always too busy. To settle this we were supposed to work together as father and son. I use the word ‘work’ loosely because I ended up spending most of my days under the shade of the cinnamon trees, holding the odd clipboard. My father’s team hadn’t trusted me with anything else. Neither had he.
For my father’s sake, James, the ecologist and bad-tempered one, had tried with me. One day he’d handed me a white plastic tray and an orange net on a long metal pole. ‘Get me some samples,’ he’d grumbled. He had no awareness of niceties. Maybe, over time, they’d been knocked out of him. It was clear he didn’t like me and considered me a waste of space, but that was okay because the feelings were mutual.
I turned the tray over in my hand and stared at him through the net. ‘What samples?’
‘For fuck’s sake, Ed: river life.’
‘River life?’ I repeated.
‘Small fish, insects, larva, that kind of thing, I’m particularly interested to see if there are any river boatman.’
‘River boatman?’ I was beginning to annoy even myself.
He’d clunked the clipboard against his forehead and said, ‘Just waggle the net around in the water, put the findings in the tray, and bring it back.’
I’d felt about three years old as I sulked towards the water’s edge. Within minutes, I’d lost the net. The current was stronger than it looked and had whipped it out of my hand. I put the tray down and tip-toed away hoping James wasn’t looking.
Another one to try with me was Blossom. She was the biologist and her main job was studying the bees. I thought she had a very apt name. She was fresh-faced, bouncy in all the right places, and laughed a lot. I liked her. She didn’t like me.
I had to watch the bees and catalogue the most frequently visited plants, the time of the day, stuff like that. She said I could even sketch the flowers if I wanted. I didn’t want. I fell asleep within the first half an hour of my watch and she never spoke to me again. It wasn’t my fault. The bed in the crannog was lumpy and the never-ending sound of the water made me want to pee all the time.
The problem was, simply put, that I didn’t feel what my father felt. In fact, I didn’t give a fuck about the planet with its backwards and frankly sex obsessed natives and total lack of creature comforts.
My father waved once in farewell. I ignored him, tilted my head back, and rolled my neck in a vain attempt to banish the residue of last night’s dream. My head hurt and the annoying native boy’s humming added to the symphony of pain.
‘Wave goodbye, Ed-ward.’ Burn’s voice rang with merriment as he rammed his push pole into the sandy bank and heaved the Copper Queen into the twisting flow of the river. The raft jolted. I tumbled off the barrel, sprawled at Burn’s feet and looked up into his stupid grinning face. He flashed his eyebrows and laughed. I so wanted to punch him, but I couldn’t get off this hellhole of a planet without him.
I stood and my legs felt like pistons on the twisting deck. I looked back towards the Fire Glade. The sun was creeping up behind the Mountain of Bones, throwing long bronze reflections across the river’s surface. For a second, I forgot about the annoying boy and saw the beauty my father had talked about my whole childhood. A tiny stab of regret prompted me to wave goodbye but he’d already turned towards the crannog. He entered the dwelling and never gave the river, or me, a second glance. Maybe, the famous explorer Herb Kemp was glad to be free of his problem, the embarrassing son. I was no chip off the old block.
Burn steered towards the calmer waters at the edge of the river. My guide appeared to be around my age, perhaps younger. He had a wild look to him with large eyes, cheekbones sprayed with freckles and hair the colour of the river. Long limbed and scruffily dressed, like badly pegged washing, with a bow strung across his narrow frame and an intricate pendant swinging from his neck. I assumed that all the furs in the tent must be the result of his hunting skills.
‘Do you like what you see?’ Burn winked.
‘For God’s sake.’ I curled my fists—fighting was always my go-to reaction. Everyone in the Fire Glade appeared to be bedding everyone else. If the bloody native thought he could try it on with me then he had another think coming. I don’t do, and never will do, boys.
A look crossed Burn’s face as he showed me his open palms. ‘Lighten up, Ed.’
‘It’s Ed-ward.’ I sagged and gestured across the horizon. ‘What do you do on Abaytor? Why is it called that anyway?’
‘Abaytor means second in our language, so that was the word your father chose. We call it Heras.’
Typical. Earthlings conquer and rename whether it’s a tiny island in the middle of the ocean or a whole bloody planet.
Burn jabbed the pole into a shallow reed bed and shoved in the opposite direction. ‘I look after the bees. The ones your father and his companions have come to study.’
‘A beekeeper?’ I gave Burn a pitying look. He clearly didn’t aim high up the career ladder. I, on the other hand, was after the job of my father’s best friend—chief executive officer of the Westcoast Bank.
‘Well, I suppose. They are rare gold-tipped bees only found in the Mountain of Bones. Their honey has healing qualities not found anywhere else on Abaytor or—’
Zoning out, I stared at my wet feet. I missed my friends; they’d agree with me that my situation was pants and I had every right to complain. And my bloody mobile wouldn’t work; this God-forsaken planet hadn’t invented the radio yet, never-mind the telephone.
‘What do you do, Ed, when you are not accompanying your father on his trips?’
I ignored him.
Good God, the boy was persistent. ‘I don’t do anything and I don’t make a habit of accompanying him.’
‘What is it like having a famous father? I understand he is well known on your planet.’
Fighting an urge to push Burn overboard, I said, ‘It’s just peachy,’ before muttering, ‘My father’s not paying you to ask questions, just to take me to the Landing Plains.’
‘Your father is not paying me at all.’
‘You’re doing this for free? You’re mad.’ Never do anything for nothing, is what my father taught me. Oh, and never let your left hand know what your right is doing. I still don’t know what that means.
‘Having now made your acquaintance, I think I probably am mad.’ Burn smiled and rammed the pole into a nearby bank.
‘Why do you speak without using contractions?’
Why the hell did I ask that question? I was in no mood for conversation. I sighed and said, ‘You say do not instead of don’t or I am instead of I’m.’
‘I have never heard of don’t or I’m but I understand when you use them.’
Unwilling to continue the conversation, I turned my attention towards the river. The raft had increased its pace in the tumbling flow. I shoved my fingers under the rim of a barrel. Not that it made much difference to my stability.
The landscape changed around us. The mountains shrank from imposing and sharp into forest-covered hummocks and by the side of the river stood gnarly barked trees with umbrella canopies that cast creepy shadows. A dank smell filled my nostrils and there was a metal taste in the air.
I looked at my watch. It said eleven but that meant nothing. Abaytorian’s had no concept of time. It was so annoying. I liked the routine of lunchtime, teatime, or even bedtime.
‘There is a waterstorm coming. If we are lucky we will make the shelter of the Dragon Trees.’ Burn’s arms swung in a wide arc as he wielded the pole. Fucking water again, if I’m not sleeping over it, or floating on it, I’m drenched by it.
Within half an hour, the sky turned from violet to charcoal and icy rain hit the raft with a loud plipping noise. I shivered and dived for the cover of the tent. Sitting cross-legged on a fur, I spied Burn through a crack in the canvas. Streams of water plastered his hair to his face and traced across his cheeks. The wind turned the river into an angry snake, making the Copper Queen pitch and yaw.
‘Hang on,’ Burn shouted as the logs squealed and the raft reared. Out of control, I slithered under the canvas and past a wide-eyed kneeling Burn. Seconds later, I once again found myself in the copper water. But this time it wasn’t the shallows and this time I was afraid.
The cold hit me first; it stole my breath and froze my limbs. I span in the water—rotating so fast that the raft was in view one second, then out of it the next. The river crashed around me, water filled my nose, and my heart moved from my chest and into my throat. By flapping my arms like a bird and pumping my legs as if I were climbing stairs, I managed to keep my head above the surface. Why hadn’t my father taken the time to teach me to fucking swim properly? Now I was going to die in a river on another planet and it would be totally his fault.
‘Edward, EDWARD.’ Burn’s shouts hung above me.
Pushing my legs against the current kept my body in one position until the raft came into sight again. Burn was leaning over, aiming the push pole towards me. I lunged for it, forced my fingers around the end, and kicked the water as he heaved me in.
I sprawled across the deck with my designer clothes soaked and my hair feeling like a crow’s nest. ‘Oh, I would give anything for a helicopter right now. Why hasn’t this backward planet invented flight?’
Burn dropped to his knees by my side. He brought his face level with mine; I could smell something like lavender and feel his warm breath on my cheek, and whispered, ‘Do you think you could stay on board for the rest of the trip?’
I punched the boy hard on the shoulder.
That evening we moored in a rocky inlet. I was wet and cold and Burn’s shuffling around the raft was getting on my nerves. He prised open a random crate. I’m sure he’d forgotten what was in any of the six crates that cluttered our living space. In the days before our departure, I’d watched him build the raft with the enthusiasm of a prisoner building an escape tunnel. He’d loaded and unloaded the crates many times before finally deciding on what we needed for the trip. I never offered to help.
He upturned a crate and a grin spread on his freckly face as the contents spilled across the deck. I was hoping for supper; something like stuffed crust pepperoni pizza would have been welcome. Clearly, it wasn’t Chicago Town’s finest. Burn picked up some kind of dried meat strips tied together with twine, and a jar of red jelly that I hoped to God was jam. He unwrapped a cloth bundle to reveal what resembled budgie seed. Then he unpeeled another filthy package to uncover shrivelled fungi of various sizes. He swept his hand across the witches’ pantry. ‘Supper,’ he proclaimed.
Dropping my head back, I groaned. I was either going to be drowned or starve to death before I reached the Landing Plains.
I awoke the next morning to a noise that sounded like half-snoring and half-banging. At first I thought it was Burn but he was gutting fish over the side of the raft. ‘What’s that noise?’
‘A white-eyed beater.’
‘No. White. Their eyes contain so little pigment they are practically blind. Drumming their beaks on objects and reading the vibrations is the way they see.’
‘Oh.’ I didn’t know what to do with that information.
‘Did you sleep okay?’
‘No. The logs stuck in my back, the furs were too prickly, and I don’t believe you could lie still if your life depended on it.’ My body felt eighty years old as I crawled out of the tent.
‘You will get used to it.’ Burn slung the fish guts into the copper water and they hit the surface with a sickening slap.
I had no intention of getting used to anything.
Burn passed me a wooden bowl with slivers of raw fish and leaves the colour of vomit.
He proffered the food again. ‘You’ll need your strength today.’
‘You will see.’
I didn’t take the bowl.
Standing on a ledge with red dust coating my bare feet, a wave of nausea swept over me. I closed one eye to block out the broiling mass of rapids in front of me and shouted above the thundering water. ‘Are you sure there’s no other way around?’
‘Quite,’ Burn yelled back.
A fat fly buzzed my nose. I batted it away and peered over my toes towards the river. A deep-sided canyon shaped like an egg timer forced the river to buck. The copper water had changed to dark brown with cream tips and twisted around huge boulders like a bubbling cauldron of frothy coffee. A white vapour hanging high above the surface smelt like wet earth.
‘It is known as the Fifteen Flow Chasm,’ Burn offered.
‘It is our unit of measuring moving water.’
‘So don’t tell me, we’re fifteen flows down the river—how inventive.’ I scrubbed a hand across my face, spun on my heels, knotted my fingers behind my back, and paced a trail into the dust. That was until I realised I was mirroring my father. He paced when he had a problem to sort. I stopped. As a child, I would try to catch my father’s attention. I would be eager to tell him about the robot I’d built or my marks at school. He would bat me away like a fly—a simple flick of the wrist from him left a deep wound in me.
‘Why don’t we carry the raft over land?’
‘The raft is too heavy. The two of us could not carry it through this terrain.’ Burn waved across the undulating rock-strewn land.
‘Okay, you take the raft, I’ll walk round.’
Burn’s shoulders slumped. ‘I would not make it alone.’
I shook my head. ‘Okay, so what do we do?’
‘What is it your people say—on a wing and a prayer?’
‘I will die.’
‘If the gods are with us, it is not today.’
‘Yes, the god of the Rivers, and the god of Luck.’
‘Right.’ I rolled my eyes.
Burn caught the gesture. ‘You do not have gods?’
‘Yes, but that’s a completely different kettle of fish.’
I stalked off.
Secured on a small beach, the raft looked woefully inadequate for what we were about to undertake. We set about tying down everything that moved and Burn fastened two rope loops onto the front of the raft.
‘Don’t tell me, they’re for me to hold onto,’ I said and prodded them with my toe.
‘No, they are to put your feet in. I require you to paddle.’ Burn handed me a crude wooden oar.
‘And you will be?’
‘Standing at the back with the pole; I will use it to steer. Are you ready?’
‘Do you want to go home?’
I’d never even seen a rapid before, never mind ridden one. Ramming my feet into the loops, I gripped the oar as if my life depended on it. I stared the beast in the face and felt like a sacrificial offering.
Burn shoved off and yelled, ‘Here we go—’
‘Into the arse end of Hell,’ I finished.
At first, the Copper Queen was stable but a sudden lurch pushed a cold fear up my spine and tightened my muscles.
‘PADDLE,’ Burn shouted from the back.
Sticking my oar in, I strived to sweep through the water. It was hopeless. The oar spent a few seconds being useful and the rest of the time flailing in the air.
‘I am fucking PADDLING.’ I glanced back. Burn was using his pole to push off boulders that threatened the raft. His hair dripped from the mist and tendons were standing proud on his scrawny neck. I knelt, stuffed my ankles into the loops and facing backwards, I struck the oar into the copper water, and swept.
‘Edward, you are paddling backwards,’ Burn bellowed above the roar of the river.
Backwards, forwards, it was all the same. I changed direction.
The raft heaved to the left. I leaned to the right. The front lifted above a surge of white water, and for a second, we were airborne. My stomach flipped before we plunged into a depression between the waves. The jolt vibrated through me like a hammer striking a bell. ‘HOLY COW.’ We slammed into another wave. I lunged forward and clamped my hands on the edge of the deck. There was no way I was going back into the water.
The Copper Queen screeched as her logs jostled for freedom. A deluge of water swallowed me, and for a moment, I could have been anywhere. No up. No down. No time. No space. A few seconds of tranquillity before Burn screamed. Shaking the water from my eyes, I whirled round. He was gone. I searched the twisting waters, squeezing my eyes to focus and spinning my head in frantic movements. Nothing. My body tightened. He was fucking irritating but I was painfully aware I wouldn’t survive the trip without him.
Panting, I shifted around, dug the oar in, and pulled. And pulled. With my heart knocking hard as flint against stone I rode the Copper Queen through the twisting flow. Chucking my weight around allowed me to steer her around the larger boulders—but most of the time I just held on. The raft rode high like a piece of driftwood and the path she chose turned out to be the best. In the future, I would put down the oar and let the Copper Queen guide me.
The river calmed as quickly as it angered. I silently thanked God—any god and stood up. Planting my feet on the deck and shielding my eyes from the sun, I scanned the water’s edge and searched for Burn. My stomach rolled over. I had to find him.
His hair, still bright even though its owner was in the shadows of a rocky overhang, called to me like a distress beacon. With pole in hand, Burn waved and I expelled a long sigh. I was an only child with an absent father, I’d spent a lot of time in my own company and I didn’t like it. A part of me was glad I didn’t have to do this trip alone.
‘Are your herd animals holy?’ Burn said as he hopped on board.
‘Back there in the rapids you shouted holy cow. Is that a god?’
I gritted my teeth and considered knocking him back into the water. ‘You are completely mad. No.’
Burn examined me with his steady eyes then heaved off from the bank. ‘You did okay.’
He coaxed the Copper Queen into a shale inlet under the shelter of a Dragon tree. Around us, the rusty-red walls curved in like an amphitheatre of rock leaving little room for the sky. The river was calmer here but still rumbled in protest as it bullied past. We surveyed the damage. Everything was soaking but still attached.
‘We have the gods to thank for that.’
There were no gods involved. It was sheer luck. I lay drying out in a narrow slice of sunlight. Should I have stayed with my maddening father and the stupid bees? My life wasn’t in danger sitting under a tree in the Fire Glade. Maybe I could have just put my head down and got on with it?
I let my eyes wander past the high lip of the gorge. Little white puffs hung in a wedge of violet sky; it reminded me of a scarf my mother used to wear—she called it her seaside scarf because she’d worn it once on a rare family outing to the coast. We’d had homemade cheese scones and jam and my mother chided my father when he said jam only went with fruit scones.
She had just collapsed, they said, on her way to the Women’s fellowship. She had been scheduled to talk on coping with fame in middle age. She had complained about headaches for a couple of months. Migraines the doctors had told her. Brain tumour it turned out to be.
The fame that came to our family affected us all in different ways. My mother relished her new ‘wife of the famous explorer, Herb’ status. She stood taller. She spoke posher. She forgot about her only child.
Despite this, I still missed her.
Burn, humming a little tune, settled next to me causing me to tense as he shuffled up. I’d never liked people in my space. A soggy knee jammed into my side. I closed my eyes and hoped that the river, the raft, and the boy would just go away. When I opened them again, they were all still there. I pushed the knee back towards its owner. ‘You’re so annoying. Has anyone told you that?’
‘Yes. Many times.’
A silence fell between us as the river slurped at the Queen.