Water Truths

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
janra


Bell ducked around the corner, and held his breath. Nothing followed him, and he giggled into his hand in relief. He peeked around the corner, saw that it was clear, and hurried down the next corridor.

All the hoodads—hoonans, he corrected himself; they talked through their noses as well as their mouths—seemed to be busy in their little rooms, behind the rows of closed doors. He paused at another intersection and eased one eye around the corner.

A whiff of water and growing things tickled his nose, reminding him how horribly dry the hoonans kept their station. He turned down the corridor, hoping to find the source of the water scent, but it disappeared.

He had left his apartment because he was bored. There was nobody to play with here other than his two siblings; because his mother was the diplomat on assignment to this hoonan station, they were the only Rioh around. Since they got here, he’d only seen a few hoonans, and they only wanted to take his mother away for hours on end. It was terribly important, but Bell wished it weren’t so boring.

The water smell came back, and Bell looked around to try and choose a direction—and realised he was lost. He hugged himself nervously, squeezing his shoulders.

When lost, stay still.

Bell followed the scent of water down another corridor, still hiding from the hoonans. He heard a door hiss open, and the heavenly smell of open water and growing plants suddenly got stronger. He peeked, and saw two hoonans walking away from an open door framing a garden. As soon as it was clear, he jogged toward the door. It swished open, letting him duck through and around a bush. Hoonans of all sizes were walking, running, and sitting in the cleared areas.

Bell edged away from the open path, trying to find the open water and stay away from the hoonans at the same time.

There!

Not a huge pond, but bigger than that puddle they had in their apartment. A cleared, packed area circled the pond, but one corner had reeds growing tall, and near there, a tree hung out over the pond. He worked his way around, then dashed across the path and into the reeds.

With barely a ripple, he slipped underwater, leaving only his eyes and nose at the surface. He pushed away from the pond edge and stretched his feet behind him. He glided to the edge of the reeds, and looked out at the garden.

Bell closed his nostrils and submerged completely, then swam as fast as he could around the pond. Finally, he could stretch and swim properly. He hit a wall after only two kicks in the puddle in their apartment.

Three quick splashes interrupted his race. Two. Three again. Four.

Bell surfaced in the reeds, and looked around. A small hoonan was throwing something into the pond, and watching as it bounced across the surface before sinking. He glided to the edge of the reeds, and watched, fascinated by the quick and flexible arm movements. One object bounced six times in a curve that brought it in front of Bell, and he saw that it was a small flat rock.

The next rock didn’t bounce at all, but sank immediately. Bell looked at the hoonan to see why it had thrown so badly. It was staring straight at him.

Bell ducked underwater immediately, then reconsidered. Hoonans couldn’t swim, so he was safe where he was. He resurfaced, and looked at the small hoonan again. It was still staring at him, and its mouth pulled back, showing its flat teeth. According to his mother, that meant it was happy about something. Hoonans couldn’t swim, Bell reminded himself, and slowly glided across the pond, stopping at a distance he judged twice what the hoonan could reach.

They stared at each other curiously.

“Hi, I’m Jeff,” the hoonan said, and sat down.

Bell hesitated, then lifted his head out of the water. “My nane is Bell. How do you do?” he recited, as the language teacher had taught him.

The hoonan showed its teeth again. “You *are* a Rioh, aren’t you? I didn’t think they’d brought any seals here.”

Bell digested what the hoonan—what Jeff—had said. It talked differently than the language teacher, and faster. “What is a seal?”

Jeff looked to the side, exactly like an embarrassed Rioh. “A seal is an Earth animal that lives in the ocean. I’ve only seen pictures. I just thought that the pictures of Rioh I’ve seen looked like seals.”

They stared at each other for a while, in an uncomfortable silence. Jeff fidgeted with a handful of flat rocks.

“Why do you stay out in the middle of the pond?” it blurted. “I thought Rioh could walk fine.”

“To be safe. Hoonans are fast walkers, but can’t swin.”

“We can too swim!” Jeff jumped to its feet and pulled its clothes off, stopping when it was wearing only short pants, which had been hidden under its long pants. It jumped into the pond and walked toward Bell, who backed away.

Jeff could swim! Bell watched him do a slow, splashy lap of the pond.

“See? Told you I could swim. Want to race?” Jeff held his place in the water, thrashing his arms just under the surface.

“No space to race.”

“To the reeds and back?”

“Yes, a short race.” A very short race, Bell thought.

“Ok—ready—set—go!” It gulped air, then started thrashing towards the reeds.

Bell glided past it, reached the reeds, and returned to their starting point to wait for Jeff, before Jeff had even reached the reeds. Jeff finally turned, then stopped when it saw Bell already at the finish.

“Done already?”

“Yes. Hoonans can swin, but slow.”

“Well, how fast can you swim?”

Bell ducked underwater and swam to surface near Jeff, just outside its reach.

“Wow! I wish I could swim that fast. That was only two seconds!”

“Hoonans walk faster, Rioh swin faster.”

“I guess. Um—” Jeff looked down at the water. “Could you pull me? It would be really cool to go that fast.”

Bell sorted out the sentences. “You are not hurt.”

“What? Of course I’m not hurt.”

“Rioh pulls hurt Rioh—not hurt Rioh swins alone.”

“But I’m not Rioh. Can’t it be like a game? You know, just for fun?”

Bell hesitated. Everything his mother had taught him said to not allow a hoonan to grab hold, because they were very strong and dangerous—that’s why he was supposed to stay in the apartment with his siblings. But she had also taught him that hoonans couldn’t swim, and that they were very competitive and always had to win. Jeff had proved two of three wrong so far.

“Yes, I can pull you.” Bell glided closer.

“Great!” Jeff showed its teeth again, and reached out.

It grabbed Bell’s shoulder, wrapping its long spindly fingers almost all the way around Bell’s upper arm. The strength of the grip made Bell want to escape, but he reminded himself that Jeff just wanted to play. Jeff held Bell’s other arm the same way, and folded its arms to pull itself flat along Bell’s back.

Bell started moving slowly around the pond. Jeff’s hands tightened to the point of discomfort but not quite to pain. Bell sped up, and heard Jeff laugh—it sounded oddly like his own excited giggle. They did a full lap before Bell was swimming as fast as he could, and he started on a second. A small wave from his wake splashed over his face, and his nostrils automatically closed.

Jeff’s hands clamped painfully tight, and it started convulsing. Bell stopped immediately, his momentum and his wake keeping them moving forward.

“Jeff?” Bell tried to turn, and Jeff turned with him.

Jeff let go with one hand and grabbed its ribs, coughing again. Bell turned, rolled, slid under Jeff. He rolled Jeff onto its back, and lifted its shoulders.

“M’ok,” Jeff gasped between coughs. “Just sw— swallowed some water.”

“Jeff?” a hoonan yelled from the path. “Jeff? Are you ok? Jeff?”

Jeff coughed again. “M’ok, Mom.” He continued, more quietly. “Oh damn,” —cough— “She’s going to” —cough— “to think I’m dying.”

“You will not die?” Bell asked.

“No.” Jeff showed his teeth, then coughed again.

Bell started towing Jeff slowly, on its back, toward its mother and the shore. As they reached the shallows and Bell was helping the still-coughing Jeff to stand, two hoonans wearing security guard clothing ran up. One said something to its radio; all Bell heard was “Rioh.”

When Jeff stood on its own and started walking out of the pond, Bell backed up a few steps. What was the respectful address for a hoonan female? “Nissus Jeff’s Non—please—Jeff says it won’t die.”

Jeff started laughing, then coughing, and sat down on the path.

“Let’s get you home and dry,” Jeff’s mom said, ignoring Bell.

“No, Mom, I’m ok. I just swallowed some water by accident.” It pulled its arm away, and tried to stay seated.

“You’re coming home. Who knows what that Rioh was thinking.”

Bell sank into the water and started backing away. Maybe Jeff had proved his mother wrong because Jeff was different.

“Mom, it wasn’t Bell’s fault! It was my idea!” Jeff stood up, pulled its arm free, and ran back into the pond.

“Jeff!” its mother yelled.

Another group of security hoonans walked in, escorting Bell’s mother, in full diplomatic dress.

“Oh, no,” Bell said, reverting to his own language and sinking below the surface.

Jeff’s hand on his arm pulled him back up, and he met his mother’s glare.

“Bell, come here right now!”

Bell kicked himself forward, gliding toward shore again, and pulling Jeff, who still held his arm.

“What were you doing, Bell? Who knows what that hoonan was thinking!”

Bell opened his mouth to reply, then shut it again as his mother’s tirade continued. He and Jeff stood on the edge of the pond, dripping in silence as their respective mothers scolded them.

Translated, Jeff’s mother had said exactly the same thing as his mother just had. Bell glanced sidelong at Jeff, trying to figure out how to tell it this while keeping his head down so his mother didn’t see. Jeff met his eyes, then pulled back its mouth to show its teeth. “Tomorrow?” it mouthed, exaggerating the movements. Bell showed his teeth, mimicking Jeff’s smile. “Tonorrow,” he mouthed in reply.

pencil

janra can be reached at janra[at]write-on.homeip.net.

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