The Waterwood Box, 32

Catch up!

The Admiral turned to another urchin on the bench. “Commander, instruct the pilots to bear us toward Tiskaloo. We shall inquire about the disturbance and return this lost creature to his miserable home.”  The Commander’s spikes shook and the urchin rolled off the bench to squeak the Admiral’s orders to a nearby urchin. This urchin then rolled a ways and squeaked orders to another urchin. This process continued until the orders found the pilots’ ears and the manta ray glided off in the direction of the water-folk city, Tiskaloo.

Adam tried to stay as quiet as possible and thankfully, the Admiral didn’t press him much. Other matters aboard the manta required Admiral Pinch’s attention, which meant that Adam sat alone, half-reclined on one of the benches. The manta’s slow, gliding movement through the water kept him pushed back into the bench. Had he the desire, Adam could have easily got up and swam around but for now he simply enjoyed a moment’s quiet. He was frightened and surrounded everywhere by urchins, but the lazy way the manta moved relaxed him enough that he fell asleep.

Adam dreamed he was home. It was a Saturday. He was in his bed. Outside, his father mowed the back lawn and something smelled delicious downstairs. He got out of bed and looked through one of his windows. Sure enough, there was Mr. Might pushing the mower and bobbing his head to the beat of whatever music played through the portable CD player that Adam always teased him about.  Adam paused, sniffed the air, then turned his head to get a stronger sense of the smell. Pancakes.

He bolted from his bedroom still in his pajamas, practically slid down the stairs and almost slipped on the last step. The smell of pancakes filled the air. Adam’s mouth watered.

The Waterwood Box, 32

The Waterwood Box, 31

Catch up!

“So, Adam water-man. How did you wind up lost and stuck within that dreadful school of fish and, as long as you’re answering, however did you wind up without blue hair?” asked Admiral Pinch as he rolled along the manta’s spine. Adam followed close behind him. He remembered Spot’s advice: Don’t talk too much.

“I’m not sure,” he offered, more so confused by the question of the blue hair than anything else.

“Not sure?” the Admiral huffed. “You are either the most humble or the most ignorant water-man I’ve ever met.”

“I mean, I can’t remember. Anything.”

“Pity, pity. Well, maybe not all pity. If you were to remember everything I doubt we would be having this conversation.”

“Why is that?”

Admiral Pinch stopped rolling and said, “Because urchins hate water-folk.” He continued rolling, “And they hate us right back.” Adam didn’t say a word.

Adam and Admiral Pinch arrived at the middle of the manta’s back where the urchins had attached several, long benches shaped liked sofas. The furniture was pinned into the manta and it looked painful. The Admiral rolled up to one and hopped onto it. “It’s really King Altern who detests the water-folk. But, what the King detests we detest. The water-folk do not listen and they do not obey. They live in their little city and make up their own rules of civilization. Ahh…much like their forebears, the humans did, or so the old tales caution.”

At this, Adam wanted to cry out, Did?! Are there no more humans? What happened to them?

“But this is elementary. I gather you don’t recall Ocean history either?”

“No, sir.”

“Sir,” Admiral Pinch repeated. “That, water-man, is why I offered to take you home. You, unlike the rest of your kind, have respect for authority. Had you displayed the impudence typical of your kind…I would have fed you to the manta.”

The Waterwood Box, 31

The Waterwood Box, 30

Catch up!

“Speak up, lost water-man.”

“Go on, Adam. You’ll be OK. I’ll follow you.” That was Spot’s voice.

“No, Spot. I don’t want to.”

“You have to, Adam. To refuse is to doom us all. They’ll kill us. You can’t refuse. You just can’t. Swim up to the Admiral. They’ll take you to Tiskaloo, where the water-folk live. Try not to talk too much and you’ll be OK.”

“What’s going on down there?” called Admiral Pinch. “Water-man, come on. Let’s get you back home.” Sarcasm soaked his voice.

Adam swam out of the formation and up to meet the Admiral. “Hello, sir.”

Admiral Pinch’s spikes contorted and twitched. He called to the mass of urchins behind him, “He calls me ‘sir.’ Here is a water-man who knows his place.” The other urchins squeaked their approval. “Lost water-man, what do your people call you?”

“Adam.”

“Well, Adam,” the spikes twitched again. Adam gathered that this twitching was how urchins giggled. “Shall we make for Tiskaloo?” He squeaked and twitched, clearly delighted.

“Yes, sir,” Adam said.

“To Tiskaloo!” yelled the Admiral. “Let’s get this liquid lung home. One so obedient must surely be missed.” The Admiral barked his urchin orders to the pilots at the manta’s mouth. The four urchins pulled back hard on the harnesses and the manta slowly backed up. One pair of pilots eased up on their harnesses and the manta began to turn. Adam watched the pilots on the fins as they manipulated their part of the manta. He looked back at the school, still floating in their diamond formation. Just before he turned away Adam noticed a tiny, black and blue spot of color spurt out of the formation. He followed the spot until it disappeared underneath him. Adam looked at his surroundings. Hundreds upon hundreds of urchins. Hundreds of urchins and a lost, young man pretending to be something he was not.

The Waterwood Box, 30

The Waterwood Box, 29

Catch up!

The urchin’s spikes bristled and it squeaked out sharp and loud. The manta turned hard to the right in a slow, wide arc. It stopped right behind where Adam floated in formation. “Don’t turn around unless you’re spoken to,” whispered the fish in front of him. Adam didn’t have to respond. He was scared speechless. Adam guessed that the Admiral was making his way to the front of the manta. He guessed right. Admiral Pinch’s voice rang out behind him: “Water-man, what are you doing with school 32042?”

No one answered the Admiral’s question. “Water-man?” the Admiral repeated.

“Turn around, Adam,” whispered Adam’s neighbor. “He thinks you’re water-folk.”

Adam knew that if the Admiral thought he was water-folk than he needed to look and act like water-folk. Trouble was, he’d never met water-folk. How do water-folk act? How do they talk? He gently rotated his body around to float face-to-face with the massive, gaping mouth of the manta, ready to swallow up the entire school in one thirsty gulp! Admiral Pinch stood high above the school, on the tip of the manta’s upper lip.

“I was lost…” Adam stammered.

“What?” squawked the Admiral.

“I was lost…and the Diamond Fins stopped to help me,” Adam yelled.

“Lost?” Admiral Pinch squeaked something to the urchins next to him and soon the water filled with a chittering, squeaky chorus. “A water-man lost? Is this a joke?” Admiral Pinch’s voice almost burst with laughter. “Well, lost water-man. Would you like for us to take you home?” The squeaks of the other urchins irritated Adam’s ears. They were laughing at him.

“No, sir. I’ll be fine. Thank you.”

The squeaks suddenly stopped. Admiral Pinch focused down on Adam. “What’s that you say?”

Adam heard from behind him, “You have to go with them, Adam. You are not allowed to refuse an Army escort.”

“No way,” Adam said. “No way, no way, no way.”

The Waterwood Box, 29

The Waterwood Box, 28

Catch up!

“We’ve seen nothing, Admiral. Our school has been on retreat in these waters for two weeks and has encountered nothing but jellyfish and the occasional whale,” replied one fish.

“A non-Ocean cry? A bird?” questioned another fish.

“We suspect the cry may be…human,” squealed Admiral Pinch and, at the word “human”, all the urchins on the manta squawked their disapproval.

Adam shifted around in the back of the group. He was doing his best to stay invisible. Although he knew nothing about the urchins other than what Spot had said, he most certainly didn’t like the looks of them. The thought of getting caught and taken away by this collection of spiky squeakers frightened him immensely. When none of the fish responded to the Admiral’s charge, he continued: “Very well. I trust if you see anything out of the ordinary, human or otherwise, you’ll report it immediately?”

“Absolutely, Admiral. May the King have many wet years.”

“May the King stay wet indeed, Diamond Fin. Carry on.” Admiral Pinch rolled back from the fin’s edge and the other two urchins followed him. He squealed something loud and unintelligible and the urchins filled in the path they’d earlier cleared. Another two, high-pitched orders and the manta lurched forward.

Adam let out a relieved breath. He hadn’t been caught. The manta continued to glide by him and the rest of the school, its great, lumbering fins flapped and forced funnels of water around and through the school. Strong as the gusts of currents were, however, they couldn’t break the school’s formation. The manta’s tail drew close to Adam. His eyes took in the many urchins sprawled out like parasites over the manta’s back. Without emotion, the urchins stared at the school while the manta carried them by. One particular urchin caught Adam’s eye and Adam should have turned away, but didn’t.

The Waterwood Box, 28

The Waterwood Box, 27

Catch up!

Like a lazy leaf falling from a tree, the manta circled down and down and down. “It’s beautiful,” Adam said.

“They’re the urchins’ beasts of burden. Mantas are easy to coerce so the urchins take advantage of them,” said a nearby fish.

As the manta continued its descent, Adam could see a number of harnesses hooked into the manta ray’s mouth and into the tips of its wing-like fins. Groups of small, spiky balls – urchins – steered the manta. They were wrapped by the loose ends of each harness. Four pairs for each fin and four pairs for each side of the manta’s mouth. Adam noticed that there were hundreds of urchins covering the creature’s broad back, a multitude of purple, red, and green spiky bundles. The urchins steered the manta up alongside the school of fish.

As the manta slowed and stopped, the urchins quickly rolled into a formation meant to clear a path. Sure enough, after the space cleared, three purple-spiked balls rolled out to the edge of the fin and faced the school. The urchin in the middle was a shade of purple lighter and more flamboyant than any of the other urchins that Adam could see. This bright urchin spoke in a bright, high-pitched squeak:

“Identification number?”

“Diamond Fin School, charter number 32042.”

“Very well, School 32042. I am Admiral Pinch of the Urchin Army. We are patrolling these waters in response to a registered sonic disturbance. A distinctly non-Ocean cry was picked up not more than two days ago and we are on a fact-finding mission for a formal report to King Altern. The King is not yet aware of the disturbance and will no doubt want all relevant data once informed of this news. Has your school been privy to anything…unusual?”

The Waterwood Box, 27

The Waterwood Box, 26

Catch up!

Eventually, the frenzied swimmers exhausted themselves. Adam and the rest of the school floated, dazed and recovering. A few fish began to swim again, asking about finding a Turtle or the possibility of land. Some asked about humans and if there were any left in Ocean.

Adam heard snippets of the conversation going on about him but he was so worn from swimming that he didn’t pay much mind to what was being said. He felt hopeful. He felt— “Urchins!” yelled a fish on the outer edge of the group.

The school snapped into a rough, diamond-shaped formation. The speed at which they grouped together into a single unit of black and blue amazed Adam. No way do I have energy left for that.

“Adam!” Spot barked. “Get into line. Quick!”

Adam, though tired, didn’t hesitate to swim up and over into the back of the diamond.
“Keep order, everyone,” a fish up front commanded. “Here they come.”

Adam looked around but didn’t see anything. What’s the fuss? he thought. Surely the school is able to out swim any urchins. The water above Adam began to darken. He looked up to see a giant manta ray swimming overhead. The manta’s wide, flat body blocked the sparse sunlight that filtered down through the water. “What is it?” Adam whispered.

“An Urchin Army patrol,” replied the fish in front of Adam. “They have to use mantas when they want to get this close to the surface.”

“Sshhh…” another fish whispered.The manta overhead stopped directly above the school then turned and began to drift in a downward spiral toward Adam and the school.

“Here they come, here they come. Order, order,” whispered several fish in unison.

The Waterwood Box, 26