Adventures of a cat whis.., p.8
Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl,
"This is fairly disgusting," Molly said.
"I told you," I said. "But it's tolerable for a short trip. How soon will we get to the island?" I asked Harold.
"Not long," Harold said. "Five, six hours, maybe."
"Kill me now," Molly said.
You Can Get Used to Anything, Almost
Harold was good at handling the boat. The big problem with a coracle is that you can't point it in a direction because it doesn't have a point. If you don't pay attention or stop working for a moment, it will just spin and bob, going nowhere. The Hudson has currents, and finally Harold found one—then all he had to do was steer, and the river carried us south at a pretty good clip. The boat didn't bounce and wobble as much.
It was a mild morning, and the view from the river was pretty. We stopped being nauseated and were almost comfortable, except when a barge or ship went past. Big oceangoing freighters and huge barges pushed by powerful tugboats go up and down the Hudson, and they look really very big when you see them from water level. When one of them passed us it was like looking up at a moving mountain. Then the ship would glide beyond us and the river would feel very smooth for a minute ... and then the water churned up by the ship's massive propellers would catch us. Wave after wave would shake us and cause the little boat to jump up and smack down again and again. It was a completely scary experience. Add to that, the ships would sound their horns when they saw us, and the noise made us temporarily deaf, so getting knocked around by the wake of the propellers would take place in silence.
"I may have miscalculated just a little," Harold said. "The trip may be longer than five or six hours."
Molly and I looked at each other.
"What happened to 'Harold have boat. Boat good. Harold good giant' and all that stuff?" Molly asked.
"Oh. Sorry. Harold make mistake. Trip take longer," Harold said.
"Forget the pidgin English," Molly said. "We know you can talk regular. Why the act?"
"Harold have inferiority complex," Harold began. "I mean, I ... I do it beause I'm short for a giant. Talking like that sort of jacks me up a little. It sounds more gianty."
"So you're educated?"
"I have a degree from Vassar College."
"I thought it was a girls' school."
"They take a few males. They need them in the Dance Department, and in my case the Anthropology Department wanted to study me."
"Is that what you studied, anthropology?"
"I majored in classical accountancy," Harold said.
"And Professor Tag was your teacher," I said. "That makes sense."
"My senior project was about double-entry bookkeeping in the age of Pericles," Harold said.
"What were you saying about miscalculating, speaking of people who are good with numbers?" Molly asked.
"Oh, yes, that," Harold said. "Remember when I said it would take five or six hours to get to the island?"
"Well, if that had been correct, we'd have arrived around noon. But I got mixed up. Comes of trying to figure in my head using roman numerals."
"And now that you've thought it over?"
"We'll get there more like midnight," Harold said.
"Oh, goodie! More time in this stinking coracle!"
"Well, I could put in at that little island over there and you could get out for a while and stretch your legs," Harold said. "Would you like me to do that?"
"I don't know about Audrey," Molly said. "But I was just thinking I would whack you with your own cudgel if you didn't."
On the Island
"I call dibs on going behind that bush first," Molly said.
"I'm next," I said.
"I'll start unpacking the lunch," Harold said.
It was a small, rocky island, not much bigger than an average backyard. There was a nice patch of soft grass with a few little trees around it, and there we sat and ate the sandwiches Chicken Nancy had packed—goat cheese on crusty bread with thin slices of sweet onion. There was also a bottle of lemonade, and some thick, crumbly sugar cookies. The sun warmed the grass, and we lay on our backs, shading our eyes with our hands.
"Remind me," I said to Molly. "Why are we making this trip?"
"Because Chicken Nancy wanted us to make it."
"But she never said why."
"She's wise. She's a wise woman. What's the point of knowing someone like that if you don't do what she tells you?"
"I always do what she tells me," Harold said. "Those old wise women can throw a mean curse if you make them mad."
"I don't think Chicken Nancy would curse anybody," I said. 133
"I take no chances," Harold said.
"But why did she send us?" I said. "That's what I would like to know."
"Well, obviously she thinks it's destiny, or maybe your destiny," Molly said.
"Maybe mine, but I think yours."
When we got back into the coracle, it didn't seem as horrible as it had before lunch. We were used to it. We'd gotten our sea legs, or more accurately our sea bottoms, since all we had to do was sit. Harold had equipped the boat with a couple of water bottles, so we could take a drink, and an umbrella, which we used to keep the sun off. The bouncing and rocking didn't bother us anymore, and we even dozed off at times and napped our way down the river.
Harold paddled like a true giant. He never seemed to get tired. But he did get hungry. So did we. "Time for supper!" he said, and turned the little boat in toward shore.
There were four or five old barges, huge things made of massive tarred timbers like squared-off tree trunks. They were tied together with hunks of thick rope, and partially beached on what looked like a mud flat. "This is where we can get something to eat," Harold said.
He tied up the coracle to the side of one of the hulking barges, and we scrambled up a ladder. Then we had to go from barge to barge on shaky plank walkways.
"These are old railway barges," Harold told us. "People bought them for one hundred dollars apiece when the railroad was through with them." 135
"What did they do with them?" I asked.
"They lived on them," Harold said. "Back during the Depression, when nobody had any money. There used to be a lot more of them—it was like a little town. Now just Pirate Pete lives here, and he runs a speakeasy and restaurant."
"What's a speakeasy?" Molly asked.
"At the time, the sale of alcohol was made illegal," Harold said. "So these illegal bars sprang up. Speakeasies, they were called. Pirate Pete's is probably the only one left, now that there is no more Prohibition law."
There was a sort of house built on Pirate Pete's barge, with a regular house roof, and windows, and a chimney with smoke coming out. We went inside and saw it was all one big room, with tables and chairs and a big bar, and there were clusters of green wine bottles with round bottoms hanging from the ceiling. Inside each wine bottle was a wire with a tiny light bulb. They cast a weird green light that made the whole place seem like it was under water. There was a big painting of a mermaid behind the bar, and there were fishnets with cork floats hanging on the walls. It was a neat place.
Pirate Pete was a little, greasy-looking guy with no hair, and no eyebrows, and I think he had no eye- " 136 " lashes. "Why, it's Harold the giant! Welcome to Pirate Pete's," he said.
"Harold hungry," Harold said, reverting to his giant-talk. "Girls hungry. We want food."
"I have smoked eel sandwiches and home-fried potatoes," Pirate Pete said. "Beer for the giant, and ginger ale for the girls."
"Bring food," Harold said. "Harold has money. Harold will pay."
There was a stack of smoked eels, looking stiff, on a platter on the bar. Big things, they had fierce faces, but they smelled sort of yummy. The smoked eel sandwiches were on big football-shaped rolls, freshly baked. I had never tasted smoked eel before. It was excellent, and the home-fried potatoes
"Pirate Pete catches the eels right here in the Hudson River," Harold told us. "And he smokes them himself. It's not the cleanest river, as you may have noticed—but just this once won't hurt us." Then to Pirate Pete he said, "Harold want more. Bring more eels. Bring more beer. Then bring apple pie and coffee."
The apple pie and coffee were even better than the eel sandwiches, and went well with the setting sun, which we watched through the windows.
"Okay! Enough eating! Here is money!" Harold paid Pirate Pete. "Now we go back on river."
"Come again," Pirate Pete said.
Making our way along the shaky gangplanks was even scarier now that it was almost dark. We climbed down the ladder into the coracle, and headed out into the river.
The river was quiet at night. There wasn't much traffic, and we passed a number of big freighters and barges at anchor. Most of the time, the only sound we heard was Harold's paddle hitting the water. Then there was a tremendous splash. "That's river sturgeon jumping," Harold told us. "They can get to be as long as fifteen feet, and weigh eight hundred pounds. They jump clear out of the water, and to answer the question forming in your minds, if one of them fell on the boat, it would probably be the end of us."
"Fifteen feet?" Molly asked.
"Well, not all of them get to be that big. There are sharks in the river too, from time to time."
"Sharks? In a river? Don't they prefer salt water?"
"The Hudson is what you call a riverine estuary," Harold said. "It's salty, or brackish, all the way up to Poughkeepsie, and it has tides, like the ocean."
There was another splash. It sounded close.
"How often do those sturgeon jump into boats?" I asked.
"It hardly ever happens," Harold said. "It has never happened in all my time on the river."
"How long has that been?"
"Let me see. I bought the coracle about a year ago, and then I had to spend some time fixing it up, so ... six months?"
Molly and I sat quietly. Harold paddled. After a while, he began to sing.
"Loudly the bell in the old tower rings,
Bidding us list to the warning it brings: Sailor take care,
Danger is near thee, beware, beware, beware,
Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep, so beware, beware.
Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep, so beware, beware."
"How jolly," I said.
"He has a nice voice for a giant," Molly said.
He started another song.
"Wasn't it sad when the great ship went down?
Wasn't it sad when the great ship went down?
Uncles and aunts, little children, lost their pants.
It was sad when that great ship went down."
The moon got high. It was almost full, and very bright. It cast a beautiful light on the river. Molly and I looked around, hoping to see a sturgeon jumping, preferably not too close, but it never happened.
"Look! You can see the castle!" Harold said.
Far down the river, we could see the moonlight glinting off something—it was hard to say if it was a castle. As we got closer, it did start to look like a castle, a weird, extra-fancy one with all kinds of turrets and towers and decorations. All the windows were dark, and it looked about twenty times spookier than Spookhuizen.
"That's it? That's where Chicken Nancy wants us to go?"
"No, we said we wanted to go," Molly said. "She said maybe we wanted to go, and we said we did."
"Right, and the night before, she went out while we were sleeping to hunt up a giant with a boat, and bring him home," I said.
"Don't let first impressions prejudice you," Harold said. "You may have a lot of fun there."
"Oh, I can see it's a million laughs," I said.
"You don't want me to row you all the way back without even looking it over, do you?" Harold asked.
"No, we'll take our chances," Molly said.
"Great," Harold said. "Because I am never going to make a trip this long in this crappy boat again."
"What? How did you plan to get us back?"
"Well, I figured when you were through on the island, I'd put you on a bus."
"Bus? What bus?"
"Right over there," Harold said, pointing to the shore. "You can catch a bus. It takes about half an hour to get to Poughkeepsie."
"Wait a minute! So we could have taken a bus down this far in half an hour?"
"Maybe forty minutes."
"And then just rowed out to the island? In a rented rowboat or something?"
"Well, yes, I suppose so. But then you would have missed the whole trip on the river," Harold said. "We have to stop talking now. These currents are really tricky, and I need to pay attention."
The currents were tricky. We shot right past the island.
"Drat!" Harold said. "This isn't easy. Now I have to turn the boat around."
Harold was struggling with his paddle. The coracle was trying to spin. Twice he almost managed to get us back to the island, and then the current got the better of him and carried us downriver.
"I think I have to go way over toward the other shore and sort of swing around and come up to the island on the west side," Harold said. "I never saw such crazy water."
It turns out that in addition to the castle, which was really just a warehouse for old cannons, gunpowder, army shoes, cooking pots, and swords and such, Mr. Bannerman had built a mansion to live in. When Harold finally managed to get close to the island, we saw it, and a big stone arch over the water, which he was able to paddle through. There was a sort of stone patio or dock right in front of the mansion with a set of steps leading up to it. Harold caught ahold of a big iron ring and held the coracle close to the steps.
"Okay, girls, up the steps you go," he said.
"Up the steps we do not go!" I said. "Do you see what is standing in front of the mansion?"
Standing in front of the mansion, on a sort of veranda lit by a couple of torches in iron brackets, were four or five monsters taking the air, their thumbs tucked into their waistbands! They all had fat bellies, and big heads, and a couple of them had horns; all but one had a wide mouth with lots of sharp little teeth, and the one that hadn't had a beak like a parrot's and feathers growing out of the top of its head. They all had big feet with claws. A couple of them were smoking pipes. Their expressions were not unpleasant, but they were monsters! They could afford to look friendly.
"So? What is the problem?" Harold asked.
"You ask what is the problem? There are wild things right in front of you, and you want to know what the problem is?"
"Well, you must have expected there would be something unusual on the island," Harold said.
"Of course we did," Molly said.
"What? And you want to go visit them?"
"Well, maybe not without permission," Molly said. Then she shouted, "Hey! Monsters! Is it okay for us to come ashore?"
"You're the kid who scared off the Muffin Man!" one of the monsters shouted. "Sure, come ahead! We won't bite you!" Then all the monsters laughed. I wished they hadn't done that.
"Wow, that only happened last night, and already they know about it," Molly said. The monsters were all gesturing and beckoning us to come to them.
"And you're Elizabeth Van Vreemdeling!" one of the monsters said. "Also known as Audrey from another existential plane."
"That's it. I'm going ashore," I said. "There's destiny going on."
Molly and I scrambled up the ladder.
"Have a good time, girls!" Harold said while pushing off in the coracle.
"What? You're not coming with us?"
"Not me," Harold said. "I've visited here before."
"Is that Harold in the boat?" one of the monsters asked. "Yah, yah, Harold! You're scared to come in because you lost your pants playing klabiash with us last time!"
"I'm going to paddle down to Yonkers and catch
"Yah, yah, Harold is scared! Some giant!" the monsters called.
"Wait!" I called to Harold. "Are we safe here?"
"As long as you don't play for money, you're safe," Harold said, and the coracle disappeared into the darkness.
"We would never play for money against children," one of the monsters mumbled. "Do you have any money, girls?"
"Not a cent," Molly said.
"Me neither," I lied. I had twenty-six dollars pinned to my underwear.
We Play Cards with Monsters
The monsters were Hudson River trolls. Their names were Phil, Fay, Helen, Joe, and Uncle Bernard. We thought that Helen and Joe were the children of Phil and Fay, and Uncle Bernard was their uncle. They were all the same size and appeared to be the same age. Hudson River trolls live four or five hundred years. They believe they are descended from sasquatches that lived on the Esopus Creek. They didn't explain the reason that Uncle Bernard looked like he was part bird and the others looked like they were part bear or part gorilla or part buffalo—and there didn't seem to be a polite way to ask about it.
They lived in the mansion on Pollepel Island, which is also called Bannerman's Island. They said they were looking after it for the Bannerman family, should they ever decide to come back, and besides, it was deserted and would have gone to waste if nobody lived there.
The trolls loved to gamble and would place bets on whether the castle, which was half full of gunpowder, would blow up the next time lightning hit it. And they kept us up until two in the morning playing klabiash.
The trolls were answering no questions and would discuss nothing until we had played klabiash with them—so there was nothing to do but play.