Call me Ishmael.
Ishmael Herman de Walters, keeper of Tranford Lock, River Bure, County of Norfolk, as was my father before me, and his father before him.
The boats and barges on our little loop of river are few and far between these days. Not many like you pass my door, Stranger - and an old man's hours can be long. Have you time for a pipe and a word? Time to hear the telling of a tale? Come, sit with me a while beneath our wide Norfolk sky. Listen to the curlew's scream, seek out the quick blue flash of the kingfisher, and I will tell you the story of my father, of how he was made whole again in return for services rendered, for favours given. Of how he was rewarded for bringing back to life the dying River Imp.
More than eighty years ago now, a good while before even I was born, William de Walters - my much-missed father, lover of water, reader of sea-books - sat on this very bench and watched a brightly coloured barge navigate yonder downriver bend. As it made its way towards him he noticed a shimmering in the air, and heard a sound he always described to me as 'a jangling musicality.'
It was a strange sight, this barge, strange enough to send him scuttling into the cottage you see behind you to fetch his field glasses - the selfsame glasses that hang still on their hook beside the front door. Three generations of de Walters have passed daily through that front door, employed to raise and lower the boats, to clear the towpaths, to tend the river. My grandfather, my father, me. Had I a son, I would have wished him to follow the family tradition - but the Good Lord, the Imp and the River Authority be not so inclined. Times change, Stranger. Times change.
Raising his glasses, rny father read the name painted in golden letters on the barge's prow: The River Imp. At her tiller stood a slender young woman. His eyes widened, and his heart stopped in his chest.
'She was beautiful, boy,' he told me on the day I was deemed old enough to hear the tale. 'Your mother's a pretty one to be sure, and I love her with all my soul, but this woman had beauty such as I'd never seen before and never saw since. Dressed in lustrous reds and shifting blues, she was - and her hair like a Sheringham sunset.' The Bure was busier back then, thick with barges carrying freight inland, but as luck - or perhaps fate - would have it no other craft appeared to divert my father's attention. He watched in admiration as, with expert hand and practised eye, the woman brought her barge to rest alongside that bollard you see over yonder. Then, her hands clasped before her, she stepped ashore and crossed the path to this bench where my father sat open-mouthed, field glasses hanging loose around his neck.
'And she didn't walk, boy,' he told me. 'I saw her pretty feet beneath her crimson skirt, and they barely moved at all. That was floating she did. She floated from barge to bench.'
My father had eyes like green emeralds. I can see them now, glittering as he told his tale.
'At close quarters she was even finer than the vision I'd seen from afar. A wonderful perfume about her, too, like night-scented stock, but with something richer, something darker beneath. And all the while her hands cupped together as if she be carrying a trapped butterfly.'
'You are the keeper of this lock?' she asked, her voice like music.
My father nodded,
'Then give me your name.'
'I am William de Walters,' said my father, releasing his tongue with some difficulty.
The woman nodded. 'William de Walters, I am Marita, and I am in great need of a Lock Keeper's assistance.
My father rose to his feet, bowed - and grimaced in pain.
For long months before this, he had known something was wrong deep down inside of him. The same something that had been wrong with his own father, my grandfather - and the same something I fear lurks deep inside my own belly, biding its time. Grandfather's doctors had no name for it, but it had been wrong enough to finish him off at the nothing age of forty-two.
'You are suffering?' asked Marita.
'It's unimportant: a mere trifle,' said my father, offering the same answer he gave my mother whenever she watched, concerned, as he struggled to push the balance beams to part the upstream gates.
'How can I help you?' he asked
Marita looked at him. 'I have something to show you,' she said. She held his eyes, then opened her cupped hands. 'See. Do not be afraid.'
And there, lying in the cat's cradle of her long, intertwined fingers, was a Norfolk piskie. An ancient, naked creature, ugly and grey as death. Twisted of body and vile to look at it was, but no bigger than a mouse.
'This is my master, the River Imp. You have heard tell of him, I daresay.'
My father nodded. All lock keepers know the legend of the River Imp, which is as old as time itself. But he had never really believed, and never thought to see the creature itself other than in his dreams.
He is dying, William de Walters. And with his passing many good things shall also pass - but you have the power to help him, if you will.'
'Me? What can I do?' asked my father. 'I am just a simple lock keeper.
'It is because you are a simple Lock Keeper, a guardian of river gates, a holder of water, that you can help us. You must believe. You must take my master in your own hands, carry him to your lock, submerge him in gate-locked water. Do these things and the River Imp will be renewed, the river will flow, all will be as it was meant to be for many years to come.
My father stared at the ugly piskie. He didn't want to take it in his hands. But it was true he'd noticed the life draining out of the river; he'd seen fish floating dead on its rippled surface, and missed the calls of many long-loved birds. And Marita's eyes pleaded with him, and he was lost to her tears and her beauty.
He gave her his open palms and she placed the piskie upon them.
'It was heavy, boy. Lord, you wouldn't believe such a tiny creature could be so heavy.'
He carried his burden to the lock, lowered his hands into the water, and then he watched and waited.
'After a while that piskie began to shake and shiver,' he said. 'It squirmed like an eel in my hands, and vomited foul, black smoke out of its mouth. The stench of that smoke was something you wouldn't want to experience. And I hope you never do.'
Finally, the piskie opened its eyes, got to its feet, and stood dripping on my father's palm as he raised it from the river.
'My master thanks you,' said Marita, her eyes flashing, her hair soft-lifted by a breeze. She gathered the River Imp back into her own hands and planted a warm kiss on my father's whiskered cheek. 'And in return, he empowers me to cure what ails you.'
What happened next my father was ashamed of until his dying day - but I can lay no blame at his door. And if you know anything of the world, Stranger, I don't suppose you will, either.
Even so, he could never meet my eyes when he told me.
'She held the Imp against my belly for a moment, boy - then began pressing herself into me in a shocking and wanton manner. And then she wrapped her arms around me and pulled my old head down towards her breasts... and from that point on I was lost. Not even the thought of your dear mother could stop me following as she led the way back to her barge.'
I know not how long he and Marita spent together, Stranger, or what went on behind the closed curtains of her barge, or what whispered words passed between thern. But when she and the piskie eventually left, they took the canker in any father's gut with thern. He lived long and ripe, and made my mother a happy woman every single day of her life.
They're gone now, both of them - and if you look carefully into the water, you may see dead fish floating.Which is why I, Ishmael Herman de Walters, keeper of Tranford Lock, River Bure, County of Norfolk, spend my days glued to this bench, watching and waiting. Waiting for the sound of a jangling musicality
And when all's said and done, Stranger - who can blame me?
* * *
The River Imp was a Runner Up in the 2002 King's Lynn Writers' Circle Short Story Competition.
It went on to take 2nd Prize in the Let's Talk Short Story Comp 2003