The Life Givers
R. Harlan Smith
Planchette met the old man down by the landing at dawn. It was cold and there was a mist on the lake. The water lay calm like a sheet of metal.
“Get in the boat,” he said. “Sit mid ship, child, between the oars. I’ll load the tool chest.”
“But I’ve never rowed before, sir.”
“You’ll row today, child, and the next, and the day after. The fourth day, I’ll row so your hands can heal. From the fifth day on, you will row.”
The old man followed her into the boat and set the tool chest between his boots. He sat at the prow, looking into Planchette’s eyes.
“What’s your name, child?”
“Man your oars. Put them in the water. Good. Now take a heading to the middle of the lake.”
Planchette found the oars unwieldy.
“Take an even stroke,” he said. “Not too deep, not too shallow. That’s it. That’s very good.”
The boat glided easily along.
“Your left is port,” he said. “Your right is starboard. Pull on the port, push on starboard to bear to port. Do the opposite to bear to starboard. Don’t mind the-”
The old man paused. His eyes closed and his hand went to his chest. He sighed and his body slumped. Planchette watched him, curious, a bit frightened. He recovered and took a breath.
“-the mist,” he continued. “Don’t mind the mist. It’ll go with the sunrise. We’ll see the floaters easy enough.”
Planchette rowed on and on, pulling the weight of the boat with little aching arms and shoulders.
“There’s one,” he said. “Pull alongside. Easy as you go, child. Ah, that’s good. Ship your oars, child. Always ship your oars aft. We don’t want water in the tool chest.”
He gave Planchette the net. “Come up under him and let him drip. We want him dry. Put this on your lap and dry him with it. Now, heave him aboard. Dry him thorough and turn him over. What do you see?”
“There’s a red line running its length, sir.”
“That’s fore and aft, child.”
“It’s glowing, sir.”
“Ah, so it is. Run your finger along that line. It’ll open up.
Planchette ran a finger along the glowing line and the fish opened.
“Do you see the little blue box?” he said.
Planchette was breathless. “Yes.”
“Take it out. What do you read on it?”
“It says ‘C dash One’.”
“Good. Take it out. Take a C dash One from the tool chest and snap it in.”
Planchette replaced the old C dash one and felt the fish stir in her lap. It closed automatically. She felt it humming.”
“Now lower him over the side, gently, now.”
The fish wriggled and lunged deep into the water.
“Good,” the old man said. “Get under way, child. We’ve a full day ahead.”
After a full day of C dash Ones, and C dash twos and threes, and several tens, the tool chest was near empty.
“Take us in,” the old man said. “Our day is done.”
Planchette rowed back to the landing with little trouble. The oars were heavy now, and tiresome. The boat moved easily to the landing. Planchette pulled on the starboard oar and held fast on the port oar. The boat bumped against the stanchion.
The old man heaved the tool chest onto the dock and slumped back onto his seat.
“Oh, blast!” he said. His voice weakened to a whisper. “Quickly, child. Unbutton my shirt.”
Again, he slumped in his seat. His face went pale.
Planchette unbuttoned the old man’s shirt. She saw a glowing red line down his stomach. It opened easily like the fish.
“Hurry, child! It’s a C dash one hundred! I keep one in the tool chest! Lively, child! Make the change!”
“No tears, child. Move!”
In seconds, the old man was sitting up straight. His color had returned.
“There, now. There’s an old Seaman back at you,” he whispered.
They made the boast fast to the dock, and the old man carried the tool chest to the boathouse. “Well done today, Planchette. You did well. Be here at dawn and we’ll have another day. Good evening, Planchette. And not a word.”
“Good evening, sir. Not a word, I swear.”
Planchette’s mother was smiling at the door. “How was your day, dear?”
“It was good, mum. I rowed.”
“That’s wonderful, love. Have your soup. There’s fresh bread for you.”
Planchette finished her soup. It felt warm and comforting.
“Your father came by with a C dash one hundred for you. It’s a mystery you’ve lasted this long. We’ll put it in before you go in the morning. Now go to bed, little love, and pleasant dreams.
“Good night, mum.”
“Good night, little love.”