From the acclaimed author of the Malazan series comes Steven Erikson's This River Awakens.
In the spring of 1971, Owen Brand and his family move to the riverside town of Middlecross in a renewed attempt to escape poverty. For twelve-year-old Owen, it's the opportunity for a new life and an end to his family's isolation. He quickly falls in with a gang of three local boys and forms a strong bond with Jennifer, the rebellious daughter of a violent, alcoholic father. As summer brings release from school, two figures preside over the boys' activities: Walter Gribbs, a benign old watchman at the yacht club, and Hodgson Fisk, a vindictive farmer tormented by his past. Then the boys stumble on a body washed up on the riverbank—a discovery whose reverberations will result, as the year comes full circle, in a cataclysm that envelops them all….
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
Steven Erikson is an archaeologist and anthropologist and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His Malazan Book of the Fallen series, including The Crippled God, Dust of Dreams, Toll the Hounds and Reaper’s Gale, have met with widespread international acclaim and established him as a major voice in the world of fantasy fiction. The first book in the series, Gardens of the Moon, was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award. The second novel, Deadhouse Gates, was voted one of the ten best fantasy novels of 2000 by SF Site. He lives in Canada.
Read an Excerpt
This River Awakens
By Steven Erikson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2012 Steven Erikson
All rights reserved.
Two crows returning. The years sweep past under their wings. The clouds scud like motes before their eyes. Roll away these years. It is too late, too late to stop their driven flight.
The past is uncertain. It is a place filled with wishing, with invention. To look back is to see what was begun. To go back, however, is to begin again.
I have been down to the river – stay with me. I have my reasons. The crows sat on a branch overhead. Even now, as then, the season is spring, and the young buds on the trees are clenched like fists. I have sent a gift from now, sent it into my past. It is not an easy gift. I don't believe in easy gifts.
And now the crows take flight, from now to then. Back and back. They wheel in their sudden freedom, and look below to a steaming city, and onwards to where it stumbles to an end in low, evenly laid suburban homes, and along the river factories persist, squatting like dark fortresses on foreign soil. They glide over farmland caged in by roads. In the fields the black earth lies rippled like a brown and muddy cloak. Grey and leafless windrows stitch the scene forlorn and frayed.
Over here the air is cool. It tastes of the rendered earth. The breeze spreads the season's quickening breath across the world.
The crows swoop low over a farm. Their shadows flit over a muddy field and then frame four boys walking, walking for the river.
Long ago, now. What I have done is unfair.
Memory begins with a stirring. Spring had arrived. There was life in the air, in the wind that turned the cold into currents of muddy warmth. And life in the ground as well – a loosening of the earth and its secrets, a rustling of spirits and the awakening of the dead.
Like remembrance itself, it was a time when things rose to the surface. Forces pushed up from the tomb of wintry darkness, shattering the river's ice and spreading the fissures wide. Sunlight seeped down, softening the river bottom's gelid grip. And things were let go.
What I look on now, after all these years, is a place of myth. For this was a place that told us that there was more than just one world. Middlecross sat between the farmlands and the city, grasping fragments of each, the first with sad mockery, the last with diffidence. A land of suburban homes and fallow fields. Along the river crouched patches of forest, slowly being peeled back. The new money fashioned flat bungalows with impeccable lawns while the old money rose in shadowed mansions. Between them, overgrown lots hid the rubble of past ruin.
The year was 1971. Middlecross was my family's last stop in our migration from the city, from the ever smaller apartments out to rural sprawl. It was part of a struggle we'd always known, against something faceless, and we'd had our share of last, desperate gasps. Outwardly, my family seemed plain enough: a father, a mother, a sister in her teens, me on the edge at twelve, and toddler twins. Outwardly, the world holds no secrets. That was my family.
I continued my schooling in the city, and would do so until term's end. Each day I made a bus trip between two worlds, one tired and heavy with a vague, confused air of familial failure, the other new, unlike anything I'd ever known before.
It was a time and place of discord. This much my memory tells me. But memory is not enough ...
Hodgson Fisk had giant hands, the kind of hands that forced bent nails into wood, that twisted wire, that broke fragile presents; the kind of hands that made fists in pockets and curled around the arms of a chair like roots gripping rock.
His knuckles were bloodless, scarred white by a lifetime of closed doors and encroaching walls. The nails, chipped and stained amber, protected flattened fingertips that had long since gone numb.
His muscles were like taut ropes now, as he sat rocking in his chair on the porch like he usually did in the late spring afternoon, when the chill returning to the air reminded him of death. Beneath the sure grip of his hands, the chair's arms reassured him with their smooth, warm familiarity.
Fisk listened to the crunching, grinding ice in the river beyond the row of trees. He stared at the black mud of the field before him. Tufts of yellow grass dotted it like human heads. Squinting, he thought he could see them sinking.
Slowly, his rocking stilled. A long, narrow shadow had crawled imperceptibly across the unkempt lawn, and now – at last – it reached for him. There wasn't any need to look up, no need to find its source. Marking the boundary between the lawn and the field was the maypole. It rose fifteen feet high, a galvanised pipe pitted with rust, unadorned for the last eleven years, since his wife's death.
Once it had heralded spring's birth with gaily coloured ribbons, with stringed popcorn and tiny brass bells. And covering the earthen mound at its base, there'd be freshly painted flowers – white, yellow, red and violet – he'd never known their names, it never seemed to matter back then. Didn't matter now.
The maypole's shadow was like a spear, edging up the porch steps. And the earthen mound was tangled with dead weeds and shredded nylon still bearing the memories of colour. It had been his wife's maypole, his wife's celebration of the new season. But that, Fisk told himself, was a memory he didn't want to revive. For her, spring – the turning over of the season – had marked some kind of victory. For him, spring was the turning over of the earth – the black mud – and nothing more. More daylight meant more hours of work. That was all.
He hated spring. The season that Dorry had celebrated had also been the season of her death.
The shadow climbed the steps. Fisk resumed rocking, his boots skidding on the dusty gravel that covered the wood planks. As he rocked he let his head roll forward and snap back in time, until the hot blood in his skull seemed to swish back and forth, numbing his cheeks and mouth and ears. Only his eyes felt alive, fixed like buoys in the storm inside his head, fixed on the field of mud.
Odd, he knew, that a sense of urgency could hold him rooted to his chair. Waiting for the darkness demanded patience, and he was a patient man. He'd waited eleven years, and was still waiting. Nothing was going anywhere, he told himself. Not the maypole, not the storm in his head, not the field of mud. None of us is going anywhere.
* * *
Fisk watched the four boys trudge across his field in the growing dusk. Their presence didn't surprise him. It had been their ritual since the snows melted. They crossed his field with impunity. His dark eyes followed their vague shapes, tracking them, fixing their gestures, memorising their every movement.
It was something he'd come to, an idea that had both excited him and terrified him. The terror made sense. The excitement didn't.
Stacked high around him, crowding his porch, rose wood and wire boxes. Walls of long, narrow cages to his left and right, cages where the flowerpots used to be, cages blocking out the living-room window and its faded lilac curtains, cages jammed against the railing. Others around here grew wheat when they grew anything at all, but Fisk didn't – not any more. For the last ten years he had raised mink. Over six hundred animals lived with him now.
At night he'd often stand at his kitchen window with all the lights turned off, and his back yard would glow with hundreds of unblinking, yellow eyes. Eyes like imprisoned moonlight, watching him.
In the crepuscular air the field had grown smooth in front of Fisk, like a pool of oil. The four boys had reached its far edge, their grey shapes disappearing like wraiths between the ash trees lining the river. The field looked deep in a way that Fisk found disturbing. The muscles in his chest trembled, as if he'd brushed feelings that had long since sunk into oblivion. He didn't want to dredge up those feelings. It frightened him to stand at the edge, as he did now, and gaze at the dark surface of his life, seeing ripples as something moved beneath it.
He sat still a moment longer, then he lurched to his feet, turned and entered the house. The screen door banged behind him, its spring humming in the darkness. The hallway that led to the kitchen door was narrow, the hardwood floor creaking beneath him. He felt his hands tremble and slid them into his pockets. The faded flowers of the wallpaper marched by on either side, a dead garden, the leaves of a sealed book. In the closet beside the kitchen entrance he collected his work gloves and put them on. At the back door he flicked on the yard lamps. Cages rattled under the sudden blue-white glare. Fisk's breath quickened.
He opened the door and descended the flatboard steps. He approached the rows. Eyes flared as small bullet-heads turned in his direction. He sucked air through his teeth and entered the first row.
Something he'd come to. Terror, and pleasure.
'Four,' he muttered, scanning the cages, 'I want four of you.'
We crossed the field that day as usual, on our way to the river, and I could feel Old Man Fisk watching us long before we came close enough to see him sitting on his porch. There was light enough to see his face and it seemed it was made of cracked plaster and chicken wire. Something evil and viciously small slunk behind it. Watching him sitting there amidst his cages, I imagined that he had gone to a place beyond death, and now stared out at us from that unearthly realm.
Fisk's field lay between us and the river. Our steps slowed as we crossed it, boots burdened with straw-laced clumps of mud that climbed up around our ankles. We carried some of that gritty clay to the river and watched it dissolve in the current pushing past our shins.
Beside me Lynk pointed. 'Look! A fuckin' cow!'
Two crows stood on its bloated flank, watching us and laughing.
We threw stones, trying to dislodge them. Fly! we screamed. Our arms ached as we tried harder and harder. Digging rocks out of the mud, following with eager eyes their curved flight, swearing as they fell short.
In minutes the current pulled the cow and its raucous passengers away. We remained on the dock, ankle-deep in flowing water. We felt the current wrapping the cold rubber of our boots around our shins. It made us feel invincible, time itself parting around our feet.
Four boys, nothing more. But it was our world and our time, when the earth loosed its secrets, staining our hands, our knees. The river birthed our cruel laughter, as it did our pensive silences. It carried pieces of the city half submerged past us, a barbaric pageant, a legion burdened with loot. Dead dogs and tree branches, tricycles frozen in bobbing ice, a water-filled wooden boat with pieces of dock still trailing from nylon ropes, a television casing – showing endless scenes of flooding – and small, bedraggled clumps of feather. The booty of a strange war.
The scene remains vivid in my mind. Four boys, aged twelve one and all. What lay before us was the river, remorseless like thought itself, in its season of madness, burdened with chunks of brown ice and cryptic messengers. The air that rose from it was cold, wet and overripe.
There was a Sunday school teacher in the city, a tall, beaked and pinched woman with sad, hopeful eyes. She'd once told me that the soul is like a bird, flying from your body when you pass on. I spent that day and many others imagining those birds, shining and white-winged and full of music. The spring, she'd said, was a time for rebirth, the final proof of proper things under God's Heaven.
But as I stood there on the bank of the swollen river, I thought about the crows riding the bloated cow. Middlecross wasn't the city. It was something else. A place where the bird souls linger, picking at what hasn't passed on. Wings not white, but black and greasy. Not music, but dark laughter.
Crows. They were my rivals. This place was the rotting underside of the world, decay a slow revelation of truths. My rivals, because I'd screamed Fly!
* * *
Crack! Lynk had found a stick, attacking trees as we walked. 'Just wait till summer,' he said. Crack! The sound shivered in the air – Lynk beating his demons into submission. Summer was everything, it was All. A future time to be unleashed into, like a dog with a snapped chain. Bounding into the unfolding world of heat, lightning storms, games of war. Lynk wasn't alive yet, but he would be come summer, his season of bright, painful light.
Maybe his trees had faces. Crack! Frowning faces impeding his impatient nature. He'd made his march relentless, but his words gave him away. 'Just wait till summer.' A thin, reedy call to distant power. A birth-cry of someone not yet alive, not yet here in the world. His carnivore grin was a pup's, incomplete but still a warning worth noticing. Lynk was coming alive, soon, only a matter of time.
Flush with the river's pageant glory we'd left the bank, pushing inland through the bracken. Lynk's stick spoke for all of us in one way or another. Grim and determined like soldiers looking for an enemy, we were marauders, hunters, giants. Fearless, on the edge of calculated rage.
A game, I told myself. The forest wrapped us tight, hid all signs of civilisation. It played along, sharpening the sounds of twigs snapping underfoot, filling our moments of silence with significance. The dusk caressed us as it filled the forest, seeming to call to us, to urge us towards an unseen and unknown goal. We would sweep aside armies and kings, we would level mountains, we would topple gods.
Like Lynk, I dreamed of summer. Unlike him, I didn't know what to expect, nor did I much care. The day that school was over, my last tie to the city went under the knife. Cut loose, withdrawing from the crowded streets, the steamy buses – what I anticipated was clear in my mind. What came afterwards was left to Lynk, or so it seemed, since the eagerness I felt came from him alone. He carried the stick, and ahead waited the throne of summer. He was full of ascendant visions, and neither Roland nor Carl seemed mindful of opposing him.
Such were my initial readings of these three friends, which I still held on to, despite what my careful eyes caught, were catching even now. Lynk talked, he filled the air with his claim to dominance – but it was all for me, a challenge and a warning. He was telling me where I stood, as subtly as if he'd jammed his boot on my throat. Lynk talked, but the power, I had come to realise, was in the silence.
'Old Man Fisk,' Lynk said. 'Piles up all the mink guts and burns them. He lets us watch. Me and Roland and Carl. Might let you, too.'
Small and wiry, Lynk was like one of Fisk's cages bent and twisted into human form. His blue eyes shone with an eerie, hungered look, cold, hard eyes pinning a narrow, long nose. Greasy brown hair hung to his shoulders. His teeth curved inward. He moved furtively, making me think of escaped animals, promising a wildness that made me fear his freedom.
Here, deep in the woods with the smell of decay heavy on all sides, small patches of snow persisted, crusty and stroked with black dirt. As we pushed deeper into the wood the air grew cooler. On all sides shadows reached down through the tangled branches like swords. The colours drifted into grey, making the world flat, compressed under our feet. Past floods had reached this far, I realised as I stepped over the weathered planks of a broken dock. Booty tossed aside, here to rot into the earth, here to become part of our world.
'Burning mink guts,' Lynk said breathlessly.
Walking behind me, Carl added, 'Burns all night!'
'Must stink like shit,' I said to Lynk, ignoring Carl as he stumbled in my wake.
Lynk shrugged, a tough world for city kids, huh?, then said, 'He soaks the pile in kerosene. Massive clouds of black smoke.'
I'd never smelled burning kerosene. I'd never even used the word, though I knew about it from school. But I nodded. It was harder thinking about mink guts, trying to picture them. Pale and pink like balloons, maybe, or yellow lumpy ropes. Soaked in kerosene. Black clouds all through the night. I wasn't even sure what a mink looked like.
Excerpted from This River Awakens by Steven Erikson. Copyright © 2012 Steven Erikson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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