His father hailed the other fishermen, sharing a jest here, a barbed comment there. Most of the other boats were river craft, circular or tub-shaped. Pulled tight at the dock were also several canoe-shaped boats, oceangoing vessels, always an exciting sight. Aidan knew that the ocean lay a day's journey west. He had been enthralled by stories of it since boyhood but had never seen its endless rolling surf. Soon, his father promised, they would take a trip downriver. Aidan couldn't wait.
The fishermen were broad-chested and thick-armed, with yellow beards and faces cracked by sun and long years of grueling work. Aidan's own small face was still smooth as a girl's. He doubted he would ever grow into such splendid manhood. When he expressed those concerns to his father and mother they merely smiled and told him stories of their own distant childhoods, of streams swum with tireless strokes and green valleys run on youthful legs.
We, too, were children, they had told him in countless loving ways. Childhood was long, and sweet. But childhood ends.
And while a certain wistful sadness lingered in that last thought, there was joy as well. For it was only in the final days of childhood that Mahon and Deirdre first glimpsed each other at Spring Festival. Gentle Christian girl she had been, smitten by the wild river lad, heir to the Chieftain's seat at his crannog's council. Introductions had been made, families negotiating bride price and reciprocal obligations.
And when Mahon and Deirdre finished with their reminiscence, they would take hands one with the other, and share their secret smiles with their only son. "You will grow," his mother often said. "And faster than you would ever believe."
Still, watching his father work the oars, it was hard for Aidan to imagine that he would ever be so wide and tall. When would the first tiny hairs appear on his face? All that grew there was now a fine, almost invisible down, no more than might be felt on his sister's cheeks. He longed for the first sign of his awakening maturity, for the day that he might take out his own coracle, weave his own net, return triumphant with his own catch to an admiring village.
To the day, distant but quite real, that he himself might take the Chieftain's seat.
Aidan's mother, Dierdre, stood on the dock, waiting for them. She was strong herself, and beautifulmore beautiful, Aidan thought, than any other woman in the tuath.
"Deirdre," Mahon called up to her. "A spot of help with the line." He threw the rope up to her, and she plucked it almost casually from the air, her eyes never leaving him.
Something simmered in her gaze that made Aidan happy and a bit uneasy at the same time. He slept in the same room with his parents and had awakened more than once to hear low laughter and blankets rustling in a steady, quickening rhythm. He was almost ready to ask them just what they were doing. Almost, but not quite. He imagined it had something to do with what he had seen dogs and sheep doing, except that his parents had been face-to-face. There was something worth knowing here. Something that he knew would make an eternal difference in his life, something he sometimes suspected some of the girls in the tuath already understood.
Without a wasted motion, his mother tied up the line, then extended a hand to Mahon, who jumped up on the dock and gathered her in his arms for a lusty kiss. "Fire's waiting for you," she said when they came up for air.
"Good, woman," Mahon said happily. "My feet are cold." She tilted her head sideways. "Is that all need's warming?" She said this last part with her voice dropping, huskiness flowing into it like warm honey. Aiden hopped up on the pier and tied up his own line, carefully ignoring the exchange.
Or appearing to. He peeked around under his arm as Mahon placed one fond hand on Deirdre's stomach. "Not enough to have one in the oven?" he asked.
Copyright 2002 by Steven Barnes
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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