Drifting Down the Lazy River

This story is a sequel to The One Who Got Away

A frustrated young orphan colt with a talent for painting is determined to run away from his dead-end rural village for the distant cultural haven of Baltimare. All he needs to do is slip aboard a raft and drift down the river Fen until he reaches his destination. It’s a simple plan, and would have worked just fine except for one thing.




3. Drowning in Air

"I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn't make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving. I got so down-hearted and scared I did wish I had some company."

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

Turpentine looked up despite himself, blinking away the tears and shooting a nervous glance around the island while he looked for the source of the quiet voice. It had not sounded like a vicious monster, even though the storybooks back at the orphanage were filled with tales of monsters like kelpies who preferred to make gloating speeches over their helpless victims. In fact, the small and timid voice had barely sounded at all. The only clue to the location of the speaking creature was a round ripple out in the river where some fish or other creature had just made a dramatic motion and stirred the surrounding water.

The ripples died out, then began to move again when the coffee pot emerged out of the water, floating in a pale green aura of unicorn magic. It drifted a little while it moved towards Turpentine, who caught it in his hooves out of instinct.

“What are you?” he called out across the surface of the river.

There was no response.

The relative silence of the river sloshing against the raft and the cry of birds in the distance grated on his patience, but also his inherent manners. After all, whatever it was out in the river had returned his coffee pot, now filled with sand-free water. Despite his ongoing confusion, he added, “Thank you for the coffee pot back, by the way.”

Who or whatever it was who had spoken must not have gone through the same lectures from Mother Windrow as Turpentine had been subjected to, because there was a distinct lack of any “You’re welcome” as there should have been.

“Did you want any coffee?” he added after a period of relative silence, which also followed the question as well.

Giving a seemingly-casual shrug, Turpentine bent over and began to get out the coffee grounds to brew another pot again. The situation had changed, and he bent to his task with a silent resolve that several families with disassembled clocks or other loose pieces of carefully examined farm equipment knew very well.

Turpentine’s normally placid exterior concealed an itching curiosity, driven to find out what was underneath that rock or behind that tree and capture the mystery on pigment and paper. If the mysterious fire-builder and coffee-drinker was not dangerous, that meant they were unknown, and if there was one thing which could drive Turpentine into doing the most dangerous things, it was the possibility of discovering something new. Adding a few new pieces of driftwood to the fire and arranging a couple of flat rocks allowed the coffee pot to be propped up where it could get warm again, and also gave him one additional advantage.


Turpentine returned back to the raft and fussed with his art supplies, retrieving the pencil and making a big deal of rearranging the easel. His previous tears of frustration were only a memory now, leaving only a few damp spots on his face which would dry fairly quickly now that the sun was up. A cheerful tune almost forced itself out of his lips while he worked, but he restrained himself to a few whistled notes before settling back down with the pencil and a new blank canvas.

This time, he had a slightly different subject to paint.

The tiny mirror clipped onto his easel gave Turpentine a fairly good view of the campfire with the warming coffee pot behind him, and he hummed quietly to himself while he drew in the mirror-reversed scene in thin pencil lines. A good artist is patient about catching the scene they want, and Turpentine considered himself to be a very good artist. Still, he had advanced to doing cross-hatch shading on his sketch and was actually considering just leaving it as a pencil drawing without any paint when the faint green glow he was expecting formed around the perking coffee pot.

He scooted the easel slightly to one side, then a little more to get the mirror pointed out at the calm river where he suspected the anonymous creature was manipulating his coffee pot. At first, he thought the dark patch of what seemed to be a waterweed of some sort in the river was being used by the unicorn to hide him or herself, but after a little inspection and squinting into the mirror he determined it was actually a waterlogged mane with a small green horn sticking up in the middle of it and a pair of emerald-green eyes to either side.

It took only a second to flip over the canvas and begin scribbling on the back. He had no idea what the creature or pony was, but it was fascinating to see the way his chipped and battered cup came drifting over and shelifted her head out of the concealment of the river enough to blow on the hot coffee. From the size of her horn, the set of her jaw and shape of her face, she was a very young unicorn, but what she was doing under the river’s surface both baffled and intrigued him. The only unicorns in his tiny village seemed to hate the idea of getting wet, except for baths, which oddly-enough they made into a daily ritual.

He drew with quick short strokes, using a pencil to outline the little unicorn holding his chipped coffee cup before diving for his oil paints. The colors were going to be tricky, because the green of her coat reflected off the water into a different shade of green, both of which did not match anything in his fairly limited selection, but he dropped a couple of dabs onto his color palette and started mixing with repeated glances into the small mirror for comparison.

“What’cha dooin?”

“Shh,” he muttered around the handle of the pallette knife. “I’ve almost got this.” He tilted the mirror down some more to keep the little unicorn centered in the mirror before grabbing a fine-tip brush. The thrill of creation filled his head with a loud buzzing while he dabbed and stroked, letting his natural talent flow through pigment. After being so miserable on the raft and unable to find relief, painting the little unicorn was catharsis for his soul. Blues and darker greens found their way onto his palette while he painted her eyes and the way she reflected in the murky water, then a dark violet mixed with some white to lighten it for her damp sunlit mane.

Emotions were always the hardest to capture on paint and canvas, but easier when there were fewer of them to pick from. Her fluid expression reflected regret and anticipation mixed with fear and curiosity, making a muddle of the little unicorn’s face and perked-up ears. As much as he wished she would only be caught up in one emotion at a time, he found himself drawn to finer brushes and delicate shifts of hue while he worked under the hot sun. Experience allowed the perfectionist inside him free rein over the work until he caught himself reversing tiny details, at which point he drew back and switched to a broader brush for the ripples in the water around her. Perfection of detail was an unachievable goal. Far better to hint and suggest with shadows and the bright colors of sunlight reflecting the scene, while leaving artificial perfection to the photographers.

He was gently brushing the surrounding blue-green water out so the colors would fade into the whitewashed canvas when he became aware of how he had been constantly nudging the mirror on the easel further and further down every time the little unicorn had crept closer and closer to the raft. A cautious peek behind him showed she was resting her head on one of the logs, nearly within touching distance of his leg.

“Is that me?” she asked.

“Um…” Turpentine fidgeted a little and kept brushing the pale blues and browns of the water around the unicorn in question, wishing that he had used the smooth canvas-covered front of one of his flats for the painting instead of the rougher back. “Yeah,” he added once he backed up enough so his words would not cause the brush in his mouth to leave an unsightly smear on the painting. “It could be better.”

“I didn’t know I looked pretty like that. It’s very nice.” The little unicorn floated the coffee cup up onto the logs of the raft with a distasteful grimace. “Lots better than your coffee.”

“I don’t know how to make coffee. It looked easy enough when Mother Windrow did it,” said Turpentine. He put the brush into the paint thinner and swished it a little before wiping it on the rag. Picking up the coffee cup, he took a sip of the cooled liquid inside and promptly spit it out, although fortunately not on his fresh painting. “Yuck!”

The little unicorn by the side of the raft mirrored his expression. “Mister Baron Gaberdine never lets me try his coffee. He says it will stunt my growth. I don’t know how they can drink it when my mother visits.”

As if suddenly nervous, the little unicorn lit her horn up and concentrated. The light revealed a glittering ring of silver around the base of her horn, mostly camouflaged by the dark violet mane, and Turpentine felt a sudden urge to get his smallest paintbrush out of the soaking in order to add the detail before the paint dried.

“Whew,” she said, turning off her magic.

“What?” asked Turpentine.

“Nothing. It’s just… I need to go.” Before Turpentine could even get his mouth open, the little unicorn vanished in a dark swirl of the river water, but just when he had figured out what he should have said, there was another swirl of water at the edge of his raft and she reappeared.

“When my mother shows up, can you tell her you didn’t see me?”

“Your mother?” Turpentine lurched forward when the little filly vanished under the river again, but she was gone, and all of the calling he did out into the river did not bring her back for the rest of the day.

* *  * *

When the moon rose over the scrubby trees bordering the river and their long, skeletal shadows replaced the warm sunshine, Turpentine huddled under his thin wool blanket again. Beside him, the painting had been carefully arranged with a cloth draped over it and spacers to keep it from touching damp paint, because in the outside air, there was always the chance of a beetle or moth getting stuck on it before the drying process completed. He had tried to do a few more sketches, but the humidity had made the papers of his sketchbook stick together or tear under the pencil tip, and he really did not feel like wasting any more of his expensive oil painting canvases on just drawings. Besides, his heart was not in it.

The little unicorn he had seen in the morning remained a mystery to him, which made an itch tunnel into the back of his mind and refuse to let go. She could have been some sort of nature sprite or water spirit, but not likely. There had been a sense of reality around her, seeming more real than the itchy sand or the damp, chill breeze of the evening. When she had vanished into the water, he had even seen the briefest glance of a cutie mark, looking much like a cloud. An illusion or a nature creature would not have a cutie mark, or at least he did not think so.

As he lay there and thought, listening to the soft hiss of the waves against the sand and the cries of the birds, being marooned did not seem that bad. Not that he would turn down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of warm milk in exchange for a few of his remaining dry alfalfa biscuits, but he was starting to think he had never really wanted to go to Baltimare in the first place.

The trip had started out as a futile gesture after the fourth adoptive family had finally given up on making him into a farmer and returned him to the orphanage. Mother Windrow had been properly sympathetic to the family but possibly a little glad to have him back in the house. It was not that large of an orphanage because the farming village was very small, and whenever he was out with a family, she was all alone.

As an old mare, Mother Windrow had not been very good company for the young colt, but she was at least somepony who seemed to appreciate his paintings. The house was filled with his starting paintings, hung alongside the small mementos which had been left behind by most of the orphans who had passed through her small home, but that did not help him make friends. In fact, if there had been another orphan to share the bedroom with, Turpentine would not have been so lonely. He might not have even left the small town if he had not found the raft drifting along next to the bank, so in a way, it was the stupid wood’s fault.

“Psst. Turpentine, are you sleeping?”

Caught in that twilight area between actually sleeping and only thinking about sleeping, Turpentine jolted awake. “Yes,” he hissed back. “I haven’t seen your daughter.”

The response he got was a childish giggle while the little unicorn popped her head up over the edge of the raft to give him a mischievous grin. “Not me, silly. When my mother shows up. She’s off talking to Mister Baron Gaberdine now, so we’re safe.”

“Oh.” Turpentine blinked owlishly in the moonlit darkness. “Who’s Mister Baron Gaberdine, and who is your mother? Actually, who are you?”

“Me?” The little unicorn splashed a few times beside his raft, sounding somewhat like a fish for a moment. “I’m Ripple. My mother is Pearl, and Mister Baron Gaberdine is my friend. Are you really an orphan?”

“Yes,” said Turpentine in a long, drawn-out fashion as he rearranged himself on top of the sandy wool blanket. “My mother passed away a few years ago, and I never knew who my father was. How did you know I’m an orphan?”

“Well, um…” Ripple fidgeted and used her magic to tuck back a section of her mane which kept falling over her eyes, trapping it under a small gold and silver maneclip with symbols of both the sun and moon on it before she continued. “Mister Baron Gaberdine got told about a runaway orphan from some town upriver, so he told my mother and she told my aunts, and one of them spotted you here. They watched really careful to make sure you weren’t hurt or anything and went off to tell Gabby, because that’s what he likes to be called, especially by my mother.”

“Oh. The ponies back home weren’t worried about me, were they?” Turpentine could feel his ears droop as the familiar crushing sensation of failure swept over him. “I didn’t mean to make them worry. I left a note, telling Mother Windrow I was going to Baltimare.”

Ripple let out a little gasp and shifted positions until her entire head and shoulders were above the raft edge. “You’re going to Baltimare too? That is so neat! When Mister Baron Gaberdine gets Castle Paradise all fixed up, he said he’d take me there and show me all about it. Of course, I gotta get good with my transformational magic first. Otherwise they’ll just be upset, like the ponies here.”

Turpentine’s mind may have been swimming with the suddenness of it all, but he cautiously took a step backwards in the shadows covering his raft. In some of the stories he had read, monsters able to take the shape of ponies came out in the darkness of night, using their magic to capture and enslave unsuspecting victims. “Transformation magic?”

“Yeah.” The little unicorn or whatever it was seemed unhappy about his retreat and sunk back down further into the water so only her horn and the tops of her eyes were visible above the raft’s edge, but she did not say anything else. She really did not seem very scary that way, but Turpentine was still a little wary.

“Are you a monster?” asked Turpentine. “A really scary monster like a changeling or a kelpie?” What little of Ripple’s puzzled expression he could see over the edge of the raft made him add, “That’s a bunch of vines that pretends to be a pony until it can drag a victim into the water and drown him.”

The little ‘unicorn’ popped her head back up and frowned in the moonlight. “What?”

“Well, in Captain Hornblatt and the Seven Seas, Lanyard the Cabin Colt was trapped in a sea cave guarded by a huge pile of seaweed that turned into a huge tentacled monster whenever he tried to escape.” Turpentine furrowed his brow in thought. “I tried to draw a picture of it, but the book didn’t give a very good description.”

“Oh, those aren’t kelpies, they’re just Ambling Weeds,” said Ripple. “They’re not as scary when you realize you can eat them. What are changelings? Do they show up in a book too?”

“They’re like this bug-pony thing that turns into a pony to steal their love. The newspapers had a bunch of pictures of them. Just a second.” Turpentine dove into his bags and began to rummage around. “Sorry about this,” he muttered, trying to leaf through his folders of art projects without getting any more sand in them. “I was in a watercolor phase, and I don’t want them to get damp.”

“You need a waterproofing spell on them.” The little unicorn scooted a little further up on the edge of the raft and held her hornlight up so he could see what he was looking for. “Mister Baron Gaberdine showed me how to waterproof things. I can even do whole books now so I can read back at home.”

“Really?” Turpentine looked back with a Power Mare watercolor hanging from his lips. “That would be handy, since you like swimming so much. Are you really some sort of water monster?”

“I s-suppose,” said Ripple with a wince. “All the other ponies I’ve tried to talk to run away and scream.” She swallowed once and shifted her shoulders to put one forehoof up on top of the raft.

Only it was not a hoof.

Ripple’s pale green coat only extended down to the elbow joint, thinning as it went and slowly being replaced by a thin film of glittering green scales where the leg widened into a flipper. It was wide and smooth, cupped a little towards the back and broadening up near the tips where an ordinary pony would have a hoof. Instead, there was only a narrow ridge of a somewhat harder substance extending out across the bottom edge of the flipper and making a little clicking noise when Ripple placed her weight on it.

“That is so cool,” breathed Turpentine while the watercolor drawing of the buxom superheroine fluttered unnoticed to the ground behind him. Moving very slowly in order not to spook his new subject, he moved closer and put his nose almost on top of the strange appendage. “You’re a seapony. I’ve always wanted to see a seapony.”

Ripple giggled as a little tension escaped. “You’re silly. Do you… like the way I look?”

“Yeah.” Turpentine moved his hoof along the strange flipper, nudging it and trying to peer underneath it in the light of Ripple’s horn. “I thought seaponies were just a myth. What do your back legs look like? Can I look at your tail? How do you swim?”

* *  * *

To Turpentine’s intense disappointment, the only portion of Ripple’s anatomy she felt comfortable with him seeing was what she had hesitantly already shown him, but after a few minutes of discouraged internal grumbling, he realized that if their roles were reversed, he really would not be all that comfortable with having a filly looking around his coltparts either.

There were probably cooties involved.

He had to paint her. Well, paint her again, only better this time. If he had a proper studio with lighting and supplies, he would be able to make a few case studies and sketches of her body to get the proportions right, particularly if he could watch her swim. There was no way to do any of that in the middle of the night, on a raft, without the proper materials, but at least he could talk to her now without her vanishing into the river.

And to his intense pleasure, she seemed just as curious about his life as he was about hers. They settled down on the raft, almost nose to nose while they swapped stories and talked about little things. A few more sticks of driftwood on the fire made a warm light for their conversation and a piercing regret for a lack of marshmallows or chocolate for s'mores. For the first time in years, Turpentine felt… he wasn’t sure. The raft was just as uncomfortable under his chest, and the cool damp wind of the evening just as suffocating, but while they shared his insect repellent and each took a corner of the worn wool blanket to ward off the chill, he felt a warm glow he had not felt since the last memories of his mother.

They talked for a long, long time until they fell asleep in the moonlight.

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