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.




4. Part Of My World

"Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the day-light come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe."

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

Morning in the small town where Turpentine had grown up was a bustling time long before the sun would rise. Alarm clocks would ring, roosters would crow, and by the time he had shaken himself out of bed and dragged down to the kitchen table, there was always a hefty collection of the breakfast fuel a vigorous earth pony required to face the day.

Well, provided he had not waited too long before getting out of bed, and then it was a slice of toast and a push out the door before morning chores.

This morning, Turpentine was really missing toast. The glow of pre-dawn sunlight had gently roused him from some sort of really odd dream involving a huge dark pegasus calling out his name. The gentle voice of the strange creature in his dreams did not feel frightening or uncomfortable, but it was quickly forgotten once the rumbling in his empty belly made him stretch and yawn. Ripple had not moved from her warm position beside him, with her dry coat feeling so much warmer now than when she had first flopped somewhat seal-like onto the raft last night.

Since she was still sleeping and it did not seem too intrusive, he took a quick look at her cutie mark in the light of day. It was rather plain and ordinary compared to his colorful palette and brush, as all it appeared to be was a loose cloud of some sort. She had said it was steam from when she was helping Baron Gaberdine fix a steam engine a few months ago, but it still just looked like a cloud to him, and no help at all at getting breakfast.

“Hey.” He nudged the sleeping seapony beside him to no avail. Even pulling off the blanket and exposing her pale green coat to the cool morning breeze did nothing more than make her snore a little louder. His easel was still set up, and the scene would have made a good humorous sketch from the way she was splayed out on her chest with all four limbs extended in all directions and her thick tail slightly curled on the deck of the raft behind, but…

His stomach interrupted. It was very insistent. And loud.

After draping the tattered wool blanket over Ripple and taking a moment to consider just how much his world could change in a day, Turpentine dug into his meager supplies and considered the three dry alfalfa biscuits at the bottom of the collapsed cardboard box. While he chewed on one, it brought to mind the conversation of last night, and Ripple’s rather circular verbal maneuvers whenever the concept of seapony food had been raised. Regular pony food was a considerably different and more welcome topic. Apparently, Baron Gaberdine set a fine table for breakfast whenever Ripple and her mother showed up to eat, because she had gone into great detail about oranges and squirty grapefruit alongside buttered fruit muffins, waffles, pancakes, scrambled eggs, hash browns, hay fries, and all sorts of delicious things Turpentine had never even heard of, including something called zapapple jam, which was so fantastically delicious that it bubbled on your tongue while eating and made the inside of your mouth tingle for the rest of the day.

It only served to make him more hungry.

There were five bits in the bottom of Turpentine’s paint box which he had been saving for some quinacridone red, but right now some bright red apples would fill a hole in his gut far better than the hole in his paint selection. All he really needed was to somehow break the raft free of the island, drift down the river to a town, get off the raft, buy the apples, somehow get back onto the raft before it got away, and share them with Ripple. He munched on the dry and somewhat sandy alfalfa biscuit instead. Back at Mother Windrow’s house, he would have mostly been eating oatmeal, thick bowls of the stuff with a small fleck of brown sugar and assorted bits of fruits or vegetables to make it taste less like oatmeal. With a pang of regret, Turpentine remembered leaving behind a big container of the stuff in the hopes that something better would turn up. Anything would have been better, but right now, all he had was nothing but alfalfa biscuits, well, a biscuit, and oatmeal was sounding really good.

Ripple stirred from her sleep and looked upward at him with a bleary-eyed blink. “Wha? Is it morning already? Why is there blanket?” With a wriggle to get out from under the warm wool, the young seapony gave a long stretch and a wide yawn, which showed a few more sharp teeth than Turpentine had really expected. “I didn’t realize it was morning already. Do you have anything for breakfast?”

“Um…” Turpentine held up the dry biscuit. “I’ve got one left.”

Ripple gave the biscuit a cautious nibble and stuck her tongue out. “Bleah. You can keep it.” She levitated the biscuit back, giving it a mournful look much as if she had just remembered something tragic in her past.

“Are you sure?” Turpentine gave the nibbled biscuit a second look. There didn’t appear to be any filly germs on it, but there still was a little sand, and it really had not seemed all that appetizing in the first place. Although it did bring up a question he had been wondering about, ever since he had discovered the river grass on the sandbar island was mostly cocklebur.

“Do you know anywhere around here where I can get some food?” he asked, with great hesitation and the unspoken addition of “And not fish” because of the conversation they had last night.

The little seapony’s ears drooped and she shuffled to the edge of the raft. “No. You probably…” Ripple vanished off the edge of the raft with a deceptively-small splash and giving Turpentine a brief glimpse of the way her thin tail and hind flippers fit together into what appeared at first glance to be a larger solid tail. She surfaced after a moment and swam to the deep edge of the raft, with the river water streaming off her face looking almost like tears.

It gave Turpentine an odd feeling under his ribs to see Ripple rest her chin on the log and look away from him, almost as if he had done something terrible by offering her that dry alfalfa biscuit. He moved forward and crouched down next to her before whispering, “I have a couple of packages of hot chocolate powder, if that would help. I was going to save them until I reached Baltimare, but we could drink them now, since you’re hungry.”

She shook her head at first, then paused, looking at the rising sun. “Actually,” she started with a gradual rising of her ears and some of the earlier eagerness coming back into her voice. Ripple lit up her horn and the slim silver ring around the base took flight, floating over the raft and landing around the handle of one of the brushes he had gotten out to dry. “I have an idea for breakfast, but you need to trust me.”

“Okay.” Turpentine eyed the little seapony as she paddled backwards for a short distance, leaving a wide bit of river water between them. “What are you doing?”

“You have to trust me,” she called back. “Lean out over the river.”

“Like this?” Turpentine moved up to the edge of the raft and looked down. The water was fairly clear, but he could not see the sandy bottom of the river from here, and that made him nervous.

“Farther. I mean further. More,” said Ripple, splashing water in all directions in excitement.

“I don’t understand,” said Turpentine. He did not see anything under the water that looked even remotely like food, but Ripple seemed to know what she was doing. She was pretty smart, for a younger filly, so maybe she had tucked away a waterproof picnic basket on the river bottom. He leaned just the smallest bit more out over the water to get a better look when there was a sharp pain in his rear end, and he pitched forward into the deep water.

* *  * *

The shock of going face-first into the water was only amplified by the way Ripple fairly streaked through the water in his direction, her horn lit up with pale green magic. Turpentine would never have admitted it, but he screamed as he flailed about in panic, frantically attempting to reach the receding shimmer of the river’s surface. He was still screaming when his hooves touched the sand on the river bottom and he realized he had taken several breaths while not drowning as he thought he should have. He stood there and panted for a few moments, trying to get his wits back while Ripple circled with the terrified expression of somepony who thought they had such a good idea until it had gone horribly wrong.

“Are you okay?” she asked once he had calmed down, or at least was standing with his hooves outstretched in the riverbottom sand. He was still upset, but the initial jolt of adrenaline and panic had begun to recede almost the instant he noticed the way he could breathe in through his mouth, but the water passed out through thin slits between his ribs, much like gills. The logical and very earth pony portion of his mind wanted to drive his legs forward, up the slope of wet sand until he was all the way above the water again in blessed dry air, but the artist in him was entranced by the way the bright sunlight shimmered down through the surface waves, bringing motion and sparkle to everything it touched, including the young seapony.

Where Ripple was so awkward and seal-like above the water, down here she was a beautiful fluid. Her tangled mane flowed backwards down her neck every time she gave little almost-unconscious flicks of her tail and hind legs, which drove her forward and around and above until Turpentine felt as if he really needed to sit down for a while.

Or float. Floating was good.

“You’re not mad at me, are you?” asked Ripple, drifting forward until she was nearly at the end of his nose with little bubbles still coming out of her coat and floating upwards toward the surface. “Mister Baron Gaberdine taught me the water breathing spell under the restriction that I never, never, never used it on anypony except in an emergency when they fell into the water. He even made me do this thing with a cupcake when I promised.”

“You pushed me,” said Turpentine, a little stunned at the way he could still talk while breathing water.

Ripple crossed her front flippers. “Well, if you had just fallen into the water, I wouldn’t have needed to.” She paused, looking at Turpentine with a hopeful expression. “Did you still want breakfast?”

Turpentine’s stomach did, and took that moment to declare its intentions with great volume.

“I’m still mad at you,” he grumbled while trying his best to be honest. “A little. Breakfast would help.”

“Great! Come on!” There was a swirl of water and Ripple was gone, leaving Turpentine with only a vague idea of which direction she had gone. A gust of silt blew into his nose while Turpentine tried to figure out which legs to wave to swim, and by the time he had quit sneezing, Ripple was back. “Come on?” she added in a rather impatient tone.

He waved a hoof at her. “I’m coming, I’m coming. Just let me get organized.” The water breathing spell had only given Turpentine the same gills he could see now on Ripple’s sides as she huffed in frustration at his slow pace, not her paddle-like flippers or tail. By moving his hooves in sort-of a circle, he could make slow forward progress, but it only caused Ripple to become more frustrated while she darted and swirled around him.

“We’ll starve before we get there,” huffed Ripple, blowing a little water up past her nose to make her mane swirl and the gold and silver maneclip bounce on her forehead. “Maybe if I pushed you.”

“No, no, nono! Eeep!” protested Turpentine as she nudged him on the rear, making him suddenly sympathetic with the way Ripple had not wanted him closely examining the same end of her. Panic precipitated thought in his noggin and he pointed up above him. “How about using that instead?”

* *  * *

Their solution to Turpentine’s slow swimming speed was a little scary and a lot exciting. A short chunk of the rope being used to hold the raft together was untied, and Ripple gripped one end in her teeth while Turpentine held onto the other. He could not see or hear a thing while she swam, because the water roared past his ears almost like a waterfall and he had to keep his eyes tightly closed. Occasionally she would change directions, and once she even splashed up out of the water in a long, shallow dive that made Turpentine feel the light scrape of an underwater sandbar under his belly and the tingle of pinpricks all over his coat when they reentered the water with a massive splash and a suspicious giggle from somewhere in front of him.

She was just as fast underwater as Turpentine was slow. Faster, most likely.

Ripple eventually slowed to a halt in a tall forest of weeds which stretched far up above their heads. She spit out the rope end and laughed, rolling around in mid-water while holding her belly, which after a due amount of panting for breath, Turpentine duplicated.

“That was fun!” said Ripple once she could breathe again. “Every time I looked back, you looked like you inhaled a minnow!”

Turpentine snorted and coughed, waving a hoof as a small speck of silver sped out of his nose. “How did you guess?”

“Ewww,” she said, wrinkling up her nose. “Booger-minnows. Come on. Let’s eat.”

The water plants were delicious, although Ripple had to show Turpentine how to eat around the little bladders that supported them in the water because of the tragic potential for farting all day long. They laughed and played in the weeds between bites, with Ripple showing him how to best move his inefficient hooves to swim ‘like Gabby’ in the warm but slightly murky water. It was a side of the world Turpentine had never seen before, and he marveled as Ripple showed him the rest of the underwater meadow with all of the colorful little shells and snails scattered across the rocky bottom and excitable frogs who could be poked from the bottom and made to jump in giant leaps, much like springs. She even showed Turpentine her baby pet turtle named Aspidochelone, who really didn’t do much other than float in the shallows and sleep.

Afterwards, they had a game of tag, although Ripple had to use only one front flipper in order for the game to be even nearly fair, and by noon, they had worked their way over to a swampy area at the edge of the river where a small tributary flowed in, and a collection of spicy water peppers grew in huge random blotches.

“You’ve got it made,” said Turpentine, reclining on a scraggly tuft of water peppers which had been too tough to eat but made a perfect cushion. He had spent so much time underwater today that being on the surface like this, even though his soggy rump was still under the surface, felt oddly exhilarating and risky, with every pollen-filled breath being stuffed full of promise. “I mean you can go wherever you want, always have enough to eat, you’ve got a mother who loves you and who knows how many aunts, because you keep talking about them.” He brushed some pollen off his nose and burped, a deep and resounding noise much like a bullfrog. “This is great.”

“Yeah, it is.” There was just a moment where a dark cloud of depression shadowed Ripple’s happy face, then her cheerful sunny disposition came back out and she promptly splashed him with her tail. “Ha! You’re all wet!”

“So are you!” Turpentine attempted to duplicate Ripple’s movement with his own pony tail and sprayed a wide arc of water all around the swampy area, which of course led to retribution, and retaliation, or re-tail-ation as he remarked and got a much more effective tail full of water in return for his trouble. In the end, they both collapsed on their backs into an abused stack of the water weed which had been somewhat diminished by their efforts and laughed at each other while basking in the sunlight.

“Mother would throw a fit if she saw us,” said Ripple with an additional splash from her tail. “She says a proper filly does not show her tail to any colt without the approval of her father.”

Turpentine returned the wet tail splash with somewhat less enthusiasm while he wriggled his shoulders to get his back into a more comfortable position against the plant roots. The topic was painful, but the sun was warm and the shallow wetland plants comfortable, plus Ripple knew what it was like to be missing a parent. “Yeah. That’d be kinda difficult for both of us.”

“I know.” Ripple splashed him again and held her tail up afterwards, giving her the appearance of some five-legged pony waving their limbs around. “I don’t know why my mother has such a thing about tails. I mean she always has problems with her pony tail before she goes to see Mister Gabby. It’s like she doesn’t know which end to point at him.”

Turpentine scoffed and waved a hoof. “It’s something… well… You’re too young,” he stated in his best authoritative voice.

“I’m almost nine,” said Ripple. “I’ve got my cutie mark and everything. Besides, you said you were almost eleven, and that’s only two years older than me. And fillies are more ‘mothionally mature than colts, or at least that’s what Mister Baron Gaberdine says.”

“Well…” Turpentine shifted positions to give his morning breakfast and noon lunch a little free space to digest. He had time, and it was a good opportunity to show just how much smarter he was than the little filly. “Mother Windrow has gentlecolt callers.”

“Oooo,” said Ripple, rolling over on her belly and looking at him with sparkling green eyes. “Does she do up her mane in a ribbon and spend hours looking at her reflection, trying to get her face right?”

“That’s part of it,” admitted Turpentine. “I have to be on my best behavior at dinner, and she gives me this list of questions I’m permitted to ask. It’s not a very long list,” he added. “And then after I get sent to bed, they sit out on the porch and talk.” He lowered his voice. “Sometimes, I think there’s kissing involved.”

Ripple giggled and lowered her voice also. “Mother doesn’t want me to know, but sometimes she kisses Mister Gaberdine too. I don’t know why they try to keep it a secret. They spend most of their time at breakfast not looking at each other, even though he dresses in his best tie and she wears a fresh flower behind her ear. Then, if I leave early and go out to play in the lagoon…” She puckered up and made smooching noises while fluttering her long eyelashes, which sent the two of them into hysterics again.

“Adults are weird,” said Turpentine.

“Oh, yeah,” agreed Ripple. “I wish I could stay here and play with you forever. You’re a lot more fun than my stodgy old aunts.”

The idea set Turpentine’s mind reluctantly into action again, which he really did not want. Then again, it was an idea which had been scratching around at the back of his head all day anyway, and his mind was comfortably occupied with a full belly too, so he did not have to think too hard about it.

“I’m probably stuck on that sandbar for a few days,” he admitted. “Until I get the raft off it, I suppose I could spend some time with you. After all,” he added with a low belch, “you know where all the good places to eat are around here.”

“Really?” Ripple looked up with a happy grin, although it faded a little as she looked upstream. “I’ll miss you when you go.”

That warm feeling in Turpentine’s chest felt a chill breeze blow by, and he tried to shake it off with a grin of his own. “When I get established in Baltimare, I’ll make paintings of all the exciting places there and bring them back to show you. Then when Baron Gaberdine teaches you how to use your magic to change into a unicorn shape, he can bring you by to visit. It’s a big place, all full of ponies to see and sights to visit, like the docks and the art museums and the zoo, where they have all kinds of exotic anim—”

He broke into a quick coughing fit to hide his blunder, but Ripple only splashed him with her tail again. “You mean like in Quackers Goes To The Zoo where she meets the monkeys and the walrussesses and the eagles? That sounds fun. My mother says that seaponies really don’t have zoos. She says it would be difficult to know just which side of the fence all of the creatures would go on.”

“They could take turns,” suggested Turpentine. He snuggled down into the sun-warmed weeds next to Ripple and closed his eyes for a moment. “You know, you’re pretty cool. For a filly, that is. I’ve never had a filly as a friend before. The fillies in school just thought I was weird. There were a couple of unicorn colts in a family who tried to adopt me, but they never really liked me either.”

“You’re pretty cool too, Turpentine,” said Ripple, putting her head on his sun-warmed shoulder. They stayed there on their backs in the noon sun for a while as the breeze dried the parts of their coats that remained above the water and the swamp insects droned around them, still keeping their distance from the insect repellent Turpentine had so diligently applied to both of them last night. He was just nodding off for a brief nap when Ripple abruptly asked, “Do you remember your mother?”

“Huh?” The question felt much like a punch to the gut, reminding him again of how much Ripple tended to the unexpected. At least she had not bumped him into deep water again, but the pain was worse than catching some sand in the thin slots of the spell-generated gills across his chest. “Yeah,” he eventually said. “I try not to, because it hurts so much, but sometimes when Mother Windrow would wake me up in the morning, I would hope and pray that it was all a bad dream, and that she had come back to pick me up. I drew some pictures of my mother back then, but they don’t really look like her.”

Turpentine wriggled over onto one shoulder and looked at Ripple, who seemed to be lost in thought. She used her magic to pick up a thin blade of water pepper weed and waved it in front of her like a conductor in front of an orchestra. “I don’t remember my father at all. Mother says I was very small when he went off to the Lightless Deep and we had to flee. He was big and strong and brave… and dead.” She snuggled a little closer as a cool Fall breeze gusted across them. “Do you think Mister Baron Gaberdine would make a good father?”

“Uh… He sounds nice.” Turpentine waved away a curious dragonfly. “I’m not really a good one to ask. My record on finding new parents stinks as bad as my skill at driving rafts.” He frowned in thought, holding up a hoof next to Ripple, but dismissed the question after considering it for a while. After all, Gaberdine sounded like a nice seapony, and Pearl sounded like a nice seapony. Maybe they could make a nice family for Ripple while Turpentine went to Baltimare.

“I’m just worried,” said Ripple, holding up her foreleg next to Turpentine’s and looking at the way they contrasted. “I mean, what if my mother likes Mister Gaberdine so much that they forget about me?”

Turpentine snorted and bumped the back of his hoof against Ripple’s flipper. “How could she possibly forget about such a cool little filly as you? Maybe they’ll have a whole school of little seaponies and you can be a big sister over all of them.”

“Like tadpoles, only not for eating,” said Ripple, scooping an errant tadpole out of the water next to her and holding it over to Turpentine by cupping it in the hollow of her flipper. “Did you want one?”

“Eww,” said Turpentine. He wrinkled up his nose, but he still looked down at the little captive frog-ette. It looked so odd with big bulging eyes and a pair of tiny legs to each side of the tail, then it was gone when Ripple slurped it up and swallowed. “Eww!” he added with more emphasis. “Gross.”

“Yummy,” said Ripple, flicking a little bit of tadpole water at his face. “Mister Baron Gaberdine doesn’t mind eating fish. He says that someday he’s going to fry us up some frog legs, just like in the griffon cookbook he found. And someday soon he’s going to steam clams for all of my family.”

“That’s not nearly as bad,” said Turpentine, feeling more comfortable now that the conversation was going back to a topic which had been covered, although briefly, in one of his books. “In Daring Do and the Isle of View, the evil Ahuizotl’s minion captures her on a tropical island, and they have to join together to fight for survival in the terrifying jungle of the Fillyppine Islands. They wind up diving for oysters and roasting them over an open fire, just to survive. They ate a lot of oysters in that book, and in the end, the minion gave Daring one of the pearls they found.”

“Ooo,” said Ripple. “Did they get married and live happily ever after?”

“No,” scoffed Turpentine. “Daring Do flew away and Ahuizotl yelled at her like he always does. That way they can have a new book out in a few months.” He paused. “What were we talking about?”

“Families, I guess.” Ripple shrugged, making ripples spread out from their soggy resting spot. “Hey, did you wanna do something fun?”

* *  * *

One of the tributaries feeding the river was a brisk jet of cool water, making it flow under the surface so rapidly Turpentine was unable to make any headway, no matter how strong he paddled. Well, admittedly his best paddling was not much, but when Ripple nudged him from behind, he cleared the surface of the water with a loud yelp.

All thoughts of a cold nose up his backside banished for the moment, Turpentine looked up at the cascade of water pouring down the rocky face of the streambank. It was beautiful in its own way, with a spray of mist making natural rainbows all up and down the face of the rocky outcropping as the stream jumped from pool to pool before sweeping into the warmer river water. There was even a little water vapor rising from where cool and warmer water met, making Turpentine suddenly get an intense desire for a sketch pad and his pencil.

“Come on,” said Ripple after surfacing beside him and taking a breath of air. “If we get right up by where it drops into the river, we can ride it all the way into deep water.”

“Have you ever tried to ride it from up there?” Turpentine pointed with one hoof at the top of the cascade of water where it first began its plunge down to the river.

Ripple raised one damp eyebrow and waved a flipper at him.

“Oh. Yeah, you’d have a rough time climbing up there, I suppose. Unless…”

* *  * *

Despite the shifting burden of Ripple, who insisted on checking out every bush and butterfly while being draped across Turpentine’s back, he continued plodding up the narrow path they had discovered leading to the top of the series of squat waterfalls. His legs felt like lead, but it had just been so much fun the first time they had splashed down the water, from pool to pool, shrieking all the way until they were swept out into the warm river. It was just as much fun the second time, even though he banged one knee on a rock, and the third time, although it took him a few minutes to recover from being disoriented when he caught a hoof on the sandy floor of the river and cartwheeled.

He was getting a handle on this. Still, the fourth time was going to be the last time, at least for today.

And after they finished splashing from pool to pool and glided out into the warm river, Turpentine seriously considered a fifth. His stomach gave a questioning growl of digestion while he looked up at the setting sun, and he gave a sigh once they had finished giggling.

“It’s going to be dark soon, Ripple. I probably should get back to the raft. We can do this again tomorrow, though.”

“Oh.” It was a little shocking to see how quickly the little seapony went from giggling to morose. She swallowed hard and looked downstream before turning to pick up the length of rope she had been using to pull Turpentine through the water. “Tomorrow. Right.”

That was as many words as Ripple said through the whole swim back to the raft, with Turpentine towed along behind like a sack of flour. The little seapony even seemed to swim slower, with a repetitive up and down motion to her tail that seemed more rote than her original eager slicing through the water.

It was puzzling, but he could not really do anything about it while clutching onto the rope with his teeth and trying not to bounce off the riverbed. By the time she slowed to a halt at the edge of his familiar raft, the reason for her reluctance became obvious.

There was a unicorn stallion standing in the middle of the raft, looking rather disappointed while holding onto Ripple’s silver horn-ring with his magic.

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