“The Manitor” by Jon Wallace
(with apologies to Mr. Twain)
At first I thought I was for the Cause. Like Pap said: anyone living on the Mississippi should know which side was his. Pap and I didn’t fight, him being too old and me being a girl, but both my brothers had died for the South, so we figured we was paid in full.
Then one Sunday a pack of horsemen ride onto our land, all hollering something terrible, making such a show they didn’t see me walking there, and a horse knocks me down and I split my head open on a rock. I looked up and saw the rider, clutching a magnolia flag. I didn’t cry or nothing, I didn’t have time.
Pap about lost his mind. He pulled the rider from his pony and struck him hard, three hits that knocked the man senseless. Pap came for me, when suddenly he snorts blood and drops like a sack, a bullet cut through his chest. I tried to help him up, but the shooter pulls a dumb, fat horse over me and hauls me onto his saddle. He wore a silver cross on a chain, and it dangled in my face and caught in my hair. I had to watch as they tossed Pap in the river. He kind of twisted in the water, then sank. I wailed some to see it.
“Hush now, little lady,” says the rider. “He should’ve known better than to assault they who fight for the Cause.”
Right then and there I decided: the Cause could hang.
The rider, who they all called the Preacher, said he would make me his maid. He said I’d better be good and not run, less I wanted to get treated same as Pap. Well, there was no fear of me escaping. Not while the Preacher drew breath. I was set on revenge, and figured I wouldn’t leave ‘til he was accounted for.
So I fetch up at their camp. It was an awful clutch of rotten tents defending a bend in Baker’s Creek. It was hot and the water was slow and the air full of flies, and they bit and stung you all night. The soldiers were numbskulls to a man, dressed in rags and most filthy. There was a shivering sickness among them too. Least half had it in their heads that ancient river demons spread the ague, as they were sore at man for fighting his war on their river.
A man named Thatcher showed me a clutch of talismans he hung on string round his neck, to ward off the demons. He fretted it wasn’t enough. “Vengeful spirits all round this camp” he said. “You’d best watch out. At night the river spits out the dead that it’s drowned, and they wander the camp—the dead, see—striking us down with the terrible ague.”
Well imagine. Shut up with a gang such as that.
The Preacher didn’t like the demon talk. He’d gather his boys around and wave a bible and work his jaw bout God. He had it on authority that they need have no fear of such spirits, that we in the South were God’s children, and so couldn’t help but prevail in this war.
I couldn’t see it. If we were God’s children then why should He smite so many of us? Who would do that to his own, less he was cruel or wrong in the head? Why not let us win the war quick, ‘stead of bleed slow?
I figure God was just an excuse, so when a man like the Preacher shoots someone good like my Pap he can point to the clouds and say, “I only does it because the divine says so.” I say there aren’t no demons, neither. Men fighting is nature, I reckon, same as dogs wag their tails. It’s for us girls to know better, says I.
The longer I stayed in the Preacher’s camp the less it felt like war and more like a saloon that never closed. Nobody did any fighting, they all just drunk and smoked and played cards. The Preacher stayed in his tent most days, praying and the like, calling out for service as it suited him. There were times when I thought about sticking him with my knife, but I was too cowardly and never seemed to find the guts. I felt awful lonesome sometimes, and would sit on the bank moaning and mourning, and looking into the black water and crying and wishing it would swallow me up along with Pap.
Then one morning the Preacher and some of his men mount up, and I hear them say they’re heading out to gather provisions. So I stood by as was custom, waiting with the Preacher’s saddlebag as he climbs onto his dumb, fat horse. Then, I spy something drop from him. It was his cross. Well, without even thinking I picked it up and jabbed it right into that fat horse’s flank, just to show it.
It was the beatenest thing. The horse reared up and tossed the Preacher. He landed bad, on his neck, and right away I could tell he was dead. His men gathered him up and took him into his tent. Nobody went for me. They were too busy wailing about the river demons being up to mischief, the blame fools.
That night the gang elected Thatcher their new leader. I snuck out through the trees while they toasted the idea. I thought I’d find my way home, and drag Pap out the river, and bury him right.
Only I was good and lost. I tried to follow the track the way we’d come, but I wanted to stay in the trees less Thatcher rode out after me, and it got dark and I lost sight of the road. I was wandering for a long time, with the moon blot out by the trees, and sounds of the animals terrible close. So mighty glad was I when I came across the river. It was knotted up with grasses, but I could see the stars again, which was shining bright.
By and by I slept, and woke the next day feeling better. Says I to myself: I’ll follow the river till it clears some, then swim until I find a town or a raft. Then I’ll head south, away from the fighting.
So I bend to wash in the river, when I spot something. I see a catfish, a huge one, lying on his side close into shore, tangled up in sedge. I’d never seen such a size – fat like the Preacher’s horse, and most five feet from mouth to tail. I lay still, holding my breath, wondering how best to catch him. I was awful hungry, but he’d fling me to Jericho if I grappled with him.
I sat and thought this way and that, about as stuck as the catfish, until I decide there was no choice but to go in after him. I knew it was hopeless, but I couldn’t shake the thought of that white meat. So I waded in, the fish still as can be. I got so close I could reach out and grab him. I tugged on his fins, which felt stiff and cold, and I drag him half onto the shore. He was perfect still, and didn’t fuss none.
That’s when it hit me: the fish weren’t natural. There was something on its back—a kind of pipe, so small as you’d miss it. It poked behind the fin, and made a little steam. There was something strange about the beast’s mouth too. There were little metal clamps running the length, sealing it shut.
If I hadn’t had an uncommon level head I might have thought it a river demon, like Thatcher and his would have. I could have run. But like the English doctor says: curiosity is the certain characteristic of a vigorous mind. So I set about dragging this tin fish onto the bank.
It was hard work. The fish was heavy, and snagged on something, so I could only lift it halfway. That’s when I noticed a hook, sort of fixed in the back fin, and tied to a black cable. I couldn’t undo the binding, and my knife wouldn’t cut it. So I pried at the mouth clamps instead, wondering what I’d find. I was at it for a good time, until all of a sudden the mouth pops open, a whole side of the head lifting free.
Well I most fainted.
There was a boy inside. His eyes were closed, and water poured out his nose, and he lay among bright blue crystals, and a thin steam come off the whole arrangement. I rolled him onto the bank, and pushed on his belly until he choked and opened his eyes.
He said his name was Woodson. He said he was a soldier, which I couldn’t figure, seeing as he was dressed in nothing but rags and bare older than me. He was set on getting back to his camp, though he was shivering and whiter than catfish meat. He had a frightful cough, and he stopped here and there to throw up blue sludge. I asked him which side he was with.
“What in the nation are you asking?” he said. “I’m for the Union.” He eyed me curious for a moment, so I said I was dead set against the rebs too. He said I should come with him then, as there were gray backs all over. I asked him how we’d get by them, and he said we needn’t, as we were well east of them. Well you could have knocked me down. I’d been so lost I’d fetched up farther from home.
Woodson’s camp was considerable more military than the Preacher’s. It was a long, cleared stretch on the river, and there were smart brick buildings, three of them. The largest sat on the riverbank, next to a jetty. It had a tall, smoking chimney and a ramp running down into the water. Woodson called it the “factory.”
The camp was mighty busy, buzzing as you might say, with more boys of Woodson’s age running hither and thither. A few men stood about clutching rifles, though I wouldn’t call them soldiers neither, seeing as they didn’t wear uniforms, and I didn’t spy no Union flag.
One man kind of stuck out. He wore a shining, tall black hat, and smoked a cigar. Woodson made right for him, pulling me by the hand. Something about the man’s eyes made me want to bolt, that way some eyes do—but Woodson said to come along, so I went.
“Mr. Ford!” said Woodson. “Mr. Ford!”
The man looked up.
“Well, Mr. Woodson. Returned to the fold I see?”
Woodson smiled and agreed he had.
“Very well,” said the man, “but who’s this you’ve brought with you? A guest, is it?”
Woodson explained how I’d freed his tin fish, and dragged him out the water, and pushed the water out his belly. Ford nodded, watching me with eyes black as his hat.
“Then we are deeply obliged, Miss. Perhaps you would like to remain with us here, help us in our work? The camp requires a maid.”
I had the idea from those eyes that it weren’t a request. Still, if they were set against Thatcher and his I was with them. I said I would stay.
So I sets to work. Each morning I’d wake and clean out the barracks as the boys went down to the factory, and here and there I had the chance to see the whole operation.
It went like this: two boys called “Loaders” would bring one of the tin catfish, which they called “Manitors”, out the factory and lay it careful on the jetty with its mouth hatch open. The inside was shining copper, spouting thin levers as white and frail as fish bones, and other contraptions like wheels. Then a boy would wriggle inside – they called him the “Pilot.” Once he was settled the Loaders tipped a barrel of blue crystals all over him, till it looked like he was lying in a bath of the stuff. Then they’d seal the boy up inside, run a hooked cable through the tail fin, and hoist the Manitor up on a crane. They’d lower him in the water then, that fin pipe already smoking and popping, and watch it dive and slink off up the river. Later on there’d be a commotion, and they’d drag the Manitor back by its tail. Then they’d let the Pilot out, always pale and a’shivering and throwing up blue fluids.
Woodson and I would share a pipe in the evening, so I got to asking what all these strange labors was for.
“For Gracious sakes. You are awful ignorant, ain’t you?” he says. “The gray backs have a fortress name of Vicksburg, see – it’s a few miles yonder. But the Union can’t get close. River approaches is too well guarded. Well, we’re going to change that. In the Manitor we can sneak up on the reb guns and blow them to kingdom come. They’ll never even know we were there. Mr. Ford is a great inventor. A man of science and industry. He’s going to win the war.”
I was most curious, and I said I wanted to see inside the factory. Woodson weren’t keen, but I guess he felt he owed me after I rescued him. So that night we crept down to the river, and takes a look inside.
Well, it was hot in there, and filled with foul-smelling steam. There were great workbenches as tall as my chin, with pieces of Manitor lying asunder. A complete tin fish hung from chains on the wall. Woodson heaved on the chains and lowers it, and shows me the inside. He was kind of proud.
“See here,” he says. “These controls are simple enough. This piece here lies over your eyes and lets you see outside, though that ain’t much under water. You have to surface to take a good look. This lever sends you up and tips you down, and this here’s for left and right. See? Simple as pie.”
“Why’d they tie the chord in its fin? It was that what got you stuck, weren’t it?”
“Well, that can’t be helped. They need to make sure they can reel us in, less we get in some trouble.”
That sounded foolish to me. What more trouble was there than drowning all snagged up in sedge? I didn’t press on it though. It pleased Woodson to look on the contraption, I could tell.
“What about the crystal?” I says. “Why should you lie in that? Don’t it make it hard to move? What’s it for?”
Woodson knits his brow and shivers. “I don’t rightly know the ins and outs,” he says. “But it makes the steam that moves the Manitor.”
“Shucks, would I know? All I can say is it makes you cold. Mighty cold. Pale too, like a ghost.”
So he hung the Manitor again, yanking on ropes to hoist it up, just as we found it. As I look at the fish all strung up I ask:
“Where’s the cannon?”
“There ain’t no cannon.”
“Then how you gonna blow up the gray backs?”
“There’s a bomb in the fish head,” he says, like it weren’t nothing. He found a tin on the workbench and pried it open, wary like it might be full of bees. Instead there was a kind of dough inside.
“That don’t look much,” I said.
“No, it don’t. But it can blow a locomotive clean in two. I seen it. You have to be mighty careful with it. Lay it by a flame or handle it rough and you’ll know about it.”
“So, how do you use it? You throw it?”
“No, no,” he says. “The Manitor nose is packed with it. We just sets it off.”
“With you still inside?”
He said that was so. I could scarce believe it.
“So… you get blown up too? Pilots all die?”
“I should reckon.”
He gripped me by the arm and led me out the factory.
“If it kills slavers, I’d die a hundred times.”
Well I sat up most all the night thinking on what Woodson had shared. Seemed to me that Ford weren’t no great inventor, strapping bombs to boys. It was more killing, however you eyed it. I thought of what the English doctor said – that war ain’t nothing but a calamity in which every species of misery is involved. I resolved to break up the whole mean enterprise, and the hour I slept was the sleep of the just.
But you know how it is. You go to bed stuck on something and when you wake up it’s gone and slipped off somehow, and you can barely remember anything ‘cept you’re hungry and it’s breakfast time. That’s how it was with me, shamed as I am to say. A few days passed and all I could think of was my duties.
It was a week afore I turned hot about it again. I finished sweeping the main blockhouse and was sat on the step, when I hear some commotion down the jetty, and see the Loaders struggling with the crane. One of them trips, and the other couldn’t hold on alone. They tried to run, but it were too late. The Manitor fell hard on its nose, and then there was a mighty report, and the whole factory gets swallowed up by a great, bright flash. I felt the heat of it on my face, and it knocked me on my back and for a minute it was raining bricks.
By the time I found my sense I could hear such screaming and noise, and see nothing but smoke, and smell fried meat. I run down towards the shore. I saw Woodson running too. Well, we found the jetty was gone, and the factory, and all who’d been there. Eight boys, all dead.
That night I wait on Mr. Ford at dinner, as his servants were dead. He took his meal with a soldier who’d come to visit. Their feed was more than ours: pork, cabbage and greens, and wine too – plenty of wine. Drinking it sure loosened Ford’s tongue.
I expected him to beat himself up ‘bout the accident, but he was angry instead, hot and spitting. I could hear every word through the wall.
“…half the force gone. Their foolishness cost me near all my explosives. You have to give me more time.”
Then the soldier’s voice:
“Ford, please. You’ve had more support than most. There ain’t going to be no more money. Seems to me this enterprise was always—”
“I know what you think. I know what the whole forsaken army thinks. Same as they thought of Maxim, before he made the greatest weapon the world’s ever known. Before he made more money than the Devil. I’m a visionary, see, same as he.”
“Your vision’s been blown across the state, Ford. I’m afraid I’ll have to recommend the station be closed. There’s nothing left to do, is there?”
I heard Mr. Ford stand and kick the wall.
“Girl! Get in here. Bring the wine.”
I did as I was told, taking in a fresh bottle. Ford fixed me with the black eyes while I poured. With his hat off he looked older, and meaner too.
“The problem is,” said the soldier, “You use boys. What do you expect from such young ones but mistakes and mischief? Why, not one of your tin fish has yet made it to Baker’s Creek.”
“You’ve clean missed the point,” said Ford. “It has to be children. A larger Manitor would look too unnatural. Besides, a man-sized contraption would never maneuver in the tight channels they have in this country.”
“Well, there you have it,” said the soldier. “The vision is flawed.”
“Humbug. The problem is the controls. Their operation requires finesse, precision. Small, dainty-like fingers.”
He looks at me then, a spark in those coal eyes.
“Girl. Come here. Put that bottle down, now.”
I did as I was told. He gripped my hands in his, turned them over. Smiled. I’d never beheld him smile before. I can’t say it was a welcome expression.
“If you want a demonstration,” said Mr. Ford, addressing the soldier, “you’ll get it.”
“Oh please,” said the soldier. “You’re not thinking about—”
“Why not? These hands are perfect. Just perfect. She’s smart this one too. Had schooling.”
“Get ahold of yourself, Ford. Wars are fought among men.”
“Oh hush,” said Ford, standing all excited and spinning me round in a dance. “That ain’t true no more, if it ever was. New kinds of war call for new kinds of warrior, that’s what I say. You’ll see. We’ll succeed yet. Make some money. I ain’t the one to miss out. There’s glory to be gained!”
So the very next day Ford has Woodson train me on the Manitor. Woodson and the boys was plenty raw about it, like I’d taken some toy from them. I couldn’t figure why they’d be jealous. When you come down to the hard facts, I hadn’t asked to be there. Besides, I was taking on their danger.
Well, Woodson talked me through it anyway, speaking careful and clear like I were slow as snails. He showed me the controls again, and talked me through how the dough worked, and how to handle it, and how to use fuses, and how long it would take to blow up. He went on some about the catches on the Manitor mouth as well: he said once I was sealed inside I was locked up for good.
“So it won’t do crying or trying to get free.”
Well, I wasn’t sure about that: I studied the catches close, and reckoned a blade would pry them open from inside as good as from out. I wondered how Woodson and the boys hadn’t spotted it, but didn’t say nothing.
When they was sure I had it all, they set me off on my first training trip. I lay down in the Manitor, and they tip the crystal over me, and seal me up inside, in the dark. It was hard to breathe, and chilling too, but I was sure not going to let them hear me cry. There ain’t no backdown to me.
They lowered me into the river. I heard the water rushing, and felt it catch the Manitor and shake the whole business. And soon I was hurtling along in the current, and so afraid I could hardly tell which way was up.
Then I thought of what the English doctor said: that fear aggravates calamity. So I open my eyes, and look in what Woodson called the scope, and found I could see a little. It was sure murky, but I could make out the banks of the river, and further ahead see the bottom too. I could tell I was coming up to hit the bank, less I took action. So I finger the controls, and turn the Manitor left.
By and by I felt like I had the thing’s measure. I could move about fair easy provided I was headed forward. The only part that made me suffer was the crystals: they made it intolerable cold, like I were running in the natural over an iceberg in a snowstorm. I couldn’t stop shivering the whole trip, and it got so bad I thought I might freeze up and die.
Then I feel a jerk and a pull, and I realize the Loaders are hauling me in. It felt like years, but finally they snap open the fish and haul me out.
Well, they all looked at me with quiet faces. When I saw my hands I knew why: the skin had turned clear, kind of like water. I thought I could see through it. I near fainted, but Woodson made me drink a cup of wine, and the shivers stopped.
Ford was so pleased he was jumping. He showed me off to the soldier and clapped and said now we’d see what his Manitors could do. The soldier asked if it wasn’t a “Womanitor” now, but that only made Ford laugh more, and dance and sing.
I was scared, more scared than ever before. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to fight the rebs no more. I even felt lowly about killing the Preacher.
So that night, I sat by the river alone and gave it some thought. The easy thing to do would be to obey, to follow orders like Woodson. But like the English Doctor says: what is easy is seldom excellent.
So I stayed up, thinking on a plan. I resolved I would clear the reb camp without killing a soul. Sure, it might lead to more killing: if the Union broke through to Vicksburg, or if Ford got more money and built more Manitors—but at least none of that blood would be on me. I know it was selfish, but that’s the way it was. It’s no use dressing it up.
So the next time the Manitor had its nose packed with the exploding dough. I was crammed in after it, my hair sticking to the surface. Ford and the Soldier watched from the shore, looking excited like dogs smelling dinner. I held my breath as the Loaders tipped crystals over me, feeling the chill take my bones.
They snapped the Manitor jaw shut and I breathed easy again, since none had spied my knife, which I’d tied by fuse wire round my neck and hidden under my shirt.
I felt the Manitor lifted on the crane, dipped in the water, then the rush as the current caught me and pushed me on. It was easier the second time. I kind of felt the river, and found I could steer my way. I figured the boys must be dumb as stumps not to get a grip on it.
By and by I came to the stretch before Baker’s Creek, where Thatcher’s boys were. It was dusk, and I slipped the Manitor into the shore a little way east of the camp. I worked at the Manitor’s mouth clamps with my knife. It wasn’t easy to move, all packed in by crystal, and for a few minutes I thought my plan was sunk, and I wouldn’t be able to get out after all. I was scared but I worked away, until the Manitor mouth pops open, and I sneaks out, wading in the quiet gloom and shivering something dreadful. I hopped onto the shore, carrying a piece of dough, and I plants it under a tree with a fuse lit. Then I run back to the Manitor, rolling and crunching back into the crystal, and I clipped the mouth shut and slip way, further up the river, where I could peep at Thatcher’s camp.
So, just as planned, I sets about getting spotted. I had a worry it might take a while, but soon enough I see a man on the shore, and he spies me, and he takes to shouting and calling for help. Before long there were six of them in the river with me, including Thatcher, trying to haul me clear of the water. I did my best to seem like a natural catfish, thrashing about as hard as I could, while they cussed and dragged me onto shore.
Soon enough they discovered the wire coiled in my tail fin, and being drunken greenhorns they took it for the work of some rival fisherman, and cut it free. I was terrible scared they’d find the pipe behind my fin, and cut me out and gut me – but then, just in the moment, I hear the charge I set go off up the shore.
Well they all hollered and cursed, and dropped me there, the ground shaking as they leapt around me. Then I hear Thatcher’s voice, saying:
“Get it together boys. Saddle up!”
So they all rode out, leaving me beached. I snapped open the Manitor mouth and crawl out, feeling wretched. I dragged the tin fish down to the shore and tied him up out of sight. Then I hid myself in the tree line and waited for Thatcher and his to return.
They was back soon enough, just as night drew in, confused and scared and talking up a fright. They got worked up some more when they found the Manitor was gone. And soon enough they took to drinking again, and gathering round the fire for comfort, and speaking of river demons and such. So I sit there in the dark and wait, watching my hands to make sure the skin stayed good and clear, and listening to the fools talk themselves into a steam. Then, when they were good and thick, I swallow my jitters and I march out into the light of the fire.
Well, if you could have seen them. They just about froze with fear. I must have looked a sight, in nothing but my soaked breeches and shirt, and my skin so clear they could see right through me. Those expressions were a satisfaction to look at. I played it up pretty good, making a kind of moaning like a ghoul might, and walking with my hands before me, such as I saw an actor do at county fair.
The soldiers shrunk and writhed, but none ran just yet. I saw I’d have to do some talking.
“Flee from here, you all, less the wrath of the river demons be avenged with your blood.”
“It’s that girl,” said Thatcher, clutching his talismans. “The one who disappeared. When Preacher died.”
“The Preacher’s God couldn’t save him,” I moaned, believing it. “He wouldn’t save me neither. The Ancient River Demons took me. Flee before they take you too. Flee, before they drown you and take you to a watery grave!”
At that time I started coughing, and coughing hard. I hadn’t known it, but there were crystals in my throat, and now I heaved them up, a shimmering blue liquid that glowed in the night.
Well, that did it for them. They broke and ran, each last man, into the trees, begging mercy and swearing never to return.
I took a seat by the fire and warmed up. I guessed that would do for now.
So I took the rest of the dough and lays it by the fire, and jump into the Manitor and dive. And soon enough, as I sink into the river, I heard a mighty report, and felt sure the camp would be gone in another white flash.
Ford and Woodson would see it. Thatcher and his would too. And all would be satisfied they’d made the right choice, not knowing how wrong each were.
So I swum along, on and on, deeper and deeper. I got better at feeling the river, until it was like home. I got used to the cold of the crystals, as I didn’t shiver no more, and didn’t care nothing ‘bout the war. Sometimes a real catfish would swim along beside me, as if to wish me good day.
I hoped I’d find Pap somewhere, laid down in the riverbed. I figured he would have found it peaceful enough. After all, it was bout the only place in the delta where Demons didn’t dwell.
|Jon Wallace has previously been published in Interzone, Flashquake, Best British Fantasy, and many others.|