Short Story: Walter's Walk
by Tony Morelli (2004)
McEagen knew it wouldn't be an easy job -- there were fish to catch, fruits and berries to gather, and wagons of wood, bamboo and other natural materials needed to prepare for the coming storm. Although Jim indicated there was a small chance this storm could pass without imparting severe damage, no one was comfortable taking any chances after the last typhoon ripped the roofs off half their huts.
This summer was like no other, and July still hadn't produced its full moon. The weather on the island was different this year. The air was thick and stagnant, and devoid of the mixed fragrances that usually swirled throughout their habitat. When it wasn't oppressively hot and humid, it was raining -- hard. The rain served the island's vegetation well; the fruits were full and sweet.
For this Walter was thankful, but not much else. McEagen assigned him the unenviable task of gathering food and supplies in quantities larger than what was normally needed for the clan. As he loaded his wagon with the last of the mini-harvest, he rued the wood-gathering chore that lay ahead.
Walter's strong stature (albeit lanky) made him the natural choice to perform the most physically demanding jobs. While he didn't doubt his dominant strength, he recognized there were others in the clan who could successfully perform many of the duties he was regularly assigned, or at the very least, help him.
Despite this recognition, Walter was without recourse. He was painfully aware that he had become McEagen's personal slave, and he had learned that the less words he spoke to McEagen, the less punishment and menial tasks he would receive. This reality had only worsened for him since last month's rise in status for the elder McEagen to Clan Leader until death, a role he predictably earned from the dynasty, but nonetheless had sent Walter silently reeling. By nature, Walter was easily managed by the socially superior McEagen, and McEagen had come to exploit this vulnerability with increasing frequency.
When Jim forecast the storm, both McEagen and Walter immediately knew Walter would be assigned the gathering job. The existing huts needed reinforcements, and food supplies were not deep enough to support the possibility of several days of restoration efforts.
Early this morning, Jim was unsure whether the storm would arrive tonight or tomorrow. If the storm were to come tonight, there may not be enough time to reinforce all the huts, and Walter's hut was sure to be the last one addressed. If the storm waited until tomorrow he would have time to complete the tasks, but Jim warned that the longer the storm stayed off shore, the stronger it would be when it arrived.
At some point while Walter gathered, the afternoon sun yielded to thickening clouds from the west. By the time he returned to quarters, a dull, silvery stillness settled over the island.
McEagen was clearly impatient and annoyed, but spoke in even tones. "Break down the food and deliver rations to each hut. Then reinforce the huts. What tools did you think you would use to do this?"
Walter steeled himself. "The storm is coming fast, I don't think it will wait for tomorrow. I will need the Sharpened Saber along with the hammer and spikes."
Since long before McEagen secured the role of Clan Leader, he had been the central repository for all tools on the island. Most of them he built himself, and he acquired the rest through trade and persuasion until he was ultimately able to convince the others that it was logical for him to maintain the entire inventory. He cared for them meticulously -- sharpening, repairing and restoring them after each use. The Sharpened Saber, his own creation from the finest island metals, was the sharpest and sturdiest tool in his arsenal.
"No. You'll get it done with a Standard Knife, and... maybe the Wide Saw," McEagen huffed. "The hammer and spikes are not a problem." He gestured for Walter to follow him to his hut to retrieve them.
Walter's stomach churned. He wanted to rebel -- to ask why he couldn't use the Sharpened Sabre under these extraordinary circumstances. The urge was fleeting, as fleeting as his hopes were for ascending his own rank on the island. The dynasty had provided for all since the beginning, it worked, they survived. There were no intentions or perceived need for change.
McEagen handed him a box with the assembled instruments. The Wide Saw was a cumbersome tool, one of McEagen's first, which he now bathed in oils to prevent further rusting. The Standard Knives were useless for all but spreading jam or whittling soft wood.
"You will start with this hut first," McEagen said, with his hand in front of his chest and his finger pointing at his feet. "You will then do Peter's, the Brier's, Hawk's, the Stevenson's, Anna's and Gabbie's, Suzanne's, the Wintlock's, and yours is last."
Walter's mind raced, assessing the amount of work and grasping for the right words. "It will take me about two hours per hut, without breaks."
McEagen responded immediately. "Then you'd better start now. Rations first - and definitely no breaks."
Walter had barely finished packaging three days' worth of rations for each hut when the rain began. This encouraged him; he remembered Jim's forecast, which suggested an early storm would pack less punch. Evening had already begun and it was clear he wouldn't finish reinforcing all the huts, but he was gaining hope it wouldn't be a problem. Holding on to that positive thought, Walter began separating the bamboo and other materials he gathered for the hut reinforcements.
"Walter! Walter, what do you think you're doing??" McEagen, holding a flat umbrella of stalk and leaves over his head, stomped out of his hut and into the now-driving rain where Walter worked. "Look at our tools!"
Walter looked at the box of tools which hadn't been touched since McEagen handed them to him earlier.
"They are getting soaked! Do you have any idea how difficult it is to treat and maintain these? Obviously you don't." McEagen placed his umbrella over the wooden box and lifted it. Holding the box in front of his belly, McEagen walked up to Walter as close as the box would allow. Expressionless, he stared into Walter's eyes as the rain saturated them indiscriminately. Despite the downpour and the depth of the box, Walter could smell the alcohol reeking from McEagen.
McEagen was drunk, as he was most nights. His intoxication helped him feel empowered; it was these moments when he felt most like Clan Leader. It was also a time when his demands were most unreasonable. The others on the island typically retired to their huts after the Third Meal, a practice which seemed to serve both them and McEagen well. On occasion Walter's chores slipped past dusk, and he was certain this was not by mistake.
McEagen drew a breath, and proceeded to speak with purpose. "You are going to find a way reinforce these huts tonight without my tools. Deliver the rations to all huts and begin working on mine immediately. I will be waiting for you in Peter's hut, and when you start your work there, I will move to the Brier's, and so on. You will show up to each hut within two hours, and the huts you leave behind will be strongly reinforced for this storm and all after it."
Gaining strength from his own words, McEagen continued. "Hasn't the dynasty has provided well enough for you? Do you think our civilization was founded without hard work? When my father died last month it marked the beginning of a new era. We will be productive and successful on this island, and we will provide for generations. You will do the labor required to support this -- or you will be the first on our island to be banished and shamed. You are like a child who needs to be instructed on everything you do. Tonight, you will find a way to do the job you said you would, but without our tools, for which you have no respect."
For a moment Walter mused that he couldn't feel the rain pounding his skin or the wetness of his clothes. He heard himself quietly agree to McEagen's demands and returned to separating the materials as McEagen walked towards Peter's hut, carrying his box of tools.
While Walter numbly selected materials from his gatherings to reinforce the huts, the storm reinforced its own strength with an increasing wind that caused the hard rain to slant. He steadied himself and looked west, watching the palm trees sway. Surely they would be bending soon. "This is useless," he said.
One by one, Walter lifted the boxes of rations and moved them into McEagen's hut, leaving the wood, sticks and stalk behind. When he reached the stoop of Peter's hut the trees bent periodically against the gusts. He knocked four times on the wooden door.
Peter was McEagen's brother and staunchest ally. As the island's alchemist and medicine man, he was highly valued among the clan not only for his power to heal and soothe, but also for his moonshine. No one quite enjoyed his alcoholic concoctions as much as his brother McEagen.
Peter opened the door about 5 inches and brought his chubby face up to the opening. "What is it, Walter?"
"I need to speak with McEagen," he responded. Peter swung open the door, grabbed Walter by the shirt to pull him in, and slammed the door shut behind him.
McEagen sat on a pillow in the far left corner of the hut, drinking mead from a wooden cup. His stupor was pronounced; it seemed he was stocking up on inebriation for the storm.
He clumsily raised to his feet as he barked at Walter. "What are you doing here? Did you finish the huts?"
"I never had the chance to begin. I put all the rations into your hut, and there is no chance that I will be able to reinforce the huts. The storm is strong already. We need a different plan -- I think we need to tell the others to abandon their huts. We'll be safer if we are together. Perhaps we can gather in your hut with the rations."
McEagen blazed, his red face twisted in a steady expression of repulsion. He proceeded with a slurred rage while gesturing wildly and spilling his mead. "Get out! You don't tell me what to do! Get out! You are a failure and you have now threatened the livelihood of our clan! You cannot be trusted and you are of no use to our civilization! Get off our land!!"
Walter recoiled, and tried to reason. "McEagen, please, I want -"
Walter looked toward Peter who feigned preoccupation by restacking some books against his wall. Walter then turned back to McEagen.
"You are a fool," he said. "We need to work together, this clan needs my help. We're in this together and sending me out of your clan will serve no purpose other than to divide us."
McEagen threw down his cup, took two steps toward his box of tools, grabbed the Wide Saw and held it in front of him. Peter stopped shuffling his papers and watched.
"Good point," McEagen said as his eyes narrowed. "You are better dead to me than alive, you worthless pig. I am Clan Leader and on this island I make the rules. Under my leadership we will return to Europe in glory where our clan will engage in trade and my kingdom will grow. Our ship will be complete in less than two years, and I will nail your skull to her nose!"
McEagen lunged forward with his saw. Walter easily side-stepped the attack and McEagen spilled in front of the doorway, nearly falling on his weapon. Walter opened the door and bolted west.
Walter walked west, headfirst into the storm. It was dark, and the driving rain in his face only permitted him to look at his feet as he plodded forward.
As he walked, he wondered why he was in retreat. Surely he could have overpowered McEagen, especially in his drunken state, Wide Saw or not. Indeed, as he walked Walter considered how fulfilling it would have been to kill McEagen with the very saw he attacked him with. But did McEagen deserve to die an anesthetized death? Walter was certain he did not. His intents were narrow; he intended to kill McEagen sober. Now ostracized from the clan with little hope for a meaningful existence on the island, Walter intended to act swiftly and profoundly to avenge himself against McEagen. But how?
Walter could no longer proceed -- the wind nearly lifted him from the ground. He found a large cluster of boulders and crouched, scheming.
When the sun rose up, Walter could clearly see the devastation around him. Large branches hung from stumped limbs, freshly cut by the storm. Debris scattered the landscape, and Walter realized with surprise that he was near to shore. He had, in fact, almost reached the lagoon.
The sand seemed to be blasted by wind and rain, streaked by dark sediment and containing half-buried driftwood and shells. Walter thought about Jim's forecast. "Too bad it didn't come later," he said to himself.
Walter walked the beach, thinking about the huts, and McEagen. Approaching a sand dune, a large figure caught his eye and he stopped. On the beach lay a massive creature: writhing, clearly out of its element and near death. It was a giant squid -- colossal in size - the body itself was over 10 feet in length, and two tentacles were at least as long. The pale, yet dark, brownish-reddish beast with 8 arms flailed in vain for direction and control, with the two longer tentacles slapping and scraping the sand periodically. Walter watched it struggle for a long while, until it stopped, exhaling a guttural grunt that shivered his spine.
He looked at the sand surrounding the squid, and saw some parts etched with thin trails. As he approached he observed large, ghastly hooks jutting from the clubbed ends of the squid's tentacles. Walter studied the appendages with admiration and fascination. "Like dozens of small Sharpened Sabers," Walter grinned. He peered for a moment into the creature's enormous eye, which stared back without emotion. He grabbed a leveled rock and began hacking at the mid-point of one of the tentacles.
The entire clan had gathered outside McEagen's hut. They mumbled about the storm and assessed the damage -- not as bad as the previous storm, it turned out, although the Wintlocks' roof was entirely blown off the foundation. Where was Walter? Several clan members discussed this and figured he would return soon to repair the damage.
McEagen emerged from Peter's hut, looking somewhat green, but sober.
Jim spoke. "Good morning, McEagen. Thankfully the storm wasn't as bad as it could have been. Still, as you can see, we will need some repairs. Did you speak with Walter this morning?"
Before McEagen could respond, Walter emerged from the brush with the tentacle draped over his shoulders.
Hawk, the oldest member of the clan, visibly jumped at the sight before him. "Walter! My God, what is that hideous snake you have about your neck?!"
McEagen looked at Walter with revolt and wonderment. He suddenly remembered the events of the night before, and managed to maintain some composure. His pride fueled his rage, and he started at Walter with complete disinterest in his bizarre pet. "Today I will finish the job!"
McEagen grabbed a stake from the pile Walter had separated the night before and continued toward him. Walter steadily walked toward McEagen and removed the tentacle from his shoulders, holding it at the base. Members of the clan gasped and parents skirted back to their huts with their children.
As McEagen approached with stake readied, Walter spread his grip and slowly twirled the tentacle club like a lasso.
McEagen tensed. "Walter, your defiance is your death, and your skull is my trophy!"
Walter took three longer strides toward McEagen and threw the tentacle club at him, allowing the back of the tentacle to slide in his right hand until he could grip it tightly with both hands at the base. The club whipped into McEagen's neck, with hooks deeply embedding his skin. McEagen's stake fell to the ground.
"It's time for me to finish the job," Walter told him, and he reached forward on the tentacle and pulled back sharply, ripping McEagen's throat from his body.
McEagen fell to his knees and sputtered. Walter swayed, and the members of the clan went deaf with loudly ringing ears. They joined McEagen in his final thought, engrossed in the essence and mystery of Mesonychoteuthis.