By climbing onto the roof of the strongroom, Sally could see the whole crowd of goldfishers that had assembled before her. They were clearly expecting her to say something. “Guess what!” she called out. “Raspadero’s gone! Hooray! You don’t have to work for him anymore!”
The goldfishers looked at each other, shuffled around a bit, then looked back at Sally.
“Well?” Sally said. “What else can I say? Good news, right?” And waited again for the crowd’s reaction.
They were a mixture of men and women, some older, some younger, but they all had the same faraway look in their eyes. After a long silence, one of the goldfishers cleared his throat. “Yes?” Sally asked eagerly.
“He’ll be back?” the goldfisher asked.
“Who? Raspadero? Oh no. Definitely not,” Sally said, shaking her head. “My brother, Tom – you might be wondering where he’s gone, well, you might have seen him slipping away, he was a jaguar – he’s going to trick Raspadero into…” But here her voice faltered; she could not quite bring herself to say what it was, exactly, that they had decided to do with Mr Leggs. “He’s going to take care of Raspadero, don’t worry. I promise.”
“Sure,” the goldfisher said, and a few of them shrugged.
Sally felt a touch of irritation. “It’s okay,” she said, “no need to say thanks. But there is one thing you could do: we need to take down that dam. You built it, you probably know the best way to demolish it.”
Silence, then a cough. This time it was one of the women who spoke.
“He’ll make us build it again.”
Sally closed her eyes and shook her head again. “No,” she said testily, “he won’t, because he’s not coming back. All right? Not Coming Back. So we can take down the dam, and set the river free, and the dolphins can come back from their hideout…Because, of course, I forgot to mention,” she said, shading her eyes, “we actually came here to help the river dolphins. But you too, of course; you can go back to fishing for gold, and being your own masters.”
“The river-dolphins,” one of the goldfishers said, and there was a murmur from the others, who began to smile thoughtfully.
“I saw one, once,” an old man said.
The words had an electrifying effect on the crowd. “You saw one?” they repeated, shuffling round to face the old man.
“I did,” he said. “I was a young man then…It was Leap Day. I got up early, and went to Silver Falls…”
“Ah,” the goldfishers said softly.
“I believe,” the old man said, after a long pause, “that it was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen.”
“Lovely,” sighed one of the others.
“Plenty of time to tell stories later,” Sally said briskly. “Shall we get on with it?”
The old man raised his eyes to her. At first Sally met his gaze, smiling; but his eyes were so deep and dark and that she felt a little unsettled. Slowly he nodded. “All right,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to say. I won’t forget the Leap – that’s all.”
“Very good,” Sally called, her voice rising in exasperation, “but to get back to the point, we have a dam to destroy. Yes? We’ve got axes, and saws, and plenty of rope; why don’t we get into a few teams, and get started?”
Shuffles and glances and, at the edge of the crowd, a few people drifting away…
“Hey!” Sally shouted angrily. “Where do you think you’re going? Get back here! I said we have work to do! What part of ‘work’ didn’t you understand? Get with it!” At the first word, the goldfishers had seemingly come alive; they turned, and grabbed their tools, and in their haste to obey Sally’s shouted commands, bumped into each other and began hurrying off in all directions. “Over there!” Sally yelled, her face red. “The dam, I said!” One of the goldfishers glanced fearfully back. And suddenly Sally began to shiver. “Oh no,” she moaned. “Oh no. I’m shouting at them, just like Raspadero…If all I can do is shout at them, I’m no better than he was.” And she sank to her knees and felt the splash of a tear. “This is not the way,” she murmured. The goldfishers were milling about in a confused jumble. “And to think that all I really wanted was to see a river dolphin for myself,” Sally thought, squeezing her eyes shut, “just like that old man, and I hardly even let him speak! Oh no…”
“What’s the matter, child?” asked a kindly voice. It was one of the women goldfishers. “Come, let me help you down from the roof,” she said, holding out an arm. “I’m Isabel.”
“Thank you,” Sally said. “I’m Sally…from Four Corner House…” Was it really possible that she had not even introduced herself yet? She blushed.
Isabel lowered her gently to the ground. “That’s better,” the kind woman said. “Now, dab away those tears…” and she produced a beautiful green handkerchief, embroidered with gold thread.
“Thank you,” Sally said, drying her eyes. “It’s just that…well, I do need to do something about that dam, and I don’t think I can do it alone…But people should only help if they want to. I’m sorry I yelled at everyone.”
“Apology accepted,” said one of the other goldfishers cheerfully. “I’m Francis. Pleased to meet you, Sally. You made us a bit nervous, climbing up on the roof like that. That’s what El Raspadero used to do. Sure we’ll take apart that dam; we need to, don’t we? Can’t fish for gold if there’s no river!”
The others agreed heartily.
“Well then,” Sally said, “do you have any ideas?”
“Truth is, the dam’s not all that strong,” Isabel declared. “You can see how she bulges and bends when the wax is in; the pressure from the water, you see. Just needs a little extra push and I reckon she’ll cave in.”
“Really? But that’s great!” Sally said. “Only…wait a minute. How can we push? We’d have to stand on the water…or build a big dock, or a pier…”
“For what it’s worth,” another goldfisher spoke up, “I reckon we ought to pull, not push. Alberto’s the name; nice to meet you. And regards to your father and mother,” he added with a wink. “The way I look at it, that wax ball is pretty heavy. If we put the wax in, and throw a rope around her, and get below the dam, and pull – why, the wax would press up against the dam, you see, and with that and all the weight of water too, she’d splinter and fall apart in no time.”
“Wow,” Sally said. “Sounds good. So…we start by getting a rope round the wax…”
“I see you brought your bow and arrow,” Alberto hinted.
“Of course!” Sally exclaimed. “I can stand below the dam, and fire one of my arrows over it so it sticks into the wax!”
“And if we tie a rope to the end of the arrow first, we’ll have everything we need,” Alberto agreed.
And that is what they did. Quickly the giant sphere of wax was hoisted from its cradle and swung out over the reservoir. For a few seconds it hung in the sunlight, a most peculiar-looking thing, the bottom half still covered with shining flakes of river gold, the top half white and bald where the gold had been stripped away. Then it plunged back into the waters and bobbed up slowly, drifting towards the dam. Isabel drew out her green and gold handkerchief and waved it to give Sally the signal to fire. Her arrow soared into the air, trailing the rope they had fixed to it in a long smooth arc, right over the dam, and thwack! into the wax.
Sally, standing elbow-deep in cold water, heard a cheer go up from the goldfishers watching above the dam, and knew that she had hit her mark. She waded ashore, beaming with happiness, and handed the other end of the rope to Francis, who was waiting with a team of draymen to pull.
“One, two, three, heave!” he called.
The rope pulled tight and Sally saw how the water began to stream through the cracks and gaps in the walls of the dam, just as it does when you squeeze a sponge.
“Heave!” Francis called.
Each of the draymen took a step back, straining with all their might. Overhead, Sally saw the cracks in the dam widen. Water was now pouring through in fifty different places.
“Francis…” she said nervously.
“Heave!” the goldfisher called, and the men took another step back.
“Oh, Francis…” Sally said, “I wonder if…”
“I wonder if,” Sally shouted over the rising noise of the water as it cascaded through the dam, “I wonder if we...”
“HEAVE!” said Francis.
“…I wonder if we should get out of the way!” Sally called, pointing at the dam. Francis glanced up.
“LEAVE!” he yelled. “Quick! Out of the way!” And dropping the rope, the goldfishers scrambled up the bank and ran as fast as they could. For the dam had split wide open, and a huge wall of water was bearing down on them. And spinning and bobbing furiously on the crest of the giant wave came the ball of wax, once again coated in bright flakes of gold that scattered the sunlight in all directions.
“It’s better than fireworks!” Sally laughed as the spray rained down on her. Water erupted through the broken dam and the dry channel of the river-bed was rapidly filling up. “We did it,” she said, hugging Francis and Isabel and Alberto and the other goldfishers. “Now the river dolphins can come home, and the forest can be itself again!”
“Hooray!” the goldfishers cheered.
“But wait a minute,” Sally said as a thought struck her. “What will you do with all the gold bricks you made for Raspadero?”
“We’ll put them back in the river, I guess,” Alberto said. “It will be a while before they disintegrate, but that’s all right. Goldfishers are very patient people…”
A few hours later, Sally stood on the muddy banks of the river. They had finished putting the gold bars back into the water, and most of the goldfishers had packed up their few possessions and were preparing to leave Raspadero’s camp. “It won’t be long before the trees grow back,” Alberto said. “And the broken timbers of the dam will rot, and the river will carry the wax ball out to sea…”
“And Oruba and his people will go back to their village,” Sally said. And the river dolphins? she thought. I wonder if they will come…She looked around for the old man who had seen a river dolphin once, years ago, at a place called Silver Falls, but she could not see him among the departing crowd. “Well, goodbye, Alberto,” she said. “I hope you find a good spot for goldfishing. May we come and see you sometime?”
“Of course!” Alberto said. “Goodbye, my friend!” He moved off down the river with Isabel and Francis. It had taken all day for the reservoir to empty. Now the river was back to its usual self, so wide that you could hardly see across; if not for the branches twirling in the current as they were borne away, it might have looked more like a lake than a river. Some of the goldfishers had decided to travel by water, and built simple rafts for themselves from the logs of the dam. “Goodbye!” Sally called to them as they floated away. “Thank you!”
She was tired. It had been a good day’s work. She wished Tom had been there to see the wall of water when the dam burst, but Tom was busy with Mr Leggs…She closed her eyes. It would be pleasant to lie down on the shore of the great river for a while; she could always make a campfire later, and sleep under the stars, and go home tomorrow. She found a comfortable spot not far from the bank and spread out some ferns and curled up on them. The soft music of the river flowing past was like a lullaby and she closed her eyes and sighed happily.
“It was a good day’s work,” she murmured to herself.
“Indeed it was,” said a gentle voice nearby. “Thank you, Sally. You kept your promise, and now we can go home.”
Sally lifted her head. Could it be? Her heart racing, she looked around. Twilight had fallen; the river was a glimmering sheet of silver. The voice seemed to be coming from a deep pool under the bank.
“Are you there?” Sally asked softly. “I can’t see you…”
“We do not show ourselves to Handkind very often,” came the gentle voice again. “We may talk, but you may not see me, dear Sally. Not today.”
“But I thought – I mean, the old man – the goldfisher – he saw you once, didn’t he?”
“It is true…It is possible that even now, he does not know the great service he performed to the river dolphins, such that we showed ourselves to him. But it is rare, Sally, very rare.”
“But didn’t I – I mean – I did a service, too, didn’t I…?” Sally said softly. She was conscious as she said it that the river dolphin might misunderstand; she was not expecting a reward, she just would have liked to see him. “I don’t mean to sound greedy,” she said, lowering her eyes.
There was a faint splashing, tinkling noise, which Sally recognized (though she did not know how) as dolphin laughter, and the voice said, “There is not a greedy bone in your body, Sally; that is plain for all to see. But we have our ways, just as you have yours…We will remember your service to the river dolphins for many generations. Believe me, Sally, we will sing your name often when we gather by moonlight…”
This sounded so lovely that Sally almost wanted to cry again; if their friend Oruba the shaman had offered to change her into a dolphin there and then for the rest of her life, she would have gladly accepted, if only for the joy of their moonlit singing.
“But Sally…” the voice continued, “there is something that troubles us, as a stone troubles the smooth flow of the water…I mean the fate of the one you called Leggs, and the forest named Raspadero. Do you understand me, my dear?”
“I think – I think I do,” Sally said, in a low, trembling voice. She felt a tear on her cheek. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“I know you are.”
“But what can we do?” Sally asked, clenching her fists. “Is it too late?”
“It may be that nothing is final, Sally,” the voice said comfortingly. “I think you know what to do. Your brother has gone to the mountains to reflect; you will find him there tomorrow. Until then, you should rest.”
“I am sleepy,” Sally said. “The stars are coming out, I can see them through the trees…Last night I was flying…”
“I will leave you to sleep,” the voice said.
“Yes? Is there something you would like to ask, Sally?”
After a moment Sally said: “Yes, there is…Where is Silver Falls?”
“Silver Falls,” the voice answered, “Silver Falls is a special place to the river dolphins. It is where we go for the ceremony of the Leap.”
“Will you tell me about it?” she asked drowsily. Her eyelids felt heavy.
“Of course…Every ten years, we gather at the Falls, and at first light, the young dolphins perform their Leap. In the murmur of the Falls, we hear the name of our destiny: to love; to be loved; to gain wisdom, or glory…I am glad you mentioned it, Sally, for we would like to ask you something.”
“Of course,” Sally said.
“To thank you for helping us in our need, we would like you to accept the Order of the Leap…It is our highest honour, and you would be the first of Handkind to receive it. What do you say, Sally?”
“The Order of the Leap,” Sally whispered, smiling. “It’s wonderful.” She was drifting off to sleep. Carefully, without disturbing her rest, the dolphins lifted her and swam with her slowly downstream, until they reached the curtain of vines that screened the Door to Four Corner House. Here they placed her on the bank again, bowed, and quietly took their leave.
The moon went down, the sun came up, and Sally woke with the strange sensation that she had been half-in, half-out of a dream all night. She had spoken with one of the river-dolphins…They would sing about her when they played together in the moonlit river….“The Order of the Leap,” Sally said to herself, as the memory flooded back. It was not a medal, or a ribbon, or a piece of paper to hang in a frame on the wall; it was more like a deep, contented feeling inside. Then she remembered the other thing the dolphin had said: Mr Leggs. And she knew with utmost clarity what the dolphin had been trying to tell her: They could not abandon Mr Leggs to his fate.
Sally got up and shook the leaves and twigs from her clothes. It was time to find Tom…
Next week: the children make a difficult decision, and say goodbye to Four Corner House…