🎏 Ribbon Walker by Brenda Anderson

A picturesque tale about a family heirloom, a thief, and a trip back in time by Brenda Anderson

🎏 Ribbon Walker

by Brenda Anderson

The kelp in Tarni’s hand tingled. She inhaled. Harvested from underwater rocks near the beach, the spongy ribbons warned of impending danger. Over the years they’d developed an attachment to humans like herself and had tingled when, once before, a stranger turned up and threatened her. So now another one had come. Somehow, word had spread. For the spongy ribbons didn’t just warn of impending danger, they also helped favoured ones travel back in time. 

Tarni braced herself. “Who’s there?” She didn’t need a name, but might as well get this over and done with. “Show yourself!” 

A dark-haired, belligerent-looking man put his head round the side of her house, stepped out and stood in front of her. Broad built and strong. Physically, she was no match for him. She’d inherited green eyes, a slender frame and an alert mind. “You’re Tarni?” 

She nodded. The long ribbon of kelp in her lap gave her away. These days, to the best of her knowledge, she alone did ribbon-walking. 

The newcomer half-smiled. On him, it looked threatening. “I’m Boden. I’m coming with you on your next walk.” From his pocket he drew out a small object, and flicked it open. A knife. “So, let’s do this quick smart, yeah?”

Tarni eyed him. “What do you want?”

“I told you …”

“No. I said, what do you want? From such a trip?”

Boden grimaced, as if finding the right words were hard work. “I buy and sell, yeah? You do these trips, I’ve heard. And bring back stuff. I go with you, bring back something myself. It’s business. No-one gets hurt, yeah?”

“You would hurt me in an instant if I refused.” Tarni spoke each word with extra emphasis, as if he were a slow learner. “Listen, mister Boden. You don’t live here. You have no relationship with our sea, or the kelp. It only helps us, the ones who deal with it. You will die if you accompany me. It happened once before, so I know what I’m talking about. Forget that you came here. Go buy and sell somewhere else. Do you understand?”

Boden flushed. “Think I’m stupid? I get it. You don’t want company. But you’re getting it. C’mon, let’s go. I see you’ve got the means.” He looked down at the strip of kelp. “Quick.” He took a step towards her, and raised the knife.

“Put that away.” Tarni sighed. “I will permit you to come with me, but it will mean your death. I need you to acknowledge that you’re choosing this outcome.”

“Outcome?” Boden gave a mocking laugh. “Sure, I choose it. Where you go, there’ll be stuff I can make a profit on.”

“I strongly disagree. Plus, I’ve only ever brought back one thing.”

“Yeah, I heard about it. You got it valued at the museum. Said you only wanted its date, but let’s face it – turned out the thing was valuable. So, let’s do this.”

“Fine.” Tarni picked up the kelp, wound it into a loop and started walking to the shoreline. She knew all about the original ribbon walkers. Her parents had been friends with two of them. On his return, Bill had vowed to stick to fishing. Fred had wound up slightly crazy, though the village sheltered him as best it could. Her parents had suspected she would try, and warned her off, before they’d both taken ill. She’d given up an okay job in the city to come home and care for them, before they’d both died within a day of each other. 

She walked faster.

“Hang on!”

“Keep up. I’m not running.”

On the pebbly beach, Tarni laid the kelp in a line pointing out to sea. Boden came up beside her. “What happens next?”

“I walk the length of the ribbon, and then rise in the air. If you stay close to me, not touching, you will be able to mimic my movements. Do so. When we reach a certain point in the air, we will walk into the past.”

Boden grunted. 

Tarni started walking. Word was, the first time it happened, locals had been drying kelp on the shore. A small child skipped along one long strip and suddenly, incredibly, had started walking up, in the air. She’d screamed and fallen. Quickly rescued, the child had come to no harm, but no-one had wanted to repeat the experiment. Later, a fisherman named Henry had tried and walked some distance above the water before vanishing from their sight. Half an hour later he’d fallen from the sky into the sea. What he’d recounted wasn’t easily explained but he hadn’t wanted to do it again. No-one had. Only Tarni had considered it. Back in the city she’d got on with her life but, once she’d returned to care for her parents, she’d forgotten everything else. Especially now her parents had died and she lived alone in the family house, it seemed to her that the kelp only wanted to help her explore the past, get a bigger picture of her own identity, family, where she’d come from. Perhaps that explained why she’d only travelled back to places connected with her family. 

Yet here she was, escorting an armed stranger determined to steal. 

The first step into the air felt harder than usual, as if the kelp itself wanted to keep them grounded. Behind her, Boden gasped as presumably he took his first step upward. She ignored him and kept walking. When they were both several feet above the sea she felt a force tug at her, and headed towards that point. “Keep close. We’re nearly there.”

Boden muttered something. Perhaps he couldn’t quite believe it, either. Walking on air, huh. But that’s nothing compared to what’s in store for us. 

Why the kelp had started to interact with locals, she had no idea. Perhaps it had learned to sense certain deficiencies in those they knew best. After all, humans regularly harvested the sea for food and supplements. Perhaps the kelp knew what was lacking and simply wanted to fill the gap.

As she drew closer to the magnetic point, she focussed on her objective. For some time now she’d wanted to drop in on an earlier relative, her great-great (who knows how many greats) Uncle Albert. 

They stepped forward. Sky and sea disappeared. A small, opaque space opened up before them. She stepped in first, and Boden followed. “What h-happens now?” 

“Nothing. In a short while we’ll step out into the place I’ve chosen.”

“You … you tricked me.” Boden doubled over, clearly petrified.

“Nothing’s happened yet.” Tarni almost smiled, the man had so little courage. An idiot concerned only for his own skin, on an adventure like this.

What felt like minutes later, the opaque space opened out into a cobblestoned street outside a ramshackle house fitted with a wooden door. The smell of damp and tar drifted in.

“We’re here.” Tarni stepped onto the cobblestones. Boden grabbed her and looked round, wide-eyed.

“What’s this?” Rank-smelling refuse lined the narrow street, which was crowded with wooden houses. Filthy windows eyed them. On the ground, flies feasted on pieces of dung. 

Tarni smiled. “This street is my destination: Cripplegate, London, in the year of our Lord 1350, two years into the Black Plague. But don’t worry, this particular house wasn’t affected, nor will we contract anything. Follow me.” Tarni pushed open the door. 

“You said, plague?” Boden gaped.

“I said we won’t be affected.”

She stepped inside. The small room was empty except for a crib in the corner. A baby looked up, grinned and lifted a chubby hand.

“Hi, Uncle Albert.” Tarni walked up to the crib, bent and touched the baby’s cheek. He gurgled. She patted him on the head. “My great great uncle here lived through it all, and fathered many children. Some emigrated to the colonies.”  She paused. “Both my grandparents lived to a hundred. My ancestors have always been strong as horses.” 

“But,” Boden started trembling, pulled out his knife and waved it in front of her face, “I want to pick something up, something valuable, take it home and make a profit, damn you! How’m I going to do that, in this cesspit?”

“You aren’t.” Tarni stepped back.

“Do something!” 

“Drop your weapon.”

“Like hell I will!”

“You insisted on coming, you brought a weapon and above all, you’re not a ribbon walker. In another minute the room will correct that problem, no thanks to you.”

Boden lunged at her but suddenly, without warning, collapsed on the floor. The knife skidded to her feet, where it shrivelled and twisted into a small metal baby rattle, its three slender strips of metal adorned with tiny bells. Tarni pounced on it, hit by a sudden revelation, amazed at how things worked out. She turned to Boden. “See? This room rejects you, but it accepts the metal you brought with you. Look it’s been reshaped. It stays. You don’t.”

Boden’s body lost definition and slowly vanished.

Tarni crossed the place where he’d fallen and bent over the baby. “Here, little Albert, a present from a distant relative.” She handed the rattle to the baby, who seized it and shook it with vigour. The bells sounded clear and sweet. “Bye for now.”

Tarni waved, walked to the door and stepped outside. The grimy street twisted and coalesced into the opaque space. Not long after, she stepped from it into the air above the sea near her village, walked back to the shore, collected the ribbon and went home. Beside her bed she kept a well-worn scrapbook, where she’d sketched what she understood to be her family tree. Flipping back through the pages, she came to the topmost leaf, which read: Arthur Albert Grimsby. His parents, she reflected, probably wondered where the rattle had come from, and might have written it off as a gift from a well-meaning stranger. ‘Well-meaning’? Not entirely. ‘Stranger’? Definitely.

From a small pull-string bag under her mattress, she drew out the rattle. Its tiny bells still sounded sweet. She’d found it on a pile of rubbish outside the home of a much later ancestor, who had just died. Perhaps the relatives wanted no baby trinkets to remind them of his infancy. She, on the other hand, did. Until a few minutes ago, she hadn’t known how it came to be part of her family. How amazing. How wonderful.

Tarni put the rattle back and went outside. The water looked especially inviting. I’ll go diving, later. The sea held so many mysteries, but here the kelp seemed determined to help unveil some of them. She loved it. 

Brenda Anderson's fiction has appeared in various places including Flash Fiction Online and Daily Science Fiction - most recently in Antipodean SF. She lives in Adelaide, South Australia and tweets very irregularly @CinnamonShops. Top interests include reading, old movies, some Wagner (the Valkyrie in particular) and sunflowers.