New Stories from Blue Wing




Big Mouth Slough



You can't see it in this picture but there's a one-room school house at the bottom of Big Mouth Slough. The flood of '52 dropped it there. At the start of every school year the teacher now in charge of the school has to catch most of her students with snares. That's because young river trolls aren't about to show up in a classroom just because someone says please. Not after a full summer of roaming free on the river, they're not. The following story reveals the kind of bait that teacher uses to snag her students. This could prove to be useful information for anyone hoping to make their summer vacation last a little longer.






A Blue Ballet Slipper

Blaze Wrinklesnout preferred to be called Mr. B for short, or B if you were in a hurry, or even Heavy Load, because he was a little on the extra-chunky side, or anything, just not Ear. So naturally every river troll within three sandbars of him went with Ear.

The entire week before school started on Big Mouth Slough he stayed inside his family’s lodge so that he wouldn't accidentally step on one of his teacher's snares. So when his mother shooed him outside, he wiggled back in through his bedroom window as soon as no one was looking. And if it was daylight, even one of his mother’s muck biscuits couldn’t drive him out the door. Of course everyone knew why he didn’t want to go to school. It didn’t take any genius to figure that out. They went through the same business every year.

“Where’s Blaze?” Burma shouted at breakfast. He was Blaze’s oldest brother, by twenty or so minutes.

“In his room,” their mother answered.

“What! On a beautiful, gloomy, sopping wet night like this? What’s he doing back there?”

“Holding a pillow over his head.”

“Is it that time of year already?”

“I’m afraid so, dear.”

“Well you tell him . . .”

But nobody had to tell Blaze anything. He could hear Burma’s shouts just fine, even with a pillow over his head. The Wrinklesnout’s lodge was on the small side.

The only one who ever had any luck talking to Blaze when he was holed up like this was his sister Bell, who preferred not to bother with him unless Burma was making a total fuss. And right now, given the way Burma was splashing around the porridge room and threatening to let all Blaze’s leeches go if he didn’t pull himself together, she guessed it was time to pay her younger brother’s room a visit, just to keep the peace.

“It’s really not that bad,” Bell promised him.

“Easy for you to say,” Blaze answered, turning away from her and holding the pillow over his head tighter than ever.

“No, really,” Bell insisted. “Nobody would even notice it if you’d quit asking all the time.”

There was a good deal of truth to that. Although Blaze’s ears were unmatched, one being half the size of the other, you had to be looking down at him from above to notice the difference. Large as river troll heads are, it’s almost impossible to see both of their ears at once if looking at them from the front, though any river troll who tried to convince Blaze of that often as not got boxed on his or her whiskery snout. He’d been sensitive as a homeless snail about his ears ever since a classmate got mad at him for sharing one of his mother’s muck biscuits and called him the first nasty thing that popped into her head—Small Ear. Everyone had soon shortened that to Ear.

“I don’t believe you.”

“No need to go all huffy,” Bell said.

“Yah?” Blaze shouted. “How would you like to be called Ear everywhere you went?”

“Now that’s not true. There’s plenty of who don’t call you that.”

“Name one.”

“Me.”

“You don’t count. Name somebody at my school, besides the teacher.”

“I don’t go to your school. How would I know?”

“Exactly.”

“Now Blaze, everybody’s a little different.”

“Not when it comes to ears.”

“What do you care what they think, anyway?”

“I don’t!” Blaze yelled. Jumping up, he shoved his sister out of his room and shut the door in her face just to prove how much he didn’t care.

From the hallway, Bell suggested, “Maybe if you covered it up . . .”

“I tried that.”

“With a rusty tin can? That only drew more attention to it. Try something pretty.”

“Like what?”

“How should I know? It’s not my ear.”

“That’s what I keep trying to tell you.”

And so on, until Burma got tired of listening to them, barged into Blaze’s room, and grabbed his brother’s leech boot. That spongy, mossy old thing was Blaze’s pride and glory, all full of pet leeches with names like Tooth, Chomper, or Fang.

“Enough!” Burma shouted. “You can’t stay in here forever. School starts tomorrow. And ear or no ear, you’re going.”

Shaking his tail at Blaze, he pushed off for their lodge’s front door, which of course was underwater, and flung the boot outside.

“Why you—” But Blaze didn’t have time to finish his threat. He was too busy diving after his boot. The instant he left the lodge, his brother slammed the door shut behind him and bolted it, then raced down the lodge’s main hall to shutter up all the bedroom windows too. So even though Blaze sniffed out his boot before many of the leeches had escaped, and by the way, he’d collected some real beauties, including a rare corkscrew one that he’d had to send all the way to the Amazon for, he found himself locked out of his own home. No amount of whacking his tail against the door or throwing clams at the shutters did him any good either.

He had to satisfy himself with shouting insults, which is the general way river trolls carry on. He was so upset that he couldn’t think of anything original to call them, which made him all the madder.

“Rock trolls!” he bellowed. “Guppy brains! Peppermint breaths!”

And a lot more of the same until he was hoarse. Pretty standard stuff. Of course everyone inside the lodge was busy tossing back insults of their own. That lasted until Blaze had heard enough and decided to swim away, never to return. He told himself he’d be better off throwing together a nice little hut on some backwater where no one would ever bother him about the size of his ear again. He’d stay up all night whenever he wanted to and learn to cook muck biscuits the right way. And anything else he felt like doing? Well, he’d do that too.

Passing by an island, he came up out of the river to roll around in the sand a bit. That always settled him down and helped him think. His brother had been right about one thing—it was a lovely, gloomy night. Not that’d he’d ever admit it out loud, not to someone who didn’t have to go to school. As the oldest of the hatch, Burma had gone directly into the family business of net cutting without having to worry about the size of his ears, which weren’t exactly identical either. And his sister Bell, she was lucky enough to go to a school where everyone was too busy having fun peeling bark for baskets to bother looking at her less-than-perfect ears.

But just when he was about to tackle all the other reasons he had to feel mistreated, a bright light flashed across his eyes, freezing him. For an instant he panicked, thinking he’d stayed up past daybreak, but the light quickly moved on and soothing darkness returned. The blinding glare had come from a barge, sweeping its spotlight about in search of channel markers.

Something a little off shore had stood out as the beam passed over it. In the middle of a patch of water lilies was a single ballet slipper. It was a lovely powder blue and looked as if lost by a royal ballerina. The way his sister Bell loved to gush on about such footwear, you might have thought she was talking about catfish whiskers or something equally priceless. How something so valuable had landed on a sandbar in the middle of the Mississippi wasn’t anything he bothered to think twice about. Floodwaters, no doubt. Besides, he was too busy remembering another thing that Bell had mentioned to worry about where the slipper had come from.

Cover it up with something pretty, she'd said.

At that moment he saw how to keep everyone from noticing anything about his ears. Covering his shrimpy ear with a beautiful blue ballet slipper ought to do the trick.

It wasn’t until he reached for the slipper that it dawned on him that there was a rope noose around it, one that looked as though it belonged to his teacher. Too late then. The snare had already snagged his tail, dragging him upward into a tree hanging over the water. But by then it didn’t matter. Seeing a gang of pre-school trolls tromping his way, he quickly hid his small ear beneath the ballerina slipper. When the youngsters reached him, they came to a stop and gawked upwards.

“I wish I had me a reason to wear something like that,” one of them said.

“Me too,” goofed another.

“Do you think a rock troll bit off his ear?” asked a third. “Is that why he’s wearing that thing?”

“Could be. Or a wizard might have bought it from him. I hear they’ll pay serious clams for a good ear.”

“Maybe a lighting bolt sizzled the side of his head.”

“Or a monster leech got him.”

“Hey mister,” the leader of the young trolls asked, “what do you have under that thing, anyway?”

“None of your business,” Blaze answered.

“You’re not that guy they call Ear, are you?”

“So what if I am?”

“Nothing. Only we were wondering if you could tell us where to get an ear covering as cool yours.”

“No way,” Blaze told them. “I’m the only one who gets to wear one of these.”

And for once the wait to be collected for school didn't seem so endless.