I paddle out, breathing evenly in the early dawn, mist rising from the water. The whole place is quiet and still and silent except for Grandfather. He tells me to hug the shore. The oars are light in my hands. I’ve been practicing since the ice melted; my arms are strong.
Grandfather points and I aim for the spot, a place where the marsh grass parts subtly. The current pushes against the boat, making me work hard, and soon I’m sweating, arms aching.
The breeze waves the grass at either side of us. It's close enough to touch but I keep my hands on the paddle, breathe deep the mud and brine. I lean and dig into the water, pulling the boat right, into the narrow inlet. Grandfather is quiet behind me and I don't ask where we're going even though I want to. I just keep paddling until there's no more water and we run aground.
Grandfather gets out, his feet sinking into the mud as he climbs up. He turns back to give me a hand and I let him. The wind is cooler above the water but the sky is bluer, immense over the long marsh, up above the fir trees, and all the way to the distant smoke rising from our chimney.
A tug on my hand makes me pay attention and I follow Grandfather across the spongy ground to the trees that mark the forest. There, a path leads up the steep incline, thick with oak and pine and beech. Rocks have been thrown into the mix in haphazard fashion, offering handholds and ledges.
Soon I long for the breeze.
Sweat trickles down my neck. My breath comes hard. I’m glad when the ground levels off and we come to road above the river. It’s an old road, doesn’t lead anywhere anymore – or so I’ve been told – and I wonder why Grandfather has brought me this way.
Suddenly he stops, listening.
A second later I hear it, too, a jingling sound, and then we both see him coming, this man with bells and a box strapped to his back. He wears a patchwork jacket and a tall hat but it’s the box on his back that tells me who he is: a peddler.
We don’t see them very often anymore; they’re a dying breed according to Grandfather. Who needs a peddler when there’s a whole town an hour away?
Still, his face brightens at the sight of us, a big grin widening his mouth, brown eyes twinkling happily. He opens his jacket wide and the lining glitters with who knows what: jewelry, utensils, knives, watches, trinkets. He starts to pull the box off his back but Grandfather puts a hand up.
“We don’t need any pots or books,” he says.
“Something else then?” the peddler tilts his head expectantly, takes a step closer.
“Do you see anything you like?” Grandfather asks me.
I start to shake my head but Grandfather says, “Something to take with you when you go,” and I understand he wants to buy me something, a going away present. It isn’t like him but I think maybe he’s feeling sentimental so I take a step closer, looking hard at what the peddler’s got.
An old watch catches my eye, the sort that opens and closes and sits in your pocket. I point and the peddler hands it over for me to look at. The bottom side is smooth and worn as if rubbed. The top is engraved in some design I cannot cipher. There is a pearly gem in the center, flush with the metal, a tiny circle like a moon, glimmering. I can hear the clock ticking inside.
“How much?” I ask, intrigued.
“We’ll take it,” Grandfather says.
He shoos me away, negotiating in whispers with the peddler, which worries me a little. But I like the watch. I like how it feels in my hand and the faint ticking sound it makes. It has a little chain to attach to your belt.
Grandfather joins me, and the peddler waves goodbye, his bells jangling as he goes back the way he came. We head back down and we’re almost to the boat when I ask, “Did you know he was going to be there?”
Grandfather smiles. But he doesn’t answer.
A week later I leave for school, the watch in my pocket and my heart already missing Grandfather as I step onto the transport. It will be three years before I see him again.