Another ‘plantbased tale’, inspired by the rosebay willowherb, or fireweed.
Overhead the stars blazed in the sky. The old man looked up at them and frowned. ‘You were born under bad stars, you know. That’s your trouble.’
The boy shrugged, trying to ignore the accusation this comment carried. ‘How could I help when I was born?’
The old man grunted and sniffed. The pungent salty scent from the river was unmistakable. ‘Tide’s turned,’ he said. ‘Time to go soon.’
‘No,’ said the lad, unwilling to be diverted. ‘Really. I didn’t choose to be born just then.’
‘Chose to or not,’ said the old man, getting up, ‘makes no difference. The stars don’t lie. Wherever you go, ill luck follows on. That was written in your stars, day you was born. Wise woman said so. Stood back from your cradle, face all white, and said so. Wouldn’t stay in the house wi’ you, case the ill fortune made an early start.’
‘I don’t accept it,’ said the boy. ‘I have a free choice as to what I do, stars or no stars!’
The old man listened patiently to this outburst. ‘Finished?’ he said.
‘No. I’m going to prove I’m stronger than the stars.’
‘Well then,’ said the old man, ‘you can make a start by shifting them sacks of coal into the barge, lad.’
As the barge moved heavily downstream, it seemed the stars blazed brighter than ever. But it was not the stars that blazed, it was the city in the distance, all aflame.
‘Moor up,’ called the old man, hauling the tiller round. The boy jumped ashore with a line. They secured the barge and looked on in awe as houses exploded with deep-toned distant pops.
‘Look,’ said the old man, ‘look what you’ve done now!’
‘Me?’ said the boy. ‘Nothing to do with me.’
‘They’ll need someone to blame – look, there goes the arsenal! – and you’ll do as well as any. Best stay away. Besides,’ he added, regarding the laden barge, ‘coals is the last thing they’ll be wanting just now. We’ll find a buyer upstream.’
‘If I can cause a fire like that,’ said the boy, wondering at his own power, ‘then I can put it out again. They won’t blame me, they’ll thank me.’
The old man looked at him askance. ‘Best make a start, then, lad.’
And down they sat, the old man waiting patiently, the boy with his face screwed up in fire-stopping thought, waiting for the tide to turn while the stars and the city blazed away.