Thunder shook. I woke. The memory of the girl’s smell nagged my foggy mind.
Outside, a storm’s sudden squall line burst over the house and twisted and bent the trees. The rough wind carried small branches and leaves past in a blur of sideways water and debris. A large branch fell in the nearby woods. I wondered if the storm hid a tornado in its wind and rain.
Then, the wind ceased, and a seemingly infinite volume of fat raindrops poured down. The nearby woods disappeared behind the curtain of rain. I missed the violence of the wind once the downpour replaced it. How good it was to be alive and be part of the storm.
I thought about that love hormone Kev told me about. Oxypitocin? Oxycin? Oxygen? I could do anything. If that was what that drug, golden love, felt like, I wanted more of it.
I ate. I showered.
I looked in on Momma as she slept and did not disturb her. Xavi and Magritte slept through the storm as well. Looking out, drizzling rain and a dark gray had replaced the downpour. I put on my hat and rain wrap and stepped outside. Little flash floods still formed bursting rivulets along the edges of the roads. I walked towards the docks. The warm red glow of the sun broke through the clouds as if the storm had not happened.
Kev left for upriver in about five hours. He would already be on the boat, preparing for his trip. Kev departs in the middle of the Second Watch when I should be in school. For the previous few years, I skipped school on the days he left the bayou. School, Momma says, prepares me for work. And when school conflicts with work, work takes precedence.
The sun warmed the water on the roads into little wisps of hot vapor. The rain shower earlier had been a temporary cooling. The sun baked all. The moisture from the rain only made the air denser with moisture and more stifling than it been before. The cooling wind from the sea and the storm had stopped.
I got to the bayou and Kev stood alone in the wheelhouse, writing in a ledger.
“What?” he called out when I stepped on board. “So soon?”
I nodded and collapsed on the bench along the back of the wheelhouse in a contented haze. The comforting smell of the river mixed with the spicy odor of the cooking from the galley just below us. The weather had been hot while I walked to the docks. It seemed much hotter in that enclosed space. The air inside the wheelhouse clung thick, moist, and suffocating. An arc of sweat darkened Kev’s shirt just below his neck.
“Your mother said you snuck in sometime after one,” he said.
“I’m not sure,” I answered.
“Are you aware it’s only seven?”
“I wasn’t,” I said. “I finished sleeping. The storm woke me.” I stood and joined him next to the chart table. I rapped a couple of times on the wood of the table’s surface. “I came so to be helpful,” I announced.
I watched as he recorded expenses in his ledger from the scraps of his notes.
“I piloted the slot,” I said, offhand.
Kev stood bolt upright. “Wa, wa, wa, what? Hold now. What?” His reaction startled me. I expected him to ignore me while he concentrated on his ledger.
“I piloted the slot,” I repeated.
Kev looked at me and said nothing.
“Remember Alan’s Slot?” I said.
“Yes. I remember Alan’s Slot. So….”
“You tested me there at Alan’s Slot,” I said. “I could’ve wrecked the boat and killed us if I did it wrong. But you pushed me to do it and I succeeded. Now, I say I piloted the slot when I do a thing new, scary, and exciting, like Alan’s Slot. Isn’t that what piloting the slot means?”
Kev roared with a quick burst of laughter. “Migone. No. No. Absolutely not.” Kev slammed his ledger shut and faced me. “No.” He wiped the sweat from his face with his shoulder.
“Truth?” I had become annoyed and gripped the edge of the table.
“Advice,” he said. “Some advice. Unsolicited advice, even. Don’t say that. Not to me. Or anyone. You don’t know the meaning of what you said.”
“You know that slot is a pejorative name for… a woman,” he said. “And a woman’s genitalia. Be cautious with words. A deckhand says he’s going to pilot the slot as he rushes into Das Hajima after getting paid. Not all deckhands. Some. Libidinous activities. Athletic cuddling. Migone, I thought that’s what you meant.”
My face turned hot. I’d heard riverlings say that phrase, and obviously, I misunderstood them. I backed away from Kev by a step. “Such be not…. No. No. Not at all. I did nothing like that with her.”
“Ah. Your mom’s girl,” Kev said.
I looked at Kev, not understanding.
“Your mom said something about a girl,” he said.
“Ha,” he said. “Grandma Roux wondered if you liked girls. You remind her much of her Uncle Glenn.” He clapped his hands with a loud report. “Good. You declared your allegiance. You settled the matter. Maybe. Is it settled? How did your observations and analysis go? Did you find it…?”
“I like girls.” I looked down at the texture of the floor in the wheelhouse.
“Okay. There.” Kev nodded. “That’s settled. Resolved. Appropriate age for that. Indeed. What an interesting conversation.” He reopened his ledger and started making an entry into it.
“What’s an exfictious calby?” I asked.
“Interesting. Where did you hear that?”
“From someone… from upriver,” I replied.
“Well….” He bobbed his head in that manner he does when thinking. “He’s a character from stories told by the people who think Beatans are… angels. Yes. Angels. Not God. Just messengers.” More head bobbing. “The Beatans… how can I say this? They’re controlled chaos. By Beatans, I mean the indigenous life, not the people that see them as God’s messengers. Ha. Maybe not. Perchance the folk that beatifies Beatans is organized chaos, too. I hadn’t thought of that. It could be true.”
“Exfictious calby?” I asked.
“They’re not procedural,” Kev answered. “The Beatans. Not like humans. Most humans are procedural. Some humans. Do this, then this, and that happens. Beatans are not procedural. Not at all. They’re not like that. To Beatans, everything is a river. The River. This world, the Intelligences, humans, and the Universe are all part of The River. The Beatans shape The River where possible. They use it where they can. But they can’t make The River flow backward, up slopes and across the high desert between here and the mountains. They use The River as it can be used. And, more importantly, The River acts in ways that can’t be predicted. So much is random. And they… the Beatans… they find ways to use the chaos. They are chaos.”
“So?” I said. “Exfictious calby….”
“Yes. Exfictious Calby.” He nodded his head and continued. “Right. The character. In the stories. I had to explain how the Beatans thought, first. So, I don’t know what calby means. Or exfictious. Doesn’t matter. In their stories, Exfictious Calby is a person. He thinks his success is due solely to hard work. The River takes him in ways that he wants to go, and he claims… he claims he got to where he wanted to go by hard work and cleverness. He tells everyone he controls The River through personal effort. ‘Exfictious Calby thinks he loaded the dice, but God rigs the table.’ That’s one of their sayings.”
“Hard work does make a difference,” I objected. “Worse so, hardly working makes a bigger difference.” I repeated a phrase I’d heard, “‘Prepare for disaster to control it.’”
“Ha,” Kev said. “Agreed. Indeed. Work hard, and the river won’t take you downstream to starvation and destitution. Maybe. If you’re lucky. Just because Beatans… or the people who venerate them… think that way doesn’t mean it’s better. Beatans think as Beatans think.”
I let the quiet between Kev and I remain for a long minute before I posed my next question.
“You had two passengers on from Das Hajima,” I said. “A mother and a daughter. What be the daughter’s name?”
His arms burst and waved over his head in that over-dramatic way that he expressed disbelief and surprise. Kev shouted only one word, “Incredible.”
“Please tell me her name,” I said.
“You didn’t ask her name?” Kev’s voice had raised an octave. “No? While piloting the slot?”
“I don’t remember her name. I asked her not her name. Truth.”
Once again, he closed his ledger. He faced me with an earnest look and leaned back against the chart table with his arms folded. An unhappy duck quacked loudly in the bayou next to the boat. His pencil rolled away from the ledger and bounced onto the floor. He ignored both.
“Lilah Ross Romano,” he said. “Fascinating. You know the science, don’t you?”
“My wrong. Why so?” I asked. I had no idea how science came into this awkward and strange exchange.
“I confused you, have I not? I didn’t give you enough information. My wrong. So now. It’s time to fulfill my parental duty. I didn’t foresee this, but I’ll do the needful. Biology. I want to make sure you only reproduce and spread your genetic material when your goal is to reproduce.”
“No. Please,” I told him. “I’m in all ways well on such… science.”
“Is this awkward? It is awkward. Ha. Let me finish what I started.”
“No,” I said. “I be well.”
“This is important, it is,” he said. “Do you know it takes only a tiny amount of seminal fluid between genitalia to achieve conception? I confirmed that myself experientially.”
“I’m checking the cellpells,” I announced as I turned and walked away.
“Good conversing with you,” Kev called after me. “Be successful. I want you to be successful in all your worthwhile and meaningful endeavors. Travel the river and be its master. Be a pilot, if you choose, without… creating unplanned joint ventures.”
Two hours before Kev planned to leave, Xavi got there. Our passengers sifted in as well.
Kev waved Xavi, Jessup, and me to join him in the wheelhouse.
“Choco’s late. He restricts his debauchery to either Neck or Das Hajima. Usually, not Aoustin.”
Kev shook his head. “No. I shouldn’t say that. I don’t know why he’s late. He may have a good excuse. I accuse him of debauchery, and his mother may be sick. Or his wife. I’m unjust. I’ll assume he has a valid reason for not being here. Yes. Just and fair. That’s how I should be. Restrict my accusations until proven otherwise.”
Xavi, Jessup, and I looked at Kev.
“The reason I tell you this,” he continued. “Ha. Why have I told you this? You don’t need to know all that. What an interesting day. I’ll retrieve Choco and leave the remaining tasks to your youthful yet capable souls. That’s all I should have told you. Get the boat, and the passengers, ready to depart while I go get my pilot.”
“Okay,” I said. I glanced at Xavi and Jessup. They nodded.
Kev nodded as well and then left the wheelhouse to begin his search for Choco.
Songbirds seemed not to mind the oppressive heat. In the shadows of the warehouses along the quay, they twiggered and tweeted. It’s strange, I thought, the smallest birds can make the loudest noises. The fat pigeons huddled next to the buildings and searched for stray grain. A few dart-like birds dashed through the air catching the flies stirred up by the rain. Why did the Intelligences bring flies to Aoustin? Or birds? Or people?
Intelligences do what Intelligences do.
Jessup and I dropped the poles for the awning along the length of the boat. I dragged the heavy canvas for the canopy out of its locker to the center of the deck.
Xavi talked to a pair of cabin passengers, a young man, and a young woman, who traveled together.
“If you just see the mud along the docks,” I heard her say to the couple. “You don’t see Neck. Bears roam along the lower and upper docks in Neck. And the road between. Stay in town, along the top of the bluff, away from the mess that is the dock.”
“Bears roam…, there?” the woman responded.
“Bad people,” Xavi said. “Vandal Horde and such. Mind the cluttered deck.”
She escorted them onto Miss Genius. “Careful,” she said. “Get past car past the poles and canvas.” Xavi led them to the bow and disappeared down the ladder to the passenger cabins. The couple passed their baggage down to her in the saloon below.
“Can I settle? I paid not as much as those two, but I deserve not to languish.” A thin old man stood on the dock among his scant belongings and cages containing chickens and a pig. He was a deck passenger. Another group of deck passengers, a woman, and her two children, stood a short distance from him with their bundles. She was Viva Novik Hutnik’s cousin, visiting from a farm near Slippery Bluff.
“Give time,” I replied. “The awning shall be up soon.”
“The sun bakes me out here,” the old man said.
“The same sun such bakes the dock bakes the deck,” I told him. “We’ll have shade for you soon. I’ll tell you when soon is.”
“Sir, please. No,” I said. “You’d hinder and obstacle us. Give me soon. Give time.”
Xavi ascended from the cabins in the bow, joined Jessup and me, and placed poles in their braces on the opposite side.
“I travel so to Laisse Moi Tranquille,” the thin man said to us as we assembled the awning. “The Vandal Horde, they be the future. They want such you think worthless. Aoustin let’s us starve.”
I looked at him. The Vandal Horde raiders will relieve him of the pig and chickens before he got two kilometers out of Upper Station. Waiting in the sun to be transported up the river will not be the hard part of his journey.
Chris Naipaul Loday had traveled that way with three other boys two months before. Indigenous life, the dark lichens, and tall mushroom-like pollicis towers dominated the occasional patch of grass or trees.
Chris Naipaul Loday’s group walked around the falls upriver from Upper Station and followed the road next to the river as it wound towards its source between the Causses.
They did not bring enough food for their trip.
After walking two weeks on the road to Laissez Moi Tranquille, the boys ate the pollicis out of desperation. Chris Naipaul Loday left the group and turned back when the inevitable pollicis diarrhea and vomiting hit. A Vandal Horde trader found him, nearly dead, next to the river, and brought him to Upper Station sprawled out in the back of a wagon.
I scanned the docks, looking for Marvin. I saw him, with his brother and other dock monkeys, lingering past a couple of other boats in the shade of a warehouse.
“Wich,” I shouted. He didn’t react. “Wich,” I boomed louder. He looked over, said something to the others, and trotted our way.
I then saw the girl I had watched the movie with the day before. Kev said her name was Lilah. She waved.
“Pierrot-licious,” she shouted.
“Pierrot-licious?” Xavi repeated, barely loud enough that I could hear her.
I smiled and waved back. “Peace, Lilah,” I shouted. “Come so and join us.”
I then understood what Marvin felt when his harem of girls watched him work. I had someone come down to the docks for me. I wanted to strip my shirt off and ascend the side of a warehouse solely with my arms’ strength.
“Why so she invited on your boat?” the thin man groused. “Greater than me, she be?”
Xavier Hall Lix’s horse pulled the cellpell wagon next to us.
“Hah-vee…,” he said to Xavi, over-pronouncing her name. He had a fondness for her. Her name was a feminine version of his own name.
“Hah-vee-AY,” Xavi replied, smiling.
“Where be Kev?” Xavier Hall Lix asked.
One of the two children with the woman passenger began kicking at the wheel of Xavier Hall Lix’s wagon.
“He searches for Choco,” Xavi replied.
“Truth? No. Choco won’t be found.”
“How such?” I asked.
“You know not? Berthe Mistry Chao hired him. They left two days past. Kev still needs cellpells?”
“Pierrot-licious,” Lilah said. She stood next to Miss Genius on the dock. She wore the same shirt and shorts she had worn the first time I saw her. She looked at me with her dark eyes.
“Pierrot-licious,” repeated Xavi, quietly.
“Pierrot-licious?” Xavier Hall Lix looked at me and asked.
“Come so to the boat, into the wheelhouse,” I told Lilah.
I turned back to Xavier Hall Lix. “Choco employed himself on another boat?”
“Choco disappoints me, not telling Kev,” Xavier Hall Lix removed his hat and moved his fingers through his hair. “He decided against working for Kev. Kev’s trip to the Beatans lay not as well as with him. He hates such Beatans, all know.”
I thought for a moment. Kev would do what he had done in the past when Choco couldn’t go with him. He’d get someone else to take his place. Kev made a good profit with Miss Genius. And, as Aunt Sharon once told Kev, “People, for some reason, seem to like you.” The riverlings did like Kev. It would be easy to find a pilot to go with him.
No matter what happened next, Kev still needed cellpells. I had already gone to the cellpells bunker, smoothed what remained in there, and measured the level in the way Kev had taught me. I knew the amount of cellpells Kev needed.
“Half a cube,” I told Xavier Hall Lix.
“Will do,” he replied.
“Where be Captain Kev?” Lilah asked.
“Captain Kev,” Xavi repeated.
I turned and next to me stood Thomas Summer Djimadoum, holding two butchered chickens. I had been distracted by Lilah by my side. I had not heard his approach.
“Yes, where be Kev?” Thomas asked.
“Looking for Choco,” I replied.
“I fear such be hard. Choco left.”
“Choco be Captain Kev’s man-assist, truth-now?” Lilah asked.
“He was,” I told her.
“Such I heard,” I told Thomas. “Berthe Mistry Chao. How much for the birds?” I pointed to the chickens.
“Forty-two kee.” Thomas said.
“That be well,” I said.
“Forty-two kee, such be a good fee.” Lilah added. She lightly touched my forearm.
I hesitantly withdrew from her touch and followed Thomas down the ladder to the crew quarters. He continued through the door to the cargo hold where Kev had a cold box. I opened the safe and pulled out coin and paid him. I peeked into the eternity pot on the galley stove. No put meat in there, yet. Looking at the clock, I calculated three hours until the next meal. That would be enough time for the chickens to cook off the bone. I recorded the cost of the chicken in Kev’s ledger.
The awning stood ready. Xavi, Marvin, and Jessup loitered to one side, talking.
“Marvin, please,” I said. “Cut a leg quarter off from a chicken in the cold box and toss it so into the pot on the stove. Jessup, please, stow the awning gear.”
“Pierrot-licious controls all,” Lilah enthused, smiling. She leaned hard against me, and I felt her shape.
“Not all,” Xavi muttered just loud enough for me to hear. “Hormones run about unfettered.”
I ignored Xavi and took a deep breath. “Soon be now,” I told the passengers waiting on the dock. “Come aboard. Come settle.”
The children crowded the thin man as he loaded his belonging onto the deck.
“Come now, back, the two of you,” Viva Novik Hutnik’s cousin told her children. Her little family had less to bring on board. I should have let them come onto the boat first.
The man who had been so impatient to get out of the sun now straggled each item from the dock to the deck as if the sun depleted him of strength. The Vandal Horde will not want him.
Xavier Hall Lix had finished transferring cellpells and stood next to the boat. “Half cube loaded,” he told me. I strode back to the bunker, measured the level, and calculated how much Xavier Hall Lix had transferred. He had given Kev more than a half cube.
“Dot-six,” I told him, saying the actual amount he had transferred.
“Half cube be close,” Xavier Hall Lix said.
“Half cube,” Lilah repeated. “Dot-six. Such talk confounds.” Again, she touched my forearm.
I descended the stairs to the crew cabin and got coin to pay him from the safe. I recorded the amount in the ledger and paid him for the half cube plus the extra.
The man Xavi settled in the cabin interrupted us. “The heat suffocates in such room downstairs.”
“Peace, Bait,” Xavier Hall Lix said as he left. “I’ll worry at Choco next time I see him. Tell him he be slack, not informing Kev.”
“Also, with you, Xavier Hall Lix.”
“What he gave you?” Lilah asked.
“Cellpells. The wood gas producer uses such,” I answered. “Augments the methane in the air.”
“Augment?” she said. “Pierrot-confuse-licious.”
“The methane in the air is not concentrated enough to combust.”
“Combust?” she echoed. “You full of words strange-mo wonder-mo.”
“Burn,” I told Lilah. “Turn the turbine, the motor. Propel us through the water. Add a little wood gas, and the methane in the air will burn and push the boat through the water.”
I faced the complaining cabin passenger. “Once the boat gets going, a breeze will cool.”
“That helps not now,” the passenger countered.
“Loiter on deck,” I told him.
He placed his hands on his hips and faced me defiantly. “We stifle there, too.”
I shrugged. “Get in the water, then.”
The man looked offended. “You jest? Duck scat be in it.”
“Always be such as with heat, near to Aoustin?” Lilah asked.
“The heat unusual, such,” I answered.
“Juice the fans in the cabins,” Jessup suggested.
“Juice the fans…,” Lilah echoed.
“Could,” I replied. “But I understand not Kev’s electrical panel. I want not Miss Genius and all on her to disappear in a bright ball of light.”
“Ball of light? A blast?” Lilah asked. “Migone.”
I let out a small chuckle. “I overspeak. Cassies can blast, but not easily. I don’t know Kev’s electricals well. I may wreck them. Such should be all. Not helpful. To do that. To do such. Wreck his electricals.”
“No,” I said to the unhappy passenger. “I can’t coerce the weather to be cooler. The water be the sole option for respite. It hot for all today.”
The passenger returned to the sullen woman who waited for him on the bow. He and the woman did not swim in the water. They chose, instead, to sweat in the shade of the awning.
I called Marvin to the wheelhouse and paid him from my own money.
“Watch us my favored movie on Third Watch?” Lilah leaned towards me. “Please, so.”
“Will do,” I replied. I felt an unexpected jolt below my waist. “What be the movie?”
“Such be Armadillo Dancer.”
“Armadillo Dancer,” Xavi repeated with a little giggle.
“You know such?” Lilah asked Xavi.
“I do. Yes. Pierrot… Armadillo Dancer. Uh. He watched it last week. Could you stand it, again, Pierrot? So soon? No. Too soon.”
Xavi knew my feelings about that awful movie. No. I had not watched it the week before.
“I liked-mo Armadillo Dancer than such pleeny cat movie,” Lilah said. “I watched it at the tellibar. It be funny. I like the armadillo. Of chance, the pleeny cat and the armadillo could be friends. That would be funny. Yes, Pierrot-licious. You and I. They’d like each other. Different, like we be. Makes me want you near, how different you be. You be Exfictious Calby. I be caught in the river.”
Intelligences made Armadillo Dancer. Completely. A computer wrote it. Another computer-generated every character and every scene. An algorithm composed the music, and a virtual orchestra played it.
In the movie, an armadillo dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer. It wore a tutu throughout the film and struggled when it forced its long, curved, claws into ballet shoes. The armadillo made two friends, a grumpy pig, and a wise-cracking giant sloth. The three friends became lost in the woods, escaped from a group of murderous dinosaurs, found the meaning of friendship, and learned that the most important thing is confidence in yourself.
Intelligences on Earth vomited out that sort of entertainment.
“Will do,” I said to Lilah. “Let’s watch it after Kev departs.”