“No. No. No. No.” Mom turned to face Kevin with her shoulders squared. “Hell, no.”
“I don’t understand,” Kev replied.
“What not you understand? No. Pierrot and Xavi will not travel on with you upriver.”
“No, I understood you told me. But…, why did you tell me that?”
“The further up the river you go, the further you descend into incest, thievery, and stupidity,” Mom said. Mom lived upriver until she moved to Aoustin for college.
“Is that a bad thing?” Kev asked, without sarcasm. “They must learn to live life on life’s terms.”
“No, not so.”
“I’ll be with them,” Kev said with frustration
Kev stood silent. He told me he hated arguing, especially with my mother. If he could somehow arrange it, they would first both put their case in writing, then reasonably debate free of the taint of transient emotion. Then he and Mom would revise their demands and try to come to an accommodation. His mind could not process well when they yelled back and forth. The brain short circuits at times like that, Kev said, and it becomes hard to have well-reasoned, un-emotional, solutions.
He pursed his lips, stared at the ground, and thought.
“What if you came with us?” Kev asked.
“No, Hell hasn’t frozen over yet. Jesus hasn’t trod on Terra Beata. The sun hasn’t moved in the sky.”
“Okay…. Understood. Maybe. No, understood. You don’t want to go. What if Magritte came with us?”
This time Mom paused.
“If you turn your sister to g’with yagize, Pierrot can go,” she said.
“There now. That did not take long. We compromised successfully and came up with an excellent solution. We should do this more often.”
Xavi and I ran up the gangway. We both carried old cloth bags with our changes of clothes, towels, soap, and toothbrushes. We had played on the Miss Genius often, knew it well, and quickly darted over the deck towards our goal. Our steps boomed out as we raced across the wood to the front, towards the passenger cabins. I outran Xavi to the hatch and opened it to reveal the steep ladder that led down to the passenger berths in the bow. While descending, I jumped and skipped the last three stairs and hit the saloon deck with a thud. I picked myself up and opened the door to my favorite cabin, the one with stacked bunks and the round window high in the hull, the largest one. I threw my cloth bag in and turned to go back on deck.
Xavi still descended the stairs, saw me, and filled the space with her arms and slowed down to block me from ascending. Xavi tried to make me wait. Instead of waiting, I ran to the back of the saloon and exited into the filled cargo hold, then dashed to crew quarters, aft of the cargo, and below the wheelhouse. I scurried up the ladder to the wheelhouse in time to see Xavi run across the deck.
Kev had opened the screens for the wheelhouse, and a stiff breeze blew through.
“Looks such the Miss Genius has a new crew member.” I heard someone shout from the dock. I ran over and saw Red Ali Cross, a friend of Kev’s, pull a cart heavy with potatoes on the pier. I waved excitedly to him.
“Peace of God be with you,” Red Ali Cross yelled.
“And also, with you,” I shouted back.
Xavi entered the wheelhouse, breathless. “Prepare to depart,” I shouted.
“Will do,” Xavi shouted back. She pulled up imaginary rope. “Prepared.”
I took my place at the helm. I flipped a whole array of imaginary switches, and that brought pretend engines to life with a loud, “Paaaaroooom….” I looked left and then right. “Back out.” I spun the wheel left, then right. “Stay in the channel.” I pushed the imaginary throttle forward, and I imitated the roar of the turbine, “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa….” I steered back and forth to thread the boat through an imaginary slalom course of obstacles in the middle of the river. Every so often, I squawked out my imitation of the ship’s horn to warn other boats to stay out of my way.
Kev entered the wheelhouse when the time came for us to pull away. Both Xavi and I crowded close to Kev on both sides after he took his place at the helm. Choco Leroy Galea, Kev’s assistant, released the lines, and Kev backed the Miss Genius away from the pier. The deck of the wheelhouse rang with the high pitch of the impellers’ electric motors as we eased into the middle of the bayou. Both Xavi and I shifted our gaze back and forth between Kev’s worn and calloused hands and his creased face as he worked. I stood close enough to him to smell his stale perspiration and the grease on his clothes. Once pointed in the right direction, he turned off the steering impellers. It became quiet briefly. He pushed the throttle for the main impeller, and the turbine roared. The boat vibrated with power under our feet. Miss Genius became a vital and glorious beast. Kev steered us into the main channel of the wide river with no other boats in sight.
“Take the helm for a minute,” Kev told me. “Keep it straight.”
I looked at him.
I grabbed the wheel, first with a light hold, then gripping it tightly. Kev turned and walked back to lockers. He sorted through the charts and came out with a large sheet of paper, a chart that he brought back and laid out on the table next to the helm.
“Keep it straight, now.” I had become distracted by the chart on the table and let the wheel drift a little. “Your grandfather got these charts when he bought the Miss Genius.” The years had frayed the edges. A tear crossed one of the corners and I could see how someone had pasted a sheet of paper on the back to repair it. “Here we are.” He pointed to a snaky shape as wide as my thumb that crossed the chart from one edge to the other. That represented the river.
“Permission to take the helm?” I looked back at him blankly, without comprehension. “That means I want to steer,” he explained.
I moved aside and pulled over a stool to the chart table to see better. Xavi pushed her way next to me and joined me on my perch. I pointed to our location on the map, even though she had seen Kev point to the chart as well. I ran my hand across the brown paper. I had sat over these charts for hours, fascinated by the details and strange place names all along the river. Being navigational charts, the chart makers rendered the waterways and the places on their banks in great detail. The chart makers ignored the area beyond sight of the river’s shore, and the charts showed only landmarks seen from a boat.
It didn’t take long for Xavi to weary of balancing on the edge of the stool we shared, and she got herself a chair to stand on. Kev drank his coffee and watched the river in front of us. He made small adjustments to the wheel occasionally. As the day went by, I would retrieve new charts as we moved, hair breath by hair breath, up the river. He pointed out our locations on the charts and told us about the currents and the obstacles ahead. Xavi and I stood there with Kev and watched the landscape of the riverbanks change as the Miss Genius crept upriver.
We saw towns next to the river. Farmhouses up on the banks peeked through the trees. We saw farmers’ piers. The river bristled with farmer’s docks at first, and the piers gradually became less frequent. Most of those piers had ratty boats tied to a post or pulled ashore nearby. Some piers had wood stoves along their edge.
“Why so people cook on the water?” I asked Kev.
“It’s cooler,” he said. “It doesn’t get the house smoky. The farmers clean the fish they catch and dump the guts into the river and cook the fish on the pier stove.”
Every pier had its own extensive collection of dirty children and dogs that greeted us as we passed. Sometimes, I could not tell which of the kids were boys and which were girls. Children could be seen all along the river. The younger ones wore nothing than rough shorts. On the river, girls did not wear shirts until their breast buds appeared.
Along one straight stretch of river, a group of twenty or more kids ran along the shore and gestured for Kev to blow the horn. Kev gave a long blast of the horn.
“Wretch on your pus, Kev!” Aunt Magritte shouted. I leaned over and saw Aunt Magritte close to the front of the wheelhouse on the cargo hatch. Aunt Magritte sat upright in the reclining chair and held the book she had been reading. She glared towards Kev in the helm.
Xavi and I waved at the kids, and several of them waved back. One child spun in joyous circles.
“We create a circus,” Xavi said.
“What could we buy as from these farms?” Kev said and nodded towards a group of buildings on the bank. “Now, we don’t trade with the farms here. They are too close to Aoustin. But if we did, what could we buy?”
I shrugged. “I know not.”
Kev looked at Xavi.
She shook her head, no.
“Those trees look wild, but they all are planted. This plantation is surrounded by dense forests. You two will learn and recognize the tree species soon enough. Look there. I can tell they gather cashews, acai, and pepper. There is coffee. I see nutmeg. Those acacias over there…, the vines growing on them are vanilla. The seeds of the acacia make nutritious flour. Little Boy Early Naipaul buys the gum from the acacia. Did you know that gum makes a good emulsifier? Colum likes it. He mixes the gum with pigment to make watercolor paints. See those? Those spiky plants along the bottoms of the trees are pineapple. I see mangos, avocados, star fruit, breadfruit, bananas, and John fruit. And lemongrass. Lemongrass is very distinctive. That farm has copra. The oil from the copra doesn’t rancid quickly. No cacao on this part of the river, though. Wait until we pass cinnamon trees around the next bend. You should be able to smell them soon. We buy every part of the cinnamon tree.”
Kev pointed to rows of maize. “There’s a little patch of maize over there. That’s just for the farming couple and their family. That family doesn’t grow enough to sell, just to eat. We buy maize from farms around Neck.”
“Where first we stop?” I asked.
“We first pull to in Neck,” Kev said. “We sprint up the river until we get to Neck. We drop off our lading, then stop at farms and towns as we come back to Aoustin.”
I pointed out a grove of pine trees used for wood. I knew my pine trees.
Little churches centered the smaller farm communities. I spoke out the settlement names from the charts as we passed them. Penuel. Puto. Green. Hope. Xi. Larger towns, each with their own stretch of warehouses and stores along the river, passed by as well. Hampton. Chennai. Smithville.
I stood on the stool and looked over the charts until my legs grew tired. Then I sprawled across one of the benches in the back of the wheelhouse. Xavi moved to the other seat and sat upright, looking out the windows at the landscape. I lay on the bench and drifted off to a shallow sleep as the drone of the engine’s vibrations soothing me.
I awoke. Kev still stood at the helm and watched ahead. Xavi slept across from me on the bench. I got up, stretched, and joined Kev.
“I guess you two needed a nap,” he said. “I never can tell when to let you sleep and when to wake you up. Somehow, your mother knows. I think it has to do with the shape of your eyes. Your upper eyelids hang lower when it is time for you to sleep.”
I looked out. The familiar boat that I knew so well floated past a strange and new stretch of river. So weird to be on the ordinary Miss Genius with the continuous passing of unfamiliar river around us. I imagined that our boat sat still while everything else, including the trees, the riverbanks, and the buildings, moved past. The wheelhouse, decks, and the fixtures stayed our bubble of consistency as we slowly moved across the chart.
Aunt Magritte woke Xavi and took us back to the small galley in the passenger compartment to eat. The boat had life in its movements in the water, and sound filled the interior. Besides the steady hum of the engine, we could hear the water splash outside as the bow pushed through the small waves on the river. Between bites of her meal, Xavi excitedly told Aunt Magritte about what we had seen so far.
After we ate, Aunt Magritte returned to reading. Xavi and I sat on the hatch of a cargo hold. The breeze pleasantly crossed over the deck.
“Those are rubber trees. We make rubber from those.” I pointed to a group of trees we passed. I erred. They were mahogany. “And those are pine trees.” I got the pine trees right. Again, I knew my pine trees.
After several hours the Second Watch grew stale. “Sleep shift, both of you,” Aunt Magritte told us.
“More time, please,” Xavi pleaded. “We’re not home.”
“The best reason. I so not want sleep crazies strike yagize. Bedward!”
Xavi and I trundled with shuffling feet toward the passenger cabins.
“But more time?” Xavi continued to press her mother.
As I fell asleep, I heard the murmur of Xavi’s and Aunt Magritte’s voices in the other cabin.
At the end of Kev’s shift, Choco Leroy Galea came up the ladder from the crew quarters where he had slept down below. He made a fresh pot of coffee and then took the wheel.