The first few days on the river passed. Little by little, I became weary of the novelty of the new places we saw. Xavi and I acted as if Miss Genius lay anchored in Aoustin Bayou. We no longer sat enthralled on the bow as the steady progression of stretches of river, towns, farms and wooded shores passed by.
We sat on one of the backbenches of the wheelhouse while Kev piloted. Kev had given Xavi a sheet of paper and a humongous, waxy crayon. She drew trees with happy, smiling, animals who stood like ecstatic statues underneath.
“Like my drawing?” she asked me.
“What kind of animals?”
She smiled. “See. There’s the cat. There’s the dog. There’s the horse. There’s the deer. There’s the raccoon.”
“How so? They look alike.” All of the animals she had drawn had four legs, a circle for a head, and triangles for ears. “The cat looks like a dog.”
“See which is which,” she told me. She pointed out all the key differences that set apart the species. “See? Easy to see?”
I looked again and shook my head. “No, it’s not.” I started laughing, tickled by the way the words I just said sounded. “It snot. It snot. It snot.”
“Stop, baby boy.” Xavi returned to drawing.
“I see the animals as the same each. The folk in my spaceship can’t see which is which.” I picked up one of my wooden spaceships and whooshed loudly as it glided between Xavi and me at arm’s length.
“The spaceship folk are shiny brains,” Xavi exclaimed. “They’re stupid, so now.”
I returned to my wooden spaceships. “I like my spaceships. They are smart.”
For hours I had orchestrated an elaborate and noisy battle between the yellow and the blue spaceship. My spaceships bounced into the air and then down again as the battle raged. I made splashing noises when the vessels plunged into and out of imaginary water. I still thought that spaceship had to sail through water while in space.
In my wars, neither yellow nor blue won. Each time a spaceship crashed, it soon reincarnated as a reinforcement that looked remarkably like the ship that had only met its end seconds before. In my five-year-old world, no one won wars through attrition.
Xavi and her contented menagerie did their best to ignore the carnage of my battle as it continued less than a meter away. She imitated each of the voices of the animals as they spoke with one another as the animals happily made cakes and sang at the birthday party. At one point, the animals on Xavi’s drawing had an earnest conversation about who made best friends with who.
Apparently, raccoons and dogs like each other better than they do the deer and horses. The horse likes everyone. All the other animals are the horse’s best friends. The cat won’t admit that he be anyone’s friend. The horse knows better. She knows the cat secretly likes her.
Occasionally, I looked up and watched Kev steer the boat through the lazy turns as we powered our way up the river. The pleasant smells of flowers from the wooded riverbanks, coffee, and new paint filled the room. The odors of grease and sweat competed as well.
A light flickered on and off tentatively above Kev’s head on the wall of the wheelhouse. Then, after the light flashed on and off a few times, it lit brightly. I had never noticed that light before.
“Magritte!” Kev shouted out toward the front of the boat. “Come here now. Don’t wait. Come now. Don’t tarry.” His voice remained calm, but I noticed an urgency in his words.
“What’s that?” I asked. “I see a light.”
“Terra Beata has many ways to kill, maim, or just simply, injure us,” Kev said to me. “You’re will soon experience one more. The hurricanes…, the arsine and ammonia in the atmosphere…, the air that catches fire during lightning storms…. This place is very resourceful in harming us. There are no mistakes in God’s world. Yes! I guess Terra Beata counts as God’s world. Maybe not as much as Earth. Or maybe just as much as Earth. But it’s still his world. Or maybe it is not his world, and perhaps there are mistakes on Terra Beata.”
He shouted out towards the front of the boat again. “I ask you to come now, Magritte.” His voice no longer sounded calm. “Now is when your rebellion against urgency is not helpful.”
“Are-seen? At-more-fear?” I repeated some of the words I did not know. Kev spoke and spoke, and I often had no idea what he talked about.
Magritte appeared in the doorway. “So, now?”
Kev pointed to the light. “Solar storm,” he told her.
“Shit monkey! Now?”
“Yes, now,” Kev replied, flustered.
“But it’s my vacay! It can’t! It won’t.”
“It can. And it has. We can’t choose when solar storms happen, can we? Take the young down to the crew cabin. Ask Marlin to bring me the sun gear.”
Our tumbling down the stairs woke Marlin.
“What in hell?” he shouted.
“Solar storm,” Magritte shouted back.
Before Magritte could say anything more, Marlin jumped up, opened a drawer, and grabbed a bag inside. He ascended the ladder enough to pop his head through the opening and throw the bag to Kev.
Magritte covered the windows with layers of cloth while Kev and Marlin navigated to shore and tied up the boat. When Kev and Marlin finished, they descended the stairs to join us in the crew cabin.
Stark white gloves cover their hands, and goggles of orange glass covered their eyes. They had left nothing exposed to sunlight. An unpleasant smell followed them. I didn’t know what it was. The strange smell reminded me of burned hair and nasty farts. It stayed with us for days.
“Are we well, Kev?” Xavi cried out again.
“We will be. Animals aren’t well out there unless they take refuge. They won’t. Earth doesn’t have solar storms as bad as Terra Beata. Animals…, Earth animals…, haven’t evolved to know to shelter during solar storms. They will suffer.”
“The raccoons! The dogs! The cats! The horses!” Xavi wailed and slumped over in a mournful heap.
“Gomerce, Kev…,” Magritte growled. “Affirm the best, will you not?”
“What?” Kev asked. “I don’t understand. You’re mad, aren’t you?”
The crew cabin had a door to the cargo hold, which had a door to the passenger saloon and the passenger cabins. Xavi and I had become familiar with Miss Genius. Often, when moored in the bayou, we ran the length of the vessel. We traveled both below the deck and above deck when we played. During the solar storm, we walked throughout the ship only below deck.
With the windows covered, it became an unnatural dark, as if the sun didn’t exist. Kev and Marlin pulled out a stash of torches and hung them around the cabins.
I had not seen a room lit only with artificial light before. Each torch shone with a bright pinpoint of brightness. The light’s strange color didn’t fill the place in the same way as sunlight. Parts of the room lit brilliantly, but shadows became impenetrably dark with sharp edges. Xavi and I forgot our fear in the strangeness. She jumped and danced in front of the torches to see the shadow mimic her movements on the wall. I got up and danced next to her. The shadows were so unlike the shadows made by the sun. Their edges were sharp. It looked like someone drew them.
Kev came over and created a shadow that looked like a rabbit’s silhouette with his hand. He showed Xavi how to do it, he held her fingers to be the right shape. We soon had the shadow of Xavi’s deformed rabbit as it darted back and forth across the wall.
On the first day, we read books, played cards, and told stories. Kev told us about Grand-patta Dignac. Magritte told us about how she met Xavi’s father. We learned about the steam motorcycle Uncle Esau owned and how he wrecked it.
We slept out of boredom.
Xavi drew a new picture. On her paper, I saw miserable animals with the big, frowning, red sun above them. The animals remained mute with surly faces. Violent clouds, like little hurricanes, blew off the sun. Again, I still could not tell the different types of animals from one another, but I did not ask her to explain which ones they were.
I had left my toy spaceships above deck, in the wheelhouse. I wondered if they became a burned pile of ashes next to the dried-up remains of the sheet of paper with Xavi’s happy animals.
All the while, the nasty odor of the solar storm filled every corner of the cabins.
On the second day we sheltered below deck, Kev found Magritte with Xavi and me in the darkness of a stifling, airless, passenger cabin. “Marlin and I need you and the youngs,” Kev told Magritte. “We shall get the cargo insulated.”
“What?” Magritte protested. “Why so?”
“The solar storm has gone on long enough that farmers will slaughter livestock that did not get shelter. Those animals are ordealing. The solar storm won’t kill them. No. It has just blinded and burned. Just…, I know. That’s bad enough. Just blinded. Just burned.”
“The animals!” Xavi wailed.
“Gomerce, Kevin…,” Magritte growled.
“We’ll turn the hold into a freeze box,” Kev continued. “The reefer can make the hold cold enough to freeze after we insulate. We’ll put canvas over the frames and fill the space with cellpells and sawdust. Dried grass will do. Damp grass will ferment and generate heat. We won’t use grass that hasn’t been dried.”
“Horrible,” Magritte complained. “Why so? Why so solar storms happen? God and his sun. I averse it. I averse this whole planet. Why so the Intelligences brought humans here? They had to know how horrible this place was.”
“We’ll buy all the meat stock we can. ‘Eat well after a solar storm, starve later.’ We buy now, freeze it and sell later. Farmers will have too much meat stock for the next week and not enough in the next year.”
Kev looked at Magritte, confused. “Because we buy things as cheap as we can and sell them for more than we bought them. And, when possible, we make the world a better place. You agree, don’t you?”
I awoke drenched in sweat. The boat felt different. The vessel rumbled again with movement. The turbine ran. Water flowed against the hull.
I jumped out of my berth and ran until I got to the crew cabin. Kev’s berth sat empty. Marlin slept, clothed, with his back to me.
I stood at the bottom of the ladder to the wheelhouse and hesitated. In the crew cabin, the turbine sounded much louder. Miss Genius moved through the water again.
I climbed the stairway to the wheelhouse fearfully and lifted the hatch. Kev stood at the helm without protective clothing.
“Greetings,” he said. “You’re awake.”
“Am I okay here?” I asked.
“The solar storm is over. Maybe. Hopefully. Perhaps. Unless the sun is still spewing at us when the planet orbits back around. That takes a few days. For now, you can come above deck.”
I came into the wheelhouse and saw my wooden spaceships where I left them, next to Xavi’s picture of ambiguous species that grinned back at me. I picked up a wood spacecraft. The sun bleached one side to be light. The parts of the toy that faced down or we in shadows remained unchanged.
“Everything is sterilized,” Kev told me. “The solar storm sanitized everything for us.”
I didn’t know what sterilized or sanitized meant. Those words must be something terrible.
“You smell that?” Kev asked.
The smell of burned hair and fart lingered still, but a new scent overwhelmed all. Part of the new odors smelled like food. But I detected something else, something sweet. Did I recognize freshly cut leaves? I think so. These new smells were pleasant.
“I can,” I answered.
“Plants, unlike animals, evolved a defense against solar storms. They produce chemicals that limit the damage. Vegetables taste better after a solar storm, especially the leafy greens. Truth! It’s truth.
“Listen to me,” he continued. “Wear a hat and a long sleeve shirt and long trousers when outside. The storm destroyed the ozone. Understand?”
Many of the words he used meant nothing to me. Evolved. Chemicals. Ozone. I looked at the shore. Some trees looked much lighter as if someone had washed their color away. Others looked darker.
I shrugged. I did not understand.
“Cover yourself when you go outside,” he said. “Understand?”
“Will we die?” I asked.
“No. Hah! No. I scared you. Appropriate. To be scared. You need to be afraid of danger. Run from the lions. Like our forebears. Our forebears who ran from lions survived. The ones that didn’t…, well… they are not anyone’s forebears, are they?
“Your question…. You get burned with the ozone gone. That’s why you cover yourself. But no, we will not die. You are not going to die. Wait…. Sorry…. My wrong. Hopefully, you will not die today. You will die, yes. With certainty. We all die. Remember that. But not today. Not from the Sun. You may drown or choke on your food and die. But you won’t die…, today… or the near future…, because of the solar storm.”
Kev’s fatherly assurances did not always assure.
“We must adapt. We adapt to solar storms. Or not. I guess a person doesn’t have to adapt, but that is not an effective strategy. No, adapt we must. I say that as an imperative, now it is so. An imperative. There. So be it.”
While swarms of men unladed Miss Genius at Neck, Aunt Magritte walked Xavi and me up the steep muddy road from the shore to the central part of town. Trucks rush by going up and down the hill. We had to jump out of the way more than once. Wagons pulled by horses crowded close and forced us against the buildings.
I had expected docks along the riverfront, like on the bayou in Aoustin, to make it easy to load and unload the boats. But the riverfront at Neck formed a long muddy shore. It swarmed with men, horses, trucks, and flat train cars. Because of the shallow water, boats could not pull all the way to shore. I walked from the vessel to land across a bouncy gangplank with no handrails.
From the top of the hill, I could see the river approaching the town from the right and left. I could see the opposite shore. A thin muddy strip separated the black water of the river from the thick canopy of trees. The tops of trees extended to the horizon. It reminded me of the view from my tree in Aoustin.
Xavi and I went from store to store with Aunt Magritte. We walked and walked and walked. Even though we stopped at every store we passed, Aunt Magritte never bought anything. After several hours, we stopped and ate at a small tavern. I ate sweet pork and beans wrapped in a corn tablo.
When someone spoke to us, Xavi and I would exchange glances and smile. The folks in Neck talked with a strange dialect, and when they said “you,” it sounded like “yay.” I snickered each time. Most of the people who choked the road from the river and through town spoke that way. But the clothes looked the same as they did in Aoustin. The stark difference between the commonplace clothing and the strange speech seemed unnatural to me.
A few had bright sunburned skin or were covered in bandages.
Marlin fastened hatches when we returned to the boat. They must have finished putting all the cargo for downriver in the hold already. Kev stood on one side of the deck with the burner and a large pot.
“Welcome back from your excursion into the fascinating town of Neck,” Kev said to us as we walked up. “See anything new and exciting?”
“We saw two dogs dancing on hind legs,” Xavi enthused.
“You experienced Chad, then,” Kev said. “Good. You have received the full flavor of the place. Yagize’s time here has been not for waste.”
“What you make?” I asked Kev as I walked up to him.
“Bom?” I asked.
“Heating up honey, wax, and aloe together.”
I nodded my head.
“It’s antiseptic and soothing. For burns.”
I nodded again, not understanding our sudden need for a mixture of honey, wax, and aloe for burns.
When Kev looked the other way, Xavi kicked the back of my knee, almost causing me to fall. I pushed her back.
“Pierrot, stop now,” Kev admonished me. “Don’t play around a burner. That’s increases the chance of injury. Injury is bad. Your mother would blame me for inattentiveness if you came home disfigured.”