A Burning Light

They brought us here
To spread God’s love
And o’er us they watch still

“I had aspired to never, ever, travel the river so soon past a solar storm,” Aunt Magritte said. “I remember Daddy’s tales.”

“You’re on the river soon after a solar storm. You’re aware of that?” Kev asked. Xavi and I ate in the galley. Choco piloted the boat just above us in the wheelhouse. Aunt Magritte watched Xavi and me as we ate. Kev cut sheets from a bolt of plain white cloth, using his arm span to measure.

“Kev…, now so. Cease. I grasp such. Why now? The first time in years I have gone upriver and such happens a solar storm?”

“By chance, God has a sense of humor.”

“Kev…, why you say such? How could you think such, much less say such?”

“Why are you yawping?” Kev asked. “I struggle to comprehend you, sometimes. Often. You confuse me. Perhaps it’s just me. Maybe you are acting logical and it’s my thickness.”

“I be complaining, that’s all. Solar storms, they’re agony I want no part of. I’ll do the needful. I will. I will always. Such’s not the topic. I want not to. But I will.”

Aunt Magritte picked up my bowl. Fortunately, I had finished my meal. She washed it in the small sink in the galley, dried it, and put it in the cabinet.

“I don’t understand,” Kev continued. “Why do you struggled so much with yourself whenever you must do what you don’t want to do.”

“Migone!” Aunt Magritte leaned against the cabinet with her arms crossed. “Cease, Kev.”

Kev turned to me. “You will be an ethical human, my son. The product of my loins. I order you. As your father. I suppose I can order you. As my father ordered me. And his father ordered him. That’s the way society structures such things, fathers deciding by fiat. It is good for you for your father to decide by fiat. It makes you strong. Or it permanently scars you and maims you. Hah.”

I sat up straight, listening. I didn’t understand.

“You will come ashore with me and help. Help to provide your part of the social contract. Or do it because God tells you to. Or help because helping other people is good. Intrinsically. Xavi, Aunt Magritte decides if she helps.”

Xavi looked up from her meal when Kev said her name.

“She will,” Magritte said. “We will.”

“Do the needful, Pierrot,” Kev said. “A good rule. Always do the needful. Don’t think about it. Wait…, think. You should think. Always. Always think. Not thinking is bad. But don’t constern yourself. Do it. The needful.”

“Cease talking,” Aunt Magritte said. “Please, Kev. Cease talking.”

“Hah. I will cease. Now. No more. Nothing more needs to be said. I am….”

“Cease!”

Kev raised his arms in feigned resignation.

“Will do. I don’t want to be voted out of the family. Like Pat Shatwell Wouters.”

“Do you always endeavor to say the last word?”

“No. Do you?”

“No.”

“There you go. See?”

“What?” Aunt Magritte said.

Kev opened his mouth to speak, paused, and clamped his jaw tight with a frown and pursed lips.

I looked at Xavi. She looked at me. Why did Aunt Magritte not like being on the river after a solar storm? I had seen few effects of the solar storm in Neck.

I had imagined that visiting the farms would be fun. Kev and I would climb concrete stairs from piers all along the river. I would stand next to him while he engaged in business with the farmers. “This is my son,” Kev said in my imaginings. “He’s my special assistant.” I had not thought about Xavi and Aunt Magritte being there. But Xavi could stand next to Aunt Magritte, just behind Kev and me. The farmers’ children would look from behind their parents with wonder at me. Xavi and I were the two kids who would wave at them from the big powerful boat as it made its way upriver.

 “And your execution of needful begins now,” Kev said. He took one of the sheets of cloth he had made and folded it in half. With his scissors, he cut a neat semi-circle along the folded edge. He flattened the fabric onto the table to show me the round hole in its center that he had just cut. I was amazed at his cleverness.

“There,” he said. “Big enough for someone’s head to get through. Most heads. There may be bigger heads out there. We’ll compensate if need be. Here.” He put the small pile of sheets next to me, then gave me a pair of scissors. “Cut holes in these. The same size. Or as close to the same size. They don’t have to be exact, just approximate. When you’re done, they’ll be more.”

I struggled for several minutes with folding the first sheet in half.

After I cut a hole in that sheet, I showed it to him. I had gnawed an irregular breach with the scissors near the center of the sheet.

“So…,” Kev remarked when I showed him my handiwork. “Ha. That’s minimally functional. Not aesthetic at all. But it will do the job. I did say the hole didn’t need to be exact. Continue on. Good job. No…. Adequate job. Completely adequate and functional. I commend your effort. Resume your hacking with an ax. Or scissors. Or a chain saw.”

Kev measured out another length of fabric, then stopped. “Another thing…. You and Xavi will count. You can count? Yes? And write? Count the folk burned. And folk with blisters. Whether they are male, female, child, parent. The Mayor always wants to know.”

“Will folk be burned?” I asked. “Folk weren’t burned in Neck. Folks won’t be burned.”

“No,” Kev said. “They wouldn’t be burned in Neck. Bells ring and sirens sound to let folk know to hide in the towns. If you know what to look for, a person doesn’t need an alarm. The colors become distinct during a solar storm. And I can see colors during a solar that I normally don’t see. Most people don’t notice that until it is too late. Folk will be hurt, bad, on the river.”

#

Kev blew the horn twice as Miss Genius crept passed a farm. On the shore, a muddy track struggled up the riverbank next to a flimsy pole with a dirty yellow flag hanging from it. I stood close as Kev spun the main wheel that turned the turbine’s impeller around to point backward. He pushed the throttle as far as it would go. The turbine roared in response. I stumbled forward as the boat pulled to a halt and started slowly backward.

“Be wareful,” Kev told me.

He reduced the throttle on the turbine and used the four electric steering impellers to turn the boat around on its center to point upriver. The motors for the impellers screamed loud with an almost musical ringing.

Choco stood at the bow holding a line. I noticed that Kev eased the boat towards a thick pylon not far from shore. When the pole barely touched the bow, Choco quickly wrapped the line around it.

I heard someone shout, “Yowah!” I stood on my toes to see who it was. A man stumbled down the bank, dragging a sack behind him and holding a strange-looking case in his hand. The man only wore a turge, a piece of cloth the people on the river wore around their midsection. His skin shone an unnaturally bright red.

“Peace,” Choco shouted across the short distance between the man and us. Xavi and Aunt Magritte joined Choco and looked to the shore.

“Come now, fetch me. I’m quitting this scene.”

Choco glanced at Kev, then faced the man again. “Why so? We’ll buy your livestock, we will.”

“Dead. Rotting. All dead long since,” the man shouted.

Once onboard, the man dragged his bag of possessions behind him. The bag created a streak of mud in its path. He collapsed on a hatch cover in the shade of the awning.

The whites of his eyes were no longer white, but bright red. And his eyes had those milky white centers, the eyes of the older country folk who could not see well.

I drew close to him and got a better look at his skin. Some areas had not burned, and I could see his skin was not pale like Xavi’s, but a warm brown. The burns colored his skin crimson, and the blisters looked like scales. His bones poked sharply through his skin. He had not eaten well for a long time.

He had walked across the deck with his legs stiff and spread wide. I wondered why. I later found out that the sun had burned him where the sun usually doesn’t have the opportunity to do damage. Aunt Magritte told me that people who live alone on the river sometimes forgo clothing.

Kev brought him a big bowl of the eternity pot porridge. “Mark, this is my son, Pierrot. Pierrot, this is Mark, the farmer.”

“Good one, Dignac. You are,” the man said. “Was a farmer. Until this week. I want to go back to Aoustin. Take me home. Please. I be burned and broken and bankrupt and half-blind.”

“We can do that for you, Mark.”

“How so I pay you passage? I have only shit and spit.”

Kev’s head shakes when he’s thinking. After the man asked how to pay passage, Kev looked like a pigeon walking. His head bobbed so.

“Your violin in good shape, still?” Kev finally asked.

“Migone, no!” the man gasped and grabbed tight the strange case. “Please, not such.”

“No, no, no. That’s not what I want. My wrong. Ha. I’m sure not clear. I panicked you. Didn’t I? No. I did. Will you play? The violin. And sing. For the passengers?”

“What?”

“For passage. The media is the message. You are the media. You are the message. Would you play for your passage? For our passengers?”

“Yes….”

“Ha,” Kev said. “A deal then. It’s a great deal. A wonderful deal.”

“I be doubtful such sun-suffered folk wants to hear me, howbeit,” Mark said. “I know all I want myself now is relief. I expect all on the river be in such a way.”

“Pierrot, Mark sings a premium gunny. Many great gunnies. He’s the only person I acquaint of who plays Stairway to Heaven on the violin. He’s much better at music than other things. Especially at farming. Isn’t that so? He’s horrible at homesteading. Ha.”

The man’s face flushed with anger, then softened.

“Seems such,” Mark said. “You’re a good one, Dignac. You assisted me as I tried, much. I determined to succeed. I did.”

A tear ran down Mark’s red face. “I determined to succeed,” he said.

“Pierrot,” Kev said. “You have one male, single, burned with blisters.”

“Fever and chills?” Kev asked Mark.

“Fear so, Dignac.”

“Male, single, burned, blistered, fevered,” Kev told me.

I looked at Kev, confused.

“Your count.”

I remembered the piece of paper Kev had given me. I pulled it out of my pocket with a pencil. I looked at the blank sheet confused, not knowing how to count a male, single, burned, blistered, fevered.

The turbine rumbled again. I looked up. Choco stood in the wheelhouse and turned the boat in a lazy loop to head downstream.

We traveled a few more kilometers downriver. A wone came into view where a creek flowed into the main channel. A pier extended into the river, and Choco brought us next to it. Kev jumped from the stern onto the dock, tied the sterned line to stop our forward momentum, then rush to the bow and tied that line.

I followed Kev as he quickly walked up the brick steps from the pier, two large satchels hanging from each arm. The closer we got to the top of the bluff, the more we heard children crying.

The wone rose to our right. I had never seen a wone that close before. Stairs climbed along the wone’s side, and a single large building, almost like an ancient temple, had been built on the flat top. A group of brick houses surrounded the wone. Each building had its own mixed gardens of vegetables.

When we came into view, the people who lived in those houses left the shade of their porches and walked out to us.

“Pease, Dignac.” It seemed like half of them called out to Kev.

“And also, with you,” Kev shouted out.

Their skin was various shades of black, brown, orange, and red. Some had streaks of purple mixed with the burns. Some of their blisters were the size of my fist. Others had scaly scabs. The most severely burn had swollen faces, and their eyes were slits they barely could see through. Many had those milky eyes.

Children, some whimpering, congregated in misery under a tree.

Behind the houses, the forest, the planted forest, of useful trees formed a wall.

“Pierrot,” Kev said. “Go. You and Xavi. Perform the count.”

“What?” I said. “Kev….” I had never been to a place like that before. Did he want me to go off on my own and start counting people?

“Come so,” Aunt Magritte said. “We’ll go together.”

Aunt Magritte, Xavi, and I stood off to one side and counted everyone who surrounded Kev. Then we counted the children under the tree. Aunt Magritte showed Xavi and me how to draw a grid on the paper with a box for burned, one for not burned, and one for blistered. We’d make a little mark that she called a tick for each person in one of the boxes of suffering.

Most of the people around Kev earned a tick in the blistered box. All the rest, except for those with the darkest skin, looked burned. “The darkest skin, you can’t discern the burn,” Aunt Magritte told me. “Don’t count burns unless you can see them. Don’t constern about fevered.”

 “Kev told me to count fevers,” I said.

“Such you can’t tell by looking at folk,” she said. “Such can’t be seen on the outside. Count what you see.”

Use the balm often, Kev told the folk gathered around him. Don’t pop the blisters. Boil water and let it cool. Bathe with that water to get the skin clean. River water is not clean enough. Rinse the burns with vinegar once a day. Cover yourself, head to toe, to keep from getting burned worse by the sun. The ozone was gone.

If the folks we visited didn’t have vinegar, he’d give them a small jar of it.

Choco handed out the sheets of cloth with holes in the center. Kev told them to put their heads through the hole and let the fabric hang down, sheltering the skin from the sun.

Xavi and I followed Aunt Magritte from house to house.

No one answered at the first two houses that Aunt Magritte looked into. As we approached the third, I heard a baby wailing inside.

The mother holding the baby had the skin of many unnatural colors: purple, red, brown, black. The huge blisters were yellowish-brown. Her face had swollen to a plump roundness under her pretty light brown hair, and she could not see because her eyes had puffed to such a large size. The baby looked no better. A little girl stood nearby. One of her blisters had burst and soaked her turge with pus. I gagged and had to go outside.

A little boy who I had not noticed followed me from the house. I had not seen him inside. He, too, had swollen eyes, enormous blisters, and sickly-looking skin. Through the slits of his eyelids, I saw the milky centers of his eyes. He held something in his hand.

“I have soldiers,” he told me. He held two clay soldiers in his palm. One was shiny blue, the other yellow. “Vandal Horde and Nazis. The blue be Nazi.”

Gera Frank Khama sold soldiers just like that at the market in Aoustin. Kev had a box of them that he kept in the hold.

“I dole them to the boys,” Kev told me. “If a girl wants one, I will give her one.”

 I played with the box of soldiers in the hold when the Miss Genius is moored in the bayou. For me, the blue men were the Aoustin militia, the good guys. The yellow ones, the Vandal Horde. They were the bad guys. In my battles, the militia always won.

“Who are the good guys?” I asked the little boy.

“The Vandal Horde. You know the Nazis are bad.”

“I have spaceships,” I told the boy. “Xavi has drawings. My father has bom. For burns. Let’s get some for your momma.”

The boy followed me to Kev.

“Kev,” I said, interrupting him mid-sentence. “I want bom. For him. And his mother. And his sister. And the baby.”

Kev pulled a handful of greasy paper packages of balm from a satchel.

Aunt Magritte and Xavi exited the house as we walked up. Aunt Magritte saw the packages I carried.

“That’s helpful, Pierrot,” she said as she took them. “That’s helpful.” She and Xavi and the boy went back into the house.

I walked away from the houses into the thick woods. I breathed in the rich smells in the dark shade of the forest floor. I found the creek and stopped to throw stones into it. I stay in the woods until I heard the horn of the Miss Genius and followed it back out to the wone and the houses and the bluff and the river.

“Cease roving away,” Aunt Magritte told me when I walked up. “You’ll astray.”

Once on the boat, I asked Kev if I could give the hurt little boys clay soldiers from his cache.

“That is a great idea,” he said. “Superb. Normally I sell them for eight thousand each. Today is not a normal day, is it now? You are not a good capitalist. Still, I commend you.”

I enjoyed my father’s praise.

“Xavi,” Kev continued. “We have little babies for the girls. Give each burned girl a doll. Superb. Yes.”

For the next three weeks, it seemed as if Miss Genius had only gotten going before we slowed down again for a stop at a farm or town. On these stops, Kev or Choco pulled up gently against the small docks if they could. When they couldn’t, they’d anchor Miss Genius as close as possible and take as all to shore on the launch.

During the stops, I did a lousy job counting. I gave away toy soldiers to the little boys from a bag over my shoulder. Xavi gave little girls small clay dolls.

Too many had the horrible burns. Too many had eyes with the milky centers that blinded them. As the days passed, the burns and blisters became scabs and weeping sores.

Kev bought meat. A lot of it. The farmers brought their suffering hogs, cows, or horses to the waterfront. The first animal I saw Kev butcher was a pig. When that pig began screaming in terror, Xavi covered her ears and turned away. She refused to watch Kev kill. Kev slit the neck of the pig. I fell when my legs weakened at the sight of all the blood. After that, when we saw the animals being brought to Kev, both Xavi and I walked away.

Often, a farmer would cry as Kev counted out the coins for their animals.

A portion of the hold within Miss Genius had shelves that Kev called Dignac Hardware, Groceries, and General Goods. He packed these shelves with the things that the farmers needed. If a farmer needed a replacement tool, Kev probably had one to sell. He provided buttons, needles, thread, and cloth. He kept a couple of pumps on the shelves.

When someone needed something from the stock of goods, Kev tasked me with jumping on deck from the pier or the launch and running to the hold to get what was needed. It took me a long time to find what he needed at first, but I got to be quick.

I could see my breath in the hold, it was so cold. Water froze in there. As the weeks went by, the hold slowly filled with the carcasses of slaughtered animals.

For the first few days, I cried each third shift I lay, alone, in my bunk to sleep. I saw burned bodies and farmers losing their cherished animals when I closed my eyes. The silently suffering kids bothered me the most.  And the children’s milky old folk eyes. These children would be burdened by a clouded vision for the rest of their lives.

On the third day of not being able to sleep, I padded into the cabin where Aunt Magritte and Xavi slept. Aunt Magritte slept on the top bunk with her back towards the door. I got in the bed with Xavi and rested my head on her mane of red hair. I still saw the images as I drifted to sleep, but I found comfort in the smells of my cousin.

We added passengers. Next came Tore. A single man, he, like Mark, decided the solar storm marked the end of his homesteading experiment. He still had large blisters when he got on board. Then there were Olivia and Lisa. They, too, gave up on farming despite not being severely burned. John and Broma brought their family of four children on board. They were not quitting farming, “Just making a respite.”

John and Broma’s son, Marvin, was my age, and we became fast friends. The sun had burned his skin, but his eyes were still bright. We spent time on the bow when the boat was underway. He pointed out the different trees and gave me the correct names for them.

“An angel,” he exclaimed one time when we were playing.

I looked up and saw a machy. “Such’s no angel,” I said. “Just a machy. They help not. They do as with they do’s.” I watched as the machy flew away from us and finally disappeared. I wondered why the Intelligences didn’t help the suffering people on the river.

We gathered more passengers. One woman, a mother, asked Kev for passage as her husband and children watched mournfully from the shore.

Soon the space under the awning became crowded.

Mark, the horrible farmer but great musician, played his violin every day during the second shift. He had one song he sang every day.

When peace like a river, accompanies me
When pains roll over me like waves on the shore
No matter my luck, I’ve learned from you to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul
Peace like a river
Peace like a river
It is well with my soul

#

We got to the bayou and docks in Aoustin. Red Ali Cross rushed up to help as the boat slid up to the pier. Red caught the stern line from Choco and tied it to a bollard. I knew he would call out to me if he saw me. So, I hid. I left the wheelhouse only after Red and Kev were deep in conversation.

As Aunt Magritte walked Xavi and me home, I saw the bee-hive shape of the Intelligences’ fortress, the Power Plant.

“They’re bad.” I pointed to the Power Plant.

“My wrong, what?” Aunt Magritte said.

“They’re bad.”

“Who? Who are bad?”

“The In-tell-ee-gen-shushes.”

Xavi frowned at me.

“How so, Pierrot?” Magritte asked.

“They didn’t aid us. They didn’t aid such folk.”

“Such folk?”

“The farmers. The animals. The kids.”

“Oh sweet, such’s not what Intelligences do. Intelligences do what Intelligences do.”

“Tell them the Intelligences must aid us. They brought us here. They said they aid us.”

I stopped. Magritte and Xavi walked ahead a few steps, then turn towards me.

“Come so,” Magritte said.

“God is bad. And Jesus,” I told them, defiantly. Xavi’s eyes sprung wide.

“Speak nothing like such,” Magritte said. “Come so.”

I did not move.

“Okay, so,” Magritte said. “Hasten home when done.”

Magritte turned and walked away. Xavi followed her, looking back at me occasionally. They kept walking. I rushed after them before they got out of sight.

Leave a Reply