Steppin’, steppin’, Stepan

I had read about hangovers. I had seen hangovers in movies. When I woke the next day, the concept of hangover went from theoretical to concrete. After drinking so much in the last Second Watch, mere existence had become painful.

Momma stood in the doorway of my room as I labored to get out of bed.
“Drink water, much water,” she told me. “Eat what you can.”

I drank water and ate some fish and still felt terrible. A long shower gave no relief.

That day she walked with me to the docks. She had not done that in a long time. I didn’t want to talk, and she, thankfully, had little to say. I accepted, gladly, that she did not seem angry with me for getting drunk the day before.

We got to the docks, and Xavi sat on our upside-down dinghy. That dinghy lined up with a dozen other brightly colored little boats. Miss Genius lay moored in the middle of the bayou, and we needed to row out to it.

“I want to talk to you about Lilah,” Xavi said.

“You don’t think I can handle her?” I had talked to Xavi when I got home, drunk, after visiting Lilah. What did I say to her?

“No. Not that. I’m concerned.”

“I can tend this.”

“Maybe. Yes,” Xavi answered. “You can.”

I looked towards the entrance of the bayou, to the broad river beyond. The extraordinary shape of a cloud rose above the opposite shore. My mind, in its hangover fog, struggled with processing what I saw. At first, I thought the towering cloud to be towering foam on the water. That didn’t make sense. I sorted out what I saw and realized it was a cloud.

A cheap screecher in a nearby boat crackled and hissed music from the station. I heard a loud gunny played, invading the street, and crowding my thoughts.

The drought, I did not bring it on.
Why do you blame me so?
The hot wind blows, we bake in sun.
The child watched you go.
Oh… Ann, oh…, oh… Ann, oh… Ann,
Why you leave me? Oh no…,
Oh… Ann, oh…, oh… Ann, oh… Ann,
Why you leave me?

“I’m concerned, that’s all,” Xavi said.

Momma nodded.

“It’s done,” I said. I decided when I said the words. “I’m done with Lilah. We’re not….” I realized I did not know how to describe my relationship with Lilah. Was she a girlfriend? I didn’t know. “Get up,” I told Xavi. “I need to put such in the water.”

“Let me help you,” Xavi said.

I didn’t let her. I grabbed the dinghy and hoisted it onto my shoulder. I dropped it off the dock into the bayou with a splash. One of the oars fell out and started drifting across the water.

After we climbed into the dinghy, Momma said goodbye and returned home.

Xavi and I scraped, cleaned, and painted the bits of the Miss Genius that needed it for the rest of the day. Paint usually smelled good to me. It did not on that day. I struggled to not throw up when its odor filled my lungs.

I lived the words Siv had told me the day before. Work through. I faced the self-inflicted suffering of a hangover and worked through. When Lilah came to mind, I thought it strange I didn’t feel sad about leaving her. Maybe sadness couldn’t find any room in the misery that was that day.

Fifteen bells rang. Xavi and I stowed the tools and paints and rowed back to the dock. We walked home together. When I got home, I showered. After I washed, I sat in the house’s darkest room and waited until I could go to bed.

#

The next day Aunt Sharon task me with helping Barris Wei Nistor. Barris had driven her truck across a vines field, and the vehicle lurched to a halt partway through. She got stuck, bad. The vines had spun around the driveshaft until the truck entangled. There was an old phrase, “wrapped around the axle.” She didn’t get wrapped around the axle, but she thoroughly wrapped the driveshaft.

Barris had hacked for hours the day before to free the truck and only managed to become hot, winded, and frustrated. Aunt Sharon offered my time, and my labor to solve the problem Barris had gotten herself into.
I crawled under the truck with a machete and a large knife. Even in the shade under the vehicle, it felt hot. No breeze flowed through.

Some of the vines were as thick as my little finger. Many still remained attached to their roots, and the truck was a Gulliver tied down by hundreds of lines. And there was that mess of vines that obscured the drive shaft. I hacked with the machete and slowly cleared my way to the drive shaft. I could only swing the machete in the small space under the truck awkwardly and unnaturally.

Vines built up around the driveshaft and became thicker than the space between the shaft and the platform. Barris tried to power her way out of the field. She wedged that mess tight. Pulling at those vines did no good. Layers and layers of compressed plant jammed tight and formed a barrier.
With my knife, I cut away what I could. Then I dug out the branches that were wedged tight.

Hours later, I emerged from under the truck and declared it free. Sweat soaked me, and chunks of stem and leaves caked my skin.

Barris flipped the switch on the truck’s cassie, and the boiler built pressure quickly. Before I could stop her, she drove through more vines and became entangled again.

Why did she not learn? I worked hard to get her free. Why she go and get ensnared again?

I crawled under the truck. Barris had not pressed on with the same determination that she had the first time. The strands of vine took only an hour the second time.

After I was done, I swam in the river to wash off all the sweat and plant debris. I let myself float on my back in the water, facing the sky. With water filling my ears, my own breathing filled my hearing. An occasional bird flew between me and the clouds. I watched an Intelligences’ machy crawl across the sky, heading off to some unknown destination.

#

Full of fear and sadness, I strode purposefully toward Lilah’s apartment. I needed to tell her why I would no longer see her. I had put it off too long. There was no time left. I would leave early the next day to go upriver with Kev.

I entered the Green Leaf. Pausing before her second-floor door, I had reached a ledge. I chose family over her, and I had to tell her.

The door abruptly opened without my knocking. “Pierrot-cious! You came,” Lilah said. “Come through.”

“Let’s go outside,” I told her. “We need talk.”

“Come through. You worry-most me. You sick?”

“No,” I said. “Not sick. We need talk.”

She caricatured a scowl. “You frightened-mo me.”

I breathed in, then breathed out with a jagged sigh. I entered the apartment and stood defiant near the door, my legs planted, my arms by my sides, and my jaw tight.

“You unhappy? You are,” she said with a look of concern that looked genuine. “How can I help you? Pierrot-licious. I’m glad you’re here. I’m think-much on you.”

“My family won’t go away. I am riverling. If it’s a choice between you….”

“Oh, Pierrot-licious. How so? It bad that you made-mad yourself. How unfair-mo. It be what couples do, speak with honesty between each other. You scare me. I can’t speak? You want me just to be a woman-silent you show-pride your riverlings?”

She reached through the space between us and rubbed my arm. I stepped back, away from her.

“Ohhhh…. You hurt-mo me,” she exclaimed. “Can’t I tell you how I think? I thought there great feelings between us.” How strange, I thought. She said, “great feelings” instead of the mozit, “feelings-mo.”

“Such…,” I said. “Such things you said, not just telling me what you think. And drop the mozit. Such not you. Such be not who you be. You want to sound like your part of the Old Families in Das Hajima. You’re not.”

She walked toward the center of the room.

“Let me show you something,” she said. She pulled up her shirt to reveal her stomach. I did not move.

“My family’s important to me,” I said. “Being a riverling’s important to me. If I have to choose….”

“Cease, please.” She sat at the small battered table. “Come close. See. You’ll understand, you will. Sit.” I still did not move. “Don’t hurt me so. I don’t deserve so. Come close. Sit near.”

I stiffly sat in the only other chair.

She slid her chair closer and leaned toward me. “Look so,” she said. She pulled her shirt and revealed her stomach again. Scars, each a straight line, made a hatched pattern across her stomach and below her breasts.

“My back be such as this, too,” she said. “My father. He did this. My brother killed him. My brother killed my father the last time my father hurt me.”

She leaned forward and kissed my lips. I did not respond.

She stood, slipped off her shirt, then removed the rest of her clothes. The scars extended all the way to her crotch and around to the back.

“Be I hideous? Be I so much hideous, so to you? Such the reason you kiss me not?”

“No, not that,” I said. “We can’t. My family….”

She reached to my hand, grasped it, and tugged, urging me to stand. She led me to the bed and stretched out naked across it.

“Come close,” she whispered. “Let me help. Let’s be closer. Let’s help each other.”

#

I woke as the tower rang five bells. I looked over and saw the naked Lilah sleeping next to me. I swung my feet to the floor and stood. She woke when I got out of bed.

Lilah bolted upright with a start. “Where go you, Perry?” she asked. “Leave me not?”

“I go to the boat,” I said.

“What?” she growled. “You leave me? Here? In this place? By myself? How can you? No. Say you won’t. You can’t. Cease. Stay.”

I put on my pants and shirt without speaking.

“You be not a man?” she said. “You perform me and leave me?”

“You know, I must. I’ll be back in a month. That’s all. Wait for me.”

“Am I just your slot here?” she complained. “Why you lie with me if you knew you’d go? I’m not a slot. No. Not yours. None. I’m not your shore whore.”

“You’re… harsh,” I told her. “You knew. My family. The river.”

“Truth? After I performed you? Truth?”

I put on my shoes.

“Wait for me,” I pleaded.

“No,” she snapped.

I walked for the door.

“Such be it? Such be it?” she yelled.

“I’ll be back,” I said as I walked out the door. “I’ll take care of you. I will. It has to be this way.”

As I walked passed the office for the Green Leaf, I stopped and paid Hal Tam Ros for Lilah’s room. I gave him enough money for six weeks.

#

“Steppin’, steppin’, steppin’.” The crowd of my people my age, my coevals, chanted that in a Beatan dream. I recognized some of the boys and girls in the group. They were the troubled ones, the poor, and the rough. The crowd chanted that word over and over until a man came out of a door. The crowd cheered, and I could not see the man they cheer for clearly. I had trouble focusing on the man’s face. The only details I could see were his black hair and his blue eyes. And he did no stepping. He stood there.

I had the “stepping” dream six months before Kev asked me to pilot Miss Genius. I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t understand most Beatan dreams. I did as Kev had suggested the first time I had one I described all the details I could remember in a dream journal.

I later told Xavi about this dream.

“You had the stepping swamp dream, too?” she replied. “Stepping, stepping, stepping. Step on what?”

#

I arrived at Miss Genius early, my shore bag over my shoulder.

“Success,” Kev shouted. “You arrived. On-time. You arrived on time. Congratulations on your conquering distractions and human instincts.”

“You don’t know,” I said.

I descended the stairs to the crew cabin. Two bunks lined the port side, two bunks line the starboard. When I traveled with Kev, I stayed in the bunk just above his, on the port side. Now I put my shore bag onto the bottom bunk on the starboard. That had been Choco’s bunk. Now, I claimed it as mine.

“We’ve two dozen passengers this trip,” Kev said when I returned to the wheelhouse. “To be precise, we have twenty-five. Two dozen, plus one.”

“Migone,” I exclaimed. “Where will we put them?”

“They’re together. We can line the passengers up like cordwood on the hatch. I doubled the eternity pot.”

All twenty-five of the passengers walked up together. Each had a makeshift bag holding their belongings over their shoulders. They appeared to be teenagers, maybe older than me. Five of them were female, and the rest were male. They wore the beige clothes found on the other side of the Delta. Instead of shorts, each wore a turge wrapped around their waist.

“Where you from?” I asked.

“Not here,” one of them replied. The rest chuckled.

“Where you going, then?”

“Upriver, buggoybee,” another one said. More tittering.

After dealing with Lilah, I felt too full of the tragedy of the human condition to put up with these jackasses on the trip to Neck.

“I see before me twenty-five who be walking upriver…,” I said.

“Buggoybee.” I left them to talk to Kev in the wheelhouse.

“You don’t want to take them?” Kev asked.

“I…, it’s a problem,” I explained. “I don’t want to watch them for two weeks. Too many aspiring Vandal Horde among them. Maybe not. But it looks so.”

“Ha. If you don’t think we should take them, then we won’t,” Kev said. “No. We won’t give them passage. I trust your judgment. Not about everything. No. About this. Maybe. Yes. Ha. I concur and grant you all authority to do as you think best. In this situation. We will refund their fare. I give you authority and support. Their leader paid for everyone. Stepan Gaiserice Ragnarsen. The one with dark hair.”

I looked over—that described half of them.

“He has blue eyes,” Kev said.

“Stepan Gaiser…rice Ragnarsen?” I asked Kev.

“That’s him. If you want me to talk to him, I can.”

“No,” I told Kev. “That’s my job.”

Kev descended the steps to the crew quarters. That’s where the safe with our coin was.

I walked to the group on the dock. I went into the midst of them to show I did not fear them. After leaving Lilah as I did, I wouldn’t have minded a fight.

I looked at their faces and found the male, with blue eyes and dark hair. I addressed him. “Stepan Gaiserice Ragnarsen? We’re going to refund your passage.”

“Why so,” he spoke evenly, with little emoting. He walked towards me, stopped at arm’s length, and stared. “You can’t take a taunt? No?”

“This be our home,” I told him. “It’s two weeks to Neck. If passengers ill-fit as with us, that be too long together.”

“Pudenda,” Stepan Gaiserice Ragnarsen said.

I said nothing in reply.

“You are the only boat who would take all of us,” he said with the same flat voice. “Take us. You will. Just because you can’t tolerate a taunt. Truth?”

“Zuzu Hma Saar can fit you all,” I told him. “She’ll be here in a week. Or Yagize can travel now in two or three boats. Divers riverlings go upriver every day that can passage a portion of your group.”

The group closed tighter around me.

“Would you clear a path?” Kev asked. He held a bag of coin, the group’s passage.

Kev joined us with a bag of coin. He pressed fearlessly into our midst.

“Here’s the money you paid,” Kev said to their leader, this Stepan. “Count it, make sure it’s correct. Or not. It is. Confirm I can count. Ha.” Kev faced one of the larger men who leaned, chest first, into Kev’s shoulder. “Would you give us some room?”

Kev looked around at the hostile faces.

“Look about,” Kev said. “The riverlings watch over one another and enforce a level of behavior from our passengers. If the other riverlings perceive that you menace one of us, no boat will take you. Truth. Yagize’s actions have confirmed to me the wisdom of Pierrot’s decision to refuse you passage. We need no hectors on Miss Genius. No boat does. Be polite and behave according to the unspoken social contract that binds us to one another. Maybe not you. Maybe you don’t think it applies to you. But, while on any of these boats, it does. Otherwise, this dock will be the furthest you will ever get upriver.”

#

When we returned to Aoustin, I didn’t go directly to the Green Leaf to see Lilah. I waited a day. Tam Ros saw my walking up through the office window.

“Peace, Pierrot,” he said as he stepped out of his office. “I owe you unused rent. Your friend left.”

“You know where?” I asked.

Hal Tam Ros shrugged, no.

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