I started at Columbus Circle, next to Central Park in Manhattan. I crossed over to Broadway and followed that road as it led to Times Square. In front of me, a woman in a short black dress sped along, and I tried to keep up. I caught up with her at the next street where she stopped for traffic. As she stood there, cars sped close on the cross street. Someone started to walk across, I followed, and a truck horn blared. I looked over to see the truck bearing down on me. I scooted across the road and kept going.
I stopped at Times Square and looked at the variety of people crowded there. Someone came up to me and tried to sell me a ticket to some show, a comedy show. I said no, I wasn’t interested, and that I didn’t like comedy. He said to say hello to my therapist.
I turned and jostled my way through the crowd, stopping only for traffic as I wove between the people standing and taking pictures. In Times Square, I had to walk in front of people taking pictures. Otherwise, it would take forever to get down the street. A group walked three abreast down the crowded sidewalk next to Seventh Avenue, taking up most of the path between the road and the building. They forced everyone else to the edges. As I approached them, I played crowd bowling. I walked towards the middle person, and the group had to split when we met.
For the next two hours, I trekked Broadway all the way to Battery Park. Midtown had its regular rhythm of shops, offices, and squares. Broadway in that part of town intersected the streets at a diagonal. South of Midtown Broadway became more closed in, more intimate, with less traffic. Then it passed NYU and became wider again with clothing stores on both sides past Houston Street. As it approached China Town and Canal Street, the shops became smaller and less affluent. Then it made its way through the Financial District with its high buildings on both sides with Broadway nestled as a dark canyon in between. It ended at Battery Park. I strolled over to the water’s edge and watched as a ferry arrived. From Battery Park, I could see Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and Staten Island beyond.
That was the second time I had walked down Broadway from Midtown to Battery Park on the computer Colum lent me. Making my way on the screen, I could not smell the smells. I certainly did not get the exercise from the walk while sitting in a chair for the whole three hours.
“Pierrot? Be you enrapted by such thing another again?” My mother stood at the door of my room. “Allez! Out, out, damn spot! Let the sun sear your retinas. I mourn the day such Colum gave you such to waste you.”
I put the screen aside. Outside, I blinked against the brightness of the sun. I sighed and made my way to the docks.
Why did I grow up on Terra Beata and not on Earth? Despite Kev’s efforts to sow doubts, I believed Earth exists, or at least, was. And I felt the virt on the computer did show me Earth as it been.
So much of our language had dropped away and mutated in three hundred years since the Landing. Our culture only faintly reflected what the Intelligences brought here. At our best, we fumbled limited imitations of the greatness of our ancestors. I wish I could see our ancestors’ aircraft, spaceships, and cars. I yearned for their great cities. I felt a desire, especially for New York City. I walked the streets of that city as best I could within the virts, but that is not the same. I tried to imagine the smells the computer described: the roasted peanuts, the metallic dust of the subway, the soured milk, the whiff of raw sewage, and the passer-by’s perfume.
The virts on the computer took me to many places on Earth. I walked the Roman and medieval city walls of York and heard strange accents. In the Appalachians, rhododendron lined each side of the trail through the woods. I rafted down white-water rivers. I meandered through the English countryside and toured its canals. I spoke to the artificial people and worked hard to acquire an acceptable accent and diction. The first time I talked to someone on the computer, she looked at me and exclaimed, “Bless your heart, boy. You talk all woppy-jawed. Talk sense.” Now the artificial people just ask what country I am from.
On the world within the screen, hours based themselves on the movement of the sun across the sky. On Earth, the sun did not stay glued to its position in a purple sky. First Shift looked different than Second Shift. Night fell at the end of the Second Shift and lasted all through the Third Shift. I saw the morning. I viewed a mountain as the sun dropped below the line of the horizon in a sunset.
I wanted the wildness of the jungle. The lushness of forest. The expanse of the desert. Everywhere on Earth, a single meter of ground could contain a riot of life more varied than what exists on this whole planet.
When I put away the computer and looked at our sun, it always shone red and stayed stuck fast to the same place in the sky. I looked up and saw the hazy purple tint of our soupy air. I saw our cars, made of wood and powered by wood gas or steam. I saw the people of Aoustin, all with shades of brown skin, dull hair, and rough clothes. I mourned for Earth, a place I never had been and never could visit. They had electricity, plastic, and steel. We had steam, ceramics, and wood.
I despaired that the Earth within the screen was long dead. Vast spaces and time separated me from whatever Earth became. Who knows how long ago the Earth on the computer existed in the past? How many light-years did the Intelligences travel? The Intelligences know, but they don’t share that information.
I got to the docks, and James Kalama Dimas tasked me to get a corp script from Bussay Spacht Xue at the Exchange. Bussay Spacht Xue told me that she could not give me that corp script unless our corp approved. She sent me to Aunt Sharon to get a chit mark to release one hundred kilos of barley from our warehouse. I quickly walked to the Up and Down Building that abutted the Exchange. The door to Aunt Sharon’s office was locked, and I sat down on the floor to wait for her. I fell asleep with my back against the wall.
“Don’t say that!” I awoke, imagining I had heard Xavi screaming.
“Don’t, don’t, damn you, you carnal drunk bastard.” That voice screaming, it was Xavi.
I sprang to my feet, wide awake, and rush towards the Exchange. I thought I had heard her shouts from that direction.
I ran into the storage area and did not see Xavi. Then, I heard a guttural yell. It sounded like Xavi, mostly. But the howl also seemed like a Viking screaming while swinging an ax to kill an English monk. Soon afterward, a metallic crash rang through the corners of the building. I ran in the direction of the sound.
Xavi and Bar Zho Thomsen came into view next to the rail of the gallery that overlooked the eating area of the diner below. Xavi looked like a vicious dog. She leaned towards Bar, her arms spread wide, and fist balled tight. She bellowed with no words. Bar looked terrified and bewildered.
“Xavi!” I shouted.
She turned toward me with a start, then quickly stomped towards Aunt Sharon’s office with her fists still balled tight. I followed her until I heard someone shout, “You could have killed somebody!”
I ran over to the rail and looked down to the area below. A small crowd gathered, all looking up, looking up towards me. Susanna Krul stood in front of the group, glaring.
“Off tossing all sorts from there,” Susanna Krul shouted. “You be lucked for not killing us. What be this? Poison of a sort?” I followed the direction her arm pointed.
On the rock ledge around the diner was the usual trash and stray paper that collected there. There also was a large cart that cradled a tank. It looked like the cart, container, and all were tossed from the gallery onto the rock ledge. And the tank leaked liquid. The liquid drained over the edge of the shelf and spread across the floor of the diner.
Bar looked over the ledge. “S-s-shit fire head browling Waaavee Woo-woo-woo Wonsee.”
“Bar Zho Thomsen, you ever-drunk,” Susanna Krul yelled when she saw Bar. “I knew your worthless ass be a hand in this, you festered canker on your momma’s vagina.”
“Y-y-you shit breath, keep your mouth… in your p-p-pocket,” Bar hollered back in his drunken slur. “Your beef toms…, your beef toms cause dogs to vomit. Yipper you. Your m-m-mom knows not which man be your father. No. Not. She n-n-narrowed it down to a night. And five men. Five men. Five men…. Five men.”
The dozen or so folks down below broke into an angry caterwaul. There was a lot of anger towards Bar within the Exchange because of his behavior since his accident. I must grant that Bar was right about Susanna Krul’s parentage. Still, that was not a good thing to bring up, especially as an angry mob gathered.
I raced to catch up with Xavi. I returned to Aunt Sharon’s office, the door was still locked, and Xavi was not there. We had played hide in that building when we were young. I did a quick search of all the places she liked to hide in the building and still did not find her.
I hurried to the street, looked left, and then right. I did not see Xavi. I approached a man who walked by.
“You take mark of an angry red-haired girl?” I asked.
“Such a direction.” He pointed.
I ran and finally caught up with her.
“Ho Xavi!” I said as I trotted beside as she walked briskly.
“Cease!” she sputtered. “Allez.”
I stopped, and Xavi continued her quick grind toward home. With a sigh, I returned to her side.
“Now that you are asking, I am healthful, today,” I said. “Any sort of interesting happens for you today? Maybe. By chance. What happened back there. How did that… tank sort get down to the rocks?”
“Damn Bar Zho Thomsen. He said he wants to….” Xavi stopped. She had tears in her eyes. “Do… actions… to me. Can’t speak what…. He wanted to… my Neanderthal…. I countered badly. I did. When he said… what he said… I wanted to throw him over the rail. I restrained enough. I threw his cart in his stead.”
“Migone, cousin. We’ll ask Aunt Sharon to take his job. He can’t act such way.”
“I can’t live without him,” Xavi sobbed as she smothered her face with her hands.
“I can’t. I can’t live with him gone.”
I stood speechless. I wished I misunderstood what I had just heard.
“You… can’t live with Bar Zho Thomsen… gone?” I asked incredulously.
“What?” Xavi shouted. “You slim-head. Beau Roublarde. I can’t live now that Beau’s gone.”
“Beau’s gone? Dead?” I had expected him to be killed one day in a reckless accident.
“What? No. No, no. You don’t know? He left for upriver. His parents, they left along with him.”
“Oh, good,” I said.
“Good? Good? No. Not good. Bad. He’s gone.”
“He’s not dead.”
“Small solace. I’ll forget to breathe and die. Beau… wrenched from me.”
I paused and then tried to give her whatever consolation I could. “Even if you forgot to breathe, your body will take over soon enough.”
“Cease. There’s nothingness before me.”
“No,” I replied, “There’s a dog sitting in front of you. See. And the dog’s scratching.”
“Cease. Allez, you ass.”
“No, Xavi,” I said. “No. Please. I won’t leave. Let us go, you and I, to Sam and Ella’s while the night is etherized on the table like a patient.”
“What? Night? Ee-her-size? What drin spout you?”
“Come so. Let’s go. Sit. And talk. You and I.”
“You’re not funny,” Xavi snarled.
Thankfully, no one we knew sat around any of the tables at Sam and Ella’s. There were two different knots of workers from the area eating there. That was all.
“Peace,” I said to Sam. “Dual town browns.”
“No. You be a child. No beer for you.”
“When did Beau leave?” I asked Xavi.
“Yesterday,” Xavi answered.
Sam placed a glass of beer in front of Xavi.
“Ho,” I exclaimed. “She be my age.”
“Now so, young Pierrot,” Sam replied. “She be adult. You be not. You grow. You be almost ripe. Almost. Not yet. Any else?”
I pulled a steel coin from my pocket and paid him.
Sam returned to his bar. “No beer until the chrysalis stage, still,” I told Xavi.
“It’s not right,” she said.
“No, it isn’t. We’re the same age,” I said. Then I used the phrase I heard Momma say often. “So, it be.”
“No. It’s not right that Beau and I…. ‘So, be it,’ I can’t say it.”
“You just did.”
“Cease. You know my meaning.”
One of the workers from the foundry who sat a few tables away protested loudly. The other workers laughed at him. “You blow powdered sugar up our skirts,” one said.
“No,” he protested. “I tell you true. It dropped from the sky and landed as near my feet. Truth, it wore a cape. Yes, it was naked. As in it had no feathers. Truth, it had a cloth stuffed up its ass.”
“Ha,” I said and smiled broadly.
“I’m comical?” Xavi asked.
“No, no, no.” I leaned towards her and whispered. “I laughed at their talk, at such table.”
“What?” She looked over at the workers.
“Where go Beau’s parents?” I asked Xavi. That was not the time to explain about the hen with a cape. “Where upriver?”
“I don’t know. Beau didn’t know. Past Das Hajima. Near Das Hajima. I don’t know.”
I nodded and sat quietly. I didn’t know how to console Xavi. And I wanted to hear the conversation at the other table.
“As for stuffed ass,” one of the workers said. “How be Ta? Truth. She walked to and instructed me as on my work. ‘You be using the wrong metal,’ she said.”
Oh well. No more about the hen that Beau and I shot into the town.
“What now?” I asked Xavi.
“I return to the dark,” she said.
“The hybrid low.”
“The hybrid low?”
“You don’t know?” she asked. “You’ve not heard of it?”
“Hybrids are assailed by dark moods. Sapiens and Neanderthal brains curdle when mixed. I walk in a dark wood, the path forward wholly lost and gone.”
“Truth?” I asked.
“Since my days as a young. With Beau, sunlight touched my soul. He’s my Beatrice.”
“Xavi, I be sure that Beau would object to being anyone’s Beatrice.”
“You know what I mean.”
“No. I don’t.”
I noticed now how Xavi’s inner darkness affected her.
Xavi protested each time when her mother woke her to go to school and fought to remain in bed for at least a half an hour. She started doing that again after Beau left. But, once I thought about it, she had done that before she met him, too. Xavi also came home after school and slid into bed and stayed there until Momma ran her out. She ate little and became thinner and thinner.
“She has the hybrid low,” I told Momma. “Such be her reason for continuing in bed.”
“Yes,” Momma replied. “Even so, it makes the low turn worse.”
During that season, I finally grew out of my old clothes and became taller while Xavi walked slumped and seemed smaller. She sighed with effort when walking out the door. Momma stood back to back with me and took joy when I became taller than she was. Xavi stopped reading and shuffled from school to work to bed and then to school again each day. Some days she did not bathe.
I remember the day she showed joy for the first time in months. She caught sight of a kitten hunting among a pile of pallets, picked it up, and laughed as she played with it. I was glad to see the sad version of Xavi, the Mistress of Love Denied, go away if only for a moment. Her face softened, and she smiled again. She laughed. I had not seen her smile since Beau had left.
Then it happened.
Kev came home from the river and gave Xavi a guitar. It was one of those cheap instruments that they make in Das Hajima.
She clinically repeated chords the first few weeks she had it. Then she began playing songs, tentatively at first but with more confidence as she became more skilled.
Xavi made up the songs and sang them. She sang for hours about love being ripped from her. She mused about the sadness of life. She crooned on and on about Beau’s tousled locks. She explored the oozing wound her heart had become.
She didn’t sound bad. No. She belted out the words with a sultry alto I envied. I loved the sound of her voice. And she played that cheap guitar in a good imitation of those country blues singers she liked so much. I hated that she sounded so damn good while whining and moaning.
I grew out of my body, tiny boy body when I became sixteen. That’s when I belatedly pupated. I felt relieved to not be doomed to look like a child forever and ever.
Xavi had assured me that I would “become a chrysalis.” I was glad for me to finally grow. Not only did I become taller, but I also became enrobed with muscles. The more muscled I got, the more the riverlings use me to carry more substantial and heavier loads. That seemed to magically create more muscle. Hard work and the thick stew of male hormones in my veins changed me. A lot.
Not a different person on the inside, my outside changed. I remember my constant hunger and, no matter how much I ate, I never became full. I just tired of eating.
I remained blissfully unaware of how the change in my appearance affected others. Gold Wolf Adeoye, a friend of my mother’s, came up to me and put her hand on my shoulder. She had not seen me during my transition from an awkward larval grub stage to the newly acquired chrysalis stage. She leaned in and whispered, “Migone! You be handsome.”
I told Xavi about that, about what Gold Wolf Adeoye had said to me. Xavi’s eyes got wide with shock and disbelief. “She did not!”
I laughed. “She did. And more than that. She attended me with her eyes, first up, then down, when she said that. The horror! The horror!”
“No! You taunt me!”
“Yes so. Indeed. Gold Wolf Adeoye said such. Should I take hold of the edge of such a moment? Should I allow myself the tender teachings of an older woman?”
“Truth. I agree. After the second beholding of Gold Wolf Adeoye, no teachings for me. Tender or no. Celibacy’s the better option. Much so.”
“You’re not funny,” Xavi said.
Xavi began to watch movies again. She preferred comedies and never understood my fascination with Apocalypse Now.
“Never get off the boat,” I growled in my best imitation of Captain Willard.
“What does that even mean?” she responded. “You have to get off the boat oftentimes.”
I consumed both Joseph Conrad and T. S. Eliot when I learned about the references to them in that movie. I memorized The Waste Land and Hollow Men and select quotes from Heart of Darkness. I quoted Conrad and Eliot in my everyday conversations to add a Dadaist flair.
I spent most of the time after school at the docks.
Sometimes at the docks, I poked horse turds with a stick and flung them into the bayou, trying to sink the geese and ducks that paddled nearby. I ate kabobs that vendors sold me at a discount. Other times I found the older men who liked to sit and talk to me and tell me about the river and the hard experiences during the last drought. But mostly I carried heavy things and got paid better than I should. The riverlings knew me and liked Kev. They picked me out for work when they could. I had nothing to spend the money on, so what I made satisfied me.
Aunt Sharon tasked Xavi with jobs for the family corp. I saw Xavi’s red hair flash by often on the docks. Xavi shuttled messages between the Exchange and the docks and back again. She did odd jobs in the warehouse. She helped with the maintenance of the corp’s boats. Aunt Sharon gave Xavi a new Broadway sunward, the hat the merchants at the Exchange wore.
“We no longer are twins,” I told her when I saw her at the docks wearing that hat for the first time. I pointed at my docker hat.
Work distracted Xavi from her funk. Watching Xavi, I became convinced of the healing power of busyness and hard work. I knew she had gotten over Beau the day she lectured me not to bombard waterfowl with manure chunks.
“You seem past your dark wood,” I told her.
“This too shall pass,” she replied.