Day One Hundred Thirty Six
For starters, Sumitra isn’t tribal Indian, but from a family that moved here from the country, India, several generations ago. Boy, do I feel stupid!
My first clue that something was different about her was the aroma of her cooking. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was different from anything I had ever smelled before.
The second clue was the table in the corner of her living room. It was set up with candles, little bowls of fruit, and two pictures-- one of a man with the head of an elephant, and the other of a man with blue skin.
Sumitra saw where I was looking and laughed in her musical way. “I’m not a true believer. Neither was my mother, and I have doubts about what my grandmother really believed. I keep the shrine out of habit.”
I thought of the churches back home, and the chapel at Rancho Yeso, where Isabel had prayed to a doll dressed up as a desert guide. “Are these pictures of saints?”
I guess I looked like I didn’t believe her, because she added, “They have all kinds of gods in the country of my ancestors, but I don’t believe much of anything, myself.”
Supper consisted of a lot of familiar things, such as beans, potatoes, cheese, and spinach, but they were prepared differently than I was used to, and the spices were new to me. There was rice—a real treat. And best of all, tortillas. Sumitra called them something else, but I know a tortilla when I see one. The food was truly delicious, and for dessert, there was arroz con leche, although she called it something else, too.
I was surprised when she apologized for the meal. “Not all the spices are correct,” she said. “I like to use my great-grandmother’s old recipes, so I don’t completely forget where I come from, but some things are hard to get and I have to make do. I’m lucky, though, to live on the river and to have a son who works as a policeman.”
“How does your son help?”
“His beat is on the waterfront, so he knows when shipments are coming. There’s not much demand for curry here, but there’s a strong Indian community in Chicago, and they’re willing to pay a lot. The boats take the goods as far as they can by water, then put them on a train the rest of the way.”
“And the boats stop here along the way?”
“Sometimes. And when they do. . .”
Her voice trailed off and she blushed. I glanced around the apartment. It was shabby, just like the motel, much of which wasn’t even in use. It seemed unlikely Sumitra could afford rare spices. But a son who was a waterfront cop could probably extort them from time to time. In fact, mild extortion was probably how a lot of families lived around here, just like in the rail towns.
“Do you think your son could help me get on a boat in the morning?” I asked, changing the subject so she wouldn’t feel embarrassed. “You explained it very well, but I’m out of my element here.”
Sumitra said that when he came home, she would ask, and that I should stop by in the morning. And then we settled in for a chat. She told me old family stories about India. She also told me how her father’s prominence in the local community and his generosity during the hardships of the resource wars saved the family from the race riots, but left them nearly bankrupt. And then I told her a little about Valle Redondo and some of my travels.
By the time I went back to my room, I was too exhausted to do anything more than throw myself on the bed and go to sleep.
My real adventures began this morning. Sumitra’s son Balin, who asked that I call him Barry, took me to get a riverboat ticket. He was a beautiful man, slim, with glossy black hair and Sumitra’s chocolate eyes. He had a smile that made you feel like everything was right with the world, and I found his presence reassuring. He didn’t have a horse, so we had to walk to the passenger docks, leading Flecha by a tether, but it was a pleasant walk in the cool of the morning with the mist rolling in off the river, and Barry gave me a history of the town as we went along.
“We’ve done pretty well here,” he said. “The initial oil shocks were hard, but river transport was always important. It’s the best way to move anything any more. We’re sitting on the modern equivalent of an old interstate or flight path. If it wasn’t for the yellow fever epidemic two years ago, we’d be having to put up new buildings to accommodate all the people coming here.”
“What’s yellow fever?”
“A very nasty disease spread by mosquitoes. Avoid it, if you can.”
“How do I do that?”
Barry laughed, and it was his mother’s jingling laugh. “Don’t get bitten by mosquitoes, of course!”
His advice about getting on a boat was more helpful. He took me to a building where I was able to get a ticket for passage on the Reine de Fleuve, which was the first south-bound boat of the day. It wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another hour, though, and boarding wouldn’t be for two hours. With time our hands, Barry offered to show me around.
The area around the passenger docks was crowded, even at this early hour. People were milling about, most on foot, but some on horseback or on bicycles. A few scooters roared past, and even a motorcycle. Bicycle rickshaws jostled donkey carts for space on the street, and vendors were setting up near the docks, offering coffee, food, and trinkets.
“Want to buy a souvenir?” Barry asked.
“A souvenir. It’s something you buy to remind of you where you’ve been.”
“Oh, I’m not likely to forget.”
“How about a postcard, so you can send a picture of this place to your friends?”
I was overdue for a letter to Auntie, and I liked the idea of sending her a picture, so I let Barry lead me to a vendor who was setting out cards with painted river scenes on them. Barry and the vendor seemed to be old friends, and I had the impression that they did favors for each other. The postcard vendor probably kept an eye and ear open for anything suspicious, and maybe even put a few coins in Barry’s pocket in return for protection and getting a little business directed his way. Business like mine.
The postcards were lovely and priced so reasonably that there seemed to be no scam going on. Each card contained a scene of the river, or of a boat, with words like “Wish You Were Here.” Some of the boats were very fancy, like floating white houses. “Is this the kind of boat I’m going on?” I asked Barry.
He interrupted his conversation to glance at the card I had selected. “Yes, it will be similar. It should be here soon.”
I flipped the card over and wrote a message to Auntie on the back. Then on a wild impulse, I selected another card and wrote to Robert. “Is there time to send these before the boat arrives?”
“I can mail them for you,” the vendor said, and he quoted me a price. “I have a boy who makes three trips a day to the post office.”
“I’m sending these to a foreign country,” I explained.
He looked at the addresses, frowned and quoted me a different price. It was quite a bit higher and I glanced at Barry for a clue as to how to proceed.
“That’s the going rate,” he assured me. “Go to the post office, and they’ll charge you the same.”
So I sighed and paid.
Just as the vendor was putting my postcards into a canvas sack, a sound unlike anything I had ever heard shattered the early morning quiet. It was like a train whistle, but different somehow, deeper and with a quality that made the ground vibrate.
“There’s your boat,” Barry told me. “Let’s go see!”
We went down to the dock, and there it was.
I stood in amazement, watching it pull up to the dock. Men from the boat threw out ropes, and other men tied them to thick posts as the huge boat swayed. Then after a little while, a door opened and a broad plank was put out, making a sort of bridge from the boat to the dock. And then people began getting off, walking down the plank bridge. When there were no more passengers, rough-looking crew members started bringing off goods and animals. Some of the horses balked and reared up, the whites of their eyes showing. They were afraid to set foot on the plank bridge, and I can’t say that I blamed them.
“How will I get Flecha on and off the boat?” I asked Barry. “She won’t like this a bit.”
Barry looked around, then pointed to a black boy who was running toward the boat. “I can’t say how she’ll do getting off, but she’ll get on okay, at least. That’s Dominic. He can calm a horse better than anyone.”
The boy looked hardly older than nine. It seemed unlikely that someone so young could be much of an expert at anything, but the boat crew knew who he was and immediately turned over a snorting and plunging stallion to his care. To my amazement, little Dominic got the feisty animal calm in minutes, talking to him and soothing him until he finally stepped down the plank as if he had been doing that sort of thing all his life.
I shook my head. “How’d he do that?”
“No one knows,” Barry said. “It seems to be a family talent. His father could do it, too.”
Once the boat was unloaded, crew members started taking boxes, barrels and sacks on board. Barry touched my arm. “We better get you in line.”
“What about Flecha?” We had left her in a lot by the dock.
“Dominic will get her on board. Let the crew do their job.”
I did as Barry said and got in line to wait. I looked up at the big white riverboat. It hardly seemed possible that I, an ordinary desert girl, was going to do something as crazy and adventurous as get onto this floating multi-story building and go down the famous Mississippi river. “Is there anything special I need to know?” I asked. “Any special rules, or things I should be careful of?”
Barry shrugged. “Just the usual things. Watch out for pickpockets, don’t leave your things unattended, don’t fall overboard, and don’t get seasick.”
“Seasick? We’re not going all the way to the sea.”
“Motion sickness. The bobbing of a boat makes some people nauseous. If it happens to you, try to stay outside with the wind on your face. Keep your body loose and move with the boat, don’t fight it. And keep your eyes on the horizon. That should be enough to keep you from being sick. But if it’s not. . .”
“Lean over the railing and puke into the water, as a courtesy to the other passengers.”
In spite of my anxiety, I laughed, and almost missed seeing Flecha get boarded. Dominic led her to the end of the dock, patting her and talking. When they came to the plank, Flecha stopped and raised up her head in alarm. I don’t know what Dominic said, but he kept up a running stream of conversation and slowly Flecha’s head lowered and the lines of her body relaxed. She let the boy lead her onto the boat with no more fuss.
“I hope he’s paid well,” I told Barry.
“No one pays children well,” he said with a shrug. “They’re not even supposed to be working, so they have no one to complain to if they don’t get an appropriate wage.”
I took the last of my silver coins out of my pocket and gave it to Barry. “Will you see that he gets this, then?”
By now it was time for passengers to board. A gate was opened and the line started moving. I clutched at Barry’s hand. “I can’t swim, you know.”
The music of his laugh reassured me. “Stay on the boat, and that shouldn’t be a problem. Have a nice trip.”
I walked up the plank with the other passengers, gave my ticket to a man in a uniform, and found myself a place to stand at the railing where I could wave to Barry. He grinned and waved back, then moved off into the crowd.
What can I say about my first trip on a big boat, except that it was endlessly fascinating? The boat had multiple levels, and there were rooms inside, just like in a house. Some rooms were like restaurants, some like lobbies with benches where you could sit, and some rooms were private, for people who had paid extra. The motion of the boat didn’t bother me once I got used to it, but the sound of the engines quickly got old—it was a constant low rumble that made the walls vibrate and intruded at the back of every thought. I wondered how people could stand to work on the boat each day, listening to all that noise. I was accustomed to the silence of country places and knew I could never get used to it.
I wanted to go downstairs where the horses were and check on Flecha, but I was told that the area was off-limits. This made no sense to me, and I worried what would happen if the boat sank. Surely the animals would be trapped and die. But I tried not to think about it and went up on deck and watched the water and other boats go by.
And it was while I was standing at the railing, thinking about how completely amazing and improbable it was that I, a poor kid from a desert valley, should have ended up here on the great Mississippi river after so many misadventures, that I had an inspiration. I was leaning over the railing and my heavy braid had fallen forward over my shoulder. I straightened up and examined it. Except for special occasions, I had worn my hair this way all my life. It was part of who I was. But wasn’t I different from the confused and troubled girl who left the mountain more than four months ago? In fact, I didn’t feel like a girl at all. I was a grown woman. Why was I still going around looking like the child I had once been?
I took out my sharp pocket blade and began hacking at my braid, up high, near my shoulders. I had to work carefully so the knife wouldn’t slip and cut me, but at last the braid came off in my hand. I stood for a moment, staring at it. Mother and Auntie had loved my thick brown hair. Will and Charles had played with it. But it had been cumbersome, too. It took too long to wash and dry. It got tangled. Men who would do me harm grabbed at it, and people had told me that it made me look like a child.
Well, I was all grown up now. I flung the braid into the river and watched the churning waters of the Mississippi drag it under and consume it.
“What was that all about, young lady?”
I spun around. An elegant gray-haired woman was eying me curiously. I reached my hand up toward my shorn hair. Already my head felt lighter. “I’m starting a new life," I said. "I want to feel new, too.”
“Well, you look right ridiculous, all uneven, with pieces hanging down. You look like a rat got a hold of you. How about you let me fix you up? I’ve got some scissors in my room.”
I followed the woman to her private room. She obviously had money, even though her room was hardly more than a closet with a tiny bed, a chair and a mirror. I sat down in the chair and let the woman go to work on my hair with a pair of scissors.
“Tell my your name, Sweetie,” she said. And when I did, she told me to call her Daisy, and made idle chatter as she snipped away.
When she was through, I looked in the mirror. I hardly looked like myself at all.
Daisy took a ribbon out of a leather case and tied it so my hair was off my face. That was better. I smiled at my reflection.
Daisy said I could leave my things in her room, and we went back on deck and walked around. She was a regular riverboat traveler, with children living at various points up and down the Mississippi. She told me about the boat and pointed out passing landmarks, but I didn’t pay much attention. The feel of the breeze through my short hair distracted me, and my head felt so light!
Finally in the afternoon, we came to the port where I was to get off. Daisy wasn’t coming. “I’m going all the way to Memphis,” she explained. “It was nice meeting you, dear. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“I’m sure I will.” I was so excited I could hardly stand it, and I became impatient at the time it took to pull close to the dock and tie up the boat. And then the line of passengers moved so slowly! Was I the only one who wanted to run, shouting with joy at having arrived?
Once I was on land, there were more anxious, impatient moments while I waited for them to bring Flecha off. At first I was concerned as to whether they would even know to take her off the boat, and I had horrible visions of the boat heading down the river with her still on board. But eventually a man brought her out, nervous and tossing her head at the sight of the plank. There was no gifted Dominic here to help bring her to land, and the guard at the gate forbade me to go to her. So I had to watch in agony while two men finally got her under control and brought her onto the dock.
It was a relief to have her with me again. I rubbed her nose and patted her. “It’s okay, Flechita. We’re here now. Can you believe it? We’re actually in Kentucky!”
I looked all around, as if the horse farms would be right there by the water. But that was a silly notion. The waterfront looked much like the one in Missouri, with vendors of food and souvenirs, musicians, and even a street preacher.
What was I supposed to do now?
“Need a hotel, ma’am?”
I looked down. A tiny boy was holding out a piece of paper.
“Best hotel in town. Cheap prices.”
I took the paper from him, thanked him, and watched him scamper off to accost another recent passenger.
I shoved the paper in my pocket and began walking up the nearest street that went east, figuring it was the one most likely to head into town. But once in town, I was still mystified as to what I should do. It was too late in the day to go looking for a horse farm. And I wasn’t even sure where it would be okay to camp.
As usual, I was in a strange place, with no plan.
Well, one thing was certain. I hadn’t eaten all day. I had been too excited. But now that reality was starting to set in, my stomach rumbled. I thought of going back to the waterfront and getting some food from a street vendor, but I had only a small gold piece and the last of Vince’s gold chains. I needed to find a place that could give change.
I reached in my pocket and pulled out the paper the boy on the waterfront had given me. It read:
On the back was a map how to get there, but I didn’t need to see the place to know it would be expensive. The boy had said “cheap prices.” What a liar! But as I looked around, I realized I had to make a decision soon. The sun was low in the sky, lengthening shadows and casting a golden glow on everything. Well, it wouldn’t hurt to see the hotel and ask what they charged.
So I went to the Riverview Hotel. And yes, it was expensive. But the price of food and a box stall for Flecha was included, and I liked the idea of having my own balcony. Why shouldn’t I spend my first night in Kentucky, my first night as a new woman, in a nice place? Surely there was enough hard work in my future that I could indulge myself this once.
So tonight I’m sitting on my own private balcony overlooking the river. For a little extra money, I was able to have supper brought to me in my room. I felt like such a grand lady that I put on my pink dress for the occasion. And what a fine lady I am tonight, in my fancy clothes, with my new hairstyle, sitting here with a glass of wine, watching the sun go down on the mighty Mississippi.
Life can be very fine, indeed.
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