Episode Twenty ♦ Drooping 

Anita looked over George’s shoulder as he studied the repurposed strips of cardboard.

“I’ve got it!” said George. “Hannibal. We’re supposed to go to Hannibal.”

She read the clues out loud. “Nick Carraway says Harmonie by the mark. Twain Calaveras and Connecticut. Rails watched. Beware of hucksters. Find Sid & Mary after church. Where Samuel played.” She puckered her lips to the left. “So. Hannibal’s apparent, why?”

“Mark Twain!”

“Okay…” She held out an open palm, wanting more. “Wasn’t he a writer?”

“Only one of the most famous ever published on these shores. Surely you read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some called Huck Finn the best American novel ever written. Twain also wrote ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. You must have read something he wrote.”

Anita shrugged and returned to sitting on the bed. “Maybe. So why don’t you think we need to go to Connecticut or Calaveras County, wherever that might be?”

“Because it says, ‘Twain Calaveras and Connecticut.’ As in, between.”

“And these places are where?”

“Connecticut is on the Atlantic. I’m not sure exactly where Calaveras County is, but it’s closer to the Pacific.”

“There’s a whole lot of space between the Atlantic and Pacific. So why Hannibal?”

“Yeah, but…” He pointed at the door as if that would somehow explain things. “…the thing I had forgotten was Mark Twain’s real name. Samuel Clemens.”

“But it says we’re to find Sid and Mary where Samuel played.”

George took a second to respond. “It does. And Samuel would have played, as a child, in Hannibal.”

“So when did this Samuel play there?”

“Oh, uh…uh.” She wondered if he was still trying to query his no longer present Informateur. “Had to be a couple decades before the First American Civil War.”

“And we’re supposed to find Sid and Mary at some church that probably was blown up in that stupid war.”

“No, no, no. It’s not about an actual building. We have to find Sid and Nancy…”

“Mary.”

“…Sid and Mary at a church. The town where Samuel played as a kid. He grew up in Hannibal. On the Mississippi.” To her it appeared his eyeballs would burst from his skull. “The Captain’s parlor! There was a map. Come with me. I’ll show you.” He reached for the doorknob, looking at her, expectantly, like a small child promised a treat for completing a chore.

Anita preferred the bed. “Can we do it tomorrow? I just don’t feel like…” She had snuffed out the youthful twinkle in his eyes. She sighed. “Give me a couple minutes. I want to freshen up a little.”

Countenance refreshed, he flicked the door open, leapt into the corridor, and pulled the door closed behind him. She took a couple deep cleansing breaths before opening the closet and facing the mirror. “Ugh. When did you get so old?” she asked, smoothing out the bags under her eyes with her fingertips. She cinched back her hair, now brunette, with an elastic from her bag, wondering if her eyebrows needed plucking.

Words on scraps of cardboard. Letters in old books. Letters. A man of letters. She recalled a life lived long ago, the wispy voice not Bubbeh’s own:

Man of Bright Colors deposits a seed in an empty vessel.
Elephant takes the vessel to a man of letters.
Elephant and Man of Letters take vessel out of diseased garden.
Man of Letters harvests fruit under a distant, barren land.
Man of Bright Colors finds fruit.

She turned on the faucet, let the water run lukewarm, and then used the too small, complimentary bar of soap to wash her face. After patting it dry with a towel, she dabbed foundation under each eye and decided to draw attention to her mouth with the cinnabar lipstick, thanking Catherine for including such basics in her disguise kit. Avinashika had never been much for makeup, but Anita wore it. If only she’d brought a scarf.

Suppressing the want of the bed, she reached for the bottle of Taweret’s Evening Supplement, dropping one greenish tablet into her palm before downing it with a glass of water. Hadn’t her sister taken something similar when she was pregnant?

A forced smile didn’t help matters. She tried to remember playing with her niece and nephew, but that thought only reinforced her declining mood with more loss. Again, she was fighting back tears. More deep breaths, recalling the bright afternoon sun warming her cheeks, relaxing on the sun deck, concerns drifting by like trees on the banks of the great river, she steeled herself before opening the door, ready to be dragged around the Harmonie by her eager companion.

But instead of George bounding off down the corridor like a bored house dog starting a much desired walk, he stood in the corridor holding a single rose, smiling gently. “For you.”

Anita looked at the rose, then into George’s hopeful eyes, then back to the rose. It was the palest shade of pink, like cherry blossoms on a sunny spring day. She shook her head. “How?”

She looked at him. His smile was giving, not proud. Maybe a bit mischievous. His mahogany eyes flicked up and to the right. “Magic. If you have a pin, I can…”

“No. I want to hold it.” She closed the door behind her. “So, whatever new mystery you have to share now, lead on!”

Offering his arm, she gladly accepted. He asked, “Short or scenic route?”

“Definitely scenic.”

Together they strolled along the railing, the moon reflected in the wide, still waters of the Ohio River. She was unsure which she appreciated more, the light breeze moving the night air, the pronounced aroma of the rose, or George’s easy, quiet demeanor. About midway along the boat they climbed a flight of stairs, continued walking forward, crossed at the front, and then back along the other side.

Just as George turned to reenter the ship, she pulled him back to the railing. Releasing his arm, she held the rose in both hands, admiring its form, the way the petals curved, before raising it to her forehead. With a prayerful voice she said, “Comfort them,” releasing her breath and drawing apart her hands in benediction. The pale rose disappeared into the night but its sweet, heady fragrance hung in the air. They passed a minute in silence, looking off into the darkness.

“So,” she turned to George, “what is it that you wanted to show me?”

“A map.” He offered his arm again.

“Of?” She accepted.

“You’ll see.”

They wandered around a corner, through a door, and down a hallway that crossed the Harmonie. Midway George turned and knocked on an open doorway with his free hand. An older man, in uniform, looked out a window at the rear of the riverboat and into the night.

“May we bother you a second?” asked George.

The man turned, his eyes melancholy, his lips pulled back in a trained smile. “It’s no bother. Please. Come in.” He looked at her companion and cocked his head. “You were here earlier but didn’t say much. I’m sorry, but I just had the stewards clear up…”

“No, please, I just wanted to show her where we are going on your map.”

“Help yourself,” said the man, dusty miller hair meticulously parted in the middle, walking over to the table, surrounded by empty furniture, as George and Anita approached, a daisy, drooping after a long, event-filled day, in his buttonhole.

Geography, beyond the Free Settlement, had never been one of Anita’s strengths. She nodded as George pointed out Louisville. He asked, “About where are we now?”

The older man leaned over the table, traced the river from the dot labeled Evansville and stopped. “About here. We’ll dock in Paducah bright and early tomorrow morning. Where are you folks headed?”

“Hannibal,” they said together.

Tracing the Mississippi past Saint Louis, he stopped at Hannibal and tapped the table three times. “It’s the only place we dock on the western bank. We’ll have you there midday, three days from now. We don’t make quite as good time heading upstream.”

“Aye, aye Captain,” George said saluting.

Touching a decoration on his jacket, the man introduced himself. “Melville, ship’s purser. Captain Cheyne is getting some rack time before his next watch.”

Anita saw George blush for the first time.

♦ ♦ ♦

Was it time or the Ohio that flowed more swiftly away from George? Now on the Mississippi, the ship hummed as the engines worked harder, fighting against the spring thaw in the Rockies. Anita joined him at the riverside railing after they pulled up quayside in Saint Louis, the sun slipping away.

“It’s a beautiful sunset,” she said. “Purple, red, orange, yellow. Behind that magnificent, black arch. Wow! Maybe Willem passed under it.”

George thought about his friend joining hordes of tourists on a westbound ferry ride across the expanse of the boundary river, disembarking beneath an erstwhile symbol of a nation’s expansion across the continent. Now it marked where the wilderness began. George could see people waiting to board a ferry, returning eastward, to the comforts of civilized life.

He said, “I hear there’s a museum under the arch. On the other side of that, people use stagecoaches or trams to go to the attractions set back from the river. I thought we’d be like them. Taking a wagon west. Exploring the frontier towns and settlements as we went.”

“It does sound rather exciting.”

“Now I’ve no idea what to expect.”

“You think we’ll be staying in Hannibal then?” she asked.

“Don’t know.”

The sun dipped, the sky darkening, the breeze dropping off. They walked across the vessel to find a very different view. Instead of trees, hillocks, and the arch, a city grew from the waterfront back towards the world they were leaving behind. Passengers waited patiently to disembark the Harmonie.

“Did you see anything like that before?” Anita pointed to the end of the gangplank where something resembling a doorway waited for each leaving passenger.

“Certainly not at Evansville,” he replied. “Didn’t pay attention at Paducah.”

“What do you think it is?”

“Not sure. Something tells me it’s a scanner.”

He recalled the discussion before removal of his Informateur. “Didn’t Catherine say something about certain security checkpoints?”

“If she did, I don’t remember.”

“She said the glasses worked for most security checkpoints. That I remember. Then something about constabulary offices using something different.” George was frustrated that he had not asked for details. Most scanners were inconspicuous. This was very different.

“So you think it’s some sort of security scanner?”

“It would make sense. Maybe De Authoriteit has increased security after Indianapolis.”

She stood upright, rigid, her fingers tight on the railing. “We’ll be able to get through it. Our glasses will work. Right? Maybe they won’t be using scanners in Hannibal.”

“What if they are? How do we get off this ship?” he asked.

Anita shrugged. His head ached for lack of solutions as he examined the landing area for possible alternative routes.

A bolt of lightning sliced across the eastern night sky. After a long interval, the deep, dull roar of distant thunder rolled through him.

♦ ♦ ♦