When she discovered they’d taken the yellow canoe down from the hooks on the fence where it was stored, her first impulse was to reprimand them. Instead, she watched as her son Rafael and his two best friends devised a system to prop it up. She saw the boys gather rocks and salvage wooden planks from the garage to create a kind of cradle for the canoe, so it stayed upright on the lawn while they climbed in. Since October, the three had traveled somewhere in the canoe every afternoon.
Every evening, Rafael sat at the computer, examining photos and articles about places all over the globe. His choices startled her — Mogadishu, Dubrovnik, Porto — and when she asked him where he had heard of a place, he shrugged and continued to look at the screen. Rafael’s mind was always hungry, reaching impatiently for facts and images. She laughed a little, wondering: What sort of child researches play? Her child, came the answer.
The three boys assembled in the treehouse for a briefing, when Rafael would inform them about the facts of the city or country they were visiting. After the briefing, they descended from the treehouse and clambered into the yellow canoe, always in the same formation: Rafael at the back, then Max, then Ryan. Soon, she understood, they had cast off and set sail for a distant port. If need be, the canoe could transform into a train or a horse when they traveled overland. Sitting in her office, she could hear them shouting instructions to one another, battling storms on the high seas.
She preferred their adventures in the canoe to whatever it was the boys did when they rode their bikes to the park. She knew it involved going into the woods and fording the muddy ditch that bordered the playing field on one side. The one time Rafael had come back crying (he’d tried to conceal it), his hands and jeans were covered with foul-smelling mud. When she asked him what happened, he only shook his head and said, “I slipped.” There were occasional arguments in the canoe, and she wondered whether Max or Ryan had shoved Rafael into the mud. But she also knew he was too loyal to tell on his friends; their code would never have allowed it. By the next afternoon’s briefing session, anyway, the dispute — if there was one — had been resolved.
She sat at her desk, trying to sort and label documents for her team’s study, but she had to keep going back to check her work. She was distracted by the boys’ shouts, and her body was tensed, listening for the front door opening, for the closet creaking when Sim hung up their jacket, their footsteps going upstairs to take a shower.
Simone, Simon, Sim. The names played in her head like a series of ascending notes, each one the sound of her child, changing.
Simone, 12: long, honey-colored hair; peasant blouses; nightly bowl of Dulce de Leche while plugged into her computer, re-watching a Harry Potter movie.
Simon, 13: pixie cut; striped T-shirts; dedicated to cross-country practice.
Sim, 14: pixie cut, now electric blue; all black clothes and Doc Martens; marathon training.
Finally, she couldn’t sit still any longer, so she got up and stood at the door to the backyard, looking out at the canoe. At first, she didn’t register that it was Sim in the canoe with the three boys, but there they were, blue hair exposed to the cold. It sounded as if they were all singing, or chanting. As soon as she opened the door, they stopped, and as she approached, regarded her suspiciously. “Where are you traveling today?” she asked them.
“To Senegal,” Max told her.
“Were you singing?”
“No,” Rafael said, cagey.
Max volunteered: “Sim is helping us conjugate French verbs.”
“She doesn’t know any Wolof,” Rafael observed.
“Sorry,” Sim said, “just French.”
“French is the official language of Senegal,” Rafael pointed out.
“What will you do in Senegal?” she asked them. The boys exchanged looks but revealed nothing. She looked at Sim, who only smiled. “I guess you will act as interpreter,” she said. Sim nodded.
They waited until she was inside before beginning again.
Je voyage, she heard Sim call.
Je voyage, the three boys echoed.
Tu voyage, in Sim’s voice.