We board The Transylvania in shoes with white soles. Mama argues with Old Professor about air conditioning. She doesn’t see why he should run it—there are hatches to leave open, fresh air to draw in. The word windsock.
This is not a hotel—the air should be pure. The word formaldehyde. The reference to invisible chemical agents. My sister and I pretend to comb doll hair.
Old Professor rubs his temples—The air is too damp, it will feel sticky. He wants to sleep.
When Mama speaks, the words snap from her mouth like popcorn—Don’t Be an Old Man!
The boat moves a little bit like the first part of a pony ride before it gets mechanical. Before the clunk of gears shift. But I am an old man, says Old Professor.
Mama pretends to prepare the bed. The word berth. She acts like the girl in a sad German story. She doesn’t like to read those stories to us at night. She doesn’t want us to be sad.
Can we look sad without being sad?
The sad girls wear pretty dresses. It looks pretty when Mama says sad things. The word sorrow. The word regret.
I tell Mama I am thirsty.
She is too busy making the sad bed.
Old Professor offers me a glass of water that is not cold. Maybe it comes from the ocean which never gets cold.
Thank you, I say really quiet. All the times my voice comes up just a tad shy of a somersault and no one but me is spinning.
The word marina. The word knots. The way the wind rambles through all the words regardless.
There is night and too-bright day. Mama makes us wear hats and orange puffy jackets. It is hard to play Magic Tower in the jackets so we take them off inside the cabin while mama helps Old Professor. The word first-mate. The word starboard.
My sister thinks the words must be special types of fish because there is a fishing pole in the cabin.
I say no, we are Sailing. But I wonder if she’s right. A starboard sounds yellow.
We see a white feather drifting on the top of the water. The word seagull. The feather floats past houses with long wooden decks. Some bird’s dress.
Old Professor drops the anchor when the sun paints the water orange. As Mama makes dinner, we throw bread to the crooked white birds who pause in the sky like boomerangs.
Seagulls, Old Professor says.
Mama smiles from inside the cabin. When a seagull drops a whitish-gray gel on Old Professor, Mama says it’s good luck to be pooped on by a bird. They laugh. The sky is a pink I can’t explain with crayons or bubble-gum. The word for this pink is missing.
Inside his palm we see a shiny metal instrument. Old Professor says it is a tool for making music. He plays a song with his mouth moving along the metal.
Mama says he should sing it, so Old Professor folds his hands over the instrument and begins to sing in Mama’s language. The word is secret. The word is Romanian.
I ask Mama what it means.
She watches Old Professor like she’s worried—the way she eyes us when we dangle from the magnolia’s skinny upper branches. Like she doesn’t want anyone to get hurt.
My sister says, Tell us, Mommy.
Old Professor keeps singing as Mama explains: On the night that we two parted, the lake and zephyrs wept…
Mama says he is playing that Romanian song he used to play after too much wine and her mother, Funny Buni, would look away. Can a song burn your eyes if you stare at it?
Mama shrugs and points to the shore—it’s a heron. The word is nesting.
My sister says, Mommy, I’m cold. Whenever she talks, you can tell she’s the baby because she sounds like one. I say Mama (not Mommy) to make sure we’re separate. I am not the baby. The word is mature.
Old Professor tries to play the metal again but there is water coming from his eyes and so he stops. Mama asks him to sing some more. She can’t remember the rest of the song. Old Professor clears his throat and sings.
Mama says the words mean humans forget things. She pauses because Old Professor closes his wet eyes. There is a hole in the song he can’t get over.
I always thought that was you and Mom’s farewell song for Romania—and for your families, Mama says. Before you left.
She wipes her cheek when she thinks we’re not watching but I’m not the baby. The word is look.
No, Old Professor says. His voice sounds like it’s being blown through a tunnel. His eyes are red with sunset.
It was about your mother, he says. All these times—all these nights—it was about your mother.
Mama says, Shhh it’s okay when the boat rocks. She says, It’s okay, we are at anchor.
My sister buries her face in Mama’s lap.
I know the anchor can be pulled up on the chain because Old Professor showed me. Our anchors come back to us.
Mama kisses Old Professor. Says I love you so much, Dad. The next morning, we sail back to the other boats in our orange jackets. The word is docked.
We pack two cars and get ready to go back. Mama doesn’t want to go. She says Old Professor is lonely. She says lots of things that don’t make sense and come out fast. The word is love. She says no matter what she does, Old Professor will watch us get smaller and smaller. And distance will be the color we look as we move further away. He will pour a glass of wine and make music from metal and Mama will wave. She will wave and wave. And one of them will be what is missing.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and raised in Alabama. Currently, she lives with her partner and three small native mammal species inside the boundaries of a speculative fiction. Her story “White Tennis Shoes” won the 2015 Ryan R. Gibbs Flash Fiction Award. There are nights when she wishes you would magically find a copy of Objects In Vases (Anchor & Plume, 2016) in your head but the physics is beyond her. More online at www.alinastefanescu.com.