The inauguration of the Spaceport of France was declared a holiday in Guiana, and tribes from as far as Brazil made camp along the coast to witness blastoff. It was a rainless day in the jungle, rocket fueled and gleaming on the launchpad. As the boys from Saint-Sébastien hopped off the school bus, commands crackled from the control center like the voice of God.
All winter the nuns had been teaching them about the solar system: lunar cycles, planetary orbits, the gravity of our mighty sun. Father Alonso was leery of human mischief in the celestial sphere, but it was 1968, dawn of the Space Age, and all his boys should understand the physics of flight. Today the children would take notes in their new folios, which were provided for the occasion by the vice president of the local bank, an unflagging donor to the church and its small boarding school in Kourou, where Eddie Lokono had been left behind from the field trip as punishment for stealing eggs.
Eddie held the gate open for the bus as it left the schoolyard, his classmates sticking their tongues out as they sped away. Now his job was to sweep the playground, patio, steps and shutters under the supervision of Sister Thérèse, who seemed disappointed to be missing history.
“We can still make it if we leave now,” said Eddie. “It takes a long time to fuel the rocket.”
“Lord knows I’d rather be there, too,” said Sister Thérèse, “but we cannot reward sin.”
The neighborhood was quiet, storefronts and kiosks folded shut, but Sister Thérèse had placed a radio on the steps so at least they could listen to the broadcast.
“Father Alonso told us three men died building that tower,” said Eddie. “We should show them respect.”
“If you finish on time, we’ll see what we can see from the bell tower.”
Sister Thérèse had always been kind to Eddie. She told him she’d come all the way across the Atlantic just to help Indians like him learn the bible. The other nuns from Europe hardly spoke to him. Eddie heard them whispering around the card table at night on his way to the bathroom, calling him a jungle devil, a savage at heart, but Sister Thérèse always shushed them.
Today there would be no special favors. Sister Thérèse had resolve in her eyes, as if the rocket launch was an occasion to teach him something he wasn’t absorbing from scripture. Eddie turned his broom in lazy circles, pocketed a loose, gray marble from the dustpan. The spaceport was only fifteen kilometers away; it may as well have been fifteen light years.
When Sister Thérèse retreated to the laundry room, Eddie heard a voice from the gatehouse: “Oi, dummy!” It was his best friend Zé, a cigarette between his lips. “You coming?”
“I’m stuck here,” Eddie said.
Zé sneered at the wide open gate. “You don’t look stuck to me.”
“Hey!” called Sister Thérèse from the laundry room. “What have I told you?”
Zé flicked his smoke into the dustpan. “I’ll come back for you when it’s dark. I got my cousin’s moto.”
“Did you see the rocket yet?” Eddie asked.
“I got right up close. It’s even bigger than the Americans’,” said Zé. “And the gendarmerie is there with a tank.”
“Out of here!” called Sister Thérèse. And Zé was gone around the corner.
“Edvaldo, listen,” she said, “I don’t want to see you talking to that boy again. I know it’s hard, but you have to leave the river life behind.”
“You can’t tell me what to do.”
Sister Thérèse’s joints crackled as she knelt. Maybe she was older than he thought. “I know you miss your father,” she said, “but you’ll understand someday. Now close the gate and come inside.”
Only Eddie and his father knew the source of his tuition for Saint-Sébastien. The cash was hidden in an empty gas can below the water line of their stilted house upriver from Kourou, a plot the family had occupied since the rubber boom.
“Someday when you finish school, you’ll have a house in town,” said Eddie’s father, tucking cash into the can.
“But what about mother and Lali?”
“What’s best for you is best for them,” he said. “They’ll come, too.”
“What about you?”
“The city is no place for a hunter,” he said, “but I’ll come visit.”
And with that he sealed the can, adjusting its tether so that it bobbed just under the current.
This was a year before Eddie made the journey to the city. He and his father worked every night to fill the can with money. Eddie’s job was to help load cans of petrol into their canoe and hold the spotlight while his father steered the outboard motor upcreek. The eyes of Cayman glowed like rubies in the dark as they sputtered toward the mines. When they reached the proper shore, they trudged through the mud with the petrol cans toward the torchlights where his father’s boyhood friends huddled around a ditch in the jungle floor, extracting gold from the silt.
With the petrol the men could keep their pumps and drills running until daylight when they would break camp and retreat until sundown. While his father collected their money, Eddie watched the miners pan. Once a man offered him a chance to try. In the beam of his flashlight, Eddie could see gold sparkles in the silt. He wondered how much it would take to make him rich.
“And now you add the quicksilver,” said the wobbly-eyed man, handing Eddie a small bottle of potion. “Don’t be afraid. Mix it in there good with your fingertips.”
“Put that down,” his father said, pulling him away by the arm. “We have to get back.”
“What was that stuff?” Eddie asked on the walk back to the boat.
“It’s called ‘mercury’,” his father said. “Never touch it. Even that little bottle can make you sick or worse. Now scrub your hands.”
Eddie didn’t hear the word mercury again until months later at Saint-Sébastien when Sister Thérèse pointed the class to a diagram of the solar system. Mercury was the planet closest to the sun. There was no life on its surface, and there never would be. When Eddie asked why, Sister Thérèse said it was simply too hot. When Eddie asked why it was so hot, she said that’s what the Lord intended for Mercury. The next day, the three workers fell from the launch tower, but the spaceport lurched ahead, its first rocket under construction in a giant warehouse that loomed over the clear cut like a monolith.
In class and during Mass, Eddie asked more questions than anyone. The other boys at Saint-Sébastien were foreigners – French, Dutch and German, sons of the engineers, diplomats and bankers who flooded to Kourou since the spaceport was announced, bringing the world to the jungle, one telephone pole at a time.
The other boys were relentless. They called Eddie a cannibal. They fooled him with math problems, steering him toward the wrong answer as he squirmed in his starchy uniform. They took every opportunity to pin their hijinks on Eddie just to see him get paddled.
The other boys had never been more than a kilometer upriver. They could barely swing a machete or spot a Cayman. You could tell from the way they held their knives in the dining hall that they’d never cleaned a fish in their lives.
Eddie was allowed home visits once a month. On his first trip back upriver, Zé peppered him with questions about the cafeteria: “They give you gravy?”
“We always have gravy with the beef,” Eddie said. “And sometimes with the chicken. The chickens are the biggest I’ve ever seen.”
It was hard to explain how much food they served at the school. Washing dishes after dinner, Eddie watched the cooks throw away kilos every night. Before long, Zé began showing up at the gatehouse after dark. At first Eddie only slipped him leftovers, a plate of chicken or rice here or there. Then he started giving other things.
“Take this to my mother,” he said, handing Zé a pocket mirror. “Don’t tell her where you got it.”
It was when an entire box of candles went missing that Father Alonso hired a night watchmen, and within a week Eddie was paddled raw in the headmaster’s office. His father arrived wearing the same clean shirt he wore the day they’d dropped him off at the admissions office.
On the way upriver his father stalled the boat in a quiet inlet. He unbuttoned his shirt, folded it neatly on his seat. Without a word, he beat Eddie until the boat almost capsized. Back at the house, Eddie’s mother and sister wept the moment they saw him.
“I did not raise a thief,” his father said, as if explaining his work.
It was sundown and the rocket would launch within the hour. By the time Eddie finished mopping, the battery on the radio had juiced out. Sister Thérèse went inside to fetch a new one while Eddie drained the dirty water down the alley. Zé waited by the gate as promised, leaning against his cousin’s moto.
“You got any gas in there?” Zé asked.
“I can’t go,” Eddie said. “The sister says we’ll see it from the bell tower.”
“You won’t see anything up there,” Zé said. “C’mon. My cousin told me the best way in.”
“Next time I get in trouble I’ll be expelled.”
“I won’t be able to come here anymore.”
“Isn’t that what you want? To come back to the river?”
Eddie could see Sister Thérèse burrowing through the library, a thousand extra bibles, no batteries. In the bus driver’s garage, he grabbed a can of petrol and a handful of half-smoked cigarettes from the ashtray.
“Marlboro Man!” Zé said, lighting one as he kick started the bike, a plume of blue smoke out the tailpipe.
He hit the throttle and they zipped off the curb. Rounding the block, Eddie could hear the sister’s radio crackle to life, crowd humming, feedback over the public address.
At the spaceport, the spotlights glazed the rocket like a bright new toy. A politician stood behind a lectern on the launchpad, delivering a speech about the future while cameras rolled. Along the perimeter, kids who were only babies when construction began kicked a football off the chain-link fence. Vendors weaved through the mass of spectators, selling Cokes, beer, tiny French flags, rockets carved from Brazilwood.
Zé and Eddie tucked the moto in a thicket and scurried to the security line where they found a curl in the fencing. Together they peeled back the chain-link and belly crawled to a secondary fence, iron clad and topped with razor wire.
“You can see the thrusters,” Eddie said.
“We can get closer,” said Zé.
From their perch they saw the gendarme guarding the access road. Beyond the barricades, evangelicals handed out pamphlets. On the opposite side of the launchpad was a row of school busses where children from across the department gathered with their teachers. The boys from Saint-Sébastien sat in neat rows, scribbling in their folios under the watchful eye of Father Alonso.
“See?” Zé said. “If you came on the bus, you’d be doing homework right now.”
The diplomat finished his speech in a flurry of flashbulbs. His entourage was shuttled by golf cart to a viewpoint just across the razor wire from Eddie and Zé where other men in suits mingled around banquet tables.
“We have to be careful getting down there,” Zé said, showing Eddie a bloom of scars across his palm. “I’ve been cut by those fences before.”
A moment later the countdown began. At three the ground began to rumble. Eddie thought he could hear Sister Thérèse praying, for this was a moment of the glory of our Lord. From the launchpad cracked open a light unlike any they’d seen before. Hot wind touched their faces. Zé was shouting something but there was no use hearing as the rocket thundered from the launchpad, bright as day to the farthest corner of the jungle. It rose slow as a giant, a trail of acrid smoke widening as it arced into the sky. Mouth agape, Eddie watched until it was only a twinkle.
“I wonder if we’ll be able to see the satellite,” said Eddie, eyes still skyward.
Zé was already peering through the fence to where the dignitaries were raising champagne glasses. The tower spotlights glared on the empty launchpad, a black smudge left from the blast.
“C’mon,” Eddie said. “I have to get back.”
“We just got here.”
“There’s no way over there anyhow.”
“What’d your father teach you?” Zé said. “There’s always a way.”
The hors d’oeuvres on the banquet tables were lined up like soldiers before an ambush. Eddie wondered where his father would be hunting tonight, red eyes of Cayman in his spotlight. "OK,” he said, ears ringing. “Let’s go quick.”
Chris Feliciano Arnold is the recipient of a 2014 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. His short stories have appeared in Playboy, The Kenyon Review and Ecotone and received honorable mentions in The Atlantic and Zoetrope: All-Story fiction contests. He has written journalism and essays for The Los Angeles Times, Harper's, Sports Illustrated, Outside, Folha de São Paulo and other publications.