|The Tower, the Magician|
|2003-11-28 - 6:09 p.m.|
XVI. The Tower
Drifting. Somehow, I had shrugged off the rudiments of clothing and jewelry and identity, erased in the cracked white of the ceiling paint, a white sheet sans word. A seamless snowfield, untouched by even the small impressions of a squirrel?s foot. A silence blanketed me, the silence of white flakes still falling, deadening sound, even though the day showered only late summer rain and grayness, and green clambered up toward my window. The flaking mud on my feet showered onto the sheets, and I can smell the sharpness of my drying sweat.
And then, I turned to look down at myself, upon the sunburnt line of my hair part, and lines of pink and white burnt onto my skin. Fingertips gripped the sheets lightly and the eyes stared open, blank, disconnected from the soul that hovered on the dust-coated blade of the ceiling fan. A pale silver cord, thin as wire, looped the ankle of my spirit to an unseen spot on the prone woman, whose bare naked flesh seemed corpse-still, save for the quiet bellows of the chest. Her pubic hair curled brown and pale.
And then, I drifted up, away from myself, through the oven of the attic, above the oak boughs, above the lowering gray of clouds, to the pure nearly-airless blue before the endless black. Up there, the air glistened, gossamer, the lingerie of the earth. And the silver wire stretched and stretched as I reached for the disembodied head of the sun, or the heart, the chariot wheel, that eye, that rolling globe of gold.
I glanced down, past a pale young foot that seemed unfamiliar, to the cord that limply dangled to a continent, a city, a house, a room. Anchored, I felt like a balloon, straining for the stratosphere, but tethered to the white glove of a clown.
"But where do you want to go?"
Suddenly, the groundless cosmos shifted to a zoo surrounded in the cold links of metal fence. A giraffe gazed, batting lashes. The lips worked comically as it repeated the question.
"But where do you want to go?"
And suddenly, I shrank, or the world grew three feet larger. Small brown hands with pink palms gripped the metal links, and a pert nose pressed up against it. Small black braids, strung with pastel crow beads, swung forward.
"I don't know," a child's voice whined, as a cotton-candy vendor shouted her wares from behind. "I don't know."
The long yellow head leaned down. Its voice boomed, a pleasant female alto, a kindergarten teacher's voice.
"That's the funny thing, isn't it? It's where the road, any road at all, always brings you."
"What? Where?" My face - the child's face - pressed harder, the mesh pressing a graph into fleshy cheeks. But the answer flitted away, and the giraffe turned back to a tree. An adult hand caught my shoulder, and gently turned me about. A broad, dark woman stood there, watermelon breasts thrusting out through a layer of navy blue velour. Sweat circles drenched her armpits, and her braids swung, a pendulum. Her smile oozed honey, molasses, sweeter than the pink clouds on a stick offered by the tired, screeching vendor.
"Where are we?" my small voice piped, unfamiliar.
"Here," that honeyed voice oozed, blanketing me with a silken, lazy comfort. A god, but one whose identity I could not unravel. Good brown earth, her fat hand seemed to whisper in its curves and bones. My small sneakered foot stamped the pavement, shaking off the comfort.
"I have no right to complain. There are so many others in the world a lot worse off than I," I began, the impeccable English rolling strangely off the child's teeth. "But I really can't see the purpose in all . . . this."
She pinched my cheek, and I felt the prick of her manicured nails. And as she touched me, the Planning Board meeting flashed through my mind, with the blue and white maps unfolding. The colorblock woman, a small boy bobbing face-down. An unnamed woman in a black chador hurried across the sand, toward the minaret, her eyes narrowed in the rising waves of heat. Noor Ahmed crouching in her doorframe as the cameramen prowled outside her door, and a long exotic shadow stretched across the grass. A fat Buddha-boy with a badly-painted dragon on his face, a large blonde with her forehead pressed to a coffee-stained carpet. My mother and her second husband, drinking mead from a chalice fashioned from a bull's horn; she draws her hand's back across her face. Steve grinding the cigarette under his heel as Jill sits on the stoop, sipping coffee and lost, thinking about her son. And her son, whom I've rarely seen, hiding in the closet with a Barbie doll while a shrill-voiced woman howled foreign-tongued imprecations from the kitchen. His small finger delicately probed the heels there.
And a thousand others. Glimpses of past assignments: schoolchildren, cops, business owners, terracotta leaves crashing to the wide expanse of pavement as the bulldozers roared. And each memory wove a thread that looped into a glittering net, strange triangles set in an unseen circle. And then I realized that I, too, was looped into it; silver wires pinioned my arms, my legs, now adult-sized and their usual paleness. And the silver wire came from the cord at my ankle, woven and looping, a knotted broach, before spinning outward toward the blazing eye of the sun, and the heart of a swirl of milk, shining and white.
Down to the ground I fell, a wheat stalk sheared by a rusted sickle blade. The fat smiling woman held it, still in that navy blue pants suit. She murmured something, the universal secret; it rang out ? birdsong, a shattered glass, a car horn, the purr of a cat. And then her brown hand pushed gently on my shoulder as the silver cord reeled in, snapping me back to the bare body on the sheets. Eyelids fluttered, and the light poured in.
The telephone shrieked, and a pot banged in the kitchen as the light poured across my body. James was shouting "Mom!" into the telephone, somewhere in the kitchen. Aunt Jessica: the knowledge trickled, water into dust, and then disappeared, meaningless. His whine echoed off the linoleum, the reverberations of a sybil's chamber. "What do you mean?" he shrieked. "They can't! Not over a damned cat." Some seconds crept past, many-legged. "She said what? That's a lie! That's a lie!" The pleadings continued, and then ceased.
Toward the door, footfalls pounded, drums of war. The door swung open and he stood, dark hair in his face, pink lips sheened with spit and yellowing teeth bared.
"You got me fucking thrown out!" He took a step in, his tie-dye garish in the light from the blinds. A big man, puffed with fat and anger and a testosterone swagger, cinematic. A hairy thigh worked beneath a ripped denim hole, white with threads. "I can't believe you fucking told them! I could fucking kill you!"
My fingers lay dead, untwitching, my soul still half-gone into the astral. The man, lips curled into a snarl, seemed more peculiar than a talking giraffe. My eyes drifted to his sandals, and then to the dust-rimed lampshade, an odd stillness crouching on my chest, stealing my breath. I couldn't even find the scenario philosophically interesting.
And then, a thin silver triangle reached around his fat-breasted chest, held by a small hand with nails painted in Corvette red. A small dark-haired woman half-wedged herself into the doorframe, a bland fairy with a kitchen knife.
"Leave her alone, James," Jill said softly.
"Fuck, man!" He spun around. "Shit, Jill, I'm on your side here. Are you going to let her get us kicked out?"
"You kicked her cat out." She slipped backward, letting him escape. The door swung shut with a creak, but their voices still echoed off the counters and the stove.
"You didn?t stop me!" he boomed, his footstamps lower now as he receded into the distance.
"So now it's my fault? I told you not to do it!" the rising screech followed. And the telephone resurrected with an electronic yell. Somehow, I knew to answer it, and I hauled the bare moon of my ass out of the bed, grabbed the receiver, and slunk back into the sheets.
"Jasmine, it's Mom," an urgent voice trickled. "Are you alright? What's been going on?"
And somehow, that maternal arm around my shoulders - even six hundred miles past, joined only with the coppery ribbon of wires - eased the words from me, an afterbirth, messy and bloody. In words halted by shoulder-shaking sobs, I threaded the scenarios, skull beads on a Halloween necklace: work, Christian, the coven, the pot party, the absence of the cat, Jill's help, her hair soaked with rain. She hummed, listening.
"Sounds like you've had quite a time," she said finally. Listening to the message, she had immediately done a finding spell for Squashblossom, with brown candles and a sistrum, rattling improvised chants to Bast. And then she called her sister Jessica about her son, passing the phone over to Bob to let him issue the official words of release. Mother: the repairer of the world. I am not ashamed to say it. But as I spoke of Christian, I could hear her graying hair swish against the receiver as she shook her head.
"Jas, what were you thinking? He was a politician," she said, letting the last word drip and bleed. "Politicians make womanizing an artform. It's well-documented."
"Well, he was some kind of political aide," I countered, unwilling to concede the fact that yes, I had been bashed across the temples by what Mom had always called the Two-by-four of Fate, the blunt astral object that lies in wait for anyone who refuses to use their rational mind to step around the damned thing. But it was there: the vanilla porn, waking up alone on the beach, his odd disappearances on Lammas. Damn, that Two-by-four sure does bruise, I mused.
"That's worse. He's just a womanizer-in-training," she laughed. "At least JFK made his women feel special."
"But he's Pagan. And good-looking," I wailed.
"So was Nero," she countered, still chuckling. "Honey, Pagans are people just like everyone else. We have just as many bastards and backstabbers as the Christians or the Jews or the Parsis." A pause. "Maybe this is all meant to give you a push. Why don't you look to finish your degree down here? There's universities and newspapers."
A sigh rattled my chest. "I'll see. I can?t think right now."
"Well, don't think, then. Just get out of goddamned bed and take a shower and eat something."
Mother: the repairer of the world. After the phone clicked, I did just that, not caring who saw the full moon floating across the hallway.
Night. The sweat rivered down my arms, and then the door creaked. A shape flew, small and shadowed, onto the bed as I drew back, flinching.
"Mao," said the shape, butting its head against my hand. And then, a tap unleashed the light, sending a blinding halo outward. Squinted and tearing, somehow my eyes sketched the shape of a certain orange cat through the blur.
"Squashblossom!" I squealed, gathering his squirming mass into my arms. His paws dangled stiffly as he momentarily succumbed to the uncomfortable human antics of affection, and then he darted across the room and slipped into the kitchen. Food tinkled, pushed around in a bowl. I looked up, and Jill stood behind the lamp, her shadow devouring the wall. Gray-black circles hula-hooped her eyes.
"How did you find him?" I asked. She offered a lazy half-grin, leaning back against the paneling.
"Well, I left out a bowl of food and then waited up. Took some hours. But everything's got to eat, I figured."
In a single motion, I leapt out of bed and cornered her in a hug; her arms dangled stiffly at her sides, hands limply dangling at the edge of her long black t-shirt. Like the cat, unaccustomed, or embarrassed by the theatrics of touch, but maybe needing it more than most because of it. Or maybe that was me, with my stiff encircling arms. But even eyestalks and floating brains need a touch, a feather-stroke of a fingertip, to remind them of corporeal joys, of the need that runs sweet and red, wine in our blood, our blood that is thicker than water or liquor or cough syrup.
As children, we spent most of our time pushing away, kicking each other with our patent leather mary-janes under the table, but biting our lower lips so our parents wouldn't know. We pulled each other's hair, and set guard sentries with sharp words, building our towers with the simple fact of the air between us.
Not-I, not-you: the knots forming us, but warping the threads of our being, circling around to the inner core. But the center of the knot is only an unseen force, a void, a place of holding, that space between encircled arms. And, like a slip knot, even the most elaborate bindings could fall at the flick of the wrist, leaving only the dangling cords.
One rope crossed another, unseen. I took her hand and squeezed it.
"Did you eat?"
"No," she said simply.
"Let's go to a diner."
"But it's four in the morning," she said, rubbing her eyes.
"Good time for waffles," I said.
And damn, those graph-squares melted in the mouth, cupping planetary cherries and a milky way of whipped cream. We giggled, punch-drunk, and traded tales about Ouija boards, bad men and public nudity. And dawn broke as we staggered into the doorway, drunk on tiredness, crashing onto the ash-grimed carpet for a moment before crawling off to our respective sleeping-spaces. Crows cawed on the web of phone lines outside, that spun in all directions, miles of thin black wire uniting the distance. A robin trilled, and a gray bird meowed.
"All hail, beautiful day," I muttered, and then fell into the nauseating well of fatigue, forgetting as my stomach spun wildly in its fall.
The detective leveled me with a bored stare as he slapped the pile of pink paper on the counter. My quick hand snatched it with an even-quicker thanks. The half-legible ghost of carbon-copied writing told staccato tales, miniaturized. An 87-year-old man, dead at a house, discovered by a niece swabbing the kitchen sink. A rash of car thefts, punctuated by the spreading webs of cracked window glass, all on the passenger's side, steel minnows netted from the asphalt sea of mall parking lots. The pen flew furiously. A half-drunken pedestrian lurched across the road, wiping the remains of his chili dog on his worn jeans. Beyond, the uniform brown boxes of a housing development loomed, spelling home in their sharp and constant corners. He stumbled toward that beacon, across the double gold of an arbitrary line. A woman in a green sports utility vehicle turned into the bar lot, unseeing. He slipped under the front tire, dying. No relatives: Kirk Stankowitz, forty-seven, an unemployed truck driver. An ambulance flew through the early morning black and there he lay, in a bed of white, tubes running down arms that no one had cared about for years.
Crunch. Crunch. Small vignettes. A spiderweb spun out from the carbon-copied words on the pink sheets, linking him. A man in a deli, ordering a bologna sandwich, counting out pennies on the counter, watching each copper-etched face. The niece comes in, a frousy fat woman with a gray net of hair. She picks up a packet of cheap boiled ham for her uncle. Behind her slightly-hunched back, a thief runs his hand through his blond curls and breaks an innocent smile like the morning, ordering a turkey and cheese. His accomplice, a short bald man, scouts out the green SUV owned by a nervous woman with gold stud earrings. The deli-man barks an order.
The pen stopped, pooling its ink on the green stenographer's pad. How would I know if these people had all, by chance, ordered sandwiches on the same day at the corner deli? And then, unseen, I saw the net spinning, glistening, trapping my ink-stained fingers. It caught the detective, his white-shirted back turned to me. Crunch, crunch. A bitterness pooled in my mouth. Slapping the pink leaves on the counter, I slipped out the department into the bathroom and stuck out my tongue: a mouth full of blue, pooling and bitter.
Desperately, I swished water in and out, watching it spiral clockwise down the drain. A secretary came in, pressing her laughter back in her mouth with a dainty hand. The blue wouldn't come out of my lip-corners, so I covered them in my dusky pink lipstick and kept the tongue safely esconced behind the picket fence of my teeth. Damn.
You would think, with the amount of pens that have spontaneously exploded in my mouth through the years, that I'd stopped chewing the damned pentops. Or use pencils. But even my pencils become nicked with my gnawing rat teeth, turning into pockmarked yellow sticks. Damn.
As I pushed my way back into the corridor, the secretary spontaneously exploded into full-blown, floor-rolling laughter. I swallowed the bitter ink as my heels clicked down the small squares of dirty brown tile to the zoning office. Edith, the white-haired board secretary, had just finished bellowing at a small slip of a woman in a bright pink sari who sat behind the desk, a complicated telephone blinking and chittering at her side. I detailed lot and block numbers, as spry Edith darted for the oversized white and blue sheets, with their boxes and numbers and statistics that reduced farmland to two dimensions.
Boredly, I interpreted the foreign tongue of engineers. Lot, block, acreage, square footage, blue-lined boxes, surface coverage. Translation: the fierce spears of maize thrust toward the sky, an army of spears in a slow green march. The army shall be felled by the yellow dragon of the bulldozer, and great ornamented boxes of senior housing and convenient strip malls shall rise, warriors from the teeth of dragons. Red-tailed foxes will hitchhike for the hinterlands, and the deer will instead resign themselves to office parks. The earth will weep great streams of rain into the gutters and, every hundred years, those tears will deluge the overbuilt streets. Senior citizens will be ferried out in rickety police boats, and another woman with a half-chewed pen behind her ear will stand on an odd dry spot and write what she sees. And a little girl with crow beads in her braids will lift her face to her big-breasted mother and ask if corn comes from the freezer.
There is a web spun by action, by thought. The threads glitter -- or absorb light, drawing it into an infinite hole. Sometimes we can unweave it, but sometimes, we're not the spider in question. My thumb covered the split end of the pen, to keep my mouth off it for a change.
My eyes glanced up, between bouts of scribbling. The Indian woman had answered the phone, in an official voice drenched in tears. She tried to answer a question about lot and block numbers as she drew her forefinger under her eye, wiping the moisture on the pink sari. Moist wet eyes, deep and black: animal eyes, a giraffe captured and felled by a dart. My fingers turned the oversized sheet and scribbled more numbers. I didn't know what to say to her, or how to help. As if one could staunch the tears of another with a magic word, as if words opened any doors. The stroke of a T, the progression of symbol, of gutteral sound, the glottal-stop G, as if the stream of music, of rap, of birdsong that is language could ever staunch any wound, heal so much as a papercut, stop a bulldozer from plowing a cornfield and halt the progression of ox homes.
My cell rang. It was Rachel, her voice a fluttering leaf. "Something happened," she said.
The wheel twisted under my sweaty palms, a round of seasons. Millennia crawled and begged, ragged-clothed wanderers, as I came to the barrier of swirling lights, red and blue, and the fairytale red paint of the firetrucks. The police cars blocked the road, and so I left the car in the arbitrary white box of a hotel parking lot and footed it the rest of the way, hugging close to the ugly plain faces of industrial buildings interspersed with obligatory shrubbery. Sometimes, workers stood outside, silently watching as they puffed on a cancer stick. I inched forward.
Its lower edge flickering red, a dead-black plume rose from the low shoddy warehouse where our office was located.
As I neared, I could see my colleagues crowded near the rusted-out Dumpster, arms draped around each other, others staggering to the ambulance triage station. But the flame drew all gazes, back and back and back, with a dancing flicker, a flashy showgirl strutting her stuff, a candle gone wild. And the words burned, the piles of yellowing newsprint curling black and floating into the air, frail phantom wings. Yellow tongues licked and roared, mocking the fragile stream of water spewing from the hoses. Soot-stained firemen held the yellow hose-snake, channeling its energy.
I found Rachel, with a smudge of black on her cheek, streaked by tears. Jo Ellen hugged me as Kiri sat on the pavement, hugging her knees, her salwar kameez fanning out, a misplaced rainbow. The office manager choked tears and mucus into a handkerchief, as Steve slipped over and touched my arm. I glanced about: a weary circle of copy editors and advertising poodles and reporters and technicians, huddled and defeated, coughing on smoke and half-stained with soot.
"It happened so fast," Rachel gasped.
The story pieced together, a scrap at a time, as a stretcher rolled into the ambulance and fled screaming toward a hospital. "Frank," someone whispered harshly. The flames had subsided, although smoke still plumed, almost comically, an overdone roast.
"Did everyone get out?" I finally asked.
"Yes," Steve conceded. "Well, except one, really."
The newsroom had buzzed and hummed, punctuated by the static from the scanner, and the later-night staff had begun to drift in, depositing their lunch bags in the dirty white fridge. Rachel was on the phone, talking to one of her mayors on some political nonsense, a follow. The office manager wrinkled her nose, smelling cigars in Frank's office. Granted, faded paper signs half-peeled off the walls in strategic locations, banning smoking from the building, as per company policy. But Frank still had his overflowing ashtrays, usually kept stowed in a desk drawer for appearance's sake. "Sometimes, it's good to be king," he'd laugh on the phone with his wife, uncharacteristically cheerful.
Having feasted on a chili dog, he fled for the can on the other side of building. "The executive suite," we'd usually smirk, since he was the only one to make the long-ass haul to the far side of the cafeteria sans reason. And a spark caught in the dark, from the overfull ashtray thrust in the dark coffin of the desk drawer. It traveled the employee reviews, tracing the letters in liquid gold before turning the parchment to curled black. With an office full of piled files and newspaper heaps, it didn't take long. No, not at all.
Screeches and pounding feet were swallowed by the growl of the red ball rolling across the ceiling, or gulped simply by the static fear humming in the mammalian brains. Some reporters grabbed heaps of their notebooks, and the photographers seized their equipment with shaking hands. Others left handbags, uncaring. They called on cell phones. Before the firefighters came, Payatt quickly ran through the building, shouting in his booming voice for everyone to leave the burning heap. Frank, reading the Wall Street Journal on the can at the other side of the building, didn't hear him.
The firefighters, suited up a la Fahrenheit 451, trudged into the building and heard a woman scream. When they hauled his little form out, slung over a shoulder, they realized that this was a dapper little man wearing what once was a sharp suit. Paramedics rushed over, and the firemen swigged bottled water.
"He looked like a deep-fried turkey," Jo Ellen moaned. "His clothes were all burnt off."
Closing my eyes, I saw four bent nails twisted deep into the now-baked earth, trodden down further by heavy boots and truck treads. A ring of pepper and sage, doused with cayenne. Cayenne, red as flame, as the business end of a rifle after a shot, scorching the tonsils. A pinch suffices for anything; more than that, and you set a match to the fireworks of your senses.
Eyes opened, to see the yellow snake spewing its stream. The flames had subsided, and the smoke lightened. And I felt only a strange burning coursing through my aorta, pushing out moisture from my eyes before subsiding into ash. And then, nothing: a blackened tree, land seared dark, a pine cone opening and spilling its bounty.
The managing editor waved, a conductor; the orchestra turned red eyes to him, waiting. We were all off to another company paper, an hour's ride away, to write the stories of the day. Because someone must always tell the story, no matter how inconsequential or extravagant. So someone can pick up the rustling newsprint, trying to interpret the word and make sense of the world.
The concrete edifice rises, gold-topped with a crowned roof, on an inaccessible rocky crag; the powerful like to feel themselves safe. So, when the night turns as black as tar, the king shrugs and leans back on his lion-headed throne, safe in the tapestried hall. The raindrops patter, and then transform into pure flame, flickering drops of molten gold. The king laughs, content in his tower, swigging some ale from a gold cup. His queen smiles slyly at his side, in a robe of sky-blue silk, a high-pronged crown on her fair brow. Fashion-model, former winner of the Miss Medieval contest, a storybook beauty in two dimensions.
Well, why worry? What happens to the plebes never happens to us. And damn, those pitchfork-toting dirt-streaked peasants can never make it here. There's a reason why royalty head for the highest ground.
Lightning streaks boldly, a white jagged line in the black, lighting the white-crested waves from the rocky sea below. The same sea that loomed behind the hoodwinked woman with her swords. The royalty shrug. Slaves grovel with powdered hair, feeding them imported figs with shaking hands.
Boom. The white arrow lances the gold-topped crown of the roof, uprooting its gilt cupola. The footings crumble, and the tower begins to spiral downward, collapsing under the weight of its luxury. The royalty bolt for the windows, the ones that loom in the dark like the eyeholes of a skull. His crown flies off and he falls, face downward, aristocratic blueblood face frozen in a scream. She falls backward, her blue robe billowing, the bobbypinned crown defying gravity and staying on her head. Her hands stretch outward, in supplication to God.
God booms nonsensically, and sends flashes of fiery rain. Gray smoke billows from the toppling tower, and the rocks draw near, nauseating and impossible with their gray stark edges.
"God, help me!' he screams, in a womanish rising pitch, and then he hits the rock with a wet sound. She follows, screaming like a fire siren. Somewhere, a dirt-streaked peasant crosses herself, and then feeds porridge to a squalling child.
God alights on the rock, an egret balancing on one foot, and stares at the broken dolls in their expensive duds. Half of her crown is smashed flat.
"Maybe I did," it squawks, and then takes to white languid wings that unfold like a lily. It finds a cove and fishes.
A few hours later, dawn comes, with a tender freshness in the cooling air. The clouds part to reveal the pearly heart of a strange blueness. A girl goes swimming, and finds a gold crown.
Long after nightfall, I pulled in front of the house. A senior reporter had written the story, while I had emptied my mind, and wrote of zoning and dead pedestrians. But I glanced at it in the basket: Frank Garcia, critical condition. A note from the editors: nothing stops the news. No description of Kiri sitting, head on knees, and Rachel with the soot-stained cheek, the firemen swigging bottled water, the plumes of black and yellow. No description, whatsoever. No tears, no huddling, no rusted-out Dumpster. And the choice bit that Barry, the cop reporter, had unearthed was cut: the pages-long list of violations that the fire official had issued to the company a few months before: a lack of working smoking detectors and fire extinguishers, the piles of newspapers and files, the desk blocking the photo department from an exterior door. A bulleted list. Barry rustled the pages, his face stained red with anger.
"They knew, they knew for a long time. They could have killed us," he said. He stared pointedly at the framed picture he had rescued from his desk: his three smiling children, colorful plastic shovels in the sand. It stared back strangely from the borrowed desk in the borrowed newsroom. "And for what? Saving a few dimes?"
The silence burned.
Half the furniture had disappeared from the house - including some of mine. I peeked in James? room, and gaped at the disheveled curtains and crumb-coated carpet, dustballs the size of goddamned gorillas. The bed and dressers had vanished, along with his bong. Jill was there with a dustrag and a large bag of her possessions.
"Hey," she said. I nodded, and slipped back out.
At my altar, I lit the candle and tried not to think of the image it evoked, with its dancing light, the initial flare of the match. And I called to the Old Woman, the torch-bearer of the crossroads.
Instead, I found a woman in a white pants suit and gold hoop earrings, lounging on an embroidered couch with gold taloned feet. Her hair looped in gold ringlets; her eyes glittered an unearthly gold, pyrite. Despite the whitebread yuppie gear, she was the spitting image of that storybook enchantress: Medea in her white pleated gown with her hand, palm-outward, in a gesture of warding, her one-sandaled hero slinking behind her, snatching the golden fleece. A dragon coiled at her feet, cat-napping.
Her long lashes closed slowly, and then reopened.
"Greetings to the daughter of the Sun," I said.
Her slow smile spread, warm oil. "Granddaughter, actually."
"I'm pinch-hitting. You need me more," she said, leaning forward, her dainty hands on her pants legs.
"You look like you should be out playing polo," I observed, taking her in. She sipped a glass of jeweled-colored liquor, and then set it down on the coffee table, putting a coaster of thinly sliced blue agate beneath its base.
"I was," she winked. "Dragon-polo." Outside, I saw sinuous black forms twisting, with scales catching the sunlight. They seemed to be kicking a white volleyball around the yard, and one had its leathery wings held up as a goal.
"Why you?" I asked simply.
She leaned back, with the same grin like spreading oil. "You feel guilty. You feel it's your fault, because of the spell. A little cayenne and some bent nails and a passion that burns in your chest like Mount Etna, and one boss goes nuts and the other dies in a fire."
My spirit-form gave a long-necked gulp. "Is he going to die?"
"Of course." She folded her hands primly. "But you're not to blame. Or rather, you're not the sole factor."
She spread her gold-ringed hands, and a spiderweb of light spun between them, with some fat strands and some thin.
"Each word, each action, each thought, each intent is a strand in the web. As you see, there are many." A silken thread lassoed itself around a thicker strand, and began pulling it down, aided by other threads, some so fine as to be half-unseen. "Magic or prayer or thought is simply another thread. Add enough threads, enough factors, and a larger probability can be pulled into being." The hair-like strands pulled down sharply, and snapped the larger thread. And then, the process reversed, rebuilding. "Sometimes an action is to unlikely to come to fruition, no matter the petitions or actions or words." The main anchor thickened, glowing white. The thinner strands tugged, sweated and ultimately gave.
She parted her hands, and the threads dissolved in a shower of constellations.
"Universe 101," she grinned. "Nobody?s solely to blame for anything. And no one is innocent."
An unemployed trucker stumbled across a roadway, unknowing, with a cheap beer can in his hand. A tired mother rubbed her eyes, grabbed a Twinkie and saw the bills on the table; she sat down and grabbed a pen. A young boy decided to be naughty and clambered up the stairs and somehow unlatched a pool gate. The Indian woman?s tears smeared the form she had screwed up in the Zoning office, while a suavely dressed editor said "Fuck the rules!" and lit a Cuban cigar in his office. With a pocket fan, he cleared the air and then stuck the ashtray in a desk drawer. He had just given someone a bad review, and now he's in the mood for a good shit, he thought, running his hand through jet black hair. A gold insignia ring glinted in the light.
So many strands. But my eyes could only follow one, and then they became ensnared in the Celtic knot. And we all crawled as spiders, sensing only the tension in our nets, weaving and reweaving.
"But what does this get me? What do I do now?" I asked, hands cupped in supplication or plain goddamned frustration. And then I stood barefoot on a four-way crossroad, with stop signs facing each direction. She stood queen-proud in a chariot of looping black ironwork, hissing dragons pawing in their harnesses.
"Choose a road," she said, and waved her hand.
I turned back to the way I came, where the sun was setting behind me. A boulder blotted the path. Another road: strumming a harp and singing as someone sipped coffee. A hand passed me a green bill and I smiled before rustling my sheet music. Someone there made me glow, and the trees fronded wildly outside: palms. And then I was in a room, bowed over a book, writing with a blue pen. And another: holding a torch and dressed in red. Someone cut a pomegranate with a keen silver knife, and a funeral wail sounded, but for no one I knew. Incense wafted: a circle, staging the Eleusinian mysteries. I spoke unknown words, then sang out: the worshipers bowed heads, awe-struck. And then I was home, teaching Jill how to garden, and she made elaborate plans, counting them out on her fingertips, a grin lighting her face. I was in another office with a phone in my ear and a green-leafed steno pad, but dressed more like a sharp executive. I crossed off a list item with a good pen, and I didn?t chew it.
And the last path: a bright moon rising over the ocean, shedding dancing light. Harp-strings sounded and drums, and a high soprano voice. Animals lined a moon-white path: catbird, giraffe. The latter winked at me gaily. Mist rose delicately, and fireflies danced.
I glanced up at Medea. "I can't choose. Which would you pick?"
She only winked. "I always change paths mid-stream," she said finally. "After all, you hit intersections all the time. And all lights will turn green eventually."
My bare foot thrust out, and stepped in the silvery dust, headed for the moon. The moon reflected back, shining with my face.
I. The Magician
The room shines with pure gold, as if sunlight has poured into every crack and corner. Green briars twine on a trellis above, and rosebushes spurt upward from the greenhouse floor, white and red multiflora. A sturdy table daintily slips its feet between the rosethorns, holding up a thick gold chalice, a long sword, a flat coppery disk, a leafy branch. Someone has painstakingly carved the table edges with phoenixes, whales, sparrows and bears, and painting each of the lines. The polish gleams.
The magician stands, with a gentle smile and a neo-70s red headband, as if he just came home from a trip to Work Out World. A serpent bites its tail, belting a long red robe. His dark hair seems ready to blot out his eyes, but he doesn't brush the stray strands away.
In one hand, he holds a wand, while his opposite index points to the rosebushes.
"Phallic," a shrink frowns, scribbling in her yellow notepad about the long thin shape. He only smiles, as twisting eternity wreathes his head.
"Sometimes a wand is just a wand," he chuckles, and puts the stick of wood back on the table. The halo fades as he bends down to smell the roses.
"They're pretty hard to take care of sometimes," he tells the unseen therapist in a lilting calm. "They get blight and whatnot. And pruning them's a bitch. But damn, you just take a whiff and it all seems to be worth it, you know?"
"No, I don't," comes the curt, articulated reply.
"Pity," he says, stretching his back. A vertebrae pops. The sleeves of the robe roll back, revealing dark armhair. A swarthy man, probably Italian. "All beauty takes hard work." He fixes the therapist-viewer with an inscrutable gaze. She barely hides an unprofessional flinch.
"Do you really believe that? How about those who are born with great beauty?"
"Oh, that's not beauty at all." He lapses into a Southern drawl. "The beauty's in the noticin'."
I sat on the stoop, still covered with mud from the garden. My finger traced a sigil over a yellow envelope: success. My eyes half-closed, as I saw myself with a pen behind my ear in a new office, a fresh pad in my hand. And then the second envelope, a different sigil, traced lightly on its surface: and I am in a library, studying, and then defending a dissertation. Palm trees and tropical heat, and trees full of peaches.
"You'll get that one!" a voice chirped.
My eyes snapped open. A slate gray bird sat on the mailbox, watching.
"Both, maybe. Your road leads south for now."
"How do you know? Who the hell are you anyway?"
He preened his wing with his small beak.
"Just your friendly neighborhood totem animal," he said, and then threw himself into the air.
I leaned back, and watched the clouds, listening to Jill play the radio in the parlor. They shifted: palaces and castles and fast cars. A castle tower shifted, stretched, and became a giraffe. It winked, and my chin tipped back, in laughter.
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