My mom wanted me on the board of an historical cemetery. I thought it would be awesome – it’s a great old place with lots of ghost stories and locally famous – and infamous – people buried there. Including a truckload of my ancestors.
“I need your resume,” she told me.
“Mom, I hardly think that my work history has anything to do with why I might be qualified to serve on that board.”
“So dress it up. Emphasize your genealogy research and your history research. Talk about your volunteer work.”
In other words, she wanted me to re-craft my resume entirely. Therefore, I did exactly what I always do when given an irritating assignment: I procrastinated.
A week later: “I really need your resume.”
Two weeks later: “If you don’t get me that resume I can’t nominate you.”
Three weeks later: “I need it today.”
Crap. And I was having so much fun putting it off.
“Just write something. I’ll rewrite it to suit our nomination style.”
Had she said this in the first place, I could have whipped off a few relevant paragraphs and been done with this a month ago. But she said she wanted a freaking resume. So after lunch, I sat down and wrote:
Anne has a keen interest in genealogy and history, and has done research on both in this particular cemetery, once regrettably denting the side of her car as she took a turn too sharply around a certain walled plot in the northeast corner of the place. Her interest in these disciplines began in high school, when in 1976 she won the esteemed and coveted Annual Ninth Grade History Award at All Saints Episcopal School in Vicksburg, Mississippi, mostly to prove to a certain boy that she was smarter than he was. It must have worked, because that intimidated lad has refused to this day (over 30 years later!) to come to class reunions.
Her interest was fed her freshman year at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, when given the task of charting the genealogy of Zeus’s progeny she instead charted the genealogy of the entire Greek pantheon. While mostly accurate, her work earned her a C for failing to follow directions. Her professor was not interested in reading that much. Anne didn’t really care, since being right was all that mattered. When she graduated from Colgate in 1984, her major was English, not Greek.
With no immediate better use to put an English major, Anne returned to her Arkansas roots the following year to go to law school. Anne clerked for Justice David Newbern at the Arkansas Supreme Court, then worked for a state agency or two until her secretary, one Gennifer Flowers, decided to hit the front page of the papers and not return to work. Anne opened her own law practice in 1993 and has remained in private practice ever since. Today, after 16 years in the trenches of litigation, Anne is a managing member of the law firm Almand, Orsi & Campbell, PLLC, which handles civil litigation. Both she and her cousin and law partner, Donald K. Campbell, III, have generations of ancestors buried at this cemetery, stories about whom they occasionally pull out, dust off, and tell to their children and other passers-by, whether or not such innocents are especially interested.
Anne has maintained a moderately noticeable profile among local bar and statewide bar associations. She joined a whole slew of them in 1988 immediately after getting her J.D. from UALR Law School and passing the bar. In 1993 she was made Parliamentarian of the Arkansas Association of Woman Lawyers, then served as Vice President in 1994-1995, and as President in 1995-1996. She remains a member of the group today. She has been a member of the Pulaski County Bar Association since 1988, and served as co-chair of the Hospitality Committee in 1995-1996. Likewise she retains her membership in the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, for which she chaired the Domestic Relations Division in 1997-1998. She was a member of the American Bar Association from 1988-1996, when membership became prohibitively expensive. Most of her bar activities have been through the Arkansas Bar Association, for which she has served on numerous committees, including the Real Estate Committee, Probate Law Committee, Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Committee, Women and Minorities in the Law Committee, Mock Trial Committee, Online Legal Research Committee, Civil Litigation Committee, and Access to Justice Committee.
Very conscious of the fact that not everyone has access to the legal system in a meaningful way, Anne donates her time and expertise through two of Arkansas’ legal services organizations. The Center for Arkansas Legal Services helps clients in the central Arkansas area, and Anne is one of the attorneys who accepts legal representation of clients in need who meet low income guidelines. Anne volunteers in rural areas of the state for Arkansas Volunteer Lawyers for the Elderly, another legal aid program that ensures that senior citizens with limited assets and income can access the legal system.
She has served on the boards of other historical societies, including Scott Connections in Scott, Arkansas (Director, 2007-2008), and the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in Arkansas (Director, 2006-09; and Board of Managers 2009-present). This spring Anne was selected to be the state’s Regent of Gunston Hall, the Northern Virginia home of founding father George Mason, a position she will hold for the next four years.
Anne is active in several of her family’s businesses. She is on the board of directors of ARNO, Inc. and Pioneer Farms, and has served as Chairman of the Board of Three Rivers Title Services, Inc. since 1999.
For pleasure, Anne loves to grow herbs, read, and write short stories. She maintains two blogs: one is purely for pleasure and the other is purely for work. She is also working on three novels, none of which she ever expects to finish unless the Fountain of Youth is found and she drinks copiously from its non-Stygian depths.
“Very amusing, my dear. I will extract the pertinent information to send out to the rest of the Board, omitting the humor, sad though that makes me.”
She will extract the pertinent information? That means most of what I wrote will end up in the trash.
And I worked so hard to get it to her!
Aboard a Portuguese Caravel
In the North Atlantic, Somewhere
Between Bermuda and Hispaniola
No light entered the hold except when four of the white men brought wooden buckets of thin, mealy mush. Three of them carried two buckets apiece; the fourth carried a whip and a pistol. The shaft of light stabbed the eyes of the frightened men and women of the Yoruba huddled below. Only if the door was left open a crack, enough for the white men to see, and only if it were left open long enough, did Abeni’s eyes adjust enough to make out the shapes of the others around her.
By the second week aboard, the manacle on the left ankle of the young teenage girl next to Abeni had cut into her flesh, and within three more days it had become infected. Monifa’s complaints of terrible itching told Abeni that the wound was festering. After the first week, Monifa cried that her leg throbbed constantly. She begged Abeni to heal her. In the dim light at feeding time, Abeni saw that the maggots were at work. If they could keep the wound clear of the dead tissue, gangrene might not set in. But soon Abeni knew that the infection had entered the girl’s blood before the maggots had done their work. The child shivered with her fever, moaning as the manacle moved against tender, grossly swollen flesh.
Abeni did not have her fetishes, but she chanted almost constantly, beseeching the gods to return them home. She also chanted and prayed for the child’s ankle to heal. She could tell that the girl was not convinced that Abeni had been initiated as a Queen Mother; she knew she appeared much too young for the rites. The elders chose her because she knew the lore and had found frequent favor with the gods. Nevertheless, she wondered if the child’s increasing infection was due to the honor being given her prematurely.
When the sailors came into the hold with their buckets of slop, Abeni leaned over to the girl, her large body already much smaller than three weeks earlier when they had been herded into the hold of the caravel. “Wake, child. Food.”
Abeni helped the girl into a sitting position, moving her left leg carefully, stopping when Monifa gasped in pain. The men gave each person a bowl of the watery mush, waited for them to consume it, the took back the bowl for the next serving for the next person. Monifa collapsed woozily against Abeni when the reek of the foreign men came close. The sailor offered the bowl and Monifa took it weakly and brought it to her lips. Abeni silently urged the girl had to swallow this meal. Nothing else would be given until the next day. She saw the child take the vile mush into her mouth, but she only held it there. Swallow, Abeni willed the girl silently. Swallow!
With an impatient snarl, the man holding the bucket struck the side of the child’s face. Mush went up her nose and the edges of the wooden bowl bit painfully into her cheeks. Helpless to control it any longer, the girl vomited yellow bile, spewing into the bowl, onto the legs of the man, and onto her own naked skin.
“Bah!” Disgusted, the crewman slapped the bowl away from her and dipped it into the bucket. He offered it to Abeni. Abeni did not reach for it. The sailor thrust the bowl at the woman again, but again Abeni ignored it. She turned instead to the sick girl next to her and resumed chanting in a soft sing-song.
Shrugging, the sailor offered the bowl to Bambidele, the man chained next to Abeni. Bambidele also refused the vomit-tainted mush. The sailor thrust it toward him again, but the man turned his head.
With a roar of Portuguese fury, the sailor stomped back to the ladder and out of the hold. His companions laughed, and continued serving the other captives. No other bowls were offered to the sick girl, Abeni, or Bambidele.
In the dark again, Abeni continued chanting until Monifa fell into a restless, fevered sleep. The Yoruba shaman rocked in place, murmuring under her breath.
“Curse them, and I will see that they cannot deliver us,” Bambidele murmured.
At first, Abeni was not certain what she had heard. “Curse them?”
“You are Queen Mother. You are familiar with Voudon?”
“It is forbidden. Voudon is not Yoruba.”
“But you know how to use it.” He said it quietly, firmly. He did not ask; he stated it as a fact.
“Yes,” said Abeni after a few moments.
“I shall take them. Give me three days.”
He could not have seen her nod in the pitch blackness, but she knew he understood her silent assent.
The next day Monifa’s fever was worse. She lay shivering, incoherent. Abeni could tell that the girl’s infection had poisoned her system; without healing herbs and a healing ritual, she would be lost, if she were not too far gone already. Abeni also knew that Bambidele had worked at his manacle all night, and that he was almost free of it. He, too, had lost flesh and no small amount of blood in his effort to free himself.
When the Portugese sailors came to distribute the daily meal, Bambidele hid his manacled foot. The light was dim enough to prevent the sailors from seeing the bloodstains on the wooden planking of the hold, but he did not risk them seeing that he was working to free himself.
They did not bother to feed Monifa. Instead, they called for another of their companions, who examined her. They conferred in their strange language, shrugged, and left.
“She needs healing!” Abeni hissed in frustration to Bambidele.
“She will not need healing for long,” he murmured back.
It took Bambidele four days. He freed himself the second day, but spent the rest of that day and the next freeing the other captives, whispering to them his plan. Abeni was relieved when the distribution of food on the third day went without incident. Bambidele refused to release the fevered teenage girl from her manacle, though. “She lies where they can see her, and they will know if she is freed,” he explained.
The fourth day’s distribution of mush also went without incident. Monifa was unconscious, and Abeni could tell from her breathing that she would die soon. The girl’s entire leg was swollen and blistered, and the swelling had begun to move into her groin and hips. From experience, Abeni knew that once it reached her torso, the girl’s suffering would end.
Hours passed. The noises above them stilled except for occasional footsteps and even less frequent calls among the sailors. It was time.
Bambidele rose, and in the darkness whispered for the others to take the irons that had held them. Some of the captives had rubbed the edges of the irons against other irons, sharpening them for better use as weapons. Bambidele gathered them around him. First he listened silently at the door for several moments, then he opened it.
Moonlight had never shone so brightly.
Abeni remained in the hold with Monifa and with the other ill captives while the healthiest of the Yoruba men and women did their work. Bambidele returned for her in less time than she expected. He freed Monifa at last, and carrying her small body in his arms he led Abeni out onto the deck.
The night was impossibly bright. The ship’s crew, about 40 men, had been stripped as naked as the Yoruba captives. Several had obvious broken bones; even more had bleeding gashes. Abeni stared at them coldly, seeing the stark fear that had replaced their cruelty.
None of the captives spoke the language of the sailors. Bambidele placed the dying girl gently on the deck. Behind Abeni the other ill and injured captives straggled from the hold to stand in a ring behind her and Bambidele.
Bambidele turned to Abeni. “Curse them,” he said.
Abeni had prepared herself for this moment. She raised her arms skyward and began a singsong chant. The Yoruba around her murmured uncertainly as they realized the words she sang were not Yoruban, but from the darker Voudon practice. Bambidele stood by silently as Abeni’s voice rose and fell in the night. Several of the Portuguese began moaning. Good, thought Abeni as she continued the ritual chant. They should be afraid.
Her first chant ended and Abeni turned to Bambidele. He handed her a wickedly curved long knife. Ritually, she cut herself on both wrists, the blood flowing freely down to cover the hilt. She approached the captain of the Portuguese. She cut his face on either cheek, then once across the width of his forehead. Several of the sailors sobbed aloud now.
Abeni caught the captain’s blood on the blade of the knife, then allowed it to drip into the mouth of the dying girl lying on the deck.
Several of the men propelled the four who had fed them every day to the front of the huddled group of sailors. Abeni had them face their companions across the body of the dying child, and she ritually carved each of their faces the same as the captain’s, again allowing their blood to feed the unconscious girl.
She began chanting again, this time swaying to her own music, her own blood dripping over the length of Monifa’s body. She whirled, and the captain’s throat bloomed red, his eyes wide, as he pitched forward. A Yoruban man caught his lifeless body before it fell onto Monifa, then tossed the corpse aside. One of the remaining four men lost control of his bowels and a second fell senseless to the deck. Contemptuously, Abeni slit their throats with two deft twists of her bloody wrists. She turned her attention to the two who remained.
One fell to his knees, apparently praying to whatever ineffectual gods he might have worshipped. Still chanting, Abeni dispatched him and moved to the fourth man. Her chanting increased in tempo and her pitch rose. She danced in front of him, not caring whether he could see her through the flood of blood washing into his eyes from his forehead.
A wind rose. Had she looked up, Abeni would have seen clouds obscuring the stars at a speed that defied nature. She was focused on her task and spared no time for the effects of the evil she called to this sea with the forbidden rite of Voudon. She felt the crackle of electricity in the air and knew that the gods answered her call. Her curse would be sanctioned by them.
At her direction, Bembidele again lifted the dying child into his arms. He followed Abeni among the mass of terrified sailors as she forced each to touch the girl’s eyes and mouth, and as she slashed each face in triple cuts, feeding their blood to the unconscious child. Those who resisted her received a fourth slash, across their throats, and were tossed aside. So did those who fainted or befouled themselves. Half the sailors remained.
The strength of the wind forced a few huge raindrops to slap against the faces of the Portuguese sailors. In the distance thunder and lightning clamored for attention. Satisfied with the attention of the gods, Abeni prepared for the last of the ritual. Her severed arteries still pumped blood over the hilt of the long knife and she felt herself weakening from her loss. Undaunted, her chanting grew stronger, but now she seated herself on the deck facing the remaining Portuguese. Bambidele lay Monifa’s body before her.
Abeni dreaded what she would have to do next. Steeling herself without losing the rhythm of her song, she raised the knife high above her head. Now arterial blood streamed the length of her arms, dripping onto her breasts, belly, and crossed legs.
With a final cry, she plunged the knife downward, striking Monifa’s thin chest almost exactly in the center. As the iron blade stopped the child’s heart, lightning struck a tall mast of the ship and thunder shook all of the people aboard to the core.
Abeni no longer chanted. The curse was in place, and the gods would decide fitting punishment.
One of the sailors cried out, pointing to the tall mast. The crow’s nest, in flames, crashed to the deck. More of the white men cried out. Three started for the flames but a gesture from Bambidele sent six Yoruba to stop them. “The gods have decreed it,” Bambidele said.
The wind grew to gale force, fanning the flames. Rain fell only in huge, hesitant drops, flung sideways. The sails on the ship would not be furled before the fury of this storm.
The deck burned through, and the flames fell into the hold where the Yoruba had been kept. With another gesture from Bambidele, the Yoruba men tossed the corpses of the dead sailors into the inferno below.
Then the Yoruba began sacrificing the living sailors as well.
The fire burned on below deck, but the rain finally came and extinguished the fire above. The ship slid lower and lower in the sea, until the seawater drowned the last spark of the fire.
Abeni looked at her fellow freed captives. She felt light-headed, but heard the gods clearly as they spoke to her. At their request, she instructed the Yoruba to enter the water with their legs together. The first to obey her cried out in surprise, then flipped over the side, swimming in delight in the newly becalmed sea.
Smiles and laughter from the sea prompted the others over the side in the same way. Soon nearly two hundred Yoruba swam, dove, and played in the waves delighting in their new abilities. Only Abeni and Bambidele remained aboard with Monifa’s body.
“We, too, shall join them.” Abeni told Bambidele.
“And the child?”
“The child was sacrificed to give us a new life.”
“Will she become like the rest?”
“No. The gods have decreed that she shall steer the ship beneath the waves.”
Abeni looked up. The sails still held the wind, despite the water sloshing gently over the deck. “The ship will continue to sail,” she said. “Its curse will not die.”
Bambidele was silent. Finally, he asked, “And who will encounter the curse? We shall live in the sea, giving birth to new generations of Yoruba with fish tails and gills. We are blessed by the gods, not cursed.”
Abeni nodded toward the charred hole in the deck, where seawater was beginning to find its way above the cinders. “They are cursed forever,” she said. “They, and their kind, and their kin.” Where they encounter this ship, steered by Monifa of the Yoruba, they will feel the wrath of the curse, and will share the fate of those men.”
Bambidele nodded. “But if the ship is sailing the bottom of the sea, how will anyone encounter it?”
“They will encounter it from above. When a ship casts its shadow on Monifa’s ship, Monifa will call it under the waves, just like this one is being called.”
Water nearly surrounded them on the deck. “It is our time,” Abeni said. “I am weak, and will need help.”
Bambidele stood, then stooped to pull her upright. She leaned heavily against him. He helped her to the edge of the water, then lowered her carefully over the side. He felt vitality return to her, and to confirm it she lifted her face and smiled.
“Now you,” she said as she swam a few feet away from the ship.
He carefully kept his legs together as he slid over the side. Then with a sudden laugh he flipped into the water, displaying his flukes to the disappearing stars and the lightening sky.
“Who is this?”
“I didn’t think I’d ever hear your voice again.”
“I’m taking a chance calling you.”
“Where are you?”
“You know I can’t tell you that.”
“Are you in the country or out of the country?”
“I can’t tell you that, either.”
“Okay, then, how are you?”
“I’m okay. I miss you.”
Mattie snorted softly into the phone. “Then why’d you wait a year to call me? It’s been more than a year. And you didn’t even say goodbye. I had to hear your bullshit suicide story from Mama over dinner that day. I nearly threw up right there at the table.”
“I don’t know how long I can talk. They may cut me off.”
“I swear, even I thought you were dead until Fred Fields brought me into his stupid Star Chamber and started in on me. And I wasn’t real sure until Tom admitted it. Why didn’t you call, Billy Joe? ”
“I couldn’t. If you knew you might have let something slip.”
“You were supposed to take me with you, or had you forgotten that little detail?”
“I didn’t forget. I couldn’t.”
“Why not? That was the plan, remember?”
“I remember. I’m sorry. I am, really.”
“Are you using one of their safe phones?”
“After they quit dragging the river for your body Fred Fields decided I might know something. For all I know he still thinks something’s up. At Daddy’s funeral he even said I should call him if I remember anything about you.”
“Your daddy’s funeral?”
“In the spring. He got the flu and it turned into pneumonia and he wouldn’t go to the doctor. You know what a mule he was.”
Billy Joe was silent for a moment. “What did you tell Fred?” he finally asked.
“What, you just sat there silent while he was questioning you?”
“No. I told him I didn’t know anything.”
“Did he talk to Tom, too?”
“Yes. Tom had to swear out an affidavit that he’d seen you jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Fred said he’d prosecute him if he didn’t. Says he’ll still prosecute him if it turns out not to be true.”
“What does he think was going on if he says I didn’t jump off the bridge?”
“He wanted to know why the FBI might have been interested in you.”
“Oh, hell. The background check. I forgot. Why did he talk to you?”
“Remember that new preacher that came just before you left? Brother Taylor?”
“He told Mama that I’d been up at the bridge with you a couple days before you allegedly jumped.”
“He saw us?”
“Yeah. And he saw us throw something off it, too, he told Mama. But I don’t think Mama told Fred that.”
“Your mama told Fred? She told the damn sheriff? Why?”
“Because the sheriff let it be known that he didn’t think they were going to find your body in the river. He told me flat out he thought you never jumped off that bridge.”
“Did they look for me in the river?”
“Four days. Fred didn’t believe you’d jumped, though. He said that more than once, even the day they started dragging it.”
“Then why’d he search the river?”
“Your aunt Susie pitched a hissy fit and threatened to call the governor if they didn’t.”
“Did they ever find … anything else?”
Mattie knew what he meant. “No.”
Billy Joe let out a sigh of relief. “Good.”
“I don’t know what the water might do to ….”
“You know what to do if they ever do find it, don’t you?”
“Well, it’s not like I’m going to forget.”
“You didn’t forget me, did you?”
“Oh, honestly, Billy Joe.”
“You seeing someone?”
“Why do you care?”
“You aren’t going to do anything about it. You can’t.”
“I might come get you someday.”
“Sure. I’ll hold my breath.”
“I might, Mattie. I won’t have to be undercover forever.”
“Right. Just until the freaking CIA decides they don’t need you anymore.”
“Ricky isn’t messing with you, is he?”
“No. But I don’t think he’d take kindly to you showing back up after what you and Tom did to his place. He threatened Tom with a gun and got locked up for his efforts a few days after you left.”
“He knew it was Tom and me?”
“He had a pretty good idea. He said something to Charlie about it, too, but Charlie told him to fuck off. He said he didn’t know what Rick was talking about.
“He shouldn’t have messed with you in the first place. Then Tom and I wouldn’t have had to do what we did. How is Tom, anyway?”
“Mary Lou had another baby a couple of weeks ago. He’s fine. He’s got another mouth to feed. And he’s thinking about running for mayor.”
Billy Joe laughed. “Yeah, Tom’s a born politician.”
“And you’re a born… whatever. Why couldn’t you take me with you? I thought you had cleared it with them.”
Billy Joe was silent. “They said we had to be married. Your daddy wouldn’t have stood for it.”
“My daddy’s gone, Billy Joe, and if I was gone, too, then he couldn’t say much about it, now could he?”
“Well, maybe you could come to where I am someday soon.”
“Not here, not where I am now. You couldn’t come here. But I won’t be here forever. Then you can join me. ”
Mattie’s voice was still bitter. “Where’s that going to be? And when? Anyway, somebody’s got to take care of Mama.”
“He and Becky Thompson got married and bought a convenience store on the highway over by Tupelo. They moved up there to run it.”
“If Charlie’s got a store and your daddy’s gone, who’s farming your land?”
“I am. Dickie Johnson helps sometimes.”
“Is that who you’re seeing? Dickie Johnson?” Billy Joe was incredulous.
“I’m not seeing Dickie Johnson.”
“I hope not. God. Dickie Johnson.”
“What do you care? You left me here. You didn’t even say goodbye.”
“Mattie, I couldn’t. If you didn’t know anything you couldn’t tell anything. You already knew more than you should. You still know more than you should.”
“It’s not like I could forget it.”
“No, I guess you couldn’t.”
Silence again, then, “Mattie, I’m sorry.”
“I should be the one helping you farm.”
Mattie snorted. “You wouldn’t make much of a farmer.”
“Why not? A farm, a couple of kids. We’d raise them just like we were raised, send them to school up at Choctaw Ridge…”
“Right. Why’d you call, Billy Joe?”
“Because I miss you.”
“Why now? Are you going on some undercover death mission or something? Are you afraid you’re going to die for real this time?”
“I’m sorry, Mattie.”
“Sure you are. Have you decided that the life of a spook isn’t all that great or something?”
“I have to go.”
“Don’t call me again, Billy Joe, unless you’re telling me where to pick up my plane ticket. I already buried you once.”
A tear rolled down her cheek as she cut the connection.
Midget truck drivers didn’t show up in Chigger Hollow every day. In fact, there weren’t any midgets at all in Chigger Hollow, so when one did show up it was momentous.
The semi pulled into the parking lot of the Chat ‘n’ Chew convenience store about 4:30 in the afternoon. Norma Rae started a fresh pot of coffee. Usually truck drivers could be counted on to buy a couple of cups, even if it was late in the afternoon. Hearing the water begin to drip through the grounds of the Biff Brand coffee, she perched herself back on the duct-taped vinyl stool behind the counter and went back to her True Confessions magazine.
Out of the corner of her eye Norma Rae noticed a woman coming into the store. The woman was followed by a child. Norma Rae didn’t take much notice because the State Trooper from up at Possum Grape had told her in casual conversation that women and children don’t tend to be convenience store robbers. Men were the ones to watch out for, and if a man came in alone, followed by another man, and neither one parked where she could get a description of the car or the license in case of their quick getaway after a robbery, she should take special notice and ease the handle of the shotgun close to the edge of the shelf underneath the counter.
Popping the top on another Coke Zero Norma Rae turned the page in her True Confessions. “I Was a Teenage Pasta Wrestler” looked to be an interesting article. The picture of a pretty girl with a pouty mouth, who looked for all the world like Rhonda Sue Ellis, the valedictorian of Chigger Hollow’s Class of 1995, just with blonde hair, was inset on top of a black and white photo of two women completely covered in ragu and grappling with each other to the cheers of abnormally handsome young men who hung on the perimeter of the wrestling ring.
The woman came to the counter with a large cup of coffee and a package of chewing tobacco. Without looking up, Norma Rae scanned the two items. “Four eighty-seven,” she said, holding her hand out and sneaking another look at the black and white photo. Was the woman on the left wearing a top? Was that a mushroom in the spaghetti sauce or were her nipples hard from the excitement of the contest? She took the five dollar bill from the customer and handed her a dime and three pennies. Norma Rae was well into the first paragraph of the article when someone cleared his throat.
She looked up. She didn’t remember seeing anyone come in after the woman, and she had been alone in the store. She peered over the display of breath mints and beef jerky but didn’t see anyone. She went back to True Confessions.
This time a cough made her look up. No one was standing at the pay counter, which stood as high as her ample chest when she wasn’t sitting on her stool. Norma Rae remembered everything Danny Kitchens, the State Trooper from Possum Grape, had told her and she eased the butt of the shotgun toward the edge of the shelf below the counter.
“Hello?” she asked uncertainly.
“How much for two drumsticks and half a dozen biscuits?” a man’s voice asked. Norma Rae jumped.
“Drumsticks are eighty-five cents each and biscuits are five for two dollars,” she said. It must be a short guy, because he was apparently hidden behind the tall display of Slim Jims. She moved off her stool and peered around the display. She didn’t see anyone.
“I want six biscuits, not five,” the voice said.
“Six biscuits are, um…” Norma Rae cursed herself for forgetting where the calculator was kept. She was terrible at math.
“Are they the same price whether I buy five or if I buy, say, three?” The voice seemed to be getting impatient, but Norma Rae still couldn’t figure out where its owner was standing.
“Well, no,” she replied, her tone conveying her obvious opinion of such a dumb question. “Five biscuits are two dollars. Three biscuits are less than that.”
“So are three biscuits a dollar twenty?”
“How should I know?” she snapped. She stood on the foot rest rung of her stool and leaned out over the counter, hitting her head on the cigarette display above the cash register. “Damn!”
A cup of coffee appeared at the check out counter. Norma Rae leaned out again. This time she ducked. The voice belonged to the kid. No, to the midget. The kid was a midget.
“I’ll have to ring it up to get you a total,” she said, staring at the man. Despite his stature he was the most perfect specimen of virility Norma Rae had ever seen. Muscular arms reached up to slide a package of Mentos onto the counter next to the coffee. The arms were attached to a wide chest bulging with well-chiseled pectorals, which were clad in a tight navy blue t-shirt.
Norma Rae could not help but let out a breath of amazement. “Oh, wow,” she said eloquently, her eyes wide with awe.
“What, you’ve never seen a dwarf before?” the man asked. His eyes had narrowed and his lips curled into the manliest sneer Norma Rae had seen since Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” video on MTV.
“No! Oh! I mean, I’m just surprised is all,” she managed to babble.
“Are you going to let me buy chicken and biscuits?” the Perfect Specimen demanded.
“Oh! Yeah! Um, do you want spicy or traditional southern?”
“Southern. And I want six biscuits.”
“Do you want any mashed potatoes or turnip greens with it? Bessie Maydar makes the greens and they are to die for. She mixes in just a little mustard greens and some hot sauce while they’re cooking and they come out good enough to make you feel born again without ever going to church.” Norma Rae knew she was babbling but she couldn’t stop. Now why did she tell this Perfect Specimen of Virility Bessie’s secret ingredients? Bessie had sworn her to secrecy on the back porch while they were each into their fifth margarita one night. And “born again?” Where the hell did that come from? Norma Rae was Seventh Day Adventist, and except for the occasional cuss word she was true to her faith.
“How much?” Evidently this Perfect Specimen of Virility was on a budget.
“Ninety nine cents.”
“Not a dollar?”
Norma Rae shook her head. The power of speech was rapidly exiting her brain the longer she gazed on his biceps.
“My name’s Norma Rae,” she said. Then she realized that not only had the Perfect Specimen of Virility not asked, but that he seemed surprised that she would even share the information.
“I’m Willy,” he said.
“So do you want the greens?”
“Okay, fine. Two drumsticks, six biscuits, and a side order of greens,” said Willy the Perfect Specimen of Virility.
“That’s five forty five,” said Norma Rae after punching the order into the cash register.
Willy gave her a ten dollar bill. She gave him change.
“Are you going to get my food?” Willy finally asked, and Norma Rae realized that she was still leaning across the counter staring at him.
“Oh, god!” she exclaimed, hopping down from the stool. Now she was really embarrassed. She had taken the Lord’s name in vain in front of the Perfect Specimen of Virility and she was acting like a dummy. Shit! She hurried to put the chicken and greens in a Styrofoam container, and put six biscuits in a small paper bag. She climbed back up on her stool and leaned out to hand the container and the bag across the counter and down to those wonderful waiting arms, which she could imagine wrapped around her in a bear hug so tight it would make her groan.
“Can I get anything else for you?” She asked hopefully.
“Nope.” Willy reached for the coffee and Mentos, arranged his load, and headed for the door.
“Wait!” cried Norma Rae.
The Perfect Specimen turned around.
“Come back soon,” she murmured weakly.
Willy the Perfect Specimen nodded solemnly and went out the door. Norma Rae didn’t even realize she had failed to charge him for the coffee and Mentos.
to be continued….
“Tell us the story of the Hruang, Grandmama!”
The boy’s plea made Ciannait smile. Her great-grandchildren never seemed to tire of her stories, and at every meal they asked for a favorite. Sometimes she was able to remember a new tale for them, or even to create one out of fragmented memories of the tales told to her by her own grandmother.
“The Hruang? That beast that was captured and brought into the marketplace when I was younger than Foy?” Ciannait grinned at the children, then wet a corner of her apron and wiped Foy’s face. “I don’t think you washed up properly before breakfast, young man. Did you even bathe last night?”
The eight year old boy ducked his head. “I did, but the water wasn’t wet enough to get all of the dirt off,” the child explained.
Ciannait laughed. “Minna, the boy says water isn’t wet enough to clean him,” she said to her granddaughter, who set a bowl of warm cereal on the table.
“It may not be, Grandmama. I think he paints himself with grime every day.”
“He doesn’t paint himself with it, but he does roll around in it,” remarked Nagge, Foy’s ten year old sister. She reached for the ladle and filled both her bowl and her brother’s, then sat down at the table.
Foy grinned. He picked up his spoon and began eating with enthusiasm.
Ciannait filled her own bowl, and one for Minna. Minna came back to the table with a pot of tea, pouring for all four.
“I’m going to the orchard today to help Ben,” said Minna. “Children, you’re to help Grandmama here at home after your lessons.”
“How is Hanh?” Ciannait asked. “Is she getting any better?”
“No,” answered Minna. “And Zocha won’t say so to either Ben or Hanh, but she’s completely stymied. She thinks perhaps the illness is in Hanh’s mind more than in her body.”
“An illness of the spirit,” nodded Ciannait. “ It’s rare, but not unknown.”
“What happens when your spirit gets ill?” asked Nagge.
“You die!” yelled Foy.
Nagge rolled her eyes. “No, you don’t, silly. You only die when your body dies, not when you have a spirit sickness.”
“I thought you didn’t know what happened when a spirit got ill,” her mother teased. “Didn’t you just this instant ask what happens?”
“Well, I know enough to know your body doesn’t die. What does happen?”
“Spirit sickness is very serious,” answered Ciannait. “The person with spirit sickness wants to die, but cannot. It makes the people who love her very unhappy, too.”
“Can they catch the spirit sickness?” asked the girl.
“No, child. Spirit sickness is rare. It isn’t like a cold or the seasonal ills. It happens when the spirit and the body become separate,” her great-grandmother explained.
Nagge wrinkled her nose, thinking. How does a spirit separate from a body?”
“When you die!” Foy made a choking sound and pretended to fall off his stool.
His sister rolled her eyes. “Really, Grandmama, how does it happen?”
“No one is quite sure. There used to be healers who could call the spirits back to the living bodies they had left, but anyone with that knowledge is gone now.”
“When a spirit leaves a person’s body, what happens?”
“The person gets sick, and sometimes cannot even move or talk. It depends upon how close the spirit lingers.”
“Can you see a spirit when it leaves the body?”
“You have more questions than appetite this morning, Nagge! Eat your cereal. You have lessons today and you’ll be learning about the orchard plants.” Old Ciannait rose from the table. Over her shoulder, she admonished the children,”Eat well, because you’ll get hungry talking about the food plants of the farms.”
The children grinned at each other, knowing that their grandmother would make the lesson fun.
After their lessons, the children were released to play. Their great-grandmother’s only requirement was that they bring back one piece of fresh produce from the market for each of the four people in their home, and that each had to be different. They were told to talk to the market vendors about each fruit or vegetable, and to report to her what the vendor said about it.
The children raced each other to the open market near the great wall that surrounded the city. In the shade of the north wall farmers had stalls from which they distributed their produce. Crafters such as the potters, weavers, and basket makers also maintained stalls.
Their first stop was for a peach. Both children loved the sweet, juicy fruits and even when they had not been assigned the chore, in the warm months they might find their way to Momo’s stall where he sweetest, juiciest peaches sat waiting for people to claim them.
Momo’s stall was closed when they arrived, and the bent old woman was nowhere to be seen. The stalls on either side of hers were doing a brisk business, though. Neither vendor had seen Momo and both were too busy to talk to a pair of children. Nagge and Foy visited several other stalls. Knowing that Ciannait would expect them to bring home four completely different items, they visited the root seller, the bean vendor, and the squash seller. The children were determined not to go home without peaches, and asked after old Momo at every stall. No one had seen the old lady.
“I think we should go to her house and check on her,” Nagge said after they had exhausted their search of the market for knowledge of the peach vendor.
“She’s probably in the orchard with Ben,” Foy said. He was unconcerned about Momo herself, but his mouth watered for the sweet peaches. “Maybe Mama will bring home peaches today, since she’s helping Ben, too.”
“Maybe.” Nagge’s brow furrowed. “I don’t think Momo goes to the orchard much anymore.”
Foy shrugged. “Then let’s go check on her. You want to, and you’ll keep talking about it until we do.”
Nagge grinned. “Yes, I will,” she admitted.
Momo’s apartment was east of the marketplace, down a wide street that at night was lined with the barrows of the farmers. The walls of the homes were as white as the wall that surrounded the city itself, and the staggered rooftops of the buildings rose and fell with no perceivable rhythm. Each rooftop was planted with a garden, a place for the inhabitants within to grow herbs and a few vegetables for quick harvest for their dinner tables.
Interspersed among the buildings were slim towers, some narrower than a man’s shoulders, and some with more that one peak. The towers were made of the same mud-covered stone as the walls of the dwellings, but looked like the weathered remains of brittle, leafless trees, resting for the winter even against the blue skies.
The children made their way across the city’s north side, stopping to speak to the adults who greeted them. They raced each other the last few steps to the old peach seller’s door, but the old woman’s home was shuttered and the children’s calls went unanswered.
“She must have gone to the orchard,” Foy proclaimed.
“Momo hasn’t been to the orchard this year at all,” objected Nagge.
“Where else would she be?”
“How should I know? Maybe she’s gone to visit a friend. Maybe she’s just sleeping.”
“Sleeping? In the middle of the day?” The notion of a nap was completely alien to the boy. Even if Momo were sleeping, it seemed only logical to his eight year old brain that their calls would summon her since their cries always got the attention of Grandmama, who was older than Momo. The fact that old Momo might not have Ciannait’s health would never have occurred to him.
“I think perhaps we should check on her.” Nagge’s troubled expression arrested Foy’s attention.
“You think she might really be sick?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
The pair of them looked at Momo’s door, this time with a little trepidation.
“So, open it,” urged Foy.
“Let’s call her again.” They called. Still there was no answer.
Nagge reached out and touched the door. Just as she put her hand on the handle, Momo’s voice sounded from within.
“Here, now, what’s all the racket about?” The old woman sounded gruff and hoarse. She pulled open the door and blinked in the sunlight at the two children on her stoop.”Nagge? What are you and Foy doing here? Come in, come in.” Momo left the door open and without waiting for an answer turned and shuffled back into the dark interior of her home.
The children exchanged a look, then followed.
“We looked for you in the market. We wanted peaches.” Nagge told her. Foy looked around the apartment, obviously hoping to spot unclaimed peaches lying around loose, waiting to be given to him.
“You’ll not find me at the market today,” muttered Momo. “Nor are you going to find me there tomorrow. Or ever again.”
The children looked aghast at each other. “Never again? Why not? Aren’t there any more peaches?” Foy’s high voice wavered with momentary panic.
“Of course there are peaches, silly,” Nagge said quickly. “But, Momo, why aren’t you going to be in the market?”
The old lady snorted. “Ben says he wants Hanh to take over those duties. Not that she’s likely to get her lazy backside out of bed long enough to set the peaches out for anyone to see.”
“If Hanh’s going to be in the market, what will you do?” Nagge liked visiting with Momo, and was glad the old lady was there to give children extra fruit.
“I don’t yet know. I may help with tutoring or with the creche. I may just stay here in my apartment and enjoy my peaceful old age. Hanh won’t last long. She’ll sleep in the stall, if I’m any judge.” Momo sounded disgusted with her daughter in law.
“Mama went to the orchard to help Ben today,” Foy offered. “Do you have any extra peaches here?”
Momo raised an eyebrow, twisted her mouth into a grimace. “Ben better know what he friend he has in Minna,” she said. “Here, boy. There are always peaches in this house.” She handed both children a plump, firm fruit. “Now what are you doing here and not playing somewhere?”
“Grandmama told us to find four different foods from the market,” Nagge explained between bites of the juicy, sweet fruit. “We decided one of those ought to be a peach.”
“Oh? And how will she know you found a peach at all?”
“We’ll bring one back, of course,” said the little girl. Then Nagge’s eyes widened. “Only we’ve eaten our peaches!”
Momo laughed. “So you still need a peach for Ciannait, do you?” She grinned at the children’s solemn nods. “Fortunately for you I happen to have extras. Here.”
With grateful smiles the children accepted four more peaches and tucked them into the pack with the other food from the marketplace.
“Now get on with you,” scolded Momo, and watched the children cheerfully bounce out of the apartment and into the sunny street. “Mind you, don’t get caught by the Hruang on the way home!” she called after them with a smile.
Nagge and Foy had heard the stories of the Hruang. Their great-grandmother, who was one of the oldest people in the city behind the Wall, claimed she had seen one many years ago as a child herself. It was this story Foy had begged for at breakfast.
The beast had been captured by a band of hunters, and had died in the central marketplace from the stones thrown by angry old men and women who remembered the days of terror brought by the Hruang. When she told the story the old lady described the horrific claws and fangs of the beast, its bulging muscles and its naked flesh, but at the same time her tale evoked sympathy for the beast, captured and dying alone, injured, uncomforted, never itself having done wrong to its killers.
The frightening creatures had not come close to the walled city of Gaerwyn in generations. The wall was too intimidating to them, according to Ciannait. They would never bother, or dare, come close now. According to Minna, the children’s mother, such a beast was the stuff of legend, if it had ever roamed the world at all.
“Let’s go to the orchard,” Foy suggested, his mouth once again full of peach. No one was supposed to go outside Gaerwyn’s walls except on business, and children were never to go out without their parents. Since their mother was at the orchard, though, Foy and Nagge might be able talk the adults at the gate into allowing them to pass.
The rhythmic calls and movement of the people in the market provided the children with cover to slip out the city gate. The adults nearby were engaged with their bartering and bickering, their gossip and their industry. None paid attention to the two children. Nagge and Foy walked confidently near the opening in the great white wall.
They watched the dyemakers and the threadmakers, whose stalls were near the gate. Practiced in the art of sneaking out of the gate, the children asked questions and talked with the spinners who eventually told the children to move on and stop bothering them. The timing was perfect, as far as the children were concerned. They had seen the dyers toss their dyes into the boiling pot and knew that they would be shooed away from there, too, as they dyers were busy dipping the fabrics and threads into the steaming cauldrons.
As expected, the dyemakers shouted at the children to move back as they brought bolts of plain cloth over to the big pots for dipping in the hot dye. Nagge and Foy edged around the unguarded opening in the wall, sidestepped around its corner, and once out of sight of any adults ran to the great gray boulders that served as steps down to the valley where the orchards lay below the city.
The boulders had been left there by mysterious giants of the past, in a convenient formation that allowed relatively easy passage down the steep hillside to the fertile river valley below. Small, twisted trees grew amid the granite outcroppings. The stone was worn smooth by the passage of generations of feet. It was debated among the sagamen as to whether ancient chisels actually carved either the boulder steps or the base of the great wall that surrounded Gaerwyn.
“I am the leader of the Hruang, and I demand treasure!” cried Foy, making his child’s high voice deep to growl at his sister, standing on the boulder above his sister, glaring down at her with his small fists on his hips.
“The Hruang never demanded treasure,” objected Nagge, her status as the elder making her all-knowledgeable. “They just attacked and killed people.”
The boy stuck his chin out defiantly. “Well, this time I want treasure.”
Nagge grabbed a stick fallen from a nearby scrub tree and waved it at her brother. “Never! We will fight to the death!”
Foy saw a larger stick lying half on a granite step below in, to Nagge’s left and out of her sight. He made it to the weapon just as his older sister found her way to the side of the boulder where he had jumped.
They sparred with their weapons, shouting, growling, and happily banging their sticks. Foy had the better, stronger weapon. Nagge’s scrubby stick was older and drier, and a power thwack by Foy’s fresher weapon disarmed her. She shrieked.
“Admit defeat!” roared her little brother.
“You have defeated us, oh mighty Hruang!” cried the girl, crouching and covering her head with her arms.
“You must bring me treasure or I will take it myself from every home!”
“Will you attack our people if we give it to you?”
“No. I’ll take your things and go back to the other side of the mountains.”
“Sure,” said Nagge, standing slowly and assuming the persona of the Gaerwyn City Leader. “Drop your weapons and come close, and we will give you what you ask for. You have to promise to go away forever, though.”
“Give me good treasure and I won’t have to come back.” The small Hruang-boy’s avarice gleamed in his grin.
“Oh, we’ll give you the best. We promise. But you have to leave your weapons to come get it because we’re too afraid of you otherwise.”
The boy dropped the stick he brandished as a sword and took two steps closer to where his sister spread an imaginary pile of gifts. The girl bowed low to her brother, hiding her smile. “Please, honorable Hruang, take these gifts and leave us in peace!” she cried.
Foy swaggered closer, holding out the skirt of his tunic so it could be filled with riches. Nagge described each handful of leaves, each rock, each cluster of twigs as another impossibly desirable treasure. “A crown of silver, sparkling with precious gems. An ivory hunting horn, carved with scenes from legend. A bolt of the finest cloth, worked with threads of gold. An ancient scroll containing the secrets of the ages. Rare medicinal herbs. A vial of delicate perfume, guaranteed to make even Hruang smell pleasant.” Her litany of valuables brought a superior smile to her brother’s eyes as each item weighed more heavily in the stretching fabric of his outstretched pouch.
“Take more!” pleaded the eager treasure giver, piling the small boy’s Hruang arms full of leaves and twigs to represent the choicest of plunder.
When his skinny arms were full of the promised treasure, the Nagge leaped on Foy with a leafy branch, swatting at him with it. Howling, the boy dropped the leaves and twigs and leapt toward his own discarded branch.
“You cheated!” he yelled.
“I did not! I tricked you!” his older sister retorted gleefully, swatting him with a new branch she had surreptitiously retrieved during the treasure collection process and driving him backward along the rocky path.
The boy’s battle cry was another howl of indignation. Being older and stronger, his sister was able to drive him back further, laughing as she did so. The fierce duel of the branches brought them along the path to a flat place that overlooked the valley and led to another hill. Nagge stopped her attack long enough to catch her wind, and Foy ran up the path to the top of the crest beyond.
He stood upon it, throwing out his chest like the bravest hero of battles, bellowing his outraged superiority to the empty land beyond the whipping wind and throwing wide his skinny arms. His sister laughed and jumped to her place beside him.
She struck a mocking pose with one hand on her hip and a graceful arm outstretched to accept the adoring cheers of imaginary crowds. She bowed deeply. This time her brother laughed as well. The children jumped from the rocky crag to greet the throngs of their admirers.
In sudden panic they seized each other.
To be continued…
Karyan was in a foul humor. He lagged behind the rest of the breck, muttering to himself. He knew they were going the wrong direction. Didn’t he have the best locus of them all? But no, Mauro was leader of the Keary Tynan, and if he said something was black then Mauro was determined to say it was white. If he said go east to get to the Gathering, Mauro would insist the way was southwest. Stupid Mauro.
Stupid Mauro and stupid Brenna. Had she not sided with Mauro the breck wouldn’t be wasting time. They had already traveled two hours under Mauro’s orders, and Karyan blamed Brenna as much as Mauro. Beautiful Brenna, with the laughing eyes and the perfect teeth, the raven hair that tended to slip and slide and shine in the sun…
Now he was going moony over her. She’s moony over Mauro and I’m moony over her, Karyan grumbled to himself. He was getting over his moony feelings, though, the more he saw her simper in Mauro’s shadow. Why was it that the women all thought Mauro was so great? Why did anyone think Mauro was so great, for that matter? He was muscular and handsome, sure, but he was as dumb as a rock. Mauro was only chosen Leader because he acts like he knows what he’s doing, Karyan realized. He doesn’t know any more that anyone else, and he knows less than I do about how to get to the Gathering. Stupid Mauro.
Malina and Tamal were beginning to fall behind the rest of the group, he saw. When they had slowed enough for him to meet them, he greeted them silently and waited for them to speak. The three of them kept walking, but allowed themselves to get slightly further behind.
“We should be there by now,” Tamal said at last.
“How far away do you think we are?” Tamal was attempting to get Karyan to speak against Mauro’s leadership decision, but after the argument the breck had over Karyan’s objection earlier in the day, Karyan was not feeling cooperative.
“Farther away than we were this morning,” Karyan replied.
“We think so, too,” Malina said.
“Then tell Mauro. Otherwise we’re going to be wandering in the wilderness for forty days and nights and we’ll just keep getting farther away.”
Malina twisted her mouth at his sharp tone. “We think Mauro will just change direction gradually and circle around to get to the Gathering. He won’t admit he made a mistake and turn around.”
“Maybe.” Karyan shrugged again. He hoped Mauro would be shown to be a complete fool in front of the entire breck. He hoped that by nightfall the breck was still wandering and would have to walk back an entire day to get to the Gathering. He hoped that they missed the Gathering altogether because of Mauro’s incompetence. Stupid Mauro.
“You should tell some of the others,” Malina said.
“Me? I tried to tell everyone this morning. No one listened then, including you. Why would they listen now?”
“Because my locus tells me that we’re farther away, too,” Tamal said.
“Right, well, maybe you should tell someone else, then.” Nothing would please Karyan more than to be proven right, but he wasn’t going to insist that the breck listen to him now. He was enjoying his sulk far too much for that.
“We should tell them together. Your locus is better than mine. I’m sure some of the others are also sensing the distance,” Tamal argued.
Karyan stopped. “Why should I tell anyone anything?” he demanded. “Mauro’s the leader. He knows all and sees all and hears all and locates all. I’m just a lowly Tynan, young and unproven, stumbling after my leader hoping someday to have his attention. Maybe he’ll let me repair his boots or something. They’ll need repairing after all this trekking we’re doing without reason.”
Tamal sighed and exchanged a look with Malina. “I know your feelings are hurt because of Mauro’s decision this morning, but…”
Karyan snorted in disgust.
“Really, Karyan!” Malina exclaimed. “You’re angry because of this and the fact is we need to get to the gathering. Mauro’s leading us the wrong way, and your locus is better than either mine or Tamal’s and we know it’s the wrong direction, too!”
Other members of the breck were stopping now, looking back at the discussion between the three of them.
Karyan crossed his arms. “I’ve already said what I think. Repeating it isn’t going to change the mind of the great and infallible Mauro.”
Malina put her hands on her hips. “You’re a mule!” she snapped. “You act like Mauro’s decision was a personal attack on you, and it wasn’t!”
“No, it wasn’t personal at all,” said Karyan agreeably. “When he said he wasn’t going to listen to one voice of dissent he wasn’t talking about me at all. When he said that my concerns were the ravings of a spoiled brat, he wasn’t personally attacking me at all.”
“Karyan, look, you’re acting like a child, just like this morning. You don’t want to do anything unless it’s done your way. We need to talk to Mauro and explain what we sense.” Tamal was trying to sound reasonable.
“I already did that, or did you forget? And besides, I am a child. You heard Mauro this morning.”
The rest of the breck was making its way back to where the three of them stood. Mauro was bring up the rear, the beautiful Brenna at his side.
Tamal and Malina opened the discussion to the rest of the group. A few had the grace to look uncomfortable.
“Actually, I was sort of thinking we were headed the wrong way, too,” offered Siyamak, his dark eyes looking toubled.
Karyan leaned against a boulder, his arms still crossed, still closed to the rest. He looked up, pretending to study the cloudless sky.
The other members of the breck came closer. Tamal and Malina led the discussion, and the Keary Tynan debated their location.
Abruptly, all discussion stopped. The Keary looked over Karyan’s head, their mouths collectively agape. Karyan, still closed to the breck’s discussion, noticed the shift in their attention nevertheless. He looked up, just as the two strangest Tynan he had ever seen jumped directly into the midst of the debating Keary.
“I’m lonely,” Minna admitted.
“So am I.” He didn’t look at her, but looked away, beyond the trees, down the path to the valley.
“I didn’t like living with the children’s father, but I’m still lonely for a man. Crazy, isn’t it?” Her words were thoughtful, musing. She let her sewing drop to her lap, stilling her hands. Instead of following his gaze, Minna looked the other way, down to the sparkling lake that fed the crops and watered the livestock. They were both quiet for several minutes.
“Do you know what I miss?” Minna’s voice had a dreamy quality to it.
Unnoticed by her, Ben had leaned back into the grass and was watching the clouds and they took on the colors of late afternoon. He turned his face toward her now, seeing that her chin was in her hand, her eyes glazed in her daydream. Startled by how young she looked with wisps of hair escaping her braided coil, he could only stare. In this light, her hair looked like flaming silk of scarlet, gold, even platinum. Her face, normally creased with worry and sorrow, was unlined. The angle of the sun softened her colors and melted them into swirling hues that echoed the sunset. He longed to paint her.
“I miss kissing.” Minna continued, and seemed to be only peripherally aware of Ben’s presence and completely oblivious to his attention. “I miss really, really kissing. I miss those deep, enthusiastic, passionate kisses that only new lovers kiss. I miss touching. I miss the feel of fingertips brushing against my skin. I miss kisses that take my breath away and a light touch that makes me shiver with anticipation. I miss him taking my face in his hands, looking deep into my eyes, tangling his fingers in my hair…” Her voice drifted into silence.
Ben drank in the shading, the shapes, the colors. If he never saw her like this again, if she never opened her soul this way again, he had to remember it. He had to keep this moment in his heart and his mind. He willed her to continue.
“I miss romance,” she said softly. “I miss that feeling of being desired by someone.”
Ben let out a breath, long, steady and low.
“I want passion all the time,” she continued. “I’m greedy for it. What’s so sad is that it only happens at the beginning of a relationship. Every relationship I’ve ever seen gets to the point where the passion fades, and there’s nothing there but habit, complacent routine.”
Belying his assumption that she didn’t remember he was there, she suddenly turned to him. “I want the kind of passion that happens when he comes home and I’m standing at the stove, and he comes up behind me, gently moves my hair aside and kisses me on the neck. I want to lean back against him and close my eyes and savor the feeling of being loved and wanted.”
Her breath came fast. “I want the passion that happens when I touch his shoulder as I walk past, and he reaches for me and pulls me into his lap. I want the kind of passion that happens when he says he’s going for a shower and he pulls me in with him, then we bathe each other slowly and carefully, with serious attention to every inch of skin. I want the kind of passion that happens when he wakes me in the night just because he wants to touch me, and wants me to touch him.”
Ben’s eyes widened. His lips parted.
“I want passion that stays,” Minna said fiercely. “I want passion that is just as physical as it is emotional. I want to desire, and I want to be desired. I want to feel my skin become electric under his touch, to yield to his touch, to open my heart and my soul and my body to him, to give him every drop of what I have to give. I want to trace the outline of his body and feel it respond to me. I want to watch him sleep next to me. I want to wake up because he is watching me sleep. I want to be in his heart, and I want to give him mine. I want to drink his essence and know that he drinks mine, too. I want to be his passion, and I want him to be mine.”
I was just about to leave my office for the evening and head to the Twisted Wench Daiquiri Lounge for an evening libation when I heard their voices.
“I can’t believe you did that to me!”
“I didn’t do anything to you. You did it yourself!”
“Ladies, please,” a male voice interjected. “Wench won’t like it if you are screaming at each other. Let’s just talk to her about the situation.”
Agincourt? Sir Agincourt Finsbury-Pikestaff? Was that the voice of my trusted, loyal operator of the Satellite Virgin Training Academy on the Moon? I wasn’t expecting him, and it seemed he was bringing a problem to me. Usually his assistant, Teri the Boopster, handled routine matters. This must be serious!
I opened the door to my office just as they approached. Yes, there was Agincourt. I couldn’t help but smile to see him. He’s my brother, you understand, and I adore him even if he does quaff a few too many pints now and again.
“Agi!” I exclaimed, holding my arms out for the requisite hug. Instead of the big squeeze he normally gives me, he stopped and gave me an exasperated look. I was startled, to say the least. “What seems to be the problem?” I asked, eyeing the two trainees accompanying him.
One, a tall, slim blonde, clearly had been wearing her long hair in a ponytail. That ponytail no longer looked very neat, though. It certainly wasn’t a look we encouraged out Virgins to display. Great hanks of hair stuck out at odd angles from her head, and red streaks that looked for all the world like claw marks decorated one of her cheeks.
The other, a small brunette, had high color in her cheeks and a bloody nose. A bruise on one of her upper arms was darkening before my eyes.
Agincourt was talking.
“It seems that there was a bit of an accident during the zero-G pole dance exercise,” Agincourt began. He was clearly upset and more than a bit aggravated with his two charges.
Before he could continue the brunette interrupted. “Accident! It was no accident! She pushed me!”
“I was spotting you, not pushing you!” retorted the blonde.
“Ladies, it seems we might need to calm down before we discuss it further.” One thing I had learned in my year of operating the Virgin Training School was that angry Virgins needed to be coddled and soothed. Only after tempers cooled would I be able to make sense of the situation.
I led them into my office. They were grumbling and snarling at each other. I sighed. My daiquiri and the Twisted Wench were looking like a fond dream at this point.
“Wenchy, dear, I am so very sorry to bring this situation to you,” Agincourt said as I brewed a tisane loaded with herbs of comfort and calming properties.
“Hand me that small box of valerian root?” I asked Agincourt. He passed it to me. As I added a large dose of it to the mixture, he started to tell me about the situation.
“Not yet,” I said. Let’s give the girls some tea and let’s us have something a little stronger, shall we?”
He grinned at me. “You know me well,” he chuckled. I was glad he could smile. I was beginning to wonder if this dispute wasn’t taking its toll on him. I poured us both a healthy serving of a lovely, smooth Irish Cream. We took our first sips as the kettle whistled. I poured the water over my herbal recipe and carried the pot to the conversation area of my office. One trainee sat on each sofa, glowering at the other across the gorgeous marquetry inlay of my antique Italian coffee table.
Agincourt again began to speak, but I shushed him. I poured the herbal concoction for the trainees, setting one cup before each of them.
“Drink,” I ordered.
I had them empty one cup and start on another before I let them speak. The silence was difficult at first, but finally the warm drink and its herbal contents did the trick and the two young women began to calm down. I could tell by their slower breathing and the way they sipped slowly at their second cups that my concoction was working.
“Now,” I said. “I would like to hear first from Sir Agincourt. After he tells what he understands the situation to be, you each will have a chance to add to his explanation or correct it as you see fit.” The trainees nodded.
Agincourt cleared his throat. “As you know, the trainees practice the pole dance in zero-G on the Moon. Cyndi has appointed several of the more advanced trainees as assistant instructors.”
“That’s me,” the blonde broke in.
I shot her a warning look. “Sir Agi first, then you will have a chance,” I murmured. She settled back into her plushly upholstered cushions.
“Yes, well, erm…” Agincourt took another sip of his Irish Cream. Finding a bit of determination from somewhere within his glass, he continued. “After demonstrating the move she was teaching, the assistant instructor allowed the student trainee to attempt the move. Unfortunately, the trainee wasn’t quite properly balanced …”
“I was perfectly balanced! She pushed me!” the brunette declared hotly.
“I most certainly did not,” the blonde assistant stated emphatically. “I was spotting you and attempting to adjust your balance and you fell.”
“I fell, all right! I fell right on my nose. If it swells up and no one will offer camels for me, all this training will be for nothing!” She glared across the table at her erstwhile instructor.
“Unfortunately,” Agincourt continued, “After the fall I’m afraid the two got into a bit of a fight.”
I shook my head in disbelief, wondering if “Deportment” would be yet another class we would have to add to the curriculum.
“Why in the world would a fight have ensued?” I asked. I looked at the petite brunette, who I expect swung the first claw.
“Because she pushed me!”
“I did not!”
“Ladies, ladies. Please. Agincourt, were there any witnesses?”
My gallant brother looked uncomfortable. “Well, erm, yes.”
“I was filming the class at the time. I was the one who separated them, and then, of course, got them down here to the school for you to deal with as Head Mistress. Have you any Guinness?”
The subject change was meant to distract me from the fact that a male had been watching my Virgins in training. It was meant to distract me from the fact that my brother had been watching them.
“Oh, Agi, what will I do with you?” I sighed. Both Virgins had fallen asleep by this time. Good. The valerian root worked.
Agi and I watched the video. Here it is. Tell me if you believe the trainee was pushed, or if she fell. Then, in the comments, tell me what I should do about Agi, and recommend to me suitable disciplinary measures for the fighting Virgins.
In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But his concubine became angry with him and she went away to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months. Then her husband set out after her, to speak tenderly to her and bring her back. Judges 19:1-3
“It’s Bobby Wayne!”
The shock at hearing my husband’s name was only slightly less than the shock of hearing it spoken with such pleasure by my father. Exchanging a look with Mama, I moved to the kitchen window. The familiar F-150 was indeed in the driveway, and Daddy, who had been working on his old Camaro under the shade of the live oak, was stuffing a shop rag in his hip pocket and walking toward the truck with a grin on his face.
I couldn’t believe it. Daddy knew why I had left. The meth had led Bobby to more and more erratic behavior, and by the time I was able to get the money together to get back home I was practically unable to use my left arm any more. I think Bobby had broken it at least twice, and the second time he didn’t let me go to the hospital for two weeks. They said they’d have to break it again and do surgery, and he said he didn’t have the money to pay for it, so it never did heal right. Finally it seemed like the muscles just seemed to quit working in it.
But Daddy was greeting him like a long lost son, not the abuser of his only daughter.
Bobby stayed three days. By Monday morning, Daddy had loaded my things into the bed of the pickup and told me my place was with my husband. Mama didn’t argue about it any more after Daddy popped her in the mouth Saturday afternoon. I had no choice. Bobby had been making sweet promises about how good things were going to be. I thought that if things got bad I’d just walk out again.
We were on the outskirts of the city, about an hour and a half from home, when Bobby told me he had to go see a man there for business. Since the only business Bobby ever did involved things like guns and drugs, I knew we weren’t likely to go to a good neighborhood. I was right.
We were in an area that had clearly seen better days. “Urban blight” is the euphemism for it. Porches sagged without anyone standing on them. Graffiti covered everything from the walls of the homes to the fire hydrants to the sidewalks, and I could understand none of the writing. No one ever taught me this other language or the script in which it was written.
Bobby parked on the street in front of what looked like a store front that had been converted to living quarters. Before getting out of the truck he reached under his seat and removed his pistol. He checked it to be sure it was loaded, then stuck it into his pants at the waist, covering it with his t-shirt. “Stay in the truck,” he said.
As I waited, tough looking men drove by. I saw no women. No children played outside. Finally I lay down on the seat and slept.
Bobby had been inside almost three hours when a group of men approached the truck. When they tapped on the window I sat up, confused for a moment. An ugly scar bisected the cheek of the tall man who demanded Bobby’s whereabouts through the slightly lowered window. Wordlessly, I pointed at the building. The tall man stomped off, his followers behind them. There were about ten of them.
They pounded on the door, and although they apparently talked with whomever was on the other side, I could hear nothing. I saw the angry looks on the men’s faces, though. I saw two unsheath knives. Another’s gun was poorly concealed in the waistband of his jeans. A man on the edge of that crowd leaned down and picked up a piece of pipe.
While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house that we may have intercourse with him.” And the man, master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” – Judges 19:22-24
The door opened then, and I saw an older man holding a young girl by the arm. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old and she looked terrified. He shoved the child toward the crowd of men, but the tall one with the scar pushed her back inside. There was more discussion. Gesturing, and then loud voices told me that they wanted my husband, they wanted him now, and they wanted him dead.
Bobby had taken the keys with him when he went inside. I locked the doors of the truck and sat in the middle of the seat. I was afraid, but I didn’t panic until I heard the thundering demand from the tall, scarred man: “If he won’t come out here and answer us like a man, he’s a pussy. We want the pussy. If you don’t give us that pussy, we’ll take his other pussy!” He was pointing at the truck. He was pointing at me.
The men surrounded the truck. Terrified, I refused to open the doors. The man with the pipe struck the window on the passenger side. It took him several tries, but finally it shattered and he reached inside and unlocked the door. They pulled me out of the truck. At first I screamed my husband’s name. Then I simply screamed.
They more than raped me.
Every man in that crowd had his turn, and several of them had more than one turn in more than one place on my horrified body. I lost track of the number of times each took me, and the way each took me. My abdomen felt near to exploding, then was numb. Two at once, three at once, there were more than I could count. I knew I was bleeding because they pulled away from me drenched in my blood.
Apparently their access was not easy enough, because they pulled my legs apart to more easily get at me from front and back at the same time. My hips and thighs cracked audibly, and I knew I would not be walking again any time soon.
When they forced my mouth open to defile me there, too, I bit down. Mercifully I felt only the first few of their blows to my head. After that, I lost consciousness.
As morning appeared the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light. In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. – Judges 19:26-27
“Get up. We are going.”
I lay on the pavement at the door to the house. I couldn’t answer. My jaw was probably broken, and the teeth on the left side of my mouth were gone. Painfully I lifted my head slightly and dropped it again. I could only see out of my right eye, and Bobby looked blurry even out of it.
He reached down and yanked on my arm. I screamed wordlessly. It was obviously broken and the shoulder was probably dislocated as well. My legs had no feeling in them. I couldn’t walk. Bobby dragged me whimpering to the truck and threw me in the passenger side, ignoring the fact that I was naked and the broken glass was ripping my skin to shreds.
I died on the way home.
When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. – Judges 19:29
What I found to be humorous about the whole affair was that he packaged up the parts of my body and mailed them to the men in that crowd. He also mailed a piece of me to the man in whose house he had hid. He sent my head to my parents. Daddy opened the package and vomited. I laughed.
I haunt them all. The pieces of my flesh that were sent to each man allow me to stay with him. The fact that their flesh is part of me because of that awful night allows me to stay as long as I wish. I have learned to give them boils, to call lice and fleas to their hairiest regions, to drench them in a stench so powerful none can stand near them, to afflict them with breath so fetid even their vicious dogs turn away from them. They don’t sleep at night, these twelve men who wronged me. The man whose seed created me, the man whose seed claimed me as his wife, and the ten men whose seed defiled me against my will do not sleep because of the wrongs done to me.
The thirteenth man, the one whose seed never became a part of me, is haunted by his own daughter, whose reproachful eyes remind him of the woman he sacrificed, and remind him that he nearly sacrificed her.
She prays to the bit of finger she saved from the rotting flesh that was delivered to their door by an unsuspecting postman. She prays to me to help her escape the madman she calls her father.
She will kill him soon.
I will help her.
He logged into his instant messenger program. There she was! Her name glowed in his contact list as online and available, although the little clock icon to the left of her name indicated she was idle. She’d not used her computer in 47 minutes, it told him. He decided to try, anyway.
“Hey there, Delilah.”
He was rewarded less than a minute later with her reply.
“What’s it like in New York City tonight?”
“Loud,” she replied. “Where are you?”
“A thousand miles away from you. I’m in Nashville. I have that audition tomorrow.”
“Where are you staying?”
“My cousin Bill is putting me up for the night. I’ll go back to Paducah tomorrow after the audition, unless they offer me a job on the spot.”
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”
“What are you doing?”
“Studying. There’s a lot of reading for this philosophy class I’m taking.”
“I saw you were idle when I signed in and I wondered if you’d wandered away from your computer. Will you turn on your webcam? I want to see you.”
“My hair’s in a ponytail and I don’t have makeup on.”
“You know I don’t care about that. It’s you I want to see, not your makeup.”
“You have to turn on yours, too, then.”
“I don’t have on any makeup, either, and I’m sitting here in a plain white t-shirt.” He knew she would giggle at that. She obligingly laughed at all his jokes, no matter how pitiful they were.
They each clicked the icons for their webcams and waited for the obligatory permissions.
“Hi there,” smiled Delilah.
“You are so pretty.”
“No, I’m not. I look awful. You look wonderful, though.”
“Yes, you are pretty. I don’t care what you say. You’re beautiful and bright and gorgeous and pretty and brilliant and cute…”
Delilah laughed. “I’m not feeling too bright or brilliant. This philosophy class is kicking my butt.”
“You are and you know it. Times Square can’t shine as bright as you. Get used to it.”
“You know it’s true.”
“They say college gets easier as you go along, but I think with this class it’s gotten harder. Or maybe my IQ has dropped significantly.”
“Even the philosophy professors at Columbia are bound to be impressed by your superior intellect.”
She sighed. “I wish. It seemed easier when you were at Berklee.”
Neither said anything for a moment, drinking in the visions of each other through the poor light and shadowy webcams on their laptops.
“If I was there I’d just be distracting you from your philosophy assignment.”
“I like that kind of distraction. I miss you. You’re so far away.”
“No, I’m not. I’m right here.”
“I can’t touch you. My bed’s too big these days. I can’t reach out and find you any more.”
“Don’t worry about the distance. It’s only temporary. We have cell phones and laptops. I’m right here, always right here. If you get lonely, call. Or send me an instant message.”
“It’s not the same.”
“I wrote you a song.”
“Yes. Let me send it to you. It’ll take a few minutes for the file transfer.”
“Play it for me while I download it, then.”
“Okay.” He picked up his guitar after transmitting the file. “Are you ready?”
“Yes. Here. I’ll make the call.” A telephone rang on his computer.
He accepted the call. “Are you sure you’re ready?”
“You have to pay attention, now.”
“Play the song!” she laughed. “I’m never going to be more ready!”
He played and sang softly to her, amazed at how shy he felt doing it. As grainy and terrible as the webcam picture of her was, though, he saw the tears sliding down her cheeks.
“I miss your voice so much,” she said.
“Listen to the song when you miss me,” he answered. “Just close your eyes, and pretend we’re sitting together in the loft and I’m singing and playing and you’re reading philosophy and we’re together.”
“You’ll have to send me more songs, then. And don’t make them perfect. I want to hear you say ‘shit’ when you screw up the chords or the words.”
He laughed. “You don’t like perfection?”
“I like you.”
“You’re saying I’m not perfect?” Melodramatically he pantomined committing hari kiri. “How can you do this to me?”
“You love me.”
“Yeah, I do.” She gave him a languid wink.
“I think I’m going to have to get another job,” she said, changing the subject.
“Starbuck’s keeps cutting my hours. If I can’t work, I can’t get paid. If I can’t get paid, I can’t keep the lights on.”
“I should have stayed there. Then I could have helped with the expenses.”
“No, you needed to go back home after graduation. You weren’t getting paid enough to stay here. New York’s expensive, remember?”
“I could have gone to more auditions there. I could have busked in the subway. Hell, I could have gone to work at the Starbuck’s across the street from yours.”
“Oh, sweetheart. No. Our parents would have written us both off for sure.”
“I’m going to start making money with my music, Delilah. I will. I could have done it there. And when I do it, we’ll have plenty of money.”
“Most musicians don’t make tons of money. You know that.”
“I will, though. I’m going to make money with my guitar and with my voice. I’ll make enough to send you to graduate school if you want. I’ll make so much money we’ll have our own plane to fly us back and forth. We can be in New York during the week and on weekends we’ll go to wherever my gig is, or maybe to our Swiss chalet.”
“Yes, I’m dreaming. But someday I will make that much money. I promise.”
“I love the song, sweetheart.”
“You love it? Really?” He was pleased. “There’s more I have to say, you know. That song didn’t say it all.”
“Every love song I write I write for you. I write them to you.”
“You take my breath away.”
“Then I’ll have to stop writing you songs.”
“I can’t have you turning blue because of what I write.”
“I want to gasp for air, “ she laughed, “so you’ll give me mouth-to-mouth!”
“You can’t listen to them unless I’m right there with you, then.”
“Then you’d better come soon.”
“I can, you know. I can get there soon. I should come and audition there. I never should have left.”
“You’re going to do so well on this audition that you’ll make a life in Nashville.”
“Maybe. But even so, there are a million ways to get to you. I’ll fly or drive. Maybe next month.”
“If you have the money.”
“I’ll walk to you if I have to.”
“You will not.”
“I will. Would you know I love you if I walked all the way from Kentucky to New York?”
“I’d know you were crazy, and so would all our friends,” she laughed.
“They have no idea how crazy I am about you. I love you, Delilah.”
“I love you, too.”
“Do you think any of them have ever felt this way?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how many of them would walk a thousand miles for each other.”
“Hey, that sounds like a song!” He started strumming the opening beat of The Proclaimers’ song, ‘(I’m Gonna Be) Five Hundred Miles.’ “And if I haver / Yeah I know I’m gonna be /I’m gonna be the man /Who’s havering to you…” He interrupted himself. “Hey, Miss English Major, what does ‘haver’ mean, anyway?”
Delilah laughed again. “It’s a Scottish term. It means you’re talking foolishly, which you are.”
“You’re so smart.”
“I love you. And if you keep havering and you walk a thousand miles, our friends will definitely all laugh at you.”
“Let them laugh. We’ll laugh at them and they will never know why. I love you more than I can ever express, no matter how many songs I write.”
“You make my heart swell and melt and swell and melt all over again.”
“My world is different without you in it. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. I wish I was out of school. I wish it was three years from now when we knew where we were going to be and we were working and living and together….”
“We will be together. We will.”
“I need to get back to this stupid book.”
“It’s not stupid. It’s philosophy. Philosophy can’t be stupid.”
“It’s stupid, or I’m too dense to get it. It has to be one or the other.”
He was reluctant to cut the connection. “Be good, study hard. Two more years and you’ll be through with school and nothing will keep us apart.”
“I miss you.”
“Don’t miss me. Study. Work. These two years will pass quickly. By the time you graduate summa cum laude I’ll be famous. I’ll be famous because of you.”
“Because of me?” she echoed.
“You’re my muse. It’ll be because of you. I feel another song coming on. Another love song for you.”
“I want to hear it when it’s done.”
“You will. And I’ll be there as soon as I can figure out how to get there. I promise.”
“Break a leg on the audition tomorrow.”
“You say that to actors, not musicians.”
“Good luck, then.”
She cut the connection.
“Katie, you’re supposed to be drawing a picture of your friend!” Emily’s voice was a shrill, plaintive, tattle-tale whine that crawled under Miss Simpson’s skin and set up housekeeping.“Emily, let me handle any problems, please,” she said, moving quickly to Katie’s desk. Emily’s words had already cut poor Katie, though. The tiny redhead had quit drawing and her face was scrunched into a fierce scowl. Her thin arms crossed, then uncrossed stiffly, then crossed again tight against her little chest as she hunched protectively over her drawing. She didn’t look up when Miss Simpson reached for the paper.
“I told you!” Emily trumpeted as the teacher’s eyes fell on the drawing.
“This is a very good drawing, Katie,” said Miss Simpson. “Emily, keep your eyes on your own work, please.”
“Well, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to!” protested Emily.
“That’s really no concern of yours, now is it? And if you don’t mind your own business you’ll sit in the hallway for the rest of art period.”
Emily sniffed audibly and glared at Katie. What a perfect victim the brat makes, thought Miss Simpson.
At time for recess, Katie was slow to leave her desk and even slower to pull on her jacket. Miss Simpson bit her lip, then made a decision.“Katie, would you talk to me for a moment before you go outside?”
Katie turned slowly and walked woodenly over to Miss Simpson’s desk.
“That really was a good drawing,” Miss Simpson said with a smile. The child’s eyebrows knit together and her frown became, if anything, darker. She stood to the side of Miss Simpson’s desk glowering at a mote perhaps two feet off the ground and somewhere to the left.
“It really was okay for you to draw a picture of a friend other people can’t see.”
This time the little girl cut her eyes at Miss Simpson. “Other people see him,” she muttered.
Miss Simpson sighed.
“Katie, I’m going to ask Mr. Carson to spend some time with you, okay? And you can talk to him about problems you might be having with Emily or with the other students, or even at home. He’s a really nice man and he’s a good listener.”
Katie shrugged. The motion was exaggerated, defensive. The mote had moved another foot to the left, and the child took a half step toward it, still glowering.
“Go ahead to recess.” Miss Simpson watched the child slowly stomp out of the room.
“Miss Simpson showed me the picture you drew of your friend. Why don’t you tell me about him?”
Mr. Carson’s cajoling tone seemed not to penetrate Katie’s sullen mien. She sat tight-lipped in the molded plastic chair kicking her feet alternately toward the metal waste can. The school counselor’s cramped office could barely hold the two chairs, his desk, a file cabinet, and stacks of papers, files and books that littered every available surface. Mr. Carson allowed nearly two full minutes of silence before he spoke again.
“I’m going to talk to your parents,” he commented decisively. Katie shrugged her exaggerated shrug and swung her feet harder.
Mr. Carson rang the doorbell at the house on the edge of the small town. A baby cried somewhere behind the closed door. Footsteps pounded rapidly closer and a boy about ten years old and as red-haired and freckled as Katie threw open the door. “Mom!” he bawled over the staccato barks of a terrier when he saw who the visitor was. A man dressed in a sleeveless undershirt came from what appeared to be the kitchen.
“Mr. Holden? I’m Fred Carson.” The counselor held out his hand for a shake and Katie’s father led him to a sofa covered with unfolded laundry. Thrusting the clothes into a plastic basket sitting next to the sofa, Mr. Holden waved at the counselor to sit. A moment later they were joined by Mrs. Holden.
“It isn’t abnormal for a girl Katie’s age to have an imaginary friend,” began the counselor.
“Tishapus isn’t imaginary,” said Mrs. Holden.
Mr. Carson cleared his throat. “What I mean is that children often create playmates when they feel isolated among their peers.”
“He’s not her playmate,” said Mrs. Holden.
Mr. Carson shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Katie insists that she has a friend who looks like a faun, or a satyr – like Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I assume that’s where she got the idea, anyway.”
The Holdens exchanged a look. Mrs. Holden nodded slightly to her husband, and Mr. Holden rose. “Please excuse me a moment,” he said. Mr. Carson gestured permissively.
As her husband left the room, Katie’s mother turned to face the school counselor directly. “Mr. Carson, we don’t expect you to believe Katie. We hope you will believe your own eyes, though.”
Before he could respond, Mr. Carson’s jaw dropped and his eyes widened. Accompanying Mr. Holden back into the living room was a creature about five feet tall which looked for all the world like it had the legs and haunches of a goat, the torso of a man, and wickedly curved horns on its head.
“Mr. Carson, meet Tishapus,” said Mr. Holden.
Detective Dennis P. O’Leary banged the empty coffee mug down so hard it should have broken. The sharp sound bounced off the bare walls of the interrogation room. The stranger on the other side of the table winced just slightly at the noise, then his expression smoothed out again.
“I told you, we don’t take to vagrants here in my town,” O’Leary barked. The stranger’s wide-eyed stare didn’t betray fear. Inexplicably, he only seemed curious, his head cocked slightly to one side.
“Why not?” asked the stranger in his odd, lilting accent.
“Why not? Why NOT?” blustered O’Leary. “Because we don’t!”
The stranger nodded thoughtfully. O’Leary had the notion the stranger was filing his response away to study later.
“What do you tolerate, then?” the stranger asked. His words were mild, not at all confrontational.
“What do you mean, ‘What do we tolerate’? We tolerate law-abiding citizens and visitors who know their place!”
“What place is that?”
O’Leary’s eyes narrowed as he leaned across the table, his out-thrust chin close to the stranger’s long goatee. “Are you getting smart with me, boy? Because if you’re getting smart with me you won’t be leaving my jail until a judge says you can.”
The stranger’s expression showed confusion for just a fleeting flash of a moment, then rearranged to display detached curiosity. “I am trying to become smarter, yes,” he answered. “Will you share your knowledge with me?” He held up his oddly deformed hand and reached toward O’Leary.
O’Leary slammed his big fist on the table so hard the empty ceramic mug jumped. The stranger jumped slightly, too.
“Boy, your mouth is getting you in deeper,” warned the burly policeman.
“Deeper?” This time the stranger’s confusion lingered in his expression for more than a split second. “I do not understand ‘deeper.’ Can you explain it to me in other words?”
O’Leary spun on his heel and banged on the locked door, which opened almost immediately to admit a smaller man who nodded to O’Leary as the policeman left the room. The new man took the seat O’Leary had vacated. He was silent for almost three full minutes, just studying the stranger through frankly appraising eyes. Then he cleared his throat.
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
“You are Doctor Will Handy. I remember you.”
“The police need your real name,” Handy said.
“I do not believe they will be able to pronounce my name. They may call me Tishapus, like the others do.”
“The police need your real name,” Handy repeated.
The stranger was quiet for a moment, then Handy’s head spun as a whisper of sound, emotion, and images assaulted his mind. Even seated solidly in his chair the psychologist nearly lost his balance.
“Tishapus is a good name,” the stranger explained.
“No, I need your name,” Handy objected. Again the feelings, images, and unrepeatable tones washed over him.
“Really, Tishapus will have to do, unless you prefer to use a different word for me.”
Handy’s head swam, but this time from understanding. “That’s your name?” he whispered. “How did you do that?”
The stranger peered intently into Will Handy’s eyes for several long moments. “My language works differently than yours,” he finally said. The statement was so obviously true, and so obviously impossible, that Dr. Handy’s mind reeled.
The psychologist rose shakily and paced the room. He returned to the chair, sat down, sat silently for a moment, then rose again and stood across the table from the stranger.
“Where are you from?” he asked Tishapus.
“The children call it Heaven, but it is not the heaven of your culture’s religious belief system.”
“The children are right,” Handy said it almost to himself, but the stranger heard and nodded.
“The young always accept notions foreign to them much easier than do fully grown creatures,” agreed the stranger. “In this case I believe they have imposed a familiar idea onto their new knowledge. It most likely makes the new knowledge easier for them to talk about among themselves and with others.”
Will Handy nodded thoughtfully.
“Where will you go if the police release you?” he asked after a few moments.
“Katie’s playhouse is comfortable for my present purposes,” the stranger said amiably.
“You understand that Mike and Beth Holden say you can stay in their home, don’t you?”
“Yes, but my studies will best be conducted if the local population has better access to me. Although it would probably be the best place for my research, Mike Holden said that I could probably not stay in the gazebo in the park.” The stranger hesitated. “Who could give me permission to station myself in the park gazebo?”
“You’re actually serious,” Handy said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Of course,” the stranger – Tishapus – said.
“And you have no money, so you can’t get a room at May’s boardinghouse.”
The stranger shrugged. “Money is a concept I had not planned upon when I came to study your species.”
“My species? Not my society or my culture, but my species?”
Tishapus nodded. “We must understand the basics of your species before we try to study your social structure in great detail.”
“You’re telling me there are more… people … like you?”
“You did not expect this to be true?” the stranger’s demeanor radiated cool amusement. “Interesting.”
Handy stepped back from the table. “Excuse me, please, Tishapus.”
In the hallway outside the interrogation room Handy conferred with Detective O’Leary and Captain Mitchell. “I’ve not encountered anyone like him, that’s for sure,” he began.
O’Leary snorted. “Fellow’s crazy, ain’t he? We need to call the State Hospital and have him committed.”
“No, I don’t think so,” Handy disagreed.
“You don’t really think it’s okay to let him go back to that little girl’s playhouse and camp out, receiving guests like he’s visiting royalty, do you?” the big detective sneered.
“Come on, Detective. This is something different than a regular stranger in town. You have to recognize that. You recognize it, don’t you, Tom?” Handy asked the captain.
“He’s not in a costume, that’s for sure,” Mitchell replied.
O’Leary rolled his eyes. “The hell he’s not!”
“Dennis, for Pete’s sake. His knees bend the wrong way. That’s no costume.”
“Prosthetic legs. And he’s deformed. He’s as human as you or me. His mama was on drugs or something when she was pregnant is all,” O’Leary stated flatly.
“Detective, did you ask his name?” Handy inquired.
“Yeah. He wouldn’t say. He just kind of whistled at me.”
“Whistled at you,” Will Handy echoed.
“I’m saying we should take him up to the State Hospital and have him worked over by the docs there. Not that you aren’t a doctor, Doc Handy, but you know what I mean.” O Leary’s communication skills were better suited to interrogation than to diplomacy.
“No, Dennis, he’s done nothing wrong and the parents of those kids aren’t worried about him being a danger. The Holdens have even invited him to stay in their home. No one will say he’s a danger to himself or to anyone else, other than Dave Hernandez, that is, and you know he’s never happy about anything. We can’t have him committed unless we think there’s some problem.”
“Being delusional isn’t a problem?” O’Leary demanded incredulously.
“If the delusion isn’t harming him or someone else, then no, it’s not a problem. And to be honest, I’m not so certain he’s delusional.”
Captain Mitchell nodded at Dr. Handy’s words. “I’m going to release him, then. The Holdens are waiting and want to take him home with them.”
“Wait a minute,” objected O’Leary. “What if he’s a child molester? We can’t just let him go.”
“Detective, I have interviewed the fellow, and so has Dr. Jenner. Aside from possible eccentricity, we find no delusions that we can verify as delusions. The guy isn’t human. If he is, then he’s the next step on the evolutionary ladder and we can’t verify that there are similar mutations anywhere in the world. In short, he’s not from around here. We have nothing to indicate he is a threat.”
“Not only that, but if we lock him up then we’re going to have some angry citizens to deal with,” added Captain Mitchell. “Bill Costello has drafted a habeas corpus petition that he’s going to file with Judge Miller if we hold this fellow much longer. And Judge Miller’s kid is one of Katie Holden’s friends. She’s been playing with this … Tishapus. With her daddy’s permission, I might add.”
Detective O’Leary threw up his hands in disgust. “Fine,” he snapped. “But this won’t be the end of it. I can promise this fellow’s going to be trouble sooner or later.”
“The Bradford County Cantaloupe Festival is apparently getting off to a good start. We’ll check back with our weather team shortly and get a live update on weather conditions for the weekend. In other news, an event of a different sort seems to be going on in the small community of Pleasant Ridge. Candy Olsen is on the scene and will tell us more.”
The red light on the camera let Candy Olsen know she was being beamed live into the living rooms of television viewers across the region. She smiled directly at the red glow and began speaking.
“Thank you, Frankie. I am waiting at the home of the Holden family of Pleasant Ridge for an event that may be monumental indeed. The being that calls itself “Tishapus” has agreed to give Channel 8 an interview, and in a few moments I hope to be sitting with him at the picnic table you see behind me. There is a festival atmosphere here. It seems the entire town has turned out to observe the interview. We’ll be broadcasting the interview on the late news tonight.”
The red light blinked out as the anchor on the set, an hour’s drive away, resumed reading from the teleprompter.
The petite blonde television news reporter settled herself uncomfortably at the child-size picnic table in the Holden’s front yard. Despite her cheerful assertion, the little house on the edge of the middle class neighborhood on the edge of the small town didn’t really seem festive. Sure, people milled around everywhere, but their faces were solemn, guarded. No festival ever seems to be protectively distrustful of television cameras. When the lens would swing in their direction more often than not the people of Pleasant Ridge frowned and looked away. Candy Olsen was certain that people attending the Bradley County Cantaloupe Festival were grinning as they ate their melons and danced in the street. She was fairly certain people there would pose for the cameras and act silly. There was no foolishness or gaiety at the Holdens’ home, though.
A commotion by the small frame house drew the attention of the people milling about the yard. Indistinct voices hummed in a higher pitch of excitement and a knot of movement crossed the 30 or so feet toward the picnic table.
The creature had been described to her, but the reporter was not quite prepared for actually seeing it in reality. In one corner of her mind she was aware that she was staring stupidly and that her gaping mouth was being caught on film. She couldn’t pull her wide eyes away from the creature, though.
Its face was vaguely human, but the planes and angles were wrong. The face looked like one of those Photoshop images of the sheep-child that periodically appear on the cover of the sillier supermarket tabloids. The face was too narrow, too long; the cheekbones too high; the beard – no, there was no beard, except for the white tuft the grew in an elegantly thick corkscrew curl from the creature’s chin. Sleek silver-gray fur covered the creature’s torso and face, then became curly ginger brown at the crown of the creature’s head. At waist level, the ginger fur reappeared, longer, curlier and denser. What was it called when dogs had that kind of coat? Wire-hair. The mouth, almost a snout or a muzzle but not quite, curved upward at the corners. She wanted to reach out and touch the horns. Were they densely matted hair, like the horn of a rhinoceros? Were they light and woody, like the antlers of a deer, or bony like those of a ram?
Candy Olsen rose from her perch on the bench of the picnic table. Tishapus walked gracefully toward her. His knees bend backwards, went through her mind. Those aren’t hooves. I thought he had deer hooves, but those are pads, or paws. No, they are hooves, they just don’t look like any hooves I’ve ever seen. Her observations of the creature’s physical characteristics fled as she felt a nudge against her mind and the sensation of amusement, not her own amusement but someone else’s tickled the edges of her consciousness.
Tishapus stopped nearly three feet away from her and bowed slightly. She saw what she thought was a stubby tail tipped with a copy of his goatee. She started to say something, then wasn’t sure what to say.
“Hello.” That was inane, she thought. What a great first impression I’m making. She mentally shook herself. She wasn’t there to make a good impression. She was there for an interview.
The reported indicated the picnic table. “Shall we sit? I’m Candy Olsen.”
The creature bowed again and moved to one end of the table. Rather than sitting on the bench he sat on his haunches. He leaned forward and crossed his arms on the table.
“Please you will excuse me,” he said softly, “But it is not comfortable for me to sit on a bench or chair the way your kind does.”
“N-no, I suppose it wouldn’t be comfortable,” she replied, unable to take her eyes off the creature.
“You have questions you would like me to answer?” She heard his voice in her ears and in her mind at the same time. She wasn’t altogether certain that his spoken words were what she really understood.
“Yes,” she said, and nervously consulted her notes. The interview began.
“Candy, we can’t use any of this for the playback on the late news. You’ll have to summarize what he said.” The frustration in the editor’s voice dismayed the reporter.
“None of it? But he was eloquent and answered the questions beautifully! What do you mean you can’t use it?”
“Have you listened to the tapes?”
“No, why would I? You are the editor. I just do the interview.”
“Candy, the creature didn’t speak. He sang. Or, it sort of sounds like singing. And he didn’t use words. I don’t know how you talked with him.”
“What do you mean, he didn’t use words? He spoke plainly and clearly. Everyone there heard him!”
“Watch the playback, Candy. Just watch it.”
Sighing with exasperation, the reporter nodded to the cameraman. He began the playback.
Moments later, Candy Olsen stalked away to create a summary of her interview with the creature. No one had taken notes. It was all being captured on camera, so there had been no need for notes.
“I’m going to miss you. I wish you wouldn’t go.”
“I will miss you, too, little one.”
“Why can’t you stay?”
“When I left my home no one believed I could come here. I have learned about your race and now I need to go back home and tell my people about you.”
“Who’s going to tell other people here about you, though?”
“The ones here who saw me and knew me will tell. They will tell the people they encounter, and those people will tell others.”
“No one believed you were real until they saw you. Once you’re gone no one will believe in you, either.”
The creature looked at the human child with sadness. “Whether or not the people who hear of me believe, those who saw me do. They know. You know.”
The little girl sighed. “What if your family and friends don’t believe you about us?” She felt Tishapus’s wry amusement.
“They probably won’t. Creatures with no tails? And intelligent creatures without horns? And the odd way your bodies are constructed? They will laugh at me and call me crazy.”
“Then why tell them?”
Tishapus thought for a moment.
“I will tell them because knowledge is good, and if our races ever meet for trade my people should understand you people’s customs.”
Katie was quiet. Then she asked, “Is that why so many of the grown-ups are going with you?”
“Yes. They want to know how to get to my people. And I think some of them still don’t believe that my people exist or that my home exists.”
“I want to come with you, too.”
“I would like that. When you are older, perhaps you can be the ambassador from your race to mine.”
Katie smiled. She hopped down from her perch on the swing and hugged Tishapus. He hugged her back.
The vehicles had been left behind when the road ended. A group of eight men and women hiked the mountainous trail with the creature called Tishapus. Mike and Beth Holden, who had hosted him, Bill Costello, who had defended him, Candy Olsen, who had interviewed him, Dr. Willard Handy, who had examined his mind, and Dr. Emma Jenner, who had examined his body were the friendly people along for the trip. Dennis O’Leary, who had never stopped doubting him and Freddy Carson, who had reported him as a suspicious vagrant to the authorities, were there to represent those who refused to believe what was plainly in front of them.
They were above the tree line and the terrain had become more difficult. As the group crested a ridge, there was an area that was fairly flat before a cliff face rose again. Tishapus headed for a cave opening in the cliff.
“I thought we might camp here for the night,” he explained.
Detective O’Leary snorted. “You’ve brought us all the way up here to camp out. How nice.” He had grumbled and complained the entire trek.
Bill Costello shook his head. “Give it a rest, O’Leary,” he said in disgust. “You’ll get your proof in the morning.”
Talking quietly among themselves the group began making camp.
After eating their dinner, the Holdens, Costello, and the two doctors sat near the cave entrance and played cards. O’Leary and Carson sat off by themselves talking quietly. Tishapus had wandered away from the campsite to the open terrain. Candy Olsen fidgeted with her camcorder, then walked the short distance to the creature.
“I hope I can film the city better than I could film you,” she said as she seated herself next to him.
Tishapus glanced at her and again she felt his amusement wash over her. His melancholy mood dampened it somewhat, though. “That will be a difficult experience to explain to my people,” he said.
Candy snorted. “It was difficult to explain to mine,” she agreed.
They sat quietly for a time, gazing at the flood of stars that just couldn’t be seen from populated places. “Do they look the same where you live?” The reporter asked.
“The stars are the same,” nodded Tishapus. “And they are just as difficult to see from my city as they are to see from yours.”
“I suppose that is a price civilization must pay.”
“One of many prices,” agreed the creature.
“What do you believe is the steepest price we pay to live in a society?”
“Is this another interview?”
The reporter laughed softly. “I seem to have a habit of asking questions.”
“Yes. But they are good questions.” Tishapus fell silent and Candy contented herself with soaking in the sounds and ambience of the night. An hour passed, then two. She was content to sit silently beside this strange creature.
“Acceptance,” said Tishapus.
“What are you talking about?”
“The steepest price we pay to live in a society. We give up acceptance.”
Candy thought for a moment. “Acceptance of what? Acceptance by whom?”
“Giving up the acceptance of what our senses tell us.”
Candy looked at Tishapus quizzically. “Who rejects what they see and hear?”
Waves of sadness washed over Candy, and she knew it was a projection from Tishapus.
“How many of your people who saw me accepted me immediately?”
Candy hesitated. There were so many who had claimed Tishapus was wearing a costume or that he was a trained animal performing for his handlers. Twice Tishapus had been asked to travel with a carnival because his “costuming” was so good. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not™ offered him a lifetime billeting as a permanent attraction at its main museum, with travel benefits and luxury accommodations when he would travel to its locations worldwide. Tishapus was a freak, a sideshow attraction. Very few people believed he was a member of a real species. At worst they referred to him as a mutant. At best, they called him deformed.
“It’s hard to accept what is strange to us, what we’ve never before seen,” she said aloud.
Tishapus nodded. “When we live in a group the group’s opinion matters. If the group thinks something is odd, wrong, or somehow unacceptable, then the individual will adopt the same opinion. It makes learning new things very difficult.”
“Do your people act this way, too?”
“My people will not believe me when I tell of my visit here. They believe that creatures such as yourself are the creatures of myth.”
“I wonder if it has always been this way.”
“I believe it has not. I believe when both of our species were younger, we accepted strange and unusual things with curiosity, not disbelief. I believe that we once accepted things more easily.”
“It’s a shame our civilizations have advanced so far, then,” Candy remarked. “One voice cannot change minds.”
“The individual’s opinion matters for nothing unless he can convince the group to agree. I cannot imagine that this is anything new. Even in a primitive society, the individual needs the cooperation of the group in order to survive.”
“‘No man is an island,’” quoted the reporter.
“An apt description. No, no individual can really survive alone. Our species are both very social species. So despite the evidence the individual sees, he must sometimes reject what he knows to be true in order to be accepted, or he risks being ostracized from his society, shunned or ridiculed for his nonsensical beliefs. He rejects the proof and reality of his senses for the acceptance of the group, because that is how individuals survive.”
Candy didn’t respond immediately.
“You’re talking about acceptance on many levels,” she finally said.
“Yes,” agreed Tishapus quietly.
When she sun’s first rays flooded the floor of the high ledge, Tishapus leaped up with a glad cry. Candy Olsen, who had fallen asleep sometime during her vigil with the creature, opened her eyes to a flash of brightness that was gone almost as soon as she sensed it, but which left behind an impression of golden minarets against a turquoise sky.
“Do you see? Do you see?” Bill Costello’s excitement was met by a gasp of “oh!” from Beth Holden, who walked dreamlike toward the rising sun, and by exclamations of “yes!” from Will Handy and Emma Jenner. Mike Holder said nothing, but in three strides had caught up with his wife, grasped her hand, and joined her eastward movement.
Then Tishapus was gone.
“I didn’t see anything,” announced Dennis O’Leary.
“Me, either,” groused Freddy Carson. “Let’s have breakfast and head back down the mountain. I guess Tishapus ran off in the night.”
On that Friday morning I was up early to pack. As soon as we could close the office and the shop, we wanted to be on the road. We weren’t sure where we’d head, but we had at least determined how we’d make the decision when the time came.
Richard and George were already gone to the shop by the time Desiree had her first cup of coffee. I dragged my duffle bag through the kitchen where she sat in her ratty bathrobe, yawning.
“We should close an hour early so we can go for last minute things like ice,” I suggested.
“Geez, Ara,” she said a little crossly. “You’d think you’d never been on a weekend trip before.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded. I hadn’t had any coffee at all yet, so I was a tad testy. Then again, it was easy to be testy around Desiree, who seemed to have the knack of finding fault with pretty much everything she encountered.
“It means chill out.”
“Yeah. We need ice to chill. And if we’re going to get somewhere decent before dark, we’ll want to leave just as soon as the guys can close the shop.”
After that prickly exchange I was a little gratified when Rich called the office mid-morning and told his wife that he and George had decided to leave the body shop in Derek’s capable hands around lunchtime. I recorded an “away” message for the office answering system and when the guys got home we loaded the bus and were ready to head out.
I opened the big Rand-McNally Road Atlas and flipped through a few pages. Following the agreed upon procedure, I held the atlas at arm’s length by one corner. Richard slid a finger between two pages somewhere in the middle of the book, and at the same time Deisree said “left.” We opened the Atlas and looked at the left-hand page.
“Hawaii?” snorted Richard. “We can’t drive to Hawaii!”
“Hawaii’s not the only thing on that page,” I pointed out. “Look at it. There’s a map of Atlanta, too.”
George, the designated driver for the first leg of the road trip, shifted the old bus into gear. “Hot-Lanta, here we come!” he grinned.
When we investigated the noise, it was Love at First Sight.
“Mine,” I said quickly, before the others had a chance to focus on it. They were still bleary from just having waked up, and I was alert, having been sitting at my computer adding esoteric cuts to my iTunes library during a bout of my regularly scheduled insomnia.
Des and Rich looked at each other. Rich shrugged. Des sighed and turned back toward bed, remembering to tug Richard along with her almost as an afterthought. “It’ll be hard to find the parts,” George commented. Then he scratched and yawned and followed them.
The next morning it was still Love. It was an ancient school bus, the humorously short variety, so old that it was barely still yellow. The trip over the ridge hadn’t hurt it much. It had landed on its side, but a little maneuvering with a chain and Rich’s wrecker and it was upright. It was a little lopsided, maybe, but it was upright. It was also off the Chrysler it had landed on.
Probably the best thing about operating a graveyard for cars was the fact that as soon as someone gave us their castoff, it became part of our inventory. The customary way for us to add to our collection was for someone to call us to haul away their heap of a wreck because it wouldn’t run and repairing it wasn’t worth it. We had to pay them a token amount for the value of the scrap metal, but we deducted the price of Rich towing it away.
Occasionally, though, someone just pushed the offending thing off the cliff on the north side of the car yard. However we acquired the inventory, it was ours to do with as we pleased. Normally Des would list each part still attached to the vehicle and enter it into the computer. There were special exceptions, though. George would pull some of the parts that were in high demand, but mostly just harvested bits and pieces for his garage and body shop. Some inventory was sold for the scrap metal.
The demand for parts from a 40-something year old school bus had to be practically nonexistent. As long as it could be made to run – and I had the utmost confidence in my brothers’ ability to make anything run that was motorized – this would be a free ride. Insuring it and fueling it would be the only cost to me.
Within a couple of months, the guys had it running and Des and I had it decorated. Richard had offered to paint it inside and out, but I liked the spotty yellowish shade the bus had become over its years. He covered the metal shell of the interior in a gleaming off-white that coordinated well with the latter-day hippie-type tapestry fabric I used to upholster the seats. Desiree and I carpeted the floors in a tasteful off-brown. George had made some of his creative modifications to the engine, which was now more fuel-efficient and quieter than when it had first been built. The automobile industry could learn a lot from my taciturn brother about mechanical improvements.
My one concession to interior modification was to remove the original student seats and install sleeper benches gleaned from a couple of RVs and a custom van. Oh, and the refrigerator, which George kindly hardwired into the modified electrical system. After all, what’s a road trip without liquid refreshment?
Next installment… Where shall we go?
The story you are about to read is the second in a series I’ve written and told to children all over the Little Rock area. Jack and I started creating this series more than ten years ago – when he was in preschool. When he was little I would bring his dinosaur figures to the schools and teach the children a little about dinosaurs, fossils, paleontology, and (dare I say it?) evolution. I have about 30 of these stories.
Read Tony the Good T. Rex first if you missed when I posted it. You will then understand who Tony is and why he lives with plant eaters.
Tony the Good T. Rex settled comfortably into his life in the plant-eater part of the dinosaur jungle. He spent his days playing with his new best friend, Pete the Iguanodon. Pete introduced Tony to other dinosaurs who lived in the peaceful jungle.
The other dinosaurs soon learned that Tony was a helpful dinosaur to have in the peaceful jungle. Whenever a meat-eating dinosaur stumbled into the plant-eaters’ part of the jungle, Tony would politely tell it to go away. If the meat-eater didn’t leave, then Tony would tell it to go away in a way that was not so polite. Tony was very popular among the dinosaurs of the jungle.
But the plant eaters always hid when they saw Tony. Unless Pete or one of Tony’s other friends was with him, the plant eaters couldn’t tell if the T. Rex walking down the path was their friend or an enemy. Tony was sad that his new friends would hide from him, but he understood. He didn’t want one of them to greet a T. Rex and get eaten accidentally.
One day when Tony and Pete were lying in a field watching the clouds, a huge dragonfly flew overhead. The dragonfly flew back and forth looking for a place to land. Like the animals of the days of dinosaurs, the bugs back then were really big, too. This dragonfly was huge.
Tony sat up to get a better look at the colorful creature.
The dragonfly landed on Tony’s big head. Tony shook his head to make the dragonfly fly away, but the huge bug wouldn’t leave.
“Hey!” complained Tony. “Don’t block my eyes! I can’t see!”
“Oops. Sorry about that,” said the dragonfly. She crawled a step or two higher on Tony’s forehead. “Is that better?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Tony. He stopped shaking his head so hard.
“You look like you are wearing a dragonfly hat,” Pete told Tony, laughing.
Tony just grinned his big T. Rex grin.
“Why are you sitting on Tony’s head?” asked Pete. He was a curious little Iguanodon.
“I’m tired,” the dragonfly explained. “I have been flying all day and I need to rest.” She settled himself more comfortably on Tony’s head.
“My name is Pete, and the dinosaur who head you’re sitting on is Tony the Good T. Rex,” said Pete. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Meganeura Monyi,” said the dragonfly. “Call me Meg. It’s easier to say.”
“Meg, will you do me a favor?” Tony asked the big dragonfly.
“If I can, I will,” said the giant bug.
“Can you scratch right above my left eye? I’ve had a terrible itch there for quite some time but I can’t reach it with these short little arms of mine.”
“Sure!” said Meg, and scratched Tony’s eyebrow.
“Ahhh, that’s feels great!” Tony sighed. “You are very helpful.”
Just then a group of Hypsilophodons wandered into the field of flowers looking for good things to eat. They say the big T. Rex across the field and waved at him cheerfully. “Hello, Tony!” they called, and came toward him.
Pete was surprised and sat up quickly.
“How did you know he was Tony and not a meat-eater?” he asked the little Hypsilophodons when they came closer.
One of the little dinosaurs laughed. “A meat-eating T. Rex would never allow a giant dragonfly to sit on his head like that!”
Pete looked thoughtfully at Tony and the dragonfly hat. “If you could wear a dragonfly hat all the time, no one would ever think you were a bad T. Rex,” he said.
“You’re right!” Tony exclaimed.
“I could use a place to rest,” said Meg.
“Would you like to always be able to rest on my head?” asked Tony.
“Sure!” Meg exclaimed. “Your head is a nice resting place.”
From that day forward, there was never any question that Tony was the T. Rex walking through the peaceful jungle. No meat-eating T. Rex would wear a dragonfly for a hat.
I was humming a little tune and adding a bit of water to the bouquet of six dozen pure white roses Tyme Traveler had sent me when the knock came on my office door.
“Come on in!” I called, turning to water the bouquet of six dozen blazing red roses my … ahem … sponsor, Ze Baron had sent me. ( I still haven’t taken delivery of the Partridge Family Bus, so he doesn’t completely own me yet.) I heard the door open and then close, but whoever entered had not said anything. “Yes?” I asked cheerfully, my back still to the door.
When there was still no answer, I turned around, hoping I wasn’t about to get Shanghaied by some angry Samoan father. I was relieved to see Susan, but my relief immediately changed to concern when I saw her trembling and noticed a tear plunging down her cheek.
“Oh, no!” I put the water pitcher down next to the six dozen pristine yellow roses Sir Agincourt had sent me and crossed the room to Susan, giving her a reassuring hug. “What’s is it, dear?” I asked, steering her by the elbow to the fainting couch near the window. She began to sob in earnest and I quickly mixed her a Margarita. “Tell Wenchy what’s wrong,” I encouraged, handing her a delicately embroidered, soft, linen hanky.
Susan’s sobs turned into sniffles as the Margarita began to work its magic and she was able to catch her breath.
“Oh, Wench! I’ve done the most terrible thing a Virgin can do!”
“Now, now, Susie.” I said soothingly. “You were one of the very first students to matriculate here at Wench’s Virgin Training School. You know there’s nothing we can’t fix.”
Inexplicably, she began sobbing again. I patted her shoulder and mixed my student another Margarita. I also went to the phone on my desk and called for Sherry and Silly. If anyone knew what was wrong with Susan, they would.
Sherry arrived first. “Uh-oh. I was afraid this might happen,” she said when she saw the shape Susan was in.
“Clue me in, then,” I requested. I was worried. Susan was inconsolable.
Silly arrived just then and drew up short. “What did that man do to her?” she exclaimed.
“Man?” I cocked an elegantly sculpted eyebrow. “No man has been authorized to have access to Susan.”
Silly’s eyes widened and she slapped her hand over her mouth. Sherry shook her head sadly.
“Susie, may I tell Wench what’s going on?” Sherry asked. Susan cried harder but nodded her permission. I looked at Sherry expectantly. Sherry sighed. “Mind if I have a Margarita? This isn’t going to be easy.”
I nodded and indicated the pitcher of drinks already mixed and waiting. Sherry poured one for me and one for Silly, then gulped one herself. She refilled her glass, sighed again, and began.
“Susan met the Encore Shooter a month or so ago, and the sparks were instantaneous. He’s asked her to move in with him.”
“Move in with him? But she has a home! Her FEMA trailer is gorgeously and tastefully decorated, and her SEALs are so devoted to her they’ve even done spectacular landscaping around it!” I was utterly mystified. Why in the world would Susan want to leave the school and her home? And then his name hit me.
“Wait a minute!” I yelped. “Encore Shooter?”
Sherry and Silly both nodded.
I dashed to my desk and began rifling papers. Aha! There was the letter I wanted!
“Encore Shooter wrote me last week asking if I would consider taking payment for a Virgin in some medium of exchange other than camels or oil wells. I nearly threw it away but kept it for a good laugh. I had no idea he already had a particular Virgin in mind!”
“He has had a particular Virgin in more than just his mind,” muttered Sherry.
“Excuse me?” Susan was sobbing so loudly at this point that I wasn’t sure I had heard Sherry correctly.
“They’ve been seeing each other in secret,” Silly offered hesitantly.
“Seeing each other…?” I was stunned. Dumbstruck.
“Unchaperoned,” confirmed Sherry with a tight nod of her head.
This was disaster. If one Virgin was going over the fence at night, what kind of example would this set for the others? Susan may be one of my favorite and best students, but this matter would have to be dealt with swiftly and firmly. Once again I picked up the telephone on my desk. I dialed the Twisted Wench Daiquiri Lounge. When Mad Diane LeDeux answered, I simply said, “We have a Situation. Please come to my office immediately.” The line went dead in my ear, but I knew Mad Diane was on her way.
“We obviously need to get this man here so we can discuss a price,” I said decisively to Sherry and Silly. “Do either of you know how to reach him quickly?”
To my chagrin, Susan actually was able to cry harder and louder. I rolled my eyes. Susan’s reaction to my question could only mean one thing. “Silly, go to Susan’s FEMA trailer. Have any men who are there, including her SEALs, come here to my office at once. And find Basser, too.” Silly ran to obey, the colorful silken veils of her harem outfit flapping behind her.
I turned my attention to the still-sobbing Susan. “Susan, pull yourself together. I’m going to deal with this situation, and it isn’t the end of the world. Have another drink.” I handed her a freshly topped-off Margarita. She gulped it and hiccuped.
Sherry sat beside her on the fainting couch and patted her had reassuringly. “Sus, I told you Wench wouldn’t get mad if you just told her the truth.” Sherry scolded her friend gently, and offered her a hanky that wasn’t nearly as sodden as the crumpled mess Susan was holding. Susan blew her nose loudly.
While Susan calmed herself I mixed another pitcher of Margaritas. Dealing with this situation was going to take much fortitude, and tequila is chock full of fortitude. Sherry and Susan murmured together quietly.
I settled myself comfortably on the divan across from them, drink in hand, and addressed Susan, who was still hiccuping but calm. “So tell me how it happened,” I commanded.
She glanced at Sherry for support and took a deep breath. “We actually met before the Virgin Training School opened. Just once, and in a crowd. There was nothing compromising about it at all. But then one day when Silly and I were shopping in the open-air market, I bumped into him again. Bumping into him was what did it. That physical contact….” A dreamy look came into her eyes.
“Obviously that one instance of physical contact isn’t what has you so upset,” I pointed out.
“Well, no. He asked for my phone number. Silly warned me not to do it, but I gave it to him. And he called. We met for dinner, and for a picnic, and more.” The dreamy look was back. “He’s so handsome, and so kind, and so funny, and so wonderful…”
I could tell that the adjectives would just keep coming ad nauseum, so I was relieved when Silly returned with Basser and Susan’s two assigned SEALs. A nice looking, tragically American man was with them, too. The SEALs appeared to have him in custody.
I stood and extended my hand for a kiss. “Encore Shooter, I presume?” He looked flustered, but knew what to do. Susan had either briefed him well or this man was indeed a true gentleman. I suspected the latter based on how quickly he seemed to assess the situation in my office.
“Mistress Wench, I have taken shameful advantage of Susan and I want nothing more than to make things right,” he said.
I was impressed. With his first words he had assumed responsibility and was offering compensation for the damage he had done.
“I’m listening,” I said evenly.
From his pocket the man produced a small box. He opened it. Inside was a gorgeous diamond ring. In spite of myself I let out a breath of awe. I am not easily awed by jewelry since I own some of the most sought-after jewels in the world. Nevertheless, the sparkle and brilliance of the stones, enhanced by a setting that would put Cartier to shame, amazed even me. I was about to reach for it when he turned and presented the ring to Susan.
“My darling Susan,” he said, falling to one knee, “I had intended to give you this ring in a different place and at a different time. I hope you know that it is the first of many rings to come. Will you be mine?”
Susan began crying all over again and fell into her swain’s arms. The SEALs started toward Encore Shooter but I waved them back. Basser and I exchanged a knowing look. Susan and her friend might be in a little trouble, but so were the SEALs, who had allowed a Virgin to be unchaperoned with a man. Their dereliction of duty seemed to have cost us one of our most valuable Virgins.
“Basser, I think your SEALs also have some explaining to do.”
Basser nodded. “Yep. They do. Boys, how’d you come to let a man into Susie’s FEMA trailer? I mean, Homeland Security is gonna come down on us like the Fred Murrah Building for this! What if he’d been a terrorist? What if he is a terrorist?” I could see that Basser was about to get really wound up, and I really wanted answers. I interrupted.
“Gentlemen, the reason we allow SEALs here at Wench’s Virgin Training School is to prevent men from entering the campus and stealing away our Virgins. It seems that a man has entered campus and a Virgin is about to leave with him. The Virgin in question was your responsibility. Please explain.”
Both SEALs turned a bit pinkish. The younger one hung his head. The older one cleared his throat. Just then, though, Mad Diane LeDeux arrived. The Flogger of Recalcitrant Virgins had made excellent time coming from the Twisted Wench Daiquiri Lounge.
“Diane, thank you for coming so quickly. I’m afraid we have an rather unusual disciplinary problem on our hands.”
Mad Diane grinned. She fondled the flogger she always carried in a special tool belt attached to her corset.
Yes, Susan has been allowed to leave with her man. I hear she has painted his living room “Buffalo” or some such color. The SEALs are unlikely to allow any more men on the premises just because they aren’t leading camels. Basser has made the SEAL training more rigorous, and fortunately we have escaped closer inspections by Homeland Security as a result.
Mad Diane had a wonderful time wielding her flogger on those four upturned bums. I couldn’t just allow Susan to leave with no punishment, after all, and her noble consort volunteered to undergo the same treatment when he saw how the punishment was administered.
Diane was rather rough with the SEALs, but it’s my understanding she took them back with her to the Twisted Wench Daiquiri Lounge after the experience, where they were each issued a Hot Bottom Wench in a standing position.