Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Four—The Raspberry Dream

The dawn chorus of larks and thrushes spinkeled, spattered and trilled. From far off there was a regular, steady thwack as a small boy all alone and bored idly hit a tree with a stick. His continuo offset outraged cawing as a flight of crows worried a homeward-heading owl to roost.

A curlew dived past a swath of sunlight—across, through, and out of sight beneath the riverbank. Last night’s frost boiled away from the brown sedge and seregrass, leaving last year’s winterkill flattened and wet. The sun, its energy at this hour dampened by its distance from the solstice, was building an illusion of nightfall, not sunrise—twilight on the moors—turning ground frost to steam and the steam to a clinging mist that hovered shoulder high. The Fata Morgana leaned far out to watch vapor traces boiling off a dilapidated hoarding that clung over a vertiginous plummet into the bailey, one hundred feet farther down. An array of scrofulous spikes cold hammered out of bog iron peeled their layers, showering walkers beneath with red rust flakes when the great ospreys shook its timbers with their landings. This year even the birds had given up on the hoarding. Soon it would fall.

Vertiginous, indeed. She allowed herself a shivery thrill at the heights. A momentary self-indulgence. There was no danger for her here. Not here and now. A wry smile. Falling into a moat was at this juncture not what occupied her. It was a long way to the ground just the same—130 old feet. The king’s foot. Old feet, old king. That she had not met the raisers of the castle was a regrettable oversight, too late now for a remedy. “Time—a silliness.” She shook her head to clear away the moisture from her eyes. “Childish. But I am not a child.” In her peripheral vision a pale, red-haired girl flickered and disappeared, leaving a slight tang of horse sweat and daisies. Who is this child? thought the goddess.

The Fata Morgana wrinkled her nose and shook her head again. The pretty girl, naked and with high-piled coiled red hair returned; she was astride a great chestnut horse. “Well!” said the Orange Virgin, “...if you are who I believe you are, I am certainly glad I felt the psychic wind of your passage and roused myself to give you a proper welcome.”

“If I am who you think I am, might you not have prevented ourselves from getting into this stuff all together and saved us both some inconvenience?”

“And who do you think I am, anyway, and while we’re moving right along my pretty, just who the hell might YOU be?”

The girl stood—straight, supple, young and beautiful. Her hair unbound falling to the horse’s withers. She crossed her arms at the wrists, holding them before her tiny breasts, a mythopoeic gesture the significance of which was not lost on the goddess. “I am the Fata Morgana.” The child giggled; her horse snorted.

“That’s nice. So am I. Glad to meet you. You are a phantasmagoria fashioned by the norns to plague my thinking. You are an aspect of myself. Go away.” The child faded; the horse was left browsing a patch of watercresses, then it too disappeared with an apologetic cough. The Fata Morgana breathed a saffron-scented sigh. Time and to spare, but for today I shall act my age.

At the tip of an eyelash a tear formed, glistened, and fell to the empty channel far below. The tear caught Morgana quite by surprise. Tears have their own reasons. She observed its downward spinning through the mist, the tear’s coiling descent a path that circled in against itself. The mechanics of its fall changed it from a tear to a sphere, turning the crystal pearl over and over in its flight, examining it as if for flaws. No flaws found, perfection prevailed and the last ten feet it dropped like a rock, inspected and approved, impact assured. The empty moat accepted her tear with a small splat. There is a photographic compression that cheats time with a single motion picture frame exposed at regular intervals that holds to scrutiny the mechanics of flight of a hovering bee, falling water, or the unfolding blossom hidden in a bud. This, of course, is not the real thing but a cinematic trick for the delectation of a posterity that should properly have better things to do during the leisure hours that follow good works. However, posterity doesn’t care.

Turning her gaze back to where the bird had disappeared under the bank, she followed the long rays of the rising sun where they made a trail in slate and muddy gold tones across the river. The ripples generated by the cobbled bottom of the spillway gave the reflection a look of ball-peened pewter with peeling appliqué gold leaf. The sun was higher now, the sky cloudless, all the makings of a fine spring day. The hour of deceptive shadows was done. The only indicators of the season were the white silhouettes where the trees of morning had left an imprint on the grass of their long sunrise shadows. The mist below thickened, ground fog becoming sea-smoke, gradually rolling by its own weight to fill the river and overflow its banks, gathering in coves and hollows. The fog settled, waiting for the sun to burn it away. She stretched deliciously, feeling the sun. It was warming up nicely.

The curlew reappeared about its business.

“Welcome to the cosmic capitol, Master Bird,” she called, “You will be happy here.”

She was the Fata Morgana, Queen Mother of the World, and had built herself a love slave to assuage the lonely days. A handsome piece of work if she did say so herself—wide of shoulder, slim of waist, courteous, considerate, quick to restoke and deferential even when spent, a comely dream of passion fit to set mortal pulses pounding no less than hers. Not human and yet not of the gods, his discretion was guaranteed for at night she simply turned him off. But it was too easy—a household appliance, one would have hoped for more in a lover.

“I have been too indulgent. Why do I have these concerns at being caught out with a gigolo? I make the rules. Such amorous thrashings-about as we have had, it were a pity to tie my enthusiastic stud in a sack and drown him in the moat. But no, the moat is dry and word would get about, and how could I face them then, eh? To put my darling in a sack, which it seems is what I am about, would appear mean-spirited. There has got to be a better way.”

She spoke to no one, to clear her mind. Her pretty had to go but she could not bear to part with him. At her feet a vortex of light snow developed. Flurries swirled around her as she set her feet up the rocky path. “The snow will kill my raspberries. Enough, I have done enough for today.”

Morgana walked until twilight, an aimless meander. As her mood softened, the snow no longer followed her. The grasses and flowering plants straightened and bloomed as she passed but she perceived this only at the margins of her mind. When a twisted linden tree appeared for a third time, she realized she was retracing a circular route. The path wound up a ridge ascending to the base of one of the castle’s great supporting plinths. A clustering of peat and thatch cottages nestled on the far side of a gully. Morgana paused to eavesdrop as a mother and child studied the darkening sky. The young one was working hard at staying up later than usual.

Morgana gently touched the child’s mind. It was past her bedtime. She was watching the sky for a sign, hoping to stay up for another hour.

“Ohh, mommy, look.” A bright blossoming flared and faded past her finger’s end.

“A star exploding.” The woman had been a mother many times over many years. The night sky held no new wonders for her. “They do it all the time. Come to bed.”

The child had to think quickly. “A minute more, please. I am looking for the V of the eidolons.”

The Fata Morgana touched the mind of the mother. Everyday weariness and a gentle concern. She calmed the mother with pride at her wise child.

The mother peered into the afterglow left by an expired galaxy. “Silly girl.” A pause. “What is an eidolon?” Eidolon. A new word from school. The little ones were ever bringing home new things; it was hard keeping up.

“They are the wild flying pigs of time, unwinding the stars.” The two sat together in the deepening dark, watching the sky for flying pigs.

A wiser child than mine—chalk one up for inventiveness, thought the Queen of Heaven. I like that child, though her imagination hardly beggars reality. The Queen of Heaven leaped the little ravine. The sound of her landing startled the two and they jumped to their feet, then bowed deeply.

“Just getting some air. There is wisdom in the stars. Study them well.”

“Yes my Lady.”

Turning her back, Morgana hunted for the cobbled footpath she knew was somewhere about. She followed it through twisting switchbacks to the castle’s foundations where a sally port door was left unlatched. She slammed it behind her and stalked to her suite of rooms.

“I must exact retribution for the death of my sacred swine.” The statement sounded harsh and bloody left ringing in her ears. She had been out of practice with summary doomsaying these millennia past. “Ah, there, my dear, do you mean exact in the sense of precise or are we back to a mass distribution of wrath and let the undertakers sort out the guilty parties. Let us take stock. To date this day, I have lost a pig I had never met. I stood and wheedled two graceless tinkers to do my bidding—’your rigmarole, my Lady; we trust you find it impressive, we would rather play in the dirt.’ Waiting for me at home is an empty-eyed son and lover, my toy who makes me feel foolish and I must destroy. My yearnings for him are a riddle wrapped in a conundrum. He is so easily swept away: ‘Destroy the toy,’ I snap my fingers and he is dead and I am not satisfied. I shuffle my feet and he is alive again, but I am still not gladdened as are the giggling little parlormaids—’A handsome man stands dancing in the mansion, Ma’am.’ They become snippy, delighting in their pretty turns of phrase as they do in their pretty ankles. Home again, home again, jiggedy-jig. Morgana the Queen and her magical pig. Huh! What would they make of that? What do I make of that? Things are becoming more complicated than at any time in the past twelve thousand years. Life has been too simple for me. Cabbages, red kale, onions and the laundry have been my preoccupations. I ask and yet I get no answers. It used to be so easy.

“I must ask myself—self, has someone back where I come from reinstituted my worship on her own hook and without a by-your-leave? I must find her to thank her or destroy her. Or him, though that would be a disappointment. More destruction. Hmm—makes sense today, but then it always does. Aren’t we getting all bloody-minded?”

The Queen of Heaven grumped about the castle, content to let matters slide. In a week, Lamprey and Tawse showed up at the quartermaster’s, requisitioned spools of wire and headed to the cellars.

*  *  *

The next day, the Queen of Heaven tended her garden, metaphorically, for her preoccupation was indeed with beauty. She spoke to a man, tall and slender, with all the lineaments of male beauty, childishly eager to please though with an absent look about the eyes.

“To have you stalking the halls, my pet, will surely improve the lubricity hereabouts, but nothing would get done. I’m sure you understand.” She suppressed a feeling of irritability as she caught herself explaining herself.

“Indubitably, my Queen,” came a mellifluous baritone, “Your reasoning, as your beauty, is beyond dispute.” Handsome and vacuous, he stood naked at her side. Fair, thin, translucent skin showed off a lean, corded musculature that invited the touch. Morgana ran a moistened fingertip from his chest to where a fresh tumescence was already beginning.

“No,” She caught herself. “Enough is enough. I’m sorry, but you’ve got to go.” She traced again her finger’s path from a nipple to his groin, pausing to fondle perfectly molded buttocks. All the inviting hollows and protuberances, recycled back to atomic numbers. It did seem a waste.

“Wanna fuck?” her child of clay asked hopefully.

“No, not now darling. Hush, mother is thinking.” Conversation was not his métier, but with such an endowment words were superfluous. She had had a bad time with consorts blessed with a quickness of wit and quip. They demonstrated an annoying proclivity to want to move in and take over. Morgana was prepared to return her lover’s constituent parts to their respective places in the periodic table of the elements when a passing regret stayed her hand.

“Barefoot and poignant, thus was it ever,” sighed the Orange Virgin. “I have discovered feelings for you, and shall not run you through the dispose-all after all.”

“Thank you my Lady.”

“Oh think nothing of it. As a matter of fact, think nothing at all. Forget me, forget everything. You are embarrassing to have around. Go stand in the corner till I figure what to do with you. Come here first.”

“I am here, my Lady.” The deference might have contained a spark of wit.

“Your skin.”

“My Lady?”

“Your skin, my pet, that integument that your beauty is only as deep as. I would touch it once more ere I turn you off. If only I had made you lobulose and jowly, I could do away with you in a moment. But then you are not lobulose and jowly, for in my inscrutability I have made you more than I intended. I have developed an attachment for you and must look inside myself to discover why. I am deep indeed, for how may I question my own ways?”

A caress followed by a lightly sketched gesture of dismissal, and the golem strode to a corner, to become furniture.

“Did the mechanisms of sacrifice appear in a dream? How did the pig announce itself to my priestess? ‘Pardon me, here is my pedigree, I am dedicated to the Lady of the Wild Things, please kill me now.’ Highly doubtful. Anyway, I have done no dream-sendings. This was a part of the covenant when I went away.

“Enough of conjecturing,” she announced to the naked backside of her silent lover, “the time has come for thinking.” She poked up the coals in an incense brazier, added charcoal, and put a kettle on to boil. She crumbled dried leaves of raspberry in the fire and dropped a handful into the pot. When the water had boiled, she threw herself into a chair and put her feet up on the table, breathing in fumes of the raspberry tea.

“Whoever this priest or priestess is who is calling me, one assumes he has a reason. Aha! It is a he... getting my feet up with a cup of tea was always an efficacious maneuver. Let us let my hair down.”

She straightened, pulled the pins from her hair and let it fall free, then settled back, her feet again on the table.

“We are also divining your future, too, old stud. You might show some interest.” Her lover stared impassively at the wall. “But, of course, you are silent. This is proper.”

She sipped at the steaming cup and fell into the half-sleep of raspberry dreams.

Some minutes passed. When she looked up, the puzzle had deepened.

Almost certainly my priest is a man, gray-haired and wise beyond his great age.” There was something wrong with this picture. She again sipped the tea. “Oh, not wise, then. But an athlete, a hero, and fallen on hard times. I am disappointed my priest is a man. It must be women have lost the knack since I departed. This will require some looking into. Gray-haired and wise then, a canny conjuror. But a fool. These are confusing signals. And why is he calling me? There must be a reason.”

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