Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Fourteen—Nowhere Again

In a dusty underground of sentient stones, at a branching of the way where three heads waited, the Orange Virgin squatted on her heels and stared ahead in the dimly illuminated underground dark, her eyes rolled back so that only the whites showed. After a pause that consumed the transit of one of her world’s tiny moons, she snapped to. “Done. I have recruited my priestess.” Her pupils dropped back into focus. “Now where was I? Yes, our young Biff. You will watch him—one of you—and be his cicerone.”

“A baby sitter?” The Manticore.

“Yes, a baby sitter—you, since you have just volunteered.”

“But...”

The Orange Virgin dismissed the Manticore. “And would you mind leaving through the kitchen? They’re draining the moat today.” The Manticore stepped forward out of the masonry wall. There was a creak as of never-used muscles being called into play as he attempted to swivel his head; he shook his back feet wonderingly. “Make it snappy.” The audience was declared over and the Manticore shuffled off.

“What about us?” There were now two heads left at the pendentive where the arches met deep below the castle.

“Yes. What about you. I will take your status under consideration. Silence, please. I need to think. I have just had a wearying day in the world of advertising and public relations.” The Cow and the Goat were stone once more. A day passed, perhaps two with their connecting night, and the Fata Morgana, Lady of the Wild Things, Orange Virgin, etc., etc. was quiet for several whiles, whiles that perhaps stretched to fill geologic times. A spider, adventurous, crept across her nose.

*  *  *

It was a rainy, drippy day. It had been overcast for weeks with a vagrant glimpse of the sun only in the late afternoons. Moss and lichens were thriving on the shingling of the out buildings, strange fungi clogged the drains. In the kitchens of the Dancing Lords, the fires were kept burning night and day in the great ovens. Three families of woodcutters were kept busy manufacturing fuel. The castle keep was busy all the year even in the dry season. The castle was old. So old that some speculated that it had never even been built, but had always been there by the river.

The river was the reason for the fires. The river and its constant damp, the morning miasmas that clogged the lungs and fooled the vision, playing tricks with perspective, making near things far and far things near. The climate was free of cruel winters and blistering summer heats. The river was why the castle of the Dancing Lords was someday likely to fall down, why the constant fires in the great ovens burned whatever the season. Centuries of unrelenting damp had leached the lime from the mortar. What remained of the cement the original builders had slathered between the rows of basaltic blocks leveling their courses had turned to sand.

His passage mirrored in a hanging dangle of polished copper bottoms, the Manticore threaded through aisles of glistening enamel. The Manticore’s jiggling image passed from pan to pan where they hung at their iron reticules, depended by chains from a ceiling beam thirty feet above. A breath of air would set them moving, a runaway cacophony of colliding utensils—a tinker’s wagon careening downhill. But today there was not a breath of air sufficient to stir them. A cloud of vapor hung trapped three feet from the ceiling, a viscous caulk squeezed from the pastry tube of kitchen weather: cloudy today, and continued humid. A spectacle of glittering implements—steel, iron, tin and aluminum, quarts, gallons, missionary cauldrons, runcible spoons, shirers, boilers, broilers and basters, colanders, ewers, forcemeat forms, pâté molds, sieves, lids and ladles. Fluted tin forms braided like the innards of a mollusk’s abandoned husk awaited gelatin confections, larding needles languished for a loin of pork. A shelf of ceramic rabbits awaited their pâté masquerade.

The Manticore blended well in the kitchens; the toilers and the peelers, boilers and slicers deferred to him. He made his way through the culinary clutter, passing easy banter with the workers, who saw him as one of themselves. Nothing out of the ordinary.

That the scullions, sous-chefs, peelers and broilers, the stokers of the ovens might have seen in him a figment from tales told by legions of cautionary grandmothers, a terror of nighttime fevers, did not occur to the Manticore, for he had seldom visited abroad in the days of the Dancing Lords. What the kitcheners, deep with sweat, wood smoke and the spatterings of hot oil, saw was a man, tall, black and elegant: a quartermaster minor, come to count onions or lash the recalcitrant stoker to greater effort. A not unusual sight in the days of the Dancing Lords.

“Better get a move on.” The Manticore picked up speed, scuttling on all fours, claws rattling the tiles, quills extended from the ruff at his neck. Where he had passed the work continued unconcernedly. The Manticore was indifferent to the guises of chopped liver and salmon with herbs.

“Pâté-cake, pâté-cake,” hummed the Manticore tunelessly under his breath. He wished he had a smoke with him. The Manticore thought of the Cow and the Goat, but kept his peace. There was no need at this juncture to muddy the murky waters of their uncomplicated minds. Where had they ever been, after all? They were stiff as salt cod and still stuck in the cellar wall, after all. And here he was, experiencing life, out in the world. The Manticore was sensitive about returning to the status of an architectural ornament.

“Oops!” The Manticore had spun around a corner and ran into a great oak refectory table. His forward momentum wedged him under the table and, when he tried to back out, his quills were caught. He wrenched his head from side to side and felt a quick agony as quills tore free and hung quivering in the underside of the table.

The Manticore lashed his spiked tail and splinters flew from the nearest table leg, a plinth as thick as the trunk of a 200-year-old tree, which indeed it was, carved and fluted, black with age and grimed with oil and soot from the kitchen furnaces. Now the tail was stuck, driven deep into the buttressing column.

He was trapped. Further struggles only drove his venomous tail and ruff of quills deeper into thick quarter-sawn planking.

*  *  *

In an infant universe busily defining itself, much time had passed. The duck had left and then returned, a measure of these things. The Fata Morgana floated in a well of his intent, probing.

“You’re back.”

“I’m back.”

“Haven’t been hitting the raspberry again, have you, my love?”

“I am fact finding. I seek knowledge, not wisdom.”

“This is good; I am not up to a raspberry interview. Linda Winkelman.”

“What. Who?”

“Do not be coy, my Old-and-Rare. Coyness does not become Queen Rhea who hatched herself from the Egg of the World. Linda Winkelman. The name of your priestess. You have found her, split her, and hidden her duplicate at the edges of the human universe. I have loved you, my dear, but never trusted you. So, you were determined to come over, eh? Mi casa su casa, but I shall have counted the towels and put my initials on the silver before you are welcome here.”

“You would never allow me back without some handicap.”

“I would demand some concession on your part. About your appearance.”

“I’m prettier than you. You’re jealous. This is a ground we covered millennia past. What is it this time? You want me to have three heads and snakes for hair? Spare me the Bullfinch, my Leviathan.”

“I feel a certain responsibility, a dedication to the mental health of my, uh... constituents. It wouldn’t do to have you frightening them out of their wits with an evocation from their race memory. Can’t have it, y’know: Mama Molasses popping up and making a stimmis. Simply wouldn’t do, not at all. So these are my conditions: you may come over to troubleshoot, but no proselytizing. The status quo has been good to me. The status quo ante... well, it speaks for itself. Disorganized, what? All blood, ignorance and mumbo-jumbo. Gotta keep a lid on things.”

“I will be able to speak.”

“You shall, my cupcake. And to demonstrate that my heart is in the right place, I have allowed some randomness to enter the mix. In the tracking down of this self-anointed provocateur who is murdering your prize porkers, you are doing holy work, of benefit to us both. You will be yourself, intermittently, and at times unexpected and of limited duration. Just to keep you on your toes.”

The goddess stared at a speck somewhere in the middle distance and, keeping her anger under control, calculated Pi to eight thousand places. “Pi,” said the serenely beautiful one. El looked startled. "Irrational and transcendent, the number. Much as you and I, it just goes on. And now it is expected I should demonstrate humility at your generous open-handedness?”

“That I would expect from a robot or dancing chicken. You, Morgana-mine, are cut from a finer thread. We have a certain elegance, you and I. Otherwise, what were we? Just dried peas rattling about in their pods. If this were something important I would perhaps give it my personal attention. But...”

“If I may reframe what you just said, you don’t know what to do, correct?”

“Obviously. If I knew I wouldn’t be talking to you, now would I? Silly girl. Run along and perform great works. We expect great things from you.”

“But you don’t know just what.”

“Precisely. You are catching on. Come on over by all means, my dear. It has been simply eons. I notice that you have kept your figure. Attention to the little things—discipline, I admire that. But you are not enthusiastic. Have you ever asked yourself why you can perform more of what your human charges call ‘miraculous’ in your venue than I can in mine? Because they have defined you less. I am hobbled by ritual and usage.”

“Poor demiurge. What would you have—the two of us charging in like the cavalry? Science does not smile on simultaneity; denying basic physics is lethal to gods and men alike.”

“Nononono, my pet. Connivance and manipulation instead of intimidation. It’s the wave of the future; believe me, you’ll learn to love it. Admittedly, working through human agency is a tricky business. They are a pettifogging lot. I shall willingly withdraw. For a time. There are things that need to get done and you need a change, and I’ve got just the place for you. Here you are always welcome. Why let our irreconcilable hostilities drive a wedge between us?”

*  *  *

Seated in the dust of her cellar, the Fata Morgana blinked her eyes. A spider had woven a web connecting the tip of her nose to the horns of the Cow. Satisfied, she rose and transferred a kiss from her fingertips to the nose of the Cow, then the nose of the Goat.

“Fare-thee-well, friends. Keep my secrets. We go to perform great works.”

The Goat’s lugubrious striped vanilla tongue lay across the floor; the Cow’s blind eyes stared at nothing.

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