Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Thirty—King Stilt-walker and the Queen

Balances were balancing... poise, then counterpoise. Tensions delicately held together what all good sense said should fly apart. The Fata Morgana stared into the rising sun as an incoming tide rippled loose fronds of kelp and bladderweed between the pilings below. She watched the flight of a bird, a bird freighted with a tiny cargo—one soul. She inhaled deeply—through her nostrils, retrieving a melody—and lightly hummed a ditty from one of the pentatonic modes. She snuffed out a cigarette with the heel of her hiking boot.

“Times and places change, not faces. Here I have accomplished something so stupendous, touching the unborn for millennia to come, and there is nobody left on stage but me who knows just what happened. Some congratulations are in order. So I shall congratulate myself. Thank you, Queen of Heaven. ‘Oh, it was nothing,’ I reply, self-effacing as ever.”

A wry smile wrinkled her nose. “And the tyranny the living exercise over the non-living will continue and be called ‘History.’”

A blue heron flew in, settled below on the freshly exposed mud, whiffling about for his dinner.

“What about you, King Stilt-walker?” She asked of the bird. “Are you not impressed with this good morning’s good work?” Eager after little things, the bird strutted on the mud, long spindly legs and knobbly knees, wings folded in a floorwalker posture, and ignored the Queen of Heaven. “Correct as always, Blue Walker, business as usual. Your reply falls not short of the mark. You are accurate if not deferential.”

Sitting on her heels, the Queen of Heaven removed a pebble from where it had wedged in the welt at the tip of a boot, setting it beside her on the chemical green decking. Behind her, and inside the diner called EAT, the disappointed lawmen sat at the counter. “What fools these mortals be,” she quoted Puck, the Comics Weekly man, letting fall some few forensic tears to her checkered flannel vest.

Champion and Everlast were constables of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Gendarmerie Royale du Canada, yellow-stripers. Their mothers called them Ed Hurley and Etienne Cyr , and it was as Ed Hurley and Etienne Cyr they were recognized by Canada Post, who brought them Christmas cards and catalogs and carried away their income taxes.

Quigley, the Maine state trooper, was spinning the same Canadian dollar coin. “You Canadians make pretty money.”

“We spend it here,” said Everlast. “And don’t forget hockey.”

“Ohhh, shit!” Quigley groaned and pounded his fist on the counter.

“Faretheewell, my little ones,” was the Fata Morgana’s whispered investiture to her departed tears. The evocation carried an allusion not lost upon the tiny falling pearls, thence to evaporate into the world of foolish men. Lifting one diminished teardrop by the tip of a perfect finger, the goddess traced a pattern among the yellow strawflowers of the restaurant’s wallpaper. Bright paint, bright wallpaper, bright colors, a song of joy to the eyes, she thought and was pleased. All through the bleak, unrelenting monochromal sameness of winter, they celebrate me with the colors of spring. “You little sisters are the last I shall weep for men on this world of mine,” was her valediction to the departed tear, a farewell to one crystal pearl of compassion. “Midsummer Night’s Dream, my dainty droplets. Am I not indeed a Shakespeare quoter, quotha?” Morgana giggled. “Or perhaps a spearshaker, a wagglestaffer, a buxom enchantress who knows not poppycock from floppycock. Ohhh! How ribald I have become! Go girls—make your sacrifice—and hurry to join your sisters in the River of the World.”

Picking up the phrase as it nudged affectionately at his mind, Champion gestured expansively. “That ocean out there,” he expostulated, “Is the River of the World.”

“Oh Jesus, not you, too,” said Quigley, giving the dollar coin with the bird on its backside an extra hard flick, propelling it over the edge of the counter. All motion ceased, everywhere—the rush of blood through capillaries, the bell clapper hung frozen in mid-stroke, or an assassin’s bullet flattened out against a well of onrushing air.

The Queen of Heaven strode to the edge of a mooring on posts above the bay, and reached out to retrieve the loonie in mid-flight. Life began anew “Oh Womb of the Universe, give me strength that this throw be true.” Pulling the pins from her coiled hair, she shook loose the nine three-stranded braids to fall free below her waist. Deity does not have bad hair days. Nonetheless, this had been a day to rattle the attics of infinity—a very bad hair day all round.

“Gaia, take this sucker out of the park!” cried the goddess. With a twist of her shoulders, elbow high and lined with her ear, hip and elbow snapped together, her whole body a catapult, in the best form of the international fast pitch softball leagues. “Oh bird of men, castoff of these grim ganymedes, fly for me. Fly now, oh shining loon. Fly and confuse the eidolons, and by your flight, oh bird of circumstance, save for me this green world where I have shed so many tears.”

Through the filtered light and long shadows, the Orange Virgin kicked off her hiking boots and, peeling down wooly socks, wiggled her toes over the edge. Red checked plaid, she worried a king size filter single-handed from her pack as she undid long coils of braid. She flicked her fingers, the cigarette glowed. I am satisfied, but I feel no joy. She sat thus long silent minutes in the shortening shadows. Then, stubbing out her smoke, she rose and smiled a knowing smile. A trick of the light surely, the years fell from her as she shook the weight of grey and auburn from its loosely woven caul.

On the shore, a beautiful child stood above the retreating tide, likewise shaking loose long hair to fall free to her waist. Distant crows rattled at the heightening dawn and reminded the Fata Morgana of home. And where is that? she thought. There was a clattering of implements and the child struggled out the catwalk to the end of the quay. The girl, lugging cleaning gear, looked up, smiled and hurried over radiating a look of guileless innocence.

“Hail, sister. Passing through?”

“I fancy so, sister, if you will let me pass. Are you helping or hindering?”

“I am helping myself, sister, if it please you.”

The child was carrying a vacuum cleaner, a mop and bucket. “I say, you certainly had the staff scared off. I’m doing a bit of neatening—the new regime and all that.”

“If you mean you are the Orange Virgin now, there’s no need to be shy; I do not grudge you that. You might have simply wished the dust elsewhere.”

The Wise Child shrugged and set the vacuum down. “Not bloody likely. It takes all the concentration I can muster simply to keep hanging on. And how fares it then with you, sister?” The child turned and stooped to set an armload of hose attachments next to the vacuum canister. A big, ugly black and blue contusion bulged around one eye. “We are not proof to collateral abuse, you nor I.” The side of her face that had been turned away carried the souvenir of a fierce blow: a bloom of flushed, swollen skin shot with prominent veins crept out around an impromptu bandage seeped through with yellowish fluid. The bandage covered whatever damage had been done to an ear. The Fata Morgana let out a gasp. This was unexpected.

“Colorful, isn’t it?” said the Wise Child. “Would you believe I ran into a door?” A glimmer of humor shone past an eyelid all but swollen shut.

“Who dared do this to you?”

The Wise Child lifted her thin shoulders. “One much as you—a promising hegemon who, like you, underestimated me. I turned a stormy trick. Oh, you should see the other guy. And that is where we’re off to.”

The Morgana touched the child’s shoulder with her hand, allowing it to rest there, gently, then withdrawing it.

The child touched her mother’s forehead and peered deeply into her golden eyes. “There is no bitterness there.”

“No. Becoming mortal at this time has much to recommend it. You are in place, strong and vital. The only way to find out if my assessment of events is correct was to weaken myself to the point of no return. I am resigned to that path. Also because it is the only available path.” The shadow Morgana smoothed the child’s hair on her unwounded side. “This ‘New Regime’ of yours—the phrase has the ring of a museum docent. Might you be accepting day-trippers to defray upkeep?”

The Wise Child grinned broadly and picked up the vacuum cleaner.

The Fata Morgana smoked quietly, reflectively, treasuring her time alone in the quiet. “So this is victory—a moment to myself then business as usual for me too, hi-de-ho.” She was regretful for Linda, her priestess. But with the advent of the scattered bits and pieces of Linda’s soul known as Maggie in the life of Pen Harrington, it had been her time; two Linda Winkelmans were too many. She had to make room for there was a new arrival and the world—this particular tiny piece of creation—wanted room. Humans, so shackled by time, remember only the past and had no memory of things yet to come. Linda’s husband would have been done with his apprenticeship by now—whenever now was. “I wonder what he might make of Lamprey and Tawse. And the Manticore. I shall have to rearrange things to find out.”

“Harry Pease.” A sigh as she exhaled a single stream of blue smoke into the light. The light of a dawn that almost wasn’t thought Morgana. Well, I deserve something nice, too. Harry could keep the recollections of forgotten Cleon company. Cleon, old King Cleon. We had some times together, he and I. Not a bad sort, really. She paused to stare down through the decking at the mud flats thirty feet below. A mosaic of bottle caps spun off by the supple wrists of summer picnickers regarded her in turn.

There was something important missing from the scene. Heavy flower stalks of blue and pink. Lupines—where are the lupines? With a setting in New England I would have just naturally supposed... But now it was too late in the season. No lupines, no daffodils.

Darkness defied the dawn and a silent presence made her start.

“Must you creep about like that? You startled me. Now I have lost my train.” A rift opened in the night and a good-humored grin exposed rows of perfect opalescent teeth. From behind his back he produced a pot of daffodils.

“Flowers for remembrance, Morgana?”

“Have you been there all this time?”

Wide of shoulder, lean of hip, glistening blackness made an obligation, a deep salaam. “My Lady?”

“El. Sky demon, sometimes you piss me off with your sneakings-about. Next time make some noise—clear your throat or something. And allow me to compliment you on your fine shiner.”

The demiurge touched his forehead and winced. It bore the imprint of a mop handle. “It is my pleasure to serve the Queen of Heaven, Lady.”

“Your punctilio is appreciated” Dark as forgetfulness, the godling of the new dispensation waited attentively, suggesting unfinished business. White sow of Naxos, was she that easily read? “‘...and the calabash of these human lives will yet spill...’ oh spare me your hyperbole, Prime Mover immovable, albeit dented. We have lost some, but it is the living who must be served. I have cried for the innocents and they live again, although by rights their passings should have been of no more consequence than tame fish in an aquarium.”

“And the Mountie who dreamed of dancing—he, too is dead? You will excuse me for I have been away.”

“No, the Canadian policeman is inside, holding with the rest his frozen moment for our need. After this day’s work, for him there will be no dancing. But he dreamed, and for some that will have to be enough.”

“And what of the husband of your priestess? Will he be happy?”

“Happy happy happy happy. Is that all you can say?”

“Your Marvellousness is as ever a stickler after details. What about the golem, your child of chaos made from the clay of another world?”

“Slice me no circuitous obloquies, either bright prince. The golem’s apron would tie nicely round your divine girth as well. The child, Biff Bangtree, will be well.” She smiled a secret smile. “I have things, ahh... arranged. Peel me some fact from your roll of rhetoric. Simple declarative sentences, please.”

“Well, Lady, we have saved the world. I was curious, is all.”

“And that, O Rider on the Storm, will be enough, for now it is ours, together—a mutual glory, and we are stuck with it.”

“You were endearing as a pig, you know...”

As Morgana and the demiurge turned to go inside, more coffee and second breakfasts in the forefront of their preoccupations, she willed a hillside of blooming blue lupines and was pleased. Let them wonder.

L’envoi

David Morrissey came boiling around the corner all arms and legs, caromed off the doorpost and skidded to a stop in front of Harry Profitt Pease. He produced a cigar.

“Guess what.” Harry was lifted off the floor and swung in a bear hug.

“Guess uhnnn,” Harry repeated as the breath was squeezed from his lungs.

“It’s an embryo. I mean Maija and I just, well not we so much as she... we never thought at our age and all; but the doctor says its perfectly normal and mother and child are outrageously healthy and we had an amniocentesis, and... and...” He thrust the cigar, cellophane and all into Harry’s mouth. “Second trimester.”

Harry found speech difficult with his arms pinioned and his mouth full. When he could remove the cigar, he spoke. “This is important to you.”

“It means the world, we never dreamed.”

“And the tests show it will be a boy.”

“Correct.”

“Call him Biff, you can make up the rest as you go along.”

“Biff? We thought maybe George—Mister Amberson?—Maija’s father...”

“Biff.” Harry peeled the cellophane wrapper and lit up. “He’ll tell you all about it when he grows up.”

*  *  *

In the days of old the gods had the whole earth distributed among them by allotment. There was no quarrelling, for you cannot rightly suppose that the gods did not know what was proper for each of them to have, or, knowing this, that they would seek to procure for themselves by contention that which more properly belonged to others.

CRITIAS―Plato, 360 BC, translated by Benjamin Jowett

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