Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Twenty-four—An Infusion of Orrisroot

“Are we communicating a sense of abandonment?” said the pig. Harry’s shoulders slumped as he watched David’s Volvo become smaller as it wound its way down the hill. He clutched at a loaf of Old Country Rye and a brick of Velveeta he had torn open with his teeth.

“Hmm, fear and hunger predominate. Those we can deal with. Food first. Hungry?” When she spoke he cringed. “Won’t listen to reason, eh?” Grasping his ankle with her teeth the pig dragged him to the house. “Harry, I’m still me, you know. You are getting the look of a hunted creature. Believe me, I am no threat.” Morgana licked his nose and looked in his eyes.

“Your voice. It reminds me of Lauren Bacall,” said Harry.

“Oh, you are just in a fine old state. Have a drink, forget it.” She wrinkled her brow and the door of a cabinet of distilled spirits swung open invitingly.

“Well?”

Harry cowered at her voice, protecting his food. Large eyes switched from her to the Velveeta to the liquor.

“You are hardly a fountain of information. Trust me, Harry.”

Harry’s eyes grew crafty, swiveling between her and the cabinet.

“Suppose I turn my back. Have a drink, then we’ll talk. Only one, mind, it’s going to have to last. Have a nice party solo, then we’ll have one together.” Morgana the spotted pig left, bumping the door closed with her hindquarters. On the porch she paused, listening. There were furtive movements and the clink of glass. Satisfied, she nosed the door open and entered. Harry was pacing, glass in hand.

“I am on a quest, Harry, I spoke the truth, but it is not what I thought when I began this adventure.”

“What did you think it was?”

“There, that’s more like the old you; I won’t bite, you know. Your death: immediate and terrible. This is no longer on the menu.”

“My... death.”

“Well, there, I have let the cat out of the bag; isn’t that me all over? The beatitudes of Biff: I have compromised your happy ignorance by countermanding a peril you did not dream existed and then thoughtlessly explaining it all to you. I forget people have feelings, too. Yes, your death, though I had planned something modern and deliciously psychopathic for you, Harry. You should be flattered. Like chopping you in little bits and flushing you out to sea—these are my little ways.”

Draining his glass, Harry picked up his basketball where it lay deflated on the bureau and reached for the bicycle pump. “You are not a pig.”

“I am not a pig. And you have been in no danger since we first met.”

“But you were sent to kill me.” He gave a slow fly at the pump handle, listening to the low, slow whoosh of air escaping from the dry valve, and put the ball and pump back.

“And your next question will be, reasonably, who sent me. And the answer, I am only now realizing, is you.”

“Me?”

“I sent you and you sent me. We are the guests of inexorable circumstance, simple, two dimensional geometry: I am a line and you are the dot which defines the line.”

“Sounds dumb to me. Like a TV preacher.”

“Religion does enter in to it, and you must know who I am. I am being taught something and it would be helpful if I could find out what it is. I was coming with sword and cleansing fire to avenge a wrong. You were something else ever the closer I got, a slippery definition perpetually redefining itself, like driving in your fog. You are a simple, straightforward man, deviousness is not in you. There is a lesson here for us to discover; the goddess and her victim shall have ended up playing pattycake. Well...” Morgana nudged the door open and eased out into Harry’s dooryard. She paused to run her nose down a stalk of lupine, and then proceeded to the side of the truck. “These are modern times. We will be lovers, I promised you that. I want you to know me as I am and that will take some doing. Fire up the chariot, we are going to the Red and White.”

“For...”

“For raspberry jam for two—the family size. Now we are going to have a party, just we two.”

Later that afternoon, Libby and Maggie arrived intent on checking in on Harry. They found him face down in a pot of raspberry compote. The pig was nowhere to be found and there was no liquor in evidence. By the glowing wood stove a pile of old quilts was still warm with the impression of a medium-sized spotted pig.

*  *  *

“Hulloaloaloalo...” The Fata Morgana, still the medium-sized spotted pig, tested the echo reverberating through the landscape of the raspberry sending. Long stone passageways intersected at odd angles—the minds of their long-dead makers preserved in an arithmetic of design. “An interesting effect. Well, since somebody built these, they must go somewhere. Time on my hands, or trotters, and I am wandering the halls of an echoey edifice.” The pig popped her head into a vaulted arch to discover a parallel gallery running alongside the one she was traversing. Her hall was featureless but the new one boasted doorways at regular intervals. “Hmmm. The express and local tracks.”

She tried a doorknob with her teeth. It turned easily, inviting inspection. Inside the same polished stone walls as in the hall but with a high, hipped roof done in timber. “The Lady’s chambers: mine, I wot.” The walls were hung with silk brocade and tapestries depicting scenes of the chase. Two jarring notes. A computer terminus with an associated gimcrackery of flashing lights and a pulsing display that covered an entire wall filled the far end of a deep niche. Filling the remainder of the niche was a creature whose head appeared to be on fire.

The pig—the White Sow of Naxos, for indeed, it was she—walked over and struck up a conversation. “Hi there, nice tail.” She began with a compliment for the part that protruded into room proper. “Nobody who looks as strange as you could be all bad.”

The creature jumped up, startled and, trying to turn, wedged himself sideways in the niche.

“Sorry about that. Need a hand?”

The creature relaxed, breathing a deep sigh that smelled of unwashed ashtray. There was some theatrical business as he removed a smoldering cheroot from his face. Holding it aloft, he ducked his head, a ruff of businesslike quills rasping along the floor as he reversed his body and turned to face her. “Nice tail yourself.”

“You must be a manticore.”

“It’s you, the pig. You have heard of me?”

“Of course, silly, I named you. But you are also an archetype.”

“Then there are others like me...” He came closer with a clacking of quills and scales. “If you are who I think you are, you already have all the answers; I don’t get out much. You are the White Sow of Naxos whose coming has been foretold? Or are you the Queen of Heaven?”

“Both, I fear. I am not here; this is a dream sending, Manticore. Where is Biff Bangtree?”

“Dream? I am not asleep.”

“Are you sure?”

Sparks flew as he puffed at his stogie. “Real enough. This would suggest it is you who are ephemeral.” The tip of his scorpion tail thrashed about and dripped venom.

The pig backed off two and a half meters, sat and groomed herself. “If I were you, I’d get a handle on that. I can tell you are new to this.”

The Manticore looked up to see a pearlescent drop forming at the end of his sting. It grew shimmering and amorphous, like a soap bubble in the sun. The cigar fell from his mouth and a spasm of panic rippled down the length of his body. His first thought was to get away, but the tail followed.

Agitated and intrigued at the possibilities of thronging fellow mantichorae, it was stopped by a porcine smile of many teeth and a throaty growl. “Ah, ah, ah, ah. That’s far enough. Don’t get all worked up; your poison is as lethal to you as anyone.” The pig busied herself at the base of her tail.

The crystal pearl, rounded and firmed, detached and flew in a perfect arc to splat on the computer terminal. It drilled a precise nine millimeter hole through the apparatus, hit the floor and dissipated, leaving a small cloud of vapor. The screen was blank.

“Oops!”

There was a squeak of plastic wheels as a tall, lean form appeared, dollying himself about in front of another monitor screen quite like the one just fried by the Manticore’s venom.

“Whoa, hey, this is great, a flight simulator like in Tailspin Tommy or Smilin’ Jack. Why don’t you try...” Biff Bangtree, golem, was fading in and out along with his phantom computer screen. He was manipulating a joystick. He noticed the Manticore had company. “Oh, hello there, it’s you with the funny pig. I’m just getting the hang of this...” Then disappeared.

“Obviously, he is not getting the hang of it,” Morgana observed. “How long has this foolishness been going on? I trust you have an explanation for this apparition, Manticore. Alas, we have established you are real. Can you see him, too? And I recommend you do better than ‘It’s a bad day for reception from the spirit world.’”

“Since you left. There was the duck, of course...”

“Of course.” The pig trotted over to the computer. “Can’t say I didn’t warn you. I said stay calm. I suppose this means our Biff is stuck in the great wherever. Can’t say that I feel deprived; you are much more interesting. Your maladroitness could be an asset. You have botched the babysitting, but I have another errand for you; besides, you are all I have right now.”

*  *  *

A dream within a dream. Lying spent, half awake and heavy-lidded in happy fatigue, Harry had a fleeting vision of glinting bronze and red tapestries in a many pillared hall. Tight-thighed, lean and rangy, Harry Pease was good at knots and could pilot the Narrows. And he was twenty-four years old again. He smiled dreamily and reached to pull up the sheet to cover himself.

He smelled burning butter and twine—a tallow candle. It was afternoon; they had burned no candles. He heard a sigh, a giggle, and felt a touch—a curious finger tracing the line of his backbone tenderly to the cleft at his hams. Turning onto his side, he found himself face to face with a golden-haired boy, mediterranean-looking, his tight curls clasped to his head with a circlet of silver. He reached to pull the sheets over himself but Morgana pulled them back down.

“Not just yet, my love. Don’t cover yourself. I’ve invited some friends in for a peek. We don’t have anything quite like you at home.”

The boy handed Harry a steaming pottery cup and faded to transparency. He could see through him to the far wall of what seemed to be a windowless, low-ceilinged murky hall lit by many lamps and hung with cloth of gold. The boy’s eyes appeared huge—they had been heavily outlined in black. Gold pearls glistened at the ends of his lashes and the eyes themselves were large-pupiled and shone with belladonna. He gave Harry a knowing smile and, fluttering eyelids that had been oiled and dusted with mica or flakes of gold, blew a kiss into the cup. Harry blinked and accepted the offered cup. The boy vanished.

“Young Glaucon finds you attractive, my love. The cup is an infusion of orrisroot. It will give you stamina. Drink up and we shall have at it again.”

Harry swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. He drank and blinked again. A taste of licorice, not bad. The boy had vanished but the hall remained. His lover was most definitely not just a summer person.

“Nor am I your everyday enchantress,” said Morgana. She gestured to the tapestry-hung wall. “My friends find you fascinating, and I... Well, I trust you have noticed my feelings for you are not ambivalent.”

There was a processional rustling and a dozen or so people filed in and seated themselves on cushioned stone benches along the wall. One of them, a pretty girl with bare breasts, bare feet and a bell-shaped hoop skirt, stood, ran forward to the center of the hall, looked back at the men and women seated behind her for encouragement, and extending her arms performed a bow that was a grand flourish. It was a full curtsey, a theatrical curtain call, bow and genuflection all rolled into one. Harry noticed she wore gold rings on her toes and her eyes, like Glaucon’s, were heavily mascaraed.

“Thank you, Philomena,” said Morgana. The girl ran giggling back to her seat. “They like you, Harry. They think you worthy of me.” The hall faded as the watchers waved cheerily from their bench. “Thank you, my friends, Mister Pease and I have more wonders to perform and it were better you not be seen.”

They had performed for an audience. Harry, who should have been thunderstruck, dumfounded, outraged, or at the very least embarrassed, found he was feeling quite pleased with himself. These people were co-celebrants, not common voyeurs, though they had given to understand that the spectacle of Morgana’s rollicking ride pleased them immensely. Looking down, Harry discovered that the orrisroot, along with Morgana’s naked beauty, had inspired him again.

Harry woke to discover Philomena seated by his head; now it was she held the steaming cup. A delicate girl smell of lavender and a recent bath filled his nostrils. He drowsily reached out and his hand went right through her.

“Take the cup. She is not for you—not yet.” Philomena looked adoringly at Morgana and held the cup to his lips. It was real enough. Licorice tea, steaming and hot. The girl stroked his hair but he felt nothing.

The Orange Virgin leaned forward across her lover’s body to fetch a pillow from the head of the bed. She felt a stirring. She leaned forward once more. “Mmm, what a tasty soup we make, you and I, my love.” Harry trembled and groaned, happy.

“But enough is enough; and for now, my pet, that is all we have time for. If I receipted my moments of ecstasy against a future audit, you would be high in the ledger.” Philomena giggled and kissed him on the mouth. The kiss, like the cup, was real.

Settling herself in a yogic posture, Morgana retrieved the pillow and plumped it between her thighs. “There, that should keep our juices off the sheets. I have a satisfaction at improvising, even in the wilderness. I appreciate the laundromat is a twenty-mile drive around the island.” She gave Harry a farewell squeeze and swung her legs over the side of his bunk. The hall with its watchers had faded to tenuousness, but remained visible.

Philomena gurgled and was quiet; her fists shot to her mouth. There was something beyond Harry, thus out of the field of vision she occupied. She chewed at her knuckles and backed gasping to the bench along the wall, the partygoers having emptied it in a mad scramble for the exits. There was immediate seating. The ledge caught her behind the knees and she sat, pressing herself against the wall. The reason for her horror could not be seen, but as Philomena’s small, thin keenings of fear rose and descended, it spoke.

“Would you look at that,” said the Manticore. “The child is trying to screw herself into the wall. Believe me, my dear, I’ve been there and you don’t want it.” The girl’s eyes were very big as she inched along the marble. A cloud of blue cigar smoke entered from field left.

“Ha, gotcha! Stay with us; join the party. As a bearer of tidings I would have expected you to at least withhold your criticism until I have had my say. That is the Orange Virgin in there...? It is! Hiya Morgana, hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“It’s alright, Philomena. He poses no threat. Unless my ears deceive me, it is my old confidante the Manticore, loosed upon the world. Come, show yourself, fellow. How came you thus and without my leave?”

There was a concatenation of sistrum and dijareedoo, a musical rattling of quills, scales and feathers at the junctures of his attributes as the man-dragon shambled into the picture. He removed his cigar and peered nearsightedly into the mists.

Harry Pease had armed himself with an aluminum softball bat and was standing naked, ready to give as good as he got.

“Calm yourself Harry, there is no threat. This implausible catawampus is a pet of mine.” Morgana swung her legs to the floor and stood, stretching languorously. “We had just finished. Your timing is excellent if not your manners, Manticore.” The Manticore’s tail arched threateningly over his head as he puffed his cigar to a glowing cherry red. “I am sorry old friend, I did not intend to patronize you. Both of you, your noble gestures are appreciated, but stop waving those things about.”

The Manticore looked up and blanched. He carefully laid his tail flat on the floor. Harry set down his bat.

“Ahh, simultaneity. Thank you, Harry. Thank you, Manticore. We have brought you, the Caballo Apocalíptico, the Moose of Circumstance, over piggyback on a dream sending. It was a chancy endeavor, but the raspberry was my last available resort. Glad to have you here. You might not have made it; these are the small details you did not need to know. Harry, my love, here is a jolly playfellow to torment your waking hours when I am away. You, Manticore—here you are running loose. Believe me, freedom is overrated. How will you eat? Here you are almost in the real world and you can’t even open a can.” She reached to stroke Harry’s behind as he put on his trousers. “Harry, my wistful dalliance, the dancing magic of your thighs has given me an hour of innocent merriment, but now I must go.”

She turned to the sepia-toned incorporeality of the Manticore. “Come and let me scratch your ears.” He rattled and clacked happily in the direction of Morgana and out of the picture.

“Oops, sorry. I forgot. I am here and you are there. Life among the primitives. You will have to go around. Enter from the exquisites’ bench. Philomena, my dear, do take your fist from your mouth.” She gave Harry a tender swat of dismissal. He sat and looked perplexed. “Too bad, my darling, that’s just the way things are. You must excuse my blunt ways.”

Her hand lingered on Harry’s thigh as the Manticore scuttled in past the empty bench to lay his head on her knee. “I will be the moose...” The Manticore studied his cigar, which had gone out. “What is a moose?”

“Oh, only one of those dotty pronouncements dear to the hearts of Sybils and Pythonesses. I do wish I had been more careful. Now it has the force of law and we are stuck with it.”

The Manticore caught up with an earlier statement. “Open a can? You spoke of cans. I would hear more of cans, please. These cans are good to ‘eat’? I recall something about this eating from the masters who made me. The Dancing Lords who made me and the castle were forever singing songs of ‘eating.’ They were ever telling tales of pulling down a stag after a merry chase. These stags had cans with ‘food’ about on them, then.”

The onlookers of the bench had returned. By fits and starts they filed in as they realized the new arrival was a playfellow of the queen and immediate dismemberment unlikely. Morgana gestured them back to their seats, giving quiet assurances that all was well.

A medium-sized pig walked into the picture from a filmy border zone. She hopped into Philomena’s lap and addressed Morgana. “Huh! So this is the best you can do. Ho-hum, just deserts and all that.” She turned and licked Philomena’s face.

“Well... our little hitchhiker.”

The pig inspected the gilded courtiers arrayed on the bench. “What a clever person you are, Morgana, bringing us here and all. Or almost all. Couldn’t pull it off, eh? The manifestation.”

“This is not entirely true, pig. You are there and we are here. And thank you for not jibing at my sharing your sundered state.”

The White Sow of Naxos ignored the apology. “And your Dapper Dans here—happiness doesn’t seem to be of a high order among your renters. Slow getting the heat up this winter? Are you tardy when they bang the pipes—plumbing repairs a low priority? Just what I’d guess for a place this age. Or has my friend got them spooked? Y’know,” she said, poking her nose against Philomena’s and assuming a conspiratorial tone, “He’s been in the cellar all along.” She turned back to Morgana. “Guess you don’t send them down for marmalade too often.”

The Manticore stepped between the two. He anticipated a withering blast of queenly wrath. “You will have to excuse my friend, she is distraught.”

“She is me and she is preaching to the sycophants. This is a dream, fool. She is in no danger.”

The spotted pig lolled a pink tongue and cocked her head to the side, a portrait of adorableness. “You and I are but dry peas rattling in the cavernous intelligence of the eidolons, Queen.”

“Your acerbity is not lost on me, little pilgrim. I would that things had happened differently, but as they have not, why should we not cooperate?”

“I am all ears,” said the spotted pig, the White Sow of Naxos, and curled up in Philomena’s lap. The wraiths relaxed at the collegial talk, but still kept their distance.

The Orange Virgin again prodded her pillow, pondering. “You, Manticore, the litany of survival has changed since your makers sang, and, obviously, since they are no longer with us, their advice is suspect.”

“You say I am ‘a moose,’ and is a moose like a stag?”

“Wild cattle, vegetarian warhorses. An icon of the mind symbolizing all that is wild and free. These are knots tied in your head, forget them. These are words they use here.”

“I am now a moose...” The Manticore seemed pleased. “Lady, I pledge you a compact.” He gave a courtly flourish with his tail and the bench cleared once more. “You are the you to whom I am true.” The felicity brought a quill-haloed grin.

“Listen to me, Manticore, I will probably prevail...” The Orange Virgin toyed with a plait of her hair. “I have till now. If I do not...” She articulated a meandering shrug, “...you chance being abandoned to wander the earth, a twilight legend and the only one of your kind—riddled with parasites, hungry and scrofulous, your quills falling out in clumps. A scary story for country wives to threaten ill-behaved children.” The Orange Virgin stood and shook herself, letting loose a blizzard of goose feathers; her pillow had burst. Harry reached for her and she blew him a kiss as she skipped away from his reach to the center of the room trailing flurries of down. She danced through the tableau with the courtiers, the Manticore and the pig twisting to follow her with their eyes as she moved through them to the other side of the manifestation.

She reflected on Harry, naked and forlorn, the dimming watchers. “Since my lot has been cast with these creatures, I suppose I should be about doing something to make them like me.” She shook out the few remaining feathers from the pillow case. “Something heart-warming. I will study on it.”

To the onlookers she was fading as a fog wraith in the sunlight. “I shall strip the moonsign from my priestess Linda. She has discovered redeeming features in being a mortal woman, the more fool she.” As the watchers dematerialized, she danced through the assemblage and plumped herself in Harry’s lap. “In the meantime duty calls and I have been prodigal in my loving embraces.” She put her arms around Harry’s neck and gave a deep, lingering kiss. “I trust this has been as educational for you as it has been pleasant for me.”

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