Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Two—The Electric Virgin

The Queen of Heaven, Orange Virgin, Fata Morgana, etc., etc. shuddered as the first pig died. On the Other Side, the strain of the sacred pig was breeding true again. And she had not known. How and when does a pig know it is holy and dressed in the raiment of joy? A new pig, a pig of the ancient line, not yet self-aware until the revelation of the final, fatal flash—the pig and its killer knotted in their mutual innocence. “One gets out of touch... I am explaining myself. This is all wrong.”

There was a grunt from the hole at her feet. The diggers’ backs creaked as they chucked the dirt up and over. A sidelong glance, a pause in the rhythm of their digging again acknowledged her presence. Then another shovelful of dirt flew over the revetment, to spill and scatter at her feet. The two were hairy, sweaty; they labored shoulder-deep. They were not hairy all over and matted like woolly mountain sheep, just hairy and sweaty and honest come by both. The tufts that blocked their noses and ears like kapok escaping an unruly mattress challenged one to look away, thus demonstrating good manners. Morgana had come looking for them. They must want her in return. “A moment...”

In the hole a throat was cleared—gravely and raspish. The Orange Virgin wanted a favor of her elder dwellers, the earth-spirits of her world of banishment, and she turned her attention to the task at hand. The goddess leaned precariously forward to look. “You are my tenants. Mine. You are immortal but keep busy. I like that.” She was awkward; they had been here first after all. “Oh, dear, I had so hoped we could become good neighbors,” said the Lady. “I have a friend—well, not quite a friend but my most newly-anointed priest, albeit he is not yet aware of this. He is much like you. I should have preferred a woman. Oh, dear—I hope I haven’t offended you.”

The two went at it with a steady pitch and roll, one swinging a mattock, the other nipping in with his shovel under the silver arc of the pickman’s return stroke. They appeared to be digging a well while standing in it. If they were aware of her presence they gave no sign, and she pointedly ignored them. There was a protocol to meetings such as this that the parties were content to allow to play itself out. An indecipherable something, most likely a muttered insult, then “...well enough for a displaced divinity,” from the hole. She was then ignored again.

She experienced a winging hope, tinged with almond and wintergreen and forgotten these millennia. The line of the White Sow of Naxos—orotund, fast and fierce, the old tub might come again with her spotted piglets to roam the dooryards of Paradise. “She was me and I was she, the White Sow. And a tough old party I was to be sure. A nice sacrifice would bring me up and out of this lethargy of exile.” The Orange Virgin did deep knee bends and jumping jacks to clear her head. No, she could not return—but a pig had been killed all the same. Pigs died daily, this was no wonder to be remarked upon. Their hecatombs and myriads privy to a reserved destiny, their bacon and their hams hung in the rafters with garlic strings and braided onions. Unremarkable. A man had killed a pig—that it was a man she was almost certain. Why not a priestess? This was a knotty conundrum. Wide-eyed, fat and trusting, a pig soul sent flying to pig heaven whosomever did the deed of murder. He will probably now eat it. Why do they never think to stop and ask?

As long waves of morning light penetrated the curve of the world, The Morgana ignored the elder-dwellers in turn and spoke to the ambient sunshine, as though careless of a casual listener. “Morning comes in on an angle, the new day slips up on us. Wagon-wains of business will wait for noon. See how the filtered light plays over fields of long-stalked daisy fleabane; shadows of dew-heavy flowers speak of early Spring or early Fall: an indicator of newness.”

Or early morning. Something early anyway, an epoch, perhaps, thought the Fata Morgana, stretching, pleased with herself and the moment. The Queen of Heaven squinted against the rising sun, sure that in some compartment of her being she had ordained all this.

“Or if I did not, I should have. Or someone much like me who was here first. This is all such a comfort...”

There was a second grunt from the shovelers in the hole, a break in the rhythm of their digging. Here was a major irritation: they were not used to an accompaniment while they worked.

Pleased at eliciting a response, however small, the goddess continued her colloquy with the sky, the day. She stood on tiptoe, arching her back, and held the pose, relishing a delightful cracking at her joints; then, pivoting languorously at the waist, passed through all degrees of the perpendicular to let her arms dangle loosely to the ground.

“I have touched the empty heaven,” she announced to her toes. Crisp blue skies and, upside down and backwards between her legs, an isolated flotilla of upwardly exploding cumulus clouds ambled by. The reversal of perspective said the clouds were ‘down,’ the ground ‘up.’ The Queen of Heaven swung gently from side to side, limbering her hamstrings. “And, having collapsed like a dime store jackknife, blessed the ground where I stand. Morning devotions, matins to myself, all in the off chance I will be overtaken by a fit of exercise. There is an economy in this and I am pleased.” She touched alternate toes and enjoyed a pleasant giddiness as blood rushed to her head.

Swooping to the reed forest along the river bottom, a pair of mating insects stopped in the air, hovering. Morgana straightened to watch them, iridescent green with long striped abdomens and double wings—dragonflies? She let her eyes slide out of focus and followed the traces of their aerial maneuvers to see if they had left her an intuition. They had not. Smells of honeysuckle and jute blossom from the bottomland wafted up the hill. The now dazzling sunlight and the thin, cool air spiked with aromatics carried no other message. Soaring and dipping, tracing accidental figure eights, the dragonflies flew back up to her over a half mile of hilly pasture. They played out the complexity of their passion and parted to rest on separate twigs. A sunny day in the making with the buzz of coupled insects flying upside down and the growing irritability of a captive audience in the hole at her feet: this was truly life as it was meant to be.

The rising embankment made it appear they had dug deeper than they actually had. She stood an hour and watched them slowly sink into the ground; they paid her no further mind. Eyes bulged and muscles corded with the height of the throw. Their mound was shutting the sun out of their hole and threatened collapse; soon they would be to the rope and pulley, one man down the hole, the other above. 

She called down to them. “You are here from the old dispensation.” This was an observation, a statement requiring no answer, something they all knew; but, ready for a break, the diggers stopped. There was low talk, unintelligible, then louder for her benefit.

“The Lady wants to talk then, nar?”

“Seems so. Time for a rest then.”

“Hoy, Alf, give us a lift.” One laced his fingers together to form a foothold and boosted his partner out of the hole. He scrambled up the side of the mound, dislodging a cascade of clods and loose gravel. There was an offended “Oof. Hey!” from the hole. Up top, knees were dusted, a cap removed.

His proportions were not quite human; under the rolling fabric of his clothes, muscles knotted and bunched in unfamiliar clusterings. A pleated white muslin shirt with a ruffled front was drenched with sweat and soiled beyond repair.

“Aye, Mum. We wuz here with the Dancing Lords who raised your castle. Meaning no disrespect.” He slapped his thighs and raised clouds of dust from maroon corduroy breeches, sandy mauve with blushes of imperial purple where the nap had been worn down by sitting, kneeling, and bulging pockets.

“Your grandfathers’ grandfathers’ grandfathers were. In service to my predecessors, that is—and no offense taken, by the way.”

“No, Mum. We were.”

“You are immortal, then.”

“Never thought much about it. Reckon so. That about right, Alf?” He called to the one left in the hole.

“What’s right?” shouted back. “You deal with her, I can’t hear for shit down here.”

A bad beginning. This was not going to be easy.

“Can’t she see we’re busy?” The voice from the hole. “Tell her to come back later.”

“If you are trying to be offensive, you are succeeding. I am afraid your attitude is adding an unpleasant edge to what had started out to be a beautiful day. I am struggling to hold together the shards of my tattered good feelings.”

“Gobble my goo, but don’t she just about talk, then.” The voice from the hole held genuine wonder, as if confronted with a reversal of nature. A toad or a bird had acquired the gift of tongues and was declaiming the algorithm of a complex knitting instruction.

Morgana caught a petulant tone rising in her throat and choked it back, chancing the hiccoughs. She paused, breathed deeply, and began again. “Oh, things are starting off all wrong. I did so hope us to have a meaningful conversation.”

“Eh?” from the hole.

Morgana strode to the edge, leaned over and shouted. “Friends. Let’s be friends.”

The shorter, sandy haired one—Alf—looked up and past her, his eyes focused on a point somewhere in the sky. “She wants something.”

Morgana shouted again into the hole, “I am the goddess of Spring, Life, and Beauty, you redundant bumpkin!” She turned on her heels to face the digger who had joined her up top. She dropped her voice three registers and projected moist, insinuating charm. “You may adore me. Misters...?”

“Lamprey and Tawse, Mum—Jack and Alf, if you will. But begging your pardon, we’re not into that sort of mumbo-jumbo.”

“I do so hate it when things start off like this. I indeed require some service from you. Sweet reasonableness dictates we should have spoken long before this, being neighbors and all. But... things came up.”

“Twelve thousand years,” came the voice from the hole, Alf. “Give or take.”

Morgana allowed herself to be amused. “We have been aware of each other for millennia and just look: our first meeting and we are in disharmony already, all sixes and sevens. That is a handsome hole, Lamprey, skillfully wrought. But with your friend in the bottom of it and me up top conversation is difficult.”

“What is she saying, Jack, she wants to come in our hole? She wants favors; she should be polite.”

Lamprey scrambled up the oblique angle of piled earth, sending another fall of pebbles down upon his partner.

“Hoy! Easy there.”

“She is suggesting both of us join her on the verge. What say—give it a rest?”

The Orange Virgin followed Jack to the edge and leaned over. “Hail, Tawse. Yes, please join us.” Morgana noticed they had dropped their colorful dialect. Jack braced a foot against the side of the mound of tailings and pulled his partner up.

The hole had a dry bottom—good footing—and had gotten wider as they got deeper. How did they know where to dig? Thinking of affinities and ever-flowing water, Morgana looked into the ground at their feet. Through the strata she saw a cleft in the limestone shell of the aquifer twenty feet yet lower down—a chancy strike with considerable digging. “There is water closer to the surface, a new spring ready to break through just a hundred meters up the hill.”

“We are diggers. If we don’t dig, what are we then?” Alf paused deferentially, lowered his pickaxe and rubbed a handful of earth between his hands. “You mean well, but water that comes easy can go away again just as easy.” He felt he had made his point. He looked to Jack for approval.

“You are of the earth and I bow to your superior opinion.” Morgana smiled, trying not to patronize. “You are diviners, dowsers? I know there is water there, how do you know? You must be very sure to expend so much effort.”

Lamprey—Jack—nodded assent. “Nah, I don’t have the skill as a water-finder. The Old Ones—the Dancing Lords—they said here was where to dig should we ever be of a mind to open a pasturage hereabouts.”

“Sheep. We have took a fancy to a hillside dotted with woollies.”

“That is a handsome hole you have constructed. How’d you like to come and work for me?”

The sandy haired one looked at her, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Government work, then?”

The accusation of a public works project hung in the air. There was quiet. Alf delicately lifted a water strider from the surface of a bucket of water and ladled out a drink, gulping with a throaty clacking and spilling down his shirt.

“I have decided to lay on electricity.”

The clacking stopped and the ladle was passed to Jack. They stood around, uncomfortable with eye-to-eye contact. Lamprey and Tawse shuffled their feet. I am royalty, thought Morgana, feeling the awkwardness appropriate. But they wanted convincing.

“Dirty old wires.”

“But in the wires the singing of the hearts of stars.”

“The singing wires. Oh, and don’t she have a way with words, then? Dirty old singing wires. Where’s the magic, the wonder in that, then? Eh? For a little convenience.”

“You’ll piss away our birthright, then?”

“Pardon my inference, but if you were not born, how then can you have a birthright? Enlighten me, Dear Alf.”

“The right to keep on going as we have been. Why this electricity? Progress I’ll bet you call it. To run kitchen appliances? To light a filament? And read dirty old books? What’s happened to tar and pitch? They give light aplenty; and smoke, too, so’s you know where your torches are. Reading rots the brain—keep at it and soon you won’t remember a thing.”

The Fata Morgana etched a grandiloquent gesture encompassing the sky, the hill and trees. “Living with your heads in the dirt has made you grumpy and out of sorts. This is small recommendation for the conditions of this ‘birthright’ of yours. All this is mine. Join me where the air is fresh and clean.”

“Wholesome and energetic, this one, all out-of-doors.” Alf stood on tiptoe to stare her in the face. His breath smelled of re-cently extinguished cigars. “And this is yours, say you. And now ours, an open gift of your munificence.  The sun and sky and, by implication the stars at night too, I suppose. Generous.”

“You were here first. All I offer in return are open-handedness and civility, an area where you have been short sheeted. It is settled: you are immortals and hence have no birthrights. You are kobolds.”

“That is what others call us, Lady. We have no hidden powers.” The implication was that she did and that they wanted no part of her. He turned his back.

“Surely, then, neither have I, dear Tawse. Come, let us be friends; you are from the old dispensation and have many secrets I would share. And for myself—I, too, have no magic quackery.”

“You have your beauty and the powers of religion, Lady. We are tenders of the earth. It was your place to speak first.”

“I have spoken just this minute—right now. The present I remember quite clearly.” Morgana hid a smile. “Can we now be friends?”

“And now this electricity.” Lamprey shuffled, acting out a deference he did not feel. “Bear with us, Lady, for we have something to say. It is beneath you, this electrification. We were happy to live at a remove with you, our new suzeraine. Live and let live, eh? We each go our own way. We earth, you sky. Spare us your ‘conveniences.’”

“I thought to brighten things up a bit, bring the blessings of technology to the Old Ones’ torture pits.”

“They was called ‘The Dancing Lords.’ Not to their faces, of course. They was great leggy beasts, they was,” said Jack.

To far away hearers of their legend, the name suggested grand court balls, courtiers and courtesans exquisite and graceful, intimate with closely whispered invitations, twirling as fiddlers skirled exotic threnodies from their tortured strings. Cytharae thrummed tempi of seduction and the great drums thumped out a meter concocted to please a drowsy libido—brocaded silks and perfumed beards, braided and pointed with oil of citron and patchouli to lure a lady’s favor. Shaved heads with plaited topknots twined with ribbons, pointy-toed slippers glide over floors of polished finely veined adamantine.

No.

“Not hardly human at all, though that weren’t necessarily a shortcoming. If you catch my drift.” Jack Lamprey was not human and, if you had asked him, proud of it. Jack would volunteer this in the case you neglected to ask.

“They was a twitchy sort, the Dancing Lords,” said Alf, Jack’s partner. “And their speech was all lispy with strange words.”

“Did you understand what the Dancing Lords were saying?” asked the interviewer.

“Nar. They wasn’t about long enough to bother learning the language,” offered Jack.

“But they built and they built. Canals, revetments, donjons, castle keeps...”

“They was a lazy lot. Used slaves. Wore ‘em out at a pretty clip, too. The slaves of the Dancing Lords suffered. Oh, they suffered. Made me and Alf sad to watch it. But what could we do? They was mortals and none of our business. It was dizzying to watch them all flow by. The Lords wore out every morsel of life native to this planet big enough to swing a pick axe or haul timber baulks. Took ‘em generations to wear ‘em out. The local stock was sturdy stuff. And they hated the dying; it was hard. But they died.”

“The Lords used up anything that could walk or talk. Nothing left when they were through with their building. Except for us.”

“And the insects,” said Alf. “Don’t forget the bugs.”

“And all the fliers and the stilt-walkers—the big blue herons that dip for pickerel in the narrows. They survived. Me and Alf was some heartsick to see it all. Can’t abide waste. By the time they was through there was nothing left but the dragonflies, the stilt-walkers and us two.”

“The great glaciers come down twice to the castle when the Lords was here.” Alf.

“They had forgotten their wisdom by then, I figures—thirty, forty thousand years makes even a Dancing Lord forgetful.”

The Orange Virgin felt she was losing her grip on the direction of the interview. “Nonononono. What I propose is simply stringing some wire. That is all.”

“I have a thought she will have us tunneling in windows next,” said Alf. “Fresh air to gladden the lungs of the tormented. Lightscapes and hanging baskets of ferns. Sanding the floors. Nasty, noisy business. Then varnish and paint.”

“The dancing lords are gone, the tormented and their accusers forgotten history. You are about building a museum of rent-flesh, then? You would outfit poor Lamprey and Tawse with shiny-billed patent leather caps and we will be collecting admissions. Bright, shadowless electric light to brighten corners where millennial screams yet echo. We will be stumbling over busloads of day trippers.”

“Nar, Lady,” said Alf, “...you tunnel in through the water table and the moat will fill up your cellars.”

A silence surrounded her and reached out to include Lamprey and Tawse. The dragonflies returned and settled in her hair. The diggers wanted to be back at their well, but all three sat quietly, listening to the day about them. The sounds of the sun, the hill, passing clouds. “Oh, dear, I had so hoped we could become good neighbors,” said the Lady.

Lamprey stood, dusting his trousers, and broke the silence. “Knowing of your beauty was enough. We are shy folk, enny?” A large jackknife was produced and tossed to his partner. “Give the hooked blade a strop, eh, Alf?” Alf, who had been oiling the blade of his shovel, caught the knife at the end of its arc without looking up.

Morgana sat on the pile of earth and replaited a braid.

Lamprey hooked a fresh dipper of water from the bucket and studied it, stirring with a finger. “That you felt it necessary to bestow the reality of your radiant presence...” He drank, slowly, quietly this time, and finishing found the water strider in a patch of vetch and replaced it in the bucket. “... you hold us in low esteem. We are diminished by your being here and being beautiful.”

Alf, making a display of having no part in their discussion, had put down the glistening shovel and was stropping Jack’s knife, running the blade alternately on the haft of the shovel and the instep of his boot.

Jack held a cat’s-eye marble to catch the sun. “Here is beauty.”

Running a ridged thumbnail around the agate equator, he peeled a layer off the stone to reveal an identical marble within, smaller only by the tissue-thin shell he removed. “This is earth magic, Lady—that everything is exactly as it seems. There are no hidden meanings.” The cats’-eye, a crystal flaw in the marble’s agate heart, stared unflinchingly from the second layer. “You have come looking for us, him and me. You are the stranger. A name would be appropriate, goddess. You know who we are and want a favor.”

“You are not human.”

“Can’t fault your reasoning, Lady. Then, neither are you. So human is now the standard of beauty?”

“I am finding out just who you are.” Morgana focused her attention to the brass pivot in the center of his suspenders. He stooped deliberately to set the cat’s-eye down on the ground, rose and began to scratch, keeping his eyes on the marble as though it was in immediate danger of theft. His brow wrinkled, indicating a mind at work. Then he leaned forward and covered the stone with a foot. His brow smoothed and, relieved of an apparent anxiety, he contorted himself to get after the itch, always just out of reach.

“Ohh...” An awareness spread over his craggy face and a smile teased the corners of his mouth. He turned to look up at her. “Finesse. I like that. A simple itch—no tsunamis or volcanoes. Your credentials are accepted. True bona fides, Oh Sender of Aggravation. You are who you say you are. But I do not recall you having said who you are. If adoration were your due, we may not worship you, sorry about that.” Moving his shoe, the digger retrieved the cats’-eye and polished it on his shirt. He held it to his eye, screwing it into the socket like a jeweler adjusting his loupe. After a minute, he turned to her and winked. The pebble popped out to be caught in an open palm held at waist level. He pocketed it.

“We have our own priorities, and they do not include you. Our rhythms are not yours. You are not of this world: an Earth Mother of another earth. And what does an earth need with a mother anyway?” He stamped the ground with his heel. “Poor old duffer, got no Mum then, eh?”

Morgana observed abdominal convulsions held bravely in control: the two of them found this all immensely amusing. “You may address me as Queen of Heaven if you wish.” Their faces remained immobile, but their contained spasms continued in silence for some minutes.

“Challenge—change. She is trying to buy our loyalty by offering us excitement, an escape from our humdrum, everyday routine.” Lamprey gave a snort and his eyes bulged as tufts of hair shot forth from his nostrils accompanied by twin pillars of dust. He stroked his nostril hair, rolled it into little conical twirls then stuffed it back in.

“Sounds bogus to me,” said Tawse. “A come-on.”

“You call yourself the Queen of Heaven.” His eyes intent on the cat’s-eye, Jack Lamprey indicated the blue sky over his hole with a casual wave. “But not this heaven. You must mean another heaven, then. Good. Then if this other heaven is such a great place why are you not there instead of messing about with us and with our well?”

“I can see you are a rocky garden in which to plant the seeds of the new technology.” Morgana, too, songs from the hearts of the stars notwithstanding, felt wires were beneath her. The benefits of electrification were to be a gift for her star chamber. “My history is laid out for you in the design on a pebble? You are insightful and prescient.”

“And you are yanking our insightful, prescient chains, Oh Queen. Here the stones rule and things move at a slower pace than you are accustomed to. But they do move. We are not so isolated as one might think here away from the glamour at the fast paced center of the universe.”

“Which is, of course, where you come from.” sandy haired Alf thrust his cigar breath between them. “It is always where they come from, the basis by which all other things are compared. If things there were so great, what are you doing here? It was the same way with the Old Ones. And where are they now I ask you? Extirpation was their mete; and we are but humble antipodean well diggers scrabbling away in the dirt here in the bunghole of creation.”

Fishing the marble from his pocket, Jack spoke to its last peeling, his words low and conspicuously private. He then held it to his ear. Apparently satisfied with its imperceptible reply, he threw the marble away and spoke.

“She is talking fairies. Moonlight dances with tiny toads under mushroom fairy rings. She would have us flit about in our underwear, hovering on little wings, quaint, non-threatening relics of times long dead for the edification of her tourist hordes.”

“Pouring wine for her guests. Busloads of blue-haired daytrippers on holiday come after a peep at the past of their imaginings.”

“Charon, a suited-up salaried employee, come paddling them through by the barge load: fallen warriors from Knossos, a theme park for the mutilated shades who gladly died, her name claiming their last breaths. See, we know your history, you and your Greeko lads and lasses.”

“Then play military waltzes on the pipe organ for the layings-out.”

“I am bringing in an electrical generator. Powered by steam, bitumen.”

“Bitumen—ugly smelly stuff.”

“Dirty old wires.”

“Fetch and carry, mop and polish. You are after charnel house janitors. You flatter us with a spurious interest in our well, but you are recruiting pimps and procurers. You would have us flit about on gauzy wings while we plant ferns and sand the floors.”

“Hoy, Alf—don’t leave out the butt-fucking.”

“Aye and then we drop our drawers, tiny diaphanous Greek things though they be, for your gentlemen callers. And where will you be when all this is going on—lapping away at your parlormaids? Not too bloody likely. Thank you for the blessings of your imported civilization, but no thanks.”

“You have posited a bizarre scenario of the way things are. Isolation has addled your brains. You are caverniculous fools.”

“But fit to serve you.”

“Fit enough.”

next chapter »

Home | Chapters | Sitemap | Print

All content on this website, unless otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons license

copyright 2010, 2015 Rob Hunter