Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Synopses—The Story So Far

Prologue—The Congress of the Stones

It was time to go. Smoky pine resin incense rose heavenward to gladden the nostrils of the new religion as the Orange Virgin retreated her temple precincts. At last some peace and quiet, she thinks. But when she leaves, she departs all at once and unannounced. Her altars are found empty, idols shattered or disappeared. Censers are left swinging in their gimbals as horror-stricken votaries flee, sandals flapping, into the night to rouse the priestesses. The new order that would propel her into exile comes with books—codices of do’s and don’ts—and a triune god to replace a triune goddess.

Chapter 1—The Pig Killing

Harry Profitt Pease, the unanointed priest of the Fata Morgana, Lady of the Wild Things, slaughters the White Sow of Naxos. Harry does not know the pig is sacred; the pig in question had a suspicion but now it is too late. This is a mistake. Nobody’s fault.  Harry takes a pull from the screw-top pint of fortified wine never far from his hip pocket. Empty. Blood and mud. Spring killing. This is the reverse order of things. Harry is drunk and singing the Whiffenpoof Song remembered from his mother’s Victorola. Harry recalls Alma Nightingale, a might-have-been high school sweetheart.

Chapter 2—The Electric Virgin

The Electric Virgin, the Fata Morgana, the Lady of the Wild Things, etc., etc., toughens her mettle to chat up Jack Lamprey and Alf Tawse, two Elder Dwellers. They are hard at work digging a well. They are thinking of grazing sheep in the Goddess’ back meadow and their woollies will require water. Tawse and Lamprey are not impressed with her credentials. She is from somewhere else, so were the Dancing Lords, the previous tenants. The Lords had savage habits which the Elder Dwellers chose to ignore. The Fata Morgana wheedles the two and they agree to help her put in electricity. The Morgana is rehabilitating her second-hand castle.

Chapter 3—Meet Biff

Biff Bangtree responds to a rumbling in his stomach. Tummy, actually. Morgana’s lover is tall, lean and broad-shouldered, a hero. If he calls his stomach a tummy, who would argue? Biff backs out of a buttery, his pockets full of doughnuts. Biff Bangtree is not yet his name, since Morgana has neglected to call him anything. That he have a name is not a vital component of their lovemaking.

Chapter 4—The Raspberry Dream

The Fata Morgana eavesdrops on a castle child and its mother as they watch the night sky. “Ohh, mommy, look.” A bright blossoming flares and fades past the child’s finger’s end. “A star exploding.” The woman has been a mother many times over many years. The night sky holds no new wonders for her. “They do it all the time. Come to bed.” The Fata Morgana seeks an understanding of the slaughter of her sacred swine in the fumes of cup of tea. Her priestess is a man. “Strange. But an athlete, a hero, and fallen on hard times. It must be women have lost the knack since I departed. 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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Chapter 5—Harry Does the Lawn

Harry Pease is stalked by the perfume of gas, grass, sweat and Old Seadog Export Lager as he mows the lawn of the Valiant Memorial Trust Library. He dreams of Alma Nightingale, a high school sweetheart, as he makes concentric circles with his riding mower. Alma’s husband has died punctually and in good taste after thirty years of boring fidelity. We meet Joyce Gladstone, Valiant Trust librarian, who lives in dread of Harry’s death and the subsequent bequest of his Popular Mechanics and Playboy collections to her shelves.

Chapter 6—Morgana and the Eidolon

Spinning. Forgetfulness and no sense of self. The Fata Morgana’s raspberry dream continues with yearnings, struggles, joys: all the paradigms, apotheoses, covetousness, sloth, envy, etc., along with dandelions, cabbages, butterflies—the hotel reservations and weekend painting projects of a googolplex of individuals are over, caput, finis—sucked through the eye of Eternity’s needle, pushed out backwards on the other end, and here she is. Simple, really. The goddess longs after her lost power. Not power to do anything in particular—threaten, coerce, destroy: illuminate a city, tighten the skeins of a siege engine or wind up the bowels of a child’s clockwork toy—just power to have around. Just in case. What has been hers is now not, and that troubles her.

Chapter 7—Sarabande

Home from her cosmic tête-à-tête, the Fata Morgana cocoons Biff Bangtree against any misadventure and addresses Sarabande, Superintendent of plantings and the Herbarium. “Sarabande, I know this is becoming tedious for all of us, but you are not the Sarabande to whom I last spoke, are you? I mean you are truly beautiful and there is that in the curve of your mouth and the shape of your ear, the very turn of your hair—the way it exposes the notch, that tiny irregularity at your widow’s peak when you tie it back like that. You are Sarabande?” Kneeling in the fresh spring mud of the greensward, Sarabande ruins her gown—”...the one to whom you spoke was my great-great-great-grandmother.”

Chapter 8—Electricity Comes to the Star Chamber

In the cellars of the Queen three stone heads grace the capital of a buried pendentive. The heads are malign at first glance, a dead craftsman’s nightsweats and horrors: vaguely a Cow, a Goat, and a Manticore. Mineral deposits have whitened the Goat’s tongue and striped his head so that his tongue appears to have paused in the fastidious licking of an ice cream cone. The Goat’s dead eyes are rolled back, hollow stone pupils positioned to stare up the kilt of any passing visitor. In former times he had been out-of-doors and his gaze was heavenward, away from the temptations of the earth and the flesh.

Chapter 9—Prince and Morgana

Pen Harrington has disappeared into the cellars of overnight radio, a lover of night nurses and truck-stop waitresses. To those up top in the sunshine who might think of him the consensus is that the best thing about Pen Harrington is Prince—big, loving, gentle and not too bright. Where Pen goes, Prince goes, and preferably by car. Prince sits in the passenger’s seat giant and yellow, and mostly Labrador retriever. Prince sleeps and dreams of a cow stuck in a wall. The stone head looks down and nods wisely. It has a secret. “I know who you are,” says the Cow. Prince raises a leg. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I am a sphinx. Cleopatra loved me.”

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Chapter 10—Video Poker

Wherein Pen Harrington and Prince meet the Fata Morgana at a bus stop. Pen falls like the last of the great forest giants before the chain saw of wide-eyed disingenuousness. Prince also feels the call but, with none of his master’s inhibitions, walks up to the goddess and sticks his nose between her legs. “Prince...” A low, happy glottal rumble as ears are scratched by the exciting, wonderful woman. More tail-thumping and the nose is firmly back in place. “...I knew introductions would be in order. Prince and I are going to be close. Very close. Call me Maggie.”

Chapter 11—Biff is Born

There is a heterodyning squeal and Biff looks to the radio receiver. “This is today’s lesson, study it well. You will do daring things.” The voice of the Fata Morgana is inside his head. An urgent baritone fills the room—“And now... Dolby Jenks, Space Ace, brought to you by Chocolate-flavored Ovaltine...”

Chapter 12—Stone Heads and Mayflies

By their nature, the stones of the Fata Morgana’s castle do not get around much, but compensate by a great pride of place. Black basalt they are, striped with travertine—an outcropping of the world spirit. The great blocks had been meticulously quarried to a master plan that allowed but fine tolerances at their joins and little tolerance for intruders. The stones get little satisfaction from the flickering, fluttering life dwelling in the spaces they define. Nor are they particularly quick-witted even by their own lights, and their thoughts, when they think at all, are particularly tedious, for not many decisions are required of them and they take the long view.

Chapter 13—Pork-A-Dillos

Linda Winkelman, priestess-designate of the Fata Morgana, wants “more.” More of just what she is not quite sure, but she is certain there has been a short-changing somewhere along the line. A chips and nachos conglomerate is introducing Pork-A-Dillos, a low-cholesterol fried pork rind product, the latest scientific breakthrough. Linda has been named project manager for the new product’s test marketing; if it flies she will be in line to direct the national campaign.

Chapter 14—Nowhere Again

Wherein the Manticore quests through 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 await gelatin confections, larding needles languish for a loin of pork. A shelf of ceramic rabbits await their pâté masquerade. The Manticore is indifferent to the guises of chopped liver and salmon with herbs.

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Chapter 15—The Cicerone

Wherein raspberry tarts and a spinach quiche are mentioned and the Manticore becomes impaled: “I say, are you stuck?” asks Biff Bangtree. He crouches to behold a creature made up of many other creatures: porcupine, man, lizard, eagle, scorpion.  El the Eidolon, a quasi-divine meddler, drops in: “I have been so looking forward to this, Morgana, having you over—exacting blood for blood, wreaking havoc: the Eumenides charging about, flailing at whole populations, extirpating them all for the sins of their king. I love it. Just like old times.” We likewise meet the Wise Child and the Destroyer—aspects of the Fata Morgana

Chapter 16—Linda in Wonderland

Wherein Biff, Morgana and the Manticore go prospecting for a priestess in peril. It is Christmas in New York, a time of tinseled windows, and slush coming over the tops of transparent plastic rain boots. Linda Winkelman carries them in her gym bag all year long and even sensible one-inch heels are too much for them. A wide-bodied Checker cab spins into the taxi stand at the corner, trying to use the parking lane for an illegal turn to catch the light at 33rd Street. A spray of brown slush stipples Linda’s panty hose all the way to the knee.

Chapter 17—Chocolate for the Queen

Wherein Linda Winkelman meets the Eidolon: “I got all dressed up for the Visitation. You are the instrument, the vehicle, if you catch my meaning, of a meeting of vast teleological implications. At this very moment, even as we speak, so to speak, the emanations of the demon-queen of Sumer and Babylon are invading your persona.” The Eidolon toggles her head back and forth. “Hotsy-totsy, Morgana. You in there? We’ve been expecting you.”

Chapter 18—The Valiant Buffet

Wherein Harry Profitt Pease browses the refreshments table. This evening is the regular illustrated lecture—a slide show—at the Valiant Trust Memorial Institute Free Library. Harry turns to see a pig hop up on the window seat next to Alma Nightingale, claiming a warm depression vacated by Mrs. Gladstone. Harry stares. The pig is a spotted china with a tight brushy tip to her tail that hinted at purebred bloodlines. “You wouldn’t have a cabbage left in your truck, would you?” the pig asks.

Chapter 19—A Roundelay of Rust and Rot

Wherein Harry meets the Orange Virgin: “You are a pig,” he observes. “And you are a dirty old man. Don’t belabor the obvious.” The pig rummages in the truck’s glove box and, coming up with an archival Mars bar, settles herself comfortably in the passenger’s seat.

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Chapter 20—The Mouse

Wherein the Orange Virgin and El the sky demon are in attendance in the sub-cellars of the Hotel Taft. A cat carries in a still-twitching mouse and lays it at Morgana’s feet. “Someone at least remembers who I am. Pardon me, I must share this well-intentioned offering.” Morgana sits cross-legged, facing the cat with the mouse between them. “To you it is religion, to the cat it is lunch, and religion will wait.” The Queen of Heaven bites the head off the mouse and hands the remains to the cat.

Chapter 21—Card Tricks and Cheap Tricks

Wherein the Queen of Heaven checks her rear end to discover a curly pink tail at the base of her spine. “A cheap trick,” she bellows at the sky. While the Manticore, set to tending a tumescent toddler, meets Linda Winkelman: “You will have to pardon me, but I’m not used to impromptus. Ta-Dah!” There is a smell of ozone, the flickering of blue and pink letters. WELCOME TO THE NEW JERSEY TURNPIKE. REDUCE SPEED APPROACHING TOLL PLAZA says a neon sign. “A regular touch of home,” says Linda.

Chapter 22—The Ministry of Responsibility

Wherein Pen Harrington and Dim Lights Morrissey discuss life’s travails with the Happy Time Bread man. And we meet Libby Pease, Harry’s sister, to discover why lime jello with embedded chicken parts and an aerosol whipped topping is a favorite at covered dish suppers. Likewise Cousteau McClonaghy, proprietor of a flashing blue neon sign, EAT. Respect for his namesake has him keep fish frys Fridays at the diner long after Vatican II.

Chapter 23—At Harry’s

Wherein a medium-sized spotted pig strolls out from behind a stack of snow tires. The pig looks like she has something to say. The pig studies a trotter in the center of the triangle of Morrissey, Harry and Pen. That Harry entertains visitors from other planets is well known. Whether Harry has actually seen and talked with them is hard to pin down, but on one thing he is adamant: sojourners from the astral planes made his place a regular stopover on their passage from wheresis to whatever. He has seen their spoor: strange messages on the uninhabited channels of his TV, usually in the early morning hours when the decent, Christian stations are turned off.

Chapter 24—An Infusion of Orrisroot

Wherein Harry Pease discovers all is not as it seems: “Your voice. It reminds me of Lauren Bacall,” he tells the spotted pig. And the Orange Virgin spills her metaphoric beans: “Your death: immediate and terrible, Harry Pease. This is no longer on the menu. I forget people have feelings, too. Pardon me for being brusque—these are my little ways. I had planned something modern and deliciously psychopathic for you; you should be flattered. Like chopping you into little bits and flushing you out to sea.”

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Chapter 25—The Poet

Wherein molecules rush in to fill the space so recently occupied by Tom Winkelman, one third of a kitchen table and a laptop computer. The Poet offers sustenance—“Corn whiskey—make it myself. God only knows what the proof is.” Tom has jumped into the clear air of a Europe untouched by Huns, plague or industrial revolution to land in a haystack, a guest of the Queen of Heaven.

Chapter 26—A Vine-covered Cottage

The house has a storybook air to it, a short ground floor and a steeply thatched roof—whitewashed animal dung and straw with an occasional fieldstone for accent. Tom Winkelman remembers seeing something like it in brochures for picturesque vacations. “It’s like dying but with regular mail service,” remarks Valerie Hatt. “There’s a village five kilometers upstream and through the woods. Or leagues, versts, miles. Depends on who’s walking. Weights and measures are pretty unpredictable here.”

Chapter 27—Shootout at EAT

Wherein a heavily-armed woman strolls in through the shredded remains of Cousteau’s Salada Tea screen door; her introductory burst of automatic weaponry showing no respect for cooperative advertising. She is packing more firepower than the National Guard and looks very much like a wronged woman on a tear. “The absent wife,” said Pen, referring to Valerie Hatt, somehow transported from Morgana’s Languedoc village.

Chapter 28—On the Downtown Local

Wherein the Fata Morgana decides Linda Winkelman, priestess, is an unnecessary clutter. Tonight is the night Tom thaws Szechwan dumplings, too, thinks Linda. Please don’t be angry dear reader, for we have reached that time in Linda’s story arc where we have to bump her off. Anyway, the idea of missing out on Tom’s dumplings makes her disproportionately cheery about her impending death. She drops her gym tote and rummages through its pockets. Doesn’t she have a bottle of Midol somewhere?

Chapter 29—A Dream of Dancing

Wherein Quigley, Champion and Everlast ponder the future. Champion dreams of the dance and the fragile protocols that bind together the keepers and the kept. A patrician beauty dances open mouthed, taking short frequent breaths—more, surely, than are demanded by the exertions of the waltz—her eyes rolled back to the whites in a stylized gesture of sexual anticipation which her escort must notice. The escort notices, but he is busy covering his back. Both preoccupied they spin on woodenly—dancing around an object of which they must never speak, whose existence must never be acknowledged. There is power in a glance, the power that if your eyes linger overlong on another dancer’s partner this will require him to forget his timing, drop rhythm, break the truce. We have pretended we are here for the dance.

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Chapter 30—King Stilt-walker and the Queen

Wherein The Fata Morgana, Queen of Heaven, etc., etc. ponders the recent past: “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 the hell 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.”

L’envoi

“The child, Biff Bangtree, will be well.” The Fata Morgana smiles a secret smile. “I have things, ahh... arranged.”

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