The Return of the Orange Virgin
Chapter Twenty-five―The Poet

Tom Winkelman came to in a haystack. A square-faced man with laugh lines at his eyes and a bristly black mustache was handing him a flask. On the world Tom had left behind molecules rushed in to fill the space so recently occupied by him, one third of a kitchen table and a laptop computer that had been sitting on the table. In the now vacant Winkelman apartment there was a small thump that no one heard. The computer dropped gently onto the hay. The table, now standing on one leg, fell over.

“Here, try this. New arrivals are always disoriented. It helps.”

Tom took a swallow and gagged.

“Corn whiskey―make it myself. God only knows what the proof is.” The speaker picked up Tom’s laptop, studied it, gave a shrug and tossed it away over a shoulder; it hit a paving stone and shattered. The man was dressed in a black turtleneck and blue cashmere blazer with a crested insignia pricked out with gold thread over the breast pocket. He reached over for the flask and recorked it. “Blackburn. Paul Blackburn. I admit to being a poet. You speak any Spanish?”

Tom nodded through his spasms.

“Bueno, that will be of some help. I should have rightly asked if you knew any Catalan, but nobody does these days, so I don’t ask. Spanish is better than French for getting by, though French is better than nothing. The lingo here is Occitan, Old Provençal. At least as far as the middle of yon wheat field. After that the Fata Morgana deals as she pleases.”

“Fata Morgana...” The name the poet mentioned brought with it an evocation of tarot decks, bayberry candles and juniper tea. And tonight he was planning gourmet boil-in-a-bag Szechuan dumplings, one of Linda’s favorites.

A ripple echoed through the corridors of eternity. This was the thump felt by no one in the empty apartment  left behind by Tom Winkelman, likewise the earthquake felt in the 7th Avenue cellars of the Hotel Taft. Our universe bulged while all others down the line wobbled as each in turn balanced the books by commandeering one-hundred-sixty-five pounds of anything. This caused alarm among the overseers of the arithmetic of creation. Though vast, the number theory of infinity is a biography of finite numbers: sooner or later the ripple cascading thoughtlessly and undiminished, carrying with it all the destructive power of a rampaging laptop computer and one-third of a kitchen table would arrive back where it had started, metamorphosed by the journey into the invisible incongruity that is a not-black hole―too small to notice, the singularity that flattens even eidolons and Szechuan dumplings.

“We are hostages of compassion here,” said the poet. “We are expected to have a jolly good time while awaiting her pleasure, just lay about and decorate the landscape. We are all going nowhere. This is a storage area, and we are none of us ever to leave. And I’ll bet you have to pee, too. That’s the second thing new arrivals have on their minds.”

“I had made plans,” said Tom.

“Plans,” said the poet. “Ah yes, of course you have them. All our arrivals do. Usually the first thing out of their mouths. There are plans, indeed, but you’re not in them and that is why you are here.”

Tom shakily stood and, catching himself patting his legs in a search for broken bones, felt foolish.

“Plans...” The poet smiled faintly. “You are writing a book or waxing the car. Many of our arrivals say that, too. You are a layabout, then. House-husbanding, the latest excuse for getting nothing done; you cook and clean. Me, I drank a lot and chased women.”

Tom started to answer but the poet was walking away, indicating features of the wobbly medieval cottages, the landscape. “This village was translated entire from the fourteenth century,” said the poet. “Our plumbing, too, is medieval; there is a squnchiness about your eyes that says you’ve been holding it a while, scrivener Tom. I’ll turn my back if you would be more comfortable. Peeing, that is. It’s an opportunity too good to miss―being here, not peeing, though that is likewise important. Just let fly; shows us we are alive, eh? House husbanding! No. You are writing a book, perhaps. A waxer of cars and polisher of linoleum will find scant to do in these parts. You are a writer manqué, then, a treasure too rare to be spent all at once. I’m transcribing troubadour ballads―you know, poems. You can give me a hand, scrivener Tom.”

The poet stopped before a ramshackle structure of wattle-and-daub. Looking about, he assured himself there was nobody watching and reached into a niche in the whitewashed half-beaming. Tom expected that he might be removing a book of poems. It was a bottle.

“If language studies are not your métier, hang around a while; have a rest. We’ll get you placed somewhere. Should you decide to strike off by yourself, there is a traveler’s rest some twenty leagues off.” Placing the flask in a jacket pocket, the poet wandered off singing wordlessly to himself. Tom had been dismissed. He curled up in a comfortable corner of Paul Blackburn’s haystack and waited on events.

When he awoke it was night and it was raining. “Paul. Paul Blackburn!” There was no answer. He peered in the direction the poet had taken hoping to see a light, some evidence of human habitation. There was none.

He started at a cough out on the in the rain-darkened stubble of last year’s pasturage. The cough was answered by a rising wail of alarm. A cat. A few yards distant was a fox homeward bound with a dead rat twitching in its jaws. A yellow striped tomcat stood motionless where it had blundered across the fox’s path, its tail the size of a softball bat, a low glottal warning in its throat. The fox dropped its prey and coughed again, its tail up and bristling. The cat continued its stream of consonants, retreated perhaps a foot and settled itself, conceding enough for safety but holding honor intact. The fox picked up the rat and continued to its earth. Tom breathed again.

A harvest moon appeared from behind a cluster of high wind driven clouds. Tom hitched his pack and struck out on foot.

*  *  *

There was a cawing of far off crows, nothing special, just afternoon bird talk. The afternoon had settled in, hot, close and heavy. Despite the feeling of impending rain, the sky was a clear, piercing blue and except for a pair of high fluffy storm riders, cloudless. The buzzing of passing insects was intense in the pollen-laden air. A path worn by use rather than design wound down the hill from a step-stile through a blue haze that hung about the valley floor. A thread of smoke rose from just inside some trees at the edge of a cultivated area; in the air was a sweet unfamiliar smell of burning. The traveler’s rest the poet had promised with its peat fire. Tom Winkelman swung a leg over the stile and started down the hill. It was a long way down through waist-high undulations of grass gone to early brown with heavy seed heads. He followed the path and although the incline was easy work, he was soon sweating in the close, heavy air. It felt like there was a thunderstorm brewing. A trick of distance―from the top of the hill, the blue mist thinned out the closer down the valley floor he came. A small river wound among occasional cattle, a hopeful, reassuring presence. Near the bottom he paused to catch his breath where clusters of trees, outriders from the approaching forest, offered shade. Past a line of broad-beamed black spruce, their lacy needles a filigree of dripping moisture, a thicket of larch and honey locust framed a house. It looked good. Tom realized he was thirsty and very hungry.

There was a crack like a rifle hot and he jumped. “Shoo, boss. Shoo, boss... Scat!” Another crack! A thin blonde young woman was chasing cows out of a garden patch, shouting and popping their haunches with the business end of a rolled-up wet towel. Crack! The cows―two of them, eyes wide and white, udders flying―went galloping up the hill Tom had just come down. Victorious and flushed, the young woman walked over. She wore cut-off jeans and had her hair up in a red spotted kerchief. “Hi. I’m Val, Valerie Hatt, and my cows have a taste for asparagus.” She extended a hand. “You must be Tom. We’ve been expecting you.” She looked after the departed cows. Being chased was something they were used to; they had stopped to browse the hillside a few yards farther up. When the towel had stopped, so had they. Val sighed, “Onion grass up there, we’ll have onion-flavored milk for a week. The kids won’t drink it but it makes a great cheese.”

As they shook hands Tom said, “Expecting me? Things happen fast here. I didn’t know I was coming until a few hours ago. A man, a poet...” Had there even been a poet? “A treasure too rare to be spent all at once...” the poet’s words played as if he actually had heard them, a reassuring voice―his mother tending his childhood sickbed with platters of ice cream with honey and crushed walnuts over the top, a favorite. “Excuse me; I don’t seem able to remember. I was at home, at work... then I was not.”

“That’s the Fata Morgana―she doesn’t miss a trick. Come on, I’ll show you around. You’ll be happy here.”

“Oh?” As with the poet, there was permanence implicit in Val’s easy statement that Tom found disturbing. Furthermore the girl’s face had a haunting familiarity. He started to ask but was interrupted with the words half formed.

“We have a room all ready for you. Here, let me help you with your stuff.”

He shook his head to clear it. His vision had the fish-eye distortion of a fever dream. “Stuff? Uh, that’s all right, I don’t have anything except what I’m standing up in. I left rather suddenly.”

*  *  *

This is an arrival and a departure, for it is important to know that Tom has come to no harm, for death is relative. The haystack, the poet, the whole place, has the smell of wild raspberries from a thermos of abandoned tea flushed out with clear spring water. Dumped and forgotten is not the way of the Fata Morgana with her stray pets. The poet is important also, but in his time, not here. Suffice it that Tom Winkelman could have prospered in Languedoc and thriven under the poet’s tutelage. Tom has catapulted into the clear air of a Europe untouched by Huns, plague or industrial revolution to land in a haystack, a happy splat in the Lady’s back yard.

In another tale, Tom might live on in place to a wise and fruitful dotage, fathering many crackling-eyed, black-haired babies. The fourteenth century was like that and, after all, he now is the poet’s assistant, a place not without honor. Tom might do many good works while corrupting the language and culture hereabouts; he might coach Little League and bring his Morgantowners to first place in many championship seasons. But that is another tale.

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