Midwife in the Tire Swing
Intermezzo 13—The Father of All Demons
Madness strips things down to their core.
It takes everything, and in exchange offers more madness,
and the occasional ability to see things that are not there.
—Lauren E. Simonutti (1968-2012)
“Let’s duck in here.” Dave Peel banged the huge bronze knocker of a country inn and tugged at Fr. Coughlin’s sleeve. A liverish eye appeared at a peep hole. “Yes?” It was a woman’s voice, and familiar.
“Ahh... hello. I am David Peel and this is Father Charles E. Coughlin, my traveling companion. We were wondering...”
“Upstairs and in the back,” said the voice. The peephole slammed shut.
Dave shrugged. “The road is a thirsty place; we must have been expected. Come along, father.”
Up an external fire escape—wooden, Fr. Coughlin noted—was a half-attic. Dave hung by his heels from a corner truss and gestured to a corn husk pallet, “Pull up a bale, priest. Don’t be shy. This may be a while.” They waited.
Fr. Coughlin must have fallen asleep, for how long he had no idea. He awoke to muffled voices; a chair squeaked from below. Formless chatter filtered up between the joists, made faint and rebroadcast as a chorus in Greek. The choristers seemed glad to be here but had stuffed their mouths with shortbread cookies to give themselves strength before daring introductions.
“Nice bonnet, Joanna,” said a rough voice “And what hear ’ee from Young Shiloh, our miraculous child?
“Nothing yet, Lord. He’s be waiting on his conception they tells me.”
“Lord, ’ee say. Do you know who I am?”
“Can’t rightly tell.”
“Aye, we are all strangers here. Have a digestive biscuit, Joanna.”
“I feel no want of food, Lord.” The voice could have been female, with a brittle mechanical edge.
“Yes. It won’t do to cloud one’s prophecies.”
A chair, most likely the same chair—a fidgety visitor nervous at being surrounded by the minions of Hell, perhaps—squeaked again, distantly muffled, a squeak not in anger, but in anguish. “The raspy edge of the voice sounds like Old Scrimshander himself,” whispered Dave Peel. “He won’t like us eavesdropping.” Dave gave Fr. Coughlin a sharp elbow in the ribs as a caution to be silent.
“Huh.” The priest grunted, annoyed at a poke from an unfrocked angel.
Old Scrimshander cleared his throat. There was a banging at their feet. “That you up there, Angel Dave? Don’t bother answering. I know that it is. You and your little homunculus may come down and join us at the grownup table. Or not. Whatever.”
“Our village has heard tales of you, Odysseus,” called Joanna. “We assembled have all stepped on the cat’s tail in token of your welcome. A sidewise spell—widdershins, the invocation of the anti-clockwise. Be welcome and come down into the firelight that we may behold the full glory of your aspect.”
Father Coughlin gripped Dave just behind the elbow, “Odysseus? Does she mean me or the Evil One?”
“Oh, you by all means, holy guy. You are a celebrity. Plus the broadcast authorities have put their stamp of approval upon elastic undergarments, chocolate-flavored Ovaltine and radio preachers alike.”
“An’ don’t ’ee forget the soap operas, little Davey.” Old Scrimshander clumped a cloven hoof upon the table, popping the eye of a roasted lamb and sending it spinning into a puddle of green ale. “Our Joanna may love your raggle-taggle priest but she hates you, Child of God. Not rashly but after sincere reflection. Not in anger, but in accommodation—nothing personal. This is love seen from beneath, past its lacy drawers as it were. Come ye on down from the attic an’ I’ll give ’ee a peek.”
“Be first to see to it that it’s yers ta give, Cloven Clopper,” Joanna’s voice now. Peering through the crack in the floor boards, Dave the Angel could not tell for sure if this was the same Joanna Southcott. “You will sit? Oh, is this chair in your way? Bad chair. Bad, noisy chair.” The chair squeaked a tormented sidewise rasp; a sound of shattered slats, splintered whorls of lathe-turned spindles to be cast into the stove. The rattle of an iron grate shaken, a whistling up the flue as the chair blazed. A bright blue flame, Dave Peel reflected, like bottled gas or the souls of fallen angels.
“You must be on a journey of some importance for His Nibs to recognize your voices,” said the Prophetess Joanna. The chair consumed, its soul creaked on. Scree. Scree.
“Come down here, Charlie-Priest,” said Old Scrimshander. “We’ll not eat ’ee. Not yet, for we have recognized yer need. Welcome home, Odysseus. Dinner is served.”
The priest and Dave the Angel were allowed to stay the night. They dined on table leavings and were in turn nibbled at by rats and bedbugs. First thing in the morning the two seekers after knowledge made a break for it without bothering to brush their teeth.
In the courtyard of the inn stood the clockwork woman, silently mouthing “Help me.”
“In the back,” said Dave Peel. Charles E. Coughlin and the fallen angel grabbed the prophetess and high-tailed it out of there.
Ahead of them in the fog were themselves looking anxiously back, fleeing a rear-end collision. A doppelgänger. They had picked up with their own trail, just a split second later. The collision was ill-advised. This is according to Harry Collier, Samantha Cherry Hobart’s actuarial consultant whom you will recall is consigned forever to a medicine chest mirror in the trunk of her Dodge Neon. In his rearview mirror, Dave the Angel had a glimpse of Fr. Coughlin and the clockwork woman just before the impact as they jumped from the moving car. The Father of All Demons must have seen them gunning by and set up an obstacle course. Dave Peel’s head punched out the safety windshield, starring it in a snowflake pattern. A bloody nose spouted blue, not red. Blue ichor was so much more becoming; he’d have to express his appreciation at the next Council of Principalities and Thrones. He had been doing 80 kilometers per hour, about the legal speed, and coming around a blind corner where the road ahead was obscured by a tight turn and a rock escarpment, piled into the Radio Shrine of the Little Flower’s Buick parked—parked, God damn it!—right in the middle of the fornicating road. Dave fell into a period of unconsciousness with furry edges.
There followed a sideways time of celestial second-best significance. All clocks ran backwards except for those of the Trans-Siberian Marmoset, which excels at cold weather propagation.
Dave’s eyelids fluttered. He appeared to be impaled on the steering column. Invoking Saint Phineas Gage of blessed memory’s tamping iron, he grabbed the wheel post with both hands and pushed. There was a cartoony “splunch!” followed by a gush of glistening blue ink.
The number two Buick caromed sideways up the hill, jumping a drainage culvert. Fr. Coughlin number two felt the thrill of panic down his back as he leaped from the car dragging the clockwork Prophetess, the second time this day he believed. He was a hero. This was Armageddon and he had rescued a windup woman from the Next to Last Judgment. He thought of the crucifix above his bed. This was the time of resolution, forced upon them by the abiding Father of All Demons. Too late now to ask why. He stopped to savor the moment.
As Dave the Angel lay slumped on the floor there arrived through the skill of unionized stagehands the Greek Chorus as advertised in our Table of Contents—a god and a goddess with Olympian attendants (43), a life-size clockwork woman with a key protruding from her back and her human avatar (2), and a New York State Supreme Court Justice got up as a midtown macassared dandy (1), at his side a flapper with silk stockings rolled to her knees (2).
Honk, honk. Two beeps from down by the road—Roberta Stubbins, the postal route driver. Then two more quickly, followed by a longer blast. A package that wouldn’t fit inside the mailbox and she refused to hoof it up the hill past the Lucy scarecrow, the maple trees, the brush-hogged canes and the apple orchard. Sarah Drye had mail and Roberta was impatient. With a new woman in the house would come the expected onslaught of junk mail—catalogs and past-due bills, the baggage that followed people from habitation to habitation, followed them in life and continued long past their deaths, all on the bent backs of letter carriers. That she loved to aggravate Lucy was a tradition hallowed by repetition; they had played this game together for thirty years or more. By the time Lucy would have gathered up his walker and his pants and got both arms in the sleeves of his jacket and started down the path to the road, Roberta could be seen departing in a yellow-white cloud of lime dust. There was no dust today. The rain had been falling since before dawn.
“I separated the rhubarb yesterday,” Lucy said. He looked toward the near side of the cane-and-orchard devastation. A row of what appeared to be freshly-dug graves lay neatly mulched. “Hope it doesn’t drown.”
“I didn’t realize that rhubarb could drown.”
“Neither did I,” said Lucy. “It does?” The wolf smile.
“We are standing in the rain.” They did not move but stood watching Roberta’s sports utility vehicle fishtail and slide away on a fluid slip of lime-streaked clay. “God bless America,” Sarah said.
God Bless America. Two stick-on vinyl ribbons in the Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Old Oak Tree style straddled a chrome license plate holder—Dutton and Dutton Bangor, the Ford dealership. Support Our Troops the ribbons said. “You gotta turn yourself upside down to read the damn things,” said Lucy. “The Army and Navy forever... three cheers for the red white and blue.”
“What?” Sarah pulled her head further inside the hood of her borrowed yellow rain slicker.
“Patriotic song once. You could whistle it through your teeth, wonderments and portents of awe. All unbelieving, I rained fire from the sky on the innocent and the guilty alike; they never knew what hit them or so we told ourselves. Meanwhile, our near and dear saved string at home. String and tinfoil. What are these folk doing for their troops?” Lucy made a sweeping gesture that reached to the horizon line. He bent to pick up the package Roberta had laid on the ground. It was soaked through. As he straightened, pulling himself up hand over hand on the walker’s fire engine red frame, he disengaged the lock on the brake lever. The walker started to roll away on its eight-inch ball-bearing wheels. “Get that, would you.”
Lucian Hobart, age ninety-two, began to cough. Sarah looked encouraged and chased after the walker as Lucy fished some loose aspirin and a bottle of nitroglycerin pills from his pocket. He swallowed the nitro and the aspirin dry. Across the road a freshet that was called a brook on the topographical maps gushed with brown sediment to the salt meadows that extended three miles through rain-tattered fog to the sea.
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