In the middle of the journey of our life,
I came to myself within a dark wood where
the straight way was lost.
- Dante Alighieri,
from The Divine Comedy
El lobo pierde los dientes más no las mientes.
[The wolf loses his teeth, not his nature.]
- Mexican-American saying
Like her sister, Bettina San Miguel was a small, slender woman in her mid- twenties, dark-haired and darker-eyed; part Indios, part Mexican, part something older still. Growing up, they'd often been mistaken for twins, but Bettina was a year younger and, unlike Adelita, she had never learned to forget. The little miracles of the long ago lived on in her, passed down to her from their abuela, and her grandmother before her. It was a gift that skipped a generation, tradition said.
"!Tradición, pah!" their mother was quick to complain when the opportunity arose. "You call it a gift, but I call it craziness."
Their abuela would nod and smile, but she still took the girls out into the desert, sometimes in the early morning or evening, sometimes in the middle of the night. They would leave empty-handed, be gone for hours and return with full bellies, without thirst. Return with something in their eyes that made their mother cross herself, though she tried to hide the gesture.
"They miss too much school," she would say.
"Time enough for the Anglo's school when they are older," Abuela replied.
"And church? If they die out there with you, their sins unforgiven?"
"The desert is our church, its roof the sky. Do you think the Virgin and los santos ignore us because it has no walls? Remember, hija, the Holy Mother was a bride of the desert before she was a bride of the church."
Mamá would shake her head, muttering, "Nosotras estamos locas todas." We are all crazy. And that would be the end of it. Until the next time.
Then Adelita turned twelve and Bettina watched the mysteries fade in her sister's eyes. She still accompanied them into the desert, but now she brought paper and a pencil, and rather than learn the language of la lagartija, she would try to capture an image of the lizard on her paper. She no longer absorbed the history of the landscape; instead she traced the contours of the hills with the lead in her pencil. When she saw the el halcón winging above the desert hills, she saw only a hawk, not a brujo or a mystic like their father, caught deep in a dream of flight. Her own dreams were of boys and she began to wear make-up.
All she had learned, she forgot. Not the details, not the stories. Only that they were true.
But Bettina remembered.
"You taught us both," she said to her abuela one day when they were alone. They sat stone-still in the shadow cast by a tall saguaro, watching a coyote make its way with delicate steps down a dry wash. "Why is it only I remember?"
The coyote paused in mid-step, lifting its head at the sound of her voice, ears quivering, eyes liquid and watchful.
"You were the one chosen," Abuela said.
The coyote darted up the bank of the wash, through a stand of palo verde trees, and was gone. Bettina turned back to her grandmother.
"But why did you choose me?" she asked.
"It wasn't for me to decide," Abuela told her. "It was for the mystery. There could only be one of you, otherwise la brujería would only be half so potent."
"But how can she just forget? You said we were magic—that we were both magic."
"And it is still true. Adelita won't lose her magic. It runs too deep in her blood. But she won't remember it, not like you do. Not unless...."
"You die before you have a granddaughter of your own."
* * *
Tonight Bettina sat by the window at a kitchen table many miles from the desert of her childhood, the phone propped under one ear so that she could speak to Adelita while her hands remained free to sort through the pile of milagros spilled across the table. Her only light source was a fat candle that stood in a cracked porcelain saucer, held in place by its own melted wax.
She could have turned the overhead on. There was electricity in the house—she could hear it humming in the walls and it made the old fridge grumble in the corner from time to time—but she preferred the softer illumination of the candle to electric lighting. It reminded her of firelight, of all those nights sitting around out back of Adelita's house north of Tubac, and she was in a campfire mood tonight. Talking with her sister did that, even if they were a half continent and a few time zones apart, connected only by the phone and the brujería in their blood.
The candlelight glittered on the small silver votive offerings and made shadows dance in the corners of the room whenever Bettina moved her arm. Those shadows continued to dance when the candle's flame pointed straight up at the ceiling once more, but she ignored them. They were like the troubles that come in life—the more attention one paid to them, the more likely they were to stay. They were like the dark-skinned men who had gathered outside the house again tonight.
Every so often they came drifting up through the estates that surrounded Kellygnow, a dozen or so tall, lean men, squatting on their haunches in a rough circle in the backyard, eyes so dark they swallowed light. Bettina had no idea what brought them. She only knew they were vaguely related to her grandmother's people, distant kin to the desert Indios whose blood Bettina and Adelita shared—very distant, for the memory of sea spray and a rich, damp green lay under the skin of their thoughts. This was not their homeland; their spirits spread a tangle of roots just below the surface of the soil, no deeper.
But like her uncles, they were handsome men, dark-skinned and hard-eyed, dressed in collarless white shirts and suits of black broadcloth. Barefoot, calluses hard as boot leather, and the cold didn't seem to affect them. Long black hair tied back, or twisted into braided ropes. They were silent, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes as they watched the house. Bettina could smell the burning tobacco from inside where she sat, smell the smoke, and under it, a feral, musky scent.
Their presence in the yard resonated like a vibration deep in her bones. She knew they lived like wolves, up in the hills north of the city, perhaps, running wild and alone except for times such as this. She had never spoken to them, never asked what brought them. Her abuela had warned her a long time ago not to ask questions of la brujería when it came so directly into one's life. It was always better to let such a mystery make its needs known in its own time.
"And of course, Mamá wants to know when you're coming home," Adelita was saying.
Usually they didn't continue this old conversation themselves. Their mother was too good at keeping it alive by herself.
"I am home," Bettina said. "She knows that."
"But she doesn't believe it."
"This is true. She was asking me the same thing when I talked to her last night. And then, of course, she wanted to know if I'd found a church yet, if the priest was a good speaker, had I been to confession...."
Adelita laughed. "!Por supuesto! At least she can't check up on you. Chuy's now threatening to move us to New Mexico."
"Why New Mexico?"
"Because of Lalo's band. With the money they made on that last tour, they had enough to put a down payment on this big place outside of Albuquerque. But it needs a lot of work and he wants to hire Chuy to do it. Lalo says there's plenty of room for all of us."
"That's right. You should have come to one of the shows."
But Bettina hadn't been speaking of the band from East L.A. Those lobos had given Lalo's band their big break by bringing them along on tour as their support act last year. The wolves she'd been referring to were out in the cold night that lay beyond the kitchen's windows.
She hadn't even meant to speak aloud. The words had been pulled out of her by a stirring outside, an echoing whisper deep in her bones. For a moment she'd thought the tall, dark men were coming into the house, that an explanation would finally accompany their enigmatic presence. But they were only leaving, slipping away among the trees.
"Bettina?" her sister asked. "?Estás ahí?"
Bettina let out a breath she hadn't been aware of holding. She didn't need to look out the window to know that the yard was now empty. It took her a moment to regain the thread of their conversation.
"I was just distracted for a moment," she said, then added, "What about the gallery? I can't imagine you selling it."
Adelita laughed. "Oh, we're not really going. It's bad enough that Lalo's moving so far away. Chuy's family would be heartbroken if we went as well. How would they be able to spoil Janette as much as they do now? And Mamá...."
"Would never forgive you."
Bettina went back to sorting through her milagros, fingering the votive offerings as they gossiped about the family and neighbours Bettina had left behind. Adelita always had funny stories about the tourists who came into the gallery and Bettina never tired of hearing about her niece Janette. She missed the neighbourhood and its people, her family and friends. And she missed the desert, desperately. But something had called to her from the forested hills that lay outside the city that was now her home. It had drawn her from the desert to this place where the seasons changed so dramatically: in summer so green and lush it took the breath away, in winter so desolate and harsh it could make the desert seem kind. The insistent mystery of it had nagged and pulled at her until she'd felt she had no choice but to come.
She didn't think the source of the summons lay with her uninvited guests, los lobos who came into the yard to smoke their cigarettes and silently watch the house. But she was sure they had some connection to it.
"What are you doing?" Adelita asked suddenly. "I keep hearing this odd little clicking sound."
"I'm just sorting through these milagros that Inés sent up to me. For a...." She hesitated a moment. "For a fetish."
Adelita didn't exactly disapprove of Bettina's vocation—not like their mother did—but she didn't quite understand it either. While she also drew on the stories their abuela had told them, she used them to fuel her art. She thought of them as fictions, resonant and powerful, to be sure, but ultimately quaint. Outdated views from an older, more superstitious world that were fascinating to explore because they jump-started the creative impulse, but not anything by which one could live in the modern world.
"Leave such things for the storytellers," she would say.
Such things, such things. Simple words to encompass so much.
Such as the fetish Bettina was making at the moment, part mojo charm, part amuleto: a small, cotton sack that would be filled with dark earth to swallow bad feelings. Pollen and herbs were mixed in with the earth to help the transfer of sorrow and pain from the one who would wear the fetish into the fetish itself. On the inside of the sack, tiny threaded stitches held a scrap of paper with a name written on it. A hummingbird's feather. A few small coloured beads. And, once she'd chosen exactly the right milagro, one of the silver votive offerings that Inés had sent her would be sewn inside as well.
Viewed from outside, the stitches appeared to spell words, but they were like the voices of ravens heard speaking in the woods. The sounds made by the birds sounded like words, but they weren't words that could be readily deciphered by untrained ears. They weren't human words.
This was one of the ways she focused her brujería. Other times, she called on the help of the spirits and los santos to help her interpret the cause of an unhappiness or illness.
"There is no one method of healing," her grandmother had told her once. "Just as la Virgen is not bound by one faith."
"One face?" Bettina had asked, confused.
"That, too," Abuela said, smiling. "La medicina requires only your respect and that you accept responsibility for all you do when you embark upon its use."
"But the herbs. The medicinal plants...."
"Por eso," Abuela told her. "Their properties are eternal. But how you use them, that is for you to decide." She smiled again. "We are not machines, chica. We are each of us different. Sin par. Unique. The measure given to one must be adjusted for another."
There was not a day went by that Bettina didn't think of and miss her grandmother. Her good company. Her humour. Her wisdom. Sighing, she returned her attention to her sister.
"You can't play at the brujería all your life," Adelita was saying, her voice gentle.
"It's not play for me."
"Bettina, we grew up together. You're not a witch."
"No, I'm a healer."
There was an immense difference between the two, as Abuela had often pointed out. A bruja made dark, hurtful magic. A curandera healed.
"A healer," Bettina repeated. "As was our abuela."
"Was she?" Adelita asked.
Bettina could hear the tired smile in Adelita's voice, but she didn't share her sister's amusement.
"?Cómo?" she said, her own voice sharper than she intended. "How can you deny it?"
Adelita sighed. "There is no such thing as magic. Not here, in the world where we live. La brujería is only for stories. Por el reino de los suenos. It lives only in dreams and make-believe."
"You've forgotten everything."
"No, I remember the same as you. Only I look at the stories she told us with the eyes of an adult. I know the difference between what is real and what is superstition."
Except it hadn't only been stories, Bettina wanted to say.
"I loved her, too," Adelita went on. "It's just...think about it. The way she took us out into the desert. It was like she was trying to raise us as wild animals. What could Mamá have been thinking?"
"That's not it at all—"
"I'll tell you this. Much as I love our mamá, I wouldn't let her take Janette out into the desert for hours on end the way she let Abuela take us. In the heat of the day and... how often did we go out in the middle of the night?"
"You make it sound so wrong."
"Cálmate, Bettina. I know we survived. We were children. To us it was simply fun. But think of what could have happened to us—two children out alone in the desert with a crazy old woman."
"She was not—"
"Not in our eyes, no. But if we heard the story from another?"
"It...would seem strange," Bettina had to admit. "But what we learned—"
"We could have learned those stories at her knee, sitting on the front stoop of our parents' house."
"And if they weren't simply stories?"
"!Qué boba eres! What? Cacti spirits and talking animals? The past and future, all mixed up with the present. What did she call it?"
"La época del mito."
"That's right. Myth time. I named one of my gallery shows after it. Do you remember?"
It had been a wonderful show. La Gata Verde had been transformed into a dreamscape that was closer to some miraculous otherwhere than it was to the dusty pavement that lay outside the gallery. Paintings, rich with primary colours, depicted los santos and desert spirits and the Virgin as seen by those who'd come to her from a different tradition than that put forth by the Papal authority in Rome. There had been Hopi kachinas—the Storyteller, Crow Woman, clowns, deer dancers—and tiny, carved Zuni fetishes. Wall hangings rich with allegorical representations of Indios and Mexican folk lore. And Bettina's favourite: a collection of sculptures by the Bisbee artist, John Early—surreal figures of grey, fired clay, decorated with strips of coloured cloth and hung with threaded beads and shells and spiralling braids of copper and silver filament. The sculptures twisted and bent like smoke-people frozen in their dancing, captured in mid-step as they rose up from the fire.
She had stood in the center of the gallery the night before the opening of the show and turned slowly around, drinking it all in, pulse drumming in time to the resonance that arose from the art that surrounded her. For one who didn't believe, Adelita had still somehow managed to gather together a show that truly seemed to represent their grandmother's description of a moment stolen from la época del mito.
"Not everything in the world relates to art," Bettina said now into the phone.
"No. But perhaps it should. Art is what sets us apart from the animals."
Bettina couldn't continue the conversation. At times like this, it was as though they spoke two different languages, where the same word in one meant something else entirely in the other.
"It's late," she said. "I should go."
"Perdona, Bettina. I didn't mean to make you angry."
She wasn't angry, Bettina thought. She was sad. But she knew her sister wouldn't understand that either.
"I know," she said. "Give my love to Chuy and Janette."
"Sí. Vaya con Dios."
And if He will not have me? Bettina thought. For when all was said and done, God was a man, and she had never fared well in the world of men. It was easier to live in la época del mito of her abuela. In myth time, all were equal. People, animals, plants, the earth itself. As all times were equal and existed simultaneously.
"Qué te vaya bien," she said. Take care.
She cradled the receiver and finally chose the small shape of a dog from the milagros scattered across the tabletop. El lobo was a kind of a dog, she thought. Perhaps she was making this fetish for herself. She should sew her own name inside, instead of Marty Gibson's, the man who had asked her to make it for him. Ah, but would it draw los lobos to her, or keep them away? And which did she truly want?
Getting up from the table, she crossed the kitchen and opened the door to look outside. Her breath frosted in the air where the men had been barefoot. January was a week old and the ground was frozen. It had snowed again this week, after a curious Christmas thaw that had left the ground almost bare in many places. The wind had blown most of the snow off the lawn where the men had gathered, pushing it up in drifts against the trees and the buildings scattered among them: cottages and a gazebo, each now boasting a white skirt. She could sense a cold front moving in from the north, bringing with it the bitter temperatures that would leave fingers and face numb after only a few minutes of exposure. Yet some of the men had been in short sleeves, broadcloth suit jackets slung over their shoulders, all of them walking barefoot on the frozen lawn.
She didn't think they were men at all.
"Your friends are gone."
"Ellos no son mis amigos," she said, then realized that speaking for so long with Adelita on the phone had left her still using Spanish. "They aren't my friends," she repeated. "I don't know who, or even what they are."
"Perhaps they are ghosts."
"Perhaps," Bettina agreed, though she didn't think so. They were too complicated to be described by so straightforward a term.
She gazed out into the night a moment longer, then finally closed the door on the deepening cold and turned to face the woman who had joined her in the kitchen.
If los lobos were an elusive, abstracted mystery, then Nuala Fahey was one much closer to home, though no more comprehendible. She was a riddling presence in the house, her mild manner at odds with the potent brujería Bettina could sense in the woman's blood. This was an old, deep spirit, not some simple ama de llaves, yet in the nine months that Bettina had been living in the house, Nuala appeared to busy herself with no more than her housekeeping duties. Cleaning, cooking, the light gardening that Salvador left for her. The rooms were always dusted and swept, the linens and bedding fresh and sweet-smelling. Meals appeared when they should, with enough for all who cared to partake of them. The flower gardens and lawns were well-tended, the vegetable patch producing long after the first frost.
She was somewhere in her mid-forties, a tall, handsome woman with striking green eyes and a flame of red hair only vaguely tamed into a loose bun at the back of her head. While her wardrobe consisted entirely of men's clothes—pleated trousers and dress shirts, tweed vests and casual sports jackets—there was nothing mannish about her figure or her demeanor. Yet neither was she as passive as she might seem. True, her step was light, her voice soft and low. She might listen more than she spoke, and rarely initiate a conversation as she had this evening, but there was still that undercurrent of brujería that lay like smoldering coals behind her eyes. La brujería, and an impression that while the world might not always fully engage her, something in it certainly amused her.
Bettina had been trying to make sense of the housekeeper ever since they'd met, but she was no more successful now, nine months on, than she'd been the first day Nuala opened the front door and welcomed her into Kellygnow, the old house at the top of the hill that was now her home. "Kellygnow," she learned after she moved in, meant "the nut wood" in some Gaelic language—though no one seemed quite sure which one. But there were certainly nut trees on the hill. Oak, hazel, chestnut.
There were many things Bettina hadn't been expecting about this place Adelita had found for her to stay. The mystery of Nuala was only one of them. Kellygnow was much bigger than she'd been prepared for, an enormous rambling structure with dozens of bedrooms, studios and odd little room-sized nooks, as well as a half-dozen cottages in the woods out back. The property was larger, too—especially for this part of the city—taking up almost forty acres of prime real estate. With the neighbouring properties ranging in the million dollar-and-up range, Bettina couldn't imagine what the house and its grounds were worth. Its neighbours were all owned by stockbrokers and investors, bankers and the CEOs of multi-national corporations, celebrities and the nouveau riche—a far cry from the Bohemian types Bettina shared her lodgings with.
For Kellygnow was a writers' and artists' colony, founded at the turn of the century by Sarah Hanson, a descendant of the original owner. She had been a respected artist and essayist in her time, a rarity at the turn of the century, but was now better remembered for the haven she had created for her fellow artists and writers.
The colony was the oldest property in the area, standing alone at the top of Handfast Road with a view that would do the Newford Tourist Board's pamphlets proud. There was a tower, four stories high in the northwest corner of the house. From the upper windows of one side you could look down on the city: Ferryside, the river, Foxville, Crowsea, downtown, the canal, the East Side. At night, the various neighbourhoods blended into an Indios traders' market, the lights spread out like the sparkling trinkets on a hundred blankets. From another window you could see, first the estates that made up the Beaches; below them, rows of tasteful condos blending into the hillside; beyond them, the lakefront properties; and then finally the lake itself, shimmering in the starlight, ice rimming the shore in thick, playful displays of abstract whimsy. Far in the distance the ice thinned out, ending in open water.
The view behind the house was blocked by trees. Hazels and chestnuts. Tamaracks and cedar, birch and pine. Most impressive were the huge towering oaks that, she learned later, were thought to be part of the original growth forest that had once laid claim to all the land in an unbroken sweep from the Kickaha Mountains down to the shores of the lake. These few giants had been spared the axes of homesteaders and lumbermen alike by the property's original owner, Virgil Hanson, whose home had been one of the cottages that still stood out back. It was, Bettina had been told, the oldest building in Newford, a small stone croft topping the wooded hill long before the first Dutch settlers had begun to build along the shores of the river below.
Adelita had never lived in Kellygnow, but before moving back home to Tubac and opening her gallery, she had studied fine art at Butler University and some of her crowd had been residents. It would be the prefect place for Bettina, she said. Let her handle it. She would make a few calls. Everything would be arranged.
"I'm not an artist or a writer," Bettina had said.
"No, but you're an excellent model, and in that house, one good model would be more welcome than a dozen of the world's best artists. Créeme. Trust me. Only don't tell Mamá or she'll have both our heads."
No, Bettina had thought. Mamá would definitely not approve. Mamá was already upset enough that Bettina was moving. If she were to know that her youngest daughter expected to make her living by being paid to sit for artists, often in the nude, she would be horrified.
Bettina had thought to only stay in the house for as long as it took her to find an apartment in the city. She was given one of the nooks to make her own—a small space under a staircase that opened up into a hidden room twice the size of her bedroom at home. There was a recessed window looking out on the backyard, overhung with ivy on the outside and with just room enough for her to sit on its sill if she pulled her knees up to her chin. There was also a single brass bed with shiny, knobbed posts and a cedar chest at its foot that lent the room a resonant scent. A small pine armoire. A worn, black leather reading chair with a tall glass-shaded lamp beside it, both "borrowed" from the library at some point, she was sure, since they matched its furnishings. And wonder of wonders, a piece of John Early's work: a grey, fired-clay sculpture of the Virgin wearing a quizzical smile, blue-robed and decorated with a halo of porcupine quills cunningly worked into the clay and painted gold. In front of the statue, that first day, she found a half burned candle—someone had been using the statue as the centerpiece for their own small chapel of the Immaculata, she'd thought at first. Or perhaps they had simply enjoyed candlelight as much as she did.
Either way, she felt welcomed and blessed.
The one week turned into a month. Adelita had been right. The artists were delighted to have her in residence, constantly vying for her time in their studios. They were good company, as were the writers who only emerged from their quarters at odd times for meals or a sudden need to hear a human voice. And if their intentions were sometimes less than honourable—women as well as men—they were quick to respect her wishes and put the incident behind them.
The one month stretched into three, four. She needed no money for either rent or board, and had barely touched the savings she'd brought with her. Most mornings she sat for one or another of the artists, sometimes for a group of them. Her afternoons and evenings were usually her own. At first she explored the city, but when the weather turned colder, she cocooned in the house, reading, listening to music in one or another of the communal living rooms, often spending time in the company of the gardener Salvador and helping him prepare the property for winter.
And she began to trade her fetishes and charms. First to some of those living in the house, then to customers the residents introduced her to. As her abuela had taught her, she set no fee, asked for no recompense, but they all gave her something anyway. Mostly money, but sometimes books they thought she would like, or small pieces of original art—sketches, drawings, colour studies—which she preferred the most. Her walls were now decorated with her growing hoard of art while a stack of books rose thigh-high from the floor beside her chair.
The few months grew into a half year, and now the house felt like a home. She was no closer to discovering what had drawn her to this city, what it was that whispered in her bones from the hills to the north, but it didn't seem as immediate a concern as it had when she'd first stepped off the plane, her small suitcase in one hand, her knapsack on her back with its herbs, tinctures, and the raw materials with which she made her fetishes. The need to know was no longer so important. Or perhaps she was growing more patient—a concept that would have greatly amused her abuela. She could wait for the mystery to come to her.
As she knew it would. Her visions of what was to come weren't always clear, especially when they related to her, but of this she was sure. She had seen it. Not the details, not when or exactly where, or even what face the mystery would present to her. But she knew it would come. Until then, every day was merely another step in the journey she had undertaken when she first began to learn the ways of the spirit world at the knee of her abuela, only now the days took her down a road she no longer recognized, where the braid of her Indios and Mexican past became tangled with threads of cultures far less familiar.
But she was accepting of it all, for la época del mito had always been a confusing place for her. When she was in myth time, she was often too easily distracted by all the possibilities: that what had been might really be what was to come, that what was to come might be what already was. Mostly she had difficulty with the true face of a thing. She mixed up its spirit with its physical presence. Its true essence with the mask it might be wearing. Its history with its future. It didn't help that Newford was like the desert, a place readily familiar with spirits and ghosts and strange shifts in what things seemed to be. Where many places held only held a quiet whisper of the otherwhere, here thousands of voices murmured against one another and sometimes it was hard to make out one from the other.
The house at the top of Handfast Road where she now lived was a particularly potent locale. Kellygnow, and its surrounding wild acres, appeared to be a crossroads between time zones and spirit zones, something that had seemed charming and pleasantly mysterious until los lobos began to squat in its backyard, smoking their cigarettes and watching, watching. Now she couldn't help but wonder if their arrival spelled the end of her welcome here.
"You might not know them," Nuala said as though in response to her worries, "but you called them here all the same."
Bettina shook her head. "I doubt it," she tried, willing it to be true. "They are spirits of this place and I am the stranger."
But Nuala, la brujería less hidden in her eyes than Bettina had ever seen it before, shook her head.
"No," she said. "They are as much strangers as you are. They have only been here longer."
Bettina nodded. The shallow rooting of their spirits said as much.
"How do you know this?" she asked.
Nuala hesitated for a long moment before she finally replied. "I recognize them from my childhood. They are spirits of my homeland, only these have been displaced and set to wandering after they made the mistake of following the emigrant ships to this new land. They watched me, too, when I first arrived in Kellygnow."
Bettina regarded her with interest. "What did they want?"
"I never asked, but what do men ever want? For a woman to forsake all and go running with them, out into the wild. For us to lift our skirts and spread our legs for them."
Bettina tried to imagine Nuala in a skirt.
"But they grew tired of waiting," the older woman said. "They went their way and I remained, and I haven't seen them now for many years." She paused, then added, "Until you called to them."
"I didn't call them."
"You didn't have to. You're young and pretty and enchantment runs in your veins as easily as blood. Is it so odd that they come like bees to your flower?"
"I thought they were part of...the mystery," Bettina said.
"There's no mystery as to what they want," Nuala told her. "But perhaps I am being unfair. As I said, I've never spoken to them, never asked what they wanted from me. Perhaps they only wished for news of our homeland, of those they'd left behind."
Bettina nodded. Spirits were often hungry for gossip.
"Sometimes," she said, "what one mistakes for spirits are in fact men, travelling in spirit form."
"I've never met such," Nuala told her.
Nuala might not have, but when she was younger, Bettina had. Many of them had been related to her by blood. Her father and her uncles and their friends, Indios all, would gather together in the desert in a similar fashion as los lobos did in the yard outside the house here. Squatting in a circle, sharing a canteen, smoking their cigarettes, sometimes calling up the spirit of the mescal, swallowing the small buttons that they'd harvested from the dome-shaped cacti in New Mexico and Texas.
Peyoteros, Abuela called them.
At first, Bettina had thought it was a tribal designation—like Yaqui, Apache, Tohono O'odham—but then Abuela had explained how they followed another road into the mystery from the one she and her abuela followed, that the peyote buttons they ate, the mescal tea they drank, was how they stepped into la época del mito. Bettina decided they were still a tribe, only connected to each other by their visions rather than their genes.
"Where I come from," she told Nuala, "such men seek a deeper understanding of the world and its workings."
"But you are no longer where you come from," Nuala said.
This was true.
"And understand," Nuala went on. "Such beings answer only to themselves. No one holds you personally responsible for their presence. I'm simply making conversation. Offering an observation, nothing more."
"And perhaps a caution," Nuala added. "They are like wolves, those spirits."
Bettina nodded. "Los lobos," she said.
"Indeed. And what you must remember about wolves is that they cannot be tamed. They might seem friendly, but in their hearts they remain wild creatures. Feral. Incorrigibly amoral. It's not that they are evil. They simply see the world other than we do, see it in a way that we can never wholly understand."
She seemed to know a great deal about them, Bettina thought, for someone who had never spoken with them.
"And they are angry," Nuala said after a moment.
"Angry?" Bettina asked. "With whom?"
Nuala shrugged. "With me, certainly."
Again there was that long moment of hesitation.
"Because I have what they lack," Nuala finally said. "I have a home. A place in this new world that I can call my own."
The housekeeper smiled then. Her gaze became mild, la brujería in her eyes diminishing into a distant smolder once more.
"It's late," she said. "I should be in bed." She moved to the door, pausing in the threshold. "Aren't you sitting for Chantal in the morning? You should try to get some rest yourself."
"Good. Sleep well."
Bettina nodded. "Gracias," she said. "You, too."
But she was already speaking to Nuala's back.
What an odd conversation, she thought as she went over to the table and began to put the milagros back into the envelope she had taken them from earlier. Nuala, who so rarely offered an opinion, little say started a conversation, had been positively gregarious this evening.
Bettina's gaze strayed to the window. She couldn't see beyond the dark pane, but she remembered. After a moment, she took down someone's parka from the peg where it hung by the door and put it on. It was far too big for her, but style wasn't the issue here. Warmth was. Giving the kitchen a last look, she slipped out the door.
It was already colder than it had been earlier. Frosted grass crunched under her shoes as she walked to where the men had been watching the house. There was no sign now that they'd ever been. They'd even taken their cigarette butts with them when they'd withdrawn from the yard.
She considered how they would have gone. First into the trees, then down the steep slope to where these few wild acres came up hard against the shoulders of the city. From there, on to the distant mountains. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they made their home here, in the city.
She closed her eyes, imagining them loping through the city's streets. Had they even kept to human form, or was there now a wolf pack running through the city? Perhaps a scatter of wild dogs since dogs would be less likely to attract unwanted attention. Or had they taken to the air as hawks, or crows?
Knowing as little as she did about them, it was impossible to say.
She walked on, past the gazebo, into the trees where, in places, snow lay in thick drifts. The cottages were all dark, their occupants asleep. A thin trail of smoke rose from the chimney of Virgil Hanson's, the only one of the six to have a working fireplace. She regarded it curiously for a moment, wondering who was inside. In all the months that she had been living here, that cottage had stood empty.
Past the buildings, the trees grew more closely together. She followed a narrow trail through the undergrowth, snow constantly underfoot now, but it had a hard crust under a few inches of the more recent fall, and held her weight.
There was no indication that anyone had been this way before her. At least not since the last snowfall.
There was a spot at the back of the property, an enormous jut of granite that pushed out of the wooded slope and offered a stunning view of the city spread out for miles, all the way north to the foothills of the mountains. Bettina was careful as she climbed up the back of it. Though there was no snow, she remembered large patches of ice from when she'd been here a week or so ago. In the summer, they would sometimes sit out near the edge, but she was feeling nowhere near so brave today. She went only so far as she needed to get a view of the mountains, then straightened up and looked north.
At first she couldn't tell what was wrong. When it came to her, her legs began to tremble and she shivered in her borrowed parka with it's long dangling sleeves.
"Dios mío," she said, her voice a hoarse whisper.
There were no lights from the city to be seen below. None at all.
She felt dizzy and backed slowly away until she could clutch the trunk of one of the tamaracks that grew up around the rock. For a long moment, it was all that kept her upright. She looked back, past the edge of the stone where normally the glow of the city would rise up above the tops of the trees, but the sky was the dark of a countryside that had never known light pollution. The stars felt as though they were closer to her than she'd ever seen them in the city. They were desert stars, displaced to this land, as feral as the los lobos.
Myth time, she thought. She'd drifted into la época del mito without knowing it, walked into a piece of the past where the city didn't exist yet, or perhaps into the days to come when it was long gone.
"It is easier to stray into another's past than it is to find one's way out again," someone said.
The voice came from the trees, the speaker invisible in the undergrowth and shadows, but she didn't have to see him to know that he was one of los lobos. "We are wise women," Abuela liked to say. "Not because we are wise, but because we seek wisdom." And then she'd smile, adding, "Which in the end, is what makes us seem so wise to others." But Bettina didn't feel particularly wise tonight, for she knew what he'd said was true. It was not so uncommon to step unawares into myth time and never emerge again into the present.
"Who's to say I strayed?" she said, putting on a much braver face than she felt.
With a being such as this, it was always better to at least pretend you knew what you were doing. Still, she wished now that she'd taken the time to invoke the protection of Saint Herve before going out into the night. He would know how to deal with wolves—those who walked on two legs, as well as those who ran on four.
El lobo stepped from out of the shadows, a tall, lean form, smelling of cigarette smoke and musk. There was enough light for her to catch the look of mild amusement in his features and to see that he was indeed, oh so handsome. After all those nights of watching him from the window, his proximity, the smell and too-alive presence of him, was like an enchantment. She had to stop herself from stepping close, into his embrace. But she had enough brujería of her own to know that there was no enchantment involved. It was simply the man he was. Dangerous, perhaps, and far too handsome.
"Ah," he said. "I see. And so it was simple delight at your success and not surprise that made you dizzy."
"And now?" he asked.
"Now, nothing. I'm going home to bed."
He leaned back against a tree, arms crossed, smiling.
Bettina sighed, knowing that el lobo was now waiting for her to step back into her own world, confident she wouldn't be able to. And then what? When he decided she was helpless, what would he do? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps he would bargain with her, his help in exchange for something that would seem like poquito, nada, yet it would prove to cost her dearly once he collected. Or perhaps his kind had other, less pleasant uses for las curanderas tontas who were so foolish as to stumble into such a situation in the first place. She remembered what Nuala had said about the wolves who'd come to watch her, how they were waiting for her to lift her skirts, to spread her legs. Handsome or not, she would not let it happen, no matter how attracted to him she might be.
She stifled another sigh as the quiet lengthened between them.
He could wait forever, she knew, amused and patient. ?Pero, qué tiene? She could be patient, too. And she could find her own way home. All she needed was a moment to compose herself, enough quiet for her to be able to concentrate on the threads of her spirit that still connected her to the world she'd inadvertently left behind. She needed only the time to find them, to gather them up and follow them back home again.
Behind el lobo there was movement in the forest, a small shape that darted in between the trees too quickly for her to see clearly. There was only a flash of small, pale limbs. Of large, luminous eyes. Here, then gone. A child, she thought at first, then shook her head. No, not in this place. More likely it had been some espíritu. Un duende—an imp, an elf. Some creature of the otherwhere.
Eh, bueno. She would not let it bother her.
She unzipped the front of her parka and let it hang open.
"It's warmer here," she said.
El Lobo nodded. His nostrils flared, testing the air. "The air tastes of autumn."
But what autumn? Bettina wanted to ask. Though perhaps the true question should be, whose autumn? And how far away did it lie from her own time? But then a more immediate riddle rose up to puzzle her.
"You're not speaking English," she said.
"Neither are you."
It was true. She was speaking Spanish while he spoke whatever language it was that he spoke. It held no familiarity, yet she could understand him perfectly.
He smiled. "Enchantment," he said.
She smiled back, feeling more confident. Of course. This was myth time. But while he might appear mysterious and strong, in this place her own brujería was potent as well. She wasn't some hapless tourist who had wandered too far into uncertain territory. The landscape might be unfamiliar, but she was no stranger to la época del mito. She might find it confusing at times, but she refused to let it frighten her.
El Lobo pushed away from the tree. "Come," he said. "Let me show you something."
She shrugged and followed him into the forest, retracing the way she'd come earlier, only here there was no snow. There were no outlying cottages, either. No gazebo, no house with its tower nestled in between the tall trees. But there was a hut made of woven branches and cedar boughs where Virgil Hanson's original cottage stood in her world, and further on, a break in the undergrowth where the main house should have been—a clearing of sorts, rough and uncultivated, but recognizably the dimensions of the house's gardens and lawn.
Bettina paused for a moment at the edge of the trees, both enchanted and mildly disoriented at how the familiar had been made strange. She could hear rustlings in the undergrowth—los mitos chicos y los espíritus, scurrying about their secret business—but caught no more glimpses of any of them.
El lobo took her to where, in her time, Salvador kept his carp pond. Here the neat masonry of its low walls had been replaced by a tumble of stones, piled haphazardly around the small pool water, but the hazel trees still leaned over the pool on one side. Lying on the grass along the edges of the pond was a clutter of curious objects. Shed antlers and posies of dried and fresh flowers. Shells and coloured beads braided into leather bracelets and necklaces. Baskets woven from willow, grass and reeds, filled with nuts and berries. On the stones themselves small carvings had been left, like bone and wood milagros. Votive offerings, but to whom? Or perhaps, rather, to what?
When they reached the edge of the pool, her companion pointed to something in the water. Bettina couldn't make out what it was at first. Then she realized it was an enormous fish of some sort. Not one of Salvador's carp, though she'd heard they could grow to this size.
The fish floated in the water, motionless. She had the urge to poke at it with one of the antlers, to see if it would move.
"Is...is it dead?" she asked.
Bettina blinked. Did fish sleep? she wondered, then put the question aside. This was la época del mito. Here the world operated under a different set of natural laws.
"What sort of a fish is it?" she asked.
She glanced at him, hearing something expectant in his voice, as though its being a salmon should mean something to her.
"And so?" she said.
El lobo smiled. "This is a part of the mystery you seek."
"What do you know of me or what I might be looking for?"
"Of you, little enough. Of the other...." He shrugged. "Only that the older mysteries play at being salmon and such in order to keep their wisdoms hidden and safe."
Bettina waited, but nothing more was forthcoming. Fine, she thought. Speak in riddles, but you'll only be speaking to yourself. Ignoring him, she leaned closer to look at the sleeping fish. There seemed to be nothing remarkable about it, except for the size of it in such a small pool.
"If it were to wake," el lobo went on. "If it were to speak, and you were to understand its words, it would change everything. You would be changed forever."
"In what you were, what you are, what you will be. The mystery that you follow could well swallow you whole, then. Swallow you up and spit you out again as something unrecognizable because you would no longer be protected by your identity."
Bettina lifted her gaze from the pool and its motionless occupant to look at him.
"Is this true?" she asked.
As if he would tell her the truth. But he surprised her and gave what seemed to be an honest answer.
"Not now, perhaps. Not at this very moment. But it could be, if you bide here too long. We should go—before an bradán wakes."
An bradán. She understood it to mean the salmon, but whatever enchantment had been translating their conversation, passed over those two words. Perhaps because they named the fish as well as described it?
"Would that be so terrible?" she was about to ask.
For she found herself wanting to be here to see the salmon wake. To call it by name. An bradán. To watch its slow lazy movements through the water and hear it speak. To be changed.
But the question died stillborn as she turned back to the pool. On the far side of the water, a stranger was standing—a tall, older man, as dark-haired and dark-skinned as el lobo, but she knew immediately that he wasn't one of her companion's compadres. Los lobos were very male and there was something almost androgynous about the angular features of the stranger. He seemed to be a priest, in his black cassock and white collar, and what might be a rosary dangling from the fingers of one hand. There was an old-fashioned cut to his cassock, his hair, the style of his dusty boots. It was as though he'd stepped here directly from one of the old Missions back home. Stepped here, not only from the desert, but from the past as well.
His gaze rested thoughtfully on her and for a long moment she couldn't speak. Then he looked down at the water. She followed his gaze to see the salmon stirring, but before it could wake, before it could speak, el lobo pulled her away from the fountain and the priest, out of myth time into the cold night of her own world, her own time.
They stood beside Salvador's carp pond, the water frozen. From nearby, the windows of the house cast squares of pale light across the lawn. Bettina shivered and drew the loose flaps of her borrowed parka closer about her, holding them shut with her folded arms.
"Who was that man?" she asked.
"I saw no man," el lobo replied.
"There was a padre...standing across from us, on the other side of the pool...."
Her companion smiled. "There was no man," he said. "Only you and I and the spirits of the otherwhere."
"Bueno. Then it was a spirit I saw, for he was nothing like you or your friends."
His smile returned, mildly mocking. "And what are we like?"
Bettina merely shrugged.
"You think of us as wolves." "So now you read minds?" Bettina asked.
"I don't need to. I can read eyes. You are wary of us, of our wild nature."
"I'm wary of any stranger I meet in the woods at night."
He ignored that. "Perhaps you are wise to be wary. We are not such simple creatures as your Spanish wolves."
Bettina raised her eyebrows. "Then what are you?"
"In the old land, they called us an felsos, but it was out of fear. The same way they spoke of the fairies as their Good Neighbours."
They were no longer in myth time, so there was no convenient translation for the term he'd used to describe himself. She still spoke Spanish, but he had switched to an accented English. She hadn't noticed until this moment.
"What do you want from me?" she asked.
"I could be a friend."
"And if I don't want a wolf for a friend?" Again that smile of his. "Did I say I was your friend?"
Before she could respond, he turned and stepped away. Not simply into the forest, but deeper and further away, into la época del mito. Bettina had no intention of following him, though his sudden disappearance woke a whisper of disappointment in her.
She stood for a long moment, looking down at the frozen surface of the pond, then into the trees. Finally she shook her head and began to make her way back to the house. As she crossed the frozen lawn, she caught a flutter of movement in one of the secondfloor windows, as though a curtain had been held back and had now fallen back into place. It took her a moment to remember whose window it was. Nuala's.
She kept on walking, eager for the warmth inside. In the few brief moments since el lobo had brought her back into her own time, the bitter cold had already worked its way under her borrowed parka and was nibbling deep at her bones. But she was barely aware of her discomfort.
There was so much to think upon.
Qué extrano. How strange the night had turned.
We live in a fallen world where good people
Two nights later; Tuesday, January 13th
suffer because of the actions of others.
- overheard at a funeral
The media couldn't stop discussing the see-sawing weather.
Not so long ago, it was all talk of the Christmas thaw, but then it snowed again last week and for the past two days the deep freeze that had gripped the city through most of December had descended once more. The thermometer registered a bitter minus-twenty Celsius yesterday as commuters began their exodus back into the 'burbs. By midnight the mercury had dropped to almost minus-thirty, not taking into account the wind-chill factor. With the biting northern winds factored in, you could subtract at least another twenty degrees tonight.
It was the kind of cold that gave Ellie Jones nightmares. She'd dream she was one of the homeless people they were trying to help with the Angel Outreach program, that she was stumbling for block upon frozen block on numbed feet, looking for a warm grate, an alleyway, any place she could get out of the wind, away from the cold. When she finally woke, shivering and chilled, it was only to find that sometime during the night she'd kicked her comforter off the bed. All she had to do was pull it back up under her chin and she'd be warm again.
But it didn't work that way for the people who had no home.
It was cold in the van, too, as she and Tommy Raven made their rounds. The ancient vehicle's heater was set on high, but the lukewarm air it pumped could barely made a dent against the cold. Of course in the summer you couldn't get the stupid thing to shut off, but Ellie would gladly trade a sweltering summer's night for this cold. The metal walls of the van kept out the wind, but she could still see her breath. Frost fogged the edges of the window, crawling across the glass with dogged persistence.
"Tell me again why we're doing this," she said as she scraped her side window, creating a miniature snowfall that fell across her legs and the seat.
Tommy smiled. "I don't know about you, but I'm only in it to get rich and meet girls."
She arched an eyebrow and Tommy's smile widened.
"Or was that when I was thinking of starting up a rock band?" he said, returning his attention to the street ahead.
"I didn't know you were a musician. What instrument do you play?"
"I'm not. I don't. That's why the band never got off the ground and I'm driving this van tonight."
She punched him in the arm, but she laughed. In this kind of work you'd take the smallest sliver of humour and play it out. You needed it to help balance the way your heart broke a dozen times a night.
Tommy slowed down near the mouth of an alley, tires crunching on the hard snow that edged the pavement. Ellie almost didn't see the man, huddled up between stacks of newspaper that were waiting to be recycled. By the time Tommy stopped the van, the man had gotten to his feet and shuffled off, deeper into the alley. Ellie pulled her hat down so that the flannel side flaps covered her ears and got out. The blast of cold wind that hit her when she stepped onto the pavement almost made her lose her balance—the streets were like wind tunnels because of the tall office buildings rearing up on either side. She peered down the alley and saw that the man had already disappeared from view. Shrugging, she left a sandwich in a brown bag, a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a blanket where he'd been sitting.
She knew the man would be back as soon as they drove off. The only reason he'd fled was because he was afraid they'd try to take him to a shelter. It was no use telling some of them that they'd only take them if they wanted to go. At this point they didn't trust anyone.
The van felt almost toasty when she was back inside.
"What do you think?" Tommy said. "You want to swing back to Bennett Street and see if that kid's changed her mind?"
Her name was Chrissy. Fifteen, shapeless in the old parka they'd given her a couple of nights ago, not even close to pretty or some pimp would have already turned her out. Ellie had talked to her a half dozen times already, trying to get her into one of the programs that Angel administered from her Grasso Street storefront office, but with no luck.
"She won't have," Ellie said. "But I'm willing to give it another shot."
Tommy sighed. "She's a disaster waiting to happen."
Ellie nodded. If the weather didn't get her, some predator would. You didn't have to be pretty to be a victim.
They stopped on Palm Street where a covey of prostitutes, shivering as much from their need for a fix as from the cold, flagged them down for coffee and sandwiches. Then it was on to the Oxford Theatre where they'd seen Chrissy panhandling earlier in the evening. When they rolled to a stop in front of the building they saw that the girl was no longer hanging around. That made sense. The theatre crowd had gone home by now, taking with them the possibility of their handing out a bit of spare change. Ellie hoped Chrissy had found a place to spend the night, preferably someplace warm and safe, but what were the chances? More likely she was huddled on a hot air grate, too scared to close her eyes and sleep.
"Hang on," Ellie said as Tommy was about to pull away from the curb. "What's that?"
At first glance she'd thought it was only garbage, piled up in the snow outside the theatre, but now she saw that there was a body lying alongside the green garbage bags. She couldn't tell the sex or age. All she knew was that it was too still.
"Maybe you better let me check it out," Tommy said, but she didn't pay any attention to him.
Before he could stop her, she had her door open and was out on the sidewalk, running to where the body lay. A man. Obviously a street veteran, so it was impossible to judge his age. He could have been anywhere from his early thirties to his late fifties.
She went down on one knee and put a hand to his throat. No pulse. That was when she saw the yellowish liquid dribbling from the side of his mouth. Oh, shit. He'd choked on his own vomit.
"Call 911!" she cried to Tommy.
Pulling off her gloves, she worked his mouth open and scooped the vomit out with her fingers. Her own stomach gave a lurch. The liquid was thick and slimy and clung to her fingers, but after three or four tries, she got most of it out. He still wasn't breathing. Wiping her hand clean, she reached in again, finger hooked this time, feeling for whatever was blocking his air passage. She couldn't find it.
A quick glance to the van told her Tommy was still on the phone.
She returned her attention to the man, opened his coat. Kneeling astride his legs, she placed the heel of one hand just above his navel, the other hand on top of it, and gave a half dozen quick upward thrusts. This time when she swept his mouth with her finger, she found a wedge of some undefined spongy matter and managed to hook it out. When he still didn't begin breathing again, she started CPR.
First the chest compressions. After fifteen of them, she ventilated his lungs, gagging on the taste of his vomit. It was all she could do to not throw up herself. After two ventilations she went back to the chest compressions. Four cycles of this and she paused long enough to check for a pulse. Still nothing, so she continued with the CPR.
All she could taste, all she could smell, was his puke.
Don't even think about it, she told herself. Like it was possible not to.
The fourth time she ventilated his lungs, there was a gurgle deep in his throat, a faint rasp of breath. She paused, put two fingers against his carotid artery and checked his pulse again. Her hand was so cold, it was hard to tell. She put her cheek close to his mouth. Held her breath. Tried to ignore the sour taste in her own mouth. She felt a faint warmth on her cheek.
He was breathing.
She got off his legs and then Tommy was there to help her roll him into the recovery position—on his side, one leg pulled up.
"Here," Tommy said. "I've got some blankets."
She wanted to help cover the man up, but her own nausea was too much. Stumbling away, she threw up against the side of the building. Now the taste of vomit went all the way down her throat. She knew it was her own, but it still made her retch again. Nothing but a dry heave this time.
She leaned her head against the brick wall of the theatre, weak, stomach still lurching.
"Try some of this," Tommy said.
He appeared at her side, put an arm around her shoulders to support her and offered her a cup of coffee. It was the only liquid they had in the van. All they carried was the few necessities to help the street people get through another night of bitter winter cold. Coffee and sandwiches. Blankets. Parkas, winter boots, mittens, scarves.
She took a sip of the coffee, gargled with it. Spit it out. Rinsed her mouth again. Tommy had cooled it down with a lot of milk, but because of the taste in her mouth, the milk seemed to have gone off. Her stomach gave another lurch. Tommy regarded her with concern.
"I..." She cleared her throat, spat. "I'm okay. How's he doing?"
Tommy returned to the homeless man, bundled up with blankets now.
"Still breathing," he said after checking the man's pulse. "How're you doing?"
Ellie tried to smile. "Well, they never tell you about this kind of thing when you take that CPR course, do they?"
They could hear an approaching siren now. Ellie pushed herself to her feet and went to reclaim her gloves. Setting the coffee down on the pavement, she thrust her hands into a snowbank, dried them on her jeans. She put on her gloves. Tossing the remainder of the coffee away, she stuffed the empty cup into the mouth of one of the garbage bags.
"Got any mouthwash?" she asked.
"'Fraid not," Tommy said. "I must've left it at home with that love letter I got from Cindy Crawford this morning." He dug about in the pocket of his parka. "How about a mint?"
"You're a lifesaver."
"No, these are," he said and handed her a roll of peppermint Lifesavers.
The ambulance arrived before the mint had a chance to completely dissolve in her mouth. Retreating to the van, they let the paramedics take over. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, leaning against the side of the vehicle to watch as the medics lifted the man onto a stretcher, fitted him with an oxygen mask and IV, carried him back into the ambulance.
"My old man died like that," Tommy said. "So drunk he passed out on the pavement. Choked to death on his own puke."
"I didn't know that. I'm sorry."
Ellie shot him a surprised look.
Tommy sighed. "I know how that sounds. It's just...." He looked away, but not before she saw the pain in his eyes.
Sometimes Ellie thought she was the only person in the world who'd had a normal childhood. Loving parents. A good home. They hadn't been rich, but they hadn't wanted for anything either. There'd been no drinking in the house. No fights. No one had tried to abuse her, either at home or anywhere else. She could only imagine what it would be like to grow up otherwise.
She knew that Tommy had gone through one of Angel's programs, but she'd never really considered what had driven him to the streets, what nightmare he'd had to endure before Angel could find and help him. Most of the people who volunteered for Angel Outreach and the other programs had come from abusive environments. The ones who stuck it out, who got past the pain and learned how to trust and care again, almost invariably wanted to give something back. To offer a helping hand the way it had been offered to them when it didn't seem like anybody could possibly care.
But they'd still had to go through some kind of hell in the first place.
"Ten years ago," Tommy said, "if that had been my old man, I'd have let him lie there and just walked away. But not now. I wouldn't have liked him any better, but I'd have done what you did."
Ellie didn't know what to say.
Tommy turned to look at her. "I guess we've all got our war stories."
Except she didn't. She'd hadn't thought of it before, but most of the people she volunteered with must think that she, too, carried some awful truth around inside her. That, just as they had, she'd been through the nightmare and managed to come through the other side well enough to be able—to want—to help others. But the only war stories she knew were from the people she tried to help. She had none of her own.
Before she could think of a way to try to explain this, a police cruiser pulled up. Tommy pushed away from the van.
"I'll deal with them," he said.
Ellie let him go. She watched him talk to the two uniformed officers when they got out of their cruiser. The ambulance pulled away, siren off, cherry lights still flashing. When it rounded a corner, she turned back to the van, but paused before getting in. Even in this severe cold, the incident had managed to gather a half-dozen onlookers. A couple of obviously homeless men stood near where she'd thrown up. The others probably lived in one of the buildings nearby, cheap apartment complexes that had long since seen better days.
Opening the side door of the van, she put a couple of sandwiches in the pocket of her parka, then poured two coffees. She took them over to the homeless men. They hesitated for a moment, looked from her face to the legend on the side of the van before accepting the coffees and sandwiches.
"Who was it?" one of the men asked.
"I didn't get his name," she told them.
The other man took a sip of his coffee. "I'll bet it was Howard. Stupid fuck'd sleep anywhere."
"Would you like a ride to a shelter?" Ellie asked.
"Come on, pretty lady," the second man said. "Do we look that stupid?"
No matter how cold it got, some of the homeless would never go to a shelter. They were afraid of what little they had being stolen, of something bad happening to them—like the possibility of freezing to death was a good thing, but what could you do? Some were so used to being outside, they couldn't sleep indoors anymore. Like feral alleycats, the close, heated confines of a shelter made them strike out in panic, attacking a worker, each other, sometimes trashing the place.
"Tell Angel thanks for the coffee and the grub," the first man told her.
They turned their backs and headed off down the block, shoulders hunched against the cold.
"I will," she said.
"It's a wonder they survive."
Ellie looked at the man who'd spoken. He was one of the onlookers she'd noticed earlier, a tall, dark-skinned man who towered over her own five-ten frame. His grey overcoat was almost as threadbare as those of the two homeless men, but it didn't have the same slept-in, ratty look. Like her, he was wearing a hunter's cap, the ear flaps pulled down, except his was real sheepskin; hers was only a quilted wool. His eyes were alert, his features knife-sharp and aged by the passage of time, not alcohol abuse and hard living. Even with the cold, his overcoat was unbuttoned, flapping in the wind. He wore no scarf.
"It scares me," she said. "We've already had four homeless people die of exposure this year."
"That you know of."
She gave him a sharp look, then sighed. "That we know of," she agreed.
There were places in the city where a body could easily remain undiscovered until the spring thaw. There'd been one last year in the Tombs, half-eaten by rats and wild dogs by the time someone stumbled over it. Her stomach went all queasy again, just thinking about it.
"Do you have any more of that coffee?" the man asked.
She tried to place his accent as she led the way back to the van, but couldn't. His voice had a husky quality—like someone unused to speaking, or uncomfortable with the language. She also got the impression that he was well-educated, though she couldn't have said why. But it would have been some time ago, she decided, when the overcoat were still new.
After drawing him a coffee from the urn, she started to fill a second cup for herself, then quickly changed her mind. She didn't much care for black coffee, but the thought of adding milk to it made her feel nauseous again.
"Here," the man said. "Have a nip of this."
He took a silver flask from the inside pocket of his jacket and held it out to her. Just what she needed with the way she was feeling—a shot of cheap whiskey. But the peppermint she'd been sucking on earlier had lost its effect and anything would be better than this sour taste in her mouth and throat.
She took a sip, bracing herself, but the liquid went down smooth as silk, with the full-body of a fine brandy. Not until it had settled in her stomach did she realize the kick it had. She gasped and her eyes began to tear. But a fluttering warmth spread through her and the sour taste was finally gone. The liqueur held a faint bouquet of honey and herbs, of a field of wildflowers. It was like drinking a piece of summer and for a moment she almost thought she could hear the buzz of bees, feel the heat of a hot summer's day.
"Wow," she said and peered into the mouth of the flask. She caught a glimpse of a light, yellowish-amber liquid. "What is this stuff?"
"Metheglin," the man told her. "A kind of Welsh whiskey made from hops and honey. Have some more," he added when she started to hand the flask back.
Ellie did, this time rolling the liquid around in her mouth before finally swallowing it. She looked down at the flask, noting the fine filigree worked into the metal before her eyes teared up again. She drew in a sharp breath, savoring the bite of the cold as it hit the roof of her mouth.
"So where would you find it in a liquor store?" she asked. "Under whiskeys or...you said it was made from hops. That's like beer, right?"
Except she'd never tasted either a whiskey or a beer that was this good.
The man shook his head. "Can't be bought, I'm afraid. A friend of mine makes it and gives me the odd bottle."
"Nice friend to have."
"All friends are good to have."
"Well, sure...I just meant...."
"I understand," he said as her voice trailed off. "Sometimes I am too literal for my own good."
Ellie handed him the flask and watched it vanish back under his coat. He took a sip of his coffee and smiled at her over the top of the brim. Amiable and not in the least threatening, but there was something odd about him all the same, something she couldn't quite put her finger on.
What was his story? She didn't think he was a street person, but he didn't really fit in this neighbourhood either. It was something in how he stood, in the cut of his clothes—neither belonged in the cheap apartments to be found around here. His coat was obviously tailor-made—old and worn, it was true, but it hadn't come off a rack. It fit him too well. And that flask was quality silverwork, an antique, probably, and worth a small fortune. It wasn't something a street person would be carrying around.
But then you met all kinds on the street and who was to say what kind of bad luck had come his way? She'd served coffee to men who had been worth millions as well as to those who'd never had more than a few dollars to their name in their whole lives. Some were still proud, some pretended they'd chosen this life. Some had given up all pretense, or simply didn't care anymore. Which was he?
She was about to break one of Angel's cardinal rules and ask what had happened to put him on the street when Tommy joined them.
"The police want to ask you a couple of things," he said.
She gave him a questioning look.
"Nothing serious," he told her. "They just need a few more details to finish their report—if you're up for it."
She tossed a wave to the man and he gave her a grave nod in return. That was another thing, she thought as she walked away. He didn't act like a street person either. He didn't act like he even belonged in this century, though where that idea had come from, she couldn't say. But she'd met people like that before, men and women who seemed displaced in time. Or not to belong to any time. She remembered a boy in art school who'd been completely oblivious to the twentieth century. Walked everywhere, didn't watch TV, didn't even have a radio. He'd been amazed by the very idea of acrylic paints. And photocopying. And computers.
Only that wasn't really it either. Something about the man with the silver flask simply niggled at the back of her mind, the way a familiar face or forgotten name will. Not that she'd ever seen him before. It was just...something.
When she returned from the police cruiser, the stranger had left and there was only Tommy, sitting inside the van, waiting for her. She got in on the passenger's side and put her gloved hands up to the heat vent. Right now the vaguely-warm air felt as strong as the heat put out by a woodstove. Somehow she'd forgotten all about the cold—at least she had until she'd walked from the police cruiser back to the van and the harsh winds made a point of reminding her with a fierceness that almost blew her off her feet again.
"Who was your friend?" Tommy asked.
Ellie shrugged. "He didn't say."
Tommy gave her an odd look, then shrugged.
"I haven't seen him around before," he said.
"Me, either. I'm not even all that sure he's a street person."
Tommy smiled. "Not everybody out at this time of night is."
"I know. It's just...he was strange."
Tommy raised his eyebrows.
"Have you ever heard of metheglin?" Ellie asked.
"Nope. What is it—some new kind of drug?"
Ellie shook her head. "No, it's more like a liqueur. He said it was Welsh, that it was made from honey and...."
Her voice trailed off as her gaze alit on a small business card lying on the dashboard in front of her. She took off a glove and picked it up. The card read:
"Where did this come from?" she asked, passing it over.
17 Handfast Road
Tommy shook his head. "I've no idea."
"That man—was he in the van?"
"Not while I was here."
Tommy turned the card over in his hand. There was nothing on the reverse.
"Handfast Road," he said. "That's in the Beaches, isn't it? Up on the hill?"
"I think so."
"Where all the fat cats live."
Ellie nodded and took the card back. She pointed at the words "Musgrave Wood."
"So is that a person or a place?" she asked.
"I'd say person."
"But what kind of a given name is Musgrave?"
"Good point," Tommy said. "Maybe it's a business. Though I've got an aunt named Juniper Creek."
"Would I lie to you?"
Tommy's family seemed to include a veritable mob of aunts. They all had unusual names, dispensed folk wisdoms at the drop of a hat and Ellie had never met a single one of them. Sometimes she suspected Tommy hadn't either. She looked at the card again.
"What's that little design?" she asked. "It seems familiar."
Tommy leaned over to have another look, then shrugged. "I don't know. Judging from the ribbonwork, I'd say it's something Celtic. I think I saw something like it on one of those Celtic harp albums Megan's playing all the time."
"You're right. And it's on more than one. I wonder if it means something."
"Sure it does. It's a secret code for 'Here there be Celtic harp music.'"
Ellie laughed. "Of course. What else?"
Then something else occurred to her.
"There's no phone number," she said. "Isn't that weird?"
Tommy smiled. "Anything is weird if you think about it long enough. Like why are our noses designed so that they'll drip right into our mouths?"
"Thank you for sharing that."
She flicked the edge of the card with a fingernail. The man she'd been talking to couldn't have put it on the dash, not with the doors and windows of the van closed the way they'd been. All the same, she was sure the card had come from him. He had to have opened the door and dropped it on the dash when Tommy was with the police and she was bringing coffee to the two homeless men. But that still didn't explain why he'd left it. Or what they were supposed to do with it.
She started to toss the card back where she'd found it, then stuck it in her pocket instead.
"Well," she said. She leaned back into her seat and buckled up her seatbelt. "It's still cold as hell out there and people need our help. The mystery of this card's just going to have to wait."
Tommy nodded. He put the van in gear, checked for traffic, then pulled away from the curb.
"Little mysteries," he said. "They're good for the soul."
""They keep us guessing."
"And that's a good thing?"
"Well, sure. Mysteries break the patterns we impose upon the world—or maybe let us see them more clearly for a change."
"One of your aunts tell you that?"
"I think it was Aunt Serendipity."
Ellie wasn't particularly fond of mysteries or puzzles herself. She always liked to know where she stood, how things fit. The fact that the universe wasn't always so obliging never stopped her from trying to keep everything in its place, lined up, just the way it was supposed to be.
"And speaking of mysteries," Tommy went on, "here's another one for you."
She turned to look at him.
"What's a quick way to tell if you're dealing with a transvestite or a real woman?"
Ellie shook her head. "I give up," she said, and waited for the punchline.
"You check for an Adam's apple," Tommy said.
"I don't get the joke."
"It's not a joke," Tommy told her. "That guy you were talking to...."
The niggling feeling she'd had earlier returned, then vanished with a snap of understanding.
"He didn't have one," she said.
Tommy nodded. "In fact, he's a rather mannish she. I was surprised that you hadn't noticed."
"So why do you think she's walking around at this time of night, pretending to be a man?"
Tommy shrugged. "Why not?"
Ellie nodded slowly. Sure. Why not, indeed? On a one-to-ten scale of strangeness, it barely registered as a one. What a city this was.
- 2 -
Wednesday morning, January 14th
- 3 -
Hunter Cole stood at the cash in Gypsy Records. Leaning on the counter amid a clutter of invoices and record company catalogs, he stared out the big front window, only half-listening to the music playing on the store's sound system: a solo album by Karan Casey, the singer from Solas. He should have been enjoying the CD, but it could barely keep his attention today, little say engage it.
He couldn't fault the music; the trouble lay with him and nothing seemed to help. Not the music. And certainly not the weather.
Early this morning the latest cold snap had broken, but now it was snowing again. Big lazy flakes drifted by the display window, blurring the view he had of Williamson Street. For the way he was feeling, it should have been raining. A steady, depressing downpour—the kind of relentless precipitation that eventually overwhelmed even the most cheerful soul with its sheer volume and persistence. The snow was too postcard pretty. It hid the ugliness, rounding off all the sharp edges until even a heartless behemoth like this city could seem to hold something good in it. But the softness, the prettiness...it was all a lie. Maybe you couldn't see them, but the sharp edges remained under the snow nevertheless, waiting to catch you unawares and cut you where it hurt.
Ria had still moved out. Four weeks and counting. He had a Christmas present for her, wrapped up and sitting on a shelf in his office at the back of the store, that he doubted he'd ever give to her now.
He was still in a rut—the same one he'd been in before he'd even thought of buying the store a few years ago—only now it ran deeper.
Buying the store. That had been a mistake.
Gypsy Records got its name from John Butler, a short barrel of a man without even a pretence of Romany blood running through his veins. Butler had begun his business out of the back of a hand-drawn cart that gypsied its way through the city's streets for years, always keeping just one step ahead of the municipal licensing board's agents. The store carried the usual best sellers, but the lifeblood of its sales were more obscure titles—imports, and albums produced by independent record labels. They still carried vinyl, new and used, and they did brisk business with best-sellers, but most of their sales came from back-catalogue CDs: country and folk, worldbeat, jazz, and whatever else you weren't likely to find in the chain stores.
Buying the store hadn't seemed like a mistake at first. Music was in his blood and he'd been working here for years. A true vinyl junkie, he'd always dreamed of opening his own place, so when John made him the offer that couldn't be refused, it had seemed like the best thing that could ever have happened to him. But on a day like this, when he faced slumping sales and his footsteps rang hollowly in an apartment he no longer shared with the person he'd been expecting to be with for the rest of his life, it all seemed so pathetic. He was thirty-eight years old and all he had to show for his life to date was a bank balance that edged precariously towards the red and a store that had become the proverbial millstone hanging round his neck.
Maybe he was only having a mid-life crisis. Though if that were the case, shouldn't he be out looking to buy a nice red sportscar? Not to mention finding some sweet young thing to drive around in it with him. He sighed. All he really wanted to do was dig a hole, crawl in, then pull the dirt in behind him.
He lifted his gaze from the clutter of invoices and looked for solace in the world that lay outside the display window. What he got was one of his staff materializing out of the falling snow—the diminutive and inimitable Miki Greer. He watched her approach the front door, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She spat the cigarette out and ground the butt under the heel of her Doc Martin before backing in through the door, holding a large Styrofoam cup of coffee in each hand. They'd agreed long ago that if she was going to keep going out for smoke breaks, she could at least make herself useful. So she made the runs to the bank, to the post office, to The Monkey Woman's Nest a few doors down for coffee and lunches.
"Hey, grumpy," she said as she put the cups on the counter.
She stepped back and shook herself like a terrier, spraying melted snow from her leather jacket and short-cropped hair. This week it was bleached an almost white blonde.
"I'm not grumpy," Hunter told her. "I'm depressed. It's not the same."
"I'm sure. And you're welcome."
She grinned. "But really. Grumpy, depressed—what's the difference?"
"Grumpy means I'd be snapping at everyone. Depressed means I just want to go slit my wrists or something."
"Cool. Am I in your will?"
Hunter shook his head.
"Then I'd think this whole thing through a little more carefully before you do anything that drastic."
"You're so sweet."
Miki nodded. "Many people say that."
She joined him behind the cash and stuffed her jacket under the counter. The black T-shirt she wore was missing its sleeves and sported a DIY slogan, carelessly applied with white paint: "Ani DiFranco Rules!" Surrounding the words were splatters of the same white paint, as though she'd flicked a loaded paintbrush at the shirt after scrawling her message. She perched on the stool Hunter wasn't using, popped open the lid on her coffee and took a sip. Hunter returned his gaze to the snowy view outside.
"I know it's hard," Miki said after a moment. "I mean, Ria leaving you and all. But you can't let it take over your life."
He turned to find her studying him, her bright green eyes thoughtful.
"What life?" he said.
"This life. You know, where you're a living, breathing human being in charge of your own destiny."
"How old are you, Miki?"
"Twenty-two, but what's that got to do with anything?"
Hunter could only sigh.
"Oh, please," Miki said. "Don't go all ancient on me."
"It's not. It's just you're...."
"What? Too young to fully appreciate the bummers of life? As if. I know all about heartbreak. Been there, done that." She plucked the fabric of her T-shirt. "Brought back the merchandise."
"I thought you liked DiFranco."
"I do," Miki said. "Stop being so literal."
"You're right. And I'm sorry."
"But I know what you're going through," she went on. "When the bad times come rolling in, it doesn't seem like anyone else could possibly understand. Or that they'll ever go away."
Hunter nodded. "That's exactly how I'm feeling."
"See? And I'm only twenty-two."
Hunter had to smile. It was hard not to be cheered up by one of Miki's pep talks. As her brother Donal had said to him once, she could make a stone laugh. But there was too much wearing him down these days and he couldn't hold onto that smile for more than a moment.
"It's not just Ria," he said, "though that's a big part of it."
"C'mon," Miki told him, immediately figuring out what else was bothering him. "It's still early in the year. Sales never start to pick up until the turistas hit town." She waved her hand around the store. "Besides, what's to buy? New product's not exactly flying in the door these days."
"And it wasn't exactly flying out over Christmas either, and those are the bills I'm still trying to pay."
"This is true. But everybody was down."
"Not this down," Hunter told her.
That gave her pause.
"How bad is it?" she asked.
Hunter shrugged. "I won't know till the end of the month. But I'm going to have to cut some hours."
"Is this your way of saying, maybe I should be considering a secondary career?"
"Not your hours," he told her. "It's just...nothing seems to be going right lately. Between Ria, the store, the weather...."
They both looked up as the front door opened and Titus Mealy came in, stamping the snow from his boots. A dour, mousy-haired man with the body shape of a stork, he was the store's shipper/receiver, an occupation that suited him well since it allowed him to spend the greater proportion of his time in the back room, packing and unboxing shipments, instead of out on the floor where he'd have to deal with customers. It wasn't that he was deliberately unfriendly—he could be quite charming on occasion—but for him to open up to you, first you had to pass some indecipherable Titus Mealy respect-meter test.
Most people didn't. But he had a regular contingent of pale-faced and soft-bodied misfits that came in to see him, usually buying up to a half-dozen CDs per visit, and he was a hard worker, so Hunter tended to leave him to his own devices.
"Now that's what I call perfect timing," Miki said.
Titus looked puzzled. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"We were just talking about things that bum us out."
"Ha, ha." He turned his attention to Hunter. "Any new shipments?"
Hunter shook his head.
"Then I guess I'll keep working on the returns."
He headed off towards the back room with the awkward gait of someone not entirely comfortable in his own body.
"See," Miki said. "Now that's grumpy. And probably depressed, too, though with him I'd say it was clinical."
"Are you ever going to stop ragging on him?" Hunter asked.
"I don't know. Do you think he'll ever learn any social graces?"
The phone rang before Hunter could reply. He picked up the receiver. "Hello. Gypsy Records."
"Do you have any Who bootlegs?" a high, nasally voice asked.
Hunter sighed and hung up the phone without replying.
"Who-boy?" Miki asked.
There were two daily occurrences they'd come to count on—if not look forward to. One was that the anonymous caller with what had to be a put-on voice would phone asking for Who bootlegs. He called at least once a day and had been doing it for years—not only to Gypsy Records, but to record stores all over town. The first time Who-boy phoned after the store got call display, they'd all crowded around the telephone to finally see who he was, or at least where he was calling from, but the liquid display had only read "Caller unknown."
The second thing was Donnie Dobson, a large, pink version of the Pillsbury dough boy in a polyester suit who came in and/or called the store on a daily basis looking for new country and easy-listening releases by female artists. But he at least bought music. Like Who-boy, Gypsy Records wasn't the only recipient of Donnie's interest, but since they went out of their way to bring in whatever album he was desperately looking for that particular week, he tended to give them most of his business.
For the longest time Hunter had no idea what Donnie did with everything he purchased—he couldn't possibly listen to it all, there was simply too much of it. Donnie had been doing this for years—long before Hunter got into the business, and Hunter had been working in music stores for almost twenty years now. But then one day Titus made an off-hand remark about having been over to Donnie's house and how weird it was that he was still living with his mother. It was Titus who explained that Donnie listened to each new purchase once, then carefully put it away in one of the boxes that literally filled his mother's basement.
"But what were you doing over there?" Miki had wanted to know.
"I was looking for a Brenda Lee cut for this tape I was making," Titus had replied in a tone of voice that left one with the sense that it explained everything.
In a way, it did. He and Adam Snipe, Hunter's other full-time employee, were forever making compilation tapes, arranging and rearranging the order of the cuts with a single-minded focus that went far beyond obsession. They often seemed willing to go to almost any length to get exactly the right version of a song. "See," one of them would explain in the middle of yet another obscure song search, "I need something to put before this cut by Roger Miller and I figure it's got to be by Stealer's Wheel because Gerry Rafferty went on to produce that version of 'Letter from America' by the Proclaimers and they covered 'King of the Road.' You see how it all connects?"
Hunter did, where most people wouldn't, but while he loved music, he liked to think he wasn't that obsessed by it. And neither were his other employees. Fiona Hale, the store's part-timer and resident Goth, all tall and pale, with lanky black hair and a chiaroscuro wardrobe, might love her Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins CDs, but she had a life beyond them. And as for Miki, well, she was Miki, and who could figure her out. She looked like a punk, played button accordion in a local Celtic band, and when it was her turn to choose what they'd play on the store's sound system, inevitably picked something by an old horn player like Bird, Coltrane, or Cannonball Adderly. Her musical enthusiasms were great, but then she had the same broad enthusiasm for anything that interested her. Sometimes it seemed that everything did.
"So Adam said you're going to let his band play in the store some Saturday," Miki said.
Hunter nodded. "Have you heard them? I've got this awful feeling I'm going to regret this."
"They're okay—kind of lounge music set to a reggae beat. Imagine 'The Girl from Ipanema' sung by Peter Tosh."
"No, really," Miki assured him. "It's fun. Except their horns are all sampled and that sucks." She cocked her head to look at him. "How come you've never had my band in to play?"
"You never asked."
"Adam says you offered them the gig."
"Adam's just trying to get a rise out of you."
Miki nodded slowly. "And wouldn't you know...it worked."
They fell silent, listening to the CD. Casey was singing now about a hare hunt in the low country of Creggan.
"So do you want to play here some Saturday?" Hunter asked when the song ended with a fade-out of a flute playing against the lilting rhythm of a bodhrán.
"Nah. I wouldn't want to mix my store and band groupies. That'd be just too weird."
Hunter had to laugh. Both Miki and Fiona acquired small clusters of teenage boys and young businessmen on a regular basis, earnestly hovering around them in the store, buying their recommendations while working up the nerve to ask for a date. Fiona's were rather predictably Goth, but with Miki, anything seemed to go, from skateboarders and headbangers to lawyers in three-piece suits.
"There, you see?" Miki said. "If you can still find something to smile about, your life's not over yet."
"What do you do when you're depressed?" he asked.
Miki took a sip from her coffee. "Well," she drawled, "sometimes I do like in that Pam Tillis song and ask myself, 'What would Elvis do?'"
"And the rest of the time?"
"I imagine what it's like to be somebody else who doesn't have my problems. 'Course the downside of that is I have too good an imagination and end up obsessing over what I think could be depressing them. So we're talking way moody and not really a solution that works or anything."
"I never think of you as moody."
"I'm not—except when I'm in that kind of mood." She grinned. "Mostly I just play some tunes on my box and have a drink with a friend—at the same time, if I can arrange it. Works wonders."
"I think I'd need a whole orchestra and brewery, and even then I'm not so sure it would help."
Miki shook her head. "It's not the volume or quantity—it's the quality. And it's the being with a friend that helps the most."
"That makes sense."
"So instead of going home and brooding over Ria and store invoices after work, why don't you come out with me and have a little fun? There's a session at The Harp tonight, Caffrey's on tap, a lovely bottle of Jameson's behind the bar, bangers and mash on the grill."
Hunter started to shake his head. The last thing he needed right now was a pity date. But then he realized that wasn't what Miki was offering. She was just being there as a friend.
"Sure," he said. "Why not?"
Who knows? Maybe he'd actually feel better.
On the CD player, Casey was now singing a Yeats poem that someone had set to music. The front door opened and three customers came in, brushing snow off their coats and stamping their feet. The mat at the door was going to be soaked before the end of the day.
"Must be noon," Miki said.
She slid off her stool and walked out from behind the counter to see if she could give anyone a hand and all three men aimed themselves in her direction. Shaking his head, Hunter started to clear off the counter. When two more customers came in, one of them asking what was playing, he took the Casey CD off, made a mental note to order more copies, and put on something that they actually had in stock—a reissue of recordings Stan Getz had made for Verve back in the fifties.
Miki looked up from the Worldbeat bins where she was talking up a recording by Violaine Corradi and gave him a thumbs-up.
Ellie made herself wait until she was well and truly awake before going over to the part of her loft that served as her studio. She sat at her kitchen table with a mug of coffee and had a bowl of granola while flipping through an old issue of Utne Reader that someone had passed along to her.
This issue's cover story was "Wild at Heart: How Pets Make Us Human." It made her wish, and not for the first time, that she had the sort of lifestyle that could accommodate a pet. The trouble was, she wasn't a cat person, and a dog needed way more attention than she would be able to give it at this point in her life. Between her work with Angel, private commissions, and the part-time graphic design work she did for the weekly arts paper In the City, she was already scrambling to find time for her own art, never mind take care of anything as dependent as a pup as well.
But one day....
She closed the magazine. Sometimes it felt as though her whole life revolved around things that might come into it one day instead of what was in it now.
Putting her dirty bowl in the sink, she poured herself another cup of coffee and walked across the room to where her current work-in-progress stood under a damp cloth. The sculpture was far enough under way that she could see a hint of the bust's features under the cloth—brow, cheekbones, nose, the rest lost in the drapes of the fabric. Viewing it like this, a vague, ghostly shape of a face under cloth, supported only by the length of broomstick she was using as an armature pole, it was hard, sometimes, to remember the weight of one of these busts. She could almost imagine it was floating there above the modeling stand, that it would take no more than a slight breeze to start it drifting away across the room.
The illusion only lasted until she removed the cloth and laid it aside. Now the still roughly-sculpted head of grey clay was all density and weight, embracing gravity, and the wonder was that the armature pole could support it at all.
It was barely noon, though you wouldn't know it from how dark it was in the loft. The storm outside made it feel more like late afternoon and she had to put on a couple of lights to see properly. She pulled up a stool to the modeling stand, but before she could begin to work, the sound of the wind rattling a loose strip of metal on her fire escape distracted her, drawing her gaze to the window. She shook her head as she looked outside. The thaw over Christmas had lulled everyone into thinking that they were in for a mild winter for a change, but true to form, it had only been a joke. At least it wasn't freezing rain.
The fall of the snow was mesmerizing. She'd always wanted to find a way to capture its delicacy in clay, the drift and spin of the individual flakes as they fell, the random patterns they made, their flickering dance and the ever-changing contrast between light and dark, all conveniently framed by the window. But it was something she had to leave to the painters. The closest she'd ever come was an installation she'd done for a group show once where the viewer peered into a large, black box she'd constructed to see confetti being blown about by a strategic placement of a couple of small, battery-driven fans.
She'd painted tenements and alleys on the back and side walls of the box and placed a small sculpture of a homeless man, huddled under a rough blanket of newspapers, up against the painted buildings. Moody interior lighting competed the installation, and it had all worked out rather well—for what it said, as well as how it said it—only it wasn't clay. It wasn't a sculpture, but some odd hybrid, and the dancing confetti didn't come close to capturing the snow the way she'd wanted it to. Snow, such as was falling outside her window today, had both delicate presence and weight, a wonderful tension between the two that played them against each other.
She watched the storm awhile longer, then finally turned back to her sculpture, thinking that at least the latest cold snap had broken. The street people would still have drifts of wet snow to deal with, but they would be spared the bitter cold of the past few nights for now.
The businessman whose commission she was working on wasn't available today, so she was stuck working from her sketches and the photographs she'd taken during earlier sittings. She collected them from the long worktable set against the back wall with its peanut gallery of drying busts, all looking at her. One, a self-portrait, her long hair pulled back into a loose bun at the nape of the neck, was almost dry enough to make its trip to the kiln. The others had all been hollowed out, but weren't nearly dry enough yet. Three were commissions of rather stodgy businessmen like the one she planned to work on today, the sort of portrait work that helped pay the bills. The last few were of friends—hopefully to be part of a show if she could ever get the money together to have them cast.
Returning to the modeling stand, she spread out her reference material and gave the bust a spray of water from a plastic plant mister. Then she began to work on the detailing, constantly referring to her sketches and photographs as she shaped the clay with her fingers and modeling tools.
When her doorbell rang, she sat up, startled to realize that three hours had simply slipped away unnoticed while she'd been working. She rolled her shoulder muscles and stretched her hands over her head before standing up. It didn't help much. Her back and shoulder muscles still felt far too tight. The doorbell rang again. Giving the bust another spray of water, she draped the damp cloth back over it. She wiped her hands on her jeans as she crossed the loft, adding new streaks of wet clay to the build-up of dried clay already there, stiffening the denim.
Opening the door, she found her friend Donal Greer standing in the hallway, the shoulders of his wool pea jacket white with snow. He was a little shorter than her five-ten—the discrepancy evened out by the heels of his boots—and a few years older. At the moment, the snow on his full beard and long dark ponytail made him seem grey-haired and far older. As the snow melted, it dripped to the floor where his boots had already started a pair of puddles. He gave her such a mournful, woe-bedraggled look that she wanted to laugh.
"It's snowing," Donal told her The pronouncement was uttered in an Eeyore-like voice made stranger by the slightest burr of an Irish accent.
Most people didn't see through the moroseness he liked to affect. Ellie wasn't one of them, though it had taken her awhile to catch on. They'd met at one of Jilly Coppercorn's parties, each of them having known Jilly for ages on their own, but never quite connecting with each other until that night. They'd talked straight through the party, all the way through the night until the dawn found them in the Dear Mouse Diner, still talking. From there it seemed inevitable that they'd become a couple, and they had for awhile—even living together for a few months— but eventually they realized that they were much better suited as friends.
Donal gave a heavy sigh. "Truly snowing," he went on. "Great bloody mounds of the stuff are being dumped from the sky."
She smiled. "So I see. Come on in."
"I was beginning to think you weren't home," Donal added as he stepped inside. He looked over to the studio area. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
"I needed to come up for air," Ellie said. "How'd you know I needed a break?"
Donal shrugged and toed off his boots, one by one. They immediately began to work at forming a new puddle around themselves.
"You know me," he said. "I know all and see all, like the wild-eyed Gaelic fortune teller that I am. It's bloody depressing, I tell you. Takes all the mystery out of life."
Ellie rolled her shoulder muscles again. "I'd much prefer it if you'd suddenly decide to become a masseur," she told him. "One who desperately needs someone to practice on."
"It'll never happen," he said, passing over a paper bag with grease stains on the bottom. "Mostly because it'd take far more energy than I could ever muster." He shed his pea jacket and dropped it against the wall by the door. "Instead, I've got these chocolate croissants and I was hoping to find someone to help me eat them. Would you have any coffee?"
Ellie glanced at her coffee maker and pulled a face. "Let me put on a fresh pot. That stuff's been sitting there all day now."
Donal followed her to the kitchen area, marked off from the rest of the loft by a kitchen table and chairs set up close to a large industrial steel sink, a long counter and the pair of old appliances that had come with the place: a bulky fridge and an equally stout stove, both dating back to the sixties. He settled in one of the chairs by the table while Ellie ground some fresh beans for the coffee maker.
"So I heard you were a bit of the hero last night," he said.
Ellie turned to look at him. "Who told you that?"
"Tommy. I ran into him at the Dear Mouse Diner when I was having breakfast this morning with Sophie and Jilly."
"God, what was he doing up at that time? We didn't get the van back to Angel's until six-thirty."
"I don't think he'd been to bed yet," Donal said.
Ellie shook her head. "We lead such weird schedules. It's a wonder we can still function."
"And you're avoiding the subject. That was a good thing you did. Take the compliment, woman. We're all proud of you."
Ellie finished pouring water into the coffee maker. Turning it on, she joined Donal at the table.
"It was pretty yucky," she said. "I don't know what he'd choked on but it took me forever to get the taste of his vomit out of my mouth." She looked at the bag of croissants that he'd brought. "And doesn't that little thought do wonders for the appetite."
"Sorry I mentioned it."
But she still wanted to go rinse her mouth out with mouthwash again.
"So your man's doing fine?" Donal asked.
Ellie nodded. "I called the hospital to check on him before I went to bed this morning." She paused, then added, "It's weird. When Angel had us all taking that CPR course, I didn't think I'd remember any of it. But when it was actually happening, it was like I went into automatic. I didn't even have to think about it."
Donal slipped into a broader Irish accent. It was easy for him to do, seeing how he'd been born and lived half his life over there. "Sure, and wouldn't that be the whole point of the course?"
Thinking about last night made Ellie remember the man who was actually a woman with her silver flask filled with Welsh whiskey.
"Have you ever tried metheglin?" she asked. "It's this—"
"Oh, I know what it is. Miki has a friend who makes it. Not quite Guinness, mind you, but it'll do. Bloody strong bit of the gargle. Sneaks up and gives you a kick like poteen."
Ellie nodded, remembering how the liquor had made her eyes tear last night.
"Where did you have it?" Donal asked.
The coffee was ready, so over steaming mugs and croissants, Ellie gave him a rundown of the previous night's events, finishing up with the woman she'd met while Tommy had been talking to the police.
"I would have thought she was a man, if it hadn't been for Tommy," she said.
"It's like one of those old ballads," Donal said. "You know, where your man finds out his cabin boy's really a woman. I wonder what she's hiding from?"
"Who knows? In this city, I'm not sure I even want to know."
Donal shook her head. "Jaysus, where's your sense of mystery? Maybe she's a deposed, foreign princess and all she has left of her former life is that silver flask. She'd be carrying herself with a tragic air, am I right?"
"Fair enough. So she's learned to hide it well. To live with her disappointments. To put the past aside and get on with her life."
Ellie sighed. "You know, the way you and Jilly can carry on you'd think every street person is some charming eccentric, or basically a sweet and kind person who's only had a bit of bad luck. But it doesn't work that way. They need our sympathy, sure, and we should try to help them all we can, but some of them are mean-spirited and some of them are dangerous and some of them would be screwed up no matter where you found them. I don't think it helps anything to pretend differently."
"I work with them almost every day and they're just people, Donal. More messed up than some of us, and certainly more unlucky. And if some of them choose to live the way they do, it's not because they have some romantic story hidden in their past. It's because they're kids whose home lives were so awful they prefer to live in the different kind of hell that's the streets. Or they're schizophrenics who can't get, or won't take, their medicine. They're alcoholics, or junkies, or on the run, or all of the above and then some. And the world they live in isn't safe. It's more dangerous than anything we can imagine. We go into it, but we can step back out whenever we want. They can't."
"I know," Donal said, his voice subdued.
Ellie sighed again, remembering that he'd suffered his own hard times, he and his sister Miki both, though they rarely spoke of those days. They hadn't gone through one of Angel's programs, but they'd still had to endure hunger and homelessness before they found a way out of the darkness.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to come off all high and mighty. It's just...it breaks my heart sometimes because there's so many of them and some of them are so young and we can't even come close to reaching them."
Donal reached across the table and gave Ellie's hand a squeeze.
"I know that, too," he said. "But I'm with Jilly on this one. We just like to see the magic in things, instead of focusing too much on the hurt of it all."
"When you're not pretending to be overcome by the doldrums."
"Pretending," Ellie said firmly. "And please. Magic?"
"Oh, not hocus pocus, exactly. But you know, there's magic everywhere you turn, if you pay attention to it. Little miracles like your being in the right place at the right time to give that man CPR and save his life. Or the way some old rubbie can turn out to be the most gifted storyteller. You can sit there with him on a bundle of newspapers in some alley, but when he starts to tell a story, it takes you a million miles away. And some of the street people really are unusual and mysterious—I mean, what better place to hide than in plain sight, on the streets with all the rest of the invisible people?"
This was about the one subject on which Donal could enthuse for hours. Even talking about his art rarely did away with the long face and the Eeyore voice.
"You're beginning to sound like one of Tommy's aunts," she told him. "The mysterious and numerous Creek sisters."
Donal smiled. "Grand women, all."
"You've met them?"
"Sure," Donal said. "You haven't?"
"To tell you the truth, I wasn't sure they really existed."
"Well, I haven't met them all," Donal told her. "I mean, Tommy's mother has...what? Sixteen sisters? But they certainly exist. Let's see. I met Sunday one time on the rez when I went up to a powwow with Tommy and Jilly. And then Conception and Serendipity always come to the bake sale at St. Vincent's every spring. And Zulema's been doing work with Native kids through Angel for years." He paused and cocked his head. "What made you think they didn't exist?"
"I don't know," Ellie said, feeling a little embarrassed now. "Their names. The way Tommy talks about them like they're mythological figures."
"Up on the rez, everybody sees them that way. They call them the Aunts and they go to them for medicines and stories and that sort of thing. Bloody miracle workers, they are." He gave Ellie one of his rare grins. "And now that I think of it, Conception told me about a cure for sore muscles. I remember writing it down, but...." He pursed his lips, brow furrowing, then shook his head. "I can't remember where I put it. But if you asked Tommy, he could get it from her."
"Oh right. That'd be just what I need. He already passes along their little folk wisdoms at the drop of a hat."
Donal gave her a considering look. "Which, I'm guessing, is still the sort of thing that makes you uncomfortable."
"I'm as uncomfortable with it as you or Jilly are comfortable."
Donal shook his head. "Now that's extreme."
On both sides, Ellie thought. She liked whimsy and magical things as much as the next person, but she kept it in perspective. One could read about it, or use it in one's art without believing it was real. Donal was bad enough with his teasing tales of the little people and all, but when it came to Jilly, well, sometimes it seemed that Jilly lived in an entirely different world than the one that Ellie and the rest of the world did—a world where the headlines from supermarket tabloids were tangible possibilities rather than outright fiction. It came out in her paintings which depicted fairyland creatures wandering through urban cityscapes as well as in her conversation. The latter required only the smallest opening and Jilly would be away with wild theories, supposed true-life anecdotes and the like.
There were times when Ellie found this sort of thing maddening, but it was also part of Jilly's charm, this fey streak she had and the ability to be so persuasive that, if it was late enough at night and you'd had enough glasses of wine, you could almost go along with her beliefs. You could almost accept that the world held not only what we all know it to hold, but also the fantastical tangents that people like Donal and Jilly almost seemed to draw into it, by their own absolute conviction, if nothing else.
"Okay," Ellie said. "Since you like mysteries, what do you make of this?"
She went over to where her parka was hanging and fetched the business card she'd found on the dash of the van last night. Donal took it from her, his eyes filled with curiosity until he'd read the few words on it. Then he placed it on the table and gave Ellie a puzzled look.
"It's a business card," he said.
"Duh. I know that. But what does it mean?"
Donal glanced down at the card, then back at her, obviously confused. "Could you explain the question again?"
"Is that a person's name, or the name of a business?" Ellie said. "And why isn't there a phone number?"
He shrugged. "Maybe it's like one of those Victorian calling cards that the Brits took around when they went visiting. Where did you get it?"
"I found it on the dash of the van last night—right after I met that strange woman."
"And you think she left it?"
Ellie nodded. "But why?"
"Maybe she wants you to call her."
"No phone number."
"Fair enough." Donal looked at the card again. "'Handfast Road,'" he read. "That'd be up in the Beaches, I'm thinking, so it'll be all bloody straight-laced and la-di-da except for...." His face brightened. "Kellygnow. The artist's colony. Aren't they on Handfast Road?"
"Let me check."
Ellie found her telephone directory where it was half-hidden under a stack of art and design magazines and looked up Kellygnow.
"Here it is," she said. "The Kellygnow Artists' Community. 17 Handfast Road. There's even a number."
"There you go. Mystery solved. All you have to do is call up there and ask for Musgrave Wood."
"I suppose. Have you ever been up there?"
"A long time ago, and then it was just to a couple of parties that Jilly was invited to. But you know. It's not really our crowd."
Ellie nodded. Kellygnow had a close association with the university, whereas she and Donal and their friends were more connected to the Newford School of Art, even though many of them had originally attended Butler U. Ellie had never been up to Kellygnow herself. And except for In the City's mentioning who was taking up or leaving residence, she never really thought much about it at all. It was just one more place in a very big city.
"So?" Donal said. "Are you going to call?"
Ellie shook her head. "What would I say?"
"Maybe there's a commission in it for you."
"I doubt that. If the name of the woman I met last night is Musgrave Wood, and she does want to offer me a commission, don't you think she would have said something when we were talking?"
But Donal wasn't going to be easily dissuaded. "Well, maybe they've got an opening and want to know if you'd like to take up residence."
Many of the most important and influential artists to come out of the Newford fine arts scene had spent some time in residence at Kellygnow—everyone from the late Vincent Rushkin, considered by many to be one of the great twentieth century masters, to the watercolourist Jane Connelly whose art hung in galleries throughout the world. Ellie believed in her own work, but the calibre of artists in residence at Kellygnow at any given time was in a different class entirely.
"Then what are you going to do?" Donal asked.
While she could see Donal's frustration, Ellie had no interest in following up on anything so tenuous.
"But aren't you at least curious?" Donal asked. "I mean, Jaysus. It's like a mysterious summons of some sort."
Still Ellie wouldn't be persuaded. "Of course I'm curious, but I don't like mysteries."
Donal nodded. He got up and refilled their coffee mugs.
"It's your choice, of course," he said as he returned to the table and spooned sugar into his coffee. He looked up, a sparkle in his eye. "But all the same. It seems like such a waste of a good mystery."
"If someone up there really wants to contact me," Ellie told him, "my number's in the book."
Dust Jacket Art