Setting myself another Mag Challenge.A white butterfly
Flapped its wings to take flight
And summer happened.
I’ve set myself another Mag Challege but I’m kind of cheating on this one. This is an excerpt from a longer story I’ve snipped out and left here.
Dagnar and The Raven
He was a tall young man, was Dagnar Halfdan, sky-eyed and straw-haired, with wide shoulders he still hadn’t quite managed to grow all the way into and a long-legged loose-limbed stride. He’d been walking southward along the beach since sunup making for the Languyard ley that would lead him inland. He was also supposed to be on the lookout for a bird. “You’ll know it when you see it,” was all his mother would say.
He was almost upon the ley when he found the man lying face down in the sand with the waves licking at his boot soles. Slender, black haired, young by the look of him. It was not until he felt for a pulse that Dagnar knew he’d found his bird. He gathered the man up from the rough wet sand and carried him further up the beach into the shade, brushed the sand off his face and poured a little water into his mouth.
When the man came to himself, the first thing he said was, “I must go to the Queen of Death in the Black Wood,“ in a voice that was hardly more than a croak. He spoke in the old tongue, the one all the Mother’s Children shared, though his accent was a little odd. If Dagnar needed further confirmation that he’d found the bird he was supposed to be looking for, there it was.
“Oddly enough, I’m headed that way myself,” Dagnar replied in kind, grinning. “We’ve got quite a hike ahead of us, though.”
“Why am I not surprised?” After a long, tired pause, the man muttered. “Helásasára. I remember her name was Helásasára. Vast cloud of red hair. And that damn big snake, and the tower, and climbing. Time was all jumbled and fragmented. I remember that.” He paused a long moment frowning. “But I can’t remember anything else except that I must go to the Queen of Death in the Black Wood.“
“You’ve been in a place of power. You fairly reek of it.”
“Oh, Holy Mother. So much power it made my bones hum.” He shivered at the memory. “Is there … could I have another drink of that water, please?”
Dagnar handed over the water skin. “There’s a creek just over yonder if that’s not enough.”
The man took a careful swallow from it, wiped his mouth and took another. “I’m Drogo, by the way, a raven brother. Son of Zlota Baba, grandson of Matka Zhemya, great grandson of Bunica Singe, and you, I think, are a wolf brother.”
A nod of acknowledgement. “Dagnar, son of Hlifthrasa, grandson of Eir, great grandson of Hertha.”
The man paused in his drinking as something out to sea riveted his attention. “What happened to the sea stack? There was this little tooth of an island just there.” He pointed, and a brief spasm of panic slid across his face like a cloud shadow over the land.
Dagnar followed the finger’s direction with his clear-sky eyes, but there was nothing there but the grey-blue, breaker-ruffled sea. After a thoughtful pause, he said, carefully, “I’ve been traveling along the coast for a week now, and I’ve not seen anything out there but water.”
After another long, memory-haunted pause, Drogo shook his head, looked up, and said, “It could all have been a dream, . . . vision, . . . delusion, . . . I’ve been traveling for months. Not eating all that well or sleeping much. The weather has been pretty lousy, too. It’s bad when it’s so stormy this close to Samhain, . . . though it seems to have cleared up. I hope they got the harvest in all right.” He tried to keep the bedraggled locks of his hair off his face by tucking them behind his ear, but they would not stay.
“Beltane was three weeks ago.” A soft reply.
Drogo looked around then, at the verdant foliage rustling in the light breeze, the wildflowers nodding in the grass and his expression collapsed into bewilderment. He smiled weakly in the midst of his confusion. “I seem to have mislaid winter.”
“There’ve been times I’ve wished I could,” Dagnar allowed and quirked a smile. “Could you eat a little bread and cheese?”
“I could eat a whole cow, I think.” Drogo put the water skin to his lips and drank. When he took it away again, it was almost empty. “You said there was a stream nearby. I seem to be . . . gritty. . .”
He let Dagnar pull him to his feet, but once he was standing, he found he had somehow misplaced his equilibrium as well. He staggered into the big Dane more than once as he followed him through the trees to a brook wide enough that a long-legged man would need a running start to jump it. He struggled out of his clothes and crawled into the cold, clear water, flopping onto his back to let it flow over him. By the time he made it back up onto the bank, Dagnar had rinsed the sea and sand out of his clothes, wrung them out and dried them by the simple expedient of evaporating all the water with a flick of power.
“The Languyard is only about 20 yards further on. I thought I’d find a place along it where we can stop for the night. If you can survive til nightfall on the bread and cheese and smoked herring I’ve got in my bag, once we’ve made camp, I’ll see what I can do about fresh meat.” Dagnar said, grinning. His eye teeth were noticeably longer than the rest.
“I think I can manage 20 yards,“ Drogo replied.
They followed the stream inland, which led them deeper into the woods and then between two rocky outcrops. Further upstream Dagnar found a place where one bank had been deeply undercut and left an overhang where two men might sleep out of the weather with solid rock at their backs and with room enough for a fire between them and the water.
“Don’t stand on ceremony,” Dagnar told him, tossing his pack onto the ground. “Help yourself to food. It’s on top.”
Though his stomach growled at the mention of food, Drogo felt that fire was a higher priority. While Dagnar scavenged larger branches with his belt ax from a downed tree a little way back up the way they’d come, Drogo collected stones to build a fire ring, then built a small fire within it using what he could pick up off the ground. Only then did he open the leather pack and search out bread and cheese, and smoked herring, each wrapped in linen soaked in beeswax. He broke a hunk of bread off with his fingers. The cheese was soft enough that he could pare off a hunk with a blade of grass held taut between his hands.
He had to bend a piece of dried herring back and forth several times before he could tear it in two since he had no knife to cut it with. He had no sword nor belt ax, either, nor pack nor even a belt pouch. All he had were the clothes he stood in, and they were a good deal the worse for wear. His boot tops were in fairly good shape, but the boot soles were nearly worn through in places. He had no idea what kind of journey they faced, but he was not going to be walking far in these boots without new soles. Just as well he’d misplaced winter since he might be going barefoot.
After about an hour, Dagnar returned with an armful of fairly large branches cut to length and a green sapling, to find his companion staring absently into a small fire of sticks. He selected some of the smaller branches, positioned them, and laid two larger logs across them. Then, with his belt ax, he began to fashion a spit from the green sapling.
“My thought was to travel by night and hole up by day. You can ride in raven form upon my shoulders. If we don’t dilly dally, I feel sure I can get us to the lady Belisama’s hold in the forest of Bellême by Litha. I had thought to ask her to ask her mother if we might fly the ley at least part of the way, else we’ll not be getting to the Black Wood before next year.”
“That far away?” The thought of a year on the road was daunting and dispiriting.
“Aye. This is Armorica and the Black Wood is in the mountains east of the high Rhenus. Lurbira’s daughter Morana Gheata guards it. She is the lady we both seek.”
After a time, Drogo said, “Who rules the Romans these days? The last I heard it was Claudius Gothicus.”
Dagnar shot him a puzzled look. After an uncomfortably long silence, he replied quietly, “Emperor Marcus Aurelius Valerius Claudius Augustus died the year I was born.”
“What?” From within the hood of his night black hair, Drogo’s face became ghostly pale and he hissed through clenched teeth, “Don’t. It’s not the least bit funny.”
“Not a joke. I was robed 17 years ago.”
For a long, almost painful time the only sound was the whine and pop of burning pine sap.
“I’ve mislaid more than a season, haven’t I.”
“Looks that way.” None of them was robed until their four hundredth year, after they had been taught, tested and proved.
Drogo dropped his head into his hands, clutched his hair tightly as if his head might roll away. A gasping sigh twisted into a sob, and suddenly there were more sobs behind it, till he could hardly breath for them jostling and shoving their way out. Dagnar unrolled his cloak and wrapped him in it and, to give Drogo time to find himself again, he went to the stream and refilled the water skin, and took a devious and circuitous route back to the fireside, accumulating an armful of deadfall in the process.
Into a silence punctuated by the snap and pop of dead branches being broken into fire lengths, Dagnar said, “I’ve heard tell of places out of time. Places where time runs differently than it does out here in the world. You can go, stay a day, come back and it’s years later, or years earlier.”
“Places out of time,” Drogo repeated hoarsely.
“My Greatmother Hertha is said to have one somewhere in the Lofoten islands off the northwest coast of Norland, a place where five leys cross. I’ve heard tell of others scattered here and yon, always at a major crossing point, always out at sea.“
“I think I have been . . . I don’t know how long . . . in such a place.”
“You are back in the world now, and we have a common destination, so you will not be traveling alone.” Though Dagnar was a happy soul by nature, his cheerfulness was a trifle forced just at that moment.
“For that I am very grateful.” Said with a softness that made Dagnar smile.
“And those who travel with me do not go hungry, that I can promise you,“ Dagnar grinned.
“No, I think not.” Drogo smiled.
True to his word, shortly after nightfall, the white wolf ran down a young roebuck and they roasted strips of its meat over the fire. It was hot and juicy and filling. They cooked a lot more of it than either of them could eat at a sitting so they would have venison for days without the need for fire building.
“Roll up in my cloak and sleep your supper off, little brother. You’ve had a long and busy day.”
That made Drogo smile again. He did as he was instructed, and within four breaths he was deeply asleep. Where Dagnar had been sitting, there was now a very large white wolf thoughtfully gnawing on one of the roebuck’s long bones, one ear cocked toward the night.
I haven’t done a Mag challenge in a while. Although she’s been on hiatus for over a year now, I still like the challenge of seeing what things a picture can inspire. There’s also a song in this one, way back in there somewhere.
At the Beach
Though I walk in brilliant sunlight
Along the treeless shore,
The light sifts down upon me
Through a canopy of years
Dappling the rocky path
With used to be’s and once there were’s
After a long, slow climb to the promontory tip,
Where sea and sky and land connect
Where every way from here is down,
I stand a long time watching
A shadow play of light and dark
Performed upon a landscape no one else can see,
By casts of faded photographs.
The sun is sliding slowly down
Behind a curly-headed sea
And darkness gathers in the east
As silently as clouds.
And there, upon the beach below,
Where the ever-busy combers flop and fumble,
A single question washes up onto the sand:
Who will remember them when I am gone?
Soon it will be time to leave,
And night will fall.
And all the grey-winged shadows
Will come kiting out of memory
To bat like moths around a solitary light bulb
Left burning in the dark.
Poem © 2017 by The Owl Underground, all rights reserved.
The song got me to thinking about the generation decimated by AIDS, the generation gutted by World War I, those battered few who survived the Holocaust, and the elderly of every generation, and how people deal with life when the number of their friends, lovers, family members, contemporaries, who are still alive is far, far outweighed by those who’ve died.
Because it can’t not come.
Each season comes
Because it must
And gives way to the next
As its place on the rim
Of the Wheel of the Year
Rolls over the land
And leave its imprint
Because it can’t not come.
Poem ©2017 The Owl Underground. All Rights Reserved.
Alas, Mag Challenge is “on the back burner for a while.” I miss it. I’ll just have to challenge myself, then, I guess. . .
Gianni passed from deep, dreamless sleep to wakefulness in the twinkling of a star. The darkness was as still, as deep, and as silent as stone.
Without thought, he rolled out of the cocoon of warmth within the heavy woolen covers, off the thick felt pallet where he slept, and onto the cold stone floor. He put out his hand, found his robe and shrugged its fleecy softness over his bare skin. Through total darkness, he walked barefoot across the ancient stone floor in the direction from which the call had come.
The chamber in the students’ hall at Cho Oyo where he had been living for the past eight and a half years was cut from the living stone of the mountain. It was a simple, windowless cube 9 feet on a side. If he took more than two paces in the direction he was walking, he knew he would reach the chamber wall, but he trusted and without pausing, he took a third step. What should have been cold, hard, unyielding stone was nothing more than cool mist. He took another step, and another, through cool, vaporous, utter darkness that bore the scent of cold, rain-wet stone. He was aware of the lofty wool of his robe, the mantle of his hair falling into ringlets over his shoulders and down his back, the cold, damp stone beneath his bare feet, the misty air heavy with the smell of rain on raw stone.
As he walked, the darkness relented slightly and a pinpoint of light appeared in the distance. It grew larger as he approached it until it became a glowing orb of moon-white light lying on a floor of deep grey slate. Beside it sat an ancient woman in a brocade robe of midnight blue chased with silver embroidery along the closure flap and around the collar and cuffs of the full sleeves. Her right foot was up on the seat beside her, and her outstretched arm rested on her knee. Her neck was encircled by a succession of longer and longer necklaces strung with large beads of turquoise, amber, and silver. On her wrists she wore large silver cuff bracelets studded with turquoise. Heavy pendant earrings set with turquoise and golden lumps of amber hung from the long lobes of her ears. She was tiny, elfin, and her wispy, pearl-grey hair was bound up into a topknot. The passage of countless smiles had left deep ruts around her mouth and the corners of her bird bright eyes were crinkled with laugh lines.
He had never seen her before, nor had he any idea who she might be. Still, he bowed to her respectfully, and as he did so, he noted that on the floor in front of her was a large brass bowl full of pure white sand.
“They tell me you sing very sweetly,” she murmured, and unseen spaces soaked up the soft sound of her voice. “Will you sing for me?”
He bowed in assent. “What shall I sing?”
“Your favorite song.”
That made him smile. A breath in and out to prepare the chest, a second breath to refill it, and then he began to sing a song first sung in the dark caves of earth deep in the womb of time. He had a clear, light tenor, with a tone as pure as an organ pipe, and he had been trained in the art of singing in vast, stone spaces. So attuned was his ear that he remembered the sound of his own voice when he had spoken just now and what the space around him had done to it and, without thinking, had modulated his singing to fit that space. He launched each ancient phrase from his throat and let it soar out into the empty, stone-shaped darkness. He has loved the song since his mother first sang it to him as a babe in her arms, this queen of songs, with its odd melodic turns, and arcane intervals of pitch, this hymn to the Mother who is the Gateway through which the soul comes into the world. He sang it once, for the joy of singing it, a second time for the joy of hearing the sound of it, and one time more for the thousands of threads of memory it set thrumming in his heart.
“Ah, I thank you for giving me the pleasure of hearing you sing,” her soft voice whispered. “It is my favorite song, too.”
“Thank you for giving me the pleasure of singing it for you,” he replied, and meant it.
He was convinced now they were in some sort of large stone chamber or cavern within the mountain itself However, Cho Oyo was not only a school and a temple, but also a place of retreat. He had heard that the old ones came here when the years of the world began to weigh too heavily upon them. Perhaps she was such a one.
The soft sssss of scales on stone, shadows shifted, and he realized that the glowing orb had begun to roll slowly away. A large claw arrested it. That was when he realized what she was sitting on was alive. And scaled. A cold chill puffed through him. When he looked back up at her, the corner of her mouth was trying to wriggle free and curl upward.
“Have you learned to form crystal yet?” She asked then, glancing down at the bowl of sand on the floor between them.
“Will you make me a crystal chime?”
He knelt to do so. The bowl was heavy with sand, and the metal was cold between his hands. He placed it before him and slipped his hands up his sleeves, settled himself, brushed a tendril of power across the sand, found a single grain and melted it. Carefully, he selected another grain and another. With careful brushes of power, he grew the droplet of molten quartz a few grains at a time. When he had enough, he began to modulate the heat to let the crystalline lattice form and a shard of crystal began to take shape. The quartz in the sand was not completely pure and he had to pay close attention to snatch away the impurities — bits of iron and crumbs of manganese — lest they warp the lattice he was building. It was as much an exercise of concentration as it was an exercise in the skillful manipulation of power.
It took him well over a hour to form a sliver of carefully faceted crystal about five inches long, but when he finally let it grow cool enough to handle, he was pleased with its shape. He pierced the end of it, pulled a hair from the back of his head, and threaded it through the hole. Holding it by the hair, he let it dangle and pinged it and discovered it to be slightly off pitch. Frowning, he shaved a microlayer of crystal from each facet and pinged it again. It took him several adjustments to get the tone just right, but when he was done, it pinged a perfect G four octaves above middle C.
He pushed the bowl away, rose to his feet, and presented the crystal to her. She picked it up by the hair he had strung it on, and held it dangling before her as she studied it intently. The light from the glowing globe on the floor speckled her with rainbows.
Quite abruptly, she tossed the crystal up, caught it in her hand and flung it toward the ceiling. He followed it with his eyes as it arched up into the darkness and saw, to his surprise, the upper darkness was perforated by myriads of twinkling pinpoints of light.
“A worthy addition to my collection,” she said then. A single crystal pinged a high G into the silence. A moment later, a shimmer of crystalline pings swept down from the ceiling, Not stars, then, but hanging crystals, more than a thousand of them, gently chiming in the breath of a breeze that sighed through the vast, empty darkness. The random beauty of the sound made him laugh with wonder and delight.
Cho Oyo is the only place on dry land where nine leys come together. Their children have come here to be taught for millennia and Tsong Xap has taught more than a thousand of them.
The heavy wooden sanctuary door groaned on its hinges as the old monk pushed it open. Before the Goddess’ great stone presence, is a nonagon 27 feet across demarcated by iron bars set flush into the living rock of the floor and aligned so that each of its nine corners marks a ley. At its center is inset a nine pointed star of iron at the spot where they converge. This morning there was someone standing atop the star, looking up at the ceiling and laughing quietly. Tsong Xap recognized the torrent of dark mahogany curls even before he was close enough to see the face it mantled.
Giannangelo di Ludovico Buonarotto Simoni was the name this man child had been cumbered with. His face was famous because another angel stole it and put it on a statue, and in the contrariness of genius, the expression that this other angel gave it was not the one of wonder and delight that softened it now, but the grim determination of a man with a rock in his hand, who knows he can hit whatever he aims for, and has just bet his life on it.
The next instant, Gianni realized he was not where he was an eye-blink ago. Inexplicably, he was now in the sanctuary, and his teacher was standing in front of him. “I think I was dreaming,” he murmured, blushing.
The old monk suppressed a smile with some difficulty. This was not the first time one of his students had awakened to find they were not where they were when they went to sleep. Cho Oyo was an old, old place rooted deep into the earth, a place of vast power, a place where the line between dream and reality had a tendency to become hazy.
As they stood there facing one another, the great World Bell that hung at the heart of the temple tolled its single sunrise note. The sound of it sailed out across the air like ripples across a pond. When the surface of the world was still once again, Tsong Xap said quietly, “Breakfast with me on the terrace and tell me of your dream.”
On a winter afternoon
A father takes his children
On an outing in the square
In the city sun and open air.
And there out in the square they sit
Kings of the mountain, black and white
Presiding over kingdoms black and white
A Game of Squares played on tessellated pavement
Pieces that can only move in certain ways.
A catalog of ancient power
A peasantry of Catspaws
Anchored at the corners by the Fortresses
All laid out in black and white.
Do they see it?
Layers upon layers
The game within a game
Within a game.
Day after day
The old black man
Sets out the armies on their battlefield
For the noble game of Monarchs,
Takes on all comers,
Always plays the black.
The young white father
Teaching son and heir
How to play the game to win.
The boy who would be king
Tests his mettle, builds his skill
While the game is still a game.
Do they see it?
Which pieces have the most to lose.
Where the real power lies.
What it takes to win the game.
The eyes of all the men
Are on the game board
Capturing each others’ pieces
Testing who can out think who
Who has the moves
Who has the most to win or lose.
But the little girl is playing Princess
Watching players, not the play.
What is she learning?
From the black king on his throne of milk crates
About power and empowerment
Which moves are allowed
Does she see it?
That there is
Only one piece like her on the board.
That rank is not the same as power.
The old black man,
The aging monarch of the squares
Chooses his battlegrounds with care.
Knows much more than he wants to
About winning battles and losing wars.
How being ruler of sufficient
Is simpler and wiser
Than trying to be king of everything.
Does he see the ironies?
That a pawn turns into anything
If only it can reach the other side unscathed.
That Kings and Pawns are hobbled equally.
That the piece with all the moves
Is not the King.
That white always moves first.
The king is dead; Long live the king.
This was written over a year ago and has sat in the “draft pile” It’s done now, I think. Another tale of an old crow and her beau and a little bar in Greenwich Village called “Cobalt.”
It was a little hole-in-the-wall joint tucked away in an unfashionable part of the East Village. Dexter stumbled upon it by chance one evening. The entrance was down in a basement well with the door set at a right angle to the street. He must have walked right by it a hundred times and never noticed it. The only inkling of its existence was a small squiggle of a sign set above the door that said “Cobalt” in cobalt blue neon which would intermittently flicker and go off, stay off for a while, flicker and come back on again. That’s how he’d come to notice it. The sign had been off, and flickered back on just as he was walking up the sidewalk toward it. Curiosity had gotten the better of him and he’d gone down to investigate.
There wasn’t much to the place. Solid wood door with a little sliding “speakeasy” window and a squeaky hinge that let onto about 8 feet of landing, left turn and down about fifteen concrete steps lit by bare bulbs, left turn again, through a short hallway and out into a low-ceilinged, cavern-like room with a bare concrete floor. There was about ten feet of bar on the end by the stairs, a stage down at the other end just big enough for drums, upright piano, and a couple of chairs for the side men du jour, and in between a collection of maybe fifteen cocktail tables surrounded by an assortment of arm chairs, love seats, and ottomans, all standard Salvation Army issue. Indirect fluorescent lighting washed down the black-painted plaster walls, and each of the four square concrete pillars had a couple of those movie theater floor-directed lights placed knee-high around it.
That first night, he’d found an out of the way corner, and ordered a Coors light. He’d had a particularly crappy day at work and as he sat listening to the surprisingly eclectic mix of music on the surprisingly good sound system, the tension of the day had just drained out of him like water out of a bathtub. It was a slow night, and one of the waitresses, Sachi, had sat down and talked to him for a while. The next thing he knew, Dexter was telling her all about his dead-end job and how much he hated it, and the assholes he worked for and with, and how he never seemed to fit in anywhere and how he always felt like a third wheel. She’d seemed interested and sympathetic but, of course, she was just being nice to the customer.
Still, he found himself going back again and after he’d been a couple more times, he found out that they opened at 6:00 and that you could bring food in and eat it there if you didn’t make a mess and bussed up after yourself. That’s when he started coming straight after work. He’d pick up some takeout on the way, and then just sit quietly and listen to the music for the rest of the night, and drink a couple beers.
Sometimes they had live music, but it was never advertised and didn’t seem to be scheduled. Just whoever showed up and wanted to play. They played what Dexter assumed was jazz. Most of it he had never heard before, but he decided he liked it. One night it would be piano and string bass and trumpet, and another night, it was drums, electric guitar and flute, and then drums and piano and string bass. But then last Tuesday, the bartender and one of the men customers put an armchair up on stage and about an hour later, this woman wandered in, slender, with dark hair in a single braid all the way down her back, and she was carrying a large cloth bag. She got up on the stage, sat down in the arm chair, pulled out this thing she was knitting and sat there and knitted and sang, one song after another, just her singing, for almost two straight hours, in English once or twice, but mostly in what Sachi told him later was Gaelic, and it was the most incredibly beautiful singing he had ever heard.
Today, he’d stopped by Won Hong Lu’s and picked up some shrimp fried rice and a couple of egg rolls. He had begun to hate the fact that he had to leave at midnight — turn into a pumpkin, he’d joked — because he had to go to work the next day. But it was Friday, finally, and he was determined to stay there until they closed. Sachi brought him a Harp Lager. He had never drunk anything but American beer until he started coming there. Then one night Sachi had brought him a Harp. She said the bartender had opened one too many, and he could have it on the house. It had been a revelation.
He’d been there about an hour when a guy went up on stage and started playing piano. A while later, the black bassist came in schelpping his string bass, unpacked it and began to play along with the piano player. He had seen both of them before and smiled at the thought of listening to them again. About ten minutes later a guy came in lugging drum cases and began to set up a snare, high hat, and bass drum, then unpacked some brushes. Kia the other waitress brought them all up bottles of something to drink. Dexter thought he enjoyed watching them play as much as he enjoyed listening to them. There was an easy rapport between them. They played comfortably together. The pianist would start a song and within a bar or two the others would have joined in.
The place was beginning to fill up, soon there were no empty tables and not much longer after that, the only empty chairs were the other armchair, the love seat, and the ottoman at Dexter’s table. Sachi came over and asked if he would mind if some people sat at the table with him. He had already begun to feel guilty for taking up a whole table by himself and readily agreed.
The couple that took the love seat were older – maybe late 30’s, early 40’s, both on the short side, slender. He had a ponytail of dark hair, and her hair was loose and long, almost invisible in the dim light against her dark clothing. The man introduced himself as Bron and his lady as Catha. He was obviously British by his accent. The chair was taken by a tall, thin, teen-aged boy with long dark hair, a pierced ring around the middle of his lower lip and a long sleeved black teeshirt that had “If you’re really a Goth, where were you when we sacked Rome?” in white gothic script on the front. He was introduced as, “My nephew Drogo.” But it was the girl who took the ottoman that captured his entire attention. She was wearing a long black crushed velvet dress with fitted sleeves. She had a disheveled scribble of dark hair that hung in strands and locks about her face, and she wore blood red lipstick, which along with her dark hair, only made her pale skin look all the more pale. Drogo proceeded to introduce her as “My girlfriend, Maida.” Drogo had a thick middle European accent.
They were settling into their seats when Sachi brought their drinks, what looked like Guinness draft, except in front of Maida, she set a full, unopened bottle of Old Crow whiskey with the seal unbroken. Apparently, it was some kind of inside joke because they all laughed. “That should last you at least til midnight,” Bron said with a chuckle. She promptly opened it and took quite a slug straight from the bottle. Then, grabbing the bottle by the neck, she stood and made her way to the stage, acquiring a low stool en route. After kissing the piano player on the cheek (he didn’t miss a note of the complicated riff he happened to be playing at the time), kissing the bass player on the cheek, and waving at the drummer, she settled on her stool and began to sing.
She had a low, sultry voice slightly frayed at the edges, and she seemed to specialize in love songs. Dexter recognized some of them, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” and “As Time Goes By” and a couple of other tunes were familiar from some of the old B&W movies he’d seen on Turner Classics channel. Thankfully, the others at the table were there to listen and didn’t feel it necessary to engage him in conversation, because he was spellbound.
It was another of those magical musical nights, like that time the lady had sung in Gaelic. About four or five songs in, it occurred to him that he could open a memo page on his iPhone and thumb out a line of lyric so he could find out more about the song later. But once he had, he would surrender to the song and just let it wash over him. The time slipped by in a happy haze and then suddenly it was last call, and with a chuckle, Maida started singing a song that had the refrain, “Bye Bye, Blackbird” and that made the people she’d come with laugh aloud.
Dexter meant to go up to her, Maida, and tell her how much he liked her singing but as she finished her song, the couple and the boy got up to go, along with half the people in the place, and somehow he lost them and her in the crowd of people headed toward the stairs that led back up to the street. He caught a glimpse of them, but then a short, blond haired man and his tall Eurasian lady slipped in front of him. Dexter had seen them at Cobalt on several occasions. They were speaking French.
When he finally made it up the stairs and out into the street, he looked around for the singer and her friends, but didn’t see them. They’d probably caught a taxi. He stood a long moment in frustrated disappointment. Then with a philosophical sigh, he set off up the street toward the subway entrance. At the corner, a raucous caw called his attention to the street signs bolted to the street light pole. Four black birds that look like crows were perched there. As he stood there watching them, they launched themselves into flight and disappeared into the darkness. A single black feather floated down into the light. He held out his hand and caught it. A long moment he looked at its glistening blackness lying in his palm, then he carefully put it into his inside coat pocket, zipped his coat all the way up and started off toward the subway.
The bleary sky had been meditating all morning on whether it would snow or not; in the meantime, Edinburgh was up to its knees in damp, muzzy air that was piercingly cold and without a breath of wind. Jehanne sat beside her mother on the settee before the fire and was content to be inside.
The two heads bent over their work were both crowned with the same, almost colorless blonde hair, pulled severely up into buns atop their heads, and crowned with a large braided coronet. The paleness of their hair and skin made stark contrast with their high-necked, black wool dresses with wrist-length sleeves, and their black knitted fingerless gloves.
It was the middle of the afternoon but, owing to the combination of the northern latitude and the three and four storey buildings on either side of the narrow street, little light came in through the narrow casement window. The only other source of light in the small, oak paneled sitting room was the coal fire burning in the grate. Despite the gloom, mother and daughter worked steadily at their knitting. Jehanne’s mother, whose given name was Aoife, glanced up at the ormolu clock on the mantle, below the large gilt-framed mirror.
“You’d best start tea, Ottar,” she said, “They’ll be chilled from their flight.”
The large black dog lying at their feet, almost indistinguishable against the dark blue Turkey carpet, obediently rose to its feet and padded out of the room. The faint click of its claws on the wooden floor marked it’s passage down the hall.
“I hope everything went as planned,” Jehanne said after a while. She was the image of her mother, from her narrow, high-boned face to her long, slender fingers.
“An iffy thing making the switch, but I’ve no doubt they’ll pull it off,” her mother replied.
They knitted in silence for another moment. Then Jehanne said, “One worries that the boy will take to drink like his father.”
“Ah, but that drunken lout is not his father.” Aoife rummaged with one hand into the work bag on the settle beside her, found her needle case, extracted her darning needle and began to work the tail end of the yarn into the top of the sock cuff.
“Don’t tell me it’s the Reverend McElvoy’s!” Jehanne gasped.
“I can’t, because it isn’t. T’was his younger brother, who had more than one tumble with the upstairs maid last summer.”
“Oh, there’s a tangle. The father drowned at sea, the mother beat to death by her drunken husband. And the preacher’s poor wife brought to child bed three times and not a liveborne babe to show for it.” Jehanne shook her head sadly.
“And your Aunty Macca sitting in her attic half the morning waiting for babes to materialize and make sure the live one doesn’t get dropped.” Aoife smiled at the thought. “Still, all in a good cause.”
Footsteps on the stair announced the arrival of a tall man in his early fifties, whose jet black hair was laced with grey at the temples. His face was square-jawed and long, with deep-set eyes of a hazel so light as to verge on amber.
“Tea is ready ma’m.”
“Thank you, Ottar.”
He bowed slightly as he crossed the room to the window. There he stood watching out it for several long moments before he spotted two ravens with a hooded crow between them gliding low over the rooftop of the building opposite and headed straight for the window. He opened the casement, stood back to allow them entry, then quickly closed and latched the window behind them and drew the draperies over it. The three birds hovered in midair for several seconds, blurred, and then one by one resolved into an older black haired man in a black frock coat and black woolen waistcoat, a slender older woman with grey-laced black hair wearing a plain black woolen dress with a heavy grey woolen shawl draped over her head, and a young black haired man dressed as a clergyman.
“It’s snowing finally in Aberdour and coming this way,” the older woman said, resettling her shawl about her shoulders and hugging it around her. The older man snapped his fingers and the gas jets lighted, throwing pools of glowing white light into the room.
“It was cruel cold over the Firth,” the young clergyman allowed. He shot his cuffs and straightened his coat collar.
“Drogo, if you and Mr. Black will bring the other settee to the fireside, the tea is ready,” Ottar said quietly.
“There is room here on the settle for you by the fire, grandmamá,” Jehanne said, as both mother and daughter shifted to make space.
“Yes, Lady Catha, draw you near the fire and warm you,” Mr. Black agreed, as he turned to help the young clergyman carry the settle from the far wall to the fireside. In the meantime, Ottar had produced a heavily laden butler’s table from thin air and set it in front of the ladies. He then went to a small cabinet on the wall beside the door, where he got out a silver tray bearing a cut-glass decanter and three hand-blown crystal glasses. He carefully poured three fingers’ worth of the decanter’s dark amber contents into each glass. He set the decanter aside and brought the tray to offer it to Lady Catha, Drogo and Mr. Black.
If one ignored the prominence of Lady Catha’s nose and the confusion of the differences in coloration, there was a notable resemblance between mother, daughter and granddaughter about the cheekbones and the shape of the eyes, though Lady Catha’s eyes were black and Jehanne’s were a clear, cold blue like her mother’s. Lady Catha quickly tossed the glass’s contents down in one gulp, set it back on the tray. Her male companions did the same, though Drogo had to suppress a coughing spasm afterward.
“Ah, I feel better, now,” Lady Catha said, with a sigh and a smile. She took the tea her daughter handed to her.
“A stiff snort of good Scots whiskey’ll take the chill right off you,” Mr. Black agreed, although his voice was slightly hoarse.
“Oh,” gasped Drogo wiping at the corner of his eye, “It’ll take your mind off it, anyway.”
Having set the tray of glasses and the decanter back into the cabinet, Ottar inquired gravely, “Will there be anything else, ma’m?”
“No, I think this will do quite nicely. Thank you, Ottar.” Lady Catha interposed before her daughter could reply.
Ottar inclined his tall body in a slight bow, blurred and became a large black dog. The dog walked quietly to the end of the settee where his mistress sat, turned in a circle, and settled to the rug.
“So, did everything go well?” Jehanne inquired, handing cups of tea across to the two men.
“Just barely. Thank goodness the McElvoy babe was born upside down. It was another girl. Dead at least a day,” Lady Catha said between sips of tea. “I was able to get a towel round it before that silly maidservant of hers got a good look at it. A bit tricky to tie off the cord and cut it without revealing the naked truth, so to speak.”
“Knolly’s husband had been drinking all night, devil take him,” Mr. Black half growled. “I had to clock him good to get him off her. Vicious brute. I won’t half mind watching that one swing.”
Drogo swallowed a sip of tea and added, “Your Aunty Macca nearly scared the life out of me grabbing my hand when I put the dead girl babe through. The boy babe was all slippery with blood and I almost dropped it. It was howling when I brought it out.”
“There was blood everywhere,” Mr. Black footnoted grimly. “The bastard had knocked her down and kicked her before I could get to him. I had to help things along a good little bit. T’was almost all I could do to keep her from bleeding to death before she delivered. Poor woman. Even if I could have stopped the bleeding, she wouldn’t have lasted the night. ” He shuddered at the memory. “I’m glad it’s all over.”
“Amen to that,” Drogo said softly. “Still her babe’s alive and will have a loving home.”
“There’s that,” Mr. Black agreed, frowning. He set his teacup aside and took the plate of sandwiches Aoife handed him. “I expect I’ll have to go and testify at the assizes, but that’s not til spring.”
Drogo set his teacup down, reached for the fire iron and poked up the fire. “Such a tiny thing for the future to turn on.”
“The future always turns on tiny things,” Lady Catha replied. “This time we got to save a babe and give it two loving parents. That’s three lives better for this morning’s work. There was no future we could see where Knollys lived beyond this day, and don’t think we didn’t look.” Shaking her head sadly, she took the plate of sandwiches Jehanne handed her. “I must say, daughter, your dog sets a lovely tea.”
“Oh, he’s a good dog,” Aoife allowed, smiling. The dog beside her thumped its large tail against the carpet three times. He was, in point of fact, a wolf masquerading as a dog, but he let it pass without comment.
The conversation lapsed into silence as the five of them made short work of the large plate of cold beef sandwiches and the plate of jam tarts. In the silence of their eating, sleet began to rattle against the windows. Aoife had just refilled her mother’s cup and handed it to her when a woman’s face appeared on the surface of the tea within it.
“Everything all right, Catha dear?” said the face in the teacup.
“Yes, thank you, sister. You’ll be interested to know that the worthy reverend is over the moon now he’s got a son. He wants to name him ‘Patrick’ after his papa and ‘Alfred’ after his poor drowned brother.” Lady Catha replied.
“There’s irony for you,” Mr. Black murmured.
“Well, I must dash, sweetie. There’s the Widow Campbell coming up the path for cheeses. I don’t think I’ll mention I spent the morning in the attic sorting babies.” The face in the teacup said wrily. The image faded and disappeared.
Tears are made of salty water
But only the male whales sing
Lo and Behold
A well on the hill
And something,something Jesus.
The moonlight sparkles on water
The winds through the wires keen
Where all the bones came from.
Tears are made of salty water
Sea levels are rising
How can you tell
If you’re there yet
When you’re running for your life?
Teardrops on crystal sparkle
Moonlight on water gleams
How can you tell
If you’re there yet
When there’s no place you can go?
What can I say, but that The Walking Man stopped by earlier in the week, I reread the first four Foreigner books in three days, and last night I watched an episode of American Masters I’d recorded earlier about playwright August Wilson, parts of which floored me on the quarterdeck like Nelson’s sniper. Strange brew.