Jodi had set the table for three when Brandy entered.
"Im afraid he isn't likely to answer the bell."
"Out for the count."
"Ah, well, he wont be missing much, just vegetable stewalthough theres plenty." Jodi tasted the broth. "This needs a bit more simmering. Can you wait?"
"Sure. I'd like to ask you something."
Jodi joined her guest at the makeshift table. Brandy, torn between allegiances, felt obliged to set things straight. She had encouraged Jodis ardor; why? Her interests lay with Simon. Yet confronted now by Jodis hopes (and galvanized libido) Brandy once more faltered—as if victimized by the tug of an unseen tide.
"If youre so terribly lonely, whats keeping you here? Why not leave?"
"Where to? I cant go back to LA."
"Don't you have friends there?"
"Oh, come on. What about your lover?"
Brandy's educated guess made Jodi flinch.
"You know about her? But that was over way before you and I met. Or did everybody know, like they knew about Eric?"
"I just put two and two together. Im not your first."
"You are my first. Honest, Brandy. Youre the first I ever enjoyed it with. Those othersevery one of themwanted nothing more than 'kicks.' I was always 'the freak,' even to Carla."
"Tell me about Carla."
"No; shes history, just one more sordid little episode in an ugly past."
"Tell me anyway."
"No. Youll think Im sick. Youll think Im playing on your sympathies; I dont want pity."
"Suit yourself. I only asked to help me understand."
"Because Im very fond of you; I said so."
"You promise to interrupt, if you get I don't know, bored?"
"I doubt that I'll get bored, but sure; agreed."
Jodi took a measured, resolute breath.
"Carla was the only one who mattered in the least. We were best friends back in high school. She was the very first personsince childhoodI trusted with my secret. We decided the day after graduation wed move to LA and try to find jobs. We could only afford an efficiency apartment, so it wasnt long before we knew pretty much everything about each other. I suppose our being away from home helped tighten our relations. Anyway, sex just sort of happened. I felt guilty about it, but not enough to stop. We did it at night, always, in the dark. I wasnt really sure I was gay. Im still not, for that matterunlike Carla; she likes girls period. Always had, she told meeven back at grade school. She said shed had a crush on me for ages. Still, she wasnt happy about herself; didnt want people knowing. I guess the fact that we both had secrets made us feel special."
Jodi got up to stir the stew, avoiding Brandys eyes.
"How long were you together?"
"If you don't count the last four weeks, six months." She tasted the broth. "I dont, because we were as un-together as two people could be at that stage." She stirred in some salt before sitting back down. "Carla had met The Friends, this clique of gay girls whose primary goal in life was helping their sisters come out, to express themselves, was the phrase they liked to use. They persuaded her, slowly but surely, that sexual identity was something to be proud of, not to be hidden in the closet. So Carla started pressuring me, in public, to be more affectionate. I could see it was probably a healthy thing for heryou know, make her feel more positive about herself? But it wasnt for me. My sex life was and is nobody elses business; I wasnt about to flaunt it, parade it, just to win approvalespecially from a band of militant dikes. Fights broke out. And there was another woman; I knew that for sure. Carla would come home with these little presents. She got some letters, too. Then, all of a sudden, it was my fault that she disliked herself, because I insisted we always make love in the dark. Brandy, that was her doing as much as it was mine. Anyway, it was too late to change. They had turned my best friendmy only friendagainst me. I was depressed for weeks. Finally Clara didnt come home for one entire night. The next day we had it out. We said nasty, hurtful things to one another. I dont know if she did it on purpose, but, in the heat of our arguing, she let slip that shed told The Friends about me. I went ballistic. I think if she hadnt run out the door I might have killed her. One, and one thought only, kept exploding inside my brain; it would start all over again, the persecution, people whispering, smirking, making fun behind my back. LA is a big place but word gets around.
"It did, too. At first I thought I was being paranoidseeing every odd look as proof that others knew. But women began approaching me, making passes. By that point I was so miserable I accepted one or two dateswhich proved to be a terrible, terrible mistake. I soon found out it was in to have fucked the freak. That was the slogan, Brandy. I heard it twice Why are people so cruel to those born different?"
Hers was not a rhetorical question; Jodi wanted an answer. Brandy, in reply, did the best she could.
"Whatever is truly different tends to scare most people, I guess. And people, when theyre afraid, rarely behave well. Its painful being the one singled out; I know the feeling. But I think its better than just being one of the crowd."
"Do you know the only thing that would have made me really hate them? If Id gone ahead and gotten my operation. I almost did. I had the money all saved up. But at the very last minute I realized it would make me just like them. Deep down in my heart, I know I'm special. And deep down in my heart, I knew Id find you."
"Jodi, we need to talk about that."
"I know what youre going to say; youre involved with Simon. I accept that. But, if Simon went away or something? If it were just the two of us? Would you maybe stay with me then? Just for a while?"
The truth was, Brandy had already considered it. When first she saw Esperanto something about it clicked. It was rural, remote, yet not too far from a major city. No films, or theater, and zero night life might be drawbacks, but would she really miss them? The lack of crime, smog, and traffic jams might prove worth the swap. Esperanto could, in fact, suit Brandy uncommonly well. Except her private plan for a simpler life included someone sharing it. Simon was the best choice, instinct told her; Jodi, for all her sweetness, made for an awkward third-wheel. Unless Could a trio be workable? She shuddered at the inescapable complications. And yet Again (subliminally) she felt herself cajoled.
"I do like what Ive seen. But, Jodi, I have to earn a living. How could I do that here."
"Tucsons only an hour away. You could work there, live here; no problem. Or work with me; I could teach you. It wouldnt take you long to be a first-rate potter."
"I think were getting ahead of ourselves, dont you?"
Jodis animosity suddenly seethed. Brandy, somewhat shocked, went back on the defensive.
"I am involved with him, as you put it. Why hes entered my life, I can't quite say except that he's "
"Well, in a way thats true; we didnt exactly meet each other on purpose."
"Thats not the way I meant it."
"You were supposed to come alone."
"Supposed to? Supposed to? What are you talking about?"
"Why do you think you're here in Esperanto?"
"I thought it might be nice to look you up."
"You came to visit a friend you never had?"
Unsure what Jodi was suggesting, Brandy shrugged.
"Okay, why did I come then?"
"You havent wondered what possessed you to quit your job, pack up your belongings and drive to Arizona?"
"I don't know what youre getting at, but my exit from L A had nothing to do with you."
"Youre sure of that?"
Brandy recompiled her reasons for leaving: she needed a change; it just felt right In retrospect her motives did seem vague.
"Okay, why have I come to Esperanto, Arizona?"
"I arranged it."
"Youre not angry, are you?"
"Angry? Im nonplussed. How, pray tell?"
Jodis eyes assumed a mysterious glint.
"I willed it."
The notion was absurd. Brandy's decision to forsake an entire lifestyle hardly could have been founded on the will of a distant friend (a casual acquaintance, at that).
"Oh. Yes, please."
Jodi ladled two bowls full.
"Im sorry to disillusion you, Jodi, but my coming to the desert had little to do with you."
"The thing that puzzled me most was why so late; what could have happened? By all accounts you were due the day before yesterday."
"Youre serious, arent you?"
"Your mishap, and meeting him, explains the delay."
"Thats enough, Jodi."
"He spoiled everything."
"I mean it. I dont know why youre making all this up but I want you to stop. If you dont, Ill go wake Simon and well leave tonight."
"But you promised! Im sorry. Honestly. I wont say another word. Mia lipoj estas sigelis."
"My lips are sealed."
They sat silently for a while, eating.
"Was thatwhat you were speakingthe language Oscar knows?"
"He told you about it?"
"Some. He said there were only three people left who spoke it anymore."
"Four. But Im not one of them; I only know a few phrases."
"Im sure he said three."
"He wasnt counting Maniqua, no doubt."
"The woman I mentioned; the one who gathers herbs. Oscar disapproves of her."
"In what way?"
Jodi got the same weird glint in her eyes (as if privy to some intelligence she was eager to confide).
"She knows things Oscar doesnt want to know."
Brandy, troubled by Jodi's surreptitious tone, decided to forego any further explanation.
So Jodi pressed herself on Brandy's behalf.
"Arent you going to ask me what kind of things?"
"You probably wouldnt believe me anyway."
Jodi waited patiently; Brandy caved in.
"Okay, what things?"
"I was afraid of that."
"Maniqua has powers. Ive seen her use them. She can heal people. She can also make a person sick, even die."
"Have you seen her do that?"
"No. But Ive heard about it. And she can change her appearance; I have seen her do that. When I go to visit her shes old and ugly sometimes. Other times shes as young as me and you! And very beautiful."
Brandy blanched; a memory called to mind recoiled like a stepped-on snake.
"She can hypnotize people, too. One time I was sitting across from her, just talking, when all of a sudden I was back in a whole different century, reliving a scene, apparently, from my distant past. It was all so real I could have sworn it actually was happening. Except, when it was over, there I was still sitting in that exact same chair staring into Maniquas penetrating eyestheyre incrediblehuge and dark and deep as the dead of night."
Brandys discomfort increased, so familiar, yet elusive, were Jodis images.
"I dont know how she does most of what she does but shes teaching me. Not all at once; just a little at a time. She says I already possess rare powers because of the way I was born. When I learn to use them fully, Ill do things Maniqua doesn't dare try."
"You've told her? About your ?"
"No, I didnt have to; she told me. Somehow she knew. Even before we met. That's the reason she appeared to me in the first placeor so I suspect."
"In my sleep."
"I don't follow."
"Before I met Maniqua in person she came to me in a dream. Oh, it was strange! She told my fortune using Tarot cards. Right before of my eyes their pictures came to life! She foresaw both Erics arrival and his running away. I refused to accept that part but it happened just as she predicted. She also forecast my falling in love with you. She didnt know your name, but the girl I saw when she slowly turned that card was you to a Texcept her hair was darker; black as ink."
Brandy went numb; her own forgotten dream came back with a vengeance. She felt suspended between two bizarre protagonistsSimon on one side, with his uncanny insights; Jodi on the other, with her auguries and spellseach force tugging at her concept of Reality, threatening to unravel it. For forms sake she maintained a superficial doubt.
"You dont really expect me to believe any of this, do you?"
"Not without proof. But if you could meet Maniqua, Im sure you'd be convinced. We could go see her right now, in fact; it isn't all that late."
"What about Simon?"
"Hes asleep, isnt he?"
"Yes, but he might wake up. We really shouldn't leave him all by himself."
"Okay. Ill invite Maniqua here instead. She can have a look at Simon's wounds. Honestly, shes a well-respected healerthough many are afraid to take her prescriptions. Still, her diagnoses are often trusted. Even by Oscar. He once told me how Maniqua had warned him about a gall stone attack. He refused to eat the herbs that she prepared. Three weeks later he had to be rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital where a surgeon cut three stones from his traumatized bladder. If Simon's case is serious, Maniqua can tell."
It was the right tact. An experienced opinion (occult or otherwise) might, in Brandy's estimation, be well advised. Besides, her fear was irrational; what connection could Maniqua and the Gypsy Woman possibly have?
"You think shell come?"
"If we ask properly."
"Theres no telephone; how do you get in touch?"
Jodi grinned another arcane grin, then rose and put a kettle on the potbelly stove.
"Youre not going to boil toads or some such, are you?"
"I thought youd like some more tea."
"Oh. Yes, I would."
"No; no witches cauldrons or animal sacrifices, Im afraid. Calling her is actually rather straightforwardthough Ive never done it in somebody else's presence. It only takes a few minutes. Ill need a couple of things from the other room. Youll excuse me?"
When Jodi left, Brandy got up to clear the dirty dishes, wondering to herself what lay ahead. This was unlike playing with Lynns Ouija board (a game, something odd but not to be taken too seriouslyexcept for once or twice). The atmosphere Jodi created was altogether dark. Authentic were the forces she threatened to muster. Hers was a genuine power; hence one to be feared?
Jodi, carrying the tea tray, quietly reentered. Alongside two cups (with mismatched saucers) and the pot itself were: a blood-red candle, an incense burner, and a hand-carved wooden doll. This latter, dressed in a tunic of homespun hemp, reminded Brandy of something she'd seen before in a dream, perhaps? She watched as Jodi arranged each item on the table.
"Thanks for clearing up."
"Is there anything else I can do?"
"No, I dont think so."
From a tin canister Jodi scooped enough leaves to refill the tea ball, hooked it inside the pot, then re-boiled some water. Returning to the table, she sat down ceremoniously.
"Simon still asleep?"
"As far as I could tell."
Jodi propped the doll into a seated posture, legs apart, setting the candle between them, then placed the incense burner a few inches to the leftall three objects in line with the table's empty chair.
"Shall I pour?"
"Not yet; it should steep a bit. You could put out the lamp, if you don't mind."
There was only a blink of darkness between Brandys extinguishing the lamp and Jodis striking a match. The blood-red candle burned beside a smoldering stick of incense, slender smoke and flame casting an aura over the doll's blank features.
"Did you make him?"
"Her, then; the doll."
"No. IT is a special present that Maniqua gave to me so I could summon her."
"You dont meet in person?"
"Not anymore; it isnt necessary. Well, sometimes. But you dont understand. She will be here."
"You mean, Ill see her?"
"Just sit there quietly. Relax. Let's have some tea; it should be ready."
Jodi let Brandy pour but declined to drink first.
"Ooo, its bitter! This isnt the same kind we had earlier, is it?"
"Whats in it?"
"I dont really know. Herbs and things."
"Do I have to drink it?"
"Of course not Oh, you thought it was part of "
"Here; Ill go and make us a different kind."
She moved to retrieve Brandys cup.
"No, no, this is fine. Its only bitter at first. Now that I've had another sip my mouth tastes sweet inside."
"Your mouth is sweet inside."
This was the first allusion either had made to earlier goings-on, those that Simon had shattered with his 'tap' upon the glass. Brandy lowered her eyes, and took another sip of the pungent concoction which tasted much like the stick of incense smelled (its essence of juniper similar to smoldering leaves).
"Arent you having any?"
"I prefer mine stronger; Ill let it steep more."
"Its making my tongue feel funny. Why did you only pour me half a cup?"
"Sometimes people get an allergic reaction. Its unusual, but once in a while itll make your limbs feel numb. Or youll get a little drowsy. Neither effect persistseven after a full cupbut half a cup is safer until were sure."
"You shouldnt have told me that. Now Im going to imagine I have those symptoms."
"You dont really feel any different, do you?"
"I cant tell."
"Well, in any case, its harmless. Lets begin. If you like, you can concentrate on the candle. Thats right. Relax. Its always better when the environment is very relaxed. The only thing I ask is that you try to stay calm. And please dont speak unless youre spoken to. Now, watch the flame. Breathe slowly: inhale exhale inhale exhale "
I definitely feel a numbness creeping into my toes and fingers! Maybe I should tell her except she said that Im not supposed to speak.
" inhale exhale relax observe the flame its warm youre safe relax breathe in breathe out relax youre safe its warm you're safe observe the flame."
She must be whispering; I can hardly hear her. If I squint a little, the flame streaks way up toward the ceiling lovely, the way it wiggles candlelight is peaceful I could stare at it for hours relaxing, too all warm and safe and pale the flame almost white a skinny tongue with a silvery tip of smoke stretching into the darkness.