Ceremonial Doll)

Jodi had set the table for three when Brandy entered.

"I’m afraid he isn't likely to answer the bell."

"Still napping?"

"Out for the count."

"Ah, well, he won’t be missing much, just vegetable stew—although there’s plenty." Jodi tasted the broth. "This needs a bit more simmering. Can you wait?"

"Sure. I'd like to ask you something."

"Anything."

Jodi joined her guest at the makeshift table. Brandy, torn between allegiances, felt obliged to set things straight. She had encouraged Jodi’s ardor; why? Her interests lay with Simon. Yet confronted now by Jodi’s hopes (and galvanized libido) Brandy once more faltered—as if victimized by the tug of an unseen tide.

"If you’re so terribly lonely, what’s keeping you here? Why not leave?"

"Where to? I can’t go back to LA."

"Don't you have friends there?"

"Zero."

"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. I’m not your first."

"You are my first. Honest, Brandy. You’re the first I ever enjoyed it with. Those others—every one of them—wanted nothing more than 'kicks.' I was always 'the freak,' even to Carla."

"Tell me about Carla."

"No; she’s history, just one more sordid little episode in an ugly past."

"Tell me anyway."

"No. You’ll think I’m sick. You’ll think I’m playing on your sympathies; I don’t want pity."

"Suit yourself. I only asked to help me understand."

"Why?"

"Because I’m very fond of you; I said so."

Jodi reconsidered.

"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 person—since childhood—I trusted with my secret. We decided the day after graduation we’d move to LA and try to find jobs. We could only afford an efficiency apartment, so it wasn’t 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 wasn’t really sure I was gay. I’m still not, for that matter—unlike Carla; she likes girls period. Always had, she told me—even back at grade school. She said she’d had a crush on me for ‘ages.’ Still, she wasn’t happy about herself; didn’t want people knowing. I guess the fact that we both had secrets made us feel special."

Jodi got up to stir the stew, avoiding Brandy’s eyes.

"How long were you together?"

"In LA?"

"Uh huh."

"If you don't count the last four weeks, six months." She tasted the broth. "I don’t, 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 her—you know, make her feel more positive about herself? But it wasn’t for me. My sex life was and is nobody else’s business; I wasn’t about to flaunt it, parade it, just to win approval—especially 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 friend—my only friend—against me. I was depressed for weeks. Finally Clara didn’t come home for one entire night. The next day we had it out. We said nasty, hurtful things to one another. I don’t know if she did it on purpose, but, in the heat of our arguing, she let slip that she’d told The Friends about me. I went ballistic. I think if she hadn’t 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 paranoid—seeing 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 dates—which 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 they’re afraid, rarely behave well. It’s painful being the one singled out; I know the feeling. But I think it’s better than just being one of the crowd."

"Do you know the only thing that would have made me really hate them? If I’d 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 I’d find you."

"Jodi, we need to talk about that."

"I know what you’re going to say; you’re 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 I’ve seen. But, Jodi, I have to earn a living. How could I do that here."

"Tucson’s only an hour away. You could work there, live here; no problem. Or work with me; I could teach you. It wouldn’t take you long to be a first-rate potter."

"I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves, don’t you?"

"It’s Simon!"

Jodi’s animosity suddenly seethed. Brandy, somewhat shocked, went back on the defensive.

"I am ‘involved’ with him, as you put it. Why he’s entered my life, I can't quite say… except that he's… "

"An accident."

"Well, in a way that’s true; we didn’t exactly meet each other on purpose."

"That’s not the way I meant it."

"Oh?"

"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 haven’t wondered what possessed you to quit your job, pack up your belongings and drive to Arizona?"

"I don't know what you’re getting at, but my exit from L A had nothing to do with you."

"You’re 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."

"That’s ridiculous."

"You’re not angry, are you?"

"Angry? I’m nonplussed. How, pray tell?"

Jodi’s 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).

"Hungry?"

"Huh?"

"The stew."

"Oh. Yes, please."

Jodi ladled two bowls full.

"I’m 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."

"You’re serious, aren’t you?"

"Your mishap, and meeting ‘him,’ explains the delay."

"That’s enough, Jodi."

"He spoiled everything."

"I mean it. I don’t know why you’re making all this up but I want you to stop. If you don’t, I’ll go wake Simon and we’ll leave tonight."

"But you promised! I’m sorry. Honestly. I won’t say another word. Mia lipoj estas sigelis."

"What?"

"‘My lips are sealed.’"

They sat silently for a while, eating.

"Was that—what you were speaking—the language Oscar knows?"

"He told you about it?"

"Some. He said there were only three people left who spoke it anymore."

"Four. But I’m not one of them; I only know a few phrases."

"I’m sure he said ‘three.’"

"He wasn’t counting Maniqua, no doubt."

"Who’s she?"

"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 doesn’t want to know."

Brandy, troubled by Jodi's surreptitious tone, decided to forego any further explanation.

So Jodi pressed herself on Brandy's behalf.

"Aren’t you going to ask me what kind of things?"

"No."

"You probably wouldn’t believe me anyway."

"Probably not."

Jodi waited patiently; Brandy caved in.

"Okay, what things?"

"Supernatural ones."

"I was afraid of that."

"Maniqua has powers. I’ve 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 I’ve heard about it. And she can change her appearance; I have seen her do that. When I go to visit her she’s old and ugly sometimes. Other times she’s 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 Maniqua’s penetrating eyes—they’re incredible—huge and dark and deep as the dead of night."

Brandy’s discomfort increased, so familiar, yet elusive, were Jodi’s images.

"I don’t know how she does most of what she does but she’s 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, I’ll do things Maniqua doesn't dare try."

"You've told her? About your… ?"

"No, I didn’t have to; she told me. Somehow she knew. Even before we met. That's the reason she appeared to me in the first place—or so I suspect."

"'Appeared'?"

"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 Eric’s 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 didn’t know your name, but the girl I saw when she slowly turned that card was you to a T—except 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 protagonists—Simon on one side, with his uncanny insights; Jodi on the other, with her auguries and spells—each force tugging at her concept of Reality, threatening to unravel it. For form’s sake she maintained a superficial doubt.

"You don’t really expect me to believe any of this, do you?"

"Not without proof. But if you could meet Maniqua, I’m sure you'd be convinced. We could go see her right now, in fact; it isn't all that late."

"What about Simon?"

"He’s asleep, isn’t he?"

"Yes, but he might wake up. We really shouldn't leave him all by himself."

"Okay. I’ll invite Maniqua here instead. She can have a look at Simon's wounds. Honestly, she’s a well-respected healer—though 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 she’ll come?"

"If we ask properly."

"There’s no telephone; how do you get in touch?"

Jodi grinned another arcane grin, then rose and put a kettle on the potbelly stove.

Brandy cringed.

"You’re not going to boil toads or some such, are you?"

"I thought you’d like some more tea."

"Oh. Yes, I would."

"No; no witches cauldrons or animal sacrifices, I’m afraid. Calling her is actually rather straightforward—though I’ve never done it in somebody else's presence. It only takes a few minutes. I’ll need a couple of things from the other room. You’ll excuse me?"

When Jodi left, Brandy got up to clear the dirty dishes, wondering to herself what lay ahead. This was unlike playing with Lynn’s Ouija board (a game, something odd but not to be taken too seriously—except 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 don’t 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 left—all 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 Brandy’s extinguishing the lamp and Jodi’s 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?"

"Him?"

"Her, then; the doll."

"No. ‘IT’ is a special present that Maniqua gave to me so I could summon her."

"You don’t meet in person?"

"Not anymore; it isn’t necessary. Well, sometimes. But… you don’t understand. She will be here."

"You mean, I’ll see her?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

"Just sit there quietly. Relax. Let's have some tea; it should be ready."

Jodi let Brandy pour but declined to drink first.

"Ooo, it’s bitter! This isn’t the same kind we had earlier, is it?"

"No."

"What’s in it?"

"I don’t really know. Herbs and things."

"Do I have to drink it?"

"Of course not… Oh, you thought it was part of… "

"Isn’t it?"

"Here; I’ll go and make us a different kind."

She moved to retrieve Brandy’s cup.

"No, no, this is fine. It’s 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).

"Aren’t you having any?"

"I prefer mine stronger; I’ll let it steep more."

"It’s making my tongue feel funny. Why did you only pour me half a cup?"

"Sometimes people get an allergic reaction. It’s unusual, but once in a while it’ll make your limbs feel numb. Or you’ll get a little drowsy. Neither effect persists—even after a full cup—but half a cup is safer until we’re sure."

"You shouldn’t have told me that. Now I’m going to ‘imagine’ I have those symptoms."

"You don’t really feel any different, do you?"

"I can’t tell."

"Well, in any case, it’s harmless. Let’s begin. If you like, you can concentrate on the candle. That’s right. Relax. It’s always better when the environment is very relaxed. The only thing I ask is that you try to stay calm. And please don’t speak unless you’re 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 I’m not supposed to speak.’

"… inhale… exhale… relax… observe the flame… it’s warm… you’re safe… relax… breathe in… breathe out… relax… you’re safe… it’s 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.’

 

‘Adrienne?’

(Who is it? That's not Jodi’s voice.)

‘My name isn’t… ’

‘Sleep.’

‘Her name is Brandy.’

‘Shush. How much did you give her?’

‘Half a cup. That isn’t too much, is it?’

‘Time will tell.’

‘You see; I got her here all by myself.’

‘I see she is here.’

‘And she’ll stay.’

‘No, she will not stay.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I know.’

‘Have you done a reading about her?’

‘Two.’

‘Where? When? I don’t understand.’

‘Where you do not understand you should not impose.’

‘But I was lonely. I needed somebody. I needed her.’

‘And Eric?’

‘He left. You said you’d help me. Instead you let him go.’

‘It would have done no good to have him linger.’

‘Well, I don’t care about him anymore. I want Brandy.’

‘It will be difficult.’

‘Why? She’s already under my influence; look at her.’

‘There is another.’

‘Yeah; Simon. He’s in the next room. I don't know what to do about him.’

‘He will find you out.’

‘Let him. He’s too weak to do anything about it.’

‘No, Jodi. Simon has weaknesses, true, but he is not weak.’

‘You’ll help me, won’t you?’

‘I have already. But it is rash, in this case, to interfere.’

‘Are you afraid?’

‘Wary.’

‘Of him? I don’t believe it.’

‘What, pray tell, do you know about this young man?’

‘Nothing much—except that Brandy claims he can tap into other people’s dreams. Is that possible?’

‘Think, Jodi. How do I visit you?’

‘But that’s different; he’s not powerful the way you are.’

‘True; while he stumbles over himself. But once he gains his balance, powers, uniquely his, will certainly humble mine.’

‘Couldn’t we keep him off balance, then?’

‘That may not be possible for very much longer.’

‘But couldn’t we try? I need more time with Brandy. She likes me. She told me so herself. If I could keep her here for just a little while longer… ’

‘It would not matter.’

‘It would! It will! Please? I know I can make her want me. I’m certain she'll choose me instead of him.’

‘If, and only if, she is free to go.’

‘No! That’s not the way. She’d forget all about me. I have to keep her here. Just a day or two would do. Please, Maniqua!’

Oni ne povas devigi amo?’

‘Yes.’

‘And she accepted you, found you pleasing to behold, to taste, touch, and smell?’

‘Oh, yes! It was wonderful!’

‘And this was done how?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Her love-making; did you utilize her bracelet for that, as well?’

‘No; only to bring her here. She said I was beautiful.’

‘Then why use force to win what she has given freely?’

‘Because she’s leaving tomorrow. With him. Unless I stop them. That’s why I called you.’

‘There are ways to use one's power that are right or wrong. Choices are irrevocable. Once a wrong is undertaken the Higher Powers are diminished. I know this. It is during the learning process that one is most susceptible, when what is lost seems trifling but ultimately will tell. Misapplied gifts do damage; heed, and be wise.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Picture yourself on a stairway. See it? See it?’

‘Yes.’

‘Can you visualize where it ends or where it begins?’

‘No.’

‘That is because you have yet to reach your full potential. But let us shorten the stairway so you can view each end at a glance. Count the steps above you.’

‘Twelve.’

‘And those below?’

‘The same; twelve.’

‘Now take a step down. How many steps are above you?’

‘Twelve.’

‘Take another step down. Count again.’

‘Still twelve.’

‘And again. How many?’

‘Twelve. Oh! There should be more up there. Where did they go?’

‘Go down once more, watching over your shoulder at the uppermost step.’

‘It’s disappearing. It’s gone!’

‘Now do you understand?’

‘Was it wrong, then, to bring Brandy here?’

‘If you had been responsible, yes, perhaps.’

‘But the spell I cast… ’

‘Was mild; it merely caught her attention. Brandy's step on the stairs is higher than yours. You must climb, if you would have her, not fool her into descending with amateur potions and spells.’

‘What about Simon?’

‘He is lost, for now. To find himself he must look for love in advance. She abides before him. Catch up with her or perish.’

‘What do you predict?’

‘Nothing. Already he has ventured past my ken. Clumsiness notwithstanding, he may regain his footing—or wander toward insanity's fatal edge. Weighty matters, these; to forecast is futile.’

‘I told Brandy he was dangerous. For her. Not out of spite, either.’

‘Is that what you intuited?’

‘Yes.’

‘Maybe so. With age—and many mistakes—I see less keenly. Aferoj estas kiel ili estas ec por tiuj kiuj volus havi ilin esti nur kiel ili sajni. What does she expect?’

‘I explained about how I call you.’

‘Pretend you failed.’

‘You won’t help me, then?’

‘I have. From this point hence, however, you must do what you must do.’

‘But… Wait!’

‘Adrienne… ’

‘Maniqua, don’t go!’

‘… my Dark One, awaken.’

 

*

*

"No!...

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