There was hoarfrost on the ground. It powdered the shadows. It melted into beads of glistening dew that shimmered wherever touched by the dawning sun. Mourning doves cooed. A woodpecker, crowned by a red exclamation topknot, tattooed a saguaro, while a black-and-blue triumvirate of crows held raucous court on a nearby tufted mound. One flew off alone.
Brandy lay with an arm and leg draped gracefully, almost protectively over Simons agitated body; he had just awakened. Realizing it was Brandy who kept him company, his muscles relaxed.
What had happened to his head? The dull pain, the bandage, reminded him of nothing. All he could recall was having walked to watch the sunset and a few sensations Being drained, was one of them, sucked out like an egg through a hole in its shell Smelling fragrances in a cactus garden was another Being tickled (where was that?) by a pair of giggling schoolgirls Or were they grown-ups? Two women whom he watched through a plate-glass window making love something about the one (or maybe both?) particularly bizarre (a penis; that was it) one of the women sported a miniature erection He must have imagined that Dreamed it, yes, because Suzi also was there standing next to him clenching his hand (Where?) On a carnival midway; he had smelled the sawdust heard screams saw ugly, terrible things like dolls with human features and bloodshot eyes.
But how had he reached the house from (Lavalieres) garden? Surely it was Lavaliere's because of the statue which came to life proving he had dreamed that part as well Besides, he had walked to a water tower, then walked back To Jodi's house And that was where he saw the women having sex on the floor sprawled out mostly naked until a shutter closed Or was it a blind? Or maybe a theater curtain. Up and down it went each scene like some lewd, vulgarian tableau offensive someone goading, making him watch. Suzi. Suzi, like a specter, had ushered at every show, forced him to attend, insisted that he peep. To make her stop he had banged his head against a wall (A wall? No, a pane of glass!) And thusly he had wrenched himself back to consciousness.
Simon looked across the living room. A square of cardboard patching the window served to verify his conjecture—and likewise pose an explanation for his bandaged brow. Who played nurse?
A bolt of panic struck him!
Had he spoken? No. Unlikely. He remembered blacking out then Suzi showing up again to drag him off somewhere to separate him from Whom? Perhaps from himself? Or from Brandy?
Simon felt his thoughts being jammed by interference deliberately confounding him tampering with his wits.
He turned to confront his reflection in a pair of emerald eyes eyes inquiring soundlessly if he had meant the words he'd said (his first words in years) words that he, indeed, had spoken aloud words that he (despite his vow) repeated unequivocally.
"I love you."
Brandy sealed his lips with a heartfelt osculation.
Jodi, entering from the yard, stopped short and glared.
Caught (but undeterred) Brandy lingered, withdrew her tongue, then gracefully disengaged.
"Good morning, Jodi."
Rising, Brandy approached the jealous rival.
Jodi, welling up in tears, turned aside and fled.
Simon (preoccupied with his own jumbled thoughts) looked up just in time to see the women exit.
In the kitchen, facing East, bathed in a yellow pool of early morning light, Jodi stood with her palms creating a blindfold, her body racked by sobs, her grief inconsolable. Brandy crossed the room and hugged her from behind.
"You feel betrayed, don't you?"
Jodi refused to answer.
"I didnt come back; it's true. I wanted to be with Simon."
Upon hearing her rival's name, Jodis backbone stiffened.
"It was pitch dark. He was all alone, in an unfamiliar place, and he was injured."
"What about me?!"
Jodi's outburst heralded a second salvo of sobs. Brandy's hug grew tighter.
"Why make me feel bad for being kind to someone else?"
"You cant love two different people the exact same way."
"I wasn't trying to. You and I shared bodies. Simon and I Well, Simon wants "
"What all men want; who are you kidding?"
"Even if that were true, I still care for you."
Jodi whirled around.
"Do you take me for a fool? That's the kind of logic employed by the person in between; it wouldn't even occur to the ones on either end. You just want to have your cake and eat it, too. Well, people don't accept that; its against human nature. How would you behave if it was me kissing him?"
Stunned by Jodi's outrage, Brandy risked the truth.
"I guess it would depend."
"See? Youd be jealous."
"Not if Simon loved you. And you loved him."
"Liar! You've probably never known what real love is."
Jodi tried to wrench away; Brandy prevented her.
"So youre the only woman whos ever been rejected?"
"No. Im simply saying that you, more 's the pity, have not."
"Because Im voluptuous, I suppose?"
"I'll grant you, Jodi, that menoccasionally womenare often attracted to me. But not a solitary one of them ever loved for real."
"I mean it. Not a soul. They didnt know how. Most people dont. They either give too little, or take too little in return. Love should be like dancingtotal involvement."
"You still couldn't care for me and allow him to kiss you like that."
"I kissed him."
Brandy released Jodi's shoulders to cradle her trembly chin, then kissed away the teardrops, planting one last smooch on the potter's downcast mouth.
"Hey; are my lips so sour, so unloving, that you dont want to kiss me back?"
Answered so rapaciously, Brandy near-recoiled; the sulky-natured countenance burrowed between her breasts (wherein Jodi plotted what she hoped was a fool-proof plan).
"Please, don't go away! You dont have to."
She pulled her red-hot cheeks from the muzzling cleft.
"I really want you to stay. Simon can, too; Ill tell him so myself; I'll tell him I'm I'm sorry. Just a few more days; please? Please; Im begging you!"
Brandy felt ensnared by another nameless urgeor perhaps it was the one she had resisted all along... unsuccessfully. She did her best to fight it off.
"Wouldn't our saying good-bye be easier now than later?"
"But Tucson isnt far. After we get settled we'll come and visit. Often."
Jodi, pretending to accept this offer, altered her approach.
"Oh, I almost forgot; youve come here to live. We can see each other weekends. Week days even. Any time youre free!"
Brandy, visibly relieved, remained somewhat on guard.
"Come to think of it, one of Maniquas best friends owns a Mid-Eastern restaurant in Tucson. Maybe you could dance there. Maniqua, if we ask, I'm sure would pave your way. Ask before you go, I mean. Unless, that is, you have to hurry off?"
Cautious still, Brandy dared to defer.
"Im not sure Mr. Hitchhiker would sit through one of your séances."
"Oh, no; wed go to her trailer. Its close. About a half-hours walk. And the path is really beautiful this time of year Or would you rather not?"
Brandy, truth be told, was less than enthused. There was something about this 'herbalist' that made her ill-at-ease. She also had her doubts about Jodi's change of heart. Still, it might make leave-taking much more amicable; that, in itself, was worth considering a delay.
"Lets ask Simon. If he agrees, we won't drive back until later this afternoon. Fair enough?"
Jodi, more than grateful, squeezed Brandy's hand, then preceded her from the kitchen to propose the plan herself.
"Good morning, Simon. Hows your noggin? That was a pretty nasty bump you got last night. House reach out and trip you, or werent you paying attention?"
Simon, reaching for the nearby crayon and note pad, wrote:
Im sorry about your window.
"Oh, dont worry about that; whats a pane of glass compared to someones noodle? Anyway, since were apologizing, Id like to say Im sorry for causing a scene. You know, for running out just now? Got up on the wrong side of my hammock."
Brandy, never having seen Jodi act like this before (her jovial manner awkward and decidedly forced), watched with growing suspicion as the performance took its course.
"How about some breakfast? You two must be starving. Any takers on coffee, wheat toast, and jam?"
Simon raised his hand.
"Theres one customer. Brandy?"
"Sure. Let me help."
"Help? Ha; you're the chef. Kitchens that-a-way. Meanwhile, Ill inspect our patient's 'ouch.'"
Simon, likewise conscious of the shift in Jodi's conduct, could not (for the moment) guess at its green-eyed source. As Brandy headed for the kitchen, he submitted to Jodis aid.
"Im going to pry up this bandage, okay."
She knelt in front of him, placing Simon's hands on her unclad knees.
"Squeeze if I hurt you. Okay?"
Gingerly (if provocatively), she picked at the adhesive (her nightshirt billowing open to the waist, as she leaned forward )
"I suppose it might be kinder to yank it off all at once, but maybe there's a scab formed underneath."
( affording him a peek, which he abjured, of her pear-shaped breasts, one entire nipple brazenly exposed, its blush in poignant contrast to her unembarrassed cheek.)
"You havent squeezed; I guess Im doing okay?"
Changing her position (while checking Simon's focus), Jodi caught his eyes ta last consume the bait.
"Damn; the gauze is stuck. Wait right here; Ill get a washcloth."
Rising, Jodi hurried off to the bathroom, returning with a dampened cloth and vintage first aid kit. As she knelt back down perfume (distinctly familiar) wafted from her skin (the same scent Simon had smelled on Brandy's nightgown). As Jodi daubed at the dressing, loosening the blood, Simon (reminiscing) unavoidably sniffed. Meanwhile she who administered did so rather coquettishly.
"Hmm, not bad at all. We were scared youd cracked your handsome skull wide open. Still, I think Maniqua had better have a look. Shes our local apothecary. Im sure she has an ointment that can heal this in a jiffy. You know, keep it from scarring? Here, before I re-bandage it, see for yourself."
Jodi handed to Simon the medicine kit's small mirror. Holding it at an angle, he examined the crisscrossed cuts the lump beneath them purplish the face below it giving him cause to start; Simon leered at Simon, his reflection briefly 'other' from its spellbound source.
"Ive been telling Brandy about my friend Maniqua, hoping to arrange a meeting. Brandy expressed an interest but wanted to ask you first. You know, in case you were anxious to leave? But we could, if you don't mind, pay her a visit later this morning. After we eat, I mean. Unless you don't feel up to it."
Only half-listening, Simon stared transfixed by the handheld mirror recalling something odd from the previous night in the window before he had banged his head against the glass a hostile sort of twin having occupied his reflection.
"How's about it, Simon; do you agree?"
He looked up distractedly.
"Can we go to see Maniqua?"
"Hooray! Here, I'll change this dressing and well be through."
As Jodi applied fresh band-aides, Brandy called from the kitchen.
"BREAKFAST IS SERVED."
Simon got to his feet slowly, motioning off Jodi's help, his dizziness abated.
"Sure you're okay?"
He nodded again, more convincingly.
"Ill throw on some clothes and be right in."
Brandy had arranged the mélange of mismatched dinnerware into a cheery setting—the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee enhancing its appeal.
"Welcome wounded wanderer. Here, have a seat."
He sat where she indicated.
"Did Jodi ask about going to see this 'Maniqua'?"
"Nod yes, if you said youd go; shake no, if you declined."
Her manner, atypically sarcastic, made its target wince.
"Sorry. I just thought "
Simon moved his hand as if to dismiss the issue; speech (despite his lapse) was not to be their mode. He said as much (though did itby means extrasensory).
Disappointed, Brandy answered aloud.
Again he spoke not speaking. Brandy responded.
"And how do you propose we accomplish that?"
He gave her a telling look. It registered, then; Simon had not uttered a solitary word.
Jodi made her entrance, dressed in a long-sleeve leotard (black) under well-worn dungarees.
"How charming everything looks! Brandy, youre a wizard." She sat opposite Simon. "Did he tell you, by the way, he's agreed to go?"
"Both of you will positively love the trail! And Maniquaif we catch her in the right moodcan also be enchanting. Im sure shell have an ointment for Simons wound."
"How did it look?"
"Oh, it'll heal okay."
"Will it scar, do you think?"
"Thats why I have recommended Maniqua; she really has amazing curative powers."
"Are you sure she wont object to our coming unannounced?"
"Oh, Im sure she knows were coming already. I mean, shell make it appear that way. Shes a bit like Oscar, in that regardalways makes folks welcome; you'll feel right at home."
"Oscar is a charmer, Ill grant you that. Though I must admit it worries me that he dislikes your friendOscar being so amiable and all."
"Well, he has just cause. Or did at one time."
Jodi poured herself a mug of coffee, then elaborated.
"Which version would you like? I've heard both sides."
While they ate, Jodi related what she knew about the antagonistic residents.
"I guess Esperanto used to be a lot different from how it is now. For a time, it had a much more international population. There have always been artists and crafts people, but, early on, there were also archeologists, geologists, astronomers, other scientistslotssome of them pretty famous. Oscar and Maniqua both have degrees in botany. They used to work together. I dont know Oscars specialtycacti, probablybut Maniqua has always been keenly interested in herbs."
"That bittersweet tea is from her, right?"
"Yes. She started out investigating the medicinal properties of native plants. In that process, she developed close ties with the local Indians. They, of course, had been handing down secrets about the desert for generations. They trusted hershe claims because they sensed her Gypsy ancestry. Oscar claims she delved into Indian superstition and peyote too heavily, which destroyed her credibility as an academic researcher. But Maniqua knew she was dealing with things few scholars would accept. There was a parting of the ways. She moved to the outskirts, and, little by little, was considered a recluse, then a crank. By the time things reached a crisis she was suspected of taking part in rituals. But what tarnished her reputation worse were rumors that she took drugs. True or false regardless, the onus made her an outcast. Her work—and this hurt the worst—wasn't taken seriously anymore. Folks didn't understand—which was their own dumb fault. Oscar, by the way, did not take part in Maniqua's being 'shunned.' For as long as he was able, he came to her defense."
Brandy poured a second round of coffee.
"Well, it had a lot to do with politics. Having all those professional types running around, publishing this and that discovery, I guess the competition got pretty stiff. One man wanted to bring everybody together under a sort of umbrella Foundation so that anything done by a single member, or a group, would be published under one common name. Oscar says this fellow had good ideasespecially those that promoted a wave of cooperationbut his motives were a bit self-serving. Originally, people had come together through a common respect for knowledge. To institutionalize thator bring it under the rule of one authoritywas to jeopardize, in Oscar's view, individual freedom. He proved right. When a review board was established to decide whose work should and shouldnt be submitted for publication, they singled out Maniquas to be ignored.
"Anyway, this Foundation-concept was gaining enough support to pose a threat. Some folks didnt care, while others hoped to gain recognition once the notion caught on. And masterminding the scheme was a character not to be trustedor so thought Oscar, who finally, in desperation, appealed to Maniqua.
"Things started to happen then. The man fell ill. He complained of nightmares. He told his friends that past-life episodes had come back to haunt him: visions, prophesies, readings by some 'hag' predicting his 'untimely death.' He kept a diary. Oscar, I believe, still has it in his library. Some of the entries, especially near the end, get downright strange. He suspected Maniqua. He even accused her, in public, of trying to poison him. Of course by that stage he was pretty far gone; people shrugged him off as raving mad. Not Oscar, though. Oscar appealed to Maniqua, begged her to reverse whatever she'd done. But it was too late. Within another week the man was deadof natural causes, reported the coronerand with him died his plan for Esperanto. The community, soon thereafter, started its decline. Oscar and Maniqua havent spoken since."