"And you want us to meet this woman!?"
Brandy, about to cancel their visit, stopped short. Simon, grasping her hand, gave it a reassuring squeeze. Things will be all right, his gesture implied.
Then he turned to Jodi, his aspect of a sudden dramatically changed. She fidgeted blanched then cringed under his unrelenting stare, which stuck to her like sap arresting a ladybug held her in suspension tripped her alarm caused her reassessment of how to proceed and forced her to admit his power was substantial (perhaps a match for the Gypsy Woman herself).
Then, with an offhand blink, Simon set her free.
Jodi tried to counterfeit an air of nonchalance.
"Well shall we be on our way?"
Brandy, still in her nightie, asked to be excused.
"Soon as I get dressed. Simon, would you help Jodi clean up these dishes?"
"Dont worry about the dishes; Ill do them later."
"Just go change."
Jodi gathered dishes, stacking them in the sink.
"I have to check on the pots out back. Want to come along?"
Simon nodded. Jodi called to Brandy.
"MEET US OUT BACK, OKAY?"
From a distance, Brandy answered.
"I WON'T BE LONG."
Jodi lead the way, her attitude confidential.
"So she says. Used to spend so much time primping and preening she barely made her entrances. You, of course, have observed all that for yourself."
Simon remained silent.
"Maybe youd like to trim your cup while were waiting?"
A full pan of water sat on the bottom shelf of the damp closet. Jodi touched each vessel, testing for firmness.
"Theyre a little tacky yet. Maybe theyll be ready by the time we get back."
Simon sat down at the wheel, kicking the counterweight idly. Jodi stood behind him, eclipsing him with her shadow.
"Funny isnt it, Simon, how you dont forget a skill. Its like bike-riding or roller-skating; once youve gotten the knack, it always stays with you. I first learned to throw pots at a summer camp when I was fourteen. We had to dig our own clay."
She moved to a side horse and sat down facing him.
"What do you do, Simon? You know, to support yourself?"
"Is that what you plan to do in Tucson?"
He shrugged again.
"And Brandy; do you plan to stay with her long?"
He gave no response.
"Youre a tough nut to crack, Mister Hitchhiker. What Im getting at is "
Brandy interrupted them.
"See, I'm dressed."
"Must be a world record."
"You never, ever got ready that fast at the club."
"Audiences should be kept waiting, not friends. Isnt it a lovely day! I thought it might be chilly after last night, but already you can feel how toasty the sun is. Feels wonderful!"
Brandy basked, eyes squinting, her freckled face upturned to the bright blue sky, as Simon disappeared (into the house).
"Whered he go?"
"The bathroom, most likely."
Brandy shut her eyes, content to languish a while in the early-morning rays. Jodi, noting her make-up (or lack thereof), sidled closer.
"Gracious, you are beautiful."
"What; without my face on? You must be joking."
Jodi slid from the side horse and moved closer still.
"Is that lip gloss?"
"Vaseline. The desert dries my skin out something awful. Want some?"
Eyes still shut, she reached inside her jeans pocketstartled to feel the uninvited press of Jodi's ardent lips, smearing themselves over hers to steal a token of the lubricative gel. Brandy broke away.
"Not now, Jodi."
"Afraid hell see?"
"Youre acting like a child."
"Tired of me already?"
Brandy gave her a complimentary peck, as Simon returned.
"Hey, Im distributing kisses this morning; want one?"
Simon smiled, declining (the kiss he'd savored earlier was stimulant enough).
Jodi glowered (pissed at his pretension of being unperturbed).
As they started down the trail, Jodi wrapped her arm around Brandys compact waist (un-repulsed), her elbow to riding the shift—left-right-left—of the belly dancer's haunches (likewise permitted), all in boldface view of the man who walked behind.
Their path narrowed, forcing them to follow it single file: Jodi assuming the lead, Brandy second, Simon trailing—taking full advantage of the unobstructed viewBrandy's plump posterior like an overripe persimmon... halved... jiggling with the impact of each deliberate step... tempting him to reach (in spirit only) and bestow a playful pat.
Brandy, swiping at her rump, encountered empty air. And yet she had sensed the contact... then sensed it once again... this time lingering... infiltrating the groove that halved stalwart her hips... instigating her pique (reversed by concupiscence)... spurring her to pivot. Simon, twelve feet back, suppressed an impish grin.
Except for the water tower, nothing of Esperanto could now be seen. Then, as the trio dropped into an arroyo, it too went out of sight. The desert all around them hummed with Spring: yellow poppies were everywhere luring the bees; flies buzzed; grasshoppers leaped in random directions; lizards performed territorial pushups; and steadily the ground grew warmer, hotter, more fiery; while mountains up ahead wore chiseled facadesthe sky so blue above them its depth seemed supernatural.
Suddenly Brandy recalled the previous day, when earth and sky conspired to look so forbidding. How out of place that mood appeared to be nowmidst hummingbirds and butterflies. Reassured, she walked with confident strides
Jodis stride more tentativealmost rueful
Simons slow, contemplativefocused less on the present than on what might lie in store.
Soon their destination came within sight. On a distant bluff, beneath a stand of enormous cottonwood trees, crouched a feeble-looking house trailer, its foundation so long-settled it merged with the ground. A second rooflean-to-like in structure, constructed of wood and sod with trellised sidescowered under an arm of the largest tree. One break in that massive joint and "thud" the entire trailer would be squashed like a sow bug. Cactus bristled everywhere. A stream forked around the property (rejoining itself below), rendering the environs a virtual islandwhich Brandy, Jodi, and Simon surveyed from on high, or so it appeared, yet the hill on which they stood was, in fact, at a lower elevation, its gently rising incline accounting for the mirage (like distance represented in a Chinese painting). Heel to toe, she, she, followed by he, wound her/her/his meandering way to the briskly flowing water.
"Hey, Jodi, you think it's safe to drink?"
"At this time of year it might be."
Brandy knelt on some rocks where the stream formed a fountain. As she opened her mouth, the current veritably gushed down her dry-as-thistles throat.
"Whoa; its freezing! But, boy, is it refreshing!"
Droplets ran from her chin and dappled her rayon blouse. She rose and stepped aside, Simon replacing her. Jodi skipped her turn, eager to reach their goal.
"Almost there, gang. The spot where we can cross is just ahead."
"Jeezus, Jodi, I thought you said close by. "
"Distances are deceptive here in the desert."
"Im not complaining, mind you; I feel fabulous!"
They continued. An occasional hoof or paw print were the only tracks they encountered. Then, as the trail diverted around a tall outcrop of rock, they lost sight and sound of the stream—its absence interposing an eerie hush—each become aware of private acoustics: pulse beats, grumbling stomachs, and ventilating lungs.
A dark shape crossed in front of them. Jodi jumped. It was merely a buzzard's shadow, cast by its outstretched wings as it soared overhead. They paused to watch it glide, ascend an updraft, spirals taking it higher higher higher still.
A lizard dashed underfoot; Jodi jumped again. Her visits to Maniqua had been infrequent, and though she thought of herself as a trusted devotee, little did she really know about this "eccentric," who lived all alone, who ate only the plants she collected, who possessed a cryptic array of anomalous cures, and who (the previous night) had been critical of Jodi's machinations. Perhaps their showing up now would only deepen said censoriousness. Jodi's jitters worsened as her doubts reconvened.
The roar of rushing water once more took precedence. A series of broad-backed rocks formed a bridge linking trail's end to island.
"Stepping stones; how quaint."
Brandy (following Jodi) started across, halting midway, turning in response to Simon's (silent) shout.
She headed back. Simon was in retreat.
She scrambled up an embankment, quickly overtaking him.
"Whats the matter? You look scared or something."
Simon blinked abstractly, as if unable to discriminate real from illusion.
"Youre looking all odd again. I dreamed about this. Last night. Last night in my dream you had the same blank look."
He tried to think. He, too, had dreamed about Suzi pulling at him. He reached his hand like a blind man, fingering Brandys face.
"You thought I was her, again, didnt you? Thats what you thought in my dream. Half of you was sitting up, the other half lying downlike you were exiting you, or trying to. I tried to help. You refused. You were looking directly at me but seeing someone else. Her, probably; Suzi. Except it was me. Its me now. Maybe, if you'd believe in that, she'd stop haunting you."
Jodi, grown impatient, called from the other side.
"HEY, YOU TWO, AREN'T YOU COMING?"
Brandy called back.
"YOU GO AHEAD."
"I CAN'T HEAR YOU."
Brandy scampered back to waters edge.
"Jodi, you go ahead. Make sure it's okay for us to visit."
"Just check, would you?"
"Youre not chickening out on me, are you?"
"Dont be silly. Wed just feel better knowing for sure were welcome."
Jodi weighed the advantages of seeing Maniqua first.
"You neednt worry, but okay; wait here. I wont be long."
Climbing the bank, Jodi proceeded alone. Brandy retraced her steps to where Simon stood.
"Can we talk?"
"No, I mean talk, as in speak, as in out loud. What happened?"
"Simon, I read your letter; I know all about her."
He struggled. Words, words, wordsuseful, and yet so vapid, so trite and mundane.
"I " Bad start. He tried again. "She "
"Suzi, you mean?"
Brandy 'sensed' his story but wanted him to explain.
"Come on, tell me."
"She won't " Again he hesitated.
"Simon, you're doing this to yourself."
"No, she's getting help."
"She couldn't be this strong not on her own "
"Who's helping her, then? Why?"
He shook his head.
"You mean Maniqua? How on earth could she know things about you?"
"The same way... I know things about you about Adrienne."
Brandy hid her face in her hands, slid them down to her mouth, then dragged them away.
"I dont understand about that. And I dont see what it has to do with your ex."
"Nothing You and Suzi are nothing alike. Yet ever since we met, I've dreamed about her. No sense it makes no sense "
"But Jodi, at least, is harmless. Yes?"
"Not her friend."
"Do you mean to tell me you really believe all this hocus-pocus!? Jodi makes things up. Last night she tried to convince me I came to Arizona because of a 'spell' she cast. Ridiculous! Then she 'called' Maniqua by using some kind of trance; or tried to; nothing happened. That tall tale she told earlier is no doubt more of the same."
Simon's dubious look revived Brandy's fear. Too many questions unanswered, too many weird phenomena, recommended she veer, like Simon, from their predetermined course, from Maniqua in particular (whom Brandy somehow knew was haunting her dreams as well).
"Okay, I'm spooked, too; I admit it. There's something going on that neither of us should fool with."
"You said that before."
"Those words. "
"I think I liked it better when you were mum. Come on."
She tugged at Simon's arm; he stood his ground.
"I have to find out."
"Find out what? Let's go home."
"I have to know For sure "
"There aren't any."
"'Any other levels.'"
"How can you quote words I haven't said?"
Brandy shook herself, as if to shed the trappings of a reoccurring nightmare.
"Well, you can chase those wild geese by yourself."
"See? You said that, toothose exact words. Dont you remember?"
Ignoring him, she reversed direction, heading back down the trail.
She stopped paralyzed by the plea in Simon's unleashed voice.
"I dont see what my coming along will accomplish."
He stepped toward her.
"If I can trust "
He grasped both her hands.
" this us maybe I can "
" bypass my Self."
"Why? What are you after?"
"Me. I'm after me. But first I "
He led her further away from the noisy stream.
"Brandy Im close to something. Very close. I'm breaking down certain barriers of ordinary Reality in order to experience something else. Except I'm being tampered with; we both are. Someone's interfering. Someone wants to "
"No. Someone stronger."
"I don't know?"
"But you suspect Maniqua."
"What do you plan to do?"
"Make her stop."
Brandy felt him flex that unnamed energy. It frightened her. It added to her growing list of concerns. Who was Simon; fact or figment? Everything she knew seemed so unreal.
Jodi, at the stepping stones, reappeared.
"IT'S ALRIGHT. HEY, IT'S OKAY. MANIQUA SAYS 'BONVENON!'"