"Ruinous Love" by G.Kay Bishop
It is a lie, universally discounted, that a prosperous Mount of the Temple of Arts must be solidly in the pocket of the Selectmen. However little known the spiritual views and practices pertaining to such a Temple, this lie is so airily floated from the mouths of the Anti-Establishment New Reformed Heterodox Apostles of Temperance, that the inhabitants of any medium to medium-large-with-fries sized village can confidently predict that the newly consecrated Temple Mount is soon to be the place to go for a pretty darn good time.
Of course, the pleasant company of incomers and the size of their company income are not necessarily fixed in a direct proportion; indeed, they may, in some cases, be inversely related. If the Selectmen of a place are chiefly men of a certain age, vain and susceptible to broad flattery, then, to be sure: tax breaks are apt to be forthcoming from upstanding members along with other perky bennies that the Artists could not reasonably expect were the Town Board composed chiefly of women above the age of forty who have five or more adolescent sons. Unless the Board’s daughters happen to be of an artistic turn of mind or have a fancy for the stage; in that event, some very hard bargaining may result in a compromise moderately satisfying to each of the combatants in the field.
However that may be, when the ____th Temple was first erected in the vicinity of the medium rare village of Lalambeth, it was plain parties, not Parties of the First and Second Part, on the mind of both the inhabitants and the Immortals. (Yes! Immortals, I say: for is not vita brevis, ars longa the motto of those semi-divine, sempiternal beings who bring promises, parts, and pudendae to gratify our perpetual proclivities for pleasure?) Balls, concerts, costly regulated substances, orgies small and discreet or the other kind, picnics with champagne, champagne without picnics—every kind of amusement imaginable and a few that were not would shortly be underway. All that was wanted was for the village to come up with the cash to pay for them.
Payment in kind, a la wild grape wines or rowdy barbecues of roast pig and mutton were perfectly acceptable in lieu of coin and copperplate; Artistic types are always hungry, and art is a demanding employer wherever calories are counted. This was a great advantage to the Templers; ever since the Rez-Casinos purchased vast tracts of bottom land along the Red and many other rivers, they had declined to accept paper scrip of any denomination or nation and they had their own highly productive farms. Gold being a mite scarce in these parts, people did not make the 70-mile round trip to the Palaces too ruddy often.
Gambling at Temple was, by solemn treaty with the Rez-stitution Councils, not on offer. Thus, options for games of chance were restricted to a modest local level as in chicken-poop chess or greased pole vaulting.
However, many stock shows, talent competitions, and sports events had long been planned by the town-and-around to provide reciprocal entertainment and display the prowess of the locals. It was the least they could do for their valued guests; it was also the most, for most people. Only a few select families could decently afford to seek and return the hospitality of the Temple on a regular basis.
For their part, the Artists, perfectly aware of the limited budgets of most of their clientele, and just as willing to fleece little lambs as big randy rams, made certain that the Temple offered a wide range of affordable treats to suction money out of sticky childish and glamour-starved, garden-stained hands. Free fashion shows with beauty products for sale; hand creams and hair-dos. Candyland tours for tots and luscious eye-candy for teens. And they did attend the one-horse talent shows, politely concealing their yawns with perfumed gloves and flirting fans. You never knew: in one or the other of these backwater Huttytowns there just might be the next golden-girl or boxoff-boy who would wow them in the powser, and let the Company rake in enough dough to buy the whole bakery.
“My dear Zillahbet! Have you not heard? We are invited to attend the Harvest Festivities of the richest ranchers on the range! You must hurry, my child! Put on your face and gown and...and everything. You must be in your best looks, my beauty!”
“Really, mother. You are too much. I’m forty-five and halfway to becoming a confirmed frump. When a woman has had upwards of 50,000 lovers it is time to cease thinking of her own beauty.”
“In such cases, it is not often a woman has much beauty left to think of. But you have, my darling girl. You are perfectly curvy and plump and your skin is baby fine. Even without make-up no one would take you for more than thirty at most. With it, you can pass for twenty-five.”
“On stage. When backlit.”
“Phooh, phooh! Do be sensible! No one can work a cold crowd like you. There, there, my darling! Put on your lovely smiles and bring us home a big rack of burlyman bacon.”
“Bacon I can do. Also Ham. And pickled trotters (sticking out both feet, clad in old mule slippers). Just don’t ask me to haul in the beef, all right?”
“Why don’t you worry Deeanna or Mattie-girl to go in my stead? They are quite ready to step into my sequinned spikes and take this town by rope, soap, or dope.”
“Don’t talk trash, Zillah! You know perfectly well that neither of your daughters are your equal in looks. And Mattie is actually pockmarked from her extended bout of post-addie acne. Deeanna lacks je-ne-sais-quoi.”
“If you are going French on me, mother, I’m out of here. Say it in Spanglish if you want to put it across.”
“Well, I just mean that neither of them has your verve. Your animation. Your spirit.”
“Now, you are spewing bunkum!”
“No, I mean it, mother. I’m tired, beyond tired. I feel floop, wrung out and hung up to dry on a thornshrub.”
“My poor darling shall have a dose of blue cohosh and hashish to make her feel more like herself after she comes home from the most important business call of the year. She is not nearly so close to her climactertic as she thinks she is, no she isn’t, my pet, my loveygirl. I had you when I was 46.”
Of course, Zillah did go to the gala affair; but she forged a compromise between her inner self and her mother’s over-managing metier. She did put her daughters forward in the dressier styles and herself in a simple and elegantly understated garb—with flats. Glittery ones, but still flat, with a touch of support to the rapidly aging arch. She enjoyed the gathering about as much as she enjoyed the earlier visit to the vast and odorous barns to inspect the family’s vast and numerous cows. Her daughters romped happily and sweatily through the dosey-does and otherwise dozy do’s while she relaxed, nursing a vastly oversized and overrated home-brewed lager.
She danced one or two exhibition bouts: a waltz and a tango, with members of her own troupe; but declined offers from the locals with a smile and plea of a bruised heel from rehearsing a hard-stomping flamenco. But she did take care to pay attentive court to the elders in the room. Male and female alike, she blessed them with her mild and smiling countenance, her gravely polite attendance to their fluff and nonsense.
How this mile-high lot of lobster-faced loobies had acquired a Frenchified name she could not fathom. Displaced Creoles from water-drowned N’walins, perhaps? No matter. The men were all of them cattle men complete with silver spurs, silver-studded bandoliers, and symbolic silken dress-up lassos. They had nothing to say that did not relate to meat. The mother, though: she was another kettle of chips. French blood there, for sure. And the kind of brains French women bring to marriage like a dot of dot-com blue-chips or better. Formidable! La mere, elle est la force du les Du’Arrcissys, n’est pas?
The youngest son like her; all the rest large, loud, and beefy. The eldest son considerably less clunky and more handsome. Yes, he might do very well in the right setting. But he’d have to part with the others. Should he remain en famille, he would soon be indistinguishable from them.
Deeanna had the good taste and sound business sense to latch onto him and distinguish him by her attentions. Flattery of the eldest son was always a good policy in most parts of the world. And Zillah was as worldly as the world could make her. She had been observing closely the whole of this lot for days on end, calculating which of them were likely to afford the higher priced services the Company could bring to the table. Not many and not much just at present. After the big cattle drive, cash would be more abundant: purses slacked and pants loosened.
But just now, money was tight and so were the crossed legs of the ladies present. Did they keep the reins on their men? Or was it the other way around? A bit of both ways, she decided. Zillah was a shrewd and circumspect observer, as all businesswomen must be to get ahead and stay there. Her assessment of the Company’s immediate prospects for profit was pretty sound.
Luck was with her tonight: a pre-dawn call for roundup crews – including most of the male guests and a slew of female camp cooks and followers – made it prudent to close the ball early; so she was released from dull duty hours before the time she had steeled herself to endure. Begone, carolling cowmen! Eructavit cor meum!
There was ample time to come before the small, smokeless fire in the Temple to do her evening devotions; and afterwards, to sit around the Fire circle with her own people in desultory analytical chat, shredding the characters of the people and the place they were doomed to inhabit for the next three years. A little gossip is good for the exiled soul.
“So, what do you think of the local Ludeys, Zillah? You were too slow off the mark to prevent Deanna from locking onto the only vessel worth towing.”
“Who? Rustic Randall? He’s all right. Needs a bit of spit and polish. And he has no edge to him. Blunt blades are good enough for butter but they don’t cut the hard cheese.”
“What about the other one? It is said that half the town is dying for love of him—male, female, and probably one third of the sheep.”
“He a beauty! I should as soon call his father un Fatal.”
Since Mr. Du’Arrcissy was a short-necked, red-faced fellow of a comfortably spreading figure as befits one of the most prosperous cattle clans of modern times, his resemblance to the elegant, alluring image of L’Homme Fatal – a dark, lithe figure, opera-cloaked and mustachio’d – he who is the consort and partner to Santissima Muerte in the deathly Danse of Grue – was ludicrously inapt. The mirth that followed this remark was short, sharp, and crackling with shared malice. The talk wandered away to other tropics and topics.
Alas! No sooner had Zillah made clear to herself and everyone else her disdainful opinion of the local Laddie Light-o-love, then she was disconcerted to observe that she was decidedly attracted to him.
His long, lean lines, uniform golden-brown coloring of skin and hair, his near nudity at all times, in all weathers, his perfect disdain of ornament and even impatience with the restrictions of decent male dress clothes; the whole illuminated from within by such a glow spirituelle as made him, with his cut glass cheekbones, look like a long tall drink of pale gold champagne. Intoxicating…sparkling. Yes, all right, there was considerable beauty there for those who looked a second time – and a third, and….not to mention, if you please, the implicit promise that lay perfectly quiescent beneath his usually dusty flap of a loincloth.
Well, she simply would not observe any more, that was all. Not Boytoy him and not whatever sluggish carp were stirring up the mucky murk of her own middle-aged depths. She had plenty to do and many meatier men to look at. Besides, she would not be here long enough to deflower his lofty virginal looks nor drag him by the dingdong into the braying barnyard of the Teatros and lusty Ludestars that she knew so well in every sense of the word. Now, his brother, quite the picture of healthy, hearty manhood. Something could be made of him. With a little more polish and poise he might become – what?
Maybe Deanna knew what to make of him. She certainly was sniffing around him often enough. Might want to head off trouble there. No point in breaking any more hearts than necessary to fill the troupe’s pockets. If the fellow could not act, sing, dance, yodel, or make love to rich ugly old women, he would be more of a liability than a hard-ass asset. And he might be a hard drinker, which would be an unmitigated disaster.
People said he was a virgin – that younger one – but that couldn’t be true. Could it? He was young, barely sixteen or seventeen, but still…? Even though he looked like he fasted far too often, could any youth be so asexual as that and still be healthy? She supposed he could. She had seen some of those devotees of the Bad Lands who took vows of refrainment and lashed themselves even for impure thoughts.
But he was nothing like them...just pure...somehow. Indifferent. Maybe too much meditation hath made He mad – or, at least, detached from the world and all its sordid affairs. Like a white seabird soaring aloft on the far edge of a lowering storm.
Absurd at her age. Practically ‘pausal and to be mooning after a green bamboo shoot all ribs and knobs and about as useful as a whatnot shelf. She must be sickening for swamp fever or worse – maybe piccolo maternity, the old woman’s folly: lusting after her pet boy or elegant, dressy gaygun, shooting blanks.
Several months went by, and many similar social events passed in review: day after dusty day, night after dry, starry night. The diurnal activities of the cowfolk were at cross-horns with the nocturnal activities of the Artists; the two social circles rarely met in the natural course of their duties. This was all as it should be and as might be expected.
But Zillah more than once encountered the youngest of the Du’Arrcissys who seemed to wander about a lot at night. Especially so during the Full and the New moons—just when a gal is most raring to romp herself. Or used to do when she was in her roaring thirties, and the prime of her Time on this earth.
Now that the old whore-mones were trickling somewhat slow, she was calmer and more philosophical, less inclined to take on the strippings and the strappings and all the other trappings of a life lived chiefly on the stage. She longed for a chance to play a meaty role in a really good play – a play that was about something...anything besides the everlasting jingle-jangles and dingle-dangles of money, mirth, and love. Respectively.
But what would she? Surely to goodness she was not growing tired of her chosen life’s work? To lighten the hearts and pockets of Man—was that not as jolly a way to live as any other on this Big Ball of Dirt? Why, what other way of life could even compare?
Law was a snakepit. Politics was a snakepit and a scorpion’s nest. Books, aye, books were well enough when one was old but not for a rambunctious youngster with plenty of juice and roasty-goose in her. And apt to ducy-dandle the gander, too. No, there was no other life she would have cared to live. So. Why was it wearing on her now? What else could she possibly want?
The answer came before her in the shape of a long, lean, loping, loin-clothed figure, outlined for an instant against the rising moon and the sagebrush field, and swiftly gone. That – that was what she could want and not have. Or maybe she could. All it would take, would be to ask a question, or two. If she really, really wanted it, then why not ask?
She stubbed out her tiny, thinly-rolled joint and exhaled luxuriously towards the overarching vault of gleaming stars. Ask and ye shall receive, some say. Maybe it was time she did some serious asking.
The last few months had proved quite as profitable as the Company had hoped. The cattle drive was over and the cash, cocamints, and chocs had freely and happily changed hands many times since then. Deeanna had taken quite as soft a shine to James Du’Arrcissy as Zillah had more secretly done to Jean-Phillippe.
She, Deeanna, had offered James a firm two-year contract and he had accepted with pleasure and quite justified pride. The whole county knew him to be a desirable parti, for his money, land, looks, and skill on the guitar. His rich, smooth, lullaby voice was an unexpected asset: untrained but quite capable of improvement under a very short regimen of disciplined practice. And the man could actually yodel, a clear, high liquid falsetto that must have worked wonders on edgy cattle, considering how well it worked on paying customers.
Feeling sleek and satisfied with herself, and ready-or-not-here-I-come about instituting this new, more serious phase of her life, Zillah called a Company meeting. Out of habit – filial esteem, parental respect for grown daughters, and just plain duty to the Company – she made the near-fatal error of consulting her relations about her change of plans for the future. Results were mixed and universally negative.
“Zillah!” Madam was aghast. “You cannot be thinking of offering him marriage! Oh, no, you cannot, oh, you shall not do it! What would become of you, of us all? The Company would be ruined, we would be a laughingstock from here to Old Hickup! You cannot mean it! You are just trying to kill me with a heart attack.”
Deeanna, in her own way, was equally appalled and equally adamant. Her reproaches agonized from an entirely different angle.
“Mother!” she cried, “you cannot mean it! No, you are joking, you must be pulling my leg. Both legs! You are not, tell me you are not trying to make me look like a plucked peahen by marrying the younger brother of the man I am to marry! You cannot, you absolutely cannot do this to me—to yourself! To all of us!”
Now, Madam returned to the charge with fresh ammunition.
“To think that my daughter should ally herself body and soul to a clodhopper, a farmer’s son, a mere COW-BOY...oh! It makes me absolutely speechless with shame!”
If only it would, Zillah thought, but there is little hope of it. Indeed, Madam carried on like a wet rooster for as long as she had breath to sustain her, if not longer. The length, breadth and depth of her ceaseless commination and her increasing vigor of delivery were like Rumpelstiltskin in reverse. She did her damnedest to fill up all available space by unspinning gold into straw. Deeanna, feeling herself to be vulnerable on her own account, now saw fit to pull back a trifle from the front lines.
“Gramma, are you saying...what about me?”
“No, no ducks, you’re not out to ruin us. At least your choice is a hunk with a chunk: his own land and the first claim on the bank account. You’ve done all right for us! But Zillah! The boy has nothing, he’s not even worth a plugged nickel until three quarters of his clan is under the sod!”
“Mother, please! Just listen to me! Just calm down and please listen. I have told you time and again, I want to give it all up, go away, do something, be someone else. If I have to look at one more pink-stuffed and perky bouncy boy-sausage beamer, I’m afraid I’ll throw up.”
“Well, go ahead, don’t let me stop you. If you want to specialize in kink and stink at your time of life, I’ll not be the one to stand in your way. That line can be very profitable indeed. And when I think what your great-great-grandmother went through to keep this family alive and well and happy in spite of everything going to hell around us….!”
“Yes, Mother, yes, I know all that. I have read the Diaries, I’ve wept in horror and fear like every one of us. I do not mean to offer any disrespect to her or any of our ancestors. I’m just….Mother, please, can we discuss this some other time? When we can be calmer and more collected? Right now, I’m expecting the Ambassador to the Coastals and he likes his Beauty to be cool and distant. I cannot think, I cannot work while you are nagging at me to do more, be more, dig up more of my own grave than I can reach! Please!” An hysterical note wavered on the edge of her voice that was not acting.
“Very well. I have no wish to sabotage your act, whatever you may think. I am only trying to do my best for you and for the Company. This insane infatuation you have conceived will be the ruin of us!”
“Ruin us, ruinous, bruinous love! What a bear you are, mother. Go away.”
Madam did so, finally. Zillah put her aching head into her hands for a few moments, as if the whirl of thoughts and troubles might fall out of her skull, like so many little hard marbles, to be caught up in her palms and put away for another time. As she imaged it, so it was: instead of a tumbling rattle of angry pebbles, her mind became blank and smooth as a calm, still lake. She imaged ice around the edges of the lake and snow on its shores, with dark mysterious pines rising against a slowly dimming sky filling with stars. She put away the imaginary marbles in a real crystal box on her dressing table and replaced the lid to keep them there.
She bathed her eyes and sleeked her hair with a mild lotion of vinegar, lemon, lavender and herbal waters. The fresh scent surrounded her and eased her into her role, like slipping on a silken costume. Her heart slowed, her breath became deep and polar blue. She was ready to please the Ambassador, in the mode he most desired.
He had brought a half-bottle of very fine champagne. She repressed a shudder. She accepted a glass, looked at it, through it, and deep down into it. Then she tilted her head back, elongating her throat, and tipped its contents into her wide open gullet, draining it dry in one long swallow.
The Ambassador, amused, admonished her gently as he refilled her glass:
“Champagne is for sipping, my dear.”
Her gaze was direct and challenging.
He, intrigued by this change-up of the scenario, yielded to her reckless mood. Afterwards, he was glad of it. A trifle daunted, perhaps, but certainly not sorry. He wondered aloud what on earth had got into her.
Her answer was puzzling.
“Nothing on earth, dear fellow. Only a tiny bit of heaven.”
Women were so odd. And mysterious. But then, that is why we love them, he philosophized.
After her shift at work, she was too tired to open the crystalline box and deal with its imaginary contents, its painful little cache of kidney stones. She tied a bow of brown velvet ribbon around it to prevent it from being opened by idle questing hands, and composed herself for sleep. She imagined the little stones rattling at her like peevish jumping beans, but she beamed a low, lilting lullaby at them and soothed their irritable irks for a little while, promising to deal with them in the morning. At last, she drifted into the dreamless dark.
She awoke, unusually alert and early, just before dawn. She threw off the thin coverlet and arose, light as a spirit, from her bed. She went straight to the window that faced east. Some high clouds, illuminated by the sun still below the horizon shone with the palest of gold light. Her morning dream flooded into her mind at the same time. She left the window, took two long leaping steps to the dressing table, untied the crystal box and carried it firmly to the window. She took off the lid, turned the box upside down, and shook it over the yellow dusty dirt below the sill.
“And stay there! Or hop away. I don’t care! Scat! Shoo!”
She dumped out her imaginary hardships and waved them off like pesky houseflies. Her mind was made up. Whatever it took, whatever it cost, she had to have this man – at least once. Just to get him out of her mind, out of her heart, out of her god-damned dreams!
The gold in the sky deepened and then slowly faded away as the sun arose and turned the clouds to a brilliant white. She shook herself, as if she had just now awakened. She was still holding the box in both hands. She took it to the dressing table, wiped out the inside with a handkerchief moistened with her eye-lotion, and clapped the lid to. There! That was decided. Now, let the day begin.
And so it did, beginning well as far as it went. She was not so much in love as to lose her appetite for breakfast, and she accordingly did eat: good solid country fare: eggs, toast, butter, beans, bacon, ham—the works. Not omitting a sweet spread of raspberry-apricot jam: a rare mix and delicious treat. And then to the baths for a soak and scrub and a bit of spit and polish to make all spruce. She was not usually up so early in the day and rarely took a bath in the morning; midday was her usual routine. Her attiring woman remarked on it.
“What’s It to be up and a-doing of, then? Off to somebody’s wedding?”
“Maybe my own, Milly, maybe my own!”
Milly, whom she sometimes jokingly swore at as her Millstone, tsked disbelievingly and continued to dress her employer’s hair in the light, airy, casual daytime style she preferred and would have worn always had not fashion dictated more ornament, feathers and fal-de-lals for evening wear.
“That’ll be the day,” Milly averred ominously, “that one of us falls down dead.”
“Never say die, my dear Millah, but stick to your good Zillah like a happy beggar’s burr and one day I’ll make you rich.”
“I’m already rich, ma’am. Ain’t I got you and Miss Mattie for my own dears?”
Zillah kissed the back of her hand to her oldest friend and fellow worker, barring family, as she stepped lively out to greet the greater world. It was a fine spring-like winter day: short of sun but all of it bright and it made her merry. Merry to marry, plucks a sweet cherry; but swiftly to wed makes for soon dead.
Well, thought she, I bring both sides of that old saw into being. I am certainly too old to have been swift to marry; and what a sweet golden cherry that boy is – if he is to be mine.
She did not really have any doubts that he would be hers sooner or later, but she hoped it would be sooner. She had a most uncommon hankering to try his paces, as she would with a new horse between her legs. She had many horses in her stable, but chose to have saddled her pretty white Tennessee stallion: a splendid show horse, letter-perfect in the arts of dressage. Him, she mounted, and rode off to make her one and only offer of marriage.
She had the good (or ill) fortune to meet with the very one she wished to have speech with long before she came in sight of the Double-Arc-D Ranch. He was riding bareback, heading towards her on a splendid roan mare, long legged and racing-lean. He stopped politely when she hailed him and courteously agreed to turn back with her, as she meant to call upon his mother.
“Oh?” he asked, “A matter of business, I presume?”
“Well, yes...and no. Not entirely business, though there is always some element of that to be considered when one undertakes new responsibilities and alliances with new relations.”
“Oh, yes, certainly. You refer, I suppose, to the forthcoming contract between my brother and your daughter.”
“No, I did not mean that, although there are matters to be settled there. What I have to say to your mother today concerns yourself.”
“Oh! Indeed? May I ask in what way we can serve you?”
“Well, it is a bit awkward, you see. My mother and my daughter are not in full agreement with me on the matter, But the fact is, that I wish to make the same offer to you that the Company has made to your brother. That is, I hope you will join us too. If you should wish to become a member of the Temple, I would be happy—no, honored – to initiate you myself. If you should choose it, I mean. You would be very welcome among us. I think you have more...more aptitude than I have seen in a long time. A very long time.”
She looked over at him, for he had remained perfectly silent this whole time. She thought he looked doubtful and hastened to add, “Oh, do not suppose there would be a service charge on you or your family. This would be quite free of all financial transactions and the usual service obligations. You would be a most valued addition to our numbers. I think you have a great deal to offer us; and I hope you think we have something worth offering to you. The Temple needs more men like you.”
He was very still and seemed at least to be listening. But he made no answer. Perhaps he was mistrustful of her genuine interest in him. She must go further—all the way to win him over.
“In fact,” she said it with a little laugh, embarrassed and embarrassing, “in fact, I have long been wishing to ask for your hand in marriage. I can offer you a two-year contract here, and if you do not choose to follow the Troupe to our next station, you will be released with a settlement of half my earnings and custody of any liveborn children that may accrue during the union. But if you choose a longer contract, I would be glad—we could decide then if you might wish come with me – with us.”
She waited, more confidently now, for his answer. Surely he could not mistake her now.
And, after a long pause, his answer came.
“It is very kind of you all to think of me. But I must decline your generous offer. I have no thoughts of matrimoney at this time. Good day to you.”
And with that parting arrow, he drifted away, heading off-road and cross-country on his barebacked mount, contemplating she knew not what— some absorbing dream or untellable thought inside his lovely, young, exquisite head.
Left to herself on the long, lonely, dusty road, Zillah did not proceed to the Double-Arc-D. She rotated her mount in the road and headed back to town.
She had plenty of time to reflect on the way and to regain what she had lost of countenance and cool. Well. Well, well, well! Or not well. Not really. She had asked. But she had decidedly not received.
Actually, what she had received, instead of what she wanted, was a most salutary shock. She recognized, for the first time in her life, that for all she knew about love – and she knew a great deal! – she had no earthly idea how to win a man’s mind: not unless his body was already in league with her against him. She had always relied on earthy allies to do half of the work of the spirit. Never had she been required to prove herself worthy of love, nor even questioned her own degree of lovableness.
Her beauty, her skills, her wealth had been all she ever needed to gain quick and easy submission to her desires. If one man were not available, another was instantly ready to hand, so to speak. And if men ever failed her, she had always had a perfect army of trained women at her command, more or less. Ready, eager to please her in any way she asked. Her position, her power, her privileges and her cash were all she ever needed as aphrodisiacs. In herself, alone, what was she? Nothing!
No, not nothing. That was base exaggeration. She knew herself to have many fine qualities. Some less developed, less practiced than others. But what had she of certain worth, of unique and lasting value sufficient to woo a man away from a mother he loved and who provided him with a shining example of honor, service, strength, joyful spirit, and just simple goodness – from all that any one human being can give another apart from the mere rutting of animal instincts? Had she anything to offer such a man? Anything at all?
What to do when your life, your plans have all been skewed to low whackum and back? She went to the oldest and severest priestess of the Temple, who, fortunately, was at leisure. She had a long talk. She had a longer listen. She came away with several fleas in both ears and a set of exercises to perform. Her work, as the tailors say, was cut out for her. Now came the tedium and concentration of plying the needle. Now to refashion her soul.
She might, it is true, have blown the lid off the barrel and spilled the pickles for naught. She might have lost the chance to win this one man’s love. It might be too late – or too early, too soon, or just too damned devilish hard. Nevertheless, love would have worked a minor miracle in her before another year went by. She would be a better woman – a better human – because she had learned, at long last, so d—blessed late in her life, how to really love someone who was worth it.
For his part, Jean-Phillippe, or Petit Jean, as his mother fondly called him, walked away, coolly amused at the non-plussed look of startlement on the face of that arrogant and presumptuous woman. He had not lived seventeen years in this world of wealthy stockmen and designing, land-greedy women without meeting many of her ilk.
He had “rumbled her lay” (as the antique Cockney slang so aptly put it) from the first day, almost the first moment of their acquaintance. Made up, making up, and on the make just about summed her up. And for them, for her to think they had anything to offer him that he had not already been blessed with! What a tin can full of pure nerve!
Upon learning that Zillah had actually made the Big Offer to that green bamboo pole of a boy, (and been refused!) Madam and Deeanna each, first separately, then together, went to call on Mistress Du’Arrcissy, to assure her of their entire agreement with her son’s decision not to join the Company. Lacking simple faith, they had no doubt at all that the idiotish boy would reverse his stance and latch onto Zillah’s gravy train as soon as his family made it clear to him the size of the fortune he was yodeling down the wind.
They smiled and commended her son’s modesty, the propriety and niceness of his judgment in holding back from a precipitous leap into the arms of the Arts. The Business was a hard and harsh mistress to those who had not enjoyed the benefits of more masters than can have been available to one so young, so untried, so...how could one put it delicately? So unspoiled.
By which they meant wild, dirty, ragged, undomesticated, and a host of other unflattering epithets, all intended to convince La Maman that her pet child was not at all up to the standards of professionalism that the Company demanded. They assured her that he would not be happy among those who were more sophisticated and discerning of fine nuances in a man’s performance.
Perhaps in a few years, after he had settled on one Field in which he felt his Talent could be best developed, he might Try again. More smiles.
They would happily, at the Company’s expense, and out of their own funds, provide for him a series of lessons in any Art he cared to pursue. Oh, and coaching for auditions, etc, would be included free of charge.
In short, they used every needling point of persuasion at their joint command to prevent, if possible, the consummation of this most unsuitable and humiliating marriage.
Alas for them! The only effect of their interference was to put the lady’s back up and stiffen her manners. She would not say yea, nay, nor mebbe happ’ns to one word of their bland disparagement of her Petit Jean.
Except, of course she rejected out of hand any sort of under-the-table money and across-the-table barter settlements: cheap, nasty, and insulting she deemed them, though she reserved that judgment to herself.
If Zillah had indeed made an offer to her son, he would have expectations on the Company far in excess of anything Zillah’s mother and daughter could spare from their own leaner purses. Probably protecting their own money shares, she thought cynically, and not much to do with covering their professionally spangled arses.
She was excessively surprised, however, to learn from relative strangers that her own son had been solicited in wedlock by the premier Temple priestess of the region. He had said not a word about it. She had been used to having his perfect and total confidence. It came as a deep and much needed shock to her—that he was now keeping some part of his life entirely to himself.
Well, of course, she chided herself, it had to happen someday. Why not now? And why not with her that proud, disdainful beauty who had all the men in the place slavering like Pavlovian dogs. But...why had she not come to her for her permission? Her Petit-Jean was underage, could not sign on to the Arts as a minor….?
Oh! Of course! He must have turned her down! Well! That must have smarted for Miss Smartypants. Good for him, she thought, at first, and good for her and her lot to have a nice, hearty slap-down.
But later, mulling it over, she wondered and pondered and worrited about the facts of the case. How had it happened, right under her nose, and she knowing nothing? How did matters now stand between Miss Sheba Queen and her dearest son? What effect would this secret snub and decided slight on her pride have on relations between Temple and town?
Ought she to take Jean-Phillippe away, send him out of her reach? Would she seek to do him harm or spread nasty rumors about him? What if he wished to marry – someday, not just now, but when she herself was getting older...well, come to think of it, she was plenty old enough right this minute if she was honest with herself, which she did not want to be.
But she must think of it and think seriously and soon. After all, he must marry sometime, for the land was tied to the male line and it would be his someday, or a big part of it. And who in this town was worthy of him, would be his loving Other self when she was gone? He was not fragile, nor helpless, no; but he was so...so innocent. So unworldly. How would he get along without her?
These, among many other trains of thought occupied the old woman to the point of making her appear distrait to her other sons and daughters. They thought, with varying degrees of glee and relief, that their commanding mother was growing senile at long last, and might be slacking the reins of her control over ranch affairs and over them all sooner rather than later.
Their rejoicing was a trifle too soon, as will shortly appear, but for the moment let them enjoy their repressed dreams of perfect autonomy and scintillating independence.
In the end, neither the astral nor etheric pyrotechnics brought to bear by Zillah’s unscrupulous relations had the least effect on the regular course of events. Either by inaction on Zillah’s part, or indifference on Jean’s part, nothing much happened. One way or t’other, the whole thing dissipated into thin air. And time moved on.
However, Life has a way of undermining our path, here, there, and yon; so every once in a while we step down awkwardly, arms flailing for balance, into unexpected potholes; presumably, for the amusement of the gods. They seem to have a pawky sense of humor wherein humans are concerned.
Shortly after the scene above had taken place, word came of a new and far more serious crisis.
There was an outbreak, a bad, fast-moving outbreak of the ‘lectric blue staggers, off to the Southwest. The news came as a most insalutary shock to the whole county. If the plague came this far North, it would ruin them all. This vile pestilence, half wild and half engineered for war, spared no beast, two legged or four. Cattle, horses, sheep, goats, chickens, lizards, rabbits, cats, dogs, even guinea pigs – every source of meat except simian – was susceptible to the taint.
Zillah promptly organized a veterinary expedition, herself at the head of the column of the army of healers. This was her hour of trial and she was glad it had come. She needed some worthy deed to do, some hard and demanding distraction from her more private and personal grief.
This, indeed, was the fundamental purpose of the Temple of Arts. The lighter and more joyful arts had their role in relieving human suffering, as they always have had. But the Arts of Health and Medicine, of Nursing and Nursery—these were the rocks on which the Temple was built. This was the core of her mission and the meaning of her life.
That she was or was not happy in the fulfillment of her duty did not matter a straw. For this she was made and for this she was trained in the ways of her people before her.
She only allowed herself one indulgence; on the day, the very hour of her intended departure, she called in person at the Du’Arrcissy ranch.
She paid a brief courtesy call on the Mistress of the establishment, in her private study, and then requested the favor of an audience alone with her youngest son. Having been forewarned, Mrs. D. was not unaware of the purport of this request, and she took a little time to consider before answering, gruffly,
“I believe you will find him in the little coppice, on that side of the longhorn barn. He is alone there, I expect. I have seen less of him lately—he seems to be altering his habits somewhat. Perhaps you may know more about that than I…?”
“Madam, if he has altered his habits on my account, I can only feel honored to be included in his thoughts. You will excuse me? I am pressed for time.” Mrs. D. waved the younger woman on her way, and sat back putting her hands together, fingertip to fingertip to speculate on the possible outcome of the conference in the copse.
Zillah found him there, seated on the half-cleared stump of a much-coppiced old willow, with its short, wide strong, incredibly old primary trunk topped by its reedy mini-forest of upthrusting slender shoots. He was looking off into the shadows of the other trees: the ash for tool handles, the beech for kitchen spoons, the other willows for withies and medicines, and all the rest.
It was a pleasing picture: old wealth, ripe age, long tradition, and fresh, springing, lovely youth seated in its sheltering midst. It melted what remained of her hard sheath against hurt and softened her insulted pride. In that place, at that moment she accepted in her heart that she had nothing to offer this man, no right to reive him away from his kin and the place where he had grown to such perfection of character and peace of soul.
But she regretted nothing, either: not making the offer and not being refused. It was well for her not to be encumbered by tender obligations on the eve of a most desperate and dangerous gamble with her life and the lives of her followers.
She could not stay gazing at him forever; she must speak. Before she had opened her mouth, he felt her eyes on him. He turned his head, and nodded. It was as if the king of the white-tailed deer had given her permission to approach his throne.
“I am leaving today, with the healers; I wished to take leave of you before I go. If I may have your permission…?”
“Of course,” he said, with another courteous nod. “In what way can I serve your pleasure?” he inquired formally, with the most formal phrasing of that eternal question of the Temple.
“Like this,” she said, as she swiftly bent to him where he sat, all unsuspecting, and kissed him firmly on the mouth. Then she released him and smiled down at his astonished face. “It is traditional among us that we seal an offer of marriage with a kiss. Farewell.”
He froze, then started up, ready to say – to do – to act somehow…! But in another moment, she turned her back, strode off, and was swiftly gone out of his sight.
It was a shock to him – a most unwelcome and distasteful shock. How unmannerly! And another sort of shock too: on the instant her lips pressed against his, this new and shocking sensation had shot straight through him, running swift as a sparrow darts, from lips to loin: a warm, forceful pulse of pure energy such as he had never known.
It was like an arroyo in flood race; it nearly knocked him cold with a sudden feeling of dizziness. But it was not cold, not watery, more like liquid fire that flashed through him and left a small round glow like a burning coal at the base of his spine.
How in God’s name did she do that? And...and how dare she! How dare she...intrude herself into him like that? Thrust her wanton feelings onto him, deep into him...but then, he recollected with a flush of shame, he had given his permission. He had asked for it. ‘How could he serve her pleasure?’ he had asked, spitefully mocking her and all her kind.
And, yes, she had given him her answer. It was an answer that irritated him beyond measure. As if he were a horse and she had deliberately placed a burr under his saddle.
Never in his life had he felt so angry with anyone. Not even when he was a small boy, out on the trail with the others on the early part of the annual drive. When those much bigger boys had taunted him, calling him Sissy-Arse and trying to poke him in the behind with – he had put a stop to that nonsense in a hurry by putting a bullet through the nearest one. Only in the calf of the leg. He had not shot to kill. He did not need to. The others had backed off then, and ever since. He could take care of himself.
Perhaps he was right to repulse her when she made that revolting offer to buy him body and soul. To ‘initiate’ him. He knew exactly what that meant to those people. But that kiss – there was no insult in that kiss.
It disturbed him, profoundly. It ruined the whole day, robbed him of his usual composure. He felt as if he had swallowed a hive of live bees, all buzzing about inside him, making sweet honey for – for whom? For her, he supposed, wrathful and mortified at his helpless condition.
Jean-Phillippe was perplexed as he had never been. That day, and many others as well, he roved around the ranch-houses like a lost lamb, bewildered, striving to overcome the unwonted sensation of separateness, isolation, alienation. He felt cut off from life, mired in the utter, dreary emptiness of the days that were used to be filled with the glory of the land and the Lord of peace. He was never at peace any more.
He forced himself to not think about her every minute of every day. He rallied his considerable powers of concentration and focus, and succeeded in banishing her from his daily life. But at night—then he was totally at her mercy. Then she came to him in rich, detailed dreams; and, more often than not, he woke to clear evidence of these nocturnal visitations. He could not control himself! It was humiliating; he was ashamed.
He took to wandering alone on the range, going farther out and staying away from the ranch for days on end, longer than he had ever done before. He ate less than ever, but it was no solution to his interior troubles. It only made his body rebound with a ravenous, imperious hunger that drove him back to his mother’s table to eat and eat till he finally got his fill.
Then he would drift, not quite drooping – for his bones would not allow his pride to suffer in that slovenly way – but suffering all the same, as he slouched aimlessly from yard to field, field to barn, barn to backlot, and back again, like a panther in a cage. A cage of his own making he thought bitterly. And, though he knew it not himself, his eyes turned more often towards the southwest than in any other direction.
His mother, seeing all this, noting with pain and pride the changes occurring in her Petit Jean, her little boy so altered into the emerging man: Jean-Phillippe, was torn. She knew there was nothing she could do to ease him of these growing pains; but she suffered with him and on her account all the same. She was to lose him. It must be; it was best; it was necessary. But oh, how it hurt to be happening!
No pain but that which is mortal endures forever. Time dulls it and familiarity weakens its power over the mind. And for one of his ability, resolution and discipline, it was possible to isolate and contain it, to shunt it aside at will when there was work to be done that required his whole mind. His mind might be sometimes his own, but his heart was no longer his to command.
The weeks stretched onward, became months, became half a year. No sign nor word of the healers had found its way home. Not since they had first dismounted their horses and broken up the wagonloads into human-pushed barrow-loads and gone on foot into the danger zone.
The trail boys had long since come back in good order with all the horses, oxen and mules that had set out hauling supplies and medicines, guns and ammunition. They also carried back many messages of farewell, notes of hand and sealed letters from the travelling troupe of healers.
Among the sealed letters was one thick packet for his mother. Jean thought little of it at the time, supposing it to be about James and the marriage settlements. And so it was; but there was another sealed envelope sent within the other; this was addressed to him and his mother jointly.
Nothing loathe to be fully conversant with everything that had to do with her most beloved son, she had no hesitation in opening and mastering its closely written contents.
"Dear Mr. Jean-Phillippe and Mrs. Du’Arrcissy: I go into jeopardy and exile until such time as I can, with the Goddess’s aid, return without hazarding the lives and livelihoods of those whom I dearly love and have care of. If we succeed in our hopes and effect a cure of this scourge, then I will renew my acquaintance with you all with great pleasure, hoping to perfect our relation with a more lasting bond; but it is not my intention to burden either of you with my pressing desires. I can and will retract my offer if it continues displeasing to you in any particular.
But I must also consider the possibility of my failure. In that unwished-for event, the scourge will most likely not be contained; you and yours will be in danger not only of loss of your livelihoods, but of all you have worked and sweated for this past century or more.
Therefore, if I should not return, I will hold myself still engaged to Jean-Phillippe, whether for a six month or a one year span, at his pleasure. Should I die or be caught in quarantine for life, then he, as my affianced spouse, would be entitled to one third of all my goods and chattels, lands and other holdings. He may thus be enabled to assist you all in your hour of trial and loss.
You may move away and reestablish yourselves elsewhere; or choose to remain and wait out the cycle of Grue that seems now to press so closely upon us.
My mother and two living daughters have between them the remaining 2/3rds of my Company shares; the papers for this are already in their possession. My mother, while living, has one third, to be divided between my daughters upon her death. However, should they predecease her, their shares will come to Jean-Phillippe instead of to my aged and well-provided for mother.
I tell you all this to preclude any cause for disputes that I earnestly hope will never have cause to arise.
Please, for the sake of your family and your son whom I most ardently desire to be my husband as long as he shall wish, sign the enclosed papers so that you may be protected in the chance of an unhappy outcome of my present mission. You may wish to consult your own lawyers, who have been duly advised by mine, and who have copies of all the necessary documents.
I will only add, gods be with you, and my Goddess bless you and yours, every hour.
Yours, more than my own."
Zillah of the __nth Temple
– presently in the field – "
This was impressed with her impressive seal, together with a lock of her hair trapped beneath the sparkling, gold-dust-infused honey-yellow sealing wax. The rest of the packet was comprised of deeds and transfers of earnings in trust and holdings in free.
Two more weeks passed by in anxious suspense before Mrs. D. decided to share this massive missive with her son. She prepared his mind with the caution due to one whom she believed she had wronged. She had done ill to keep him so close to herself that he was likely to be left marooned in the first real challenge to his character, his hopes, and his future.
She even did her best to make light of the matter, in hopes that it would leave him freer to make his own choices and assert his own will apart from hers.
When he had read the letter and still sat looking at it, or beyond it, for some time, she broke in on his thoughts thus,
“Here is the hefty sheaf of the harvest she has enclosed. You will find that I have signed them all, just in case. I have, in effect, given her my permission to engage you. Indeed, she is the sort of woman whom I should hesitate to thwart or cross in any matter.”
He smiled at that, and reluctantly surrendered the letter to her again.
“I expect she would say the same thing about you.”
“Well, she might, and with reason, once upon a time, long ago. But the times move, my dear Jean-Phillippe. I’m a daft old woman now—and a frightened old woman at that. I do not want to face up to the facts – as she has boldly and most womanly done for both of us.”
She paused, looked keenly at him before going on.
“I do not want to say to you ‘choose this’ or ‘do that’. The time when I could justly demand of you your obedience is long past. I do not want to have to start over at my time of life. But I can and I God-blessed will if I must. So do not be unduly influenced by either of us: neither our hopes nor our fears should be your guide in making up your own mind.”
Another, even more intent look at his still, unreadable face.
“But if you do choose to marry this one, dear Jean—I think you may be very happy. I think this one may actually deserve you.”
“Mother, I —” he halted, hardly knowing what he wanted to say.
She waited, patiently as always.
“Mother, I do not know if I deserve her. I have been so, so hateful! So petty, smug and self-satisfied—so proud and disdainful towards everyone who is not you.”
Here, her heart gave a lurch of mingled pride and shame and fear for her own soul. How could she have clung so to him, overshadowed all others, taught him so ill as to make him treat her as the touchstone by which he judged others. Yet how proud and pleased she felt to be his gold standard for all of that!
“But mother, though you gave me good principles, I have applied them in a lordly and sneering manner, to everyone, but especially to her. How could I have been so very wise about everybody else’s baser motivations and so wretchedly blind to my own? How could I?”
“My son, it is the human condition. We all do it. I have been remiss in my way towards you. Don’t you see? We each have erred, together and apart, holding ourselves to be above the hurly-burly of the world and disdaining our neighborly duties. But she has not. She has truly and deeply served.”
“Yes, whereas I have never even thought of what duties I owe to others, what genuine service I could offer to the larger world. Mother, whatever happens after this, I owe her a great debt; for she has made me think, and think seriously about my place and my purpose henceforth.”
“Both of us, Jean-Phillippe. I too have been jolted out of my complacency. And, if you will be guided by me, this one last time, I think you need have no fear in signing these papers whatever the event. You see she has given you the option of a mere six months of marriage. And, if you chose, you could be legally free after that. I trust in her character. I misread it at first, but now I see my error of misjudging her. And if she does not – does not return – then you could freely renounce your claim on her properties. Supposing you should then feel that you ought not to take too great an advantage of her family. I confess, dearest boy, that it would ease my mind a great deal to know that our family would be so well provided for in the worst case to come.”
He sat a while longer in deep thought.
“Very well, Mother. To please you and to protect all of us, I agree. I will be married to her. For my own part, I would prefer to wait—to get word to her, somehow – to make a profound and sincere apology for all the pain I have rudely caused her, and to ask for her forgiveness before I could accept such a generous gift. But I must begin as I mean to go on, and put aside my pride even in this small way: allowing the good of others sometimes to be my best guide.”
He put out his hand for the pen, and he signed, one after the other, all the documents in turn.
And she sighed with the most profound relief. For she knew, in her heart, that she had manipulated him – just a little bit. A very little bit. But, it would be all right, truly. This would be the last time she ever had such unmixed influence over his decisions. Now he was engaged, and a free man, though so young.
But she was not entirely sure why she had felt it so urgent, so imperative that Jean should be herded into Zillah’s fold. She only knew how strong a sense of safety and security had washed over her when the deed was done. She hoped and prayed that she had done right by him – used her power over him for his best interests, not merely for her own nor for the family’s bottom line.
Nevertheless, in the midst of her moral and ethical waverings, she was alert enough to take the legal precaution of calling in the county doctor and her two male nurses as independent witnesses to Jean’s signatures and her own. She had not lived this long to trip up on a technicality, she hoped.
She also swore Doc White and her staff to absolute secrecy about the marital bond; threatening to die on their hands if they disregarded her wishes in the matter.
“Surely to goodness, ‘Titia, you c’n trust us three not to grind up you an yourn for a gossipburger. You beat all, you know that? You ought to know us by this time. ‘Sides, I would not for the world let on so long as Old marmalade-wig Marny keeps on angling after the Company head for her own lardbutt lout. I want to be at a consid’able distance when she first learns the news. Preferably in the next county. (Her two nurses grinned widely at this) Naw, she won’t get it from us. No sirree!”
The two D’s made a trip into town to acquaint their lawyers and hers with the important secret of the engagement, and to sign the second set of papers. Not wishing to call attention to the nature of their errand, she urged Jean-Phillippe not to dress up in any degree more than he usually did: a pair of jeans and a loose, open necked pullover shirt ought to do very well. They both wore their oldest and least dressy sombreros.
After the paperwork was completed, it was packed in dry sand inside fireproof earthenware jars, vacuum-sealed with a hand-pump gadget and some kind of legal epoxy. The jars were filed underground, deep in a hand-made cavern: stone lined, moated all around with dampened sand as a firebreak wall.
Like the freeze-dried remains of Aztec/Mayan royalty, kept in caves, these entombed documents were as the bones of their ancestors: records of agreements concerning land, lineages, and especially water.
The lawyers shared hospitality, offering their clients a light meal in the courtyard of the enclosed plaza where most of the town’s legal eagles kept their eyries. It was too hot to eat much, but there under the dense dark shade of drought-tolerant dry-oaks, bred to these parts long before the people came, they nibbled on tapas and drank three pitchers-full of fruity sangria. After which, the long siesta. Not even the Du’Arrcissy clan made bold enough to challenge the supremacy of King Sun.
When the sun was just touching the western horizon, Mrs. D. awoke to find Jean-Phillippe lost in one of his impenetrable clouds of abstraction. The unaccustomed long sleep and thin wine had done her bones good and loosened her joints. Feeling uncommonly spry, Mrs. D. then insisted on being shown around the Temple, by the usual tour guides.
Her openly expressed rationale was to allow Jean-Phillippe to visit the Art Museum to look at the famous paintings. Her undeclared resolution, however, was to survey the enemy’s outer defenses and penetrate her citadel — in short, to spy.
She intended to find out just how these Templers conducted themselves and whether Zillah’s staff were like her or more like a bunch of hard-bitten carneys. If she had pitched her darling boy into a rattler’s nest, then she could by god and golly haul him back out.
Fortunately for Jean-Phillippe’s nerves and sparing his blushes, the welcoming staff behaved with the most perfect propriety. If they did sometimes sneer at the rubes, they did it well out of sight and hearing.
Mistress D. was satisfied with what she saw, and was preparing to take her leave. Jean Phillippe rather wished to linger. There was so much he wanted to know that he had shunned knowing before. So much he wanted to understand about her place and her duties—how he could best help her if – no, when – when she returned.
The Temple complex was huge and beautifully kept. Flower gardens, medicinal herbs, and cosmetics too, all were part of the arrangements. The compact busyness of the administration wing was itself like a hive of humming bees. He now began to comprehend that Zillah’s life was far from a frivolous round of endless pleasure and farther still from an idle, lounging, lapping up of luxuries.
The theatre, the music rooms, the serious faces of the serious people who were seriously intent on making people laugh and become lighter in spirit. He realized, too, how the Holy Spirit could and did descend into people who were doing their utmost to purify themselves of all strivings for personal glory in the quest of a visitation that could bring ecstasy to the hearers, the viewers and the lovers brought within these walls.
He surmised that this woman he barely knew, to whom he was engaged to be married – ah! that silken rope! – that binds us softly to one another and helps us haul each other out of Life’s deathly pits and playful potholes! – that she, of all creatures, was the very one most suited to him: the one best able to draw out his potential abilities and to compensate for the, well, rustic deficits of his character.
Through an open window, he overheard part of a lecture that was being delivered to a group of earnest young people.
“The Tree of Love bears many different fruits. One is sweet, another bitter. One is sour, but refreshing; another bland, but nourishing. Most probably, you will each specialize in a Relation that is most suited to your nature; but you will, over time, wish to develop the techniques proper to one or more of the other Culminations.
“And as below, so above. The more forms of Love you practice, the more modes of thinking you will master. Light-hearted, playful love will give insight into Comedy, Exploratory Science and Power Politics. This is the fruit of Ygrod.
“Deep and passionate Relations can lead over time to marvelous insight into the workings of Nature, sometimes bringing new herbals or mental treatments into clearer focus. This is the fruit called Azaken.
“Even the bitter fruit Burrhadtz, which is love as shocking polarity, touching realms of domination and ego-destruction, can unfold later in life as the surprisingly practical, cold and emotionless assessment of facts in crisis situations.
“Phalossia, the love-fruit of the mystic will be suitable for only a rare few; It requires innate talent and subtle perception. But for most of you, the best and safest path will be the Sedecht fruit or generosity in giving of delight that leads to an old age of broad-minded, wide-ranging wisdom, and an expansive view of the follies and beauties of all humanity.”
Jean-Phillippe blushed as a sudden rush of remembrance suffused his body. He had been learning all his life in reverse! He moved on quickly.
The House of the Arts of medicine was the most impressive of all. The steam-cleaned sterility of the surgical theater – the examining rooms, beautiful with all the aid of skilled artists and set decorators, the effects calculated with nicety to bring healing colors, hopeful thoughts, and pleasant soothing to those who were in suffering and pain.
He entered a room tiled in pale blue and white from floor to ceiling. In it, the chemical apparatus of each lab for making medicines and the gleaming, glass stocked shelves of remedies. Here was a vessel of Bald’s Eyesalve. He turned over the pages of the Formulary and read that this recipe was nearly the same as one that was 1250 years old. He scanned the ingredients: a mix of herbs, garlic, other alliums, wine, ox gall, etc. all steeped in brass for nine nights, strained, clarified – how many steps to the whole process there were!
And this was one of hundreds, some for children’s eyes, some for old people…. There must be thousands of specific herbs and substances, combining into many hundreds of remedies to treat a wide spectrum of disease conditions. Perhaps this was a place where he could begin to learn how best to serve. But it might be too advanced for him. He was saddened to think that he might not be of very much use, after all.
This inequality of feelings, this freakish tossing of his spirits up and dashing them down was not usual for him. Ever since he had signed those papers, his more urgent passions, of desire, anger and obloquy, had quieted considerably; he was content to wait and hope for her return.
But other parts of his psyche were still unstable and fluctuating from minute to minute. He felt he did not know himself, sometimes. He removed to the garden and took a seat on a low bench in a shaded niche.
Sheltered from sight behind a hedge-wall of potted rosemary, he occupied himself with deep breathing and ‘trotting coyote’ or ‘running-speech’ meditation, with the intended effect of restoring his mental and emotional equilibrium. As he sat there, moveless and silent, two other people came into the garden.
Ordinarily, his concentration would have been strong enough to enable him to shut out the sounds of the conversation – it was neither loud nor sharp – but they happened to mention the name of ‘Zillah’, and he was all of a sudden alert to catch every dropped syllable.
“Any word from Zillah? Has radio contact been re-established?”
“No, and we’ve been told not to expect it for a good while. Something to do with a crashing satellite wreck up in the Stratford-on-Avon-sphere. Bolluxes up our comm. Everybody else’s too, not just our freqs. Said it would clear up in a month or two.”
“What exactly is our Zillah up to out there? Do you know?”
“Well, it’s too complicated for me. Like the way liver flukes cycle around. Here’s a pamphlet the proppo team made up for distro. Zillah left it for me to read. I don’t want it. You can keep it or pass it on.”
“I’ll look at it later, thanks. Right now I want to talk about us.”
“What about us?
“There’s only two things wrong with being the daughter of a famous beauty-talent,” Mattie said, yawning and stretching as she spoke.
“Oh yeah?” said Milly, playing second banana with artificially bright interest, “What’s that?”
“Everything you say – and everything you do.” Milly chorused right along as Mattie delivered the punchline.
“Yep. You got it, Millah-capillah. I’m just not cut out for this Business. If Zillah hadn’t carted me along with her like an extra suitcase, I’d never had made it this far—and that ain’t half far enough.”
“You ex-AAGE-er-ate, Miss Mattie. You got chops.”
“I got chopsticks, that’s about all. I don’t know how Zillah does it. I’m half her age and twice as tired as she says she is, me doing a quarter of her work. I don’t know how the math of that works out, but it makes me a mighty small piece of fraction. And fractious. Tired! Lord Sun! I feel like a floor rag.”
“You’re just worried about your dear old Ma. She’ll come through. She always does.”
“No, no, I’m not worried about her, Miller,” Mattie said earnestly, “I’m worried about myself. And all of us, the whole Company. I want to talk about me first, because I’m always runt running hindermost and I’m going to bend your ear ‘cause I know you’ll put up with me, old Millipedy Millerpillar.”
“Well, speak your piece, then; I got nothing better to do at the moment.” A friendly poke-and-lean took the sting out of the sarcasm. Mattie put her arm around the older woman and gave her a quick squeeze. Then she resumed her original posture, leaning forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped before her, rocking slightly back and forth as she spoke.
“Now there is no use trying to wrap up a turd in a clean napkin; the fact is, I’m a second-rate talent. No, don’t try to tell me different. I have worked long and hard, and if I hadn’t I know I’d be third or fourth rate, and that’s the truth. I am just not cut out for this life or this line of work.
“I don’t know what I else I could have done, or would have done if I hadn’t been born to the Biz, but I wish I’d had the chance to find out. I wish I knew who my real father was – not an oopsie! accidental step-child owing half my child support allotment to a covey of ten or fifteen former clients. If I’d known who my father was, I’d have left and gone to live with him, if I could. At least then I would have known who and what I am – had something firm and fixed to react against – had some kind of solid ground to stand on.”
“Don’t see how it matters who your baby-daddy is; whoever he was, he was rich enough to squire Miss Zillah in her prime, and that’s got to mean something. Who knows what he might be now: A drunk or deadbeat or zippity-doodah-daytimer.”
“Well, whatever he is, he’s part of me, don’t ya see? And I want to know what else I could have made of myself. How I would have got on in ordinary life, in an ordinary town. B’cause, let’s face it, Milly: as a Talent I am just about good enough for a backwater place like this. I’ll never make it big no matter how hard I work or how long. Some of us just Do. Not. Have. It.”
“You’re not so bad at Comedy, Mattie.”
“Broad comedy. Crude comedy. Yes, I can do that, more or less. Without finesse. Without creativity. But, yes, I can learn lines, improv a little, take pratfalls, and so on. Hard work, as I said. But a sow’s ear ain’t a silk purse and never, ever will be. Milly, I’m quittin’ the Company.”
“Yes, I am, too. You know Zillah made her will before she left.”
“Well, without Zillah, I would not rate in this business at all. Milly, I’d be lucky to stand in as your fourth assistant apprentice and then I’d be a third-rate Dresser. I don’t have flair like you. I’ve always relied on you to make me look good. And frankly, Milly-Millay I don’t care. Not anymore. If Zillah comes back—and, Milly, it’s a big damn if this time – “
“I know, Miss Mattie. Don’t like to think about it. Don’t want to think it at all.”
“She told me she was going to leave the Company herself. She said she’s bone-tired and damn-all drained dry. ‘Enough’s enough,’ she said, ‘Mattie-mine, poor flat old DoorMat’ – you know how she talks, she didn’t mean to be mean, just teasing –”
“She calls me Kill-ah when she’s up and Mullah-nose when she’s down on something I did,”
“Yeah, that line of talk. Anyway she told me flat out that she was going to quit this business, quit cold turkey if she didn’t die out there. Said she was shale-flat, heart-sick, and hungover. Said a cow-pie ought to be her understudy. And if the one man she ever wanted to marry didn’t think she was good enough for him, then she had better do something about it. ‘Oh yeah?’ I said to her, ‘Like what?’ You know what she said?”
“Nope. But I reckon you’re about to tell me.”
“She said, ‘Like, be a better person.’ Can you beat that?”
“Our Zillah! Good as gold and twice as dandy! Sun crisp my tail if I ever had a cross word from her and I’ve known her since she was a brat in arms. She must be feeling poorly. Never known her to get down and out on herself. She get a full workup by the docs before she left?”
“Sound and round as a bell. Heard ‘em say it.”
“Well, let’s hope she forgets all about this disappointment by the time she gets back.”
“No, Milly, its no good hoping for things to be the same. It’s The End for my old butt, no matter what. I’m staying here.”
“But what’ll you do here, Mz. Mattie?”
“I got enough shares to set up a beauty parlour. Here. But I can’t do nothing in that line without your help. I want you to stay here with me. Will you? Because you know, Milly, after dressing Zillah for thirty years you are not going to be very welcome to Deedee. She has her own style, her own frits and fancies. And her own dressers corps. Pleeeze, pretty pleeeeze with sugar on top, won’t you stay with me, Miss Millah? That way I can still feel close to Zillah. I need you Milly. More than anyone.”
“What if she comes back—if she does—with her head clear of this young punkenhaid she says she wants to marry. With her fancy free, she might find a new lease of life and be rarin’ to go again.”
“Don’t count on it, Milly. But do, do think about me and being my best pal here in Lonesome Yodel Land. Won’t you keep your old Mattie from going native and looking like a leather sack hung on a cow’s rump. Can’t you somehow see your way clear to get out while the gettin’s good? I can fit IN here, Milly. If you’ll be my gal Friday, Satiddy, and Sundry. Say you will and I’ll tell ol’ Great-Grammy Award in half no time.”
There was a long silence as Milly thought it over.
Jean-Phillippe scarcely dared to breathe, lest he be discovered to be within hearing. He fervently hoped they would not come this way when they left. They thought they were alone. Or did they? Some trick, sly theatrics…. No, how could it be a ruse? No one saw him enter here; it was after hours, all the tourists were gone.
“Well, I can say this Mattie-mine: If Zillah don’t come home I’ll be glad and proud to stay or go with you. You’ve always been good to work for. No, you’ve been the best.”
“But hold your horses there, kiddo. I say if she don’t make it. She ain’t took her last Curtain Call just yit.”
“No. But I’m gonna. Think it over, Milly, won’t you?”
“I’ll do better than that. I’ll collate a classic wardrobe just for you and put together a starter’s kit of wigs, and makeup and what-have-you and price it all out for you.”
Mattie let out an Eeeeeeee! of sheer glee.
“Hold on, now, I ain’t said hard Yes and I ain’t said flat No. This is just for fillin’ in time while we wait. Say if Zillah bows out for sure, there’s no one I rather be with than you. Don’t like this dusty hole too much, but I suppose I could get used to it. And where else could I go? All my people are dead and gone. There ain’t no business like show business for breaking all your Old Home Ties. So, yeah, let me think on it a little more. Let’s not jump ship just yet. Don’t tell Madam. Let’s wait till we know for sure what’s become of Zillah. That good enough for now?”
“Better than I hoped Millah-pillah. Bless you for not stomping on your Mattie-Flat. My mind’s made up, though. I just hope I can keep you with me.”
“This damned hole is going to be the ruin of us all. First Dee and her tall, cute, and lonesome, then Miss Zillah with her left foot in a baby-child honey-trap, now you squoze like a lump on a knotty pine. And me, a fly in your piney ooze. We’re a-all a-gonna lose! We had too much of that good old booze!”
Milly’s crow-like voice started up the old refrain, and Mattie joined in, with harmony. Together, arm-in-arm, they walked off, singing; blessedly, headed back the way they came.
Jean-Phillippe was free to move, to get away pronto. But he was irresistibly drawn to go around the screening hedge and look at the bench where the ladies had just been. He saw the discarded pamphlet lying there unclaimed. Quickly, he picked it up and read:
"Everything’s a vector, Hector: wind, water, grass, insects, people.
The blue staggers virus can be transmitted in a number of ways, including close-contact animal-to-animal spread, long-distance aerosol spread, and fomites, or inanimate objects: typically fodder, feet and wagon beds. The clothes and skin of animal handlers such as farmers, standing water, and uncooked food scraps and feedlots that once contained infected animals can harbor the virus, as well. Cows can catch it from the semen of infected bulls.
Control measures include strict quarantine and confinement of severely infected cattle in the Radiation Zone where they are allowed to recover and live the rest of their shortened lives without pain. The radiation seems to kill off the virus sooner than otherwise would happen and the pain suffered by the animals is thereby reduced in severity and duration.
The ranch where the outbreak occurred is put under export ban for meat and other animal products for up to three years.
For other livestock (goats, sheep, meat rabbits, guineas, pigs, and domestic fowl) that are mildly or weakly affected there is a three, four, or five-stage treatment process. The farm or ranch is quarantined, and all animals, including pets, must be isolated and observed for one week.
If the disease does not progress to the worst of the infectious stage, then the stock and pets are treated with anti-viral herbals administered usually via their water supply and fresh enzyme extracts derived from bacterial and fungal cultures mixed in with their feed. Ticks and/or leeches are applied, removed, and killed to provide a low cost blood sample that requires only gloves and tweezers, not hypodermic needles. If the samples show robust anti-bodies and killed virus, the animals are allowed to live for three more years until the disease fully clears their system. They are also branded appropriately as ex-infectees, and must be sold at a much lower price. Otherwise, they are destroyed or driven into the radiation zone.
The wild and roaming animal base receives mostly prophylactic measures. This population includes asymptomatic carriers and wild hosts such hares and water birds; mutated viral reservoirs such as deer and wild boar; wolves, cats, dogs, and other scavengers as vectors who carry off bones.
The range is quartered and treated by initiating a series of controlled burns so healers have a safe path for entering infected territories. There, near wider water sources, they plant seeds of fast growing weeds that are good for browsing, including a specially-bred subspecies of chamberbitter that has vasorelaxant properties and several spineless succulents containing aloe juices that are known to aid in fighting off an infection early on.
Supportive enzymes (in a dry, powdered form) are strewn around the edges of smaller water holes and generously sprinkled on the water surface. These enzymes are derived from fungi that have anti-inflammatory and anti-apoptotic properties.
After the monsoons, special salt-lick blocks are left near streaming water sources that contain heat-treated bonemix, anti-viral herbal concentrates, and homeopathic-scale doses of biliverdin in a semi-solid form compounded from various sources, including fish bones, buffalo milk fats (purchased at a steep price from First Nations who impose heavy taxes on all salmon and bison products, including dairy, leather and meat), blue and green avian egg shells, the blue-green blood of certain salt-water fish, the blood of sterilized tobacco hornworm, the wings of some moths and butterflies, the serum and eggs of frogs, and the placenta of dogs.
As a last stage, to deal with aerial vectors, the eggs/maggots of several kinds of flies, ticks, and the larvae of certain mosquitoes are hatched and released at the right time to interbreed with local insects to convey their in-bred immunity to the disease to the local population and to feed birds who also derive benefits comparable to innoculation by ingestion.
It is a long and arduous process. Panthers who hunt the wild boar are a threat to team members who must work in small, armed groups for safety. Nearly all food and water in the affected region is suspect and must be tested before consumption. Teams have been known to starve or die of thirst rather than spread the infection.
Meanwhile, trackers hunt down the human vectors—usually people who are suspected of having hunted too close to the old army bases. They and the trackers who found them are quarantined, disinfected (forcibly if necessary) along with any fomites they may be toting around. Their trail is also treated by a controlled burn.
These measures, taken all together with appropriate prayers, spells, and Divine workings, have been known to successfully combat severe outbreaks on several occasions."
(Here a long list of references and scholarly footnotes followed on.)
From the way his forehead contracted, he was not too pleased by this masterwork of literary meiosis. He shoved the paper into his back pocket and hastened away towards the entrance to the compound where he had left his mother sitting on a bench. When he found the spot, he was at a loss for a moment—so many people there.
His mother — !
His mother was lying on the bench, attended by not one, but five, Temple doctors. The scene was one of orderly confusion, if that makes any sense.
People running back and forth. A stretcher. His mother’s unnaturally still body placed on it – carried off. Doors of the surgery, opening. A gurney wheeled forward – her lax body transferred to it – speeding off. Himself, taken by the arm as a doctor spoke urgently and low. Not heart, they think. Probably stroke. His mother’s age? Allergies? Eaten recently? Himself answering question after question. Now beside her, now detained, catching up, falling back. Everything happening at once for a short crowded span, then—nothing. Calm. Quiet. Dark.
A room cooled by a humming solar-powered air conditioner, some alcohol refrigerant; he could smell it faintly. His mother, alive but unconscious. Her head wrapped in sterile bandages. Yet she was not, he knew, near death. He could sense her living will – her vitality, vigor and will to live. It was only the outer casing that was unwell, not the spirit.
He was tranquil, he was serene. He was certain all would prosper, in time. All he had to do was be near her. Later, perhaps there would be decisions to make. For now, he must recruit his strength and wait. And pray.
He had given orders, chosen among treatment options with unhesitating, God-guided decisiveness. They had only minutes to choose whether and how to act. The surgeons had performed a tiny trephination with a diamond-tipped air-compression-driven drill. The pressure build-up inside the skull had been relieved.
She had twice regained consciousness, each time seeming a little stronger, more aware. She had taken the prescribed remedies by mouth. He himself had droppered the medicines in, slow and steady.
People came and went; he was always there, hour after hour. He must be sleeping sitting upright, nurses speculated; or meditating like a pro. It was hard to tell. He remained tireless, unwearied. He always ‘came to’ (whether sleeping or not) at exactly ten minutes to the hour, administered his mother’s medicines, spoke softly to her, tended to her comfort in small ways, and then resumed his meditative posture until the next time.
After 48 hours, his mother was regaining lost ground. She experienced slightly longer periods of alertness and made strong efforts to speak. There was hope. There was more than hope. She opened her eyes. She saw him and attempted to smile. He continued by her side as before.
Two more days later, when he ought to have been sleep deprived, starving, fractious, and unreasonable, he was not. He remained calm, lucid, and polite. Upon being invited to discuss payment options, he followed a couple of young pages who guided him to the administrative offices to attend to the matter. Yow! The facts came out.
There would be no money, land, nor cattle changing hands. No charge to be levied against the assets of the Double-Arc-D. The patient was the mother of the betrothed husband of Zillah herself. Her entire bank of resources was at his disposal for at least six months, maybe longer.
Amused disbelief at his attempted fraud and bold effrontery. M’sieur Jean-Phillippe, indeed! with his two big I’s, two hell’s Ells (taken, no doubt, in lieu of an inch) and three brass-balled P’s! He would soon be P’ing on the other side of the fence. The Company would hand him a nice red H and a couple of big fat X’s. His patient assertion and reiteration of the terms of his understanding with Zillah. His lawyers called in. Her lawyers called in. It was true. The papers, all in order. Astounding news!
But, unlike most news, that runs as fast as a disease from nosy nose to gabbling mouth, this news travelled slowly as molasses on the moon.
A trickle here, a treacle there…round and round the compound, yet never leaked into the town. The old lady’s doctor knew. She had witnessed the settlements. Both sets of lawyers knew; how about their clerks and copyists? Why, it was worth their professional lives to say anything that might break the seal of confidentiality. The old lady’s priest knew, but he too was under seal of confessional.
Jean-Phillippe was more considerately spelled and given respite by a team of medical apprentices. Weeks of the most intensive nursing care and most costly medicines ensued. The whole of the Temple mobilized to serve the aim of restoring the health of the prospective mother-in-law of their own Head Priestess. Now, nothing grudged nor held back.
Time passed. Mrs D. turned the corner. His daily, hourly attendance was no longer needed. She could speak, move both legs, regained functionality in both arms. She could, with help, go to the toilet on her own feet. She could eat almost normally. The sagging side of her face did not hinder her from chewing and her swallowing process was unhurt.
A minor miracle: her memory for words came back all in a rush. The medicines had kept the inflammation low but constant, and her body suddenly flushed out the clot. She no longer needed him to interpret her slurred speech – the therapists could understand her as well as he could.
One fine day she dragged herself up by a strap hung handy on a frame above the bed, looked at her pale, patient son and ordered him to go out and ride the range.
“Don’t ‘ee ssso a-vired dyed mhy a’bron strin’s!”
“I am not ssso all-fired tied to your apron strings, Mother.”
But he grinned. And he took out his roan and did ride.
Thus, he was the first, the very first, to see and greet the returning army of healers—successful in their long quest and all of them thin as fence rails. But alive.
His eyes sought for her as soon as he caught sight of the dust clouds announcing their approach. She was not immediately apparent. Leading the way were herders on foot. They had a few scrawny old beasts with them to prove that the scourge was contained: some farmers’ discards, only kept out of sentiment, being long past work.
There was a spavined horse, two knackered old mules and two painfully thin oxen; chickens well past laying; a cripple-foot goose, unable to walk but very lively and alert, an obvious pet – transported on a wheeled travois pulled by both oxen yoked side by side. Also, the mules bore basket panniers containing a quartet each of weaned kittens and puppies.
She was there! She was tired, dirty, thin. She looked her true age, or even older. And she had never seemed more beautiful to him.
She saw him; she raised her hand, called the Company trudging wearily behind her to a halt. He urged his mount forward to meet them with a countenance and air of solemn but happy thanksgiving.
“Welcome home,” he said.
He rode nearer, dismounted and took her by the hand.
She smiled wider. And they, her people, tired as they all were, gave a loud and boisterous cheer.
“Rest here, he said,” smiling back at her, “I’ll bring help.”
And help was very soon dispatched. By horse, by ham radio, by excited gabbling speech, word got around. Everyone on every ranch, farm and fold for many miles around was sent or brought themselves hastening to supply mounts, water, food, sound and fury enough to knock a twister off its little round feet. A full five days’ march was snipped off the last leg of their long journey. You never saw such a homecoming, I am convinced. I am not even sure I saw it all, and I was there.
The celebrations, lubrications, lucubrations, pandemoniums, and general whoop-fest commotions of this reunion occupied at least a week of everybody’s consciousness. It took another week for the Company just to hear and digest all the local news and catch up on the latest gossip.
In the flood of general rejoicing, the private happiness of the two people with whom this narrative is chiefly concerned was gully-washed quite out of the public consciousness. This was perfectly acceptable and even agreeable to the principal recipients of social neglect; and thoroughly grateful to the feelings of the two mothers of the April-October couple. As far as they were concerned, the less said about the business, the better.
The wedding of James and Deeanna was celebrated with all due ceremony and eclat: both parties were dressed to the nines and even to the tens where they could afford it. The other ceremony, much quieter, took place around midnight in a Temple stroke recovery room, with very few witnesses and not much in the way of flowery vows and solemn speeches.
Apart from them, the favored few, there remained not one friend or relation to invite to a reception who was not already sleeping off a massive hangover acquired some time in the last three days and nights and the night before that even. Leftovers from the other wedding were served.
So the two of them ate a light supper brought to them by, and merrily shared with, Mattie and Milly. Then they prepared themselves for an early night out on a patio behind Zillah’s vast and crowded dressing rooms, intending to sleep under the stars.
Jean-Phillippe, eyes widened in mock dismay, went about the rooms flipping up the filmy sleeves, lifting and dropping the heavy, hand-spangled and beaded hems of the hundreds of costumes stored in the racks ranged around the walls. After tonight, all this glittery fabric wealth would become the property of Milly and/or Deeanna.
He and Zillah were to take possession of a newly built bungalow perched up where the sheep pastures were greenest during the winter. For now, though, they wished to be near Mrs. D as she completed the course of her post operative care for a little longer under Jean’s supervision.
He called out to Zillah as she stepped from her bath, wrapped in two threadbare towels and turbanned with half of an old sheet meant to more speedily dry her hair.
“I’m afraid I have nothing suitable to wear,” he teased, “No lace, no silks, nothing at all worthy of so goodly a groom-chamber. Shall you be disappointed?”
“Wear your loincloth,” she replied softly, “Nothing could be more becoming, I assure you.”
He had the grace to blush and to laugh.
And so, he did, and they did, and all was done in the properest possible manner. Together, they filled and were fulfilled in the doing of what they had each longed for separately and apart. Together they soared easily into those regions inaccessible to us poor, lost sheep who can only approach sheer heaven by laboriously climbing the slopes of yonder mountains. And somewhere in the crumbling ruins, the dissolving walls of their separate egos, they found each other—and much, much more.
Not once, but many times did they express this, their holy union. Weeks passed. The golden honey Moon of June waxed and waned and was replaced by other moons: Harvest, Hunters’, Wolf, moons of frost and of fairing each in their round turn.
Gradually, in an orderly and deliberate fashion, Zillah wrapped up her affairs. She transferred authority over a few key Temple sectors to Deeanna, and distributed most of her other duties to her apprentices and journeywomen (and some men). She only kept enough of a finger in that large plum pie called The Company to make sure that her emeritus status continued to protect her assets and her in-laws’ interests.
Unfortunately, she never did get to play a meaty role in a serious play; however, she did direct a few edgy new plays for a select audience of well-paying Selectmen – and women.
Some time afterwards, when they had moved into their new home and Mrs D. had returned to hers, they lay beside one another, in restful peace, lolling on the bright green slopes where the sheep were placidly cropping their daily grass. The sun shone and the wind was light and cool.
Zillah was the first to speak.
“This air, these mountains—everything so fresh and clean. No wonder you were able to wander about in your skimpy flap of leather like a wild Injun. Nobody would ever think of accosting you when they were all filled with this rareified atmosphere of dazzling purity.”
“You’d be surprised what we get up to out here.”
She looked at him with quizzing, ironical eyes. He blushed, from scalp to sole: a rosy glow infusing the pale gold of his skin like dawn over the river.
“Well, I do not mean—I never… You needn’t laugh like a coy-hyena. All I meant to say was there is quite as much of that going on around here as in town.”
What he meant by that I leave to the fertile and inventive imaginations of my readers, who are themselves all as sophisticated as anyone could wish, and wiser in their day than the children of light, and certainly more up-to-date than my own children of fancy upon whom they are soon to close the book.
For my own comfort and sense of fitness, however, I must add a few more words to the trailing end of this my long and borrowed tale.
With prolonged nursing care, including a full course of medicines and physical rehab, Mistress Du’Arrcissy recovered from her stroke completely, except for sometimes needing to use a cane to manage stair-steps and when rising from low chairs. She delighted in paying long visits to her youngest son, wherever his new duties had carried him, at Zillah’s expense, of course.
She even took instruction in the theater of operations pertaining to a Temple counselor, by which means she earned a little cash for her own disposal, most of which was spent on baubles and spangles to amuse her grand-daughter—a lusty squalling infant if there ever was one, and I am sure there have been many, but none so infinitely beautiful—like a little primrose princess. Blossom must be her stage name—or no, let it be Flora. I am sure she managed her granny as well as that other Flora did with her great aunt Ada.
Mrs. D’s illness, followed by frequent and ever-lengthening absences from the ranch created an opening of the soul and much more breathable airspace around the rest of the Du’ArCissy clan. Every horse-hardy remaining son and departing dance-footed daughter felt that freedom was within her grasp or liberty in his reach.
They auditioned and acted if they liked, married whomever they liked, for as long as they liked, and as often as they liked without any reference to Mrs. D., nor her likes and dislikes. This stirred up a good bit of grumbling, gossip and gambling, and had a temporarily diffusive effect on their considerable stores of wealth; but that was no hardship to the surrounding countryside. Besides, most of it all came home to them by way of marriages and land swaps in the next generation down the line.
Mattie married the grandson of a sheep farmer in the next county, some connection to the Du’Arrcissys, and left the Temple, well contented to be the star of a cow-town (who sacrificed fame for love!) and especially pleased never again to be twitted and tormented for the sad state of her skin, somewhat yellowish teeth, and youthful blemishes. She, like most women in those parts, soon acquired a complexion and countenance tough as old leather and twice as brown.
Beauty, she declared to any and all who cared to listen, was an aspect of the soul, not the body. And if her theology on the subject was ever disputed, it was not within her immediate hearing; furthermore, any demurrals made were kept perfectly polite in her presence. Her own happiness was never brought into question, for it was obvious that she adored her ruddy, stockman-built husband, and he returned her affection, however inarticulately.
Milly, at her earnest pleas, agreed to stay with her and keep doing her hair and choosing her gowns, for no-one had such good taste and sense as her dear, dear Millah. And, since Zillah carried out her threat to retire from attiring, Miller was happy enough to reign as queen of Attiring Attendants and to earn cash on the side by presiding over Mattie’s little establishment of a beauty parlor, bossing local stagecrews, and bullying her own set of local apprentices.
Deeanna carried off James to Lake Erie and parts farther North before a twelvemonth had passed. She was anxious about his complexion, thought too much sun was likely to waken his family’s tendency toward skin cancer, and was determined to preserve his very good looks as long as humanly possible.
To put a good chunk of distance between herself and her mother, who had married his younger brother (for the gods’ sake!) was an equally powerful, though not openly acknowledged motive for the move.
Luckily for her, he became an adept of the Arts himself and effectively doubled their income. When his looks finally faded, his musicianship was much enhanced; for all the time he had previously spent in amorous dalliance was now devoted to his practice and composition; so there was no loss that did not bring them both considerable gain. His good nature softened her sharp tongue and sharper practices, and his good sense shielded her from much censure wherever they went.
Thus, despite all predictions of ruinous results from Zillah’s love-folly, these hinterlands of El Dorado proved instead to be a mine of treasure for the whole Company: they all acquired much and in goodly measure, each according to their different natures and disparate aims.
Madam gained an enlivening adversary in Mistress Du’Arrcissy – a foe entirely worthy of her steel. Deeanna became quite comfortably rich and had all the eclat of securing a Talent to the Company train. And Zillah became very, very happy. Of these sources of goodness, each as good as gold, I leave you all to make your own choice of which is best.