Gloved in pinkened mail the metal slipping scrape against porcelain smear of a stain she shifts she grabs the pipe there bracing grunt and push back slap and groan his hands her hips her jeans about her knees his knees her belt a-flopping jangle keys or change in a pocket ringing snort and slap and slap again and “shit” she says and “there – like that – you” head hung low her hair quite short and spiky black the apron slung about her neck hung loose the ties undone her arms are folding pushing back against the bulk of him plowing groaning “skotosch” he says, or something like it, “hwikaz, witting” tossing his head that beard of his jutting “sulnthaz!” he roars, “Suntchazi!” jerking hammering clenching squeezing shaking her head she’s “no” she’s “not” she’s “dammit, dammit” as she slaps the slaps the white-tiled blood-smeared wall she’s hunching back against he shakes his shaggy head his brown hair whipping free of his loosening ponytail stuttering working a stilling slap and hitch and “don’t” she blurts as he’s leaning back his undone head eyes closed his mouth a-gawp his body rocking with the force of her shoves back again and again and her bare hand slapping “shibal” she spits and “shibal!” and he opens his eyes, seize and slam and meaty slap she coughs or sobs a grunt her breath a hiccup caught a tremor shivering shake her knees her hips her mail-gloved hand about the pipe and her pealing cry.
Across the stretch of concrete gleaming under fluorescent lights those boxes against the far wall, regular banker’s boxes white and brown stacked four and five high in mostly regular columns, and set up before them a folding table and a high-backed black desk chair. Jo’s tugging, pulling one of the boxes from the top of a stack, tipping it forward and down, up on her toes to get her fingers in the handles on either side before pulling it free, the weight of it a sudden swoop that swings her about with a grunt, heaving it up to brace against her belly as she hauls it to the table. Her oversized sweatshirt blue, and it says Brigadoon! across the front of it, and off that way the click and tap of footsteps breaking into a rush, “My lady!” cries Luys, hastening down the length of the garage, but she’s already dropped the box by the table, she’s dropping herself in the chair with a squeak and a sigh from the vinyl cushion. “There are those,” says Luys, slowing, “who should help you with, those,” even as she’s throwing back the lid of the box.
“You look nice,” she says, lifting a handful of photos to her lap.
“The audience, at noon today,” he says, smoothing the front of his deep brown blazer, his shirt striped brown and cream.
“Yeah,” she says, flipping one by one through the photos, plucking one from the handful, tossing it to the table, a silvery image of two women holding a large umbrella up over their heads and a third, all in black, to one side. “You got it covered, right?”
“I wish you would reconsider, my lady.”
“I told you,” she says, “if you’re gonna, I mean, my liege. It’s a less, confusing, way to, I mean, I looked it up.”
“My liege,” says Luys. “It would be best for all if you were to attend.”
“Mason,” she says. “You’ll do fine. You’re my lieutenant, you speak for me. Everybody says so.” Flipping another photo over, and another. “The Vice Duke,” she says, “Duke of Vice.” And then, her grin folding itself away, “That didn’t, that, came out wrong.”
“There will be questions.”
“So answer ’em. If you can. If you can’t,” and she shrugs.
“There will be decisions, to be made.”
“So make them! God damn, Luys,” she slaps the photos down on the table, “you know this shit. Better than I do. If you can’t make the call,” and she throws up her hands. “I am good for one thing, in all this. One. With the mask, and the sword. He needs me for that, well, he knows where to find me.”
He looks down. She starts rifling through the photos, spreading them over the top of the table. After a moment, he says, “As my liege wishes.”
“Damn straight,” says Jo.
White apron streaked with red, the clean long slender knife in one hand, the other in a bulky mail glove, links of it pinkly slicked. She wrestles the leg about, skin of it yellow, mottled with brown bruises, deftly slices the flesh, then flops the bulk of it over, continuing that slice around above the trotter. Sets the knife aside to take up a small bone saw, which she fits in the cut, and begins to hack through the bone with quick squeaking strokes. Her black hair spiky short, and frilled about the collar of her white thermal shirt a thicket of black ink, leaves and branches, the beak of a bird. The bone cracks apart, and she tugs the trotter loose, sets it aside, looks up to see him there across the butcher’s block, plain black T-shirt, dark grey warm-up jacket, his bushy beard the color of rich mahogany, his hair tied back in a club of a ponytail, a pair of small round sunglasses perched on his nose, the lenses greenly purple.
“Phil,” says Ellen. And then, “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Story of us,” he says. “For what it’s worth, I’m ready.”
She sets the bone saw aside, clink.
“You said, come back. When I’m ready,” he says. “To talk.”
“Let me finish this,” she says, picking up the knife.
She’s leaned half the front seat back, not quite supine, she’s laid back wrapped in a pale blue ski jacket, white blanket over her lap. The rearview mirror’s skewed to look back and up at a long low building painted white and widely trimmed in green, and all the windows dark in the low morning light but the top storey, the third storey, where yellow lamps shine behind white curtains, and the rooftop garden beside it strung with little lights ablaze, and a woman standing there, her black hair short, wrapped in a filmy white gown, smoking a cigarette. Someone’s tapping on the passenger window.
She sits up, then reaches over to wind the window down an inch or two, peers up through the gap at the woman leaning down out there, sheepskin coat, palely blued cloud of hair. “Hey,” says Marfisa. “Stef. May we speak?”
She pops the lock, and Marfisa pulls the door open, her hair lighting up golden white as she climbs in, choking up on a baseball bat to pull it in beside her as she settles on the passenger side of the seat. Something flops in her lap, a rubbery empty horse’s head, the bulging dark eyes, the limp snout. “Keeping an eye on them?” she says, stooping to look back and up through the driver’s side window, the long low building across the street, white and trimmed in green, and all the windows lining the two storeys dark. “Not much going on.”
Ettie leans back, out of the way, “Look,” she says, pointing, “up there, look,” and Marfisa leans further, over her, awkwardly twisting to look up and out through the skewed rearview mirror. There’s the building, long and low, and there’s the third storey, lit up against the deepening dawn, and two figures in the garden now, another woman, yellow hair severely straight, an embrace, a kiss.
“Well,” says Marfisa, sitting back on her side of the car. “That is a clever trick.”
“I didn’t,” says Ettie, “it’s just, the mirror. Could be any mirror, for all I know.”
“Or only the mirrors of old automobiles, perhaps,” says Marfisa, stroking the white leatherette of the dash. “This is a formidable machine.”
“Got us to North Dakota and back. Twice,” says Ettie. “But you didn’t drop in to compliment our car.”
“I was visiting, with friends,” says Marfisa, “and happened by – but I do want to speak with you, about the gallery. They’d – we’d – like it, if you were to come back.”
Ettie looks away, up into the mirror, “It’s like I told Gloria,” she says. “You talk too much. You meet, and you talk about your feelings, and you argue and you yell and then you have a meeting about the yelling, and I just, I don’t have the,” she closes her eyes. “Patience,” she says.
“You’d rather watch?” says Marfisa, and Ettie opens her eyes, glaring up at her. Marfisa smiles, but it’s wistful, too weak to reach her eyes. “Do you know who she is, that you are watching? That woman, with your sister?” Leaning over again, looking up into the mirror. “She is her one true love. The queen, of her world.” Sitting up, leaning back. Ettie looking down, away. “Just as she is of Gloria’s,” says Marfisa. “And Anna’s. And of mine, as well.” She opens the passenger door abruptly, shifts the bat, propped out against the sidewalk, but stops, sitting there, and both feet still in the car. “We can all help each other,” she says. “Help her.”
Ettie’s eyes have closed, again. “By talking some more, I bet.”
“There might even be some yelling,” says Marifisa. “But come, this morning. For tea, or coffee, if nothing else. But what we have to talk about, today, I think we will all find – useful.”
She climbs out, steps away, off up the street. Ettie shakes her head. After a moment, she leans way over, reaches out, manages to snag the door. Pulls it shut.
Snip snip, the wee silver scissors in her hand, snip, and bit by bit short black curls tremble and fall. Snip. She pinches a wayward sprig, twists them together between thumb and forefinger, tugging aside, scissor-blades brought close to goosefleshed skin, snip. Holding the tuft up before her lips, she puffs, they fly away, she leans in close to blow again, clearing the strays, and that brown belly shivers, and those thighs, “That tickles,” says Ysabel, annoyed.
Chrissie blows once more, a giggled flutter, “But I’ve got your attention.”
Ysabel looks away from the contact sheet she’s holding, glossy in the harshly immediate light of the bedside lamp. “What are you doing down there? You’d better be keeping it even.”
“I wouldn’t dream of messing up perfection,” says Chrissie. Naked, and curled on her side, her knees up on the pillows. “But I could,” combing the trim little thatch with her fingertips, “denude you, if you’d like?”
“Is that what you’d like?” says Ysabel, circling with a fat red marker one of the images on the sheet, a column shadowed under a bridge. “Perfection, that you wouldn’t mar, but you’d raze to the ground. As it were.”
“Only if you want.” Chrissie pillows her cheek on Ysabel’s thigh, and just the lightest of touches for the furl of lip below that thatch, and Ysabel shivers again, but shifts, her foot, her knee, her legs apart. Her filmy gown undone, splayed open, and her breasts and belly bare. “The fashion,” she says, “is to go without a frame, is that it? These days?”
“For us,” says Chrissie, fingers lazily circling, “it’s more of a uniform? No shirt, no pubes, no service,” and she snorts up an awkward giggle.
“You aren’t the funny one,” says Ysabel. A squeak of the marker circling another image, a scribbled bird. “Remember that.”
“I know,” says Chrissie, and a sigh. “I know.”
“You’ve no tattoos,” says Ysabel. “Or piercings. Aren’t those part of the uniform, as such?”
“Our ears are pierced,” says Chrissie. “But we did that when we were twelve. That’s part of our thing, though. It’s in the name? Sœuers Limoges. Flawless,” her fingers, pale, “porcelain,” stroking the olived shadows about the navel before her, “skin.”
“But what if you wanted a tattoo,” says Ysabel, setting the contact sheet aside, capping the marker.
“But if you did.”
“It would be,” says Chrissie, and then another sigh. “The mistake too many people make,” she says. “It shouldn’t be, just a mark here, a mark there, whatever. Willy-nilly. They need to be, the body, the whole, the whole effect, needs to be considered. And we would,” she says, “it’s just, simpler? Not to.” Her hand on Ysabel’s hip, now. “On you, I mean,” she says. “Something bold, but a single color, a pattern, all the way around,” a gesture, a circle, “geometric, but asymmetrical.” Looking back up the warmly lamplit length of her, that hand settling once more by those short black curls. “Definitely, for you, asymmetry.”
“But I don’t want a tattoo,” says Ysabel. Sitting up on her elbows, shrugging her gown back up on her shoulders, “Hold still,” she says, and “What are you,” says Chrissie, as Ysabel pops the cap off the fat red marker. “Hold still,” she says again, leaning over.
“Ysabel,” says Chrissie, “what are you drawing?”
“If you struggle, or laugh,” says Ysabel, but then she jerks up, holding the marker away, “if you do that again,” she says, “I’ll definitely mess it up,” and Chrissie quivering with stifled giggles lifts her hand away, stretching away along Ysabel’s outstretched leg, a stilling sigh, but then as Ysabel’s leaning down again a fresh shudder, a laugh blown out through her nose, her firmly smiling lips, her eyes clamped shut, “Are you quite through?” says Ysabel, marker still held high, and Chrissie nods quick and tight. “A deep breath in,” says Ysabel, “let it out, and hold still.” She leans over, and sets to with the marker.
“I’m so,” says Chrissie, “happy, that you asked me. To come back.”
“And if you, asked her. I’m sure. She’d say yes.”
Ysabel looks up at that, at Chrissie’s yellow hair, her eyelids shut, still bluely shadowed, her dreaming smile. “Is that what this is about,” she says, and leans down again, to draw a careful curve.
“What,” says Chrissie, still smiling.
“You’ve shared men with her,” and a stroke of the marker, and another, “but she’s never shared a woman, with you.”
“That, that’s not, no,” she says, and Ysabel lifts the marker away again, “not at all,” says Chrissie, her arm about Ysabel’s leg.
“But it is true,” says Ysabel, leaning down again with the marker.
“It’s, the,” Chrissie says, “the nature of the, industry, the uniform,” and she laughs again, briefly, “Hold still,” says Ysabel, “we’re both,” says Chrissie, “comfortable with,” and she sighs, opens her eyes. The marker’s paused again. “There’s never been a woman before.”
“I find that hard to believe,” says Ysabel, stroking, daubing.
“If you asked her,” says Chrissie, “I know. She’d say yes,” and a squeeze, a kiss pressed to Ysabel’s knee. “Because you are.”
“But why should I,” says Ysabel, lifting the marker away. “I have you.” Lying back. “There,” she says. “Willy-nil, and unconsidered, but rather a bit symmetrical? If I do say so myself.”
Sketched in red on Chrissie’s flank, just below her breast, an exaggerated lip-print, a pout of a kiss. “I see,” says Chrissie, and a long and languid stretch. “So now you’re marked,” says Ysabel. “You’re mine.” She sets the marker aside and lifts a leg up and over Chrissie’s yellow head, shifting her hips as Chrissie reaches around, “Like that,” says Chrissie, and a long, slow lick, “was ever in doubt,” and Ysabel shivers.
Some time later, Chrissie says, faintly, but quite distinct, “What time is it?” Alone in that wide white bed. The lamp snuffed now, and the room gone dark. Ysabel lets the curtain fall from her hand, steps back from the window. “It’s tomorrow,” she says.
Chrissie sits up on her elbows, opening her eyes quite wide, a quick shake of her head as if dashing something off. “How long have I been awake?” she says.
“Come,” says Ysabel, taking up her gown from the foot of the bed. “Let’s go watch the sunrise. It’s going to be a beautiful day.”