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Bare branches, Dead leaves – Sorry We’re Closed – a Chivalrous thing – when We are Queen –

Bare branches toss and clatter, dead leaves patter down the street before sudden gusts of wind. Candles and Christmas lights wink and flicker from every window of the big white ramshackle house on the corner. A thin young man pushes open one of the two front doors and staggers onto the porch, letting out a burst of music, a fiddle, sharp popping drums. Rings glitter from his fingers as he beckons to someone inside. His black T-shirt says Bobu Magurasu in white letters. “See,” he’s saying loudly and then he shushes himself. “I think I know.”

“What?” says the woman following him onto the porch. Her serape striped in browns and yellows. On her head a confetti-colored patchwork cap.

“Why it was three. Why it was only three.” Guthrie leans close and whispers, “I think I’m just like you.”

“There’s an easy way to find out,” she says.

Inside the big front room the drum kit set up between the fireplace and the keg. The drummer’s head sweating as he works furiously over a snare drum, throwing off parade-ground fusillades. A red-headed man kneels before him swaying, sawing a soaring theme from his fiddle. Behind him on a stool a kid clutching a big-bellied acoustic guitar taps his foot. A woman with short dark hair one hand on the neck of a bass guitar the other on Marfisa’s shoulder leaning close together singing into the same microphone, “Suntower, asking – cover, lover – June cast, moon fast – as one changes – ” Marfisa swallowing a laugh as she fumbles a couplet. Her armor gone she wears a tight red dress, quite short. In one hand a flute. A dozen people or more pressed close together along the wall below the stairs heads bobbing tossing a feathered headdress a big black hat jeweled hands and bare hands and hands smeared with clayey colors waving in time, someone tossing gauzy scarves by Roland in a green track suit with white and silver stripes scowling as a boy in a brown bomber jacket his hair a matted pompadour pushes past him up the stairs where Becker in his big plaid shirt sits leaning back against Pyrocles a step or two above him soft blue jacket somewhere else his pale blue shirt unbuttoned over a white undershirt. “Of course it’s Yes,” says Becker.

“What?” says Pyrocles leaning over him, smiling between mustaches a-dangle.

“Yes!” laughs Becker, settling back against him. “Yes I said yes. A thousand times yes!”

In the bright toothpaste-colored kitchen Jo’s wedged into a corner by a big blue garbage can overflowing with empty bottles brown and green, hugging herself in her long grey dress her sword about her hips. Ysabel before her beaded gown clacking side to side a cigarette tucked between two fingers of the hand wrapped about her wineglass. With a crash the band in the big front room takes up the soaring theme, bass and drums now churning under fiddle and flute and over them all the clear crisp vamping guitar folding in on itself. “I want to dance!” cries Ysabel.

“You didn’t tell me she was gonna be here!” snaps Jo.

“I didn’t know,” says Ysabel, waving the wineglass between them, slopping red wine to the floor. “She isn’t going to – Jo, you don’t have anything to worry about – ”

“Because it’s Robin Whatsisname’s house, right? And nobody ever gets hurt in Robin’s house.” Shivering her hand on the hilt of her sword she pushes out from the corner past Ysabel walking a little wobbly to the fridge. “I need another cider.”

“Are you,” says Ysabel, taking a drag from her cigarette, “aren’t your feet cold?” Jo’s bare feet filthy on the black and white check floor by the fridge without looking back she lifts a hand middle finger extended and Ysabel shrugs and stubs out her cigarette on an empty bottle in the garbage can. 72, says the label. Absinthe Verte de Fougerolles. That soaring theme has collapsed out in the big front room and from the wreckage a calypso beat’s assembling itself with what sounds like a real steel drum. Jo closes the fridge bottle in hand and turns to see Becker there in the doorway, gawping at her. “Oh, hey,” he says, “oh, hey, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” says Jo, padding across the kitchen towards him.

“No, really,” he says, “you have to remember. I forget. I didn’t remember any of this, or about you, or, or. I didn’t remember him, can you believe it?”

Jo takes the empty bottle from his hands and tosses it into the garbage can. “Don’t.” Hands him her unopened bottle. “I, uh, I had no idea you were.”

“Were what?” says Becker, twisting off the cap. Swallowing some cider.

“Gay,” says Jo.

“Well, yeah,” says Becker, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Guthrie bursts into the kitchen one hand held before him in the other, headed for the sink. Yanking the faucet on he shoves the hand under the water yelling “Oh, ow, oh!” The woman in the serape and the confetti-colored cap drifts into the kitchen saying “You did want to know.”

“You bit me!” The water’s running red from his fingers. Becker shaking his head looks back to Jo who isn’t paying attention to what’s going on by the sink at all but staring out into the big front room where Ysabel’s dancing by the red-headed fiddler pounding steel-drum sounds from a little keyboard. The bassist and Marfisa singing into the same microphone again, trading verses and la-la-las, “We got a million dollars worth of ethyl gas, and a reservation for a room!”

“Hey,” says Becker, leaning close to Jo. “Like I say, I’m sorry. I’ll see what I can do to get you guys on the bee-to-bee – ”

“No you won’t,” says Jo. Not looking away from Ysabel dancing. “You’ll forget you ever said that come the morning.” One hand on the hilt of her sword again. The heel of her other hand rubbing an eye. “I’m gonna go find somewhere to lie down. If she comes looking for me. Okay?”

To the right of the door to the kitchen a dark hallway passes under the stairs. Jo heads down it one hand brushing flocked velvet wallpaper. In gaudy frames hang old paperbacks brightly colored with titles that say Go-Go Sadisto and Game Finger and The Merciless Mermaids. Past a closed door painted white with a sign that says Sorry We’re Closed. The music’s dissolved into a great thunderous drone lit up by stabs of tinny brass. Past photos now in clear glass frames of fruits and vegetables, close-ups in black and white of glossy curves and roughly pitted skin and strange hollow shadows, past a closed door painted white with a sign that says Sorry We’re Closed. Jo turns unsteadily music whooping and lurching around her. The kitchen a few steps back short stretch of hall green-black flocking sprawled across the dark magenta wall. One closed door, white-painted, with a sign.

Turning back. Pinned to the walls now scraps of parchment inked with illuminated letters, strange fleshy creatures crawling through the typographic underbrush. The next door down’s ajar, a puddle of warm light seeping out along the floor. A small room lined with books from floor to ceiling on dark wooden shelves lit up by unobtrusive spotlights. More books in roughly neat piles on rugs by a couple of wing chairs and narrow end tables bear up under the weight of more stacked books, leather-bound and dust-jacketed some wrapped in clear plastic, paperbacks tucked here and there and some books blankly featureless in wraps of plain brown paper. Jo steps carefully among the books bare feet sinking in the Persian rug, stopping to dig her toes in it eyes closed. Before her the broad high oxblood back of a tufted leather sofa pulled before the flickering glow of a fireplace. Something cracks and pops. She opens her eyes, steps up to the sofa one hand on the back of it. The Duke is kneeling before the hearth in a red-and-brown striped jacket, feeding kindling to a slowly dying fire. “Hello, Sir Jo,” he says.

“Oh,” says Jo, “I didn’t know,” turning to leave as he says “A little loud and crowded out there, huh?” and then reaching for his cane, pushing himself to his feet, “Oh, no, don’t worry about it. Feel free. Goodfellow’s house, right?” Scooping his long brown hair up away from his face. “Wouldn’t dream of telling someone where to go in it.” She’s still got a hand clamped on the back of the sofa, leaning against it now. “You okay?” She shakes her head, quickly. “Come on, come on. Sit down. Where’s the Princess?”

“Dancing,” says Jo, taking his hand over the sofa, stepping gingerly around it. The sword catches as she tries to sit and for a moment she stands there blinking at it until he helps her sit side-saddle knees tucked up toward the arm of the sofa. “Sorry I couldn’t make it to the colée,” he’s saying. “I heard there was a crasher. You look awful.”

“I’ll be fine,” says Jo.

“Hey,” says the Duke. “Hey.” She looks up at him. “Where’s your shoes?”

Jo’s laugh is low and shaky. “In the bathroom of the Starbucks on Pioneer Square. Along with my pants and my jacket and my smokes and,” she laughs again, sharper now, more certain, “my other goddamn sword and I cannot be doing this again.”

“Okay,” says the Duke, and “Sorry” says Jo and “No, no,” says the Duke, “don’t apologize, it’s okay,” turning to poke at scraps of kindling with his cane.

“I didn’t mean to,” says Jo.

“Of course not,” says the Duke. “Actually, I have a confession – I came here tonight to ask you something.” The copper ferrule scrapes against the hearth. “The Queen’s dinner, when I set this whole misbegotten juggernaut alight. You said you’d lose a challenge, throw a fight, if that’s what the Princess wanted. Yeah?”

“I did,” says Jo, “but – ”

“Hang on,” says the Duke, waving a hand, “that’s not the question I wanted to ask. My question, and it’s basically moot because you didn’t lose, hell, it didn’t even happen, but humor me. This duel that was supposed to happen tonight. You and the Axe, who’s out there singing like butter wouldn’t melt on her mike. You two cook that up so her and the Princess could get back together, only crazy mask-guy jumped the queue and queered your play? Because, and don’t let this affect your answer in any way, I’ll be really fucking pissed if you did.”

“I lost my job today, because of this,” says Jo. The Duke looks over his shoulder at her, his face shadowed. “Last week,” she says, “I learned I’m getting kicked out of the only apartment I can afford downtown. And I wouldn’t have had to cook anything up with anybody. If she had stepped up to me, I could have just said no.” One hand on the throat of the scabbard. “Fucked off.” The other on the hilt. “Dropped the sword and walked.”

He steps away from the fire. “I would have been incandescent if you’d done that.”

“Like I care.”

He’s leaning on that cane over her, the rough-hewn hawk at its head caged in his fingers. “She wants the Princess, she’ll come at you again. You gonna hope crazy mask-guy keeps coming back? Maybe drop the sword then if he doesn’t? Why wait? Go on. Fuck off now.”

“You aren’t listening,” says Jo. “I lost my job. I lost my home. All because of this promise I made that I’m going to keep. And if the Axe or anybody, or you, comes up to me and says I can’t do this, I’m not fucking worthy – ” She looks down, then back up at him. “I’ll cut you and, and I’ll watch you go down to fucking dust.”

“Okay,” he says, and then he stamps his cane once against the floor. “Good,” he says. “Good.”

“Good,” says Jo flatly. “This is good.”

“Good that you know it. Good you can say it.” He leans the cane against the sofa. “Good that it scares you.” He’s unbuttoning his jacket. Her hand relaxes on the hilt she does not let go. “Yeah,” she says. A sharp breath in through her nose. “Well.”

“Here,” says the Duke. “Sit up.” Jo doesn’t as he wriggles his jacket down his arms. “You look chilly. I’m trying to do a chivalrous thing here.” She reaches up then, takes his jacket, drapes it about her shoulders. Scoots closer to the arm tucking her feet under herself as he swings around to sit heavily next to her. Wincing he rubs his thigh. “There’s aspects,” he’s saying, “advantages of knighthood, of which I do not think you’ve taken account. Along with the weighty responsibilities. You were knighted banneret, which is the Queen fucking her daughter over, keeping you out of the Apportionment. Since you got no patron, and nobody obliged to give you medhu. There’s nothing I can do about that. But I can,” reaching into his vest pocket, “give you this.” Plucking out a gold credit card. “Go on. Take it.”

Gingerly she does. “This,” she says, “that’s my full name.” Turning it over in her hand. “And my signature.”

“Wouldn’t work otherwise,” says the Duke. “And it’s a lovely – ”

“Jo will do just fine,” says Jo. Turning the card back over again. “This is a thing, isn’t it.”

“Verily,” says the Duke.

“Bank of Trebizond?” she says, tripping over a breathless little laugh.

“I wouldn’t buy a car with it,” he says. “But otherwise. And you’ll never see a bill.”

“I don’t, I don’t know what to say,” says Jo. “I mean thank you, yes, sure, thanks so much, but I – ”

“Tough, isn’t it,” says the Duke. “These new problems that suddenly overwhelm you. Whatever shall you worry about now. However fill your days. Oh!” Lifting a finger. “The apartment you might yet lose. That card won’t help much there, but I might have a word with the landlord?” Smiling. “Some folks say I can be persuasive. You don’t consider him a friend, do you?” Jo laughs. “Put it away, don’t lose it. Obviously. But I want to have a look at your sword.” Jo tucks the card into her bra, then unhooks the scabbard from her belt. “Draw it,” says the Duke. “I trust you.”

She tugs the sword free a clean quiet scrape of steel against leather and metal the blade ringing faintly still as she turns it and holds it in the air before them firelight licking the dark whorls within its polished gleam. “May I?” says the Duke, holding out his hand.

“Okay,” says Jo, handing the hilt over to him. “I trust you.”

He tips the blade down, then back up again. “Nice,” he says. Leaning the blade away from her, laying it flat against his other arm, leaning over to peer along the length of it. Jo watches with a quizzical smile. “The Anvil’s a fine smith,” says the Duke, lifting it again and leaning it the other way over her lap, flat against the arm of the sofa. “He’s signed it, here.” Pointing to a crude little sigil stamped into the thickness of the blade above the quillions, a simple block shape with a horn to one side, the suggestion of a foot. “You ever figure out your banner, he can stamp it here,” rolling the blade over, “mark it as yours. What’s so funny?”

Jo’s smiling broadly, shaking her head. “You.”

“Moi?” The Duke rears back, hand to his chest.

“You. You’re a piece of work, you know that? You set your goons on us, you shanghai my ex-boyfriend into a stunt that could’ve gotten him killed, you drag me on a hunt for a goddamn boar that could’ve gotten me killed, you insult me, you fuck me over, and you think you give me a gold card and maybe call the Housing Authority for me that means you still got a chance.”

The Duke still smiling licks his lips and lets loose a quiet little laugh. “No,” he says, “no, what’s funny is this. What’s funny is you get Tommy Rawhead killed. You let the boar loose in the first place and you nearly got me killed hunting for it and you broke my fucking leg. You lose me the Dagger and the Helm and when I reach out to you nonetheless as a newly dubbed knight, a member of the fraternity, you spit on my gifts and threaten my life and yet still, somehow, you’re the one who thinks you have a chance.”

Shoulder to shoulder neither of them not smiling Jo leaning a little closer the Duke lifting his head Jo frowning a little over her grin and about to say something when she closes her eyes for a swift soft kiss. “Huh,” she says, her nose by his. “I guess I do.”

“What a coincidence,” says the Duke. They kiss again.

“Enough!” roars Roland sword in hand the audience in the big front room falling back with shrieks and screams scrambling from dancing to running and ducking. The band stuttering to a stop the drummer and the bassist and the fiddler still singing “When we are Queen,” their doo-doo diddle oo-doos tumbling away into the tense shocked sudden panting silence. Marfisa lowering the tinwhistle from her lips glaring at Roland glaring back at her. “Enough,” he says.

Ysabel grabs his arm jerking it to one side and he tugs against her but does not push her away. “Please!” she’s saying. “Chariot! Put it away!”

“This madness of hers must stop,” he’s saying. He’s lowering his sword. She lets go of his arm. Marfisa’s standing still her arms at her sides whistle loosely in one hand. “If her brother were here,” says Roland.

“He isn’t,” says the short man all in black, pushing through the audience. “Is this now to be your party trick, sir?” His dark beard neatly trimmed a whisper of curls just past stubble along the line of his jaw. “Put up your sword.”

“They sing treason, Goodfellow – ”

“This is a free house, sir,” snaps the short man all in black. The band looking back and forth at each other sharply, except Marfisa who doesn’t look away from Roland. “All may speak freely here. And no metal’s drawn in anger. Not here. I would not have it.”

“It is an insult,” says Roland. Ysabel beside him shaking her head. “To the Queen, the Princess – ”

“I do not wish to ask again, sir,” says Robin Goodfellow, raising his hands arms out palms down a placatory gesture. The nail of one little finger a long curled black thing. “Not in my own house.”

Roland’s turning the blade back lifting the hilt with a sigh when Marfisa begins to sing in a high voice roughened by adrenaline, “There will be more dancing, and less worrying,” and Roland face twisting hauls the sword back up and out again, and Marfisa’s singing “more singing and less hurrying” as Ysabel cries “No!” and steps between them as a man in a grey flannel jacket calls “Princess!” and a woman in ragged white lace sleeves her hands before her screaming mouth and the bassist slinging her guitar up before her body steps up and a shirtless man turns and pushes back through the crowd and another man and another and a woman and more on his heels toward the front door banging open before them all and Roland stops his thrust just short of Ysabel’s throat his face stricken. Marfisa finishes in a sing-song voice, “but everything will still get done on time, when we are Queen.”

“Princess,” says Roland, and his hand is empty now.

“You stupid, stupid fool,” she says. “It’s just a song.”

“Is it?” says Marfisa behind her. Ysabel turns. “Is that all it is, Princess? Just a song?”

“You’re just singing a song!” says Ysabel. “To call it treason – ”

“It’s just a song,” says Marfisa. “Then these must be just words. This bread, that you have made for me.”

And under her wild black curls Ysabel’s face has suddenly gone pale. “No,” she says, her voice quite small and far away. “Don’t.”

“The bread that you have made for me!” cries Marfisa, and the crowd’s gone still and silent in that room. “I spit it out. Why shouldn’t I do this?”

“Because I ask you not to?” says Robin, but Marfisa’s saying, “It isn’t the song, it’s not the song at all. It’s me. I’m the insult that cannot be borne. This salt that you have given me.”

“Marfisa, please,” says Ysabel, and “That’s not true!” cries Roland.

“I spill it, and grind it in the dust!” says Marfisa. Ysabel grabs her shoulders. “Please!” she cries. “I made a wish!”

“Did you?” says Marfisa, quietly. Behind her the drummer’s gone the stool behind the drum kit tipped over on the floor. The kid and the bassist to either side of her watching wordless guitars hung useless at their sides. “Did you wish that I’d win the duel? Did you wish we could be together again?”

Ysabel’s slowly shaking her head. “I wished,” she says, “that you wouldn’t be hurt.” And then she says, “Either of you.”

“Either of us,” says Marfisa, and she takes Ysabel’s hands from her shoulders and holds them a moment. “Well I’m not hurt,” she says, and kisses Ysabel’s fingers. “And she isn’t even here. This lamp you have lit for me.”

“As you love me,” says Ysabel.

“I smother it,” says Marfisa, “and it gutters, and goes dark.”

She steps back from Ysabel then hands lifting into the air together drawing them apart right hand on the hilt of her sword left hand falling away from its tip as she swings it about once switching her grip both hands on the hilt now blade turned around and point down. She drives it with a great crack and a flash of light into the floor of the big front room.

“There,” she says, a little shaky, smoke drifting about her blade stuck upright through a scorched black mark. “I’m done. With all of you.”

And she walks past Ysabel away from the band and past Roland and past Robin his head in his hands and past the crowd stepping back and away as she passes them up to the open front door and through it out into the night.

Table of Contents

Siberian Khatru,” written by Yes, copyright holder unknown. Eldorado to the Moon,” written by David Nesmith, copyright holder unknown. It Won’t Happen Here (And if it Does, it Won’t Happen Here),” written by Monsieur Boche and Savage Henry, ©1979 Matt Howarth. When We Are Queen,” written by Issa, ©2008.

M.E.Traylor    14 August 2010    #

Robin’s the only one I can connect to existing mythology so far, with the possible exception of long-haired-girl. I’m really interested in the symbolism of the bread, salt, and fire, and the sugar, ash, and the other one I can’t remember.

Developments between Jo and the Duke… very unexpected.

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