It’s raining again, pattering softly unseen through the branches of the trees down Everett Street. Candles and Christmas lights wink and flicker from every window of the big white ramshackle house on the corner. The thin young man, Guthrie, 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 points, peering along the front of the house. Frowning. “See?” he says. There’s a woman with stubby dreadlocks and baggy jeans, a plastic cup in either hand, leaning against the half-open front door behind him. “See? Out here the window is there,” and then he drops his unsteady hand, ducking his head back inside. “While in here, it’s further down that way. See? See that?”
“Is it?” she says, holding out a cup for him. He takes it.
“Yeah,” he says. “I mean.” He frowns.
Inside the big front room the drum kit is set up between the fireplace and the keg. The drummer’s head is ruddy. The singer, or at least a woman in a bulky fisherman’s sweater and jeans who dangles a microphone from one hand, sits on a folding chair on the other side of the fireplace. The fiddler works the room, snarling himself in a jig, his red hair bobbing up above the circle of people stomping along and down again, his bow leaping into the air. There’s someone up in the shadows at the top of the stairs, playing something of a rhythm line on a guitar. “Remind me never to play poker with you,” says Becker in his big plaid shirt, leaning up against the wall, as the woman in the cat’s eye glasses pulls a neat royal flush in hearts from behind his ear.
“You was the one hiding the cards, pal,” she says. “Not me.” She lifts her bangled wrist up, peering at a loosely buckled watch. “Now, if you’ll excuse me – ”
“That’s, ah,” says Becker. “My watch.”
She cranks her eyebrow up higher but smiles a little nonetheless. “You maybe want to keep an eye on it next time,” she says, reaching to take it off.
“I think you’ve maybe got the wrong idea,” says Becker.
The drummer cracks his sticks three times over his head and rattles out a sharp popping parade-ground roll, syncopating as the guitarist sends a carillon lick ringing down the stairwell. The singer smiling twirls her microphone once wrapping the cord around her wrist catching it with a pop and as the fiddle picks up the lick flawlessly she stands and launches a song about how us Amazonians know where we stand, we got kids, we got jobs, why do we need a man? The room roars and kicks into a staggeringly varied assortment of dances. Jo leans against the corner under the stairs and lifts a hand to her mouth to stifle a rather large yawn.
Jo jerks her head to one side. It’s the woman in the mushroom slip, holding two glasses just thicker than a finger and almost as long. She shakes a black curl out of her eyes as she holds up one of the glasses to Jo.
“Well?” says the woman, leaning close to be heard over the music.
“I’m, I’m sorry,” says Jo. “It’s just – you look familiar, somehow. Except I think I’d remember you. If I’d ever met you before, I mean.” She takes the little glass almost full of something pearly shimmering in the dim light, just on the cusp of transparency. Lifts it up and tips half of it down her throat. “Damn,” she says, blinking.
“Good hootch. The booze,” says Jo, in response to the woman’s quizzical look. “Liquor. Moonshine.”
“Our host brews his own.”
“Though he doesn’t use moonshine. Too common. He prefers ingredients less readily available. A maiden’s virtue, say.”
Jo grins and downs the last of her drink. The singer’s singing about boiling up rice in a satellite dish.
“What’s your name?” says Jo.
“Pay your quid, first.”
She’s smiling, the woman. “Quid pro quo. Tit for tat. What are you called.” A slim man in a blue sarong and a white shirt nods to her as he comes down the stairs, which she acknowledges with a quick smile.
“Jo,” says Jo.
“Joe,” says the woman in the mushroom slip. “Joe. A boy’s name?”
“Nah, it’s short for – ”
“Don’t,” says the woman, raising a finger as if to shush her. There’s a short man all in black behind her, talking to the man in the blue sarong.
“You don’t like it, do you.”
“Well, it’s,” Jo shrugs, “it’s kind of a dumb name.”
“So don’t tell me.”
“Okay,” says Jo. “I won’t. So.”
“I’ve paid my quid. Now it’s time for quo.”
“Ysabel,” says the woman in the mushroom slip.
“Ysabel,” says Jo.
“More often than not. He’s still watching me, isn’t he.”
Jo cranes her head a little looking over and past Ysabel’s shoulder. By the front door the fiddler sawing his way between them stands the man in the slick green track suit, running a bicycle-gloved hand over his white-furred scalp. His jagged green racing sunglasses down over his eyes like pieces of broken bottle. “What’s his story?” says Jo.
“What is he, an ex? A stalker? The father of your love-child?”
Ysabel looks down, her lips pursing around a half-swallowed smile. “He watches over me. A protector.”
“I presume,” says a short man, the man all in black, dark-haired, his beard neatly trimmed, a whisper of tamed curls just past stubble along his jawline blending flawlessly into his close-cropped sideburns, “that we are discussing the good Roland, Miss Perry?”
Ysabel turns. He smiles and ducks his head, a little. “You make me a liar, Robin,” she says.
“Never, Miss Perry,” says Robin, sipping from his tall black mug.
“Did I not just tell Jo that most people more often than not call me Ysabel? And up you step as bold as you please to prove it a lie.” She smiles as she says this, sipping from her own thin glass.
One of Robin’s shoulders lifts as his head tips down and away, his eyes looking over to crook a smile at Jo: an elaborately ambiguous shrug. “What she says is true, miss.” Looking up. He is quite short, not even as tall as Jo. “Whatever that may be.” The song clatters to a halt, the drummer rattling his toms with random rolls and fills, the guitarist wandering off quietly down a minor scale, the fiddler scraping a long droning note out of the guts of his fiddle.
“Robin is our host,” says Ysabel.
“Humble host,” says Robin, smiling.
“And this,” says Ysabel, “is Jo. Who rescued me.”
Jo nods. Then shrugs, smiling uncertainly.
“A pleasure, Jo,” says Robin. “Rescued? From what?”
“A dreadfully dull evening,” says Ysabel, frowning a little. Looking up at nothing in particular. A set of pipes has begun to drone somewhere further in the house. Coming closer. The fiddle scrapes into a new note and begins to wrap a slow pulsing melody around the unseen pipes. “Is this..?” says Ysabel.
The corners of Robin’s mouth turn down, arching his little mustache up and out. “I merely asked them to play. I didn’t tell them what.”
The piper, pale, her clotted yellow-white curls swept back from her face, steps a measured march into the front room to the squeezing of her little pipes. The crowd – varied, lycra and fleece, glittered cheeks, khakis and sweaters, army pants and a black sports bra, a floppy mohawk, a tuxedo, a glittering minidress, a bared chest under swirls of bodypaint, pegged jeans and garish T-shirts, Roland’s green and silver tracksuit as he makes his way across the room, sliding through them all standing quietly now, watching, waiting. The singer smiling as the piper slowly picks up the fiddle’s melody over her drone. The drummer wiping sweat out of his face, swigging something from a red plastic cup.
“It is,” says Ysabel, grabbing Jo’s hand. “Come on.”
“What?” says Jo.
“Lady,” says Roland, there beside them, reaching out to almost but not quite take Ysabel’s arm. “It is perhaps time we got you home.”
“Not yet,” says Ysabel, turning her back to him, her hands on Jo’s upper arms. Her eyes closing. “Listen,” she says.
There’s been a shift in the song, gears changed. The guitar ambling forward now in a rickety rhythm line as the melody takes a breath and repeats itself, strong, assured. The drummer waiting, sticks still. Nodding to someone, hey. The singer looks out over the little crowd there in Robin’s front room and lifts her microphone to her lips and says, half-singing, “Along the shore the cloud waves break, the twin suns sink beneath the lake, the shadows lengthen – in Carcosa…”
Jo frowns. “It’s not hooked up.”
Ysabel, her head tipped back, hair hanging heavy as she sways left foot to right and back, her hands still on Jo’s arms, smiles. “What?”
“The microphone,” says Jo.
“Strange is the night where black stars rise and strange moons circle through the skies – but stranger still is lost Carcosa…”
The drums pop then, once. Someone whoops. The piper’s playing two lines over the steady heartbeat of her drone, one marching a slowly quickening lockstep with the grinning fiddle, the other skirling after the guitar, each chasing the other, looking for the monstrous beats to come. The whole room tensely waiting, almost, almost.
“Songs the Hyades shall sing, where flap the tatters of the King, must die unheard in dim Carcosa…”
Jo closes her eyes. Ysabel’s hands fall away. Jo takes a deep breath.
“Song of my soul, my voice is dead – die though, unsung, as tears unshed shall dry and die in lost Carcosa…”
The fiddle and pipes are pruning, boiling the melody down as the guitar and pipes settle and under it all the drone and the threat of the drums.
“In Carcosa… lost Carcosa… dim Carcosa…”
A grizzled man pauses his bobbing head to shove his white-taped black-rimmed glasses back up his nose. Robin pinches off a blissful little smile and downs the last of whatever’s in his mug. A dark girl in patched overalls throws wide her arms her hands swallowed by bulky workgloves. Becker catches his breath and looks eyes shining at the singer as the woman in cat’s eye glasses eases a hand into the hip pocket of his jeans. The dervish melody has spun itself tighter and tighter until it’s almost nothing more than two notes pulsing on-off one-oh in-out da-da as the singer wails. The drummer lifts his sticks and hangs there, waiting.
“In Carcosa… lost Carcosa… dim Carcosa…”
Jo opens her eyes.
That first brontolithic beat unleashes something monstrous. The room whirls snaps leaps kicks stomps into motion, heaving as one with the avalanching rhythm. Jo is in the thick of it now arms high above her head yelling, yelling, Ysabel beside her, head down, hair flying, all of it so loud the music is almost lost, the band redundant all of them, madly now chasing some driving jig just barely out of reach. The fiddler’s spinning widdershins in a circle of tossing people dancing about him, the piper’s on her knees, cheeks blimped, pipes jerking; the guitarist still cannot be seen up in the shadows on the stairs but can most definitely be heard. The singer’s head’s thrown back, microphone lifted high above her, howling the wordless melody up into it, a drawn-out hopeless nameless vowel, and the drummer’s making up for lost time. But Ysabel is gone.
Jo puts out her hand, stumbling, shoved to one side by the grey-haired woman in the Frankie Say T-shirt. Turns against the dancing crowd, bumbling against the lumbering boy with the wispy beard and the black leather trench coat. Ysabel’s there at the foot of the stairs yelling something at Roland whose bicycle-gloved hand is clamped around her upper arm. Jo looks away rolling her eyes and is knocked two staggering steps towards them by the whipcracking arms of the man in the glittering vest. The band suddenly and out of nowhere hits a spattering of notes as one, a clarion, a fanfare, and falls back as suddenly into its churning driving almost-chaos. “Carcosa…” moans the singer, and Jo pushes her way between a woman in a white fur coat and a man whose long brown arms are fishnetted in hot pink. Roland pulls Ysabel after him towards the door. He’s saying something about her mother.
“Do not mention my mother again this night,” snaps Ysabel. “As a favor. To me.”
“Hey,” says Jo. Planting her feet.
Roland purses his lips and looks away from them both. Lets go Ysabel’s arm and she steps back once toward the stairs as he lifts his hand to touch the bridge of his nose lightly, closing his eyes. He peels the green sunglasses from his face and his eyes are mild as he turns them again to Ysabel. “Lady,” he says. “Enough. You have made your point.” He holds out his hand for her to take. “But now we must be off.”
“I’m not here to make a point,” says Ysabel, just barely to be heard over the music. She smiles sweetly. “I’m here to enjoy myself.”
“Okay?” says Jo. “So just go. Leave her – ”
“Who are you?” says Roland.
“What?” says Jo.
“Who are you, that you should care about this?” He turns to face Jo now, and his eyes are no longer mild. “That she should be a concern to you?” He throws out a hand, encompassing the dancing room. “You don’t belong here. Who are you, to interfere?”
“I don’t know,” says Jo. She shrugs. “I guess I don’t like bullies.”
“I am her guardian!” says Roland. “She is my charge. My responsibility – ”
“You have a funny way of showing it,” says Jo.
“Are you,” says Roland, quiet now under the stomping feet, the roaring band, “impugning my honor?”
Jo snorts. “Honor?”
The band driving up out of nowhere hits its spattered unison again; and again – the syncopated, punch-drunk fanfare. In the moment of silence between the last note driven home and the first whoops from the suddenly motionless dancers the rip of velcro is shockingly loud. As applause breaks out all around them Roland strips the bicycle glove from his right hand and throws it at Jo’s feet.
“Well?” he says.
“Well?” says Jo, frowning.
“What say you?”
“What say me?” says Jo.
“‘What say I,’” says Ysabel. Smiling. “Pick up the glove.”
Jo, still frowning, not taking her eyes off Roland, kneels slowly. Picks up the grubby glove.
“Name your terms,” says Roland.
“Terms,” says Jo. Standing up.
“As the challenged. What weapons? Where? When?”
“Weapons?” says Jo.