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rolling Over under Untucked sheets – Hands – Bourbon & Blueberry – “Hunt what?” – Compromise – Southerly, for Korea –

Rolling over under the untucked sheets, pastels tangled together, flush of teal, icy pink, a yellow startling in the sunlight, black hair abrupt against the one white pillow. Her arm tugged free still socked in black and white to brush some of that hair from off her face, to dig sand from the corners of her eyes. Not quite a groan, she takes in a breath, sits up, pastels falling away, pale waves crashing back to a rumpled ocean. “Hey,” she says. Shoving the bulwark beside her. “Hey. Want some breakfast?” Reaching across herself to scratch her shoulder, dig under the cuff of the sock. Not a word or a breath from the bulwark. “I want some breakfast,” she says, tugging the sock down, working it off.

He sits up sometime later, blinking thickly in the sunlight, pastels puddling his lap. Absently scratching the wiry black that mats his breast. She’s over by a freshly assembled credenza, the only other piece of furniture in a room that still feels crowded. She’s pulled on brief black shorts, a cropped white T-shirt pasted to the curves of her breasts and her belly, she’s stirring something atop a little electric griddle. He sniffs, and again, deeply, closing his eyes. His mustache thick but neatly trimmed, the black of it hatched with white. “Oh,” he says, “and is that speck you’re frying?”

“If by speck, you mean bacon,” she says. “I’d offer you some.” She shrugs.

“Just as well.” He yawns. Another elaborate sniff. “Odor alone is almost enough, for a man in my condition.” Slapping his jowls, shaking his head. He works his way out from under pastels to the edge of the great thick mattress. “Ghost of a pig,” he says, scooping up a grimy grey union suit, “for a pig of a ghost.” Working his way into it. She’s tonging up slices of bacon, dropping them on a paper plate. Holds up the last one, charred and glistening, turns it about, lifts it for a bite. Hissing, “shit!” dropping the tongs to the credenza, the bacon to the floor, “The fuck,” she says. “The fuck am I gonna do.”

He pauses, stood by the mattress, trousers half-buttoned.

“This was supposed to be a place for people hurt, by her. And now she’s,” slapping the credenza, “I mean, it was one thing when she was just, sulking, in the basement, but last night? Last night was,” looking back, over her shoulder. “What am I gonna do, Jim?”

“You could ask yourself a question,” he says, doing up the last button. “Why is it, d’you think,” wrestling his suspenders up onto his shoulder, “her majesty comes to find herself here, to be doing such things?” Tipping that head of his left, right. “Of all places.” Rolling up the sleeves of his union suit. She folds her arms, leaned back against the credenza, “I don’t know,” she says. “Some fight or something, with,” shrugging, “somebody’s grandfather, hers, maybe, I don’t know. I can’t keep track. It’s family and it goes back years, so I don’t think anybody could really explain it, but there’s probably a lot of money, which means lawyers,” she sniffs. “Our lawyers.”

“That’s why she’s not there,” he says, casting about. “Why is it here her majesty finds herself?” He fishes a cracked brown boot from under drooping pastels. She snorts. “I haven’t kicked her out yet.”

“Sweetling,” he says, sitting heavily on the mattress, “attend the line of inquiry with a modicum of the gravity I’d like to think it’s due?”

“Here is where the action is,” she says. “Simple. But now, she’s got everything she needs, to fuck it all up. Again. And that,” she says, pushing off the credenza, “is the gravity of my, whatever the fuck it is.” Scooping up the uncooked portion of bacon, still in its plastic bag, she opens one of the credenza’s cabinets with a toe to reveal a mini-fridge. “My query,” she says, squatting to stuff the bag away among takeout cartons, a jug of orange juice, a bottle of spumante.

“The point, my nonpareil,” he says, working a boot onto his foot, “that must be taken into account, is this: even,” tightening the laces with a grunt, “even the most capable skipper in all the world, with the sun itself that shines from his very arse,” tugging on the other boot, “why, even such as he’d be utterly lost, at sea, you might say, useless, in point of fact,” snugging the heel of it home with a sigh. “When stood by himself,” he says, looking up, “at the wheel of a mighty clipper, without he has a couple a dozen of these,” and he holds up his hands, the backs of them up to the first knuckles furred with wiry black, the heels of them and the palms edged with rough thick callus, and about the thumb of the left a simple ring of pale gold.

“She’s here, her majesty’s here, for you guys,” she says.

“Who else, to wash her dishes, and fold her unmentionables?” He gets to his feet. “Light her candles when it’s time, and snuff ’em when it’s done? Beat the rugs and polish the glazing? Lay pipe, fit bolt to camlock, joist against beam, set brick atop brick? How else might her palace assemble itself?”

“And you guys,” she says, and takes a bite of bacon. “You guys are here for me.”

“Ah, my dimpled dumpling,” he says, stepping close, “while I’d never be one myself to dispute your inestimable charms,” a hand on her hip, the other her breast, a-stroke till she grips his wrist. “For what me and Marfisa put together, here,” she says. “And Anna.” Souring. “Even if there has been some mission creep.”

Both his hands are on her hips now, and he presses a kiss to her cheek. “You’re never out of sandwiches,” he says, “and the coffee’s always hot.” Letting go, stepping back, “And I’m in need of a gallon or so.”

“Go on,” she says. “I’ll be down in a minute. Soon as I find some pants.”

Up on the unfolded table, then, boxes printed with sprinting cups that trail intricate curls of inked steam. Cackletub turns them about and squares them with the edge of the table so that over on the other side, Christian stooping can punch in the perforated holes toward the bottom of each, working out and securing the black plastic spigots, “Hang on,” he says, pushing past someone pushing in to get at the boxes, the stacks of paper cups Cackletub’s setting out, “gimme a minute,” he struggles to reach the fifth of five and punch it open, but someone’s got a cup already, and another hand on a spigot, and somehow in the jostling he’s struck by a jet of coffee, “Jesus Christ!” he shouts, whipping his hand away, and everyone, the entire crowd, falls back, the aggressively jocular air let out of them all. Someone drops an empty cup.

“Oughtn’t to say that, boy.”

“Ain’t for our likes.”

“Sear your tongue, they will, words like that.”

“Shattern,” the word a boulder powdered by thunder.

“A fellow once I knew – stout Faber Iona, had a hand in the Oriental Fair, he did, and builded Balor’s Dun – why, never could he keep the name of their Sweet Lord’s Son – ”

“Teeth,” another boulder-word, uprooted by tidal spittle.

“ – from out his mouth. Once he’d learned it, of course. Terrible shame, what happened.”

“Really,” says Christian, wiping the back of his hand on his sleeve.

“An nawt a’d say Horwendel’d steer yiz wrong.”

“Jesus,” says Christian, very deliberately. “Ever-loving. Christ.” Working his jaw, his lips around, baring his teeth in a great big smile.

“Well,” says the one of them. “Not right away.” And everyone starts to laugh, Christian loudest of all.

“Donuts?”

“What?” Christian looks up from the sugar dispensers and the pitchers of cream he’s helping Cackletub lay out, the spoons and stirring straws that are snatched as soon as he lets go.”They’re coming,” he says. “The Flynn’s on it. And Ned. You look all shook up.”

“Oh?” says Iemanya, black hair askew, white apron crooked over her taupe blouse. She sets a paper cup on the table, lifts pugilistic fists, “Was fun!” she says through a broad grin.

“I bet.” Christian hefts up a couple of bundles of paper napkins. Cheers from the big open overhead door, where somebody short’s coming through dwarfed by the stack of boxes held before him, “Beignets!” somebody cries, skinnily sallow and tall.

“Blue Star,” says the short man, setting his sagging tower of boxes on the table. “Bourbon and blueberry.”

“Rosemary an raspberry,” says the big man following after, a couple more boxes in one platter-sized hand that are seized before her can set them down. “Soup’s on!” says Christian, stepping back. Cackletub hands him a paper cup filled with steaming coffee, black.

Out in the middle of that cavernous room, past the crowd a-jostle about the coffee and the donuts, there’s the wooden tub, worn staves sawn off at just about knee-height, bound about by riveted iron hoops. A woman approaches it warily, looking about before gingerly planting a foot shod in beige orthopædic leather, thick-soled, velcro-strapped, on one of the pallets that holds the tub above the concrete floor. She leans over the light of it, reaching with painful care to suddenly seize a handful of sunlight, and the look on her face as she holds it up, to let it trickle into the plastic baggie held in her other hand. Looking about again, the empty stage the one end, shadowed arch the other, before dipping in to scoop another blazing dollop.

Sipping coffee, Christian looks past the tub and the woman to one of those art-filled stalls across the warehouse, this one lined with jewel-toned photos of houses and Dutch-angled storefronts. Stood on the threshold of it a woman taller and more slim than the man before her, and she as cooly pale as he is brownly banked, her one arm sleeved in gleaming plate, pauldron and cop, cowter and vambraces, his thickset torso swelling a denim jacket. They say things to each other, much too quiet to make out, as others pass before them laughing, discussing things to be done, problems to solve, the wonders of donuts. Someone else sidles up for a pinch of gold. He sips his coffee, and watches the woman lean slowly down, hesitate just for a moment, as the man turns away, so that her kiss is pressed to his cheek, and not his mouth.

“A fine spread indeed,” booms Big Jim Turk in his union suit, his dungarees, brushing his mustache aside before taking a glistening purple bite. “Who’s to blame?”

“Brether Ned,” says Christian, “and the Flynn,” even as Ned’s saying, “Aye.” Jim fills a cup with coffee. The focus of the dispersing crowd shifts, from tables and pastries and boxes of coffee, to Big Jim Turk, downing that first cupful, reaching to fill it again, and nothing of his donut left but crumbs, fastidiously folded away in a napkin. “All right,” he says. “I’m for the upstairs hallway west. Walls are stripped, and prepped for painting; it’s but a day’s job with a few to pitch in,” a nod there, and there, “Hup” from another, he’s taking note, but “Ah,” says Brether Ned, those enormous hands of his tucked away in his back pockets, “was to taken cable, far ta sparken cellar, but day’s en day are taken sod, fa hroof. Ull need anand.”

Brows lift, eyes widen, “oy” and “ach” and someone says, “The roof?”

“Har majesty insisten,” says Brether Ned.

“It’ll go quick enough with enough of us, to take it in and haul it up,” says Jim. “A break from the painting. What time’s it coming?”

Ned shrugs. “Nuncheon, a thereanent.”

“Herself’s not with a meeting today,” says Jim.

“And her majesty’s below,” says slender, sallow Melia. “Lunch’ll be nothing more than it should.”

“So there’s the day,” says Jim, throwing back the last of his third cup, and they’re all milling about now, some headed off this way, or that. Christian busies himself with tidying up a couple of empty donut boxes, sweeping crumbs away. The thickset man, swelling his denim jacket, is making for him, across the warehouse, his hair a crisp circle of white about his brown bald head. “Let’s go, boy.”

“Stuff to do,” says Christian, opening a fresh box of donuts.

“In case it had passed your notice, there’s peers in the house,” says Gordon. “They ain’t need the likes of us.” Watching, as Christian with a bit of waxed paper fetches out the last couple stragglers from yet another box, consolidating them, tidying, sweeping. “I said let’s go, boy.”

“I am not,” says Christian, looking up, “your boy.”

“We had our fun,” says Gordon. “Now it’s done. Cold light of day. Time to get back.”

“Ain’t nobody gonna be there,” says Christian. “Look around! They’re all here.”

“All the more reason. Nobody to get in the way.”

“’Cause they’re all here! The coffee’s here! The, the donuts are here.”

“That ain’t what’s to be done, boy.”

“I am not,” snarls Christian, and his hands curl into fists that thump the table. “I’ll be by,” he says, then, “later. After.” And he moves to open another box of donuts, even though the one before him’s still untouched.

Gordon steps back. “All right,” he says. “After.”

“At Berbati’s, in the restroom, of all places.”

“Yeah, we, we know, Melissa.”

“Let her speak.”

“It was, uh, last October? The Corner Laughers show, with Wheat. I was there with Julie, and her friend, from New York? Anyway. I went in to, to touch up, you know, and she came in. She came in, she was laughing like somebody just said something really fucking hilarious, but she was by herself? And, I mean, it was her eyes, you know? I looked up, just in time, to catch them in the mirror. Those eyes. And, okay, so maybe I was staring? But I’d already had, like, two of those baklava martinis, okay? And she just, without saying hi, or nice dress, or I really like that color, she just, she asked. And I. I’m not, I don’t, I don’t usually, but I, uh, I, I – ”

“You said yes, Melissa. We know.”

“Gloria.”

“What?” Gloria Monday sits up on the grimy carpet, there before the escritoire. “No, seriously. What.” She’s pulled on a pair of slick blue shorts and a violet T-shirt that says Death & the Maiden & Horace. “What good is this doing. What good did any of it ever do.”

“A lot,” says Anna Nirdlinger in her white dress shirt, one hand on the back of the nubbled green armchair where Melissa’s slumped, still in her sundress and her motorcycle jacket, but “Miriam’s gone,” Gloria’s saying, “Jessie’s gone, Star’s gone, Joli left, Thorpe’s buggered off God knows where, and Petra’s out there playing with them, Addison won’t return our calls, Val’s gone, everybody’s up and gone, and her fucking goddamn majesty,” jabbing a finger at the closed office door, “is gonna make what’s supposed to be our space over into her brand new goddamn palace.”

Marfisa, leaned back against the wall there by the door, says nothing at all to any of that. Her tights are black, her tank is grey, her curls are sloppily knotted at the nape of her neck.

“I thought it was all over?” Melissa sniffs. Behind thick lenses mascara’s dribbled and smeared about puffily red-rimmed eyes. “The dreams, and all. They stopped. Why did she, why did she go and do that to me?”

“She felt she had to,” says Anna, but Marfisa looks up at this, “Jo Gallowglas refused her majesty,” she says. “Her majesty has elected a new Huntsman.”

“But why me,” says Melissa, buckles clinking as she leans forward. “What am I supposed to do? Hunt? Hunt what?”

“The Huntsman,” says Anna, “is usually from without the court.”

“He is a falcon, on the wrist of the King,” says Marfisa, “that flies and stoops at a word.”

“But there isn’t a King, anymore,” says Gloria.

“Stoops?” says Melissa.

“He will come back,” says Marfisa. “He always does. But while he is away, the Queen might come to the Huntsman, and ask a favor of him.”

“But she didn’t,” says Melissa. “Ask. Last night.”

“That’s not a favor,” says Gloria, as Anna says, “She wouldn’t.”

“Once,” says Marfisa, “when the Queen, perhaps, felt the passage of time more keenly than she liked,” hands clasped before her, fingers interlaced, “she found herself become quite jealous of the youth, and beauty, of her Princess.” Looking up and away from them all, in that windowless little office. Melissa sniffs. “And so she came to her Huntsman, and asked this of him: that he would go to her highness and, with such clever ruse as he might devise, urge her with him into the wood, where he was to cut out her heart, to bring back, to her majesty.”

“Jesus, Mar,” says Gloria, kneeling up on the carpet as Anna frowns.

“Wait a minute,” says Melissa, sitting up, clink.

“What you are supposed to do, Melissa Gallowglas,” says Marfisa, and she takes hold of the knob of the door. “Determine, for yourself,” and she opens it, “when the time comes round for you: will you do as her majesty wishes?” Looking back, at them all. “Or will you refuse?”

Out onto the walkway, and the door gently shut behind. Below the cavernous warehouse diffused with cooly shadowed aside bright day without, submerging the sullen warmth of the tub on its pallets, and someone shouts, frustrated, and briefly she closes her eyes. The tables down there have been folded away to make room for three more pallets loaded in under the open overhead door, laden with rich brown rolls of turf stacked high, coiled within with startling green, and a half-dozen or more stood about in coveralls and dungarees, pointing, disputing, we can’t exactly, crane’s not even, swanning about! and but her majesty. Marfisa takes hold of the ladder bolted to the wall and climbs away, up and up to the makeshift floor tucked under the rafters, laid with dusty rugs and ceiled with tiny stars, green and blue and white, red, orange, mostly gold, though, thousands of them. She bulls her way past and through the awkward frame of a truss over dust-furred boards to a lone crate waiting under some sort of hatch. Steps up, reaching, the clack of a latch undone. She hauls herself up in the blaring light of noon.

A field of pea stone stretches out to ankle-high parapets of brick on three sides. Behind her, the brick backsides of the buildings at the high end of the block, a couple more storeys each, sparsely windowed. Down the other end a frail gazebo’s been erected, canopy of palest blue upheld by gauzily curtained poles. She cocks her head, frowns. Sets off toward it, pop and crunch of gravel underfoot.

In the shade of that gazebo Petra B’s squatting over a matte black case, hefting a weighty matte black lens. “I don’t usually shoot people,” she says, fitting the lens to a slender camera body with a click. “And never like this.”

“It’s easy,” says Ettie, knelt on a carpet spread over the pea stone, rocking forward as Costurere kneads gleaming oil into her shoulders and her back.

“Artless dolts do it every day,” says Chrissie already glossy, as Aigulha brushes her severely yellow hair.

“It’s just gonna take, ah,” says Petra, thumbing on the camera’s viewfinder, “some adjustment, okay?”

“Hold that thought,” says Ettie, pointing with her chin. “Here comes Auntie Mar.”

“What are you doing?” calls Marfisa, one hand shading her squinting eyes as she approaches this little island of coolth, the carpets haphazardly laid, the discarded white robes blued by gauzy light, and the whites of Aigulha’s and Costurere’s shifts. “Isn’t it obvious, ma chère?” says Ettie, getting to her feet, taking Chrissie’s hand. “We’re making art.”

“The lobs and hobs must be about their work,” says Marfisa. “They were to prepare the roof for turfing. Her majesty would have a lawn – you had them set this out, instead?”

“The lawn can wait,” says Ettie.

“The sod is here!”

“We’re here,” says Chrissie. “The light is here.”

“And they would make so much noise, ma pouliche,” says Ettie. “Quite distracting.”

“It will dry and die if it’s delayed.”

“Buy more,” says Ettie.

“Her majesty would have our pictures,” says Chrissie.

“Her majesty,” snaps Marfisa, catching herself with a grimace. “You are to have this,” waving, at the gazebo, the carpets, them, “cleared away, within the hour.” Crunch and scrape as she turns to go.

“You really should try to be happier, chère!” calls Ettie to her retreating back. “After all – you won!” And then, without looking away as Marfisa yanks open the hatch at the far end of the roof, “It’s really terribly simple, mon oisillon,” she says. “Most stuff, as you say, like this,” turning then to Chrissie, and she tucks a yellow lock more securely behind an ear, “it’s merely a journalistic exercise,” as Chrissie smooths a streak of oil over her clavicle. “Once, one golden afternoon, Dear Reader, I got to be in the same room as a beautiful girl.”

“I told her what to wear,” says Chrissie.

“I told her what to do,” says Ettie, “and so on.”

“Here’s the proof,” says Chrissie.

“Do something, anything, other than that,” says Ettie, looking over Chrissie’s shoulder to Petra B still crouched by the matte black case, “and we’ll be fine. Today,” turning away, without letting go of Chrissie’s hand, “is all about contrast. Smooth and gleaming,” she lifts a foot from the carpet, “rough and dusty,” setting it with a twist in the pea stone, “brilliant shadows, darkest light. Or, I mean,” frowning, “other way, anyway.” Chrissie smiles. “Anyway,” says Ettie. “Glorious black and white.”

“Color,” says Petra, getting to her feet. “I always shoot in color. Do the monochrome in post, if you want.”

Ettie sighs, “Very well,” she says. “One compromise at a time, I suppose,” and steps from shade into brazen noontide light, and Chrissie follows after.

Red flesh and pink and clean white fat she tips the ribbed slab over, wrestles it about, clack and scrape against wood to fit a slender blade against the ridgeline of bone-stumps down one side. Slicing along it she pushes with her other hand the filade of bones away, slice again deeper and push a bit further, quick smooth strokes and sudden wrenching force, she’s pulled loose a glistening fence of bone-posts bound by gristle and fat and redly striated muscle that she folds once and pushes click aside.

“I do hope you won’t be throwing that away,” says the woman on the other side of the counter. Not too tall, shoulders padded in a peach suit, hair all tiny corkscrew curls swept back, pinned up. “Neck bones chopped in a slow cooker, garlic and thyme and just enough vinegar, collards and macaroni,” miming a chef’s kiss, lips carefully painted the color of brick, eyes limned with threads of startling green.

“Feather bones.” She scrapes red water and translucent scraps from the block before her. “Better if it’s pork.” Turning that slab over and about, chuck-end angled before her, taking up the slender knife again.

“Won’t argue with that,” says the woman on the other side of the counter. “Still. That’s a pot of good stock just waiting to simmer itself down.”

“Someone will be with you shortly,” she says, counting off truncated ribs that can just be made out under the snowy cap. Fitting the blade between numbers three and four.

“Oh, that’s all right, Ellen Oh,” says the woman on the other side of the counter. “I’m vegetarian. Mostly. We can talk while you work.”

The blade only hesitates a moment before smoothly splitting the third from the fourth.

“We met, once before,” says the woman on the other side of the counter. “I must apologize, for the brusque tone I took at the time. It had been a difficult day.” Stepping close, dark hand pressed to the front of the counter’s glass case. “But I see you remember. I see that you remember me, you knew me before I stepped up to interrupt you, yet you have not asked a single question of me.”

“People like you,” says Ellen, taking up a smaller, stubbier knife. “You can’t help but explain everything, sooner or later.” She sets to shaving an ivory membrane from the backside of her cut. “Usually, sooner.”

“And what do you know of people like me?” says the woman on the other side of the counter. “Oh, Phillip, to be sure, and he knew you. But if I were ever to have asked him where it was you learned how to do that,” pointing to the board, the meat, the knives, “he’d say something about the six weeks you worked one frigid summer in a restaurant in Patagonia. But I know.” Leaning forward, her hoarsely rich voice lowering to a more intimate pitch. “It was a much hotter summer, and much earlier. The first time you ran away from home. You worked in Sutter Randolph’s pit. He called you Ginsu the entire time, and you never punched him once.”

Ellen sets the smaller blade aside, looks up, eyes dark, black hair spiky short. Sharp black curls of ink roil up from the open collar of her smock to shape branches that stretch up her throat to the point of her jaw, and intricately calligraphed leaves. “He was a mean old man,” she says, “and his hands were hard. I did work in Patagonia.”

“Of course,” says the woman on the other side of the counter. “The best lies are always true.” And then, “Phillip is dead.”

“I know,” says Ellen.

“The author of his demise sits comfortably in a house in the hills, eats well every day, sleeps soundly at night. How does that make you feel?”

“If you do not like it,” says Ellen, taking up the smaller blade again, “do something about it.”

The woman on the other side of the counter smiles. “Perhaps I am,” she says. Cocking her head, those corkscrews a-tremble. “Your ink is lovely,” she says. “So precise. I almost,” pointing, “recognize that bird,” the beak, the beady eyes, the subtle crest just poking from her foliage. “A fairy-flycatcher, isn’t it. Bit southerly, for Korea?”

“There are a few,” says Ellen.

“Well,” says the woman on the other side of the counter. She lays a card on top of the glass case, fnap. “Should you change your mind.” Turning away, she heads off, past more chilled display cases filled with rounds and stacks of meat, knotted ropes of sausage links and cutlets already breaded with crumbs and cheese, ready to fry, rubied pucks of steak, misshapen lozenges and irregular tubes of aged salumi, whitely dusted with mold, still wrapped in twine. Ellen lifts the card, small but stiff, an ostentatiously plain linen stock, and blank. Turns it over. Frances Upchurch, say slender, sans-serif letters. Beneath them, in the same font, a simple, ten-digit number.


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