Angie was hosting a small tea party in her extremely pink bedroom. She’d been planning this event for a week and had prepared a unique blend of herbs for her pair of guests, fit to their unrefined tastes.
“Did you hear, Mikey’s dad bought a new TV?” Heather asked.
Angie had been to Heather’s house, and it seemed she had a TV in every room, so Angie wasn’t sure if she was supposed to act impressed.
Heather was as white as a table cloth and from old money. Angie liked to think she had ancestors in the Sagas, but even if that was fantasy, she was still very Caucasian.
“Did you see the cap he was wearing? It was really blue, and he was really cute,” Joy said. Big white teeth, pink gums, lips spread, smiling.
Joy was tall, not even lanky, she could have passed for twelve, while people always thought Angie was younger than her age. Joy was a real black-girl, with more Africa in her than the smidgen Angie had.
Angie noticed the conversation had stilled. She thought this might have been one of those moments when she was expected to speak. She placed her teacup back on its saucer, and was trying to think of a positive Mikey-related comment when she saw Heather’s lips pouting like an ideogram for preadolescent anger.
“I mean… the cap was really blue- I didn’t….” Joy looked like she was about to cry.
“She meant, he was cute objectively,” Angie said. Pouting and tears quickly changed to dumb silence.
Angie had never really cared for Mikey, but those two seemed to have been playing a strange game since third grade. Neither of them had even spoken to him, as far as Angie had witnessed; actually talking to him, as Angie had, would probably have put an end to it.
“Have you thought about… marrying him?” Joy asked, veering their conversation into the safety of imagination. “Mikey, I mean, he’d get down on one knee-”
“And he’d have a ring- You know his dad owns a mine?” Heather asked, her powder-white cheeks blushing.
They seemed to have returned to pleasant banter; Angie felt she’d done her job as a hostess.
“Do you think he mines diamonds?” Joy asked, her eyes sparkling.
“Probably,” Heather said, but, Angie knew for a fact, Mikey’s father owned a piece of a tin and copper mine.
“Has it ever seemed strange to you…?” Angie realized it was the wrong audience for her question, but, having started, stopping would have seemed stranger, and the girls’ eyes were on her now. “Isn’t it strange, given our selfish genes, and living in a time of abundance, that mothers don’t have more children? It must be instinct lagging behind technological progress.”
“…How many babies do you want?” Joy asked. She seemed to be imagining Angie with a brood at her feet.
“That’s gross,” Heather said, possibly imaging the same thing. “Like… five babies, max.”
“I was speaking in the abstract,” Angie said. “I find spirituality naturally antithetical to the idea of motherhood.”
“…Anti…. I’m a Christian too, Angie,” Heather said. She seemed to be feigning insult, probably because it was easier than admitting confusion.
“Yeah,” Joy said, getting angry as soon as she’d figured out she was supposed to be.
“Of course,” Angie said. They might have been Christian, by some definition, but that was like calling a man General because his grandfather had led troops.
There was a knock at the door. Not the door to her very pink bedroom, but the front door to Angie’s apartment.
“That could be my mother,” Angie said, and the girls nodded with strained smiles.
It was very unlikely to actually be her mother, she would be at work until late and, regardless, lived in the apartment across the hall, but Angie needed a break, as, she suspected, did the other girls.
Angie stepped out of her pink bedroom, and into the Japanese-style minimalism of her stepfather’s apartment.
Johnathan, her step-dad, stood at the front door, looking confused and slightly frightened. He was taller than most men, but his willowy frame and square glasses made him look like a pushover, and he was.
“What is this about?” he asked, as Angie sidled up behind him.
There was a woman standing in the red tiled hall. She was gray haired, and wearing a bright blue sari as if she waitressed at an Indian place, but she was white, and looked more like a librarian than a waitress.
“My name is Elisabeth. I work for the Trismegistus School for the Gifted-”
“She is my guest, Father,” Angie said.
Angie had never spoken to the woman before, the name of that school sounded made up, and her stepfather might have argued the point, but Angie rarely called him Father. It acted as a word of power, and, if used with sufficient infrequency, it always won her way.
“…Are you thinking about changing schools?” Johnathan asked. He taught sociology at Angie’s elementary school, though she had purposefully avoided taking his class.
“No,” Angie said. They often ate lunch together, and, despite the fact that she would never speak the words, it was one of the few things in her life she valued. “Miss Elisabeth called a few days ago. She, I’m sure, wants to recruit me. I felt having a conversation was only polite.”
“…Okay,” he said, stepping away from the door as Elisabeth stepped through.
“This way,” Angie said, taking Elisabeth by the hand and leading her back to the bedroom.
Joy and Heather sat up straight when they entered, as if Elisabeth was actually a teacher. They’d probably been discussing something overly graphic for ten-year-olds.
“This is Elisabeth,” Angie said, and Elisabeth made a small wave. “This is Joy, and Heather, my friends from school. I was hosting a tea party.”
“I see,” Elisabeth said. “I’m sorry for interrupting.”
“Of course not,” Angie said, pulling out a small chair at the small table. “I have a very fresh chamomile, or do you have tests to grade before tomorrow?”
“Tests… no,” Elisabeth said, smiling and taking her seat. Joy and Heather moved closer together on the other side of the table.
“Is she your friend?” Joy whispered, as Angie began filling a tea-ball with sun-dried flower-petals.
“No,” she said. “I think we may be on opposite sides of things.”
“…She’s an atheist?” Heather whispered. “…Or she doesn’t like math?”
“It’s true I never liked mathematics,” Elisabeth said, “but my schooldays are long behind me.”
Angie was five when she first understood death, or came to the common understanding. Her mother was her only blood relative, but her step-grandmother had died and Angie had gone to the funeral.
Every living person was different, unique unto themselves, but very similar to each other. The dead were the same, similar as one apple was to another, but different from the living. Elisabeth was similar to neither.
“Am I correct, you are mother to Dumuzid the Shepherd?” Angie asked. She’d suspected from the moment she saw her.
“Yes,” Elisabeth said, smiling sweetly. It was then Angie realized how uncanny a sneer she’d carried until that moment. “He’s home with Berylanne.”
“And you act as shamanic guide to Our Lady?” Angie asked.
“I doubt Abernathy would like that description.”
“She doesn’t require your guidance,” Angie said.
“Nor your interference.”
“Maybe… we should go home,” Joy said.
“We were going to play Monopoly,” Angie said. It was a game she always won, and her favorite.
“But you always win,” Heather said.
“…It seems you’ve ruined my day. Why are you here, Elisabeth?”
“I came to confirm your plans,” Elisabeth said, taking a sip of her tea. It was some of Angie’s best stock, so the brightness in Elisabeth’s eyes wasn’t surprising.
“I don’t remember having made plans,” Angie said.
“I see,” she said, standing up from her tiny seat. “That was very fine tea. You’ll have to try mine next time.”
Angie stood up as well, but Elisabeth held up a hand. “I can find my way back.”
It took a moment, but as they heard the front door close the other girls relaxed in their seats, and Angie returned to the one thought that never left her mind. To call it a plan was an insult. But Elisabeth’s visit was unexpected. Her plan required revision.
“How about snakes and ladders?” Angie asked.
“Life!” Joy said, and Heather nodded.
Angie knew they would each secretly name the little blue piece Mikey, and smiled in a way that didn’t reach her lips. “Alright,” she said.
She always won that game too, but it never felt as satisfying.
Berylanne was white with gray hair that looked like it had been brown once. She wore a green dress, slightly more forest than OD and was holding a little black boy, a baby, maybe a year old; he seemed to have grown since Abi had seen him last.
Abernathy was sharing a couch with her, having dropped by ostensibly for tea. Abi’s impression when they’d first met had been librarian.
“Have you talked to Tom about this?” Berylanne asked.
Despite the work Berylanne did, as a spirit medium, librarian was still the aura she projected, but Abi had recently come to believe her matronly dresses and frontier-blouses were as much camouflage as the camo Abi herself wore for work. And Berylanne’s camouflage traveled all the way up to the caring smile on her lips.
“I haven’t,” Abi said. “Tom drinks, and he’s like my pastor-”
“I thought you were catholic.” Berylanne said, while wiggling a finger in front of the baby’s face, watching as his eyes followed.
“So was Tom. I can call him a minister if it makes you feel better.”
There was an odd squeak. Abi looked at the baby, Dumuzid, but, although his eyes were now staring at her, he was staring at her quietly. There was another squeak, and Abi turned to the girls.
They were sitting on the floor in the far corner of the living room. Tinatini and Ketevan, bleach blonds from behind the iron curtain, were passed out in a lump, but Wendy, a black girl from Ohio, was sitting straight-backed with her eyes wide open. Her jaw was hanging slack and she was squeaking like she had a mouse stuck in her throat.
They’d drunk the tea Berylanne had served them, while Abi’s cup sat, still full and getting cold on the coffee-table.
“That might be the voice of her guide,” Berylanne said.
“You think?” Abi asked.
“No. It seemed like you wanted to talk, so I gave them some of our recreational stock. They call it the Eight Toed Frog. It doesn’t do much for me.”
“Is that what’s in my cup?”
“No. Chamomile,” Berylanne said. “You seem stressed.”
“…I beat a guy,” Abi said.
“…Like you usually do?”
“No. I mean, mostly, but I… I was…. It was like I was asleep, and then I woke up with him under me….”
“No,” Abi said, slowly shaking her head until she noticed the slight curl in Berylanne’s lip. “There was so much blood, I couldn’t tell if he was black or white…. I had to check his hands- I don’t know if he did anything wrong or just pissed me off-”
“That is the same thing, Abernathy.”
“I’m not sure he lived- I took him to the hospital.”
“So, you were drunk and hurt somebody?”
“Yeah,” Abi said.
“…I think Tom drinks for his stomach’s sake- He doesn’t strike me as judgmental. Did you come here to talk to Elisabeth? She should be home soon.”
“I just wanted to talk to somebody…. I guess I feel better now.”
Berylanne put a hand on Abi’s knee. Abi was wearing a pair of Levis, but Berylanne’s hand was still cold.
“I wasn’t sure if I should say, because your guilt might be a positive motivator, but, do you read the papers?”
“Not much, lately,” Abi said.
A couple of weeks before, she’d picked up a copy of The Peoples Voice and found an article about herself, a POV piece that was supposed to be coming out in installments. The reporter, Tobie Sanders, claimed to have spent an evening with her. She remembered snippets, but only after the paper had reminded her. The whole thing made her a little sick, and she’d avoided the papers since.
“So, when did you wake up beating the hell out of this guy?” Berylanne asked.
“…Sunday, I think.”
“Then I get to tell my story…. In a deep dark forest there dwelt a monster-”
“I thought this was from the paper,” Abi said. She wasn’t in the mood.
“I thought I could make it more interesting…. Anyway, there’s this girl, she’d just finished Jazzercising and was on the way home to her apartment when this guy dragged her into an alley-”
“You’re telling me that’s the guy I half-killed?” Abi asked.
“I’m getting there…. Anyway,” she said, covering the baby’s ears with her palms. “He raped her. And when he was done he beat her head into the asphalt.”
“Sounds like a shit.”
“Yes. So the girl was in a coma, at St. Ignatius Central. She was in the coma ward until a couple of days ago, when she woke up, crawled out of bed, and straddled the guy in the bed next to her. The nurses came in and found her strangling the guy-”
“So you’re telling me they put her in the bed next to the guy who raped her?”
“Yeah, she knew him by the tattoos on his arms, and this guy, a couple of orderlies saw you dropping him off at the curb. On Sunday.”
“I guess that makes it okay then, and maybe I remember hunting that guy- Did he drive over a girl’s leg with his Challenger?”
“…I don’t know- But it gets better. That girl, being of African origins, could easily have gone up for attempted murder, but the guy had a tattoo reading this is my gun, with an arrow pointing at his thingy. And she remembered.”
“That’s not as original as you might think-”
“When the nurses pulled her off he wasn’t breathing. They had to shock him back. The nurses had strapped the girl back into bed. So, the guy, his heart doesn’t just start back up, he wakes up too. He looks around and his eyes land on the girl, and he says, ‘I thought I killed you, Bitch.’ Great, right?” Berylanne said, giggling and finally removing her hands from the baby’s ears.
“Yeah,” Abi said, “that’s something.”
Pashtana was crouched low, the brown leather of her boots straining, as her tongue lapped at the water dribbling from a steel spigot. Olena was sitting nearby with her back against the colorful stripe-and-polka-dot siding of a small house, watching Tanya as she drank.
“Is it cool?” Olena asked, not thirsty, but hoping to make conversation. Tanya had only come to town two days before and their conversations since had been procedural.
“Yes, but it tastes like rust.”
“They sell water in bottles here….”
“Spring water?” Tanya asked. The sky was gray, but Olena remembered the hot sun in Baghlan and the way it made Tanya’s caramel skin glow.
“Spring water, yes. But with no bubbles. I believe their corporations may be bottling ground water.”
“It probably tastes better than this, though,” Tanya said, there was a slight smile on her lips as she took a seat next to her.
A car was coming. Olena had been trying to memorize the makes and models of American cars, thinking it might be useful. Her new work was simpler than what the GRU had asked of her, and she had yet to make use of her newly acquired knowledge, but this approaching car appeared to be a mud-brown 1963 Rambler Classic.
The brakes squealed as it slowed, and Tanya made a noise with her tongue on the roof of her mouth, a little tut-tut to tell Olena, incoming, in case she’d been daydreaming.
The Rambler pulled into the driveway and the pair stood up.
An older woman hopped out, and took three tries, slamming the Rambler’s door before it took. “Lemme guess,” she said. “Olena… and Pashtana, was it?”
“Yes,” Olena said, abandoning the Russian with which she was most comfortable. She put a hand on Tanya’s back, drummed her fingers, and then tapped once with her index. Tanya was about to pull her pistol, and that was the signal to stand down.
This woman was named Elisabeth. Olena had met Berylanne before and liked to think of her as an ally. Elisabeth seemed to be Berylanne’s business partner, so Olena hoped not to make her an enemy.
“Our lady is inside,” Olena said.
“…Is my house too stuffy for you?”
“No.” Olena said. She hadn’t gone in, so she couldn’t comment. “Our Lady seemed to want privacy. We are standing guard.”
“Oh!” Elisabeth said, raising her palms with a smile. “Am I allowed to pass?”
Tanya drew her pistol, and Olena was about to take it from her until she followed her line of sight.
In 1978, Olena and Pashtana had been given training duty, the kind of work typically assigned to the old or crippled, but those circumstances hadn’t been typical.
They were tasked with training a group of Vietnamese village girls in jungle warfare. The PRK was readying for its invasion of Cambodia and they couldn’t just have their war, they needed pageantry.
Those village girls represented the worker, and the irrelevance of gender, while Olena and Tanya had represented the PRK’s close ties with the Soviets, and possibly racial-egalitarianism, given Tanya’s Afghan blood.
On the final day of training, the girls were split into two groups, each with a chosen commander and Olena or Tanya acting as adviser.
The middle of summer in Vietnam was sweltering, and Olena’s focus had been imperfect, but the creature she met that day hadn’t made a sound.
One of those girls had told her about the mountain village she came from, and how her grandmother still worshiped the tigers as gods. Olena was sure the surrounding villages must have seen them as demons.
Olena couldn’t remember fur or stripes, though she was sure the creature had possessed them both, all she could remember was its eyes, golden and staring into her.
In front of Elisabeth’s house, standing in the street, was a little black girl in an extremely pink dress, and Tanya was aiming a pistol at her. Tanya hadn’t been with Olena when she met that tiger-god, but this girl was just as disconcerting.
“Should I kill her?” Tanya asked.
“That might be easier for everyone,” Elisabeth said.
Olena thought of her lady, Miss Abernathy, and how angry she would be if they killed a little girl in a pink dress, realizing late that Elisabeth seemed to speak Russian.
“I was thinking,” the little girl said. “There’s no reason we can’t be friends, for a while at least.”
“I agree,” Elisabeth said. “Would you like a ride home- How did you get here, anyway?”
“Three lines and a short walk,” the girl said, climbing into the passenger side of the Rambler.
“It was nice meeting you,” Elisabeth said through the car window as she pulled out of the driveway.
“Was that Elisabeth?” Berylanne asked stepping out of the house as the Rambler sped off and Tanya finally put away her pistol.
“Yes,” Olena said. “She is driving a small girl home.”
“We were not introduced,” Olena said.
“She was a very odd little girl,” Tanya said; from Berylanne’s confused look, it didn’t seem she spoke Russian.
“The girls are passed out,” Abernathy said, stepping out onto the stoop. She was almost smiling, if not smiling, at least looking happier than she had in days. “No, wait,” Abi said, turning back. “Now they’re vomiting.”