Mount a Lofty Rostrum
Mount a Lofty Rostrum
Polydora lay on her back, staring up at the blue morning sky. The grass prickled at her neck, and a chilling thought struck her. She’d flopped down and hadn’t even considered grass-stains.
It was Sunday morning, and her aunt, Kelly, was already mad at her for begging off church. Grass-stains on her white dress would push Kelly past the breaking point.
Poly wasn’t sure why church was so special. As far as she knew, most of the kids at her school slept in on Sundays.
Kelly had told her a hundred times how she and Poly’s mom, Mel, had gone every Sunday when they were kids. That speech was interleaved with lectures on how Poly should be a good girl and not make the same mistakes her mother had.
Poly was left confused and, at that moment, very bored. She felt like her arms and legs were stuffed with saw-dust.
The park on Franklin Street was centrally located, downtown and near the temporary location of her aunt’s church. But it was more of a spot for business men to eat lunch than a place for children to play. And eleven was too old to play on a jungle-gym anyway.
She heard a tell-tale jingling and jumped up. A small rolled-tin cart pushed by a small Hispanic man was moving slowly down a jogging path a dozen yards away.
Poly ran for it, digging in her pockets as she went. The man saw her and slowed his pace, giving her a smile as she slid to a stop.
One dime, one nickle, nine pennies, and lint. Not enough for a Neapolitan-bar.
The man was still smiling at her, and she thought maybe he’d make her an exception. Before she could start begging a very purple Popsicle appeared in front of her face.
Grape was actually what her tongue had craved, but she hadn’t wanted the lecture Kelly would have given when she found her tongue purple; Poly was sure Kelly wouldn’t like the idea of her enjoying her Sunday morning.
Poly’s eyes tracked down from the Popsicle to an arm wrapped in an equally purple dress. There was an old woman holding it, waggling the Popsicle in front of her face. She looked a bit like Mrs. Davis, the librarian at Poly’s school, but this woman was holding a baby wrapped up in a gilded blanket; Mrs. Davis seemed to hate children.
“You looked like you wanted one,” the woman said, her eyes smiling behind thick glasses.
Poly knew she wasn’t supposed to take sweet things from strangers. It might be poisoned, or drugged. They might drug her and whisk her off to China where she’d spend the rest of her life making dumplings. But this woman didn’t seem like the type to poison children. She was holding a baby, a black baby, which, if anything, meant she must have been a nicer person.
It must have been her grandchild, and she must have been a kind old woman to understand her daughter’s mixed-race romance.
“I can eat it, if you aren’t interested,” the woman said.
“Thanks,” Poly said, and took it. She wasn’t sure what else to say, and the woman was still staring at her as she took a bite.
“My name’s Berylanne,” the woman said, waving one of the baby’s little arms at her. “This is Dumuzid.”
“Pory,” she said, her mouth full and her purple tongue frozen. “…Poly. Is that a boy’s name?”
“Yes. Dumuzid is the king of earth, and of heaven- You can kiss his foot if you want.” She unwrapped him from the gold brocade and held out his tiny foot.
Poly stared at her, and then at the baby’s little foot. She wiped the sticky purple from her lips. She didn’t understand, but it couldn’t cause any harm, so she did as she was told.
The baby gooed, staring at her with sweet brown eyes.
“Hi,” Poly said.
“He likes you,” Berylanne said.
“Is he your grandson?”
“So, I look that old?”
She did, to Poly anyway. But whether or not she looked that old, her aunt had once explained to her how the importance of age flipped upside down once you grew up.
“I meant son,” Poly said, and Berylanne chuckled.
“Oh.” That must have meant she was an even nicer person. “…Did you and your husband never have kids?”
“We… never married- Would you like to see something?” Berylanne said, taking Poly’s hand and dragging her along.
Poly waved to the ice-cream-cart man, and they started across the grass.
“What is it?” Poly asked.
“Has anyone ever told you bees die after they sting you?”
“…My aunt, she told me that,” Poly said.
They seemed to be headed for a small forest at the center of the park. Poly wondered if maybe Berylanne was a teacher, she seemed like it, and maybe she was going to give a nature lesson.
“It isn’t true, precisely…. Well, honey-bees do, but these are wasps, anyway.” Berylanne stopped in the middle of the little forest. She was looking up at the trunk of a tall pine and at a white lump of cotton-candy growing from the side of it.
“That’s a wasp-nest?” Poly asked. She didn’t really like lectures, but she was trying to be polite.
Berylanne raised the baby high over her head, maybe to give him a better look.
“Wait,” Poly said, but she was too late.
Dumuzid reached out one of his tiny hands, laying his palm on the nest. They came out all at once.
Poly thought wasps were supposed to be yellow, but these were black, a midnight-black cloud.
Dumuzid made a high-pitched squeal, and Berylanne cradled him again.
“W-why’d you do that?” Poly asked, as Berylanne swept a wasp from Dumuzid’s arm.
Poly watched Dumuzid cry, his eyes closed tight as his chocolate-milk skin turned crimson. Poly started crying too.
“Why’d you do that!?” Poly said again.
“Oh, Sweety, don’t cry,” Berylanne said, touching a cool hand to her cheek. “See, he’s all better.”
Dumuzid had stopped crying. Almost like it had never happened.
“This wasn’t what I meant to to show you,” Berylanne said. She took Poly’s hand again and they started out of the small forest.
“But, why’d you do that?”
“Do you know how allergies work?”
“…Not really?” Poly said.
“Imagine you’d never seen purple before,” Berylanne said, as they exited the little forest and started across the grass on the other side of the park.
Berylanne pointed at her very purple dress and stared at Poly like she was supposed to say something.
“…I guess, I might think it was amazing-”
“Maybe,” Berylanne said, “or maybe you’d scream and run away, or you might faint and fall over. But you have seen purple before, when you were really little, so it isn’t a surprise at all.”
“His vayu, body, has now met with the venom from that wasp, and, so, his body won’t be surprised when they meet again.”
“Like chicken-pox?” Poly asked.
They were walking across a big open field, mostly empty on that Sunday morning. There were a few older kids kicking a ball, and a father and son playing catch, but Berylanne seemed to be dragging her toward a group of people wrapped in very-bright orange.
“I wonder if it would work with heartbreak,” Berylanne said. She was staring up at the only dark cloud in the blue sky. Poly thought maybe she was talking to herself, but then she looked down at her. “What d’you think? Can you build up an immunity?”
“I don’t know,” Poly said.
They were headed for the people in orange, unless Berylanne planned to walk right through their group.
The orange people were sitting straight-backed on the grass, looking up at a small man sitting on a big box. He was tan, while most of the crowd was pasty white, but wrapped in the same orange and had a long white beard.
“That’s Baba Girish,” Berylanne said, pointing one of Dumuzid’s arms at the man on the tall box. “He’s ninty-seven years old.”
“Really?” Poly asked. Despite his white beard, he might have been younger than Berylanne. She wondered how old Berylanne was.
“He could be,” Berylanne said. “He is a master of great siddi, and has conquered all disease.”
“…Really?” Poly said. She thought maybe this might have been one of the cults her aunt had told her about, though Berylanne was wearing the wrong color.
“He once spent three months in a box, no bigger than a suit-case, and buried deep underground.”
“…Did he have anything to eat?” Poly asked. Her first question had actually been, where did he go to the bathroom, but she didn’t want to be rude.
Berylanne was staring at the old man now, as they slowly walked around the group of orange people.
Poly looked up at the odd black cloud in the sky. It was moving.
It seemed like the old man was speaking English, mostly, but the words didn’t fit together. Even if she couldn’t understand him, he spoke with a kind of rhythm.
Poly felt herself relax as she listened and felt almost like she might have understood what he was saying, though it was nothing she could have put into words.
“Be calm,” the man said.
Poly broke from her trance. The black cloud had descended.
“Be calm!” the old man said again, but he didn’t sound calm himself. He started to flap his arms and fell back off his box, landing flat in the grass.
There were gasps from the crowd, but Berylanne held up her hand, shushing them as she walked up to his side.
The man shrieked and started to flop on the ground, but the cloud of wasps seemed to have moved on.
“Is he okay?” Poly asked.
“I think he’s allergic- You see! He should have been stung when he was little.”
“…Yeah,” Poly said.
Berylanne handed Poly the baby before crouching at the man’s side.
Poly had never held a baby before; Kelly, her aunt, had been too nervous to let Poly hold her son when he was little. Staring down at Dumuzid’s little face, it felt like he had a stranglehold on her heart.
A loud smack made Poly look away. Berylanne was perched over the man and had just slapped his face.
“Get ahold of yourself,” she said.
“I- can’t- breath,” he said.
“He thinks he’s dying,” Berylanne said, looking up at Poly with a smile on her lips. “He’s not. At least not for another twenty minutes.”
While Poly was distracted, first by the baby and then by Berylanne, a crowd of people had gathered around them.
Berylanne drew an odd looking marker from her purse. It was white and orange, an appropriate orange for the crowd that surrounded them.
“This is an EpiPen,” Berylanne said, stabbing the marker at the old man’s arm, “a marvel of modern medicine. And that is Dumuzid the Shepherd.”
As the crowd knelt around the old man, Berylanne stood up again and took back the baby. She held Poly’s hand again and they started off.
“What was that?” Poly asked.
“You know how, when you get excited, your heart races. Your lungs absorb more oxygen, and your brain works faster. That’s all because your blood is flooded with adrenalin, or epinephrine, as the doctors like to call it. That’s what the Epi in EpiPen means.”
“I meant, what happened… there…?”
“Baba Girish was stung by a wasp, and a dose of adrenalin helps suppress the symptoms of anaphylaxis.”
“Oh,” Poly said. That was far from answering her question, but Poly had just noticed they were leaving the park.
They’d already reached the sidewalk and seemed to be waiting to cross a busy eight-lane street.
“Where are we going?”
“There,” Berylanne said, pointing across the street as they stepped into the crosswalk, “Abledon Consultancy.”
She was pointing at the ground floor of a huge mirrored tower. Among many colorful logos, Poly found the one for Abledon. The A was was stylized as a big red arrow, shooting up.
It didn’t look like much of a fun place, and definitely not like a place for little-girls. “Should we really go in?- I mean, do you have business to do, or something.”
“Something like that,” Berylanne said, leading her through the tall glass doors.
It was almost exactly as Poly had expected, big things, statues maybe, in wiggly shapes and made of glass. And there was a whole other floor above them, just hanging there from huge cables. And then there were the angry looking security guards Poly had been worried about.
Berylanne waved at them and smiled, almost as if she was supposed to be there.
“If you could sign in,” a man said from behind a long glass counter.
“You won’t find my name in any book,” Berylanne said.
That didn’t sound like an answer, or an excuse that would work, but they made it to an elevator without being shot.
Berylanne pushed a few buttons, and the elevator started moving.
“Does he have a mother?” Poly asked.
“The desk clerk?”
“Everyone has a mother,” Berylanne said. “But, since I’m sure that isn’t what you meant, yes. His mother used to live not far from here. She’s dead now.”
“…My mom died too.” The words had sprung from Poly’s mouth, and now she was worried it sounded whiny.
“Have you ever thought, rather, if you subscribe to dispensationalist Christian ideology…. The same people who talk about the end times and the good Christians being raised up whole into heaven, are the people who talk about us living in the glory of God’s perfect creation.”
“…I don’t really know much about that stuff,” Poly said, almost a lie, as she hadn’t understood enough of the words to say if she knew anything about the subject.
“I just meant, it could be, if this world is God’s perfection, maybe we’ve already been lifted up-”
“Are you saying we’re already dead?” Poly asked. The elevator binged and the doors slid open.
“Just that it’s a matter of perspective- Excuse me,” she said, grabbing the sleeve of a passing woman’s sharp shouldered suit. “Can you tell me where to find this man?”
Berylanne was pointing at a name printed on an envelope, but the woman, maybe an executive assistant, was staring at Berylanne’s very purple dress and then at the baby in her arms.
“Sylvan Blakely,” Berylanne said, pushing the envelope at her.
“In a meeting,” the woman said.
“In the executive meeting room?”
“And where can I find the executive meeting room?”
The woman pointed a red-painted nail, and Berylanne started off down the hall dragging Poly behind her.
“You know, maybe a little girl shouldn’t be thinking about things like that- I’m not saying you’re a little-girl. But you have a life left to live….”
“Are you saying, like that cat? My teacher told me about this cat that’s alive and dead, and alive again… when you look at it-”
“Something like that,” Berylanne said, but it sounded like the conversation was over.
Berylanne was staring through a broad window into a meeting room. She was staring at a man in a very nice suit. It was like he was cut with a sharp knife from shiny black paper.
“Is that Sylvan?” Poly asked.
“Yup. He’s a real mover and shaker, maybe that’s too old an idiom. He makes a lot of money.”
“He looks like it,” Poly said.
Poly hadn’t yet figured out what made boys attractive. She knew they were supposed to be. Whether she was attracted exactly, staring at him, his dark eyes and dimpled chin, the breath caught in her lungs.
“Can you take this to him?” Berylanne asked, handing her the envelope.
Sylvan seemed to be talking to the people sitting at a long table. He was pointing with a little laser at a board covered in a rainbow of jagged lines. The lines seemed to be headed up, and, even if they weren’t, the people seated at the table seemed to be happy about whatever he was saying.
“Isn’t he busy?” Poly asked.
“This is important news.”
Berylanne held the door for her and Poly slipped in.
In the brief moment as she’d passed through the door, she’d made a plan. She was going to enter quietly, walk up to the handsome rich man, and hand him the envelope without even being noticed.
She was already terribly off-plan. The whole table of movers and shakers were turned toward her and staring at her with down-turned eyebrows.
Poly’s knees started to shake. She started to fall forward but took one step and then another. She stopped, steadying herself with a hand on Sylvan’s slacks.
He looked down at her with his dark eyes, and she handed him the envelope.
“For me,” he asked. He first gave her a smile and then turned it toward the table.
He even opened the envelope with style, a clean slide of his finger. She watched as his eyes skimmed. He started to read faster. His eyes bounced back and forth. By the time he’d reached the bottom, his eyes were filled with tears.
Sylvan glared down at her, and Poly fell back, landing flat on the floor. She tried to stand, but she stumbled and crawled out of the meeting room on her hands and knees.
She finally stood up again in the hall. As she looked back through the door, half of the men at the long table were staring with pale faces at Sylvan, now on his knees with tears rolling down his cheeks. The other half were glaring at Poly like they wanted blood.
Berylanne leaned into the room, holding the baby up high. “This is Dumuzid the Shepherd,” she said. “Time to go.” She grabbed Poly’s hand again.
The security guards finally caught up to them, but only when they were back in the elevator with the doors closing.
“What was that?” Poly asked, as they started their descent.
“I think you delivered some bad news, probably.”
“…What kind of news?” Poly asked. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. She’d never seen a man crying before and felt like crying herself.
“You know, some people, when they get old, go off to live in a place with lots of other old people.”
“An old folk’s home?”
“That’s where Sylvan sent his mother.”
“Oh,” Poly said. She replayed their conversation in her head. She was sure Berylanne must have just given her an explanation, but it didn’t seem so.
“She died, last week,” Berylanne said.
“Yeah. He was probably dodging their calls- When he got calls from the home, so they had to send a letter. I wanted to make sure he got the news in time for the funeral.”
The elevator binged and the doors opened again.
“Hello,” Berylanne said, smiling at the security guards waiting for them.
Rather than opening fire, the guards just walked them to the door and continued to glare at them from the exit as they walked down the block.
Poly was trying to decide the most polite way she could say bye. Lying on the grass had been boring, but less harrowing.
“Your aunt goes to The Revealed Word, right?” Berylanne asked.
“Yeah,” Poly said, realizing a moment later that wasn’t information she’d shared. “How’d you-”
“I knew your mother,” Berylanne said.
“Oh.” That made a lot more sense. Normal adults didn’t usually drag kids along on their business.
“They’ll be letting out soon,” Berylanne said. “You wanna go wait for her?”
“…Okay,” Poly said.
They crossed the busy street again, and made their way back across the park. The orange-wrapped people had cleared off and there were no wasps in sight.
The ice-cream-cart was passing back along the jogging path, headed the other way. The small man waved at them.
They crossed Franklin Street, another wide thoroughfare. They were headed for the Hilton. Of the many towers that surrounded the park, it was the only one built from red brick.
The first time Poly had seen it, she’d thought it looked like a castle, but having spent a number of Sunday mornings in the park, staring across the street and waiting for her aunt to finish, she’d developed an illogical hatred for the place.
“It’s in there, right?” Berylanne asked, though she clearly knew.
A man dressed in red wool held the tall door for them. Poly felt cold air hit her like they were walking into a freezer. It made her think of just how cold Berylanne’s hand was. Not clammy, but ice cold.
“Look at that,” Berylanne said. “They have a toy-store.”
They did. It was like they’d walked into a tiny mall. Poly hadn’t stepped inside before, afraid that getting too close she would be dragged along to the sermon. She’d been expecting pebbled walls and press-board. But she realized she’d only ever been to a motel; maybe all hotels were like this.
They left the mall behind, and now it was all restaurants. The smell of cheese-burgers and the fancy odors from a place with a name she couldn’t pronounce merged with the scent of floor cleaner, mingling into something extremely unappetizing. She was glad when the restaurants were behind them.
They passed through a big gilded arch into a long hall, red-carpeted and lined with pillars like a royal palace.
There was a bing. Poly tore her eyes away from the gold mirrored ceiling.
The old man from the park, Baba Girish, was stepping into an open elevator. He had a swollen face like a rotten jack o’ lantern, but he seemed to be breathing alright. The doors closed behind him, and Berylanne didn’t seem to notice he was there.
“Here it is,” Berylanne said.
There was a small sign standing next to a tall wooden door, blue magic marker reading The Revealed Word.
“We can wait here,” she said, and dragged Poly over to a bench.
They sat next to a woman Poly vaguely recognized. She had big blond hair, oddly wasp’s-nest-like. She was wearing a fuzzy green dress like a long tight sweater and had a cigarette in a gilded holder.
“Hi,” Berylanne said.
Poly remembered she’d seen this woman talking to her aunt, back at The Revealed Word’s old location, before the renovations had begun.
“Hi there,” the woman said, smoke wafting through her white teeth. “You can go right on in.”
“I love your shoes,” Berylanne said.
Poly hadn’t noticed them. High high-heels in jade-green.
“Well, thank you,” the woman said. “They’re my favorite. And what a lovely little baby.”
“Thank you- Ah!” Berylanne said, and started digging in her purse. “I just remembered.” She stopped rummaging, and her hand came back out holding something shiny.
Berylanne held it up to the woman’s breast. It was a broach, a paisley maybe, or maybe just a leaf, but very green and glittery.
“There,” Berylanne said, pinning it to the woman’s dress.
“That is lovely. Where’d you find it?” the woman asked.
Berylanne leaned in, covering her lips with her fingers. “A flea market,” she whispered. “It doesn’t really fit with anything I wear.”
“Are you giving it to me?” the woman asked, her tone as if she might dash off if Berylanne said no.
“It seems like the Christian thing to do. And he actually picked it out of the box,” Berylanne said, smiling and bouncing Dumuzid in her arms. “He’s bored with it now.”
“Of course. It’s a gift. The bobble and everything that comes with it,” Berylanne said.
Poly was very aware of Berylanne’s foreboding words, but the woman just smiled shiny red lips.
“Thanks so much. I love it,” she said, hopping up from the bench, and stubbing her cigarette in a golden ashtray. “I’m gonna catch the end of Chip’s sermon.”
The woman slinked back to the tall wooden door. She slipped through, but gave Berylanne another smile before closing the door behind her.
“She seemed like, she really liked it,” Poly said, and Berylanne nodded.
“I was thinking, maybe we should see what all the hubbub’s about. This Chip Emmerson guy sounds pretty interesting.”
“He’s not that interesting,” Poly said. More like deadly-boring.
“All the same,” Berylanne said, standing up from the bench and dragging Poly along again.
This was the first time Poly considered struggling free from her cold grip, but they were already through the tall door by the time she’d made up her mind.
The convention hall was a little smaller than the church on the outskirts of town, but still huge. Chip’s voice boomed from the speakers in the walls. There were thousands of people wearing their Sunday best and no empty seats in sight.
Berylanne dragged her straight down the center aisle. Poly tried to hide in Berylanne’s shadow. If her aunt caught her there she was sure something bad would happen.
They walked straight up to the front row, and Berylanne paused for a moment, standing right at the front of the stage.
Chip Emmerson was a dozen yards from them, speaking into a mic. He wore a suit in robin’s egg blue, and his hair was quaffed like cast rubber. His perfect white teeth were at least a foot tall on the huge projection screen behind him.
Poly’s arm jerked and Berylanne was dragging her again. There were two empty seats, and Berylanne sat them down.
Poly spent the first minute in her seat waiting for her heart-rate to slow. She’d never thought about it before, but maybe she hated crowds. She remembered a spelling-bee from a couple of weeks before. It hadn’t been the pressure, or the dread of eventual failure, or even the people staring at her, because she’d felt just as awful when it hadn’t been her turn. It was just the people, so many of them.
She tried listening to the sermon, thinking it might take her mind off it. Chip’s sweeping hand motions were perfect, as were his very white teeth, but he was preaching the merits of a Christian household, fidelity, honoring your husband, and the like. Poly came from a very broken home, having been born out of wedlock and raised by an aunt who’d been divorced twice in her short life.
Poly looked up at Berylanne, wondering if she was as bored as she was, but Berylanne wasn’t looking at Chip. She was staring down the front row at the woman from the hall, or she might have been staring at the woman sitting next to her, Mrs. Emmerson, Chip’s slightly round, very pink, and slightly unpleasant wife.
Mrs. Emmerson was staring up at Chip on the stage, but it didn’t look like she was listening to the sermon either. She was glaring at him like her stare could light his blue suit on fire.
Poly turned back to the preacher. He seemed at first to be looking down at his wife, but maybe he was staring at the woman from the hall and the glittering green broach on her breast.
Poly looked up at Berylanne and saw a smile creeping onto her lips.
“This whore!?” Mrs. Emmerson screamed, jumping to her feet as the sermon suddenly ground to a halt. She turned back to the woman and dove at her, but the woman was faster.
She stood up quickly, dodging Mrs. Emmerson who landed sprawled out on her seat. The woman’s high-heels failed her. She fell to the floor and started to scrabble away with Mrs. Emmerson chasing after her.
“Wait, Sweety,” Chip said. “I didn’t!”
He left the mic behind, jumping down from the stage. An alarm sounded, a deafening screech, as Mrs Emmerson followed the woman out an emergency exit with Chip running after them.
Poly wondered if this had been the plan, because it seemed Berylanne had to have planned ahead to instigate this kind of chaos. She turned back to her, but Berylanne was missing.
She turned in her seat, hunting for her. She saw a hundred confused angry faces in the crowd, and her heart returned to racing until she spotted Berylanne climbing the stairs a few yards away.
Berylanne walked across the stage, stopping in front of the mic. Dumuzid’s goos were ear shattering, and his smiling face was twenty feet tall on the huge screen behind them. “This is Dumuzid the Shepherd,” she said, her voice adding to the racket from the fire-alarm.
Berylanne nodded, her work well-done, and looked down at Poly. She waved one of Dumuzid’s little arms at her and smiled before disappearing into the the darkness at the back of the stage.
Poly noticed a new din rising around her, angry voices slipping past the blaring fire-alarm. The audience started to stand from their seats.
Poly wanted to get out of there as fast as possible, but that seemed like a difficult order.
By the time she’d made it back to the aisle she saw the pile of people forming at the exit.
There was a hand on her shoulder, and Poly jumped, spinning in place. “Poly,” Kelly said.
Her aunt was wearing a white dress, a larger version of Poly’s, and had her little son’s hand in hers.
“I… thought I’d catch the end of the sermon,” Poly said.
“I’m glad,” Kelly said, quickly adding, “It isn’t usually like this.”