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a short story

by Ursula Pflug

A day at the edge of spring. Faith, Magnolia and Jim sit in the bar, looking out at the square. The unlikely New Orleans snow is melting, making puddles on the asphalt, for the wind that blows is warm. Clouds scud across the sky; the pavement's alternately light and dark. People stand about in the square, wearing opened jackets, the way they do in later spring up north in New York. It's really too cool still but they do it anyway; the feeling of an open jacket is so new. They smoke cigarettes and pass coffee in Styrofoam cups back and forth. Faith loves Styrofoam cups, even though she knows they're terrible. Grade eight, her first take-out coffees from the corner restaurant, with french fries and a smoke that did for lunch. No wonder she had trouble concentrating in class in the afternoons.

Why did she choose such a lunch? Soon enough she couldn't do without them, the coffee and the cigarettes, although not the fries; the fries didn't stick. What happened is she imagined for herself a life of adventure, of travel, mostly; pieced together out of things she'd read in books and seen on television, in movies: soon enough she'd replaced it with a real, true one. That is why the coffee and fries for lunch in Grade Eight; it was the first step out onto the road that was to consume her for the next decade.

In Grade Nine she made a friend, Magnolia, whom she could admire, which was difficult enough; Faith hardly admired anyone. Even then they talked about going to New Orleans together; instead, when they were old enough they went to live in New York, where they met Clive. Like an arrow shot out of destiny's sleeve it turned out he was from New Orleans. He invited them down for a visit; they could stay with him, meet his best friend Jim.

Suddenly, they were here. And lovers. They're both lovers of Clive's, but Faith is lovers with Jim too. Nobody minds any of it. Clive is a musician, a bass player and singer in an eclectic arty band. More importantly, he's real. Jim's real too: he's skinny and wears a goatee and his long blonde hair tied back with a piece of string. While Faith is in New Orleans, for three weeks, she, like Clive, is black. It is only later she learns this is impossible.

On one side of the square there's a high chain link fence like the kind surrounding home plate in a baseball diamond, that kids like to practice their climbing skills on. The first time you climb to the very top, Faith remembers, you get to jump a level in the game. The exhilaration lasts all day, and everyone treats you differently. Clive, who lives down the street, sometimes climbs the fence to get to the café. He does it, he says, to burn off the calories he consumes sitting and drinking beer in the afternoons. He is very vain of his good looks.

In the bar facing the square there's a makeshift, end of the world feeling. People mill about as though it was the last day on Earth, as though there are no longer any jobs to go to, as though, at last, they can do anything they like. They speak to one another, surprised, their eyes opened wide, as though they have just woken up. In the puddles at their feet the ice is melting. Faith brims with gratitude to be here, among these so miraculously waking people, opening as they are like flowers; this transformation that is objectively invisible, yet easily felt. It's in their eyes, and their mouths: mouths held partly opened as though they are expecting something wonderful, at any moment, to fly in. Today Faith enlarges this metaphor she's been shaping in her mind for days: the last day of the world isn't an event in time at all. Like Jim's eternity, like The Kingdom of God, it always exists. Within, at hand. She wonders what comes next, but not for long: just now she wants to stay in this moment which is always available but so rarely experienced; soaking it up, sponge-like. She knows she needs to soak in as much of it as possible, that she will be needing it later.

A man comes to the window of an apartment in one of the buildings opposite the square and looks down at the wakened people. He looks down, and then goes back into his apartment and shuts the curtains. Faith sits at the cafe table she shares every afternoon with Clive and Jim and Magnolia and watches, wondering what he will do. She counts the moments it would take him to leave his apartment, walk down the hall, and take the elevator down. In her mind's eye Faith sees him doing it. He comes to the cafe table, a tall pink drink in his hand. He drinks. "Hello," he says, beaming widely at all four of them. "My name's Perry." But Faith knows he is really a condor.

The condor flaps his great black wings and tells the women he's glad they've come to New Orleans, and invites them out dancing. Clive says he will come too, but Jim has something to do, as usual. They go to a little club up a wrought iron stairway like a fire escape, called, somewhat cornily, "Moondance." The rosy lighting spills out the opened doors onto the street, and the moon hangs in the trees as though it's been cut out of sheet metal, a brooch. "I'd like to take that pin down and give it to you," says Magnolia, kissing Faith. Faith feels a sudden intense love for her friend, a deep love coloured by sexuality, but a different sexuality than she has ever felt for a man. She feels the passion will come up to her mouth and spill over. It does, a coloured tide cresting within her, pouring through not just her mouth but all of her, as though she is a vase made of holes. It's terribly embarrassing; she's sure her feelings are as visible to others as they're overwhelming to herself, visible as pictures projected on a wall, as though to have so much love for a woman is somehow shameful. Her laughter feels like tears, and her tears like laughter. Clive and Magnolia cluster around her like butterflies, and very gently wipe the liquid emotion from her face with the long tails of their shirts.

They take her back outside, down the fire escape, hoping she won't feel so claustrophobic away from the visible puddled brightness of her spilled insides, but it's not much better. The street seems suddenly terribly bright; so many bright faces, such very bright faces of strangers. Rushing past, they all turn to look at her. Still she feels as though she's melting, a silver puddle running down the street in which the faces of the people and the buildings and the tree with the moon caught in it are all reflected.

Clive and Magnolia don't know what to do with her; Perry himself has disappeared, finding someone less fragile to hang with. Faith's friends love her and share the fear she'll dissolve and run down into the gutter and disappear. It's only then Faith realizes they're back at the square, leaning against the chain link fence that surrounds it on two sides. A man stands on the other side, looking through the links at them. Only now does Faith see it's Jim. The moon reflects in the puddles on the sidewalk. Jim walks around the fence and picks the moon out of the reflection and gives it to her. "See what I have for you," he says.

"You took that out of me," she says.

"But the puddle belongs to everyone, with the magic reflection of street lamps and signs in it, showing the way. It isn't you; you just flowed into it for awhile," he says, able to help her where Clive and Magnolia couldn't. And so she learns where she stops and the puddle begins, but it doesn't happen right away.

Faith wants to cross the street to their bar, to sit somewhere familiar and comfortable where she can gather herself together. She puts the moon on the table. Big as a dinner plate, it shines faintly of blue metal. She makes a pin for it out of a fork, and uses it to keep her big black wool cloak pinned shut. On her chest she wears a brooch, big as a dinner plate, the moon-mirror of the world.

With her moon pin on she's strong again; the four return to the rosy "Moondance," which it turns out is also someone's home. Passing through the first room which has a dance floor and a DJ like any club they enter a living-room with couches and coffee tables. This room too is occupied by club patrons but, farther back still, they find an unoccupied bedroom and library, and lastly a kitchen. It is like following the passage of time from night to day, from the dream-state of revelry to the exterior onion layer of daylight domesticity; in the kitchen a tired looking woman stands at the sink, wearing a bathrobe and brushing her teeth. She looks annoyed yet doesn't speak; they quickly return to the dance room, with its mysterious rose coloured light, dense with secret desires, fallen moons, night.

At night everything tinkles and swishes; the nights are a world of sound. On her chest Faith wears a light, big as a dinner plate; it is this light which allows her to go anywhere the condor shows her. Wearing her moon pin she becomes like the condor, isn't afraid of him like she was at first. The condor takes them out, each night a different club. In Faith he has found an equal, which is what he needs. Clive and Magnolia always come along; Perry knows if he wants Faith's company he'll have to invite her friends as well or she won't come at all. Jim doesn't like Perry and never joins them.

The effect of the light from the brooch is what makes the watery sound of laughter in the alleyways, among the beaded curtains and bells, especially in the music. Even the draperies and couches contain amplified sound in her moon pin's presence: the hiss of released air when one sinks into their brocade squishiness, plush and embracing as women; the swish of velvet drapes one hears so distinctly set apart from the music. Faith opens the curtain; it looks out on the brick wall of an air shaft. Far across the room, she distinguishes Perry's voice from all the others. He is talking about them, saying, "...these two Canadian girls who really like to party..." but she doesn't take it badly, doesn't hold it against him.

Bolstered, she is liquid now both within and without, a liquid that is water and fire simultaneously. Because of it she can go anywhere, seeing exactly what is required, even unafraid. She can even look into the eye of the old old serpent and say, "No, you may not have my soul. But I have friends. Although you may not have their souls either. But we can dance, all of us, together." She knows he is coming, about to enter her life--she senses his presence very close by. For in the next night's club there is a chandelier on the ceiling made of pieces of cut glass, or perhaps crystal, and the light from her moon reflects off them and bounces little slivers of light all over the dark walls of the room. The serpent uncoils his huge coils, just incredibly huge, just a little bit on the couch where he is seated, to look at her with the one red eye he only ever opens. She realizes then it's not a club at all; tonight's club really is just someone's apartment, and her friends are gone. These things happen. The python's eye winks at her in the darkness; it glistens from the light of her moon, the only light in the room. The couch is more like a day bed, a divan, and there is a low table in front of him, for she knows it's a him, cluttered with mosaic ashtrays and jewelled boxes Faith knows are filled with Colours. He has been sleeping, or doing Blue; there is something very sleepy in the room, pervasively sleepy, so that Faith feels she might curl up in a chair and go to sleep forever. She has a wolf with her. And a crow. All three are dressed in black; their night is made of tiny slices of light scattered everywhere, like tiny bits of broken glass, so bright they almost cut into one's eyes.

There are things written on the walls. The python coils his coils so slowly, so hugely; it's so dark Faith has no idea how large his coils really are. They move as only serpent coils do, and Faith is mesmerized, wondering for a moment if perhaps they are made of liquid which can hold its form, if perhaps there is no end to them. Behind him stands a man-sized vulture, or is it just the condor again, the largest of all birds?

She looks at them, realizing she doesn't know how long she's been standing there, minutes or hours, but it's precisely trying to decipher this question that helps her to see clearly; perhaps her night vision is finally adjusting, she thinks. But as she watches, daylight very slowly comes to the room; the forms of the python and vulture sink into the shadows of the pink cushions and disappear, as though they've never been there at all. She has the strange feeling of having been enchanted. But what is enchantment?--it requires a special state to be experienced, and once that state has passed one no longer comprehends it, or believes. Yet she is still enchanted enough to feel sure this room is a place she couldn't leave of her own will; should she try to leave, the python could still reappear and stop her.

But her wolf howls. And out in the street someone answers; suddenly there are many sounds at once: breaking glass, a car door slamming, a woman's footsteps, running and running. Faith looks out the window and sees red high heels running by, very fast, beneath a black clad body, and there is laughter. The woman, if it is a woman, looks up at Faith and smiles, stops.

Even though Faith has never seen her before in her life, there is in that glance such affinity she knows if they were ever to meet one another on the street they'd rush into each other's arms, or at least, go for a drink.

The woman\man calls, "Throw me the moon," and so Faith does, sailing it out the window, a glow-in-the-dark-Frisbee. The transvestite catches it and draws it under her coat and runs on, and moments later Faith hears more car doors slamming, and more sirens, and more breaking glass and laughter and footsteps, and it begins to rain. And that is the moment when she believes she fell asleep for a little while, fell asleep standing up, or perhaps in the very comfortable leather armchair, and when she wakes she knows she didn't sleep for long, but the python and the vulture are fully gone; she knows they won't be back, as neither will her wolf or her crow. She stares hard at the divan, trying to make out the creatures' shapes in the shadows on the cushions. There is no one there, possibly in the whole flat, for she doesn't feel anyone sleeping in the other rooms, as, lately, she has discovered she knows how to do. This is learning, she thinks: the discovery of things one already knows. But she doesn't know whose house it even is, or how she got there, but they might be back at any minute, and so she goes back down the fire escape to the street.

She walks; her friends aren't with her; it's raining, and such a long way back to Clive's apartment, and she has no money for a cab. In the doorways poor middle-aged black people stare at her with blank eyes that challenge her need to be sympathetic with a barely covered resentment, but some of them are kindlier, seeing that she is not yet twenty and tired and very cold. Perhaps they're nicer because she's still black; sometimes she forgets for a moment to do this, that in this city it works for her, making her feel more at home. Once she sees Perry, who was always white, across the street, looking feverish and bright-eyed if exhausted, talking to a man in a rain-spattered trench coat; she hurries, hoping she won't be seen. Already she's afraid of him again. She wonders if she hasn't missed the way, wishes briefly she'd talked to the condor after all, but then a black dog comes out of an alleyway and accompanies her, and she knows no one can hurt her, and that the way she chooses will be the right way. Perhaps the dog smells the wolf on her; perhaps it's why he finds her so interesting.

She climbs the stairs: yet another iron fire escape leading to Clive's upstairs apartment; it's very early; the rain is cold and wet and she thinks about all the people she's seen on her walk home, people awake even though it's still so early. Some, like herself have been up all night, and some have gotten up early to go to work, and some just wake early and sweep the sidewalks in front of their houses. In this part of the city there aren't backyards but courtyards behind grillwork gates. This is what she thinks of as she climbs the three flights of iron stairs to the landing with three doors and three gold-tone mailboxes. She enters one of the doors, the one on the right; they're sitting there, Clive and Magnolia, drinking beer and tea and doing the morning's Yellow which so often, this trip, follows the night's Blue; and reading magazines and comic books and laughing idly and watching television.

They look a bit startled, for as she comes in shards of glass instead of drops of rain fall from her cloak with a crunchy sound to the floor, and then the cloak turns into a huge black dog which jumps off her back and snarls beside her, its red tongue wagging, before bounding through the room and out the window.

"Well," they say, "what happened to you?" She can't remember where she lost them last night; she thinks perhaps they abandoned her at some corner where she embarrassed them, her flood of uncontainable emotion having puddled all over the street again. Maybe they went out with Perry, attracted as they are to his dark power; then she would've chosen not to go along: she's been invisible to him since she stopped pretending she was always strong. Yet Perry after all had at the beginning been most impressed with her; she wanted even he to think she was okay when she felt threadbare, so perhaps she went out alone and took on the python to prove herself. Perhaps that's how it was. Yet she can't remember how she came to be in the serpent's home, what secret whisperings led her there. Also she has forgotten that this time the fire escape was spiral shaped, that her wolf howled, or any of the other sounds that framed and outlined her magic night. Like walking through a wall of water to enter with morning a waterless place she's no longer sure any of it really happened, although it felt like life and death at the time, and not just for herself, but somehow for all of them. For she knows now who the serpent is: he is the absence of all light, all daylight consciousness. Dancing with the serpent it is suddenly possible, what one has always wanted: to dance a dance that has never ever been danced before, by anyone. Of course, it is also possible to go quite mad and stay there forever, and so the circumspect will choose a new dance partner before long, or bring company, and always bring their own light, for the serpent has none, needs none, wants none.

But in this comfortably dissipated morning room, all power drained from it, she can no longer remember her own power. Her friends, their everyday faces on, make it hard for her to believe she's just lived another kind. She's suddenly wearing a light blue long sleeved T-shirt dress and she's very very tired. It's New Orleans outside, a city she doesn't know from shit, and she wants to go home and go to bed, only she doesn't know where home is, so she pretends she thinks it funny when her friends laugh at the TV and the comic books and drink tea and beer, even though she thinks they're both being terribly superficial. And so she finally does tell them about the python; they're impressed as she'd hoped but somehow it doesn't make her one of them as she'd intended, but even more apart than last night, before they separated; they are always together in the late evening, all four, at the cafe. What she knows is a moment she has no recollection of, just the wetpants feeling of being the cause of it all.

There's magazines and couches everywhere. She takes off her red high heeled sandals, wondering where they came from--she doesn't remember having worn them to go out--or ever even having had them. Perhaps she traded her transvestite friend the moon for them. She leaves them on the coffee table, on top of a magazine covered with faint outlines where tiny piles of Colours used to be. Blue, Yellow, Green. There is just enough Yellow left for her to pick up on her index finger and paint her eyelids with, and on the surf of the Colour she doesn't mind being apart, doesn't need their approval.

Alone, she goes into the kitchen and looks out the window. She sees two people standing on the street, a white man and a black woman holding an earnest conversation. The man is begging her to come back, be his woman again. The woman carries an attache case and, in the other hand, has a black dog on a lead. Looking more closely Faith thinks it's perhaps not a woman at all, as she's constantly thinking in this town. And so she goes back out, ostensibly to the corner box to pick up a newspaper, but really so she can spy on this most recent manifestation of the transvestite who is somehow significant for her. But when she gets to the street they're gone. She returns with her paper, and finds Magnolia and Clive at last asleep, on separate couches. Faith's glad; it ameliorates her loneliness. Her friends both have their arms flung over their heads, and for once Magnolia doesn't look stunningly beautiful, and Clive doesn't look glamorous, just slightly oafish, and very asleep. Faith drinks a glass of water standing on the coffee table covered with magazines and ashtrays and binoculars and Colours boxes. Stupid stuff, she thinks, so stupid. She rinses and stacks all the glasses and straightens the magazines and dumps the ashtrays and picks up all the discarded finery from the floor and hangs it up on the closet door where at least the dog won't get into it. Clive's dog is a lab called Myra, almost but not quite Faith's mother's name, cream coloured and not black like her mysterious defenestrating familiar.

Faith fixes herself scrambled eggs for breakfast and reads up on the war. She puts out jeans and a sweatshirt while her bath runs. The blue T-shirt dress lying dishevelled on the bathroom floor smells of a night out, smoky and sweaty; maybe it was what she was wearing under her cloak all night long and just wasn't noticing, too high on the Colour Blue, too busy changing everything.

In the bath she looks at her submerged body, somewhat confused; her recently departed child's silhouette having been no less a house to her soul. Faith's way of being in the world has only so recently been shaped by this new sexual body; it still surprises her, sex itself a wonderful surprise, much lovelier than she'd anticipated. Yet sometimes this nubile desirability doesn't really belong to her, but to all those who frame it within their gaze without love: the men on the street, influenced as she is, barely conscious, to clothe her body in meanings that find their source in advertising and pornography. She sighs, finding men a little childish, even if most of them are older than she. That's why she likes Jim and Clive; both make jokes about her babe-hood, jokes that include her in a love framed by friendship and not possession; they understand it's a game.

She gets out of the bath and puts on her clean clothes; suddenly she doesn't mind that she is never properly seen: by her friends, her lovers, by strange men. She brushes her hair and, with a little sponge dipped in sweet almond oil, wipes the last vestiges of the night's make-up off her face, too stubborn for bath water. The Yellow, too: the last of the drug has long since entered her bloodstream; it's only the pigment that remains. For the second time she says "stupid stuff," and puts on glasses to continue reading, this time out on the balcony even though it's cold. It's a French-style wrought iron balcony, just large enough for one tiny table and chairs and even though most people don't use theirs, she can't help herself; when after all will she again be in New Orleans? The black dog reappears and sits at her feet while she's reading; she knows it's because it's the day they're leaving.

She knows she'll get on the plane without having resolved any of these insistent questions about relationship, and being seen clearly, and the two kinds of power. She cries a little then, but it's not unhappy, just to properly acknowledge an ending. For after all, she thinks, she's come pretty close, done pretty good, as best you can, probably, on the last day of the old world.

"As only leaving behind someone you love can make you weep." She writes it in the margins of the newspaper, and leaves it folded on the outdoor table. Life is like this: you row out into the middle of the ocean in a boat and then it sinks. Suzuki Roshi, she thinks she remembers.

While she was out Clive, half asleep, moved from one of the couches to the bedroom. She takes one of the yellow lilies from the vase by the window and lays it beside his hand on the bed. It's a big, nondescript platform bed with expensive sheets and a little white melamine night table with a drawer and a plastic mushroom shaped lamp. On the night table are more half empty glasses, more magazines, Clive's reading glasses, and a plate full of traces of Colours. Suddenly she's glad she's leaving; she's tired of those sights; she wants to live somewhere with decent books on the shelves and original art on the walls, made by her friends. If she sees another god damned framed O-Keefesque calla lily poster by an illustrator in California who works for an advertising agency try to pass itself off as art she's going to puke. But Clive. It's his place. He can't help it; it was passed on to him furnished. And she loves him, knows she is leaving behind not just him but the freedom they shared, intuits that for both, their next relationship will be a "real one" framed by all the time-worn furniture these contain: sexual exclusivity, bartering for power, fleeting hatreds, even something new and unforeseen: the joy of domesticity, of doing things the same, with the same person, for years and years, and finding that the next adventure.

And so, at the last moment, she lies down beside Clive and wraps her arms around him and he moves in sleep, and begins to wake up, and they make love. And into their lovemaking she wordlessly pours all the things she would have told him had she been able, but didn't, having been too young still to know how to give words to her perceptions of people: they're vipers and vultures, all those people who say they're going to make him famous, as well as all those people who hang around with him because he already is, a bit. All those people, sucking his blood from him, and most especially Perry, his purveyor of Colours. She's afraid it will all conspire to fail Clive: his vanity, his parties, his beauty, his hangers-on, his drugs. The one thing remaining will be his neglected art; seduced as she sees him being by the glamour of a gentle kind of fame which has, after all, acquired him a much nicer apartment than most of his friends. But the betrayed muse wanders. Faith in her lovemaking tries to impress a kind of insurance into his body; so that when the day comes he wakes to emptiness he'll remember Faith, or a feeling sort of like her, of the fiery puddle she used to leak out and float in at the same time, the feeling that is for him the feeling of his music. And he'll get to work, pray not too late.

The yellow flower beside his bed. In sleep his hand reaches out and closes around it. On each petal is a word. One of the words written on the python's walls. He will read them later, when he knows how. But it is Magnolia who knows how to gather all her things up into a flight bag and leave, shrugging. It's Magnolia who never looks back, and never brings anything from the past. And so Faith pretends for a moment she is her friend; it's a trick they've learned from spending so much time together, trading auras like they trade their clothes.

Faith wakes Magnolia up after she calls the cab to take them to the airport. While Magnolia takes a quick shower, Faith sits at the kitchen table and writes a note to Clive, a note like a scrap of a story. It is the first one she's ever written:

When it was all over I gave out my broken presents, the three legged chairs and one legged trousers, the rings with the stones missing and books with the covers torn off. I found Jim and Clive and Magnolia, all three looking exhausted. We went upstairs to try and find some place to sleep. I chose a room hung in embroidered canopies, with a balcony overlooking the wreckage of the hall. The dawn chill had set in, and I was grateful for the musty butterfly wing cloak I found draped over the balustrade. I watched the last of the revellers filing out the door. The janitors came in, sleepily rubbing their eyes and yawning. The caterers called to one another, their sharp voices bouncing through the vast empty hall as they collected silverware and glasses. I threw them a tip, and watched the Yellow note waft slowly down, to become lost in a heap of discarded finery. I turned back to the room. My friends were already asleep, all three curled around one another under the embroidered bedspread. I did the last of the Blue the vulture had given me. The tapestries on the walls were stitched with the words of a language I had never seen. I watched the patterns of that alien alphabet dance and shift position, and it was when I finally began to understand their meaning that sleep came.

They get on a plane to JFK. Magnolia orders a large scotch, but Faith sleeps all the way. During the trip, her skin slowly fades from black to white.

© Ursula Pflug 2002.
This story appears here for the first time, and is reprinted in Album Zutique Pocket Book #1 edited by Jeff Vandermeer (Ministry of Whimsy Press, $12.99, 2003).

Ursula Pflug's novel, Green Music, was published by Tesseract Books in March 2002.

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