Another Piece of the Pan’s Knot Puzzle

Chastity’s Tale

Chastity knew he was coming that day. Her mother foretold his visit.
“A man is coming to see you. He is on a mission, and requires your assistance.” She disappeared, “thock.”
Forking the last of her fried potatoes to her mouth, “That’s unusual. Usually she just goes back to her chair.”
Cousin George was hovering in the corner of her room, sunning himself and gazing out the window at the endless sea of Prairie.
Smiling gaily at him, “it is a beautiful morning, is it not general?”
Cool air tickled her ear. “It is a beautiful day. So different from Virginia. So very dry.”
Massaging her stumps, “it is the altitude I am told. We will have snow again soon. I feel it in my legs. I will have Mrs. Laine rub them with tincture of arnica before I dress. I am to have a guest today.”
Cousin George appeared by her side. “Be wary of this man you are to meet. He is in deadly earnest and will brook no nonsense. You must be absolutely straight with him. I knew his kind during the war. Extraordinarily ruthless in battle, they possess a vast capacity for kindness and empathy when they choose.” He faded from sight.
Chastity absently wiped a smudge of egg yolk from the corner of her mouth. Mrs. Laine would be coming to help her dress soon. She wished her legs did not ache so. “Damn Yankees.”
Using her legs today would be a great distraction. She must be herself, with no affectations. Abraxas would carry her. The big man was her legs a great deal of the time. Chastity wondered for the hundred thousandth time, what life would be like if her mother and father had survived the Siege of Richmond, and she had not lost her legs.
The Siege of Richmond; Chastity’s attention wandered in the horrific memory. The windows rattled from the concussion of distant artillery fire. The floor shook constantly from the bombardment. A terrified little girl and her mother huddled in a basement corner. Tears of grief etched the dust covering their faces. Father was dead, killed at the James River in the brutal fighting with Grant’s Eighteenth Corps. An insistent rhythmic vibration of great steam engines pressed down on the house. Intermittent flashes of bright blue flame emanating from gas jets of Yankee dirigibles lit the night sky. Three great Hamilton-class airships drifted over Church Hill. Bright, sparkling fuses traced lines from the gondolas of the aerial battlewagons to fiery blossoms on the neighborhood below. A grizzled Chief Gunners Mate pounded a ten second detonator into a thirty two pound exploding shell and dropped it through the cargo hatch. He watched the tremendous bomb crash through the roof of a house. A gigantic flaming fist punched down through the upstairs hallway, pierced the floor in the front sitting room and detonated in the cellar. Mother died instantly. White hot shrapnel filled five year old Chastity’s calves.
Chastity nearly bled to death from over a dozen wounds. An army surgeon removed her legs just above the knees. Like an odd dream, she remembered floating above the makeshift operating table, watching the doctor work. “He is cutting my legs off.”
Momma hovered next to her. “He must remove your legs, sweetness, else you perish.”
A brilliant white light enveloped them. Far away Papa called, “bring her home. Anna.”
Momma frowned, “it is not her time, Richard. She has much to achieve in this life. Important tasks to achieve and many suffering people to comfort.”
When Chastity woke up her legs were gone. She lay in a narrow bed in a strange house. A nursing sister was applying a cool compress to her forehead. “Hello, little one. You gave us a fright. Can you speak?”
Licking her dry lips, “yes’m”.
Sister stroked her hair. “What is your name Lamb?”
Her fever-ravaged eyes took in the room. “Chastity Corbell, ma’am. Why are Momma and Papa here with that Yankee?” Pointing.
Sister changed the compress on her forehead. “There is no one here but us child.”
Turning her head toward the window. “Momma is right next to you. Papa and the Yankee are over by the window.”
Sister felt a chill on her arm. She looked about the room. She and the child were alone. Chastity remained adamant.
“I will just get the doctor.” She hurried from the room.
Moments later Sister returned with the surgeon. He bent over Chastity, looking into her eyes, checking her pulse and temperature. “Sister Ruth tells me you have some visitors.”
Smiling weakly. “I do. Momma is there next to you. Papa and the Yankee are by the window.”
The doctor felt a chill on his left arm. “I see. Chastity, sometimes when a person is badly injured. They see things that are not there.”
The chill moved past the doctor’s neck.
“Do not go! You hurt their feelings. They are leaving. Momma and Papa are gone.” She looked at the window. “Why are you here?”
The union officer stared at her. Sadness lined his face. The doctor drew the cover lit up to her chin. “There is nothing to fear. No need to upset yourself. I am here to help you Chastity.”
Pointing toward the window. “I am talking to that Yankee.”
The union officer walked through the door.
“Oh! He is gone.”
The doctor motioned the nurse toward the door. “Sister Ruth and I will be right back.”
Outside in the hallway, “Sister Ruth give her a dose of laudnum with tincture of valerian. Mix it with a dollop of honey and camomile tea. She needs rest. I nearly lost her in surgery. She is in shock. When she awakens, feed her some meat in a strong broth. Anything you can lay your hands on.”
“Yes doctor.” Sister Ruth hurried to carry out his orders.
The surgeon peeked in on the child once more. She was smiling, nodding her head, and murmuring to the oil lamp on the bed table.
Chastity recovered quickly. She learned not to talk with her visitors when Sister Ruth was about. She did not care for the special tea she had to drink when Sister Ruth caught her talking to the lamp. Her incisions healed, Chastity went to live with her aunt in Lynchburg. Her aunt soon grew weary of the child, unnerved by her conversations with dead parents and imaginary visitors. Chastity next went to live with her father’s relations in Fredericksburg.
At fourteen, after being shuffled through a succession of relations, Chastity came to live with her father’s cousin, LaSalle (Sally) Corbell-Pickett. The wife of Major General George Pickett, whom Chastity would come to call Cousin George. Chastity, Sally and Cousin George got along famously. Arriving soon after the loss of their son David, the Picketts doted on Chastity, showering her with affection. They loved her as their own. Sally and Cousin George ignored her eccentricity. The child showed uncommon good sense not to notice her imaginary visitors in mixed company or when George Junior was about.
A year after receiving a full pardon for his service to the Confederacy, Cousin George died of a liver abscess in July 1875. Sally, George Junior, and Chastity grieved his loss deeply. Cousin George’s spirit would not rest. He paid nearly daily visits to Chastity. He compounded her grief with pleas to write letters begging forgiveness from families of the men lost at Gettysburg. Not knowing what to do and unable to cope with the burden, she finally revealed the General’s visits to Cousin Sally. Another move was arranged. Chastity was 16 when she went to live with Arthur and Portia Reese, her elderly distant cousins in Denver, Colorado. They were childless and saw it as their Christian duty to take in the poor, crippled waif.
At first, the little ad hoc family got on well. The Reeses were a comfortable well-to-do couple, her mother’s cousins twice removed. Arthur Reese sold mining equipment, provisions and possibles to prospectors traveling to the numerous Colorado diggings or headed for the burgeoning Black Hills Gold Rush at Deadwood Gulch. Good Christians, they were members of Trinity United Methodist Church.
The months passed. The Reeses noticed Chastity was quiet, reserved and spiritual. Late in the evenings, they could hear the child murmuring in her room. Assuming she was deep in prayer, they let her be. Portia believed she was lonely and in need of company her own age. Chastity had a pair of ill-fitting prosthetic legs. Portia took her to see a specialist at St. Joseph’s, Denver’s modern new hospital. Soon Chastity was learning to walk on new legs without the aid of crutches.
Portia made great efforts to be supportive. “We want to look normal and whole, don’t we? We will never land a husband hobbling about on sticks.”
“You already have a husband!” Chastity swallowed the offense. “Yes, cousin Portia.”
Try as she might Chastity did not fit into Denver society. She felt too old for school and awkward around the other congregants at the Sunday afternoon church socials. The inability to dance made her a wallflower at the seasonal Cotillion’s. Cousin Portia, ever helpful, started inviting the eligible sons in her circle of friends to dine with the family.
Two weeks before her eighteenth birthday, Mrs. Reese invited another ‘nice young man’ to dinner. Chastity was never adept with small talk. She was self conscious and dreadfully shy around young men. That evening, distracted by her mother’s apparition glowering at the youth from across the room, she barely spoke a dozen words during the meal. Afterwards, Cousin Arthur allowed the young people to sit on the veranda in the moonlight. Failing at conversation, the boy clumsily tried to steal a kiss. His innocent advance garnered a sharp slap to the face and he left in a huff, “see if I ever come to dinner again. My friends were right about you!”
Chastity swallowed the lump in her throat.
“He really was a nice-looking lad.”
Limping to a side door off the veranda, she let herself into the library. Poking up the coals in the grate to revive the fire, she threw herself on the settee and began to cry silently.
A cool breeze caressed her cheek.
“Chastity dear.”
Choking off a sob. “Oh Momma. I am so useless and tongue-tied. I don’t know what to say to men. Why were you glaring at him so?”
The coolness smoothed her hair.
“He was a charlatan, dearest. He accepted Portia’s invitation as a wager with his friends to win a kiss from you.”
Tears flowing in a torrent now. “No, Momma! How could he? I had never met him until tonight. Cousin Portia said he was a nice young man of good family, studying law back East.”
The coolness moved away from her. Mother materialized in the wingback chair next to the fire.
“He is of good family sweetness. Portia’s efforts, bless her heart, are the subject of much speculation in Denver society. Your shyness and reserve have become legend. Your beauty combined with being crippled have given you quite a mysterious air.”
Drawing a stunned breath, halting both tears and sobbing. “Oh Momma! What a ridiculous notion.”
Chuckling. “Nevertheless, dear. You are a popular topic of conversation among the eligible bachelors of Denver.”
Chastity blushed. “Now, Momma –”
The library door burst open. Arthur Reese stormed into the room. He held a cocked shotgun. “What’s going on here? Have you no shame? What will people say? I am ruined! I’ll –”
“She’s alone Arthur.” Portia interrupted.
“have you horsewhipped! I’ll – what did you say?” Noting Chastity’s solitude at last.
“She’s alone Arthur.” Portia repeated.
After many tears and a great deal of confusion with quite a few angry words, the truth emerged. A telegram to Cousin Sally demanded the return of “…this deranged crippled baggage to Norfolk.”
Chastity sat in the foyer of the Reeses house waiting for a hackney. The coach pulled up in front of the house. Arthur seized Chastity by the arm, grabbed her carpetbag and jerked her to her feet. A freezing wind swept into the foyer from all directions of the house. Arthur drug Chastity out the door. She stumbled down the steps and fell. Her cousin pulled her roughly to her feet. The freezing wind swirled about them, whipping leaves into the air. The gale abruptly halted when they reached the sidewalk. The horse watched them his ears pricked forward. The coachman feigned disinterest.
Arthur opened the coach door, lifted Chastity and tossed her in, along with her carpetbag, then slammed the door. He handed up a five-dollar gold piece and a train ticket to the coachman. “Take her to the Denver Pacific Depot. See her on the next train to Cheyenne. Come back when you have finished and I will pay you another five dollars.”
Pocketing the gold piece. The driver whipped up his horse. “Yes, sir.”
Chastity got herself off the floor of the coach and comfortably seated. After a while the coach slowed and came to a stop. A little window opened in front of her. “Are you hurt Miss?”
“No. A bit mussed. I am not injured.” She sniffled.
The driver was unconvinced. “Excuse me for saying so, Miss. I wouldn’t treat a rabid dog that way. Do you want to go to Cheyenne?”
Disobedience never occurred to her. “No. No I don’t.”
Laughing heartily. “Where would you have me take you then Miss? I’m well-paid and at your disposal.”
A new state of defiance took hold of her. She found the feeling rather heady, like a good Port. “22nd St. Depot Square. The Clifton Hotel. Thank you, umm…”
“Seamus, Miss.” The driver provided.
“Thank you Seamus. You’re very kind.”
“Not at all, think nothing of it Miss.” Brushing the gratitude side.
“Why are you doing this Seamus?” Wondering.
The whip cracked. They were off. “I had a daughter once.”
Chastity was not without means. She had the train fare to Cheyenne. Seamus cashed in her ticket and brought her the money. Cousin Sally sent her five dollars a month allowance. Mad money she called it. She had not spent a cent of it. Along with the money she had been saving through the years, there was $167.53 in her reticule.
Thirty two days later Chastity was nearly penniless. Soon after moving into the Clifton she started spending her days in the hotel’s solarium. She would peruse the Denver Post, take her morning tea and idle away the hours reading the latest books. She was particularly fond of Mr. Jules Verne’s writing. One day, out of sheer boredom she took out her tarot deck and began a hand of Patience. A shadow fell across the table.
“Excuse me. Do you read the cards, dear?”
Looking up at an exquisitly dressed woman and her equally well turned out teenage daughter. “I dabble Madame.”
The young lady took hold of her mother’s arm, pleading, “Ask her Mother. Tell her we will pay.”
The pair wheedled at her until Chastity gave in. The women sat down and ordered tea. Chastity shuffled the cards thrice and laid out six. Thirty minutes later after many oohs, ahhs and a bit of laughter, the two women pronounced Chastity better than any gypsy woman at the circus. She thanked them, neglecting to reveal that the girl’s lately deceased grandmother provided all of the answers to their questions and the details of their personal lives. Chastity went to dinner five dollars richer.
Word soon spread. In the solarium of the Clifton could be found a young lady who is very talented with the cards. Hotel management ignored her activity. She was good for business. Ladies playing cards over a cup of tea were harmless. While playing cards was harmless, fortune telling was not. Revealing the marital indiscretions of Denver’s leading financier to his wife based on the turn of a card proved illegal. Upon learning the source of his wife’s outrage regarding his amorous indiscretions, the socially embarrassed banker paid a visit to the owner of the Clifton Hotel. The owner was informed that the payments on the hotel’s mortgage would increase unless he put a stop to this fortune-telling activity. Summoning the police, they arrested Chastity for accepting payment for services under false pretenses, unlicensed palmistry and slander. She spent a week in jail. The payment of a ruinous fine and her back rent to the Clifton in order to regain her belongings left her with six dollars to her name. Worse, the hotel evicted her. The manager warned her not to come back, nor to seek shelter at any of the other hostelries in town. She had no place to live.
Chastity sat with her carpetbag on a bench in front of the hotel wondering what to do. A coach stopped at the curb and a cheery voice, greeted her. “Going somewhere Miss Chastity?”
Giggling. Incredulous. “Seamus! How wonderful to see a friendly face.”
“Heard about your trouble. Thought you might need a bit of a hand.” Smiling down at her.
Sighing. “You have no idea. I don’t know what to do. The hotel threw me out and I’ve nowhere to go.”
Rubbing the side of his nose with his forefinger. “I have an idea, Miss. I know a woman who employs southern girls of gentle breeding. Her name is Margaret McGillicuddy. She runs an exclusive place called The Adventurers Club. She might could use a new hostess.”
Appalled. “I couldn’t do that! Mother would spin in her grave!”
Seamus wrung his hands. “Calm yourself Miss. It is not that sort of place.”
Mother appeared on the seat next to Seamus. “Chastity Corbell, you get in the coach this minute. Listen to Seamus.”
She got to her feet, took up her carpetbag and climbed in. “All right, Seamus. Let’s go.”
Shaking his head, Seamus whipped up the big bay gelding and set off at a high trot.
In the privacy of the coach, she quickly changed into her best visiting dress. Deep blue silk skirt with a matching jacketed bodice and high collar. She changed her walking shoes, putting on her best boots. She shoved everything back in her carpetbag. Chastity was finishing her hair when the coach stopped in front of a huge three-story mansion.
Seamus dropped to the street and put his face in the window. Her transformation was treated to a good-humored laugh. “Pretty as a picture. You just finish having your primp and I’ll see if I can get you in the front door.”
The scent of lavender filled the interior of the coach. Coolness caressed her cheek. “Well, Mother – am I presentable?”
The cool draft swirled about her. “You are beautiful darling. Just be yourself. Be honest and answer all of this woman’s inquiries with the truth.”
Biting her lip and clasping her hands to stop their trembling. “What if she won’t see me?”
Cool lavender scented air snuggled against her side. “She will see you sweetling. Stop fretting so.”
Seamus opened the door. “Step out Miss Corbell. You’ve an angel on your shoulder today. Give your valise to the gentleman.”
Chastity took Seamus’s hand and stepped down from the coach. A tall middle-aged man in burgundy and gold livery greeted her. “Allow me to take your bag, Miss –“
Passing him the valise. “Corbell. Chastity Corbell of Norfolk, Virginia.”
Cool lips pressed her ear. “Use my name.”
Taking a breath. “Cousin to LaSalle Corbell-Pickett, widow to the late Major General George Pickett of the Army of Northern Virginia.”
The butler came to a position of attention. “Very good Miss. Follow me please.” He started up a steep set of steps to the front door.
Waving a hand to Seamus in farewell, she turned after the butler. Her boots made her unsteady. She stumbled on the first step. “Oh bother!”
Turning at the top step the butler looked down at her. Chastity gripped the banister, pulling herself up to the next step.
Hurrying down to her. “Are you unwell, Miss?”
Swallowing her pride. “I have artificial legs. I’m afraid my boots make me rather clumsy.”
Gallantly offering his arm. “You must then allow me to assist you, Miss Corbell.”
Chastity looked up into a pair of kind steel gray eyes set in an impassive face. “Thank you. Er –“
“Longstreet. My name is Longstreet, Miss.”
Sighing with relief. “Thank you Longstreet.”
Taking the butler’s arm, she allowed him to help her up the steps to the massive mahogany doors. Slowing his step allowing for Chastity’s halting gait they entered the house. She took in the foyer. A young man in burgundy and gold sat in a small alcove hunched over a telegraph key sending a message. They processed to the right through a well-appointed sitting room. Two well-dressed gentlemen were quietly conversing over whiskey and cigars. They came at last to the library. Longstreet placed the carpetbag discreetly near the door. Ushering her into the room. “Miss Chastity Corbell of Norfolk, Virginia. Cousin to the late Major General George Pickett of the Army of Northern Virginia to see Mrs. McGillicuddy.”
A handsome woman rose from a silk divan, offering her hand. “Hello Miss Corbell. I am Mrs. Margaret McGillicuddy, proprietress of The Adventurers Club. How may I be of service to Arthur Reese’s distant cousin?”
Taken aback, Chastity shook the woman’s hand. “Forgive me for coming to you like this without sending a card or an appointment. I have heard you employ southern ladies of quality at this establishment in various capacities.”
Mrs. McGillicuddy looked her up and down. She felt like a prize beef up for auction. “Would you please sit down Miss Corbell?”
Smiling at the offer, she sat. “Thank you for seeing me.”
The two women settled themselves. “Longstreet. Please bring us some nice Annam, and a selection of petit fours.”
Longstreet bowed. “Very good Mrs. M.” The door clicked shut, leaving them alone.
The older woman smoothed her dress, folding her hands in her lap. “May I call you Chastity?”
A cold steel edge crept into the woman’s sweet Savannah drawl. “Chastity I am going to be blunt. How do you expect to be of use to me? You are very young. Your lack of worldliness shines like a beacon from those lovely brown eyes. To put a sharp point to it, our members are men and women with very discerning tastes. They are specific about their needs. They pay a premium for the unique services offered by the house. The advice, discretion and company of the Muses is well known. The less than chivalrous or genteel in their number might find the condition of your legs a challenge to their senses.”
Mrs. McGillicuddy’s brutal honesty made her lip begin to tremble. Shaking her head and making an impatient gesture with her hand. “I am young. I have little experience with men. I am not worldly but I have skills. Surely you could use a hostess to greet the members. Perhaps someone available to entertain and provide pleasant diversion in the parlor?”
Mrs. McGillicuddy studied the young woman. The child’s demeanor while outwardly poised belied an undercurrent of quiet desperation. Her intuition began to tingle, she recalled a tidbit of gossip. In her mind’s eye, she saw a deck of tarot cards.
Longstreet entered with the tea and sweets placing them on a small table between women. He retreated to a position near the door.
Mrs. McGillicuddy poured out two cups of tea. “Milk and sugar, dear?”
She shook her head. “No thank you.” Pursing her lips. “She’s going to serve me tea. Make her apologies and dismiss me.” She took a sip of the strong black tea.
Mrs. McGillicuddy swallowed a sip of tea and cocked her head. “Do you by any chance have any skills with a tarot deck Chastity?”
Paling with a sideways glance. “I don’t know what you may have heard. I am not a fraud. I tell exactly what the cards reveal to me.”
her head. “I believe you, my dear. So you have some skill with the cards, then?”
“Yes, ma’am. I do.” Bowing her head.
She met Mrs. McGillicuddy’s eyes. Behind the older woman stood her mother and a tall man she did not know.
Mrs. McGillicuddy shook off a sudden chill. “I would like you to read for me.”
Mother looked triumphant. The stranger bore a malicious grin. “Hello, Chastity. I am Henry McGillicuddy, Madge’s husband.”
Turning in her seat. “Longstreet would you be so kind as to bring my valise please.”
“Yes, Miss Corbell.” The butler retrieved it, placing the carpetbag at her feet.
“Thank you.” She removed a small mother-of-pearl inlaid box from her bag. “May we sit at the reading table?”
“Of course.” Her hostess rose and moved to the reading table, taking a seat.
Longstreet appeared at her side, offering his arm. “Allow me to assist you, Miss Corbell.” He guided her to a comfortable chair across from his mistress.
Chastity’s mother and Mister McGillicuddy hovered near the older woman. Chastity laid a square of red silk brocade with a Persian cloud motif upon the table. Shuffling the cards thrice she dealt eight cards face down in an octagonal star. She gazed into Mrs. McGillicuddy’s eyes. “Please try to clear your mind and we will see what the cards reveal.”

Mrs. McGillicuddy shivered violently. “Oh dear. Someone just trod on my grave.”
Her husband chuckled evilly removing his finger from her back. Smiling, Chastity revealed the cards, “let’s begin.”
The spread of cards resembled the points of a compass. Chastity indicated first card – West. “The Moon. This is you. It encompasses both sides of your nature. Light and dark. Your Angels and Demons. Intellect and basic instincts.” Mrs. McGillicuddy nodded her understanding.
Chastity pointed to the second card – North. “The Empress – inverted. She represents your hopes and dreams, initiative and success. She is inverted, which suggests you have an inner conflict between what you see is your spiritual goal with your more material wants.”
Moving clockwise to the next card – East. “Justice – inverted. This represents truth and reason. It suggests a period of adjustment. You are having an issue with someone trying to influence you. You believe this person to be ignorant and bigoted. That perception is coloring your decision.”
Mrs. McGillicuddy thoughtfully chewed her lower lip, watching Chastity move her hand clockwise to the next card – South. “Ace of Coins. This has to do with your material and practical side. There are bright prospects for you and fulfillment of your desires, but you place too much emphasis on material gains.”
Chastity moved her hand clockwise up around the spread – North Northwest. “The Magician. A part of you is seeking balance between spiritual and material aspects of a continuing situation you are not ready to settle.”
Her hand swung counterclockwise back around the spread – South, Southwest. “Nine of Coins. Hmm – duality again. We have accomplishment and success on one hand, bad faith and undeserved wealth on the other. A misused inheritance perhaps…”
Moving counterclockwise again – South Southeast. “Oh my! The Devil. This is never a pleasant draw. Old Nick wants you to deal with some serious unresolved issues that will come back to haunt you if they are left wanting.”
Chastity moved to the last card – North, Northeast. “The Sun, how wonderful! This portends success in all of your endeavors. Darkness will come into the light. All dangers disappear. You and those dependent upon you, will enjoy the warmth of your prosperity.”
Mrs. McGillicuddy heaved a heavy sigh.
Chastity took a sip of tea, studying the spread, “that was the easy part.” Cocking her head as if listening to a faraway voice, whispered, “now tell me her secrets.”
The older woman’s hair stood up on her neck. She had a vision of the cards and strangers cloaked in mist all around them. Shaking her head to clear the unwelcome vision, Mrs. McGillicuddy noticed Chastity looking toward the bookcase, and then close her eyes.
Mister McGillicuddy held the Empress in his hand. “She loved this house when she bought it before we went to Deadwood. It was not good enough as it was. She renovated it, according to some plan she had.”
The Empress disappeared, replaced by Justice. Chuckling, “she refused membership to Horace Tabor, despite 100% membership approval. She thinks he’s sanctimonious, pompous ignorant prig.”
Justice whirled away. The Ace of Coins hovered before him. “Madge always had rich tastes. She paid for this place with money she made on her back. Whored from Dodge City to Deadwood. She always wanted a house.”
He held the Magician. “Bless her heart. She recruits her girls, the Muses she calls them, from all over the West. Mostly in mining camps. To a one, they are all southern girls fallen on hard times. She has the sight you know. She can see a person’s gifts. She promises the girls if they work for her they won’t have to make their money whoring anymore. She takes that big black buck Abraxas along with her in case there’s trouble.”
Mister McGillicuddy studied the Nine of Coins. Sighing apologetically, “I was an inveterate gambler and speculator. We never had a permanent home. I drug her along all over the West. Saloons, riverboats, cattle towns and mining camps. Wherever there was money and fools to part with it. That’s why she whored all those years. In ‘75. During the renovations on the house, she went with me to the Black Hills. I gambled some but mostly I prospected. I hit it big on Deadwood Gulch. We were set for life.”
Mister McGillicuddy held the Devil. Righteous anger and fury emanated from his spirit. “Madge had a lover in Deadwood. A saloon keeper with whom she had a business arrangement. God! He was a bloodthirsty rogue. Not long after I struck gold he killed me over a hand of cards. Best game of my life. I was on a winning streak. It was him, me, two miners and Bill Hickok. We were playing a long contentious hand. The pot was huge. I was so sure I would win I bet my claim. He jumped up and accused me of bottom dealing. He convinced Hickok and the miners I was cheating. I didn’t see the danger. I laughed at him and reached into my vest for a cigar. He shot me through the heart. I was dead before I hit the floor. Him and the others split the pot. He kept my claim. He told Madge what he did and gave her $25,000. Told her to get out of Deadwood before folks got suspicious. People might think they murdered me for my gold. He owns the best brothel and saloon in Deadwood. Madge lit out for Denver. She was gone before the grave digger could lift his spade.”
Chastity drew a deep breath, exhaled and opened her eyes. She locked eyes thoughtfully with Mrs. McGillicuddy. “This is an odd set of cards. You love this house, but it wasn’t quite perfect. Didn’t quite fit your plans so you renovated it.”
The older woman unimpressed. “Anyone could’ve told you that.”
Chastity nodded. “You’ve had problems with a potential member. All of the membership wants you to admit him. You consider him somewhat puritanical. I’m getting the name Horace.” Mrs. McGillicuddy’s eyes went wide.
“You are very extravagant with many expensive tastes. Your wants were not always been met honestly. For many years. You were a – became a –“
Mister McGillicuddy leaned over the table. “Tell it girl. Tell it true.”
Chastity swallowed. “You paid for this place by whoring all over the West from Dodge City to San Francisco and back again.”
The older woman turned beet red. “Who do you think you are?”
The girl continued. “You have traveled all over the West recruiting your Muses. You find them living in brothels and promise them a way out if they come work for you. Every one of them is a southern girl down on her luck. Desperate. You understand them. You’re good to them. They aren’t whores anymore.”
Mrs. McGillicuddy smiled, satisfied with this part of the reading. “I love my girls.”
Chastity shook her head and shut her eyes tight. “Do you know Henry?
Shocked, the older woman whispered. “My husband.”
Nodding, sure of herself. “Your husband was a gambler and a speculator. He wasn’t very good at either, which is why you sold yourself. He dragged you all over the West. You bought this house to have a place of your own. Henry hit it big after you bought the house. He found gold in the Black Hills and you were both set.” Mrs. McGillicuddy sat up straight giving Chastity her full attention.
“You had a lover in the Black Hills. A saloon keep.”
The older woman stood up so fast her chair toppled over. “Longstreet. Remove the tea setting please. Move anyone from the sitting room to the parlor and lock that door.”
Longstreet quickly gathered the tea setting and left the library closing the doors behind him. They could hear muffled voices as he cleared the sitting room.
Mrs. McGillicuddy righted her chair. She sat down, crossed her arms and fixed Chastity with an angry glare. A violent chill wracked her body. An icy hand gripped her heart.
Mister McGillicuddy pulled his hand from his wife’s chest. “That got her attention.”
Her second sight flashed. She saw Chastity surrounded by a legion of misty figures. Mrs. McGillicuddy gazed at her with fear and suspicion, this child was no mere fortuneteller. “Please, Ms. Corbell, finish the reading.”
Chastity sensed the other woman’s fear and anger. She knew this woman was quite capable of having her killed and the resources to make her disappear.
Coolness kissed her forehead. “Proceed, dearest. No harm will come to you.”
Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, continuing with an even tone, “As I said, your lover is a saloon keeper. There was a business arrangement. He killed your husband. A poker game gone bad. Henry was winning, so sure of his luck that he bet his claim. Your saloon keep accused him of cheating. He wasn’t, was he? It was a wonderful run of luck. He was shot down like a dog. The other players divided the pot and your lover kept his claim. He gave you a large sum of cash and made you get out of Deadwood.”
Tears were streaming down Mrs. McGillicuddy’s face. “Please stop.”
Mister McGillicuddy surged through the table. “Finish it Chastity.”
Chastity pitied the older woman. “You did just that. You left Deadwood before your husband’s body was cold, didn’t you Madge?”
Mrs. McGillicuddy jerked. “What did you call me?”
Chastity opened her eyes and cocked her head. “Madge. Your nickname perhaps?”
Mrs. McGillicuddy broke, sobbing. “No. It is not. Madge was Henry’s petname for me. He only used it when he was angry.”
Chastity blushed. “That is all I have for you, Mrs. McGillicuddy. I apologize for taking up your valuable time and if I have hurt you or gave any offense. I’ll take my leave now.”
“No. Stay.” Mrs. McGillicuddy took up a napkin and dried her eyes. She rose, went to the library doors and pulled a bell rope. A moment later, the Butler appeared. “Longstreet, bring us some more tea, please. Then take Ms. Corbell’s belongings up to Polyhymnia’s room. She will be staying on for quite a while to come. We have a new Muse.”
Chastity’s reverie was broken. Mrs. Alice (Hallie) Laine bustled into the room, finding her mistress deep in thought. “Good morning, Miss Chastity. How are you today?” She noticed Chastity, rubbing her stumps. “Oh dear. Are they hurting this morning?”
Chastity nodded her head. “Yes. Could I trouble you to rub some tincture of arnica into them? I won’t require my prosthetics today. Please notify Abraxas that I will need his services. I have an important appointment today.”
Hallie raised her eyebrows. “Oh? With whom?”
Chastity, eyes sparkling. “I don’t know. Mother told me a man was coming to see me today. He needs my help. She was very mysterious. Popped right out. Haven’t seen her since.”
Hallie quickly crossed herself. Chastity was a powerful medium. The spirits of her mother and cousin George were constant companions. She couldn’t see them, but she was constantly walking into cold spots. Her mistress’ unseen visitors took getting used to. Their presence no longer alarmed her. “That’s odd. She didn’t go back to her chair?”
Chastity looked up at her, smiling. “No, she just disappeared. Cousin George is being mysterious today too, acting all fatherly. You would think I had a new beau.”
Hallie cleared the breakfast setting and moved to take them to the kitchen. She stopped at the door and turned toward her young charge. “Well, Miss Chastity, maybe you do.”

Pandelirious Malifecto Posted from WordPress for Android

Pan’s Knot

Pssst! A word for a moment…

This story takes place in United States in the 1880’s and with a few exceptions I will be sticking to history. That said, this is an alternate history, science fiction, steampunk, western. This time line has ghosts, rayguns, airships, and bevy of other things not found in your high school US History book. You have been warned.

Forward

“Who is that old monk? I see him sitting there at the same grave every day.” Brother Nathan asked the Abbott.
“He is why we are here today. That is Brother Pan. He is eighty years old, cranky as a hot rattlesnake, and he needs someone to help him, though he will never admit it.” Said the Abbott, smiling at Brother Nathan. “Go over. Make yourself useful to him; you will learn a few things.”
The young monk walked over to Brother Pan, and stopped a few feet behind him. Pan saw the young monk’s shadow out of the corner of his good eye, looking down at the grave whispering, “Look Michael. The Abbott has me sent another one.” Picking up a watering can, “your roses are dry Michael. I need to take better care of them. That lazy caretaker will not even come near your stone. Superstitious bastard.” He poured the last of the water on the roses twining around the headstone.
Brother Nathan read the inscription over the old man’s shoulder.
Brother Michael Aloysius Dowd
Knight of Malta.
Killed in service to his Holiness,
Pope Leo XIII.
1825 – 1882
Pan threw the watering can over his shoulder, “bring more water, please.”
Nathan deftly caught the can, “Yes Brother Pan” running to do as bid.
“This one might just do, Michael.” He said thoughtfully.
The old man stood waiting, leaning on a steel tipped formidable looking Ironwood stick, topped with a piece of polished elk antler. Watching the young monk approach, pointed his stick at Brother Dowd’s grave, and another one nearby, “water the roses.”
“Yes Brother.” Pouring equal parts of the can on both graves.
He returned and stood quietly next to the old man. The elderly monk shoved his stick into the lawn, and sat down on the bench, motioning to the youngster, “sit down with me a while, please.”
Nathan sat folding his hands. Brother Pan pulled back his cowl. A round freckled balding head, one alert hazel eye, a huge snow-white handlebar mustache and goatee emerged. “You will be Brother Nathan, late of the Jesuit seminary in Denver and reluctant to be fully ordained. What mischief did you do that made Abbot John foist you upon me?”
Brother Nathan suddenly defensive and not knowing why, “Abbot John brought me here this morning and said I was to be useful to you.”
Smirking, “what else did he say?” Pan asked.
Brother Nathan deciding bold honesty as the best course, “he said you are eighty, need help, and you are cranky as a rattlesnake.”
“Nervy aren’t you? You might do.” Looking down at the grave, “He might do Michael! You are of a size that’s sure.” Pan said with a cackling laugh, giving Nathan’s shoulders an appraising look. Pulling his arm into his robe, he came out with a pipe and match. Taking the pipe in his teeth, striking the match on the bench, he lit the tobacco. “You have been sent to help me, but also to learn. When you are finished with me, there will be special work for you to do.”
Brother Nathan said nothing. Pan puffed on his pipe humming an old marching song, then sighing said, “I was abandoned by my mother outside of a church after I was born in 1845, and raised up by nuns in an orphanage in Baltimore. I remember one, Sister Phoebe her name was. She doted on me. I lived and worked there until I was 28 years old. I decided I wanted to see the world. Sister Phoebe gave me $50 and bid me good luck. That was 1873. I worked my way west, doing odd jobs, whatever I could find, until I found myself at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory in November 1873. I knew a bit about repairing leather goods, and the post-saddler gave me a job. I repaired a saddle for Libby Custer once. I stayed there until August 1874 when General Custer returned from the Black Hills Expedition. I was friends with a Crow scout named Bloody Knife. He decided to go home that fall and I asked if I might travel with him. Bloody Knife indicated that I could. The Post Doctor John Williams gave me an old 1851 Navy revolver. Charlie Reynolds was a scout with the 7th and he gave me a .50 caliber Hawken rifle. Told me, “man should have a good rifle.” Bloody Knife and I traveled up the Missouri River on the steamer, Josephine and got off where the Bighorn joins the mighty Mo. I learned much from Bloody Knife. He taught me to live off the land, hunt, trap and gamble. I learned about the spirit world from a Crow Shaman named Thunder Horse. I think those were the happiest days of my life. I probably would have stayed with the Crows forever if that damn Custer hadn’t gone and got himself massacred in ‘76 at the Little Big Horn. When the scout Redshirt returned to the village, he told Bloody Knife I had to go. He said a white man in camp would only bring the Crow trouble, so I packed up my possibles and wandered south. I stuck close to the base of the Bitterroot Range and gave the Big Horn Valley a wide berth. When I hit the Bozeman Trail, I took it all the way to Fort Laramie. I was in Cheyenne, Wyoming when I heard news of General Crook’s misfortunes. I decided it was high time to go back east.” He took up his stick and pointed it at the far grave, “see that weed sticking up near Van’s stone, go pull that please.”
Nathan quickly obeyed, went over and pulled the weed and read the stone.
Sylvanus Meritton
1850 – 1919.
Faithful friend.
Beloved of the Church.
Nathan went back to the bench. The elderly monk’s one bright eye was a million miles away, lost in another time. “I was for Baltimore, being fairly well set up, having done some trapping and a little prospecting. Sold my pleus, cashed in some gold dust, bought myself a black broadcloth suit and burned my buckskins. Had myself a little medicine paint mustang mare named Patches. Bought her and me passage on the first eastbound train I could get. The following week I arrived in Baltimore. Sister Phoebe was now Mother Phoebe. I visited with her for a while and left her with a sack containing about a half a pound of gold dust. That was around Christmas time, 1876.”
Pan offered the young monk is a napkin with a piece of chocolate candy on it. “Pecan turtle? Smoking, whiskey, candy, and God are all the vices I have left.”
The young monk took the candy laughing heartily, “You are a caution sir! May I ask you a question?”
The old man nodded, chewing happily.
“Who are these men? I see you here every day, sitting and talking to yourself. You are never at mass or at meals. The only person I have seen you speak with is the Abbott.”
Old Pan refilled his pipe, finished chewing his candy, struck another match and lit up. “You are sharp boy. I can see why the Abbott sent you. Michael Dowd was my father’s best friend. He died in the Arizona desert in 1882, saving my life. Sylvanus over there was my best friend, boon companion and gentleman’s gentleman for 39 years. He and I saw good times and bad, rich times and poor. I believe he would have followed me to hell had I asked him. A few times he did. He knew Michael too, was there when he died, pulled his body out of a mantrap and brought it back here for burial. He was the only one to escape unscathed that day…” A faraway look in his eyes, voice trailing off, put down the pipe on the bench. Pan nudged Nathan and handed him a flask. “We are being forgetful of the formalities. Have a jolt to my absent friends.”
The young monk took a swallow from the flask, immediately choked and teared up, “what is that?” He gasped.
“Van Winkle’s Private Reserve, about 45 years old. Finest Bourbon, there is.”
Brother Nathan incredulous, “where did you get it?”
“I never took a vow of poverty. I have my resources.” Pan snickered.
“Would you please tell me their story?”
“You are curious one. I suppose someone should know the tale. The official story lies buried in the vaults of the Vatican. Aye, I will tell you all of it. You can bear the secret now.”

Chapter 1

Cold, grey fog swirls in off the Chesapeake Bay. Blanketed securely in the mist I quietly knock on the rear door of the Rectory of Saint Patrick’s. The old housekeeper answers my knock with a cold, fearful glare and a terse, “Father Alban is waiting for you in the study.” Stepping into the mudroom, I wordlessly move past the woman and make my way to the rear of the building. Silently entering, I startle the priest with my sudden appearance. Seated in one of a pair of high, wingback chairs facing the small fireplace, he indicates that I should join him. I produce a bottle of Van Winkles from the folds of my voluminous cloak and set it on the table between us. “Against the chill.” I offer. Father Alban opens a drawer in the table and produces a pair of small crystal tumblers. I pour out two measures of bourbon, take a sip of the fine old whiskey and settle down to wait.
The priest sipping appreciatively at his drink, smacked his lips and gave me a long look as if appraising my value to him and got down to business, “Pan, the dustup you had at Lucedio Abbey last year made you many enemies in Rome.”
Taking a long pull of bourbon, I fix him with a cold eye. “Alban, you know His Holiness personally sent me to Perugia. The Weeping Pillar as well as Abbot Octavio’s legendary tail are both quite real.” Patting my coat, “St. Samuel and St. Rizen protect me wherever I go.”
Father Alban with a pained look asked, “Have you met with Sylvanus yet?”
In point of fact my young boon companion had gone to ground for reasons of his own. Returning his look, “I have not laid eyes on Van in a week. He knows we are to meet tonight. He is likely attending vespers at The Horse You Rode Inn On, conducting additional research in the field of carnal knowledge. Perhaps he is just late.” The priest did not care for my reply.
“His Holiness has another request for the two of you.” Father Alban hissed.
“What is Leo’s keen interest in keeping me gainfully employed?” I demanded.
He ignored my question, whispering conspiratorially, “What do you know of The Knot of Infinity?”
I glanced about the room. There are far too many ears in the house tonight for my comfort. “The Knot of Infinity, better known as Solomon’s Knot if my memory serves me. A legend, a metaphor for everlasting faith and the endless cycle of existence.” I quietly reply.
Father Alban wore a miniscule grin, “You are partially correct. It is Solomon’s Knot. What do you know of its history?”
Intrigued, I whisper, “Next to nothing. As I said, it is nothing but an old fable, a mythic symbol of faith. Somehow I believe there is more to it than that or we would not be discussing it.”
Father Alban nodding, “On the sixth of May 1527, Charles III Duke of Bourbon was killed while commanding the assault on Vatican Hills. Spaniards under the Prince of Orange, Philibert of Chalon and Landsknechts under Georg von Frundsberg slaughtered 187 Swiss Guards and the remnants of the garrison of Rome. They gave their lives to buy enough time for the Pope to escape to Castelo San Angelo. Kaspar Roist, Captain of the Swiss Guards was killed in front of his wife Elizabeth Klingler. Roist and Klingler are your ancestors.”
His words stunned me. Familiar with the story of the 1527 sacking of Rome and the last stand of the Swiss Guard, I never imagined I was related in any way to brave Captain Roist. “How do you know Roist and Elizabeth Klingler are my ancestors? What does it have to do with Solomon’s Knot?”
“Pan, the church has known who your parents are for a very long time. Your Mother came to me shortly after your birth and begged that I protect you. She was convinced that your deformities were the result of your Father’s investigations, a vengeful curse placed on him by enemies of the Church. Your Father’s name was Johann Roist. He died in the service of the Knights of Malta. His lifelong mission was to find Solomon’s Knot.”
I pour another two fingers of bourbon in my tumbler. “You sit there and tell me you have always known the identity of my parents. Now I find out my father died in the service of the Knights of Malta searching for Solomon’s Knot. He died for nothing. The knot is a legend.” I shot back, voice low and angry.
Father Alban shook his head confidently, “It is quite real. It was a Blue Amber pendant worn by King Solomon.”
My thoughts reeling, “I have never heard of Blue Amber.” I absently reply.
Warming to his tale. “Because Blue Amber is quite rare, the only known source is the island of Hispaniola, now known as Haiti.”
“Haiti? In the West Indies?” I return incredulously. “Why is it always the crazy ones?” I mutter.
“Haiti. In the West Indies.” The priest assures me.
Now skeptical, I retort with forced courtesy, “Father Alban. Please tell me how something from Haiti found its way to Solomon.”
“That is another of Solomon’s great mysteries. Perhaps the fabled mines are not in Africa, but in the Americas.” Smiling, the old bastard enjoying himself, he continued. “The pendant is in the pattern of an interlocking cross, carved from a solid, flawless piece of blue amber, approximately four inches square and one inch in thickness. It was believed to focus Solomon’s wisdom, knowledge and occult powers over the djinn. It is also the seat of his renowned sexual prowess. Solomon’s Knot is one of the most valuable of the Holy Relics stolen in May 1527. Von Frundsberg gave the pendant to Philibert of Chalon as a gift to Charles V. Once he discovered the power of the relic in his possession, he decided to keep it. He returned to France to Chateau Chalon. Almost immediately, he was summoned by the Charles V back to the war in Italy. Philibert quickly traveled to Vezelay and hid Solomon’s Knot in the Church of Santa Magdalena, where the most holy relics of Mary Magdalene are cached. In the event of his demise, he gave orders to the Captain of the Spanish infantry to recover the relic and secret it away where it might never be found. Philibert was killed in 1530 and the Spaniard obeyed his commander’s orders with alacrity. The Blue Amber carving was recovered and returned to the New World. Records indicate that it was entrusted to Francisco Vásquez de Coronado before he traveled to New Spain in 1535. He reports that he secreted the pendant in a massive ‘speluncam’, a cave, in what is now Central Arizona Territory. Six months ago, your Father, ignoring news that Geronimo had been raiding in the area, traveled alone into the Superstition Mountains. He discovered a large cave, gave it a cursory inspection, and then returned to Phoenix for supplies. He sent me a telegram reporting the find. He said the cave is treacherous. It was once inhabited and is cut with narrow catacombs, dotted with mantraps and bottomless pits. He called it the ‘Entrance to Hell’. Your Father also noted that he was being followed. He was sure that his pursuers were not Apaches or he would be dead. Johann returned to mountains to continue his exploration. A cavalry unit on routine patrol found his body two weeks ago and discovered a letter addressed to me. The army sent me a telegram informing me of his death.”
Sipping my bourbon, staring into the dying embers of the fire, I speculate over the truth of the priest’s incredible tale. I give a questioning look at Father Alban. I had missed something he said in the miasma of my thoughts. “Oatmeal cookie?” The priest offered. “Taste wonderful when you dunk them,” and popped a bourbon soaked confection into his mouth.

It was nearing eleven of the clock when the meeting with Father Alban ended. Concealed in my cloak is a pouch containing one-thousand dollars in double eagles. My wallet holds seventeen Yankee dollars and a letter of credit for Wells Fargo with funds guaranteed by the Vatican Bank. The Rectory was quiet; the only sound is Father Alban climbing the stairs to his room. Making my way to the mudroom, I inspect the alley leading to the street. Loosening my Navy revolver and the two .31 Baby Dragoons I carry, I slip noiselessly out the door and into the darkness. Keeping to the shadows, I make my way to the front of the church and fade into a nook near the front stairs. I am well concealed in my black cloak, settling myself I watch the street for movement. I have to get from Richmond to Baltimore by noon tomorrow. One-hundred-fifty miles by horse or rail. A horse killing ride and there are no trains until six of the clock tomorrow morning. Two-hundred-fifty miles by water and the docks are too far. Flying it will be. Four blocks south at 25th and Cary St. sat the terminal for the Chesapeake Bay Airship Company. It is eleven of the clock and I have one hour to book passage on the midnight mail flight to Fredericksburg, Washington and Baltimore. Mind made up, the glow of a cigarette in the shadows across the street catches my eye.
I reach behind me and draw my Bowie knife. It is a wicked blade. Razor sharp and sixteen inches long. Holding the knife inside my cloak, close to my side, walking briskly across the churchyard, I head south toward the CBAC terminal. The cigarette glows in an arc into the street and two figures materialize from the shadows moving in my direction. Hurrying across Grace St. and turning quickly into the alley halfway down the block, I push into the shadows of a hedgerow and wait. I hear the pounding of their boots as they cross Grace St. The sound says both are running flat out so as not to lose me. A figure impetuously runs right into the alley. He falls like a sack of potatoes with the effrontery to look surprised when my Bowie magically appears in his throat. Cautiously, the second man moves into alley. Stooping to check his compatriot, I see he is gripping a strange weapon of some sort against his leg. Standing up he thumbs a catch and a bulbous pickle shaped barrel begins to glow, pulsing with dull green light.
“Brilliant! A Krupp Aether Particle Matter Disruptionator!”
Having no ambitions of spending my last moments as a bloody puddle of bones and tissue in that alley, I stay in the hedgerow and wait until he is abreast of me. Pulling my Navy Colt, I extend my arm and put a bullet behind his right ear. Following his brains, my would be assailant hit the ground to the left of where he stood. I pick up the Krupp. No longer glowing, I fervently pray that it was now safe to handle. I relieve them of their wallets,watches, and leaving their weapons but keeping the Krupp. A faint blotch on the impetuous man’s left hand catches my attention. Lighting a match, I saw a small black tattoo of a left hand.
“Sinistram Atra Manus. The mark of The Black Hand. Wonderful! First that lunatic Guiteau, now this. What do they want with me?” I heard steam ejecting from the airship docked two blocks away and the tooting of police whistles coming toward me. “No time to sort this out now. I must make that flight!”
An hour later, over Ashland, Virginia, I sat relaxing in my stateroom aboard one of CBAC’s smaller dirigibles, Pride of Appomattox. Avoiding the coppers, I immediately went to the Men’s Convenience at the CBAC terminal and washed my face with cold water. I tipped the attendant to tidy my cravat and brush down my coat. I got myself a shine. The shine boy gave me frightened look at the sight of blood on my boots. A double-eagle bought his silence when the constables rushed past and a first rate shine. I sauntered over to the ticket agent at quarter of twelve. I bought a first-class passage with stateroom and leisurely walked up the gangplank, the last passenger to board. Taking in my gleaming leather topper, heavy silk cloak and expensive riding boots, the coppers took me for a dandy and waved me aboard.

Pandelirious Malifecto Posted from WordPress for Android

Tools

A dry case of leather, His initials, He engraved.
Carved roses, and vines, the lining, smooth and shaved.
Bevels, shaders, and stamps, show their heads;
The swivel knife alone, a razor edge, which to dread.
The case, sits on my bench, in a place of its’ own;
Softly radiating power, but not flesh, and bone.
The knowledge within, glows softly loving, not dower.
Voices guide my hand; I am never alone.
Tools whispering quietly, it is they, that I hear.
Work slowly, tap gently, be confident, do not fear!
The cuts come first, a path, which to follow.
Beveling comes next; the muffled hammer, sounds hollow.
The work, finally done, the pain, barely a bother.
I say, “Many thanks.”, talking with, my dead Father.

A Changling’s Joy

There was a time that people believed children born with severe birth defects or developmental disabilities were left by fairies in place of a beautiful child. European folktales call these children Changlings. My birth defect is called, bi-lateral, assymetrical, phocomelia of the upper extremities. It is extremely rare. The obstetrics and pediatric nurses would not show me to my mother.
“It was a difficult birth.”
“She’s very weak. The shock could kill her.”
“I’ve never seen such a thing.”
I have never met another human being who looks like me.
Birth defects effect the mind and emotions. Long ago I accepted that I was different and always would be. My mother taught me to treat life’s difficulties as challenges to be overcome. The word “can’t” was not to pass from my lips. Frustration became my ally, tears my friends. I learned to internalize my feelings. I learned not to complain. I learned not to tell my parents when I was bullied by classmates and my teacher.
My mother’s response mantra would follow any complaint or doubt. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and wallowing in self-pity. Nobody likes a whiner Jack. Remember with God’s help you can do anything.”
I preferred my father’s response of pained, helpless silence. It was honest and poignant.
I believe my childhood taught me to treat happiness with suspicion. When presented with the great joys of life, I am in polar opposition to accepted norms. For instance, I remember when my wife was pregnant with my oldest daughter, Tara. My attitude should have been one of excitement and anticipation. In the long weeks leading up to the first ultrasound, my mind was devoured by gnawing fear. Dread filled my days, night terrors haunted my slumber. I had no one to turn to. No authority who knew absolutely if my birth defects could be passed on. God, as usual, had on His poker face and was mum on the subject. On the day of the test, I hovered over the Doctor’s shoulder. I made him count the arms, legs, fingers and toes twice.
The immense weight of anxiety and stress lifted immediately upon hearing the Doctor’s words, “Everything is normal. Two arms and legs. Ten fingers and toes.”
This scenario played out three more times over twelve years. I never felt any joy upon learning of my wife’s pregnancies. I find no regret in this, only an odd sense of guilt, in that I robbed my wife of what should be now be a precious, happy memory.

Entropy 2

Bear sat at the kitchen table watching the horses in the east pasture. The clock on the stove read 7:22 a.m. It was a beautiful June day. His father, Ralph, came into the kitchen. He took his cup off the counter and poured his first cup of coffee of the day. He joined Bear at the kitchen table.
Ralph refused to call his son Bear.
“Otto, it’s a beautiful day. What do you say to us taking Little Ralph fossil hunting down at the creek?”
Bear shook his head.
“Negative. I’m going up to the coal-face after breakfast. I’m bringing down a few loads with the Bobcat. I want to get a head start filling the coalbin this year.”
Ralph shrugged.
“Suit yourself. Kids are only young once.”
Bear chuckled.
“Don’t get your bowels in an uproar Dad. I’ll be along when I’m done.”
Ralph took a sip of coffee and smiled
Ralph Patrick Harris, Bear and Trina’s only child, named for both their fathers, walked into the kitchen rubbing sleep from his eyes. Sunka, their four year old Pyrenees, was glued to the boy’s side. The boy walked over to the table sat down between his father and grandfather. The dog went to his water bowl.
Bear tousled his son’s thick black hair.
“Good morning Ralphie. How did you sleep?”
Ralph Patrick yawned and stretched.
“Really warm. Sunka slept with me last night. He’s a bed hog.”
Bear and his father both laughed at the boy. Sunka, who was busy lapping up water, looked up at the mention of his name. He walked over and sat down between his boy and his man. Ralph Patrick automatically stroked Sunka’s head.
“You want some OJ boy?” Ralph asked his grandson.
“Yes please, sir.”
“I’ll get it Dad. You enjoy your coffee and see what Ralphie thinks about your plan for the day.”
While Bear got his son a glass of orange juice, his father and son had their heads together whispering about their plans for the day. Bear gave the juice to his son and took his cup to the stove for more coffee.
He held up the pot.
“Dad?”
His father nodded and held out his cup. Bear refilled it and returned to the table.
Trina walked into the kitchen with her mother-in-law, Emma Harris. Trina wore a gray “SUNY ATHLETICS” midriff sweatshirt, neon yellow over black trail running shoes and matching spandex running shorts. Her long raven hair was wound into a tight bun. Emma was dressed comfortably in a pink velour robe and matching slippers. Her dark auburn hair, neatly brushed, hung loosely to her shoulders. They both came over to the table and greeted their men with kisses. Ralph Patrick got the first kisses, then, their husbands got theirs. Ralph pinched Emma’s backside and made her jump.
Emma pursed her lips, with a twinkle in her eye.
“Not in front of the kids Ralph.”
Ralph roared with laughter. Trina blushed. Bear rolled his eyes and Ralph Patrick giggled.
“That’s not nice grandpa.”
Emma smiled at her grandson.
“My champion speaks. You’re in for it now old man.”
Ralph Patrick giggled again.
“Yeah Grandpa, I have to defend Grandma’s honor.”
It was Trina’s turn to laugh.
“Mom? What have you been reading to my son?”
Emma looked at Trina seriously.
“Sir Walter Scott’s, Ivanhoe. It’s good for a boy to learn about chivalry at a young age.”
Ralph held out his hands.
“Easy boy. No need to get feisty. I’m just playing with your Grandma. I promise to be nice.”
Ralph Patrick looked up at his Grandfather searching his face.
“Okay.”
Ralph turned his attention to Trina
“Where are you off to in that outfit you’re almost wearing?”
Trina blushed again.
“I run every day. You know that Dad.”
Bear and Ralph laughed at this.
Bear smiled at his wife with a twinkle in his eye.
“You’re the best advertisement SUNY could ask for. I hope you’re billing them for your time. What are you doing after your run?”
Emma turned to her son.
“Trina and I are going to town. Walmart has fabric on sale. We’re going to get some flannel with the Transformers print and make Ralphie some pj’s and a matching comforter.”
Three hours later, sweating, thirsty, frustrated and angry, Bear pulled a bottle of water from the cooler on the Bobcat and pressed the cold plastic against his forehead. After blasting the coalface, he broke three teeth off the Bobcat’s bucket. He had to drive three quarters of a mile to the cabin to get the keys to his toolbox and then drive back down to the stage-barn to replace the broken teeth.
“Nearly eleven and not one bucket of coal.”
Bear twisted off the cap on the bottle, put it to his lips and drained it. He grabbed another bottle and walked out of the stage-barn into bright sunlight. He could hear his father and son whooping with excitement over some new discovery. The Station was a great place for raising kids. He walked further out into the barnyard. Bear studied the sky over the Grand Hogback. Angry, green-black clouds were building over the ridgeline.
“I’ll have to keep an eye on that.”
He went back to work.
“There, three buckets done, now I can play.” Bear said to himself.
His watch read 14:37. Bear went to the cabin and took three cans of iced tea from the refrigerator. The sky had darkened considerably. Gusts from a freshening west wind blew dust into the air. Bear smelled rain on the breeze. A bright flash lit the sky. Three seconds later the crashing boom of thunder startled him. The storm was coming fast. A muffled roaring noise echoed down the valley.
“Dad and Ralphie are still at the creek!”
He dropped the tea and ran for the stage-barn.
Bear rounded the corner of the building. He spotted Sunka at the far corner of the pasture. Hysteria had taken the dog. He stood atop the twenty-foot high creek bank, barking frantically. Bear threw climbing gear and a one-hundred foot coil of rope into the bed of the six-by-six ATV. He mashed down the accelerator and stabbed the ignition button with his finger. The 1,000cc engine howled into life. The ATV shot out the barn door.
The roaring noise echoing off the ridges drowned the howl of the ATV’s engine. Bear looked up the valley. A relentless wave advanced rapidly down Rifle Creek. Bear floored the ATV and bounced across the wide pasture. The speedometer pegged at fifty miles per hour. He winced, hearing the flashflood slam into the culvert pipes at the crossing.
Ralph and Little Ralph were in the deep gulch past the end of the pasture. Sunka raised hell atop the high, nearly vertical creek bank. The creek bed was strewn with boulders. Dogwood trees grew right down to the water’s edge.
“Sunka must have a critter cornered up there.”
Ralph stared quizzically into Sunka’s desperate eyes.
“What’s that noise Grandpa?”
Ralph was hard of hearing.
“Huh? What noise?”
Ralph Patrick was wide-eyed.
“It sounds like a train.”
The lightning flash and boom of thunder frightened both of them. Ralph heard the noise now. He smelled the moisture in the air as the pressure wave went past them. He blanched.
“What was that Grandpa?”
“Run for the cut Little Ralph!”
The boy was dumbstruck. His grandfather never shouted at him. Ralph scooped up the boy. He ran for the cut in the creek bank. His legs were leaden. His heart pounded. Pain exploded in his left arm. The water, suddenly deeper, drug at his feet. Little Ralph heard the howling engine of the six by six.
“Daddy’s coming in the Polaris Grandpa.”
“I hear him boy.” Ralph panted.
His eyes found the cut in the bank fifty yards ahead. He ran faster. He heard the flashflood hit the culverts. Three seconds and fifteen yards later, Ralph Harris and his grandson were swept up in a twelve-foot high wall of water, pipes, tree branches, rocks, mud and debris. Little Ralph was torn from his Grandfather’s arms. His terrified scream chocked off by water and mud. Ralph and the boy struggled in the hellish maelstrom.
“Emma!”
“Mommy!”
Ralph and the boy’s last thoughts shrieked helplessly in their minds.
Bear stopped the ATV next to the cut. Sunka rushed up to him. He ran back toward the creek barking furiously. Bear grabbed the rope and ran headlong for the cut. Reaching it, he stopped dead in his tracks. Rifle Creek was running bank full. He was too late. He ran along the trail atop the bank. Lightning flashed. Thunder rolled. The sky opened up. Heavy rain and hail hammered Bear into the ground. He crawled to the edge of the bank.
“Ralphie. Dad. Ralphie, Dad where are you?” He shouted.
Rushing water, the splintering of wood, lightning and the crash of thunder answered his queries. Bear rose to knees and wept, mocked by the satanic laughter of the storm and flood.

Entropy

westslope

                        Otto ‘Bear’ Harris stepped out of the shower and glanced at the ‘My Little Pony’ clock. Otto hated the little clock. It disconcerted him and clashed with the royal blue and white tile of the bathroom. The pink color, reminded him of Pepto Bismol. He hated Pepto Bismol. The cloying flavor and chalky texture felt like liquid sandpaper. It reminded him of cleanser. Thinking of it made him nauseous. It was 12:30 a.m., the last Friday in November, the day after Thanksgiving. Elk hunting season began on Saturday.

He was six feet-five inches and weighed two-hundred-forty pounds. He was naturally muscular and lean. Marine drill instructors dubbed him “Bear.” During close combat training, he accidentally broke the instructor’s jaw. Otto maintained that all he did was block the instructor’s blow, and slap him in the face. The young sergeant claimed a bear mauled him. All through Otto’s time in the marines, Force Recon, and as a detective with the Aurora Police Department, the nickname stuck, he was Bear.

Bear’s wife, Trina, dozed in their king sized bed. She could feel Bear’s presence in the bathroom. She could not hear him, but knew he was there. He was a quiet man, physically and emotionally.

Damned recon Marine!”

Trina sat up, drawing her knees to her chin. She wrapped her arms around her legs, hugging them tightly. The bedroom was dark – the house – quiet. A white glow undulated through a slit in the drapes. Outside, a rare autumn blizzard swathed the Denver Metro area with heavy snow. A blanket of cold silence smothered the city’s bustling noise. She could hear their Great Pyrenees, Sunka, snoring downstairs in the living room.

Bear finished toweling off. He padded into the bedroom and nodded to his wife, acknowledging that she was awake. He stole a glance at her. Trina… brilliant… lovely. His divine gift and blessing, his bane and weakness. She is a petite five-one and one-hundred pounds with her hair soaking wet. Her mother was a dusky, Persian beauty, her father, a ruddy Irishman. She is a perfect blend of both, her long radiant raven hair and fine features from her mother, creamy Celtic skin from her father… a Greek statue personified, with full, firm breasts and softly curved hips. A classically trained ballerina, the rest of her body was carefully chiseled and taut. Trina held advanced degrees from SUNY in Systems Engineering and Dance. Gifted with a brilliant mind, a savant at signals analysis, numbers, patterns and waves spoke to her. She used her doctorate to lend impetus to her career and achievements in science. She gave up ballet long ago and indulged in belly dancing to keep her body fit. Bear approved.

“You’re awake.”

He was not surprised. She never slept when he was not in bed.

“Mmmhmm,” she replied.

Bear moved silently about the bedroom, gathering his possibles.

Trina studied his backside as he moved, “Magnificent,” she thought. Warmth spread through her loins.

“I’m taking Sunka with me.” Bear remarked, pulling a pair of black boxer shorts over his tightly muscled buttocks.

“I’m going to the office in the morning.” Trina replied, no longer aroused. Lying down once more, she rolled away from the sight of her husband, giving him her back. “It will be quiet there tomorrow. Everyone will be at home, enjoying the holiday,” she continued coolly.

Bear pulled on a pair of heavy woolen socks.

“Dispatcher at the State Patrol Office says that I-70 is still a damn mess and getting worse. Past the Divide, from the tunnel to Dillon, it’s all black ice,” he replied.

Trina squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and slowly opened them.

“I have to clean out my office,” she said quietly, snuggling deeper under the comforter.

The room was toasty. A small fire blazed merrily in the bedroom’s hearth. Trina felt ice cold, like she would never be warm again. She drew neither comfort nor joy from the little fire.

“Rifle Gap got hit hard yesterday. Tobias called from Meeker last night,” Bear said, from inside a heavy cable-knit sweater. “Three and a half feet of snow on the Four Corners… do you think the Defender will be able to make it to The Station?” His head popped out of the sweater.

“My transfer to Gulfport went through,” Trina said quietly, her face nearly buried in her pillow.

Bear went to the cavernous walk-in closet for his hunting boots. “Do you know if the sump company made it out to The Station?” he called, sounding distant. “Tobias said the Elk herds are thick this year. He swears he saw a thousand pound bull with a sixteen-point rack. Can you imagine that, honey?”

“You can’t call me at the office anymore,” whispered Trina.

She heard the loud click of the big safe, where Bear kept their long guns. He came out of their closet. His right hand gripped a rifle encased in a richly tooled, floral patterned, leather scabbard. His left hand held a box of cartridges.

“I’m taking the 8mm Remington.”

“I’m not selling the Cherokee,” she shot back defiantly, “it’s mine.”

Bear gave her a heavy sigh. “Have you seen my orange vest and hat?” He quietly asked.

He knelt on the floor and searched under the bed. Shoulder deep in dog toys, he felt the bill of his cap and pulled. Out came a tattered bill and no cap.

“Damned dog,” he muttered. “Did you hear anything on that new storm moving in? I don’t want to get stuck out there. I might have to eat Sunka,” he joked.

Trina felt Bear kneel on the bed. He nibbled her earlobe, and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek. She stiffened at the touch of his lips.

“I love you,” he breathed urgently. Bear waited in vain a moment, longing for Trina’s affirmation. She remained oblivious, stiff and silent. He rose sharply from the bed. Seizing the rifle, shells and a backpack, he stalked out the door. Trina felt his feet pound down the stairs.

“Come on Sunka! Let’s go!” Bear called.

A single resounding bark came in answer, followed by the scrambling of paws. The kitchen door leading into the garage closed with a soft click.

A car door slammed. The Land Rover’s engine started in the garage below. The automatic garage door thrummed open. The engine growled when Bear put it in gear and reversed into the snow-covered driveway. The engine noise hushed when the garage door rumbled closed. Trina strained to hear the engine now. Bear’s departure was absorbed by the heavy white silence, enveloping the night. She tried to swallow the lump filling her throat, wiping a hot tear from her cheek.

Trina asked the empty house, “Where’s the trunk with my summer clothes? I want my red, Brazilian bikini.”

**********

Sunka opened his eyes at the sound of the car’s turn signal. Bear was exiting I-70 at the CO-789 junction in Rifle. The dog felt the car lurch and the tires bite the drifting snow. Sunka let out a soft whine as the man downshifted and took his foot from the accelerator.

“Easy boy, we’re almost there.” Bear said quietly.

Click click click. Click. Click. Click. Click click click.

Sunka perked his ears at the sound. He sat up in the backseat. The man was rhythmically tapping the gearshift knob with his index finger. Sunka disliked the noise. It made him anxious.

Bear drove north through Rifle. At the edge of town, he turned right on CO-325. Driving cautiously up the narrow canyon toward Rifle Gap, he followed the roadside snow markers. A foot of fresh, unmarked snow covered the road. The snow markers indicated three-foot drifts. Bear was not worried about getting to The Station. His Defender 90 had a short wheelbase and full time four-wheel drive.

“My transfer to Gulfport went through.” His mind replayed Trina’s words.

“Damn it Trina. What the hell are you doing?” Bear voiced his thoughts.

Click click click. Click. Click. Click. Click click click.

Sunka moved behind Bear on the backseat. He put his soft white head on the man’s shoulder. Bear took his hand from the gearshift. He stroked the dog’s muzzle. Thick wiry whiskers tickled his palm.

“We’re almost there big guy. Everything is all right,” Bear reassured the dog and himself.

Sunka closed his eyes and gave a contented sigh.

The snow tapered off immediately when Bear passed through Rifle Gap. The ridgeline of the Grand Hogback channeled the worst of the storm to the south slope. He bore left on a right hand curve, leaving CO-325, passing the reservoir on CO-252. There were six miles left. The two-lane macadam road was not plowed. The snow had drifted over the road eighteen inches deep. The car lurched. Bear fought the steering wheel for control.

“Shit!”

He moved his hand back to the gearshift knob and downshifted.

Click click click. Click. Click. Click. Click click click.

Sunka watched the man shift into four-wheel drive low. The transmission groaned, whined and shuddered into low gear. The dog lay back down on the seat, shut his eyes and listened to the incessant tapping.

The sharp left turn off CO-252 at The Station woke Sunka with a start. The snow choked driveway angled down sharply and flattened over a triple set of culvert pipes, set in concrete. Rifle Creek was frozen. Bear turned left behind a windbreak of Norwegian Aspen trees shielding the cabin from the road. The trees were leafless and skeletal in the yellow beams of the fog lights.

Sunka bounced on the seat, barking impatiently, his tail wagged in a joyous circle. The man was laughing. Bear parked in the carport behind the cabin. He got out and opened Sunka’s door. The dog leapt out of the car. He rolled himself in the snow, got up, shook himself free of the icy treat and ran off into the front yard. He capered, zigzagged and sniffed, stopping at the trailhead leading to the old coach barn. He dug into the snow with a gusto born of desperation revealing an ugly garden gnome wearing a red hat. Sunka lifted his leg and sprayed the gnome’s face, establishing his presence to the local critters.

Bear unloaded his gear and stowed it in the small, front bedroom. He did not wish to sleep in the master bedroom without Trina. He opened the front door. Sunka was outside, in the white darkness, exploring the yard. Bear observed the dog’s antics for a moment.

“Come Sunka. Come here boy.”

Sunka instantly obeyed, making a beeline for the cabin. He barreled past the man. Bear shut the door and got out of the way. The dog took his bed in his massive jaws, dragging it to the front door. Sunka loved the draft from under the door. He would not sleep anywhere else in the cabin.

Bear put dry manila rope, oak chips and kindling in the fireplace. He took a flint and steel from the mantle and knelt in front of the grate. He rapidly struck the flint with the steel striker, sending white-hot sparks onto the rope. Flames burst from the tinder, igniting the kindling. Bear returned the fire-starter to the mantel and went to the bar in the corner of the living room. He took a large, cut crystal tumbler from the shelf. Reaching under the bar, he brought out a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Private Reserve.

Ah. The good stuff.

Fifty-seven years old, considered the finest bourbon made, he poured three fingers into the tumbler.

Sunka lay in front of the door out of sorts. The woman was not here. She always came to his place with the man. She always gave him bacon when they arrived. He watched the man across the room. He was drinking something that smelled awful. He was making that noise again.

Bear tapped his belt buckle.

Click click click. Click. Click. Click. Click click click.

Bear walked over to the big bay window overlooking the long east pasture. He opened the heavy drapes. Bear sat down in a large, walnut mission chair. He contemplated his whiskey. His grandfather gave this bourbon to his father forty-two years ago to commemorate the birth of his first grandchild. He took in a mouthful of the dark amber fluid. He rolled it on his tongue and pushed it through his teeth. It was rich and smoky, with a hint of charred oak and mash. He swallowed. Cool, liquid fire, burned down his throat. A wildfire blazed in his stomach, filling him with a warm glow.

Click click click. Click. Click. Click. Click click click.

“Why would Trina want to live in Gulfport? Our life is here, in Colorado.”

Sunka perked his ears at his voice.

Trina had never been to Mississippi until twelve weeks ago. EEI, Eton Electronic Innovations, employed her as Project Manager developing highly sensitive, signals intercept software. They sent her to Gulfport to oversee the system test on new Aegis class Destroyers. It had been raining in Denver. Gulfport was sunny and eighty degrees.

Click click click. Click. Click. Click. Click click click.

She had come back gushing about the place. The friendly people. The food. The warm breezes. The beautiful calm waters and beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

He tapped his buckle louder, more insistent.

Click click click. Click. Click. Click. Click click click.

Sunka got up, went over to the man and sat next to him. He nudged the man’s shoulder with his nose. The man took his hand from his belt buckle and scratched the dog behind the ears. Sunka turned his snowy white face to the man, staring at him with soulful black eyes.

“You miss her too, don’t you? Come on, I know what you want.”

Bear rose from the chair and walked to the kitchen. Sunka followed. He walked over to the refrigerator and removed a package of ready to eat bacon. Sunka made a sound halfway between a sigh and a quiet bark.

“Chuff.”

The man walked back to the chair with the dog at his heels. He sat down. The dog sat down.

“Chuff.”

Bear opened the bacon and held out a piece to Sunka. The dog reverently accepted the offering of bacon from the man. Bear gazed out the bay window, across the pasture, toward the Divide. The storm was moving quickly east. The snow had stopped and the sky was clearing.

“Chuff”.

Bear gave the dog another piece of bacon.

It’s not like it rains and snows all of the time.”

He was flummoxed. Trina had been behaving strangely for months. The trip to Gulfport and her unilateral decision to transfer to EEI’s Marine Support Division had floored Bear.

“Chuff.”

The man gave Sunka the rest of the bacon. He held up his open hand to show he did not have anymore. Sunka licked his hand in gratitude and went back to his bed and beloved draft. The dog closed his eyes and began softly snoring.

Click click click. Click. Click. Click. Click click click.

Bear tapped the tumbler.

“Chuff,” groused a sleeping Sunka.

**********

Trina took out her employee ID badge. Her picture smiled winningly from below the EEI logo. A broad red bar signified a Top Secret clearance. She presented it to an EEI Denver Operations security officer. Signing in, she walked to the entrance of the SCIF1. Trina slid her badge through the card reader, leaned forward and looked into the retina scanner. The electronic door lock made a loud metallic snap. Opening the heavy, reinforced steel door, she walked through the airlock into the SCIF.

The soles of her deck shoes made no sound as she walked down the long, gray carpeted, corridor. The SCIF is spooky on weekends and holidays. The building was nearly silent. A low steady hum emanated from the document shredding room. Federal construction requirements allowed for no sound in or out beyond the walls. The single story building is windowless. Reinforced concrete, exterior walls, are one foot thick. The interior walls and ceilings are Navajo white. Office cubicles are dark grey. Chairs are black. The decor is somber, serious and sterile. It reflects the proper attitude the company encourages employees acquire toward the mission. Trina stopped in front of an ornately carved mahogany door, punched her code into the electronic keypad lock, and entered her office.

EEI rewarded its best and brightest executive scientists, like herself, the perquisite of choosing decor and furniture to their liking. Trina enjoyed her office. It was her sanctum sanctorum. The furniture, like the door, was ornately carved mahogany. A parquet floor, covered with a bright, cloud patterned Persian rug lay beneath her feet. She walked over to her chair, a tall old-fashioned wingback. The oxblood leather matched the mahogany. A one hundred gallon saltwater aquarium sat in the corner nearest her desk. Its sole occupant, Ocho, a Giant Pacific Octopus, was barely visible in his coral lair. A compact bar and entertainment center sat in the opposite corner nearest her desk. The far corners were anchored by twin, bonsai cut, pinyon pine trees. Her office smelled of the sea, leather, lemon oil and fresh pine.

Trina walked to her chair and sat down. She had very little left to pack. After she went home on Wednesday, her secretary had stayed and packed most of her belongings into two file boxes. They were sitting next to the door waiting to go home. She had left the photographs and a fresh rose on her desk. Trina would take the pictures with her today. The rest of the office would be dismantled on Monday and shipped to Gulfport. Transporting Ocho was proving to be impossible. The beautiful octopus was going to his new home at the Denver Zoo on Monday. The rest of her office would be reassembled in Gulfport. It would be ready for her to occupy in two weeks. It took three years and eighty brilliant mathematicians and systems engineers to bring her conceptual design of the new Signals Intercept Notification System, SINS, to fruition. Now she would oversee the installation and deployment of her system in the US Navy’s newest destroyers.

**********

Blinding white light streaming through the window woke Bear. He yawned, stretched, threw his arms wide and knocked the whiskey tumbler off the end table. Drops of clear amber liquid pooled on the floor, refracting tiny rainbows of light on the walls. Bear pulled himself up from the low-slung chair. His bladder nagged him for release. He quickly strode down the hall to the bathroom.

Past the stark light glaring through the living room window, fresh snow glistened in the east pasture. An enormous bull elk cautiously emerged from the south canyon. He moved warily out into the pasture. The snow was up to his chest. He leapt, bounding and thrusting his body through the deep powder, working across the dangerous open space. He reached the other side, disappearing into the safety of the dogwood thicket edging Rifle Creek.

Sunka’s eyes followed the man’s move to the bathroom. His back was against the cabin door. The icy draft caressed his skin through the thick fur. He knew the man would let him go outside soon. Sunka stirred himself. He rose, stretching his paws out in front of him and pushed his hindquarters high. His tail curved in a circle over his back. The dog walked to the kitchen straight to his bowls. He sniffed the empty food bowl, and then lapped up a cool drink of water.

“Hey Sunka. There’s the big boy.”

Bear walked over to the stove and took up a battered, old steel coffee pot. A tiny flake of blue porcelain detached itself from the pot and drifted down to the stovetop. Bear turned the hot-water tap. He removed the percolator stem and let water flow into the pot. He put the pot on the stove. Striking a match, he turned a knob and lit the burner. A bright blue-yellow flame hissed into life beneath the pot. Bear put fresh Arabica beans in an antique mill and turned the crank. The rich, smoky aroma of the ground coffee beans filled the kitchen. He emptied the coarse grindings into the tin basket, put the percolator stem into the pot, and replaced the glass-topped lid.

The bull elk stood next to the creek. He smelled the water rushing past him beneath its frozen shell. He struck the edge of the ice with his broad, cloven hoof.

Crack!

Great shards of ice flew into the crisp morning air. Long frozen splinters stuck to the fur on his shins. He struck again.

Crack!

Chunks of ice skittered in all directions. Water welled up on the surface. He struck a third time.

Crack!

The ice broke. Frigid water splashed up the bull’s leg. The broken chunks of ice were whisked away by the chill current. The noise echoed up and down the narrow valley. The elk bent his thick neck to the freezing water and drank.

Bear filled Sunka’s food bowl. The dog sat patiently waiting for his meal. His ears were upright and alert. He listened to the echoing cracks over the noise of the dry nuggets pouring into his bowl. Bear put Sunka’s bowl on the floor and snapped his fingers. The dog lost all pretense of decorum. He greedily devoured his food. Bear watched him eat.

“I’m hungry too,” he said.

The bull finished drinking. He bunched his haunches and vaulted Rifle Creek. The high, nearly vertical opposite bank stood before him. He picked his way down the bank toward the bright morning sun and found a narrow break in the bank. He scrambled upward, slipping in the snow and slush, to the shoulder of the road. The elk crossed the empty road in two easy leaps. A third leap put him over the four-foot snowdrift covering the barbwire fence on the opposite shoulder. He disappeared into the dense chaparral.

Sunka finished eating, took another drink, walked to the cabin door, and sat down.

“Chuff.”

Bear ambled over, moved the dog bed with his foot, and opened the door. Sunka looked up at the man with a silent plea. Bear snapped his fingers twice and the dog shot out into the cold, bright morning. He raced to the nearest fence post and raised his leg in a business-like manner. The man shook his head and shut the door. Sunka lowered his leg and perked his ears, listening to a disturbance in the brush next to the stream. He bounded through the snowdrifts toward the pasture. His nose caught a familiar scent and he turned toward it. Sunka bent his head to a fresh pile of scat. His nose told him it belonged to the male cougar that haunted the area. He did not notice the bull elk climbing the ridge behind him.

**********

Trina kept three photographs on her desk. She packed the gold framed picture of her parents and the silver framed, black and white glossy of her favorite wedding photo. They had been on the far left corner of her desk. The last photograph remained on the far right corner of her desk. A plain, black enameled, wood frame enshrines a photo of an older gentleman and a young boy. The frame has a jet beaded rosary hanging on one corner and a bud vase with a single, yellow rose next to it. Trina stared at the photo of her father-in-law and her seven year old son. She wondered if Bear remembered the flowers and the wreath.

**********

Sunka had been gone for almost an hour. Bear looked out the window at the east pasture. Nothing moved in the long, white, open expanse of the field. He put on his parka and snowshoes and went outside.

He put his hands up to the sides of his mouth. “Sunka! Come!” Bear shouted. His call echoed down the valley.

A few seconds later, he was answered by a faint, forlorn howl.

“Shit. All right. I’m coming.”

Sunka beat him to the punch again.

Bear went to the Land Rover and opened the rear hatch. He took a fully bloomed poinsettia and a wreath of holly from the back of the car. Another faint howl broke the silence.

“I hear you. Stop nagging.”

He closed the rear hatch. Carrying the poinsettia and the wreath, he began the long trek to the far end of the pasture. On the way down, he cut the trail the elk left earlier.

Interesting. I’ll have to investigate that later.

At last, he came to the fence line and turned toward the creek. Exactly halfway across the pasture, Bear found the dog. Sunka lay in the snow. His chin rested on top of a little boy’s head sticking out of the snow. An old man, hip deep in snow, stood next to the boy with one hand resting on his shoulder. Bear went over to a young noble fir tree planted four years before and reached into the branches for the snow-shovel he kept there. Returning, he shooed off Sunka and cleared the snow from the statue’s base. He took a foxtail shop-brush from the back pocket of his jeans. He carefully, lovingly, cleaned the remaining snow from the black, granite statue.

Before Bear stood a life-size, black granite representation of his father and his seven-year-old son. They were smiling at him as if they hadn’t a care in the world. Trina had the photo that inspired the piece on the desk in her office. Bear read the words carved between the man and boy’s feet.

Pals forever.

Sharing a nap was the best.

We sleep now together, in eternal rest.

Ralph Harris

15 March 1943 – 7 June 2008

“Little Ralph” Patrick Harris

10 January 2001 – 7 June 2008

Twin graves rested before the base of the memorial. Bear placed the poinsettia next to the epitaph. He placed the wreath on a fence post where the guys could see it.

“Merry Christmas.” He whispered.

Bear took a rosary from his front pocket and knelt before the statue. Praying the decades slowly, carefully reverent. Fifteen minutes later, he completed the rosary and rose to his feet. He took a deep, shaky breath.

“Come on dog. You been out here long enough.”

Sunka ignored him. He turned around twice and lay down on his boy’s grave.

“Suit yourself.”

It was useless trying to make the dog leave his son. He would not intrude on the dog’s grief.

Bear backtracked slowly up to the cabin. Sunka would come in his own time. He took no notice of the trail left by the elk. Tears streamed down the flat planes of his cheeks. The growing lump in his throat made breathing a chore. Reaching the cabin, he looked back down the pasture. Sunka was slowly following his trail toward the cabin, his head down. Neither the dog, nor the man, noticed the massive elk watching them from atop the north ridge.

End Notes

1. SCIF – Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence Facility. An accredited area, room, group of rooms, or installation where sensitive compartmented information (SCI) may be stored, used, discussed, and/or electronically processed. Sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) procedural and physical measures prevent the free access of persons unless they have been formally indoctrinated for the particular SCI authorized for use or storage within the SCIF.

Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. US Department of Defense 2005.

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Sensitive+Compartmented+Information+Facility

 

The Tragic End of the Ghost Dance Movement

Ghost_danceWovoka was a Paiute shaman. He had a vision during a full solar eclipse. The vision and Christianity were the basis of the 1890 Ghost Dance movement. Wovoka stated, “… God told him… his people…must be good…love one another…have no quarreling and live in peace with the whites. They must work…not lie or steal…put away…old practices that savored of war…if they faithfully obeyed his instructions they would…be reunited with their friends in the other world…there would be no…death or sickness or old age…” (Anthony). Wovoka also made an apocalyptic prophecy predicting the demise of all white men in North America. The Lakota readily accepted Wovoka’s teachings and prophecy. Their fervent devotion brought to a boil the simmering tensions between the federal government and the Lakota. Fear, ignorance and intolerance culminated in the accidental killing of Sitting Bull and the Wounded Knee massacre. Could these tragedies have been avoided or was the violent end of the Ghost Dance inevitable?

The effect of Wovoka’s teachings on the Lakota cannot be understood without examining their traditions and contentious relationship with the federal government. The Lakota are a Native American nation living on the Great Plains. The nations include: the Oglala, Sicangu, Miniconjou, Itazipco, Oohenumpa, Sihasapa, and Hunkpapa. The nations occupied lands near the western Great Lakes were forced onto the Great Plains by the expansion of eastern tribes. The Lakota were a nomadic people. Their lives and religious ceremonies were organized around the movement of celestial bodies. They obtained the horse around 1700. Warriors hunted and fought while mounted. (Jones)

A timeline of critical events, from 1851 to 1889, set the stage for the tragic end of the Ghost Dance movement.

1851: The Fort Laramie Treaty created an Indian territory encompassing Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. (Jones)

1868: Sioux Treaty of 1868 set aside the western portion of South Dakota, including the Black Hills, as the Great Sioux Reservation. (Jones)

1874: The Black Hills Expedition, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, discovered gold in the Black Hills. (Brown, 276) Custer’s expedition and the subsequent incursions by prospectors were violations of the Treaty of 1868.

1875: The federal government failed in negotiations with the Lakota for the purchase of the Black Hills.

1876: The Black Hills War. (Brown, 284)

February 1876: The Army commences a winter campaign.

March 1876: Battle of Powder River. General Crook’s command versus the Northern Cheyenne and Oglala. Heavy casualties forced the Army to bivouac for two weeks, allowing the Cheyenne and Oglala to escape. (Brown, 286-287)

June1876: At the Rosebud River for the annual Sundance, Sitting Bull danced for three days, receiving a vision of a decisive defeat of the Army. (Brown, 288) Battle of the Rosebud River, warriors led by Crazy Horse inflicted heavy losses on the Army. Sitting Bull did not consider this fulfillment of his prophecy.

June 26, 1876: Battle of the Little Big Horn. The Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho nations defeat the 7th cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel George Custer; 253 were killed, including Custer. Sitting Bull saw the dead cavalrymen on the battlefield and knew his vision was fulfilled. (Brown, 291-297) After the Battle of Little Big Horn, the various bands scattered. (Brown, 297)

Spring 1877: Harried and harassed all through the summer of 1876 and winter of 1877, Sitting Bull took his band and crossed the border into Saskatchewan, Canada. (Brown, 305)

April 1877: Crazy Horse surrendered at the Spotted Tail agency. (Brown, 308)

September 5, 1877: Crazy Horse is assassinated by Little Big Man and Private William Gentiles at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. (Brown, 312)

July 1881: The Canadian government, under pressure from the federal government, forced Sitting Bull’s band to return to the United States. They surrender at Fort Buford. (Brown, 420) 1887 to 1889: The federal government sold 90,000,000 acres considered reservation. The Great Sioux Reservation is separated into four separate agencies. (Brown, 420-421)

Wovoka was born in Utah territory c. 1858, to Tavibo, a Paiute shaman. Tavibo was associated with Wodsiwob, a shaman whose millenarian visions inspired the 1870 Round Dance movement. His father died in 1870. David Wilson, a local rancher that employed Wovoka, adopted him. (Britannica.com). Wovoka took the name, Jack Wilson, when he was living among the whites. He married at 20 continuing to live on the Wilson farm. He learned about Christianity and gained fame as a shaman. In 1888, he started teaching the Round Dance to the Paiute people. (Anthony and Britannica.com)

On New Year’s Day 1889, during a total solar eclipse, Wovoka fell into a trance and had a vision. He met God. He was led to a land free of white men. Indians lived a traditional way of life on their own lands, no longer farming, but living off the land. God taught Wovoka the sacred Ghost Dance, instructing him to teach it to his people. The Ghost Dance would remove white people and return the Paiutes their ancient lands. They would live in peace once more. Wovoka awoke from his trance and immediately told the Paiutes what he had seen in his vision. (Anthony)

Word of Wovoka’s vision spread quickly across the West and soon reached the Lakota in South Dakota. (Anthony). The Lakota decided a delegation should be sent to the Mason Valley to meet Wovoka. Kicking Bear made the journey west to meet the Paiute Messiah, in July 1890. (Anthony) (Brown, 432-434)

He returned to the Standing Rock agency in September 1890. Kicking Bear told Sitting Bull of Wovoka’s prophecy and the Ghost Dance. Wovoka’s prophesy said, “All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing. Pretty soon, next spring Great Spirit come. He bring back all game of every kind. The game be thick everywhere. All dead Indians come back and live again. They all be strong just like young men, and young again. Old blind Indians see again and get young and have fine time. When Great Spirit, comes this way, then all the Indians go to the mountains, high up away from whites. Whites cannot hurt Indians then. Then, while Indians, way up high, big flood comes like water and all white people die, get drowned. After that, water go away and then nobody, but Indians everywhere and game all kinds thick. Then, medicine men tell Indians to send word to all Indians to keep up dancing and a good time will come. Indians who do not dance, who do not believe in this word, will grow little, just about a foot high, and stay that way. Some of them will be turned into wood, and be burned in fire.” [Wovoka] (Brown, 416)

Sitting Bull was skeptical of Wovoka’s message considering it harmless. He gave Kicking Bear permission to teach the Ghost Dance to other Lakota agencies. (Brown, 434-437) By November 1890, the Lakota were enthusiastically practicing the Ghost Dance. Lakota warriors saw it as revenge against the white man. (Britannica.com) The Lakota drew succor from the Ghost Dance, hoping for escape from the reservation life. Women made Ghost Shirts inscribed with magical symbols for the dancers. Wovoka taught, the Ghost Shirts would turn away the soldier’s bullets. (Anthony. Britannica.com)

Indian agents at the Lakota agencies and settlers were frightened by the dancer’s enthusiasm and confidence. Sitting Bull’s involvement worried the federal government, fearing the Ghost Dance would reunite the Lakota in a new uprising. (Brown, 436) In an effort to maintain peace, General Bear Coat Miles sent William “Buffalo Bill” Cody to persuade Sitting Bull to come to a meeting in Chicago. Agent McLaughlin at Standing Rock, refused Cody permission to see Sitting Bull. (Brown, 436) Former agent, Doctor Valentine McGillicuddy recommended, “I should let the dancing continue. The coming of the troops is frightening the Indians. If Seventh-day Adventists prepare their ascension robes for the second coming of the Savior, the United States Army is not put into motion to prevent them. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege? If the troops remain, trouble is sure to come.” (Brown, 437) In late November, orders were issued to arrest the Chiefs and religious leaders believed to be inciting the people. (Brown, 437)

Early on December 15, 1890, forty-three Indian police, led by Bull Head, came to arrest Sitting Bull. They surrounded Sitting Bull’s cabin. Bull Head entered the cabin and arrested the chief. When he brought Sitting Bull out, a large group of Ghost Dancers were assembling around the cabin, surrounding the police force. The Indian police were outnumbered 4 to 1. Bull Head desperately tried to maintain order, but a fight ensued. Gunshots rang out. Bull Head fell, accidentally shooting Sitting Bull in the head. The chief’s old show horse heard the shooting and started doing his show routine. He sat down and raised one hoof. The Indians believed the horse was performing the Ghost Dance for Sitting Bull. (Brown, 437-438)

Following the killing, Sitting Bull’s followers fled. On December 17, 1890, 100 fleeing Hunkpapas joined Bigfoot’s Miniconjou camp near Cherry Creek. That same day, the War Department issued orders for the arrest and imprisonment of Bigfoot. Upon learning of Sitting Bull’s death, Bigfoot’s band started toward Pine Ridge seeking Red Cloud’s protection. Enroute, Bigfoot fell ill with pneumonia. Elements of the 7th cavalry captured Bigfoot’s band near Porcupine Creek. Upon sighting the soldiers, Bigfoot surrendered. Major Samuel Whitside took Bigfoot’s surrender. On the advice of his scout John Shangreau, Major Whitside did not immediately disarm Bigfoot’s band. Instead, he moved them into an encampment on Wounded Knee Creek. The major recognizing Bigfoot had pneumonia gave the elderly chief his personal ambulance to ride in for the trip to Wounded Knee. (Brown, 440)

A count of Bigfoot’s band was made when they reached Wounded Knee Creek. There were 350 Indians, 120 men and 230 women and children. They were assigned a camping area south of the military camp and issued food, tents and blankets. Bigfoot was given his own tent and a stove was placed inside for warmth. The regimental surgeon cared for the sick chief. The cavalry were bivouaced around the captive’s tepees. Two Hotchkiss guns were placed on the high ground overlooking the camp. The remainder of the 7th cavalry under the command of Colonel James W. Forsyth arrived late in the afternoon. Forsyth relieved Major Whitside, assuming overall command. His orders were to apprehend and escort Bigfoot’s band to the Union Pacific Railroad. The band was to be transported to the military prison in Omaha, Nebraska. He ordered the men under his immediate command to camp, emplaced two more Hotchkiss guns with the other battery, and settled down with his officers with a keg of whiskey for the night. (Brown, 440-441)

The Lakota spent a restless night, frightened of the soldiers. They believed Wovoka’s prophecy. They knew their Ghost Shirts would protect them. Many remembered Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn fourteen years before. (Brown, 441) December 29, 1890, Colonel Forsyth met with Bigfoot. The chief was dying, seated with the elders of his band. Forsyth demanded that the Indians surrender their arms. He was dissatisfied with the small pile of firearms collected and demanded all of their arms. Knives, axes, and hatchets were added to the pile. Still dissatisfied, he ordered the tepees searched. (Eyewitnesstohistory.com).

Eyewitness Philip Wells, testified, “…The medicine man, gaudily dressed…fantastically painted, executed…the Ghost Dance, raising and throwing dust into the air. He exclaimed, ‘Ha! Ha!’…and said, ‘I have lived long enough,’…” Wells further remembered the medicine man reminding the warriors the Ghost Shirts would protect them. (Eyewitnesstohistory.com) Simultaneously, the soldiers were trying to disarm a young Miniconjou, Black Coyote, who was deaf. Accounts differ whether Black Coyote understood what was happening. Regardless, a scuffle arose then a shot rang out. (Brown, 442) The troopers responded with a barrage of volley fire from their carbines. Among the first killed were Bigfoot and the elders. Hand-to-hand combat between the warriors and the troopers ensued. The Hotchkiss guns began firing on the campsite. Canister rounds raked the camp with grapeshot, indiscriminately killing both Indians and cavalrymen. Women and children ran for their lives for the cover of the nearby ravine. Troopers pursued and slaughtered them. When the smoke cleared, the immediate body count was 153 Indians killed, 25 troopers killed with 39 wounded, mostly by shrapnel. (Brown, 444). The true number of Lakota killed at Wounded Knee will never be known. Before full recovery of the dead, a blizzard moved in and the effort abandoned. Survivors and wounded were moved to Pine Ridge agency. (Eyewitnesstohistory.com)

The question remains, was the massacre at Wounded Knee inevitable? Wovoka was greatly influenced by Christianity. His message was simple, if Indians would obey the simple instructions God had given them, they would be rewarded with the good life. Wovoka’s prophecy concerned the Indian agents and the military. Wovoka stated, “… Indians go to the mountains…away from whites…while Indians, way up high…big flood comes…all white people die…water go away…nobody but Indians everywhere…” (Brown , 416). In addition to the prophecy, practitioners believed the Ghost Shirts would protect them from the soldier’s bullets. The prophecy, wearing of sacred protective garments, the Lakota’s strict adherence to the tenets of the Ghost Dance, combined with a renewed sense of hope and confidence, indicated a new uprising.

Buffalo Bill and Dr. Valentine McGillicuddy, were discredited and ignored. Standing Rock agent, James McLaughlin, was a practicing Catholic and never took the time to analyze Wovoka’s message, failing to recognize its Christian tenets. The immediate concern of the Indian administration at the time was maintaining the status quo. They were not concerned with trying to understand the new religious movement. The administration failed to recognize that Wovoka’s message of peace and nonviolence kept the Ghost Dancers from retaliating upon Sitting Bull’s killing. (Brown , 435-439)

Several factors led up to the massacre of December 29, 1890. Bigfoot’s band fear of the 7th cavalry, due to Custer’s defeat fourteen years before. Col. Forsyth and his officers had been drinking. The troopers were callous in their search for weapons. (Eyewitnesstohistory.com) The warriors were being goaded by a shaman to resist. (Eyewitnesstohistory.com) The troopers were itching for a fight.

Wovoka was a Paiute shaman with a vision. Christianity was the basis of the 1890 Ghost Dance movement. His apocalyptic prophecy predicting the demise of all white men in North America. The Lakota’s fervent devotion to the Ghost Dance and existing tensions with the federal government resulted in a perfect storm. Fear, ignorance, intolerance, racism and systematic government persecution resulted in the killing of Sitting Bull and the Wounded Knee massacre. The tragic end to the Ghost Dance movement was a planned confrontation with the Lakota. It was unavoidable and inevitable.

Works Cited

Anthony, David. Nevada. August. 24th November 2012. <http://www.nevadamagazine.com/issues/read/Wovoka/. Wovoka the Paiute Messiah Promoted Peace, but Also Yearned for a Return to Tradition. David Anthony. 2011.>.

Britannica.com. Wovoka. 2012. HTML Document. 25th November 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/649314/Wovoka&gt;.

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1991. book.

Eyewitnesstohistory.com. Massacre at Wounded Knee, 1890. n.d. <“Massacre At Wounded Knee, 1890,” EyeWitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1998). >.

Jones, Lindsay. DigitalCommons@Cal Poly – Ethnic Studies. March 2005. 25th November 2012. <http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/eth_fac/2/&gt;.

Mooney, James. Wovoka’s message: The Promise of the Ghost Dance. 1896. HTML document. 25th November 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/eight/gdmessg.htm&gt;

 

The Corset

I believe its curiosity. Women, with whom I’ve been involved, are curious. My friend, Calliope, is more than curious. Her quest to know me surpasses inquisitiveness or furtive observation, it borders on prurience. She says it keeps our friendship fresh.

Calliope assists me with corset contracts when I need a set of surrogate hands. We were friends for two years when she commissioned me to make a hand-carved leather corset. She had definite ideas of what she wanted. Corset making is complicated. During the creative rush of brainstorming, we incorporated her ideas into a complete design concept. We chose fine, three ounce, English calfskin for the exterior of the corset and smooth, soft pigskin for the lining.

The next phase is creation of the pattern. The simplest method to construct a pattern for a custom leather corset is to use a snug t-shirt and lots of duct tape. Sexual harassment laws and the rules of propriety being what they are, I ask customers to bring two female friends or family members with them to their patterning appointment. The friends or family apply the duct tape and draw the pattern under my supervision. It is oddly erotic and hauntingly Victorian.

Calliope arrived promptly for her appointment with a sacrificial t-shirt and a new roll of duct tape. I like that. She arrived alone. I do not like that. That creates a problem. I looked past her at the landing and down the stairs. There was no one in sight. Her mother and sister were to accompany her. I fixed an arched eyebrow on her.

“Where’s your Mom and Thalia.” I asked.

Calliope replied with a touch of impudence. “I wanted to come by myself. It isn’t a problem.”

“It’s a big problem. I won’t do well in prison.” I declared.

Defiantly, she said, “Oh shut up. You’re not going to prison. I want you to do the pattern yourself. I’m paying for it. Mom and my sister will only interfere with what I want.”

Calliope pushed past me into the studio and looked the room over.

“The studio looks nice.” She said, surprised.

Becoming annoyed at her attitude, I said, “Thanks. Kyle and I cleaned it. Your Mom and sister were supposed to come with you, remember?”

“Where is Kyle?” She asked.

I was starting to simmer, “Big Bear, until Monday.”

“How convenient.” Calliope teased.

Irritated, I snapped, “No, it’s not convenient. He’s a perv and your sister hates him. I get rid of him on pattern-making days. He’s creepy.”

Calliope looked into my eyes.

“You’re not.” She said pointedly.

Off guard I asked, “I’m not what?”

“Creepy.” She taunted.

Nicely boiling, I icily replied, “Thanks.”

“You’re not. You’re a gentleman. You’re not going to do anything. You’re safe.” Calliope soothed.

“Gee, thank you.” I replied venomously. “I’m a mutant, not a eunuch, and I’m far from dead.”

Calliope looked mortified. I went instantly from vexed to angry in a blink. My face was beet red. Breathing hard, pacing, humiliated and affronted, I started perspiring. A socially acceptable dewy shimmer would have done nicely. I lathered up like a two-year old filly on Derby Day. I got a beer out of the fridge and sat down on the couch. Holding it with my knees, I tried to open it. No joy. I took a death-grip on it and twisted, scraping my fingers. Damned cap wouldn’t budge. She was right. I was safe.

She moved closer and knelt down. Her fear was palpable, “Jack?”

“What?” I snapped.

I was seriously considering canceling the contract. My bullshit-meter was pegged and redlining.

She asked, “Where can I change?”

“What?” I said, surprised.

Deliberate, calm, she asked again, “Where – can – I – change?”

“Foolish. Brave, but foolish. Stop prodding the grizzly bear.” I thought.

I looked up from the beer bottle I was battling. My eyes were burning. I shut my eyes. I took a deep, measured breath and exhaled slowly. I pointed down the hall.

“My room.” I replied dispassionately.

Calliope smiled uncertainly.

“Thank you.” She said.

Her heels clicked down the hall. I went back to battling the bottle cap. Calliope came back a moment later in her sacrificial t-shirt and gave me the duct tape. I took the tape, flipped it on the couch and swiped my arm across my forehead. Huge rings had materialized at my armpits. Zero to gross in ninety-two seconds flat. It had to be a record. Calliope went over to the cutting table, found a clean shop towel and came back, offering it to me.

“Wipe your face.” She said.

I took the towel, thanking her. I patted my face. She knelt, folding her slender legs beneath her. She took the beer from me. Calliope wrapped the hem of the t-shirt around the bottle cap and twisted. Pfffft! off it popped. She returned the beer.

“That’s cheating.” I said deflated taking back the bottle.

A truce reached, I reset my bullshit-meter, gave her the last of the stink-eye and took a deep swallow.

“Go to the bathroom. Drink some water. Have a snack. There’s Snickers for you in the fridge. Do anything you need to do. This will take a while…put your bra back on…I can’t pattern around unfettered breasts.” Quietly dismissing her. Calliope disappeared down the hall to put on her bra. I drank my beer and toweled off my face once more.

Half an hour later found Calliope encased in duct tape from armpits to navel. Finally, in my zone, focused, relaxed, I ran my hand gently but firmly over her torso and smoothed out the duct tape. I consulted my sketches, marked off the measurements and drew the pattern on the duct tape, visualizing the completed corset in my mind’s eye. Calliope had to hold perfectly still. She was hot, uncomfortable, and tired of standing in one spot; a normal, unfortunate side effect of the process. Making small talk while I worked, she was asking questions, lots of questions. Some were about the pattern and methodology but most were personal questions. I answered her absently, focused on my work, half paying attention to our conversation.

“Jack?” She said.

Absorbed, my voice vacant of emotion, “Yep.”

“Are you still mad?” She inquired.

Distracted I asked tolerantly, “About what?”

“Me coming by myself. Breaking the rules.” She said apologetically, rattled by my rapid shift to design mode and vacuous manner.

Trying to reassure her. “Nope. Hold still just a couple of more seconds. There, drawings done. Turn around. Again. Looks good, hold still.” I commanded her.

I checked the measurements one last time. Every line was even and symmetrical. I smiled at Calliope. She looked miserable.

“Okay. Get a drink. Hydrate. You’re looking pale. I’m going to get the scissors and cut you out of there.”

She looked relieved. “’Kay. Thank you.”

We took a quick break. My shirt and the waistband of my jeans were soaked. I felt gross. I drank a couple of glasses of ice water and toweled off my face. I got out my heavy bandage scissors. Calliope was leaning on the cutting table sipping a glass of water.

“You ready.” I asked.

She downed her water.

“I’m ready.” She said.

I held up the scissors. Calliope got a good look at them. Angled bandage scissors with a wide, flat, safety spade on the tip. Calliope looked uncertain.

Mustering all of my professional competence I told her, “These won’t cut you.”

“Are you sure?” Calliope replied plaintively.

“Positive. They’re 100% safe. Ready?” I said confidently.

“Yes.” She replied, unconvinced.

Cutting away the right sleeve, the cold metal made Calliope gasp and wiggle. I immediately stopped.

“Hold still.” I commanded.

I cut slowly, carefully freeing excess material from the pattern. I came around the backside of her arm just below the armpit. She giggled the scissors were tickling her, raising gooseflesh on her skin. Useless material fluttered to the floor. I moved to her left side, sliding the tip of the scissors over the end of her collarbone, cutting away more fabric. Her skin glistened with moisture. She was breathing heavily.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Nothing.” Calliope’s voice was husky.

Almost finished with the left side, the scissors were stuck. I couldn’t open them.

“Hold still and don’t freak out. The scissors are caught in the tape.” I told her.

I bent my head to her shoulder. I grasped one side of the scissors in my teeth, holding the other in my hand. I was struggling, breathing heavily on her neck and shoulder. The scissors came free. I straightened and Calliope shuddered and shrugged.

“They’re free. Are you okay?” Worried I’d hurt her.

“Oh yes – I’m okay. I’m fine.” She replied.

Calliope’s voice was thick, low and shaky. I was getting concerned.

“You want to take a break and have some water?” I asked.

“No. Please, keep cutting.” She pled.

I inspected the cut. “The tape is a little thick back here. I’ll have to use a razor to get through the material.” Retrieving an antique six-inch straight razor from the knife drawer, I stropped the blade until the Damascus blade gleamed. I turned to her with the open razor in my hand. Wide-eyed, she looked at the razor. A fine sheen of perspiration was on her upper lip. She licked her lip with the tip of her tongue. Calliope was breathing heavily again.

“Raise your arm.” Moving to her side and sliding the tiny fingers of my left hand under the material, making her squirm.

“Okay. Take a couple of deep breaths and then one more and hold it.”

The back of the blade lightly touched her shoulder and she giggled.

“Don’t wiggle!”

“It tickles and your fingers are like ice.”

Time to be firm.

“Calliope, if this razor slips, both of us are going to get cut. Please hold still.”

Finishing the cut, I took my fingers from her shoulder. The left sleeve dropped to the floor.

“Can I sit down?”

“Sure. You alright?”

“I’m fine, I just need a minute.”

“’Kay.”

I needed a break too. I took my warm beer out on the balcony, lit a Marl Boro Red and inhaled deeply. It was dark on the balcony the cigarette’s glow lit the cool night air. I finished my smoke crushing it into an ashtray. Going inside I found Calliope studying the pattern in the full-length mirror.

“What’cha doing?”

“Looking. It’s going to be awesome Jack.”

“Let’s get the pattern done before lighting the fireworks.”

“I’m ready.”

Taking up the scissors, I cut out the bust line, then the back waistline. Kneeling in front of her, I cut the front waistline. Calliope’s breathing was heavy once more. I glanced up at her. She was studying the ceiling, a fine sheen of perspiration on her face. I continued to cut.

“Jack?”

“Yes.”

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Sweetie, you’ve been asking me personal questions for the last hour. Go ahead.”

“Are you sure?”

“Ask already.”

“How do you masturbate?”

“Excuse me.”

“How do you masturbate?”

The remnant of the waistline fell to the floor. I was speechless. No one, man, woman, doctor, therapist had ever asked me that before. I looked at her. Calliope’s twinkling eyes looked right back. She gave an impish grin. I arched an eyebrow at her, wiped my sleeve across my forehead and sniffed. I placed the blades of the scissors on the front centerline. Cold steel stroked her warm belly. Calliope gasped.

“Serves you right, you’re incorrigible.” I groused.

“You have no idea.” She replied thickly.

I backed off a bit, lined up the blades cutting slowly and carefully made the final cut.

“So, how do you masturbate?”

Snip! – I finished the line perfectly – cutting straight through the center strap of Calliope’s bra. The pattern fell open. The bra fell open.

“Oops.” I said.

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“I’ve never had the occasion to explain that to anyone before. It’s har – difficult to explain.”

I studiously ignored Calliope’s breasts trying to escape the structurally compromised lingerie. I moved to cut the back centerline. She was trying to stifle a giggling fit quivering with suppressed mirth. Maintaining my professionalism was taking monumental effort.

“Stand still.”

“I am.” She chuckled.

“You are not. You’re wiggling.” I persisted.

“I’m doing my best. Answer my question.”

“Hold still.” I begged.

Calliope settled herself.

“Hold your bra.”

I finished cutting the pattern the halves fell to the floor. Calliope turned around clutching her bra closed.

Abashed I said, “Sorry about that. Go get dressed and I’ll take you to the mall and buy you a new one.”

“No!”

“What the Hell do you mean no?”

“I mean no, why won’t you answer my question.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake, you’re exasperating.”

“Besides…”

“Besides what?”

“I need a shower. I stink and so do you. You’re soaked.”

“I plan on taking a nice cold shower as soon as I get back.” I replied seriously.

“Back from where?” She asked.

“Taking you home.”

“No!”

“Jesus Harold half-stepping Christ on a crutch!” I fumed.

“We are taking a shower right now”

“Fine, towels are in the closet by the bathroom door. You go first.”

“No!”

“God damned it! Why not?”

“You won’t answer my question! I don’t believe you wash your back by slapping a washcloth across it! I don’t believe you wash your hair with shampoo on a plastic brush! My Dad never shaves without soap or a mirror, so I know you’re lying about that. You bound me up in duct tape! You ran your hand all over me to make sure it was smooth and fit like a glove! You cut it off with scissors and a razor commanding me to stand still the whole time! It was the most sensuous thing I’ve ever experienced. I want to take a shower and go to bed with you, that’s why not!”

Calliope stood on her tiptoes, fists on her hips, breasts free of their useless restraint. Openly defiant, her eyes dared me to reject her advance. She moved in and backed me against the wall. Calliope placed her hand on my jeans and felt my erection.

“You want me.” She pointed at my crotch. “Those don’t lie.”

“Sure I do.”

“What’s the problem then?”

“You’re nineteen.”

“And?”

“You’re nineteen.” I replied emphatically.

“You said that. That’s no reason. You act like a monk. I’ve known you two years. Jack, you haven’t had a girlfriend in all that time.”

“How do you know?”

“Kyle has a bigmouth. He gossips like an old woman.” She declared.

Calliope took my hand, commanding “Come on.”

She led me down the hall into the bathroom and started the water. I watched her get half a dozen towels from the closet. I guess I was in shock. I knew I was scared. Calliope was right Kyle does have a bigmouth. He probably also told her I hadn’t had a date in five years. Shaking all over, I felt cold. I wanted to run and hide but couldn’t move.

Calliope stepped back, took off her heels and shrugged out of her ruined bra. Hooking her thumbs into the waistbands of her shorts and panties, she slid them down her legs. She stood there in the glory of her divine gifts watching me. I was spooked. She came over and unbuckled my belt. I jerked a little and grabbed her wrist.

“I can undress myself.”

“I know you can.” She cooed.

“I’m not helpless.” I argued.

“Oh God! Yes I am!” My mind screamed.

“Jack, be quiet and accept this.” she said gently.

Humbled, I let her undress me. We got into the shower. The water was too hot for me; Calliope didn’t seem to mind it. I let the taps be. She soaped a clean washcloth and handed it to me.

“Show me how you wash your back.”

I took the washcloth and started the self-flagellation ritual of cleaning my back. Long soapy welts began to rise.

“Stop it. Give me the washcloth.”

I gave it to her. Calliope soaped it again, working up a rich lather.

“Turn around.”

I gave her my back, looking up at the ceiling tiles. She twisted my hair up over my shoulder and gently worked the washcloth in slow, concentric circles down my back and buttocks. She soaped up the washcloth and handed it to me again.

“Wash your front.”

Washing backwards from the feet up, I got to my groin and soaped my now painful erection, gently stroking.

“That’s how you do it!” Calliope exclaimed triumphantly.

I shook my head giving a hysterical little laugh and moved on to washing my torso. I started slapping my chest with the washcloth.

“Why are you doing that? Can’t you reach your chest?”

“No. My arm won’t bend that way.”

Calliope took the washcloth from me washing my chest, shoulders, neck and arms. She marveled at the difference of texture in my hands. Gently cradling my tiny left hand, she was amazed at its smooth, soft skin.

She handed me the hairbrush with a squirt of shampoo on the bristles.

“Wash your hair.”

I bent over and flipped my hair over my head. I brushed shampoo into the under layer. I stood up, flipped my hair back, and continued brushing shampoo through it. I worked up a good lather. I closed my eyes and rinsed my hair, brushing the lather out. I opened my eyes to find Calliope working on her own hair, conditioning it. I was finished. I didn’t want to leave her alone in the shower. It seemed rude, ungrateful.

She was facing away from me working the conditioner into her roots with her fingers. Calliope’s head was slightly down, and she stood with one leg bent, the toes of that foot on the floor of the tub. Water, lather and conditioner slid down her body, leaving glistening rainbow trails glowing on her alabaster, translucent skin. The air pressure felt high. The steam in the shower formed a thick cloud. She hummed an Irish epic, The Rising of the Moon. Calliope was stunning. Magic ebbed, flowed, and sparked, cresting in small waves around us. I knew her for what she was, a sprite.

I soaped a clean washcloth and patiently, gently washed Calliope’s back, buttocks and legs. She rinsed her hair and turned to find me kneeling before her. I soaped the cloth, washed her feet and continued up Calliope’s legs until I reached her vulva.

“By the way, how do you masturbate?”

“I’ll show you later” she murmured, “keep washing.”

I obeyed the command. Lingering here and there when Calliope would whimper or when her body stiffened, gently washing in small, slow, circles. I gave special attention to the nooks and folds, getting every inch clean. Skin is skin. I love fine, supple leather. When I finished bathing her, we patted each other dry. Together we went to bed, the sprite and the changeling.