3LBE #10
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The Eye of the Beholder

by Mary Musselman

 

She painted her nails a bright crimson and applied a final coat of matching lipstick, stealing another look in the mirror at a face almost as smooth as that of a teenage girl, with only a few lines around the eyes. When she locked the back door to the house, a slight scent of jasmine from orchids in her garden filled the afternoon air.

“Beautiful lady,” she said aloud. Such an appropriate phrase for her favorite flower.

Ria felt the lingering looks of tourists and heard their questioning words as she walked toward the square. Dressed in a tight black T-shirt, black capris, and high-strapped sandals, she wore a full black wig which held streaks of silver. Pointed silver-framed sunglasses disguised dark brown eyes. She pulled a cart behind her that held a small card table and several canvas chairs.

Later, the tourists who came to watch the sunset would see her at a booth reading palms and they would remember her from the street.

The atmosphere at Mallory Square was like a circus, complete with jugglers, tightropewalkers, statue people, and contortionists — all working the crowd and asking for small tokens for entertainment before the sun set. With words of welcome or challenge, they yelled, “Hey, don’t be afraid to stop. We’re from the Midwest, too. You won’t go away disappointed.” “Dig into your pockets. Dig deep. A finer performance you will never see.”

As she glanced in the direction of the water and sailboats to see red and yellow flames of the sun melt into the blueness of the ocean, Ria wondered who would visit her booth tonight. She sat down and closed her eyes for a minute and accepted a welcoming from friendly spirits that traveled in the wind, on the ocean and on the beach. They reminded her that she was not alone.

Ria sensed the approach of her first customer.

The girl who leaned toward her had china-blue eyes, flawless peach skin, and bleached blond hair tied back into a ponytail. Sitting next to her, her boyfriend looked like he had just stepped into a room full of giggling women where he happened to be the only male.

In a quiet, calm voice, Ria said, “Tell me your first name.” She gently placed the girl’s hand into her own.

“It’s JoLynn.”

“You know, the palm is the map work of your life, JoLynn. Every line, finger, and even your nails have a meaning that is unique to each person’s hand. Relax your fingers and if you don’t mind, I'd rather it be just you and I. It’s the energy moving through your hand that I need to feel and there’s too much interference when someone sits so close to you.”

“Hey, I’ll meet you later.” He jumped at the chance to leave and winked at his girlfriend as he departed.

“Your lifeline is strong and shows good health, hardly ever a cold or sickness. You have strong attachments to your mother and father and sometimes you wish you were back at home, ready to open up the door to the house where you grew up. A little unhappiness there, but you made a choice to travel far from home for your work and that is where you met your boyfriend.”

“Yes, that’s where I met Skip.”

“And where did you meet the other man in your life?”

It was a slight movement but Ria had felt tenseness in her fingers. “I don’t know what you mean,” JoLynn said.

“That’s all right. I'm not your mother or your confessor. But keeping two men happy and unaware of each other will only become an increasing hardship for you.” Ria paused for a minute and admired the glow of peaches in her complexion.

“Your heart line, you see how it curves toward the middle and index finger? It indicates a need for attention, sexual and emotional. I'm not sure if one man could fulfill your desires. Sadly for you, there will come a day when one will find out about the other.”

“I'm not sure how you could get all of that from— from looking at lines in my hand.”

“That’s just where I begin. A touch is all it takes. Then I see images of peoples’ faces from their past and present. Sometimes the color of emotions or even a buried secret or two emerges. It’s a gift that my mother had and before that, her mother.”

“A gift? I wish I had a gift like that. That way I could see which one really loved me so that I could choose one and dump the other.” JoLynn’s eyes showed excitement.

Measuring each word, Ria said quietly, “Be aware that it will be only a matter of time before they discover your secret. And then you may be left all alone.” With a half smile JoLynn nodded, starting to pull her hand away.

“There is another thing before you go. The thumb is often overlooked but it reveals so much. In fact, right underneath the thumb rests a small bone that can tell me a few more things.” Ria pressed the bone, picturing how a peach glow would look on her own skin, how a firmness around her eyes would replace wrinkles from the sun— She felt the girl’s beauty rushing into her hand and course through her body — another special gift that she had failed to mention. JoLynn wouldn’t miss a few years of beauty; she would have plenty of men who wouldn’t notice a few premature wrinkles.

For a moment, Ria thought about how she could return what she had taken. Instead, she pressed the bone underneath JoLynn’s thumb for a few more moments.

Ria finished the reading, no longer touching her hand. She said, “Your long and slender thumb shows an ability to outwit any enemy who will try to harm you.”

The words she had just said pulled faintly at her heart, a distant memory— distant— her mother’s tale about enemies who would steal away your blood, your soul. Don’t be fooled into thinking the world gives only what you want and desire, Ria. The enemy moves at night, quietly disguised, but poised to steal away what you thought was yours.

Ria smiled without showing her sadness. “That’s it, my dear, except to wish you a long and peaceful life.” She graciously accepted a twenty-dollar bill, anxious to look into a mirror at her face.

• • •

The next afternoon, she wore tight black shorts and a black T-shirt speckled with silver sequins to match the silver in her wig. There was no reason to wear sunglasses today. She welcomed the sun.

Ria stopped and talked to Amos, who was standing with a deck of cards in his hands, ready to show off a few card tricks to the next passerby. “How’s business today for you, Amos?” She brushed her hand against his.

“Business is okay. But I am tired and the crowd is a passing-by crowd today. I should get out of the heat and join the other guys for a quick smoke. It’s getting hotter these days— But enough about me, now. You look refreshed and cool. How do you stay so good looking, Ria?”

“Oh, better get your eyes checked. I'm getting old just like you, sweetheart.” She took his hand again, avoided the thumb and rubbed the mount of Mercury. The images blended in her mind, but she let them scatter untouched into the wind like a dried dandelion at summer’s end. She whispered into his ear, “I think you’ll have a very good day and you won’t have time for that quick smoke after all. When you’re counting all of those dollar bills, you’ll wonder why today was so special. Will I see you at the square tonight?”

“I'm not sure— On second thought, I might be too busy to stop at the square — but I’ll see you around, Ria. I think I’ve got some magic left in me. Those young kids need to learn a trick or two.” She threw him a quick kiss and saw how his shoulders were a little straighter and his hands steadier.

She passed the lady in white, one of the statue people, forever still until a tourist dropped change into her basket. Then the ringing of the triangle in her hand would sound and she would bow with the grace of a queen, even grant a faint smile, only to resume a lifeless pose on a pedestal of marble. Oh, to have that kind of elegance. She hoped the lady in white would stop by her booth some night after work.

The sun was about to disappear into the ocean as she set up the table and chairs across from vendors selling hand-painted T-shirts and jewelry. A man of about sixty with soft, dark eyes suddenly stood in front of her.

The look in his eyes appealed to her. As though he had undressed her and liked what he saw. She did not mind this, for she had already noticed he had a sensuality reminiscent of a young Robert Redford.

“I'm not quite ready, sir. The sun hasn’t even set yet. You are anxious, aren’t you?”

“I’ll be up front with you and tell you that it’s a hobby of mine to see how much palm readers know and how the readings differ from one to the next.”

She sat down and touched his hand, studying the lines and mounts, letting the images appear inside, like a kaleidoscope of dreams. Sitting in a bar for hours on end with a drink in his hand, sometimes alone. Different women in and out of his life. A painter’s easel in front of him, in a room of one canvas after another. Portraits of beautiful women.

Followed by shades of grey, dreary and lifeless, bordering on a black loneliness and despair that lived behind the artist.

“I see.” She said it simply. Practice and experience had given her the skill to mask her surprise or alarm. She continued and spoke pleasantly. “Well, let’s do something a little different with you, so that you don’t become bored with me. I wouldn’t want that to happen. You know the thumb is an interesting place to start but I need to know your name first.”

“Michael. And yours? I need to know yours as well.”

“Ria.”

“Ria. I like that name and you— you are a woman of extraordinary beauty. I would be hard pressed to guess how young you are.”

Laughing softly, she admired his charm.

Pressing the small bone under his thumb, she let the warmth from his eyes course through her body. Her own arm warmed, and suddenly stung. She pulled her hand away, quickly, but professionally. No, not more than a touch of sensuality from him, the grayness was too strong.

Instead, she pressed against the mount of Venus, speaking in a low voice, “You have made a long journey in your life, learning a great deal about women and their desires, painting the ideal woman over and over again. Yet, I see that you are afraid to let a real woman into your heart.”

The grayness burst into red fire.

He shouted, “Wait a minute. How can you say these things to me? You don’t know anything about me.” He threw a twenty-dollar bill on the table and hurried away without another word. For a few seconds, he was still in earshot, and she could have given him what he needed, reassurance that love could still be his. Without magic. Without even touching him.

Ria sat back in her chair and wondered if Michael would return when the redness had faded away.

Looking at herself in a small hand mirror, she put on another coat of lipstick, a peach tone to match the color in her cheeks, deciding that she liked the sensual softness in her eyes. Just a touch was all she had needed.

She was ready to tear down the booth when she felt a presence behind her. The lady in white stood elegantly in the moonlight with the triangle in her hand, motionless except for the stirring of ruffles in her long, white dress.

“Good evening,” Ria said, “To what do I owe the honor of your company?”

The lady in white extended a gloved hand, inviting Ria to touch. Such a graceful gesture that she would have accepted, but a resistance from deep inside made her shake her head.

This lady, dressed in white from head to toe, her ruffles not as clean and pure as from afar, whose eyes at a closer view appeared colorless, withdrew the invitation, placed her triangle on the table and removed the glove. Ria watched the glove fall to the ground as lightly as a leaf caught up in a lazy breeze.

When she looked at the lady in white again, she didn’t immediately notice that underneath the glove there was no hand. Not a hand or bones or dust. Just a faint musty smell of the ocean on a day of storm. Like a closed-up room in a house that no one visited anymore.

How many times had she passed by the statue lady, whom she had only seen at the square at sunset, never at the bars at night or the shops during the day? In fact, Ria didn’t know a thing about the lady in white. Until now.

The lady stepped toward her, extending the palm of the other glove and bowed with a slight flexing at the knee and the beginning of a smile around her lips.

A hint of elegance, that’s what was being offered here. Ria thought how easy it would be to accept such a gift. She started to reach toward the spirit, feeling the resistance weaken.

Images spilled into the night. Random, but connected in a way that only the unconscious understood. Images of her life.

The smell of jasmine from an orchid, its scent even stronger at night. A peach glow on a young girl’s face. Reds and yellows of the sunset at Mallory Square. A touch that had blessed her with beauty at a whim or by design. Her mother and grandmother laughing and telling a little girl their secrets. And their fears. About the enemies at night, poised to steal away her blood. Her soul.

Images and a warning now scattered into a marbled sky of blacks and blues at the moment she had touched a white glove.

The lady in white picked up the glove and bowed one more time into the face of an invisible wind, feeling the warmth on her cheek and the blood running through her veins.

 

 

Mary Musselman - When Mary’s aunt read stories to her of man-eating bears at her grandparents’ cabin, she had no idea she was instilling a love for horror tales into the mind and imagination of a young girl. That fascination only grew stronger through years of watching The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock and Outer Limits. Along the way, Mary discovered that she liked creating stories and characters in her head or in journals — until she finally took the plunge and wrote a one-page short story about a misunderstood monster. From then on, the “monsters” have filled the pages of her stories about the supernatural. Mary’s work has appeared in Tapestry, Eotu Ezine, The A-List, Aphelion, Parchment Symbols, Twilight Times, Blood Rose and the current Unhinged. One of her stories will be part of an upcoming e-anthology by Danielle Naibert.


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ISSUE #10

June 2002

FICTION

ART