3LBE 17
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by Lida Broadhurst


Damn Chell’s flute music winding through the halls of my building. Damn even more the nasal tones of my sister Ilianda screaming complaints like an ill-tuned instrument.

The flute notes cease, and I picture Chell, slim body drooping, creeping home, like something wounded. My imagination allows my fingers to stroke her faintly xanthous skin. Until I reflect her stupid child Nakiro probably clumps beside her.

I have shared these thoughts with Mr. Varg, since it was he who asked that I rent a flat to Chell. Of course, I honored his request. Before it became something else.

He shrugged. “With your Sorbonne training, Viggo, I would not have thought you the prey of useless thoughts.” His even teeth appeared in a smile so brief you might have thought them maidens fleeing from pursuit. “I am of course desolated that my simple request has brought chaos to your living space. I cannot believe she still thinks someone wishes to kill her and the child. I’d hoped a change of surroundings.”

Thank heavens he does not continue. Only his business problems concern me. Family troubles I avoid, except for allowing my sister Ilianda to rent a flat.

Mr. Varg closes our meeting with his usual philosophical cliché. “With your eye you can appreciate her outer beauty.”

Now my head sinks gratefully against the cushions of my velvet chair. I dwell on the tea ceremony to which Chell invited me. Just the two of us. Except for Nakiro, silent lout, as Ilianda calls him.

Despite being a teacher, she hates the idea of a child living in the building. I have informed her that the law does not agree with her, and besides he, at least, makes no noise. She shrugged. “Ugh, I hate the creepy way he clings to her like a silent shadow.”

I laughed. “Chell says he is too shy to respond to our greetings.”

Ilianda frowned. “Why does he always dress in the robe and pants of a karate initiate?”

I forced patience into my voice. “Perhaps he expresses himself with fists and feet.”

On my visit to Chell, I hoped he would be at school. But there he sat on a wooden chair in a corner. He paid no attention to us. His thin fingers caressed a glazed tiger he held on his lap, like a well-loved pet. I wondered where he had obtained it, and, more importantly, where he learned to love it. Indeed he was so enraptured, he never even demanded a sweet or even a cup of tea. Once I saw him gaze at us as if we were badly designed ceramics.

Chell knelt on a silken mat. “As a guest you must drink the first cup.” Her dark hair fell about her shoulders like a Han waterfall, hiding her face.

When the last cup had been emptied, she bowed again. Her eyes, for an instant, reminded me of an exhausted dealer’s glance, just before my purchase is concealed in tissue, crimson or white.

Mr. Varg, when I mentioned this glance, said only, “They seek to hide your purchase from evil eyes.”

But perhaps he has not heard her mutter about evil spirits in the building who wish me and my child dead. I can scarcely reply that a demon of any tradition would be more likely to embrace her Nakiro.

Thinking of the child destroys my peace almost as much as the wailing flute. Sometimes I believe the child’s thin body has been claimed by a shape shifter or kitsune.

I refocus my mind, staring at my newest acquisition, a lokapala, a tomb guardian on a rosewood pedestal. The ceramic figure brings no serenity as it glares at me, with hyperthyroid eyes, mouth open, in an eternal curse

I found its expression so unsettling a reminder of Nakiro, I almost refused to buy it.

The dealer said, “Ah, Viggo, you should remember the Tang period was nationalistic and warlike. Their statues do not smile in welcome.”

Since he knew how easily I am swayed by praise, I wrote the check.

Perhaps now Chell sits, as I do, worshipping her treasures. Actually she only has one, besides the tiger. An oil jar she strokes, almost as often as the hair of the child. My fingers tingle with the desire to embrace that jar.

The sudden drumbeat of knuckles at my door rouses me. I drag my bulk across the rug, my two canes silent as the legs of a stalking beast, the belt of my silk robe drooping behind like a tail. In the open doorway, Ilianda stands, clutching a tiny black kitten. That dreadful woman has soaked the upstairs carpet. “My poor darling.” She holds the little animal close to me. Its tiny paws drip oil over my vest and trousers. Disgusting that a rare Avalon cat like Raphael is subjected to this filth and noise.

I suspect this cat breed is as mythical as the Arthurian paradise. My sister, probably from chatting with the young all day, is easily duped by fanciful ideas. But the feline desire for cleanliness and order I share.

She pushes past me, demanding tea. “To calm my agony.”

I hand her a towel, in which she wraps the cat. She settles into a wing chair. Its burgundy leather clashes with her red hair, but a woman who has pulled a lime green sweater over a fuchsia print skirt doesn’t care that she looks like a box of crayons.

She repeats her leit motif. “Viggo, you must get rid of them.”

I wonder if this carping about a child results from the fact that she has never created one. But I take the easier path of blaming the messenger. “Come now, you might have spilled something yourself. The light is dim, as you have complained.”

She rolls her eye. “You told me she possessed a valuable oil jar.”

My sister does not understand owning something that is merely beautiful. “We all possess bottles of oil. Hers happens to have more value than ours.”

She sets down her cup. “Are you saying I cannot tell the difference between oil and what might spill from a wet bag of garbage, a dribble from a can of soda.” Her voices becomes a snarl. “Well, what about those dreadful outfits that child wears. One day he will jump out and kick me.”

I have heard this recitative before, and turn away to cradle my red Sung dynasty bowl, grateful that no carved dragons or bears slouch to irritate the fingers.

Ilianda, probably sensing my disinterest, introduces a new theme. “Well, anyway, Chell beat on my door two nights ago. My heart almost stopped and Raphael scrabbled under the sofa. I had the devil’s own time coaxing my darling out.”

I say politely that she tends the cat like a real child, even writing checks for vet bills that would pay for a Tang bowl.

But she leaps up. “I must take Raphael home.”

I promise to speak to Chell and she leaves, recognizing that my living room is like a stage over which a curtain has fallen.

Now I can look forward to a visit with Chell. Ah Chell. I find her as lovely as one of those ancient goddesses preserved in porcelain images.

The next afternoon, she lies back in my Queen Anne chair. The tint of her skin, which Ilianda thinks unhealthy, almost matches the tea. Like many goddesses, no husband walks at her side, although Chell explained that her husband will join her one day. Of course, as he wished, I explained nothing to Ilianda.

Suddenly, she kneels at my feet, graceful as bamboo. “Your sister yell at me again, Viggo. I hate her. Only you nice to me. My husband wrong to leave me here. My boy does nothing, but your sister hit him.”

Again I soothe an overwrought woman. “Now, Chell, Ilianda just waved her arm at him. And Nakiro almost knocked her over, racing down the stairs. Still, that is no reason to spill oil on the upstairs carpet.”

She clasps both my hands. “Viggo, my sacred oil cleans the evil from this building.”

I smooth my fingers across her hand, the skin cool and smooth as porcelain. A banal thought, but I dare not think of it as flesh. “Chell, your gods probably do not want their sacred oil flung in front of those who do not believe. And there is the matter of the flute playing. Besides beating on my sister s door.”

Her smile curves bitter as winter melon. “Everything I do you say is wrong. I must play after my child goes to bed. You do not understand. You...” She waves at my small collections arrayed on shelves. “You have so much. I have only the child and the oil jar that my family received from the gods.”

Indeed the jar is lovely enough to have been a divine gift, or at least an imperial one. However, to give her thoughts another direction, I ask when she expects her husband to arrive. She flinches like onion thrown into hot oil. “I have not seen him in so long. Perhaps he forgets me.”

“Foolish child. You are too lovely. But he would be most unhappy to return and find you had been creating trouble.”

Thank heavens Chell’s culture teaches reverence for age. “You are good to remind me, Viggo. I must not be impatient. But my child must not be threatened.” She strides to the door. The door closing echoes my sigh although I am grateful her mere presence has offered me a glimpse of serenity from time’s scroll.

But the next days unroll as if that scroll has been thrown carelessly and unattended. Chell continues her eerie notes and Ilianda says, not for the first time, that Chell’s music has set free an ancient evil. Odd, since she generally reads only those magazines that speak of recipes and lives saved by the miraculous intervention of more recent gods.

I try to ignore all this, but two evenings later, instead of music, Ilianda’s scream slices through the halls.

Balanced on my canes, I creep slowly up the iron staircase. My sister, her face dead white, points with a shaking finger at the rare Chinese plant I placed in the hall. Its stem has been snapped, and it droops like an operatic heroine in a swoon.

Ilianda’s eyes are rolling now, out of control stars. I can only repeat, “I will ask Chell why she has done this.”

But the dumpling she calls a brain is stuffed with one idea. “I don t care why. She’ll only mutter about her kid and the demons and play her flute and…”

I stroke the broken branch gently.

Ilianda scolds, “The police don’t like a crime scene to be disturbed.”

She adds, “I will call them, Viggo. If you don’t forget your infernal tea drinking. And idol worship.”

I am unsure if she means Chell or my figurines.

The next evening, I insist Chell visit me. Nakiro comes too. I must watch him. The evil grows stronger.

He sits quietly and, as usual, does not reply when I offer him a piece of chocolate.

Chell gazes at him adoringly and I suspect she is more attached to him than to that oil jar. which considering how children grow and change seems inexplicable to me. My treasures are eternal, and, unless treated carelessly, will remain the same during the millenniums of their existence.

Mindful of Ilianda’s threat, I, most discourteously, begin while Chell has only pressed my blue Ming cup to her lips. “Now, you have —” I deliberately choose a word suggestive of destruction motivated by evil, “— ravished the tree upstairs,” I say, letting my glance float between her and the child.

Thank God my arms have not forgotten their long ago training in Paris and my cane lifts instinctively in the ancient parry as Chell launches herself at me, fingers extended like claws. She brushes the cane aside and leaps upon me, beating my face with tiny fists that hit like iron butterflies. A low growling noise issues from her throat like the Shang tiger on my wine vessel. I cower against my velvet chair, my last conscious thought that I have been cheated. Those lokapalas protect no one.

But the buzzing of an insect comes to my ears: “Dur dur stop, stop.” His small face crumpled in a ferocious frown, Nakiro repeats these words, and his arms in their rough white cloth jacket, pull her away roughly. Her clutch releases from my throat and I gulp air noisily, like a derelict slurping tea.

He pushes her down on the floor and looms above her, hands fisted in attack posture. She mumbles something. But he will not smile.

But I do, for perhaps he is a true lokapala, exactly what I need to help me.

He pulls her up roughly and shoves her into a chair. She whispers, “Afaler, afaler.” He nods, and I assume the syllables are meant for apology.

Whether for the attack or the lapse in manners or the fright she gave him I am unsure. My tongue feels swollen and I can only stare at them.

The child says, “Hekum?” with a questioning tone. She shakes her head slowly from side to side. He grabs her fists and forces the fingers open. Her palms are empty. He drops her hands and rubs his own down the side of his pants. He glares at me.

I keep my features closed tightly as a fan, as I watch the rapid rise and fall of her breasts molded from … well, not having glimpsed them, I can only think not from porcelain.

My breathing too quickens, as it has not since those long ago days in Paris when understanding occult philosophical points excited me. Her next words indicate I am more on the brink of a Grecian soap opera.

She says, “He wants his father, but I say he has forgotten us.”

Unsatisfactory. But what else did he say. Surely the mere mention of his father would not upset you so.

She mumbles. “The medicine. Nakiro hates it when I do not take it. He fears if he speaks to anyone, the gods will force him to speak of my problem. I — I get very angry when I do not use the tablets.”

“Tablets,” I repeat. Rituals dictated by words incised on stone flood my mind.

But the gods have loosened Chell’s tongue. She says, “His father tell Nakiro his destiny is to control me. That is why he take karate, To control me when…” She begins weeping.

The boy grips my shoulder, shaking me slightly, like a child who will not understand. She must take the dawi which my father provides.

“Some sort of drink?”

“It make her serene.” He points at my Sung bowl. “Like that piece make you feel .” He points to his chest. “Me too. But not my mother.”

His words arouse the same astonishment as if I had heard a foo dog bark.

“He says, I am not idiot, but I cannot help her. She sad to be here, away from my father. He say business interests worry him. We must live here. I think he is angry because she scream like this. Many times. She break his ivory carvings — elephants, even the sacred monkeys.” He shakes his head. “And all so lovely.”

I murmur, “Oh dear,” helpless as a worshipper blinded by the sight of the deity. Except this worshipper is not awestruck, but revolted, as if all my treasures have been revealed as forgeries. I begin to tremble as I can no longer see the pedestal where I had placed her. I must be alone.

He nods, poor child, as if he too had spent much of his life, by himself, trying to see all sides of the story etched on a vase. His short finger points at Chell, still lying curled, a dried petal in which the gardener has no further interest.

I mutter, “Leave it, leave it,” a gracious host telling a guest that he will clean up after the meal. I feel stuffed full of so much that had been fed to me. But gradually, under the soft swell of a Mozart concerto I try to unravel this information, thread by thread.

If I pull this one, the design would be changed thus, and ripping another would create a different pattern. At midnight, I know what to do. Or maybe I knew when my cane had lifted automatically as I had been taught all those years ago in a forgotten studio with water dripping down a filthy pane.

I see my younger self, with straight back and legs, slim and supple as my sword, that flashed with a strength enhanced by the powders my instructor offered. But a carriage accident had changed all that.

But I had not cared as even then my desire to possess art seared my heart and weakened me even more than the accident. Or the powders.

Still Chell lies curled, unmoving. I touch her skin, but it is no longer something to be cherished, only flesh that serves no other purpose than to cover bone. Poor child. Tied to Mr. Varg, who does not understand, as Nakiro and I do, a brain with coils like demented snakes.

Perhaps knowing what she understood of her husband’s business Chell was afraid of taking any tablets any doctor he knew recommended. While I cannot blame her, I cannot save her.

Now I sit for a moment, relishing how the building whispers in creaks and crackles. I blink and the scroll of my youthful self vanishes. I rise slowly to my feet, and Chell awakens at this movement. I tell her we must view the broken plant. I tell her I know who has done this and that person will come to gloat at the destruction. Then she will be safe.

She murmurs she must see Nakiro is safe upstairs, but I say, “Surely, a child who attacks a parent must be left alone as punishment?”

She follows as I creep slowly up the stairs. I urge her to kneel for a closer look at the break in the branch.

On hands and knees, she peers up at me. “What must I see?

“This,” I say and raise my cane to strike.

She crawls to the staircase, but I thrust the wooden shaft between her ankles, As my master said so long ago, “Just as easy on a dark staircase as a dark alley.”

She tumbles down the iron spirals, falling silently until she curls into a soft pile, like a surrealist painting. No door opens, no voice screams. Soon I am back safely in my chair, forgetting everything, absorbed in a book of ancient art. I cannot sleep for at dawn I must awaken the child, pretending I am searching for his mother. He will see her body and if he weeps, I will know I have made the wrong choice. Then I will take Chell’s other treasure, but I would rather have Nakiro.

Actually the whole incident becomes but the kiss of a butterfly rustling the silken robe of Time. Ilianda cares only that the building is quiet. She doesn’t even protest when Nakiro comes to live with me.

Surprisingly, she enrolls him in the school where she teaches and says he acts like a normal child. Most of the time.

I have left Chell’s flat empty since Mr. Varg removed the furniture. Some day Nakiro will need it to create his own lair.

At our next monthly meeting, Mr. Varg says I look pale. “From the stress of the accident perhaps?” he inquires, his tone delicate as lotus tea. Nakiro accompanies me, and his father mutters words of condolence.

Nakiro says, “She my mother, not yours.” I rejoice at the contempt in his voice. He will be a comfort to me soon. I say soon as I know how rapidly the scroll of time changes everything.

Anyway, what use to chide him for his rudeness? Because when he is older he will accept Mr. Varg as I have. His brain is more calculating than an abacus. His arms and legs are strong, and Mr. Varg placed him with a karate master worthy of his skill. Soon he will learn about the powders and their worth. And the art treasures that conceal them.

Mr. Varg, slim as an ivory figurine, advises me to gently draw my fingers across my scalp. “Very soothing,” he says, “should any further stress threaten you.” Then we return home, in his limousine, a reminder of his power, not his kindness.

Now back and forth I let my fingers creep. Damn, it doesn’t soothe me. Only irritates like the touch most delicate of searching spiders.



Lida Broadhurst - From the visions of cats, vampires, insane trees, and family antics jumbled in her head, Lida shapes her prose and poetry. When it is too hot, too cold, or too rainy in Oakland, CA, the visions are weirder than usual. Her work has appeared in GUD, Mythic Delirium, Star*Line, and many other publications, and will soon appear in Turnpike Gates and Electric Velocipede. A poem of hers has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award.


April 2008