Queen of Swords: a novel

Chapter XXX – The Lovers

I left the courthouse at the break. Eight’s text told me to drive out to the country, so I had a lot of time to think. Charmian hadn’t reacted to my presence in any particular way, so I was feeling a little encouraged. But I knew her well enough to know she was mostly annoyed by my presence. She didn’t look like the plain old Disney lady who had tricked them into seating her on the jury, but she did look like she was “blending in”. As if she was determined to stay where she was. I played the Mountain Goats’ Up the Wolves to help me concentrate.

The prosecutor’s closing argument really affected me. You would think as a psychology student I would know all about “antisocial personality disorder”” but I didn’t. It was as if I was hearing about it for the first time.

Everything he said applied to Charmian! Adolescent crime? Like, does murder count? She had some excuse, but still. It was obviously premeditated so you couldn’t really call it self-defense. Even if it got reduced to manslaughter, anybody would have to count it as a crime. And, grandiose enough? Is Charmian-Pearleen-Purdy-Carr-Quantreau grandiose enough for you? How about, blames others? Doesn’t care about people? No kidding! Even her passion for poor Eight is really the same kind of “ownership” my wretched father in his fear and empty loneliness felt for her! She only wanted an audience to her own magnificent, because how can be the Queen be a Queen without a courtier? A body-slave. You can’t call that love.

Eight told me she was a demon, and that sounded about right to me. Anti-social personality disorder, sociopath, psychopath – isn’t it all the same thing?

Since I knew for certain now that my stepmother was the monster I had always feared, why was my spirit so light? Was it only because Eight had magically come into my life with all his intelligence and wisdom, with the beauty of his scars? No, it was because for the first time I was sure my stepmother and I were nothing alike, and that if we feared to study monsters because of the threat of becoming too much like then, monsters would rule the world.

I turned on a dirt road marked “Church”. Eight’s text told me: “Drive to end” but I had to slow down to a crawl because the ruts were pretty deep.

At the end of the road was a long low ranch house and a garden where people in sun hats worked patiently among the rows of flowers and vegetables. They didn’t look up, but I recognized some immature sunflowers. Didn’t Charmian say the sunflower is my flower? That’s all right by me.
I parked with the other cars at a sign that said, Native American Church. Eight came running down the steps of the house.

I searched his face for signs of disgust. “Did you read it?”

“I read it,” he said. “She’s a demon, all right.”

He guided me away from the house.

“So is this your church?” I asked.

He nodded. “My Mom’s Arapaho.”

Behind the house was a little shack that I have to say, looked like an outhouse. It was painted a fading read, but it had no other markers on it at all. Once again I felt a ripple of fear. The trees are not afraid. The mountains aren’t afraid. We, the sunflowers, are not afraid. My new mantra.
“So,” he asked me, “How did it go for you?”

“I saw her. And she saw me. I listened to the prosecution’s whole closing argument. But she didn’t do anything. She’ll probably like it that I left.”

“See?” he said. “She doesn’t recognize your power. You have the element of surprise.” He opened the door to the shack and fragrant steam jumped out.

“Oh,” I said. “A sauna.” My father loved the sauna. We had one in our old house.

“It’s a sweat lodge. You have to take off your clothes,” Eight directed.

“You first.”

“Done and done.” We both started to strip.

“I usually don’t do this on the first date,” I joked nervously.

“You have to be serious,” said Eight. “You have to tell the truth from now on.”

So I was silenced. Did that mean he thought I did do this on the first date? Let’s hope not!
The fragrant steam turned out to be a pile of wet grasses on the hot rocks.

“Sage,” said Eight. He picked up a branch off the floor and began stroking me with it. “You do the same as me.”

So we stroked each other with the fragrant branches. The tattoo Charmian couldn’t recognize was a pair of wolves. Eight saw me looking.

“It’s the twin Wolf spirit,” said Eight. “A powerful spirit animal. What’s yours?”

“Tattoo or spirit?”
He laughed. “Either or both.”

I thought. Tattoo was easy, I have a stupid hummingbird on my ankle Penn encouraged me to get. Spirit animal’s a lot more difficult. What animal hates its stepmother? The cuckoo?

He helped me out. “Have you ever had another creature look at you as if it recognized you?”

Brainstorm. “Sure,” I said. “A marmot. It stole all my food while I was camping. It hung around until I woke up. I think it was thanking me.”

“Perfect,” said Eight. ”Spirit of the Great Marmot, Spirit of the Powerful Water Bird, we who are your children have much need of you. We summon you in all your majesty.” He took me by the elbow. “Now you sit down.”

I sat on the wooden seat and hunched forward, trying to suck my belly in.

“You’re beautiful,” said Eight, who really was. “Forget about yourself. You’re a marmot now.”
“That’s me,” I echoed. A thieving marmot.

“This is the hard part,” said Eight. “But it will be over fast.” He opened a box and took out some rabbity little vegetables and held them out in his palm. “You only get two,” he said, “Because you’re a beginner.”

“What are they?” I asked, trying not to be scared.

“Peyote buttons. Do you trust me?”

“Is this all right with your church?”

“It’s a sacred ceremony. As soon as I told them we were up against demons, they were first to suggest it. Don’t you trust me?” he repeated.

I do. “I do,” I said, taking two strange little vegetables. Like smaller brussels sprouts. He extended a jar of water.

“It might made you feel kind of sick,” he warned.

I got them down. I’m a good pill taker. My vitamins are like horse capsules. I used to take diet pills before I got smart.

“Wow,” I agreed, “I do feel sick. I’m afraid I’m going to throw them up.”

He poured out the rest of the water on the floor and it steamed up at us. He handed me another jar.
“It’s tea,” he said. “Drink it.”

It wasn’t as good as his tea, but it was better than the peyote. At least I didn’t feel like throwing up any more, but I had to drink it all to stop from coughing.

“Now tell the spirits of your problems,” said Eight. “Tell them everything.”

I hesitated. It was so hot in here, I felt a little faint. Would I pass out disgracefully, like a drunken date? The only light came from the glowing rocks. I tried to focus on his face.

“It helps to close your eyes,” said Eight, but he took my hand. I felt better immediately. “So we don’t lose each other,” he said. “Like the otters. You know they hold paws while they float sleeping, so they don’t drift apart.”

I didn’t know. Don’t let us drift apart, I prayed.

“Mother Spirit, Father Spirit,” said Eight, “Spirits of all the mothers, all the fathers, all the spirits gone before; Great Spirit who guides the universe in its right path, we come before you to defeat the machinations of a demon. She possesses the power of rage, the power of hate, the willingness to murder. We will need all your courage, all your cleverness to bring her down.”

The “Father Spirit” part made me think immediately about my father. Eight said his spirit was safe and I wanted to believe that. I thought of him back when I was eight and realized, that’s the way I wanted to remember him. Teaching me how to fish, baiting a line with baloney. We had to sit all afternoon, because that’s what you do when you fish. But I was so proud of being with my dad. That was all right for me. I could have sat there, happy, forever.

“He’s with us,” I said. “My father. I feel him.”
“Talk to the Spirit,” said Eight.

I was sweating so hard I wasn’t even certain whether I was crying or not. I felt definitely light headed. Had I had any breakfast? I couldn’t remember, it seemed so long ago. Didn’t I eat a piece of cold pizza, going out the door to confront my stepmother? I was brave then, wasn’t I? I definitely hadn’t had any lunch, rushing to meet Eight, and his text told me not to eat. That cold pizza lay in my gut like a rock. I began rocking myself, back and forth. “Dad,” I called, out loud, “Daddy? I want you to meet the man I’m going to marry.”

What was I, out of my mind? I was so astonished by myself I fell into a shocked silence. Eight squeezed my hand encouragingly and I began to babble. The words just poured out of me.

“I’m sorry I have to stop Charmian,” I said. “I know you wanted me to leave her alone, but she’s evil. She’s going to destroy and destroy until there’s nothing left. We have to stop her.”
I hesitated.

“He’s here,” said Eight. “I see him. Talk to him.”

I was so thrown that I stood up. Eight stood up too. Suddenly the planks that formed the shack fell away outward, like the petals of a flower. The morning mountain air was cold on my naked skin.
“Daddy!” I shouted.

He was loading his fishing rods into his truck, the old blue Chevy.

His face lit up at the sight of me. “I’m going fishing,” he said. ”Want to come?” He didn’t mind at all that I was standing naked there with some guy.

“His animal’s the rainbow trout,” I said to Eight. “He loved them so much he couldn’t even eat them. He always threw them back.” I sobbed. “He’d kiss them, saying You’re so beautiful. And then he’d throw them back.”

“Pleased to meet you sir,” said Eight.

“Daddy, I need to destroy Charmian,” I said. “She’s a monster. She kills people.”
“She rapes people,” said Eight.

“But she has swords. I’m so scared of her. She’ll cut me.” I dug my fists into my eyes.
“Swords are nothing,” My father said. “Her swords are mirrors.”

Another childhood memory. I used to be afraid of mirrors after my mother died. My father cured that by showing me that the only thing in mirrors is what you put there.

My father held up his fishing knife. It glittered in the sun. “She has fake swords,” he said, “But I have this.” It wasn’t a fishing knife, it was a scalpel. He used to show me his medical case, and tell me about all it contained. What each weapon could do. That was back when we thought medicine could fix everything. “You don’t need me,” he said. “You can do it by yourself with the help of this fine man. I’m going fishing.” He looked right at Eight. With approval. My father could be so charming when he was whole. And when he chose to be.

“You take care of her now,” my father said. He was getting into the truck, whistling. He always whistled “Beautiful Dreamer.” He said it was his and my mother’s song.

“He’s leaving,” I whined at Eight. “I don’t want him to go.”

“He’s happy,” said Eight. “He has to go.”

And if I ran after him, I would have to let go of Eight’s hand. I didn’t let go.
“Sit down,” Eight encouraged. We sat down. “Close your eyes.”
I closed my eyes.

“Now lean your head on my shoulder. Everything’s going to be all right.”
And I could tell that it was.

We came out into the afternoon and my father’s truck was gone. The shack’s planks were back in place. There was an open shower behind the sauna and we washed away the sweat and the tears. Together.

“Solar water,” Eight commented. The soap smelled wonderful. Like mountain thyme. That’s Eight’s deepest, most intimate scent. We soaped each other vigorously.

“My father didn’t believe in an afterlife,” I said.

“Luckily an afterlife believed in him. So how do you feel?”

“I feel powerful,” I told him. “Like I can do anything.”

“You can,” he said. “You know, you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. You have so much power.”

And I believed it, his eyes shone so. We kissed a long time.
After we dressed, he checked his phone.

“They’ve gone into deliberations,” he said. “They’re good for a couple of hours. Come on into the main house. The elders have a meal prepared specially for us. It’s time for you to meet them.”

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