May 15, 2014 :: Arkham, Massachusetts, USA
Gemma is developing more into one pulled by the leash than one pulling it, Rhoda thought as she watched Gemma trail after her friend Shirley. The two of them trotted through the grass on the way to the parking lot to be picked up by their parents after school. Somehow, to Rhoda, Gemma seemed, ugh . . . fawning.
There were books for that, Rhoda knew, with titles like, “How to Develop Leadership Skills in Children” — Rhoda closed her eyes imagining a book with that title on an otherwise blank bookshelf in her memory palace. And I suppose it’s time for that. Rhoda knew she shouldn’t use phrases like, “Hey there, baby girl.” She should use more empowering phrases, whatever they were. Is there a dearth of empowering epithets for young girls?
She exhaled as Beatrice had taught her, and shook her arms, as she stood next to her Toyota Scion and watched her daughter. She opened the passenger door in anticipation for her little princess, Gemma, the Christmas angel. And she couldn’t help but gush a little when she saw her baby girl coming toward her. All that nonsense talk — or inner-talk — could be infectious. She and Ali had made a pact to talk to Gemma with “adult language”, so as to continually encourage a higher level of communicative and cognitive functioning. Except upon seeing her daughter — really seeing her — with her bright cheeks, with her gentle brown eyes, and the way she could smile with her whole face . . . Rhoda couldn’t help but return to gooey baby talk as a way of cherishing the gentle vulnerability and ephemeral nature of childhood that she now shared with this little miracle . . . her daughter.
So she hugged her little miracle, who kissed her mom’s cheek, and asked in a faux British accent, “Is it time for tea, mummy?”
And “tea” meant “tea and cake or ice cream.” It was their Friday ritual — mother and daughter. Sharing a bit of gossip about the world at large. “And believe me, the world needs to be gossiped about,” Gemma would say, imitating her mother. They both laughed. Gemma seemed to be doing impressions this Friday. My little comedian, Rhoda thought. At times . . . not too often, because she didn’t want to make poor Gemma self-conscious about it . . . Rhoda would bring the deck of cards with the symbols: a circle, a square, a triangle, a cross, and a star. She would hold a card, stare at it with some intensity, and ask Gemma to guess it. And then it would be Gemma’s turn to look at a card pulled from the deck and Rhoda would have to guess. Back and forth. Rhoda kept a tally of it all in an app on her cell phone.
Their Friday ritual was one day early this week, as the school district had called for a Teacher Planning Day that Friday. I guess the administrators want a May holiday, Rhoda had thought when it was announced.
“Our Friday tea is on Thursday, mummy.”
“Say goodbye to Shirley, darling,” Rhoda said. And “darling” is good. It’s adult, Rhoda thought.
Gemma made an elaborate flourish toward Shirley, flapping with both her arms.
It was an old gesture, Rhoda remembered. Gemma did that same goofy wave — if you could even call it a wave — at six. She remembered one day at the park, when they had a picnic with family friends. Gemma and two of her friends, Shirley and Iphigenia, were doing that same wave as a type of hula dance.
Iphigenia — always the leader — had invented that wave. But the damndest thing that day . . . well . . . the strangest thing, was how when Gemma got tired, she would lay down wherever they were playing and sleep. Of course children need their sleep. It wasn’t so much that, but how she did it. The other parents thought she might be narcoleptic. And when Rhoda had asked Gemma about that afterwards, Gemma said that she thought that if she went to sleep where her friends were, then maybe she could pull them into her dream world where they would continue playing. Yes, Rhoda thought, with some certainty, In group dynamics with her friends, Gemma was always the “dreamer”.
And certainly there’s value in that, she thought as a kneejerk reaction to her previous musing. I mean . . . Walt Disney was a dreamer.
So Rhoda didn’t pressure her daughter with the telepathy cards. And they had their tea, ice cream, and gossip at the mall. Gemma had green tea ice cream. “Tea tea. Tea ice cream. Tea tea. Tea ice cream,” Gemma repeated in one of her accents, “I’m practically British.” And she told her mother all about the British substitute teacher they had that day and how she was “super strict” like she had something to prove.
After their weekly tea ritual, Rhoda took Gemma home. And Ali greeted them at the door and took Gemma inside, while Rhoda left for her therapy appointment with Beatrice.
Juggling, juggling, Rhoda thought as she drove to the renovated old house that the therapists jointly used as clinic.
As Rhoda sat in the waiting room chair, she caught herself spacing out. Now who’s the “dreamer”, she thought. Mother, daughter . . . father. How is it that a personality develops? How do you give a little girl the strength that she needs without your . . . pressure . . . being a force that she retreats from? Rhoda sighed, feeling the tension of two forces within her. For somewhere — in the invisible interior — a dog was still darting off after squirrels and guarding the sacrosanct position of her cerebral furniture.
Being one who is easily pulled by the leash meant being vulnerable. And Rhoda didn’t want Gemma to be vulnerable. That was her fear, inherited from her mother. Or was that her own experience? A fear that she would transmit to Gemma? And if so, how would that manifest? Was her fear not an invitation for the dread and terrible to enter their lives?
“Rhoda,” Beatrice said, after they had talked about a great many things. “What’s happening now? What are you feeling?”
“I was thinking of my daughter.”
“Of course. How so?”
“You had mentioned the fox’s den.”
“Rhoda, you had mentioned the fox’s den. You said that your uncle’s house was a fox’s den. And that made you think of Gemma.”
“I don’t want my daughter to be vulnerable. I want her to be strong.”
“And how do you feel in that wish for her . . . when you wish for her to be strong?”
“When I wish,” Rhoda said. “When I’m in that wishing place . . . I’m in the fox’s den.”
“Tell me about that.”
“Julianne was a competitor for my department at Flight Cellular. Before I got rid of her, the department had an informal lunch party at a French restaurant called Renart’s.
“At the restaurant, there’s a story cycle of paintings where animals are dressed up like people. The images are from medieval French folklore. In one painting, the animals are holding court. In another, they’re at a church. And in the images, the fox is typically the center of attention. Now, Julianne, with her infantile ‘cutesy’ mannerisms started telling a story about how, in Korea, people make wishes in fox shrines.
In Korean folklore, a fox is tricky. They’re shape shifters. They live between forms . . . between this and that. They’re twilight creatures, living between day and night . . . between the human world and the world of spirits.”
“So, they’re liminal creatures. Intermediaries.” Beatrice leaned forward, intently listening to the story.
“In Julianne’s story . . . ah, this is silly . . . at the fox shrine, people think they’re making a wish.”
“They’re establishing a connection . . . or rather they’re building a relationship, or more specifically, a contractual pattern.” She waited for Beatrice to speak. She waited for an excuse not to speak. But Beatrice didn’t speak. She simply waited, and Rhoda resumed, “It’s like this in fact. It’s like psychology. The contractual pattern is created in a liminal place. It’s between what can be talked about and what cannot be talked about. It’s a smoky and ambiguous place in the mind. That . . . that liminal place . . . that’s the fox’s den.”
“And in the fox’s den . . . a girl might receive a compliment,” Beatrice offered.
“In the fox’s den, anyone might receive a compliment. And the compliment is like a wish. Or rather it’s the promise of your wish’s fulfillment.” Again Beatrice was silent and Rhoda was forced to continue. “In the fox’s den, you’re given the promise in such a smoky ambiguous way that you can’t quite tell the difference between the promise . . . and the wish’s fulfillment. Being around a sick man, for example, feeling your uncle’s erection on your leg, according to this sick logic, becomes something akin to what you want . . . which is, ‘being strong’ . . . ‘being a girl that would make your father proud.’ And that’s awful. But that’s the fox’s den.”
“I notice that you’re not speaking in the first person when you speak of your uncle.”
Over a glass of wine, Rhoda had mentioned some of that to Ali, while he cooked dinner in the kitchen. He was cutting a chicken breast into cubes to put into stuffed bell peppers. “Psychology has a hermeneutic of suspicion,” Ali said. “And it’s a tricky business to know when you should question something and when you should simply trust and move on.” He mixed the chicken cubes with onion and half-cooked rice. “Not that I have an opinion. The mind is complex. It patterns itself in remarkable ways. And metaphors are sticky. I might come to believe that I’m behaving in a certain way, because of a certain pattern, when in fact I’m behaving in a wholly different way, because of another pattern entirely. Or maybe a little of both. What’s the difference between a personality and a coherent confederacy of sub-personalities?” He washed his hands, and then with his pinky finger, pulled at the neck of her sweater. “Here’s to what we don’t understand about ourselves. Here’s to our own complexes, our complexity, and our fallibility.” He taped her glass with his and took a sip of the shiraz wine. “I know white wine is more proper with chicken, but some days you just gotta have red.”
That evening, Gemma’s friend Iphigenia visited for dinner and a sleep over. The fact that they were having a Thursday sleepover made it seem especially exciting to Gemma. It felt like they were breaking a taboo around the sacrosanct weekday night. Iphigenia was quiet at dinner — the less said about that the better — though afterwards, in Gemma’s room, with the door closed, Iphigenia, in the contractual pattern of their friendship, all of a sudden, became the boss. “Gemma dear, unless you give me Springtime Barbie’s horse, Dancer, I’m not going to be your friend.”
“But you can’t do that,” Gemma said.
“Why not?” Iphigenia said.
“Because that’s not being a friend.”
“All the same.”
“Can’t we just make Barbie the astronaut and make the horse into her friend on the moon?” Gemma put the dolls on her white and blue comforter. “See, this is the moon.”
“But then what horse would my Barbie at my home ride?”
“She can ride Dreamer.”
“Dreamer’s a pony, not a horse!” Iphigenia said, raising her voice.
Gemma was quiet.
Eventually Iphigenia said, “I’ll let you think about it. And anyway, I think Dancer’s kind of a dumb toy anyway. Isn’t it?”
The girls didn’t play Astronaut Barbie, instead they played Springtime Barbie, and all the while Iphigenia invented the story that Dancer had broken its dumb leg on a romp, and Springtime Barbie had to hide this truth from Ken, because, “You know what he’s like.”
Gemma didn’t much like the game, but she played anyway, because she knew that she had a secret of which Iphigenia was unaware. And she knew that if her friend crossed her in a way that really bothered her . . . she knew . . . she knew that she could destroy her with only three words. And was that written? Had it been fated? Was her friend living in numbered days . . . borrowed time . . . or a hallucination?
It didn’t really matter, because they were playing, and since Ken had been drinking, Springtime Barbie had to talk Ken out of that rash deed, the thing with the car and the horse that Iphigenia thought was hilarious.
Eventually, she knew that Iphigenia would ask to take the dead animal off her hands . . . “to bury it” of course. And Gemma looked at the absences on her bed where once sat stuffed animal friends whom she had invented story-lives for.
“Ohhh, this is all pointless,” Iphigenia said, throwing Dancer inside Springtime Barbie’s Dreamhouse. “You’re not really playing anymore . . . and besides I don’t want your dumb horse.” Iphigenia got up and walked to the corner of the room and picked up Gemma’s telescope. “Let’s be spies,” she said. And for maybe a half-hour, the two of them took turns looking into the windows of houses. Eventually, Iphigenia said, “This is dumb. People are just watching TV. Why isn’t anyone robbing diamonds like they’re supposed to?” She looked at Gemma in irritation, “Don’t you have anything good we can do?”
Gemma took Iphigenia’s hand and sat her down in front of the Afghan carpet. “Sit here,” she said. “Now, look at the silver center of the carpet.”
“You are one very silly girl,” Iphigenia said.
“Do you want to go on a journey?” Gemma asked.
Red cheeked from holding back laughter, Iphigenia replied, “Sure.”
And so Gemma sat down next to Iphigenia and told her to stare at the silver center of the magic carpet. “Don’t think . . . just look . . . look at it hard . . . look at it hard for a long time . . . look at the silver center of the circle . . . nothing else exists . . . just the silver center of the circle . . . see it . . . see only it . . . the silver center . . . of the circle . . . that’s all there is . . . only the center . . . only the silver center of the circle . . . see only that . . . and only that . . . the silver center . . . going in . . . going in . . . and only that . . . then just let your eyes . . . now . . . soften . . . and don’t look at anything in particular.”
As she relaxed her eyes . . . it seemed to Iphigenia . . . that visible in her peripheral vision . . . Gemma’s room was slowly . . . slowly . . . slowly filling up . . . from the floor . . . with a thick black liquid.
She blinked and looked back at Gemma. “What on earth was that! Did you see?” And she looked around, then stood up and looked at the floor from different vantage points.
“That’s how it starts,” Gemma said.
“And then what?”
“It’s difficult to explain.”
Gemma sat Iphigenia down next to her and took her hand. “Do you want to go on an adventure?” Gemma asked, but there was no fun in her voice.
“That was real,” Iphigenia said.
And without needing an answer, Gemma began again, “Don’t think about anything . . . just look at the silver center of the carpet . . . look at it . . . look at it hard . . . stare into the silver center . . . and see that . . . see only the center . . . only the silver center . . . see only that.”
Again, it seemed to Iphigenia that an inky liquid mirror was crowding in from peripheral vision. Stinking. Swelling around them. They were entrapped by it. Terrified. She squeezed Gemma’s hand, her friend, who wouldn’t in this . . . hurt her. She was trusting Gemma, whose voice now, was like iron. It had a cold rhythm. Iphigenia was shaking. Her whole body trembling, in real paralyzed fear . . . unable to cry out . . . or scream.
It smelled like gasoline — suffocating — but with an egg yolk’s tremulous skin. And there was a throbbing arterial pulse beneath it all, deep down, that Iphigenia could feel as the liquid rose above the level of her legs, separated from her now, lost and invisible in that liquid darkness. And that awful pulse, deep down in some hidden secret place beneath the petroleum mire, seemed to match and mirror the cadence of Gemma’s trance spell: “Down now . . . see only this . . . only what you need to . . . only what you’re told . . . hear only this . . . the rest is kuffar lies . . . spread only to deceive you . . . so hear only this . . . only my voice . . . while staring only at the silver center . . . and doing only what I say . . . down now . . . Bismillaaqhir Rahmaanir Raheem . . . down now . . . into the darkness . . . submitting to this will . . . losing all resistance . . . yes . . . you feel it now . . . Alhaqmdu lillaahi Rabbil ‘aalameen . . . submit . . . all the way down . . . down . . . all willpower . . . sinking into this thickness . . . Ar-Rahmaanir-Raheem Maaliki Yawmid-Deen . . . all the way down . . . submit . . . all the way down now . . . submission is the only way now . . . you see that . . . all the way down.”
The thick petroleum bladder — like a giant clot of blood — seemed to rise . . . or perhaps the two of them were sinking . . . into its foulness. “Submit,” Gemma repeated, repeated, repeated. And Iphigenia wasn’t sure which way gravity was pulling. A fog seemed to be pushing itself into her mind. And beneath her legs, it felt like a thick gelatinous membrane was aching under her weight, fearful and shivering. It rose to a height where Iphigenia had to crane her neck to breath, whereupon the inky bladder suddenly burst with an enraged howl of great irredeemable offence. And with a flash of sparks, she was within a great roaring flame. A great petroleum-fueled flame, it seemed. A holocaust of unending fire.
Gemma buried her small nails into Iphigenia’s hand. “Don’t scream,” she said. “This is a jinn.”
The flame all about her seemed to have a face. And if you focused your eyes anywhere, you’d just see the flames, but when you defocused, you’d see the jinn face absolutely everywhere. It was the most ancient face imaginable — cavernous, craggy — like a vertical cliff about to break into 1,001 angry pieces.
“Who’s this with you, Princess Aludra?” the jinn asked. He did not sound pleased.
“No one,” Gemma said. “I only brought my mirror with me. She’s my reflection.” And Gemma imitated what Iphigenia understood must have been her pale paralytic expression, bulging eyes and all.
At this, the jinn laughed and laughed. He laughed so hard that you could see his back teeth.
Through the flames, Iphigenia saw a blurred flurry of events in different locations, seemingly all over the world: one man was backing a car out of a warehouse garage; another man was setting a package under a table in a Middle Eastern bazaar; a younger man was having a package taped to his body, then was sent, glassy-eyed and staggering, into a courthouse; elsewhere, three men entered the home of a terrified family; gunmen with quick movements gave directions to men they pulled out of a car; elsewhere, a man locked his rifle on a cleric and his companions; another man locked his rifle on a politician; elsewhere, a child thickly bundled in a sweater was being instructed to walk into a crowd. All this and more Iphigenia watched.
“This is the present,” the jinn said. “Today, May 15th . . . not unlike yesterday, or the day before. Simply actions in the world of flesh.”
And something about the tone of it all made Iphigenia close her eyes and look away. There were explosions and gunfire and people flashing their knives up and down.
It’s not tedious, Gemma reflected, it was a flavor — an aesthetic flavor, of sorts — a taste that people enjoyed just as others enjoy a turkey at Thanksgiving or a ham on Christmas.
When she opened her eyes, Iphigenia saw the green-blue sticky vapor of what was the soul (perhaps) of the man who had been backing the car out of the driveway. But this smoky translucent thing — if soul it was — had now been transported to a dark dripping cavern populated by twitching shadows that slithered and crawled toward him. And the man, or soul, gnashed his teeth and flashed his shotgun glaring eyes from the things in the shadow . . . to her!
“No no no!” Iphigenia heard herself gibbering as she tried to unlock her eyes, then with a blinking snap, she turned back to Gemma. “Away! Please, dear God, Gemma!” She shrieked. Her head and neck snapped this way and that, as she pulled her hand — again and again, thrashing — in Gemma’s tightening grip.
It looked to Gemma that her friend had lost her mind on seeing what the gentle houris — voluptuous, chaste, and with demure glances — were doing to that old Turkish man there in the darkness. It was all quite silly, almost like an act. “It’s not so bad as all that,” Gemma said, “They’re not even inside him yet.”
Nevertheless, it seemed that the flame — their mobile vantage point — was backing up, away from the shotgun eyes of that now jawless thrashing face, out of that fetid Hell — sweet Jannah, the Paradise of assassins — as now they were moving through some foaming porous membrane, the jelly phantasm of a hallucination. It was all around them, the stinking translucent dream-flesh that swelled, veined and sticky, too close to their faces . . . until they emerged outside the black clotted shape of the towering thing that held Jannah like an organ within its body.
Encircled by the uncertain buoyancy of jinn flame, the two girls were now under a sunless, though ever-burning sky. It seemed more of a psychological state than a direction. It seemed more “hate” than “up”.
Gemma had never seen Iphigenia act so silly. She was simultaneously limp and stiff, wrenching her body in little sobbing jerks. It was so ridiculous that Gemma felt compelled to imitate her friend; foaming at the mouth even, and repeated to the jinn with savage coldness, “She’s my mirror.”
And all the while . . . that thing loomed above them.
That enormous clotted shape — that looming giant 1,001-headed thing — glared down, seemingly sideways or upside down to Iphigenia, who at sight of it, had fallen into a foggy fetal contortion in Gemma’s lap.
“The monster,” Gemma said, motioning to it with her chin, and she remembered how — long-long-ago — when she had first drawn it, her father had called it a hydra. And now, in supplication to the beast, she was unaware, how in its presence, her voice sounded both imperious and infantile.
Looking up from her friend’s lap, Iphigenia saw that thing . . . and toward whatever region of the sky she looked, she saw it as before. Looming . . . looming over her.
“Great and mighty one!” she heard Gemma scream in a cracked and crooked puerile voice, “Strong! Standing straight, stretching from the horizon to the sky!”
And the thing came nearer and nearer . . . until it was the distance of maybe ten feet . . . or less. Iphigenia could clearly see the texture of the black and red clotted mess that could not be its skin. And just when she thought she would vomit, she was jolted by her friend crying out the name of that thing, “Alaq! Alaq! Alaq! Blood Clot! Blood Leach! Rakta-bija, Ee-thra! To me you have revealed your form! Let those that deny you . . . those that turn away . . . beware! We will grab them by the forelock — a lying sinful forelock! — and though they call out to friends for help, we shall call down on angels — yes, angels, we shall call our accomplices! — to punish those that deny you!” And with this she gave Iphigenia’s hair one final shake before letting her fall limp and tumbling into insensible darkness.
Iphigenia awoke with a scream. And a hand pressed down hard on her mouth.
“It’s only a bad dream,” Gemma said. “It’s not real.” And her hand was not at all soft on Iphigenia’s face, it was inflexibly brutal and smelled like iron. “You know, dearest Iphigenia, I don’t think that Dancer has a broken leg at all. In fact, I think his leg’s just fine.”