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O Immaculate Heart

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I.

Mary’s shrine was still small. Brightly-colored offerings left beneath her long, lichen-textured rust stain. “You’ll need more votives,” Ernie remarked, stepping between Poundland candles, plastic flowers; over real marigolds with their stems wrapped in tinfoil. “More prayers. That’s survival one-oh-one.” He peered at Mary’s rust stain against the tunnel wall. Taller than an ordinary woman. Eyeless. Above them, cars roared across the overpass. “Oh,” Ernie said, and stooped down. “You’ve got three prayer cards. One’s even laminated. That’s not bad.” He flashed Mary his yellowed smile. “You may have a chance, yet.”

Mary hummed, thoughtful. She sat on an overturned milk-crate, wrapped in her blue shroud; not looking at Ernie but peering up at the bridge, and then back to her rust stain running down the wall of the tunnel. Mary couldn’t help but notice that the bridge’s overhang was enough to protect the stain from a downward-falling rain, but only just. “Besides more prayers,” Mary said, and leaned forward. “Which—I agree with you, that I’ll need them. But don’t you think it might also help my chances if I—I don’t know. Put up a tarp, or something?”

“Hm?” Ernie said. “Oh, for the rain.” He came and crouched next to Mary, and squinted where she’d been looking, at the overhang. “They’ll take it down again,” Ernie said, considering. “Some well-meaning motorist will complain to the council. But you’re right, it’ll help your chances during the rainy season.” He bent to rummage through a Tesco bag that had blown against Mary’s milk-crate, and mumbled to find it empty. “In the old days,” Ernie said, under his breath, “they’d at least feed you. You eaten yet?”

This to Mary. She shook her head.

“Not today?” Ernie pressed. “Or not at all?” Mary shook her head again, and Ernie sighed. “Here then,” he said, and produced from the depths of his coat pocket a sandwich in wax paper; passed it to her, his hand bright red from cold. “Go on, pet. Can’t live on votives alone.” Ernie’d recently shaved, but his beard was so dark Mary could see the blue of it under his skin. His nails were black with dirt. “Listen,” he said, straightening up. “When you’re done, we should go and see Elma. She holds a meeting on Highfield and Church. Might be able to find you a place to stay tonight. It’s no good for our sort to be out here alone during an eclipse. Even Herla’s lot goes into town.”

Mary made another non-committal noise. Listened to the cars rush past. Both above and beside. She liked the sound of them. When she’d finished, Mary licked her fingers clean, and Ernie watched her do it. “Better?” he asked, and Mary nodded. She crushed the wax paper into a ball, and Ernie held his hand out for it. Put it back into his pocket.

“Think about it,” Ernie said.

 

II.

Elma turned out to be a lean, raw-boned woman with her hair clipped bluntly below her ears, telling the circle of chairs, “and thank you to Sybil for bringing the coffee, Helis for setting up the room, and the Jubilee völva for blessing the doorframes. I’ll be around for a while yet, if anyone still needs a copy of the phone list.” Once the chairs began to scrape back, Elma got up to pull her coat on, and Ernie went over and kissed her cheek. “Every day,” he told her, “I thank Truth for your predictability,” and Elma said, “Dependability, I think you mean,” and Ernie smiled. Most of Elma’s group had drifted toward the refreshment table, but there was more than one curious glance directed at Ernie.

“Haven’t seen you in weeks,” Elma said.

“I’ve been wrapped up in something, near Rampisham Down,” said Ernie, scratching his neck. “The technical boy isn’t pleased that his people aren’t getting much community support—from our lot, that is—and the transmitter pylons are complaining that budget cuts have become a threat to them—” he shrugged. “You know how it is. Change is always hard.” This seemed to remind him that Mary waited at his elbow. “Oh, of course, where’re my—this is Mary. She’s in town for the night, what with the eclipse. I may have told her you’d be the one to talk to about finding accommodation.”

“Oh, of course,” Elma said. “Welcome, Mary.” She tucked her bag under her arm, and stuck out her hand. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new face.” Elma’s own face was broad, and her hands broader, animal-warm. She smelled of deodorant. “I’ve an orientation pamphlet somewhere,” she told Mary. “That should cover the basic information, the stuff most people ask about. The rest I can fill you in with.” From across the room, a man in a chin-high, drawstring ruff called Elma’s name, and Elma excused herself, smiling sheepishly. “Get yourself something to drink,” she told Mary. “I’ll be right back, all right? We’ll see about setting you up for the night.”

There was a refreshment table lined up against the basement wall. Coffee dispensers next to a stack of Styrofoam cups. Long wax candles in colored glass, neon price stickers tapped over the saint’s faces. Small triangles of black incense. Mary picked one up, then set it back down. “Elma isn’t a god,” she said, more question than statement.

“Certainly not,” Ernie said. He was doctoring a cup of coffee with various packets of sweetener, and only just avoided knocking over a bowl of pinecones as he reached for a stir-stick. “But I know what you’re getting at.” Ernie nodded toward Elma, who was folding up chairs while the man in the neck-ruff spoke urgently at her back. “Elma’s part of our community, such as it is. She’s an acolyte of the Lady.” He gestured over his head with his free hand. “You know, the moon. Not that volunteer work is required for the Lady’s service, but that’s Elma for you. She likes to… be useful, I think.”

Mary picked up the incense again. Pocketed it.

 

III.

Elma set her keys down, went across the room to draw the blinds. There were jam jars of soil atop the kitchen sink: basil, thyme and rosemary, daylight fading behind their leaves. The shopping list magnetized to the fridge had been printed in careful hieroglyphics. Open eyes, reeds, a woman in profile, kneeling. “Shut the door, please,” Elma told Ernie. “I don’t need the cat getting out.”

Bowie muddled out of one of the bedrooms, telling them not to fake it, to lay the real thing on him. Elma pulled a face. “Right,” she said, to herself, and disappeared into the room opposite. Now that the blinds where open, Mary could see into the flat across the courtyard: there was a television on, and light flickered against the occupant’s smooth, sea-green walls. Elma returned with folded bath towel. “The Aveda is mine,” she told Ernie, and handed it to him. “Don’t use the body oils, Qetesh will have a fit.”

Qetesh turned out to be Elma’s roommate: a god with beads in her dense hair, and dark makeup around her eyes. She sat on the edge of the room’s fold-out bed and pulled her stockings on. Hair-tie in her teeth. “Look,” she told Elma, through it. “The schedule’s pretty clear—it’s my night, and you’ve got both solstices, as well as non-sequential holidays. That’s a fair split. You can’t rescind just because all the motels have been booked.” She swept her hair up. Clicked her fingers at Mary, who was lingering in the doorway. “Come here, little light-heart,” she said. “Bring my jewelry case over, it’s on the bureau.”

“Oh for—,” Elma said. “Ignore her, Mary,” but Mary brought it, and held it on her knees while Qetesh lifted out first a pair of golden hoops, which winked as they turned, and then a pair of discs like two silver bowls. “The first, or the second?” Qetesh asked Mary, and Mary said, “The second,” so Qetesh affixed the silver to her ears. She leaned in as she did, using her reflection in Mary’s pupils to better see herself. Qetesh’s face was round, her cheeks high and full. She turned her head so the earrings caught the light. “What do you think?” she asked, and Elma snorted, from the doorway, and Mary said, “They’re very beautiful.”

“Beauty’s never been Qetesh’s problem,” Elma said.

 

IV.

“My friend,” Elma repeated. Laughed. “Listen, Qetesh is just like that cat of hers. I feed her, and pick up her messes, and once in a while she’ll deign to share a room with me.” Elma went pink. “That is,” she said. “To be in the same room as me.” The wind lifted her hair, and Elma jammed her hands into her coat pockets. “Anyway,” she said, and turned. “Mary. I’m thinking we’ll head over to the bank first, so we’ve cash on hand, and then we can rent a room. Anything I should take into consideration, layout-wise? Need to face the east, or the west? React badly to unconsecrated spaces?”

“Hm?” Mary said, distracted. “Oh, um—no. I don’t think so.”

The wind was picking up. Bits of garbage kicked along the curb, animated by each gust. Mary watched the sky. By the time they got to Lloyd’s, a heavy cloud cover had developed, dark and roiling. Elma huddled against the ATM’s frame, back to the wind, and punched in her pin. Shoulders pulled up. Mary watched as a passerby’s hat lifted off his head, tumbling across the pavement, and Ernie laughed.

“Oh, shit,” came Elma’s voice, from the ATM. “Damn. Damn.”

The hat’s owner chased it into the street.

 

V.

“When people need you,” Ernie started. He stood near the refreshment table, waiting for Elma to finish folding chairs; Mary had incense tucked into her pocket. “That is—when people believe in you. There’s a sort of feedback loop to existence, wouldn’t you say?” Ernie sipped his coffee. “People like us know it better than anyone.”

 

VI.

Elma insisted on buying them coffee. The three of them walked up Main Street, passing out-of-season tourists headed for Chesil Beach, or the Sea Life Park; in windbreakers and day-packs, holding hands or ignoring each other, and Mary smiled automatically at a mother with a baby in a pink sunhat. “Look,” Elma said. She’d been blowing out her breath in great bursts, as she walked. Eyebrows knitted. “Some tech god may have frozen my bank account, but I don’t want you two to worry—I know of a sure thing, all right, where you’ll still be able to get in. There’s a guy working at the Nothe Fort who’s letting people crash there overnight. It’ll be cramped, but you’ll be safe.”

Mary hummed, looking at the sky. The wind had let up, but the clouds it’d brought remained, low-hanging and darker by the moment. They were half a block from Starbucks when Ernie touched Elma’s arm and said, “Look, it’s the old man.” He nodded at a figure in a white bathrobe seated amid the iron tables of the Starbucks patio. Lifted his hand to wave. The man was reading a newspaper and didn’t look up until Elma—her face brightening in recognition—shouted, over the noise and traffic, “Hail, Nereus, you old sea-goat,” and then Nereus, and the rest of the patio’s occupants, turned to see them.

 

VII.

Nereus’s boat was painted blue. There was gold lettering Mary couldn’t read trimming the stern, and Christmas lights strung along the small cabin. “The Lady Demeter,” Nereus said, motioning their small party up the ramp and onto the boat deck. “Named for the Grain-Giver herself. Not a bad sort, is she?” All present agreed that she was not. The damp wood of the deck was awash in the red and green lights of the marina, slick, and Nereus took Mary’s arm. “Mind your step,” he said, cheerfully. “She sits low, so it’ll be slippery underfoot.” Then, “Does anyone here know their stars?”

“Some,” Elma said.

Nereus pointed with his free hand. “There’s Ursa Major,” he said. “Right overhead, it seems like.” The Great Bear did appear to be directly overhead, and close, like a plane passing so low over the highway that drivers felt they might reach out and touch it, if they wished. There was the North Star, Polaris, and the shape of The Plough. Elma folded her arms, craning her neck to better see it, and Ernie shivered theatrically. “Best to get inside,” he said.

‘Inside’ was a cabin with walls of reed and hard wood, hemp and particleboard. The Christmas lights reflected in the window glass charged everything with color, even after Ernie turned on the overhead. Nereus set bread and salt on the table, and put out a bowl of water filled at his sink. Elma peeled off her coat. “Now,” Nereus said. “If I remember my house-warming rites correctly, and I’m sure I do,” here he uncorked an unlabeled bottle of wine. “We begin with drink. Luckily for us, I’ve a good vintage in. Here,” he said, passing Mary the first glass. “You’ll like this.” Mary wasn’t sure if she did. First it was sour in her mouth, like vinegar, and then all at once it tasted of strawberries. Or rather, it felt like strawberries. Holding it on her tongue, Mary pictured the tunnel where she’d been born; the wild grass beyond it, the Queen Anne’s lace, the tiny, wild berries in spring. “How about the two of you?” Nereus was asking. “Elma…? Karn?”

“Please,” Elma said. Nereus’s glasses looked hand-blown, with bubbles trapped within the blue glass. They turned purple once the wine filled them. “In the old days,” Nereus said, sitting down next to Elma at the fold-down table, and setting the wine in the center, “We had amphoras of this stuff. It was as common as well-water, and we’d pour it out for mortals, here and again, during feast days. Tastes like summer, doesn’t it?”

Ernie told Nereus that he was wrong, that summer tasted of wild clover and sweat, of bone-fire smoke. He rotated his glass, considering. “No longer, perhaps. In my youth.” Beside him Elma was rooting through her bag. “Okay if I light smudge sticks in here?” she asked Nereus, looking up, and Nereus told her that it was fine, but that she’d have to take the batteries out of his smoke detector; Elma did so, with the help of a chair, and struggled only briefly lighting the smudge sticks with Nereus’s pilot light.

 

VIII.

Nereus poured more wine, and Ernie told them about the Twenty-Six Transmission Gods waist-deep in Rampisham Down; how they hummed like the bees had, long ago, and how they were new and afraid. Nereus said he knew that he was lucky, luckier than most, to live in more or less the same manner as he had been for the last hundred years or so, and the hundred before that. “But I am not content,” Nereus said. “They used to slaughter unblemished goats for me, when I came into their harbors—now I state myself on the lean superstition of sailors, crossing their fingers for a fair run time between Singapore and Jakarta.”

Ernie reached to fill Nereus’s glass, only to find the bottle empty. He laughed. “More?” he asked, and Nereus said, “By the knife-block,” and Elma said, “No, I’ll get it,” and stood up to do so, surprisingly steady: her shadow rising sudden and sweeping up the cabin wall. The bottle she retrieved was not a proper bottle but a sort of clay vase, stoppered with wax at the mouth, and when Elma unsealed it the cabin filled with the smell of the sea.

“Who will speak next?” she asked, filling their cups, and Nereus said, “We have not heard from you yet, cousin,” and so Elma told them about being a child on the train from London, and seeing the wild apple trees that had sprung up from the passengers’ discarded lunches, cores flung out from the windows and transformed as if by magic into branching wood and white blossoms. "The tree-spirits would wave to me,” Elma said, “and I would wave back, one handed, so that I didn’t drop my ticket-stub…”

The night deepened around them. Over the slap of water against Demeter’s hull, Ernie whispered of the trembling confusion of stags, in late summer, scraping velvet from their antlers, and the terrible shock of rut; the mighty oak trees that, in Ernie’s youth, were the tallest structures on the earth. Subsonic-deep, Nereus told them of his daughter Thetis, who had batted the Argo clear of the Planktae, and whose son Akhilleus was too full of the sea to love normally, and raged so at death of his erastes that the living spoke of it still. “Only love can break your heart,” Ernie quoted, and Nereus said, “Heraclitus?” but Elma told him it was Neil Young.

They were all properly drunk, by then, and Nereus heated them up leftover curry on his hotplate. Elma picked the chicken out of her portion. Mary licked yellow off her fork, used a forefinger to pick the last grains of rice from her plate. The boat nodded with the movement of the current. Then Ernie produced a flute from the depths of his coat pocket, and Elma undid her button-down and draped it over her head. She whispered a prayer over Nereus’s citronella candle and lit it. “I sing the Moon,” Elma began. “I tend her flame. I keep her time. I am her hands and feet.” The candlelight made her face soft. “My arms and legs are tired—the Moon stirs my blood and moves through me. The way she moves the tides, the Moon moves me to where I should be. Oh! The Hare and I are like one creature—both of us driven by Nature’s Mandate.”

Under her words Ernie’s flute tripped and sputtered. The sound curled in Mary’s ears, pressed little fingers and tongues against her Cochlea, the filament-delicate nerves of her ear, the hidden tuck of her temporal lobe. The candle lengthened the room. Where before it had been small, the inner crush of a houseboat cabin, it now stretched—the way shadows stretch, the way a mother’s belly grew to hold her infant—into a great hall. I used to have a child, Mary thought. Her mind poured out down the back of her neck; her face burned. The child had been a boy, but Mary could not picture him. When she tried to hold his image in her mind, instead there were Nereus’s daughters, clever and black-eyed, walking shoulder-to-shoulder—and Thetis’s son, with his single weak point.

“Take shelter in the home I have prepared for you,” Elma sang.

The great hall slid away. Night closed around them.

 

IX.

Mary woke. Nereus’s boat cabin remained lit, cheerfully: Christmas lights making multi-colored haloes against the fogged-up windowpanes. Mary peeled her cheek off the tabletop, blinking. Across the table, Ernie slumbered into his arms, and Nereus and Elma slept sitting upright on the kitchen floor, Elma’s head resting against the sea-king.

Outside, the air was still. The water of the marina was black and full of lights, all bending and moving with the tide. The Great Bear was gone. The moon, likewise, was nowhere to be seen. Not in the water, and not behind the rippled quilt of cloud cover, all velvet and ink. Unsurprised, Mary made her way back toward Elma’s flat. The night rendered the streets strange, and as she neared it, Mary almost expected to find the flat gone—vanished, with only a dark hole marking where it had been. Or perhaps an entirely different building in its place.

But the flat was just where Mary’d left it.

Qetesh stood outside, smoking a cigarette.

 

X.

The heating element had kicked on, and the smell Mary had noticed earlier had become more pronounced. The sweetness of figs, honey, and animal urine. The tang of dust. Qetesh went into the kitchen and turned the electric kettle on, her earrings catching the lamplight. “You’re right that it’s not good for a person to be out in the dark, on a night like tonight,” she told Mary. “I’m surprised your friends didn’t stop you leaving.”

She ‘friends’ the same way Elma had said ‘friend,’ hours before: with her mouth pulled into a grimace, her tongue thick within it. “They couldn’t,” Mary said, from where she stood at the window. “They’re all asleep.” The curtains had been drawn in the flat across, but artificial light still flickered within. “But then,” she said. “You knew that already, Lady.”

Qetesh did not deny it. “I am,” she said, and stopped. “There are gods, and there are aspects. I am—Qetesh, as I have told you. But also Khonsu, the youth, now long dead. I have been Isis, perverted by time, and the dark mirror of Udjat, who has no name I could give.” The kettle boiled, but Qetesh remained where she stood, leaned against the countertop. Unblinking. “In my girlhood,” she said, “I was one of the fourteen who restored the eye of Horus, along with Thoth. Hathor and Tefnut have fallen to ruin, to nothingness, but I remain. How many others can say the same?”

The kettle whistled on. Mary went into the kitchen. There were mugs in a cupboard beside the sink, and she took down two, filled them, and reached for the glass jars of loose leaf kept near the breadbox. “Which do you like best?” she asked Qetesh, who at last uncrossed her arms and came over to pick out lemon balm. Her smooth face was very still. Her eyes darted to watch Mary’s movements. “Will you tell Elma, then?” Qetesh said, when Mary pressed a mug into her hands. “Will you tell her my secret, closely guarded for so long?”

Mary regarded Qetesh, whose tea poured steam into her face. Qetesh’s round forehead was damp with it, as if perspiring. Between her forearms, tattoos of a lotus and the pair of snakes eyed each other in grim silence. “If you are an aspect,” Mary said, looking at them, “then I am the divining rod that leads to water—I intercede only when it is asked of me. I will not reveal your secret, if you do not wish me to. Do you wish me to?”

“No,” Qetesh said. Then, “I don’t know.”

 

XI.

“I will always be waiting for the sky to consume me,” Qetesh said. “For the bear that would swallow the world, for the dragon’s mouth.” They were listening to the rain rattle against the side of the building. There was a dark cat in Qetesh’s lap, cleaning its face. “When I was a young god,” Qetesh said, “it was accepted that a man might be re-born, if his heart was correctly preserved.”

Mary reached into her jacket pocket.

 

XII.

“There’s a sort of feedback loop to existence, wouldn’t you say?” Ernie sipped his coffee. “People like us know it better than anyone.”

 

XIII.

On Elma’s table: a laminated prayer card, and a triangle of incense.