Burb Rocking
Saturday, December 27, 2008
  Chapter One: The Hunt

CHAPTER ONE

The lion to the left of me stared straight ahead, fascinated by something I could not see. So I angled off down the steps to the right. Turning my head, I met the blank and pitiless gaze of the lion to the other side of me. An understanding passed between us, as we two recognized the inevitability of time, flowing unheeding past us both like the river of human traffic into which I was moving.

Keeping to the right — with the current, against it, who could say? — I savored sights, smells, sounds, and even the feel of the sidewalk under my feet. Vibrations reached me through the soles of my shoes, woven somehow with the steady noise from the street, with words torn from overlapping conversations, with shouts and laughter, with colors and styles of dress, with faces of all types, with cool disdain, with smug self-satisfaction, with grim determination, with glaring rage, with careless joy.

One fashionable young lady walked by, oblivious to everyone, openly weeping. Then a thin black man, arm draped around the shoulders of a young Asian gentleman (they both looked like students) laughed loudly at what his friend said as they moved briskly past. Yet it all merged together, the sharp smells, air dense with sound, the shifts and swirls of movement — cars, people, birds, bits of paper. It was as if somewhere there was a maestro conducting this wildly spontaneous and complex concert, and everyone — me included — was a member of the orchestra, all (unable to contain ourselves) dancing as each of us played his instrument: car-horn, laugh, squealing brakes, blaring radio, slammed cab door, angry yell, barking dog on a leash, delighted shriek, throat-clearing cough.

Energy, energy, energy. It was everywhere, and it was impossible to stand apart from it. That energy got into you, even as you gave it right back. The flux swept up into it everything that wasn’t nailed down or formed of concrete.

The day was bright and hot. The summer sky above was blue. And, like every day in New York, there was magic in the air.

Today, though, just might be the day.

Which would be good, since something bad was going to happen. Soon. But before things got started, there was something I had to do first.

Another right, this one taking me out of the main flow. Not much farther, just one more right turn to go.

Big beautiful oak door. A pub allegedly built for playwrights, according to the sign. Lots of people, lots of movement, lots of noise. The only difference from outside: Here, at least, you could take a rest, sit down, absent yourself from the demanding push of the street. There was a price, of course, not that I minded paying.

There was an empty stool at a small table near the door. I took it.

Seconds later, a smiling Hispanic kid — himself barely old enough to serve alcohol, much less drink it — was asking me, “Is there anything you would like to order at this time, sir?”

“A pint of Guinness would hit the spot.”

“I’ll be right back with that.”

While I waited, I took off the guitar case I’d been carrying on my back. Lowering it, I let one end rest on the floor, the neck leaning against the wall next to me. And I gave my surroundings a closer look. Crowded and narrow, and deep. A door opening onto stairs to the second floor lay a little further up along the wall on my side of the room. Already busy, this place would be standing-room-only later in the afternoon. And louder, as it was geared toward the younger crowd.

She noticed me right away — a twenty-something blonde girl. (Me, in case you’re wondering, I can pass for mid- to late-thirties.) And came right over, putting on a bright smile along the way.

“Do you play?” she asked, glancing at the guitar.

“Opinions are divided on that point,” I answered, meeting her smile with one of my own. “Not all the reviews are in, and the kindest description of those received so far would be: mixed.”

“Cute,” she commented, leaving me uncertain whether I’d been complimented or not. “Will you play a little bit? We’ll turn down the music.”

Without waiting for a response, she moved past me to prop open the door. Then, turning, she offered a kind of half-wave, which gesture I interpretted as encouragement to begin playing. She folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the doorway. Studied the walk outside, looked back at me.

Well, she’d been warned. With a shrug, I reached for the case, opened it, lifted out the guitar. From my meager repertoire, I selected something I couldn’t ruin too badly. Something manageable, if scaled back a little.

“‘As I walked by the dockside one evening so fair...To view the saltwater and taste the salt air...I heard an old fisherman singing his song...’”

She listened till I was done, her head moving slightly to the guitar-rhythms.

“Nice. Play some more.”

“Well...you work here?”

She dipped her head sharply, adding, “I’m your hostess,” delivering the last word with a note of irony and another small smile.

“And you are called...?”

“Erin.”

“Erin. Many years ago, I composed a few songs. Many years ago. When it comes to performing, however...”

“‘When it comes to performing’?”

“The sounds I make may drive away more customers than they attract.”

She shrugged.

“Live entertainment brings people in. Doesn’t matter how good it is.”

“Well, thanks for the vote of confidence, but...”

“Entertainment gets free beers.”

I raised my glass then, drained the last bit of stout.

“In that case, you’ve got yourself some ‘entertainment,’ such as it is.”

She smiled again, yelled, “Luis!” And beckoned to my server. Then she went to her station, a stool behind a tiny desk with the sign “Hostess” propped up on top. A little after that, Luis returned with a fresh Guinness. I was into a mainly instrumental take on “Late November” by then (I might’ve been humming a little, but couldn’t recall the lyrics of Miss Denny’s mad and moody myth). Only two customers seemed to be paying any attention to my struggle with the guitar-strings. They smiled, tossed asides toward each other, sometimes tapped feet.

Unhappy with my sad efforts, I returned the guitar to its case, packed it away.

“I’ll pay for this one,” I told Luis, holding up my glass.

Luis looked puzzled, but not so puzzled that he questioned the ten-spot I handed him.

“Try a Harp,” said someone to my left.

A short wiry man sat on the stool next to me. Wearing jean cut-offs and a yellow shirt bearing on the front a print of a rambling building overhung with a placard proclaiming "Inn" (the back of the shirt, I knew, showed a narrow outhouse with a crescent moon window cut into the door on which hung a sign with the word "Out" sloppily painted on it — one of his jokes). An ear-ring, a teardrop of red and yellow jasper bound in gold wire, decorated his right ear. He smiled from under the drooping mustache adorning the lined brown face.

“No, thanks, pal. I’ll stick with what I’ve been drinking.”

He laughed.

“No, buddy. Keep sucking down that black brew, if you want. Was talking about this.”

With that last word, he hefted an item of green luggage up onto his lap, unbuckled it, sprung it open.

“Celtic harp. You two were made for each other.”

She was carved of pale wood, strings golden, frame wrought with intricate and indecipherable Celtic symbols.

“Pretty. Maio, I thought you knew me better. I’ve never been much for blondes. I doubt we have much of a future.”

“You need to broaden your horizons, try new things. You’re young, got your whole life in front of you.”

“So they tell me.”

“So spread your wings. Live a little. You can’t learn about life in a library, you know. Got to get out into the world, take some chances.”

“I thought that’s what I’ve been doing.”

“Nah, still playing it safe. Unless...today’s the day?”

“Today...” I began, letting the word hang out there.

“Yes?”

“Probably isn’t the day.”

A snort, a shake of the head. I was disappointing him.

“So,” I tried, aiming perhaps for a small measure of redemption, “You brought this thing all the way from where you live—”

“The Bronx. Told you that twenty times.”

“—Right, from the Bronx. To this place, just to convince me to try a new thing?”

“By thunder, I think you’ve got it.”

“And now, if I don’t try your harp here, your feelings will be hurt?”

“You will have offended me. And my family,” he announced, very serious. “I may have to kill you.”

“Really? That’s all? I think I can live with that.”

He was shaking his head.

“No, I don’t think you can. And there’s always the fate worse than death.”

“And that is?”

“No monkey-stick. No hat.”

“Give me the damn harp.”

Grinning, he passed it over.

Experimentally, I plucked a few of the strings. And laughed miserably.

Maio couldn’t tolerate even that much of my incompetence. He got up and repositioned the harp so that it sat directly on my stool.

“Embrace her like a lover, Carl. You know? C’mon, do you make love one-handed? Don’t answer that. Both hands now. A harp is like two guitars in one. You’re playing two guitars.”

“Problem,” I notified him, “I can barely play one guitar.”

“So? Now you’re playing two.”

With my fingers, I tried finding my way among the many strings. The thing sounded pretty, even as I stumbled through my pass at “Out on the Ocean.” The tune was not even recognizable. Still sounded kind of pretty, though.

“You need to be more loose.”

“Did you recognize the song?”

“‘Barbara Allen’?”

“Thank-you for making my point. There’s ‘loose.’ And then there’s ‘lose.’”

“No, no, wrong. You just need to try looser material. Know any jazz?”

I didn’t. So I tried a little of “The First Arabesque.” It was terrible.

“Debussy?”

Shocked by his guess, I looked up from the bright quivering strands. My glance swept past the doorway on the way to Maio’s aged countenance. I saw the question on his face as I thrust the harp back at him. Snatching up the guitar case, I jumped off the stool and ran out the door.

There! Disappearing into the wave of humanity pushing east toward Fifth Avenue. Wasting no time with the crowd, I went out into the street, ran past them.

At the corner, I looked left, then right.

Maio had caught up to me by then.

“Your quarry?”

Without answering, I stretched out my senses. And pushed at the boundary between worlds, that which my people call Shadow. Put a different color hat on that one, look to see a limo over where a truck should be, a crying kid clutching his mother’s hand in place of the young couple who had paused to admire something in a window. Trade the clear sky for the intrusion of a thin rib of herringbone cloud. Blur the outlines the slightest bit — this way, then that — give the Etch-a Sketch a gentle shake.

A couple of those subtle shifts showed me other versions of my target. Not precisely the same, but close enough. Nearby, in neighboring worlds, they were moving away from me on my left, not quite out of sight.

I had fiddled. Now I unfiddled. The fellow who had worn a Yankees baseball hat — only for an eyeblink — found himself securely back in Red Sox fandom and standing out in a crowd which nevertheless took almost no notice of him at all. The world was again as it had been. With no one the wiser, unless they had been standing right next to me, looking at all the little things I was looking at.

Now...North!

I started hoofing it. Who knew how much of a lead had been opened up? Three blocks later, in front of Lord & Taylor, I slowed to a walk. And again reached out.

Sirens. A firetruck and ambulance muscled their way through the cars and trucks. Enough? Too much?

“Hey,” Maio got out, as he came up next to me, panting. “Slow down for an old man! Got any respect for the elderly?”

“When I meet someone elderly, you’ll find out.”

I searched faces as some heads turned to regard the firetruck, whose driver was repeatedly sounding its horn.

Nothing. I’d overdone it.

Next to me, Maio pointed.

“Over there! Other side of the street. Half-way between 39th and 40th!”

He was right. And also lucky. A quick glance over the shoulder, that was all the object of our hunt had offered, head briefly turned — yet Maio had caught it. He had to have been looking at just the right place at just the right moment.

“Good eye.”

“Eagle scout. Also, these eyes are used to spotting feds, cops and narcs. Which is why I use both of ’em.”

The firetruck had broken through the gridlock — unavoidably one-way here as it was on almost every other street and avenue on the Island — and gone. Traffic surged in its wake, a flood of careening metal. Potentially lethal, but I was past caring as I took a step out into the roaring intersection of 39th Street and Fifth Avenue.

I felt Maio’s hand on my shoulder, an essentially symbolic attempt to hold me back. Ignored, it fell away as I leaped in front of a Mercury Cougar, threw both hands out and onto its hood, vaulted to the other side. A cab was waiting in the space into which I landed. Instead of slowing for the madman trying to get himself killed, the cabbie accelerated and swerved into the lane to his right. The car that was in his way shot forward, the driver screaming obscenities. For half a second I occupied an illusion of empty space, a delivery van bearing down on me. I took a step forward, stopped as a white pick-up followed hard behind the cab. The pick-up shifted right a little, seeming to graze a parked car, even as I felt the wind of the van at my back. The way was clear, and I ran forward.

I was running past a bank, but across the street from me (I knew without looking) was the Mid Manhattan Library. Now I looked. If the one I was chasing thought at all like me, that was a likely destination.

Just behind me, I heard Maio say, in between audible breaths and as if reading my thought, “No, not in there — other side of 40th!”

And on the west side of Fifth now — our side — there was our moving target, wearing some shade of maroon, across 40th, heading west and once more merging with the other pedestrians. The eastbound traffic was simply moving too fast for another life-threatening crossing. So we stood, waiting and watching.

“What about a cab?” Maio suggested helpfully.

A sour laugh escaped me.

“No way. At least, not until I know where we’re going.”

“What? We get in a cab and follow. It’s easy. Hey, I’ll even pay.”

“Okay,” I allowed, openly skeptical. “As soon as you can find me a cabbie willing to go west on 40th, let me know.”

That shut my companion up for the moment. Good timing, too, since the cars were all sliding to a stop. We cut across.

“So where do you think he’s going?” he asked, reminding me he couldn't be kept quiet for long.

We were on the other side now, and looking at the south wing of the New York Public Library. Full circle already today, and so far without getting anywhere. I felt like a rat on a wheel. Or in a maze.

“My guess? North, and west. The way we’ve been going all along.”

We were jogging beside each other, while I scanned ahead, right to left, seeking. As we were drawing abreast of the Radiator Building, I sighted our target again and broke into a run. People glared and shouted epithets as I shoved through the crowd, heedless of whom I jostled.

Right turn at Tesla’s Corner, as expected. Again, I moved off the walk, recklessly racing vehicles to my left on Sixth Avenue. Sad thing was, sometimes I was moving faster than they were. And the lucky thing was that no one hit me. Though I was sure some wanted to — they sure leaned on their horns like they were thinking about it — and got back on the sidewalk a little before I reached 41st.

Bryant Park on my right. And was that a flash of maroon clothing up ahead, not far from 42nd Street?

I was betting on it.

At the corner I hesitated, and Maio caught up to me again.

My mind’s eye was already taking in everything around me, imagining tiny alterations of this, that and the other, beginning to find its way among the Shadows. But the feeling was too strong, intuition and more.

Instead of moving either north or west, I turned east, toward Fifth Avenue again. And heard Maio groan behind me.

Then I was leaping down the steps, three at a time, into the subway station entrance there. Impatiently, I fished out my Metrocard, while Maio, in an unexpectedly spry move, swung up and over the turnstile. Growling an expletive, I ran after him. We raced down to the platform, where a train was just leaving.

“Which one?” Maio wondered out loud.

“The Seven. For Times Square,” I answered, without hesitation, undaunted by the fact we were being led toward the busiest subway complex in the biggest city in the world.

We got on the next train.

“Where to next?”

Again, I answered without hesitating.

“The A.”

“And then?”

“Stay on the A. Right to the end of the line.”

“How do you know?”

“Northwest, remember?”

“Sure?”

“Sure, I’m sure.”

At the Times Square station, we ran through the maze with fellow rodentia, and then — literally — took the “A” train. Hanging onto a pole, each of us shifting weight on our feet as the train rocked and rattled beneath us, as passengers moved past us, neither gaining ground nor losing any with respect to the one we imagined we hunted, we drifted through the stops along the way. Our heading: northwest.

How, you may be expected to ask, could I chance upon any one special person in a city of millions? And then track that one through the multitude in the streets?

Easy, comes the answer. Any prince of the immortal city could do it. Or princess. Being born to Amber is all that is really required. Best, of course, if born to the royal family, where the power is strongest. The power to move between worlds, the power to find one’s heart’s desire.

And lately my attention had been rather focused, as my heart knew but a single overriding desire.

Until two days ago, I had not even known if he still lived. Repeated attempts at contact had failed. My search for him out in Shadow, among the countless worlds, had come up dry. I had looked for him, but not found him.

But then he had come looking for me.

I had dreamed about him, you see.

And in those dreams he had been looking for me. Now I was going to make sure he found me.

How had he located me? By the same means through which I had learned he was moving north up Fifth Avenue, no doubt. I had played with probability, begun shifting into nearby worlds, where things were nearly identical, yet not quite. In some of those places other beings bearing a passing resemblance to the one whose blood gave him the same power that flowed in my own veins — quasi-doppelgangers, if you will — were taking a similar route. That is, most of his shadows in the nearest worlds had been heading uptown. Presumably, the same trick had brought him close enough to me that he had walked right by the pub on 35th where I had been sitting with Maio.

My Earth is not necessarily your Earth. Separated they might be by a microsecond of time, the beat of a butterfly’s wing, the thinnest sliver of a dimension, a trivial decision. I had been reading about such things in the New York Public Library that morning. Superstrings, supergravity, D-branes, p-branes, F-theory, M-theory, Freund-Rubin compactifications, Kaluza–Klein reductions, universes of 7, 9, 10, 11 or 12 dimensions. Whatever they might truly be, the master of such lore, Dworkin, had called such separations shadow veils. And so did we, his grandchildren. The ability to use a power-tool does not require full understanding of the forces and engineering which permit it to function. Mine could slice the stuff of Shadow.

On the long ride up the A line, I thought of all that had brought me here, going right back to the beginning. When my brother Eric and I had been rivals, competing in everything, whether it might be in a fencing match or in the pursuit of the same woman at a party. This had culminated in the contest for the ultimate prize: Amber’s throne. Losing the first round of that game had proven quite costly to me. Eric had left me to die of the Black Plague in London. Where I had suffered the loss of my memory, remaining on the Shadow Earth for four hundred years. While only a century and a half had passed in Amber, where time moved more slowly. Perhaps, aged more rapidly by Earth’s swift years, stripped of my identity and past, living much like other men, my life in that Shadow had changed me. The experience had surely aged me, if nothing else. And had also made Earth my home, a place special to me. Not that I could love a Shadow as much as I loved Amber, but I was fond of the place. This was known to members of my family, of course. And now one of them had followed me here.

Hunter and hunted had switched places, however. He seemed unaware that I followed him. Though perhaps that was not entirely true. Tracking me in worlds close by, he may have concluded that my course was northwest, that I would even be taking the subway. Leading to an intriguing philosophical question: If I had chosen this course because his doppelgangers had done so, and if he had chosen the same route because my Shadow selves had done the same, then who was chasing whom? Who had made the original choice? Both? Neither? And were our doubles pursuing each other in those other worlds, in some cases mine following his, in others his following mine?

These were the sorts of thoughts that passed through my head as the train sped up, slowed down, sped up, slowed down, taking us inexorably where we had to go.

Then we were there, the train slowing for West 190th.

“This ain’t the end of the line,” Maio protested, seeing me move toward the doors.

The doors opened, and I said, “Let’s go,” stepping out onto the platform.

I knew this was the right stop. Remembered it, actually, from a recurring dream.

Charging up the stairs, we reached the top quickly. Maio was gasping when we got there. The metal and glass of the passing cars gave back the blinding sun. People walked and talked, laughed and yelled. Like a herd of wild horses they suddenly seemed to me, tossing their manes in the bright air.

“Hey, hold up a minute,” I heard Maio next to me. “Still ain’t recovered from all those blocks we ran.”

“That was how long ago? An hour? And five of those were short blocks on Fifth. You’re not that old.”

“Yeah, but I smoke. Unfiltered.”

“What you smoke doesn’t come with filters. Look,” I said, automatically turning my head left, then right, taking in the scene, dazzled by the sunlight, not seeing any close relatives. Nor really expecting to. “Look,” I repeated, becoming aware of the mild rebuke in the way Maio was regarding me from beneath lowered brows. “Fort Tryon Park’s just up the street beyond Corbin Plaza. Stay on the main path till you reach the museum building. The trail ends there. Look for me, and look for him. If you find him before you find me, just stay on him, keep him in view, okay?”

Then I was running again.

Beyond the final leg of Fort Washington Avenue was the park. Maybe my favorite in Manhattan. But I had no eyes for the shimmering lawns, quiet old trees or nodding flowers. My attention was on the people walking the paths, sitting on the benches, sprawled on the grass. This was just me being thorough. As I’d already told Maio, I knew the trail ended on the other side of the people, grass, flowers and trees.

During my jog up the drive, I reflected on my new friend. That he’d shown up with a harp today hadn’t come as the surprise it might have been. When I’d first met him, he’d been playing a variety of instruments — tin whistle, fiddle, harmonica, bongos, dulcimer. That had been at the subway station by Washington Square. I’d liked his selections and style, and so had given to his cause. We’d gotten to talking, and I’d let it drop that I had once entertained pretensions of being a musician. Well, he’d offered to share his spot with me if we also shared the take. Which was more than fair, as he had been quick to point out, since he was the one who had paid for the license to perform there and had no idea if I was any good or not. This worked out well for me, too, as I needed to be out in the city, waiting for another of my dreams to come true. In particular, the dream that was coming true today.

There up ahead, from a spot where you could see the Washington Bridge run out to the Jersey shore, on a wide hilltop overlooking the northwest corner of Manhattan from its lordly perch, the closest thing to a medieval monastery a man was likely to see anywhere in North America: The Cloisters.

I slowed to a walk. The moment called for it. Things had fallen into a familiar rhythm. This was something I knew, remembered, and now my part was finally unfolding. And I was at last right where I needed to be.

Merging with the crowd, I caught whiffs of this and that — food, perfume, halitosis, clothing, soap. And sweat. Mostly me, I abruptly realized. I was drenched, trousers and shirt sticking to me. That’s what I get for running around Manhattan at the start of September. It was an aromatic herd of humans that I was part of, slowly moving up the steps.

Paid ten bucks donation, stepped into the big heavy space, walked around.

Obeying the tug of the foot traffic, I soon found myself walking past the Romanesque columns framing a flower garden. I went in among the roses and wildflowers, made it over to the shade on the other side, stepped into the arcade there.

The herb garden was just up the way. Peering across it, something besides the heat held me back. So I took a seat on a stone bench, pondered the strangeness of it all. Was I chasing a phantom? Maybe, maybe not. Then where was the path? Play the probability game? Pointless here, useless. And unnecessary. For this was the place, the time.

Cloisters they were indeed, from far-away France, from some other century.

Like me.

What was I doing here? There was an obvious place to wait. And this wasn’t it. I stood, got moving again, navigating through the parents, couples and children, checking walls and doors for useful signage. Trod the stairs and came to the place where kids were pointing, laughing, crying, teens and grown-ups digging into purses and wallets.

The Gift Shop.

Posting myself just outside the door, I watched people going in, coming out, passing me by.

“Carl, c’mon!”

Maio was standing at the corner off to my right, gesturing.

“I’m fine here.”

“He’s here. Other side of the Cuxa. Follow me!”

That was the big one, the cloister central to the whole complex. I had a notion as to where we were going, so I shook my head and pointed toward the entrance hall where the stairs were. And cut straight across it, pretty sure Maio would follow my drift.

He did, and we wove our way through the folk scattered throughout the Gothic hall on the other side. We were very close now, and the excitement had my pores tingling with chill anticipation. At the end of the hall we bore to the right.

Into the hall of the Unicorn Tapestries.

I saw him step toward the wall before him, where one of the tapestries hung, called out his name, now that he could hear it at last.

“Merlin!”

And saw Merlin, my son, vanish into thin air.



“So he is a brujo,” Maio finally said.

From the moment I had grimly turned my back on the tapestries, he had been silent. Neither of us had spoken a word as we had negotiated a path through the museum-goers and back through Fort Tryon Park. During the long ride on the subway afterward, we’d each been preoccupied with our private thoughts.

It was only when we were again part of the madding crowd ambling along the sidewalks, blinking in the sunlight, baking in the heat, gratefully accepting the shade of buildings we passed, that I had thought about where we were going.

People were lounging in this park, too. Much less grass here, more pavement. Students, people playing chess, two young ladies entertaining a large group of children and several adults with comical puppets. All in the shadow of trees, NYU, and the grand Washington Square Arch. From a spot on a concrete bench across from the fountain, almost beneath a lamp post, we had a clear view across the square of that Arch, so reminiscent of its elder cousin at the head of the Champs-Elysées.

Saying nothing, I separated the guitar from its case, began tuning it softly.

“There is more to your story today,” Maio suggested, not taking the hint, “than there was yesterday.”

“True,” I agreed, tightening a string.

“Thought we knew each other,” Maio went on, shaking his head, dramatic and sad, full of pathos.

“Hardly,” I said, plucking the tightened sting, listening to its new sound, trying to guage how close I’d gotten. “What’s a brujo?”

“Witch,” he answered simply. “Sorceror. Shaman.”

“Strong words. You lose somebody in a museum, and suddenly there’s sorcery involved.”

“You trying to piss me off? I know what I saw.”

“Yeah, a brujo,” I said, bent over the guitar, but hearing the scowl in his voice. Then I decided to look up, just to check.

Maio was glaring at me. And scowling. I hadn't anticipated the glaring.

“So what’s that, anyway? Some Portuguese slang?”

“This here’s only part Portuguese. Rest is Navajo.”

“You’re a regular citizen of the world then, aren’t you?”

“You know it. So tell me: What are you?”

“Not a citizen of the world,” I told him, and lowered my head as I resumed the guitar-tuning.

“‘Course not,” he countered, “‘Cause you’re a brujo, too.”

With a sigh of resignation, I put down the guitar.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’ve got eyes.”

“But I’ve left you in the dark?”

A nod.

“And now you want my story?”

Another nod.

I couldn’t resist a chuckle. His gaze was unblinking, and I’d swear his eyes had taken on a yellowish flavor, fierce and feral. This determined and unyielding fellow before me was a stranger. Until this moment, I had only been familiar with mellow, easy-going and fun-loving Maio. While taking in this new aspect of my friend, I got some words ready.

“Fine, okay, whatever you like. You’re right. I’m from a place nobody’s ever heard of. It’s out of the way, not part of the mix. What of it? That makes me a sorceror?”

He nodded one more time.

“You’re crazy,” I told him. “And what about you? Sorcerors, right! If I believed in such things, I’d say, ‘Takes one to know one.’”

“Maybe so.”

“So what is this? I show you mine, you’ll show me yours?”

“Works for me.”

I glanced at the people sitting at the edge of the fountain. Some kids were bouncing a rubber ball back and forth between them, missing it as often as they caught it. As I watched, the girl with the pony-tail ran toward us, retrieved the ball, turned around and sent it on a ricochet back to her partner.

“She was rich and spoiled, of course,” I began, settling on what I hoped would be a believable version of the true story. “The place was called Avalon—”

“The hotel?”

“No. The town of Avalon. Out on Catalina Island. There’s a ranch there with some prize-winning Arabians. We met while riding, and again later on at the kayak rental, where we relaxed by the water with our Piña Coladas.”

“Piña Coladas? You?” Maio gave a skeptical snort.

“It was what they were serving. Anyway, to shorten the story, we have a son.”

His eyes were wide.

“Who? Not the brujo?”

“The one you and I were following? Yes, he is my son.”

“Nah, he’s too old.”

“To be my son?” I laughed. “Thank-you for that. It means I’m older than I look.”

“Show me that drawing again.”

Reaching into a pocket, I pulled out a folded piece of heavy parchment, handed it over. And watched Maio spread it out on the bench between us, smoothing down the creases with his hand.

“Looks like you,” he decided after a moment, “But I thought this was a nephew or cousin.”

“Your guess was close.”

“Few years since you’ve seen each other.”

“What makes you say that?”

With his chin, he indicated the parchment.

“Drawing. No photo. Like a police sketch or something. You gave a copy to a P.I., right? Messy divorce?”

“Not really. There was never a marriage. You got the years part right, though.”

“Whatcha gonna do when you find him?”

“Talk.”

Maio smiled.

“You got lots of catching up to do.”

“True enough. And now you’re up. You’re a brujo?”

My friend’s smile widened a little.

“I know many ways. The drum. The dance. The fast. The peyote. The smoke. There are many roads to the Otherworld. Which one is yours?”

Now it was my turn to smile. I took back the drawing, folded it up, put it away. Out of a different pocket I withdrew a new item, a rectangular case. The case was somewhat worse for the wear, singed and scorched in places. Maio watched with keen interest as I opened it and removed what was inside. Then I spread them out on the space between us.

The cards.

My half-Navajo shaman friend studied them for nearly half a minute, then looked up at me.

“Tarot?”

“It’s the only way I know.”

“Where does it take you? What do you see?”

“Possibilities. Probabilities. Hints and suggestions.”

“Truth?”

“Always, but the truth can look different to different people. We see the truth we’re prepared to see. Which would be the secret of the cards, if it had to be put into a sentence.”

He began to reach for them, but I interposed a hand.

“Touching them affects what they reveal. Likewise, their touch also affects you.”

“Two-way street, eh?”

“Think of it as Newton’s Third Law extended to the metaphysical plane. Or an expression of Bell’s Theorem.”

“Alexander Graham?”

“No, different guy. Spent time thinking about how two objects, once in contact, thereafter remain connected, no matter how separated in time and space they may become.”

“Every brujo knows that,” Maio said, underwhelmed by the information. “Amulets and spells could not work without it.”

“Are those Tarot cards?” asked a new voice.

The voice belonged to a short, stout, middle-aged woman clutching a shopping-bag.

“Yes,” I replied, wishing I had moved faster to put them away.

“Isn’t one of those―you?”

“I can see you’re an observant person. And you’re right. These were prepared by a member of my family.”

“Well, whoever-it-was is an excellent artist. Looks just like you.”

“He’d be pleased by the compliment,” I informed her, belatedly gathering up the cards.

“Can I have a reading?”

In a well-practiced move, I’d already squared the cards one-handed, opening the case with my other. Goal: make the cards quickly disappear.

Giving the woman a rueful, self-deprecating smile, I shook my head and opened my mouth to say, “No.”

Instead of “No,” however, I heard, “Thirty-five dollars.”

I have it on good authority that a shaman said this, and not me.

“Thirty-five?” the flabbergasted shopper repeated.

I looked at Maio. He was holding up the harp he’d gotten me to try earlier.

“Suggested donation. Harp accompaniment provided at no extra charge. Sets up the right vibrations, you know.”

“What?”

“Egypt,” Maio answered right away, settling the harp squarely between his knees, sweeping hands over the strings to elicit a pleasant glissando.

“Egypt?”

“Yeah, Tarot comes from Egypt. World’s oldest harps, too. Pharoahs had harps play when the Priests of On used the cards to tell the future.”

“Really? I’ve never heard that.”

“My friend Carl here knows what I’m talking about. Most of the secret tradition of the Tarot isn’t written down. Only given to seventh sons.”

She looked at me.

“Is that true?”

“Maio is Navajo, and a shaman. I’ve never known him to say anything that’s not true.”

“I’ve been having my fortune told for years. No one’s ever mentioned any of this.”

“What about the incense?” Maio demanded immediately.

“I don’t know. What does incense have to do with it?”

“Sacrifice. When a reading was done for a pharoah, a holy animal was sacrificed so the gods would breathe truth into the cards. So now it’s incense.”

“You’ve confused me.”

“Incense smoke has replaced the smoke of the animal sacrifice.”

“And that works? That deceives the gods?”

“Don’t ask me, I’m not the expert. Ask him.”

She was looking at me again.

Clearing my throat, I said, “Well, not exactly. The gods are not deceived. But holy incense can be substituted for sacrificial smoke, yes. But the scents, whatever they are, must please the Powers That Be.”

“Well, where’s your incense?”

“You’re right,” I instantly agreed. “A reading in a spirit true to the origins of the Tarot is not possible without smoke. Oh, well, sorry to have wasted your time.”

Then I watched as Maio produced an incense stick, lit it, and took up the harp.

I took a breath, then slowly let it out.

“So...do you have a question for the cards?”



The next morning, I grabbed breakfast at my hotel over in Murray Hill. Maio met me there in the lobby, where he scarfed toast, grapefruit, and a couple of cans of orange juice from the continental. He was excited after the previous day’s big haul, and couldn’t wait to get started.

The shopper who had been our first customer hadn’t coughed up the suggested thirty-five bucks. She’d given my companion a five for his harp-playing, however. And had rewarded me with a twenty — not bad for fifteen minutes of dealing out Amber’s Tarots and finding meanings in how they fell.

Several onlookers of that first reading had found irresistible the prospect of glimpsing the future through a set of cards, beautiful, unique, magical and strange. One person after another elected to sit with me at the edge of the square, placing their trust in the otherworldly Tarots and the big bearded lout — Yours Truly — who revealed their mysteries one dramatic turn at a time.

Yeah, I’d never gotten around to taking off the beard I’d had since before Mirata. Gave me a kind of Biblical look, conveniently in keeping with working alongside Maio for whatever pocket-money passing New Yorkers were willing to part with for a scrap of song. Or — now — a bit of fortune-telling.

As we’d gotten a late start the other day, the goal this time was to spend most of the day in Washington Square. And hopefully raking it in. As usual, we would spell each other, covering our staked-out turf in shifts. When together, the idea was for one of us to take the lead, with the other providing back-up and — most critically — keeping an eye on donations tossed into Maio's hat (a wide sombrero) and my guitar-case.

There were always one or two unscrupulous sorts willing to pilfer the take when the performer was distracted by the audience. This was the monkey-stick-and-hat leverage Maio had employed on me in the pub. Only rarely did he ever bring out the stick, a thing rigged with bells and colorful ribbons, waved and shaken to call attention to our activities. But the hat (which term also broadly applied to anything used to collect gratuities) was an integral part of our operation. Maio claimed that in the past he’d lost a flute, drumsticks, a banjo, over sixty dollars, and a loaf of fresh-baked bread while responding to honest spectators. A second set of eyes was good to have.

Well before noon, as I was shuffling the cards between readings, my cohort stood up abruptly, alert. He was watching someone nearby intently.

“What is it?” I asked.

He closed his eyes, flared his nostrils, sniffed the air.

“Ham and swiss. On rye. With mustard, but also...some horseradish. And a dill pickle.”

“Really? You can tell all that from just a whiff of someone's sandwich?”

He opened his eyes, looked at me and shrugged.

“Does it matter? I’ve gotta get something to eat.”

“Pick me up something, too, then. A BLT would be a nice finish to that light breakfast.”

He waited till I handed him some money. When he took the cash, he handed me the damned harp.

“You should practice, you know. Put the Tarot away for now. Be a walk-by act while I’m gone. That way, you can chow down soon’s I get back.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, not particularly liking what sounded like someone trying to give me orders. The prickly prince-of-Amber ego thing, I suppose. His argument, however, was persuasive, as all this talk of food had made me hungry. So I set the harp down beside me, going back to my shuffling.

“Only way you’ll get any better,” he commented before walking off.

As soon as he was out of sight, I put away the cards and picked up the thing. Realistically, it would take years of steady practice before I could claim to be a passable harpist. I was frankly embarrassed to try playing it with people around. Then, thinking about it just a second or two longer, I decided I didn’t care. Maio's schtick was making money from music. My cash reserves were holding up just fine, and I reminded myself I was out in the open for an entirely different reason. So I positioned the harp near the middle of my body as I had seen Maio do, lightly ran my hands over the strings. It was a pretty thing, and sounded sweet even at the touch of my unschooled fingers.

Looking around the square, I noted the guy over by the fountain, juggling small water-balloons, entertaining the kids just as much when he dropped one (for the comedy, and not by accident, or so it seemed to my eye) as when he expertly kept three in the air. There was a person completely covered in white, almost unmoving, made up like George Washington — a living statue. What looked to be a potato sack hung from his left hand, and with his right he periodically reached into it, moving quite slowly, removing fistfuls of cherry blossoms which he scattered at his feet. Earlier, I had seen him pull out a bunch of black cherries instead, offering them to passersby. Facing him a short distance away stood a woman completely covered in green make-up, a diminutive Statue of Liberty, also moving at inchworm speed, alternately distributing printed copies of the Declaration of Independence and a poem. Both stood on sturdy wooden pedestals, and I had only seen them take one break that morning. There was also a lively young man who swallowed a sword, or sometimes fire, while riding a unicycle.

I was hopelessly outclassed, but didn’t mind. That other more professional acts would draw the lion’s share of the park's visitors suited me very well. The spectators of the last reading I had given stood about uncertainly. When a couple put themselves forward, hoping to be next, I smiled and shook my head, which I then lowered for a better view of the strings.

There was a time, so long ago that I can no longer claim to even know when it was, that my grandfather Dworkin had tried to rein in the latest boy prince a little by giving him lessons in playing the harp. It had kept me from running all over the palace and the grounds, where I had demonstrated a precocious talent for annoying both family and staff. This memory came back to me now, so unexpected, so suddenly strong, that I felt my eyes sting. Other memories followed hard on its heels as I slowly moved from glittering brass wire to glittering brass wire, each humming and glowing, bright and transparent like rays of the sun. One refulgent note after another rippled around me like a timeless breeze. The shining strings held my gaze, while the sounds they made opened up forgotten vistas in my mind.

I was moved to sing. Softly they came at first, the words. And I let them come.

“After the River of the Blessed, the sea.
There we sat down, yea, we wept
when we remembered Avalon.
Our swords were shattered in our hands
and we hung our shields on th’oak tree.”


From the way a kind of quiet had begun to hover about the music, I knew someone’s ear had been caught. I played on.

“In the enchanted wood no more hang
the golden apples, said the minstrel
on his way back from Avalon.
Of the leaves which once turned there
and the city on the hill he sang:”


Someone stood close by. I could not trust myself to look up, not yet. The song would have its way with me first, and then we would see.

“‘The silver towers were fallen
into a sea of blood.
How many miles to Avalon?
None, I say, and all.
The silver towers are fallen.’”


The song was done. I set down the harp and was quiet for five heartbeats. Then I looked up and saw him there among those who had come close to hear my song. And I was not surprised.

“So you’re done chasing mythical beasts. And traded them in for a certain Prince Corwin. Good. Bleys told me you and Martin located the other realms prior to your disappearance. Then we met as prisoners right before you and Bleys were to be hurled into the abyss. Yet here you are. So have a seat. It’s time you told me a story.”

Not actually looking at me right away, but seeming focused on something far off, Merlin sat down beside me. He sat down there in the park on that bright, beautiful, sunny day. To me, he seemed a sleepwalker, a man lost in a dream. One, however, who was slowly waking. And, after awhile, he began to talk.

Copyright © 2008 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB) All rights reserved
 
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