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THE MORE THINGS CHANGE (15 August 2008)

Life is change.
B’Linda Montgomery knew the truth of this better than just about anyone. At first blush, it might have looked ironic that the woman who’d taught B’Linda this was her grandmother. Grandmother. Who had been born in the same small house as her mother and grandmother. Who, except for a single weekend honeymoon up to the state capital, never once set foot over the county line in all her 87 years.
But back behind that small house, Grandmother kept her garden, kept it right up until that day she was found in bed, having passed over in her sleep. Grandmother kept her garden, and she kept it well, and a gardener she learns that things come and things go. The days get long and short, there are dry spells and there is rain, plants sprout, plants die and new plants sprout to take their place. B’Linda had learned all of these things, and a whole lot more, following the tiny old woman up and down the rows of vegetables and flowers, watching her work the soil with hands like a set of roots, deep brown and all twisted up, but still strong and forceful, moving the dirt aside, seeking the heart of things. For as long as she could remember, (and unlike some of the other girls, B’Linda still remembered things like most folks did...) she knew she was going to be a gardener. She might well have ended up living in that small house herself, but Daddy was an army man, in for the long haul, and so after Grandmother’s death Mother and the children set out with him, selling the family home and leaving it behind for good. They traveled far and wide in the following years, but in the end, they were Up North and Out West, about as far in both directions as you can go from where they started. Daddy finished out his career at Fort Yanderman, then retired with his arm full of stripes, a lot of hard memories and a firm desire that none of his children follow in his footsteps.
Which suited B’Linda just fine. She went to the U, got her degree in Horticulture, and after a few more years of shoveling twenty-three kinds of crap, she was able to open B’Linda’s Botanicals. She then suffered through the usual hassles and humiliations that come with being a black businesswoman, but in the end she gained a good reputation, and once again, there were changes. She met William and they had started Making Plans. The customers, the white customers, they started to come in greater and greater numbers.
And through it all, B’Linda carried two gifts from her grandmother. The bonsai tree and in her heart, a piece of Grandmother’s garden.

And then...
Her very last customer of all, cruising into the nearly-empty BB parking lot in his big black car. It had been late in the day, and the setting sun had glittered bright slashes across the car’s tinted windshield as the vehicle pulled into one of the waiting slots. A door had opened in the back, and he had unfolded himself, rising up, casting his bald hard-edged shadow across the world. He wore a dark suit and in one hand he held a silver-topped cane, but he did not lean on it. She had been out front as all of this happened, checking a late delivery against what she had on her clipboard, and she had seen all of it. It had all seemed peculiar, nothing more, until he looked in her direction and their eyes had met.
Their eyes had met, and
in that moment it had all been over. There were more lessons after that, a whole lot of things she had to learn and unlearn, pain and wonder and surprise, but in that first moment of... of connection, she had understood. Another change, the biggest change of her life, far bigger than she was herself. The garden in her heart began to change. She had gone to him, gotten in the car, still carrying the clipboard. Her bonsai plant was sitting on the dark red seat waiting for her. He had known, he had understood, and in that second moment the change was complete, within and without...
He had touched her there in the car. She had gone down on the wide floor in the back and looked up at him as he touched her. Tracing the outlines of her thoughts with his long pale fingers. (So pale and cool... there are white people in the world, and then there are white people...) Tracing them, and then altering them, gentle tugs and twists. He was a gardener himself, sort of. She had cried a little even as she laughed, and he had smiled and taken off her glasses, wiped away the tears with the white handkerchief from his breast pocket, and that just made it better and made it worse...
They had gone back to his house, and life went on.
But of course, life is change.
________________________________________
B’Linda stood on the walk and stared out over the garden, holding her rake in one gloved hand and her clipboard (yes indeed, that very same clipboard, waste not want not) in the other. The tips of the tines of the rake glowed a little silver in the gathering gloom. Pinned in the middle of the board was a piece of paper, and on the paper was a careful row of squares, and all of the squares except one were filled in with an equally-careful little check.
The bits of white gravel clicked together under the thick soles of her boots as she moved her feet. It sounded like... She had had a childhood friend named Jasper. Jasper had once come across the skull of some rodent, and glomped onto some of the teeth. For a time, before losing interest, he had carried them around in his pocket and fiddled with them. That was what it sounded like. Jasper and his teeth. The last B’Linda had heard, the man was a state senator. She could never decide if there was moral there...
The gravel clicked, and the autumn shadows stretched themselves across all the shrubbery and the pieces of lawn. The Traps as always pulled in the darkness in knots, leaving only a few spots here and there still lit up by red sunlight, while at the edge of everything the fence grinned like an endless black mouth, a darker hole in the blackness. As she stood and as she watched all of this, she turned the clipboard in her fingers, slowly end-for-ending it. The shapes painted now on the back of the board spun as well, danced between the rake-tines, hooked up with all the other symbols everywhere, on her overalls, running invisible down the rake’s sturdy handle, a huge web spreading out and out, with its center up in...
She blinked and pulled herself out once again, focused on the task at hand. Waiting. This was one of the latest changes. Just lately, as night came along, she kept finding herself thinking more and more about... that place. Even now, its simple presence tickled against the back of her skull, up and just to the right. The very center of the great web, looking down at her, down at everything with lidless eyes. These thoughts weren’t affecting her work results, but for the first time since stepping out of the car into the house garage she was finding that in the last hours of the day she actually had to concentrate on what she was doing. Before the days had just floated by in an easy fog...
There was a familiar shape coming along in the dusk, and the thing in the shape’s hand glowed silver at a sharp tip. Coming closer, and it all turned into Daisy, walking towards B’Linda her usual grace, her clippers held loosely. Lorelei had put together their uniforms strictly with comfort, durability and protection in mind, but even when dirty and with all of its many pockets jammed full of the things a gardener needs, Daisy’s jumpsuit still couldn’t hide the tall collection of curves that it was wrapped around.
As noted, there was absolutely nothing wrong with B’Linda’s memory, and just about every time she saw the tall blonde girl beavering away in Mr. Black’s garden, she couldn’t help but feel a little twinge of irony and satisfaction. All the people in the city Mr. Black could have picked up for her first helper... and he had chosen Daisy, had been able to choose her without any trouble at all...
As it was, Daisy was one of those whose memory had been a little crumpled during her own car ride to the house, so B’Linda had never asked about the girl’s past. She still wondered, though, what if anything Daisy remembered from before that day the two of them had first met, out here in the garden. She had that poster hanging up over her bed, so there must still be something...
Daisy arrived and glided to a halt, and B’Linda spoke.
“All wrapped up for the day, girl?”
Daisy dropped a little curtsy, exactly perfect, just a little... mechanical... like every time she moved.
“Yes, B’Linda. All done.” She looked at that glowing tip on the clippers and she carefully flicked off a last scrap of leaf with a long finger.
“That’s good.” B’Linda went back to staring at the darkness. The feeling, the sweet hopeless urge, was growing stronger again.
________________________________________
It was the most ironic of the changes.
Now, even more than when she had owned BB, B’Linda was doing what she had always loved. Working outdoors, tending plants, making them grow tall and strong. She did nothing else, but the garden her heart, it wasn’t gone, not exactly, but it had changed. That day in the car, he had touched her, and his touch had risen up out of the garden like an erupting volcano, becoming in the end a monument, an ivory spike five damn miles high, surrounded by... many things. Columns of stone and glass. Wading pools with trickling fountains at their center. And of course plants. The plants were still there. Pruned and trimmed and shaped. Trees lining the paths, median strips and flowering parks...
But even so, that monument at the center of it all was the most important thing, the only thing that really mattered. What she now wanted most of all, if she could have had anything in the whole wide world, it would be to be up there.
Tied down in the center of the web.
In his room, not his bedroom which was just a room with a bed and an old wardrobe full of mothballs and dark suits, but that special room, behind that door she had never seen...
She only ever went up to the second floor of the house so as to get down to the bath pool and the dressing room in the basement. The Door and the Room behind it were down a carpeted hall, around a bend, but she knew all about them just the same. She knew every line of the door’s carvings and she knew for special certain what was on the other side, down to the last detail. She dreamed about it at night, from the second her head came to rest. A tall wooden door and behind it a tight stuffy narrow little space lined with shelf after shelf of books, filled with things carved out of wood and jade and ivory. The door swung shut and the heavy drapes were drawn tight, breathing in nothing but his fumes, going to his chair, kneeling in shredded silver-gray rags at his feet, slowly running her tongue over the leather... (was it leather? What animal had died to supply that cool slick hide...) over the material of his shiny black shoes, feeling all of those bazillons of snakes slide equally cool and slick and dry under her fingers, around her knees, slooowly crawl up her arms and legs...
But those were only dreams. The center of the web wasn’t her place, being there wasn’t her job. Her job was to maintain the garden, to make sure that that room up there, the room that was the entire interior of the monument in her heart, stayed protected. Stayed just as tight and stuffy and cracked with pieces of blackness as possible....
________________________________________
A new figure appeared on the scene, blowing away her thoughts once again. It was Miko, of course. B’Linda’s second helper went by on the other path on this side of the house, pushing one of the large metal wheelbarrows in the general direction of the greenhouse and the storage sheds. Miko disappeared out of sight, but B’Linda could pretty much count the steps she was taking; she had walked them often enough herself. Around the last straggling corner of the house, down the track to the main rear path which ran wide and straight from the steps of the back door, turn right away from the house, through the Grove, (fruit trees on the left, nut trees on the right), one last left turn that was spitting distance from the base of the great black oak, onto the final path which led straight into the small cluster of buildings that had sprung up around the thick glass walls of the greenhouse. Dump a last load of clippings into the enormous gurgling compost heap. From there, into the tool-storage shed. Lean the wheelbarrow up in its assigned slot along the wall. Out, and pull the large shed door shut on its balky runners. (None of them could seem to fix the damn thing right, not even Lorelei...) Click the heavy metal latch shut. Trace the symbol covering the door with a finger, around and down until it was wound tight. Back the way she came, maybe hurrying just a bit. Five, four, three, two-
Miko appeared and joined them. Her trowel added two more thin lines of glow.
“All done, girl?”
Miko bobbed a curtsey, deeper than Daisy’s, not quite as perfect, but pretty damn good. Miko had a hesitant way of moving, not with Daisy’s unconscious perfection, but with... B’Linda had endured her share of ballet lessons as a child, and she knew what it was. It was the movement of someone who when she was young had had some crusty dried up ol’ bitch standing over her for twelve hours a day, whacking down a ruler or maybe something even worse with every misstep... The curtsy complete, Miko tipped her head forward, and spoke in her usual soft voice.
“Yes, B’Linda.”
Soft. If anything, the girl had gotten even more quiet lately...
“OK, then.” B’Linda shifted her rake so it was leaning against her body. She pulled a well-used pencil out of the long narrow pocket sewn into her sleeve and filled in the last box on the sheet with a check. (If a love of gardens had been Grandmother’s legacy, than Mama’s gift to her oldest daughter was painfully neat handwriting...)
The last job of the day done. She stowed away the pencil, took hold of her rake and opened the small door that was waiting for them. Dim yellow light spilled out, deepening the darkness behind them. B’Linda filed in, followed by the other two girls.
Beyond was a last extension of the garden, a long room with a sloping roof and a tiled floor, attached to the house by some previous owner. (On a much larger scale, his house was the same as Grandmother’s, expanded over the decades like those coral reefs she had done a report about back in Biology 101; sprouting a room here, budding there...)
The light came from one large bulb overhead. In one of the near corners under a narrow wired window was B’Linda’s small wooden desk and chair, for those times she needed to do some planning work or make up purchase-lists for the garden. The only things sitting on the desk were the small computer and the green swivel lamp; not even a phone; calling anyone beyond the fence was Lorelei’s jealously-guarded department. The computer-cords snarled out of sight, one of them eventually leading to the larger computer in Lorelei’s room. Next to the desk were two low metal filing cabinets shoved against the wall, while pinned above them to that same wall were a few notes and planting charts. Opposite all of this was a long low bench. Further down, three silk robes hung in a row on wooden pegs next to a wicker laundry hamper. There were also a lot of wooden cupboards and cabinets lining the walls there; while some held things like their foul-weather gear, B’Linda had no idea what was in the others. They marked the start of Andrea’s turf, another firmly-drawn line, although of course Andrea wasn’t nearly as snippy as Lorelei about such things...
Once everyone was inside, B’Linda closed the door. The tools were placed carefully to one side, then everyone peeled off their work gloves and tossed them into the hamper. (This was another change that had come lately; now that Lacy and Shirley were here, they no longer had to wear their dirty clothes inside the house...) B’Linda passed the clipboard to Daisy, then pulled out her handkerchief and polished her glasses. Miko fished in one of her pockets and pulled out a key-ring. It came out on the end of a long fine chain; as was the case for all of them, the rough chain’s rewind mechanism was sewn into the jumpsuit, making the whole impossible to lose. Miko flipped through the keys and found the right one. It turned with a smooth click in the door’s lock, and Miko put the key-ring back out of sight.
While she was doing this, Daisy produced her own set of keys, unlocked one of the cabinets and pulled the top drawer open. She filed away the paper in the right folder. From another folder came tomorrow’s checklist, which was clipped into place. It was likely to rain, so Daisy added a plastic cover-sheet as well, then carefully centered the board on the desk, in the waiting empty space next to the computer. The cabinet drawer slid closed and clicked. B’Linda traced the symbol on the front of the drawer.
Next came the rest of the undressing. They removed their hats and hung them on another row of pegs, each of them taking a moment to spill down their hair and rearrange it a little. Boots were unlaced and lined up under the bench. The thick work socks were stripped off and put in the hamper. Then came the final and newest and most important part. They silently formed the triangle, and produced the keys again. The locks were up high, at the top of the zipper, just at the back of their necks, as if their braincases were openable. B’Linda pushed Miko’s hair aside, and felt Daisy do the same with her. As one, they slid the tiny key into the lock. As one, they turned them.
Click.
Pain and pleasure, loss and release, and for that small moment he was there in the room with them. The jumpsuits were then unzipped and deposited in the hamper along with the gloves and the rest of the dirty clothes. You'd think that going to the bathroom would be a problem with these clothes but somehow... since getting the tools... the problem never seemed to come up. Further, in the morning there would be a pile of clean things waiting for them down below in the dressing room, with the keys and anything else that had been in the pockets moved over. Three new locks waiting to be snapped tight... They put on the robes, collected their tools (the symbols on the rake handle throbbed now against the callused skin of B’Linda’s palm), and they went down to the other end of the room, through the next door.
________________________________________
And when that door closed behind them they were officially back inside the house, in one of the long dark hallways, under the paintings. The one opposite the door was very familiar to B’Linda now. It showed a narrow valley, at the center of it all a waterfall bracketed by high rocky cliffs, with a castle sitting up there on the eastern side of the valley, a single window in the highest tower showing a yellow slit.
The stillness came down like snow. Out in the garden, things were mostly calm and peaceful, but there was some activity. Motion. Life. The crows and other birds. Butterflies. Traps snapping shut on the usual unwelcome visitors. Except for one or two clumps of life, here in the house all was darkness and silence.
Well... On this floor at least. Above and below, things were known to be different.
B’Linda was in front, as always, and she started towards the stairs that led up to the second floor, then stopped again and sniffed the air. There was the faint smell from the general direction of the kitchen of supper being prepared, as good as always, but there was something else as well. Yet another change. All changes were tied to the one source, of course, but this was something different than what had been gnawing at her outside. She glanced over her shoulder at the other two.
“You all feel that?”
A pair of nods, then Daisy spoke, speaking slow and careful.
“It feels like the day that... that...”
“That Tabby showed up.” B’Linda finished the thought, then sighed at the two blank stares this comment produced. There were times, some days, that she could admit that having only these two to talk to was a drag. “The day that Miko talked to that white boy.” Enlightenment. “Not that bad, I guess, but something’s been happening again.” She shrugged and started walking. “Guess we’ll find out when we need to.”
Down the hall to the stairs, up the stairs, the thick carpet soft and clean under their bare feet. Their robes whispered as they rounded the corner of the landing.
Upstairs there was the usual change in the air, the extra smell of something more, something perfect and dangerous and wonderful. This night, there were also sounds. Voices, off somewhere, two of them at least talking quietly back and forth. None of them sounded like him, but they were off more or less in the direction of the room, the important room, the only room...
As she watched, Simon appeared, padding along on like cats do; he spared a bored glance in their direction, then whisked out sight around the corner, his tail going last of all like an orange lightning bolt.
B’Linda tore herself away, and went on down the new hallway, to the second staircase, the one that shot straight and true into the basement. The others followed in silence.
They went to the dressing room, which was as quiet and empty as all the rest, and they put away their tools inside the storage table, alongside Andrea’s sword. The jewel on the sword glowed with a sullen light, and the smell of the smoke filled the air, like always making B’Linda want gag and suck it deep into her lungs all at once. She closed the lid and it hissed as the seal was reformed. She felt the buzzing tick under her fingers, then lifted her hands away.
They went next door and they bathed in the pool, B’Linda setting aside her glasses on the provided ledge before sliding gratefully into the clear water. This wasn’t their ‘full scrub-down’ time; that was in the morning, so B’Linda just drifted away from the other two and floated under the surface down near the warmer end of the water. She liked the pool, as much as she could like anywhere that wasn’t That Room. The three of them had come down here one day not too long ago and put in a ring of plants around the edges of the pool. The air was now filled with both the extra oxygen and the mixed scents of the blossoms. It came to her even now, floating... She let a few bubbles trickle from her mouth, and she watched the fuzzy black curls of her hair bob at the edges of her vision... almost time to get another haircut from Lorelei, who, while in a strictly technical sense a talented hairdresser (how could she not be with her shears and her clippers built in) could never get it exactly right. Probably not cuz she didn’t have hair, but cuz in her way the bird-woman was even more white than he was... B'Linda sighed, more bubbles, and she closed her eyes and
listened to all the voices whispering, forever whispering down there and
she let the world go green, felt all the strain of a day’s work being sucked right out of her body, pulled down her limbs, out the ends of her fingers and
toes and
she and the others were pulled from pool by the summons. It was time for supper.
________________________________________
The center of everything was up there in That Room, but the physical center of house life for B’Linda and the other girls was the kitchen and the dining room next door. The two bedrooms and the small ‘bath’room with the communal sinks and toilet stalls were spun around it, along with the pantry and all the other of Rosa’s food storage rooms. If the bathing pool had been close by, they would never have had to go anywhere else in the house. As it was, every morning and especially every evening they all gathered around the large table and ate together, laughing, talking, making joint plans if any were needed for that day or the next. It was something that B’Linda was comfortable with, even beyond being comfortable with everything that happened under his roof. Her own family had done the same thing for all the years and decades since The War had ended and something like freedom had finally come. (‘The War’... in that part of the world, there was still only the one, despite all the others that had come after...) Her other grandma, Daddy’s momma Eulia, had spent her whole life doing this, ruling as benevolent tyrant over three successive husbands and Black-knows how many children, grandchildren, cousins, daughters-in-law... B’Linda remembered her as a vast woman, with her long flowing dress and equally long and wild hair, sitting in her ancient rocker by the huge black stove, always in motion even when sitting still. (Her and Grandmother had been one set of mother-in-laws in this sorry old world that had gotten along together just fine. Grandmother grew stuff, and then Eulia cooked it. It had been match made in heaven...)
Rosa lived a similar life, B’Linda had seen, though the two women were nearly exact opposites. While she was constantly in motion, usually singing something as she moved, Rosa was slim and neat and pressed in white, her dark hair cut almost in a buzz. It had been one of Eulia’s hardest beliefs that you don’t ever trust a skinny cook, but Rosa was cool.
It hadn’t started like all this, when she had first been brought to the house. Suppers around the table had only been herself, Andrea and Rosa. They had eaten Rosa’s food and the painful silences had stretched out around them in all directions, out into the gloom which was all of those empty rooms. Now there were the seven of them, with Tabby usually wandering through as well to mooch food.
Miko was no chatterbox and that Shirley said even less, but the rest of them managed to keep things pretty damn lively. The others enjoyed B’Linda’s tales about growing up Down South. Rosa had an endless string of hilarious tales about the craziness that went down in the restaurant business. Andrea had lead a pretty interesting life as well, although some of her... tales... were downright gruesome, especially at mealtime. As bad as they were, B’Linda sometimes had the feeling that she and the other girls were getting served up a censored version of certain events. And if Lorelei had ever shown up and started talking...
When Lacy had joined them, B’Linda had been delighted to learn that she (Lacy) was a fellow basketball lover, and had even played for the U’s team a couple of years after B’Linda herself had graduated. They were both rooting on this year’s current team. Over in the ‘inside bedroom’, they sometimes listened to the games on the radio, and Lacy kept her updated.
B’Linda hadn’t found much time to listen to the radio lately for some reason...
And then of course, when there was nothing else to talk about, before there was anything else to talk about, there was always him. Nearly every conversation in fact began and ended with him, much like the prayers that Mama Eulia used to lead to a very different god. (Or maybe not that different, if you thought about it. White guy, seeing everything, forever floating around out of sight up in heaven...) Unlike all the other talks, these was always grave and serious and thoughtful, cuz it was hard and at the same time so damn important. One moment, you felt like you could talk about him forever and ever, and the next... your tongue just shriveled up in your mouth like a dead leaf, there were no words big enough to fit around it all. But you had to keep trying. You had to.
B’Linda wondered if that was the word on this night; there wasn’t much laughter as she and Daisy and Miko approached the dining room, passing through Lacy’s small ‘office’ as they did every night. (Lacy’s desk had a few more things on it than B’Linda’s, but not many. Her computer and lamp were identical, except that the lamp was held together in one place with some shiny tape.) As they finally entered the dining room, everyone looked up and smiled, but there was a definite strain in the air. Also, something had changed, something physical, but she wasn’t being allowed to see what it was just yet. That happened sometimes...
B’Linda slid into her place, took her napkin and spread it across her lap. Andrea sat at the head of the table... how a round table could have had a head was one of those many things that just sort of was, without needed any further explanation. Rosa sat on one side and B’Linda the other. Daisy slid in next to B’Linda, followed by Miko. Now that things were running so smoothly inside the house as well as out, along with Lacy being put in charge of the financial end of things, Shirley had become Rosa’s semi-official assistant. The two of them were still hauling things in from the kitchen, and their seats were empty. B’Linda checked out the main pot in the center of the table; some kind of gumbo from the smell. Her stomach started to growl, but she put that aside and faced Andrea, speaking bluntly.
“What’s been happening in here?”
Andrea explained, and B’Linda frowned when she was done.
“He had some woman over for tea? What’s so damn awful about that?”
Andrea explained further.
“Oh.” B’Linda thought about all this, looked around, trying again to track down what was different. “You say she had on weird sunglasses? She wasn’t that bitch, whatshername, owns half of downtown...”
A nod.
“Crap.”
Another nod.
Rosa and Shirley joined them, and after talking around the edges of him for a time, the seven of them ate in silence. Tabby slunk in and crouched in a corner, not even trying to bum food.
Then there was a golden flicker at the doorway.
________________________________________
B’Linda had been a lot of places in life since coming North, and seen a lot of weird and dangerous things, but none of them had been as weird and dangerous and fascinating as Lorelei. Something that B’Linda had learned from both her grandmothers was that there are many types of beauty, and Lorelei was a prime example of this. The bird-woman was beautiful in the same way that a striking cobra or a supernova is beautiful...
And one of the most... beautiful... things about her was the way she moved. She could move so that she didn’t stir even a breeze, making you swallow your damn tongue when you turned around and there she was, sitting on something, her head cocked to one side, smiling, looking at you with those eyes...
Or instead she could Make An Entrance, moving still in silence, but moving so openly that everyone within a quarter-mile found themselves looking at her, unable to rip their own eyes away. At these moments she made Daisy look like a spastic quadruple-amputee.
This is what she was doing tonight. She Made A Damn Entrance, and the girls all stopped eating and looked at her, posed in the archway of the dining room, the dimness of the hallway behind her darker in the shine of her feathers.
Seeing that she had their attention, Lorelei smiled, and that shiny collection spoke volumes.
You are all stupid mewling little fools. There is no danger that he and I cannot handle, brush away with a flick of our fingers. She is nothing, a sniveling sunglass-wearing worm to be squashed underfoot when it amuses us. Do you understand? Do you?
But this is not what her mouth said when she spoke.
“I bring you all joyous news. There is a new addition to our household.” She held all of their gazes prisoner for a moment longer, then let them go to look to one side. B’Linda blinked several times. It’s amazing how much you can come to relish blinking when someone won’t let you do it. Lorelei made a come-here gesture with one of her hands, and a woman appeared in the archway next to her, moving slowly and cautiously. She wore a silk robe like the rest of them, and her bare toes poked into view as she walked.
B’Linda raised an eyebrow and exchanged a short but meaningful glance with Andrea. The new girl was... impressive. That was the only word. To start with, she was big. Not fat like Grandma Eulia, but big. Slap a blonde wig on her, and she could have been a Valkyries in one of those endless German operas that William had liked so much. She was too raw-boned to be really beautiful, but she was certainly healthy and she had a lovely head of shimmering brown hair, spilling down over her shoulders in a smooth clean wave. Andrea had the nicest hair that B’Linda had ever seen on a white person, but this new girl came close to matching it. Lorelei continued.
“This is Maud. Maud...” She slowly wiggled her long sharp fingers again. “...fixes things. Machinery and cars and whatnot. Since I personally am better with...” Another smile, even more unpleasant than the first... “...organics, Mr. Black felt that she could be a useful addition to our happy household. I agree. She is welcome here.” And then Lorelei was gone, leaving a spinning hole behind her for the air to gradually become aware of and fill.
There was a long silence, then Andrea rose to her feet and moved to the new arrival, smiling. (More grace there, a sort of Miko with no stutters or hesitations. Not as good as Lorelei or even Daisy, but still a born dancer...) She gently patted the side of Maud’s face and led her to the table.
It was then that B’Linda knew what had changed in the room; there was another place set at the table, opposite Andrea, between Miko and Shirley. It was weird how the table seemed always to be just the right for the number of eaters...
Maud started to sit down, then stopped and looked down at the floor. She clasped her strong hands and spoke. She had a deep voice, and there was cancer-stick damage in there somewhere. It was laced also with uncertainty, and that just didn’t fit; that was clear right from the start.
“Hi all. Like the lady said, my name’s Maud. Maud Chambers. And there’s somethin’ I need to... confess. Right off the bat, you know.” A pause. “I’m not real good with words. That isn’t what I wanta confess, just that... Give me somethin’ to fix, and I can do it. Learned it from my daddy. He maybe wasn’t the best daddy the world ever saw, but the man knew how to fix things... But words...” She made a sort of sniffing noise, and pushed a strand of hair back out of her eyes. “Before I came here, I didn’t think about a lotta stuff, you know...” They all nodded. They all knew. “...but now, I can see... I can think, n’ I can see I didn’t like words. I talked n’ all, n’ wrote stuff down when I needed to at the garage, I can read, but words... they slip around on ya, always changin’. Them politicians n’ lawyers, the Mayor and all of them over there on the Island.” A vague wave in more-or-less the right direction. “I seen ‘em on the TV sometimes, they can make words mean anything... Not like motors or a piece of wood you need to cut down to build a table or somethin’. Things like that, they don’t change. But anyway. I was confessin’.” Her voice dropped lower. “I didn’t understand. I do now, but before I didn’t. About... about him.” On that last word, her eyes closed, and she swayed. They all swayed, and it was a struggle for B’Linda to keep her own eyes from rolling up in their sockets. Maud continued. “Lorelei said somethin’... n’ she uses words like those others do, better than a lot of ‘em I guess, but I think what she was sayin’... that some of you, all of you, maybe, understood. Right away. When he first came to... you know, to see you. But I... he had to take me upstairs there n’ explain it all to me. I never felt so damn stupid in my whole damn life. I don’t know what was wrong with me. I just...”
They were all up then, gathered around her, speaking softly to her, saying that they understood completely, that everything was all right now, that everything was perfect and wonderful...
And then Tabby was there, somehow coming through the crowd at knee-height, pushing them all aside with her head, pulling Maud down, curling her long supple paws against the sides of Maud’s face, looking into her eyes, making those same noises she always did, but richer and deeper than normal and
Maud stared wide-eyed for a long time, a child listening to a scary story and
then suddenly she smiled and laughed and placed her hands on Tabby’s face in the same way and
they all laughed and
they finished eating supper. As they ate, Maud told them what she remembered of her life story. As she did so, B’Linda was already making mental lists of places where she could use Maud’s help, and she saw that Andrea was doing it too. It wasn’t just that shed door that needed fixing. Once again, his wisdom was blindingly clear...
________________________________________
And so off to bed. Everyone learned that Rosa would be leaving the ‘inside’ bedroom and joining Maud in a new third bedroom off on the other side of the kitchen. As always, Tabby had disappeared off somewhere, patrolling or gone back upstairs with him. As for B’Linda and the other two, the garden bedroom was waiting for them. Here at least nothing had changed. The white curtains over the window moved a little in breeze of their arrival. The bonsai plant. The poster. The radio.
They never listened to the radio anymore.
There was even dust on it, dust where everything else in the room was spotlessly clean...
B’Linda turned and stared at the long narrow thing sitting on Miko’s shelf. It looked so harmless as she walked to it, her hands went out to it, jerking a little, took it down, held it while Daisy rolled out Miko’s sleeping
While Miko stood and watched all this, supervising.
Daisy finished with the mat. B’Linda set the thing... she couldn’t remember... she couldn’t remember what it was called... she set it up on its little legs, positioned it just so. Then they knelt down in front of it on the hard wooden floor, and Miko slid the things onto her fingers, one at a time, making her hand look too much like Lorelei’s.
She knelt down on the mat, made a few final adjustments. She looked at them, looked directly at them like she never did out in the garden and she smiled. This too looked like Lorelei and B’Linda was almost able to scream.
Then Miko started to play.
And
And
And they were dragged from the room, spinning down the hall, floating in wide slow swoops up the stairs, down the hall, around the corner to the door, the only door and
the door blew open and
they were there, they were all there, kneeling at his feet while the snakes were twisting, piles of them thicker and deeper than ever and
Even as she licked at his shoes along with the rest, B’Linda was looking at something with the corner of her eye, a large vase filled with purple flowers... flowers... even here, there were flowers... even here there were still gardens... some things it seemed never changed...
________________________________________
Miko didn’t stop playing, but she dropped back to plucking just the occasional string. Stings on the koto, strings deep inside B’Linda’s and Daisy’s head.
Plink.
She studied the two women kneeling side by side before her. They twitched in near-unison when she played. The silver of the notes had filled Daisy’s eyes long ago, she had been easy. But even now, B’Linda was still resisting, pieces of dark brown still circling in her eyes.
Plink.
Why? What was she doing wrong?
She spread B’Linda’s memories before her, like a collection of Mahjong tiles, bits and pieces of vibrant color neatly framed. She flipped through them one at a time.
Plink.
A classroom in a university.
Plink.
Attending a basketball game. (What an utterly pointless activity, for all involved...)
Plink.
A tiny elderly woman in a garden, her skin dark and her hair white, frizzed out in a cloud.
Miko stopped, and slowly she smiled. Of course. That was it. Something so small, just some plants and trees in the shadow of the Clanfather’s spire, but at the same time so large and important... She looked for a moment at her own tile, the only one she owned. The similarities were rather ironic, really. A matching set.
Plink.
She took them all from B’Linda, every last scrap of green and flower petal, folded them up, tucked them away. The glass and steel and ivory shifted and merged and melted together. In the end, all was cold and hard and flat, and not even a weed poked up through a crack.
B’Linda’s head snapped down and to the side, and when it came back up, her eyes were entirely silver, spinning and endless.
Miko played, and the other two women twitched and twitched again in perfect unison.
Perfection.
For a moment.
Then...
Miko looked around the room and sighed. She had conquered the world. There were no further challenges.
Plink.
Then a voice from somewhere, faint but powerful, like the radio blast of a star.
Somewhere overhead? Farther overhead than she had ever been before?
There aRE Other wORLDS Than tHIS
Miko turned her head and looked where the voice was blowing. Her fingers started moving again, faster. The other girls moaned in mixed pain and joy, stripped out of another kind of jumpsuit, naked and vulnerable. Yes. Of course. Daisy rose into a half-crouch, her arms spreading like the gnarled limbs of a tree. Other challenges. B’Linda squirmed across the ground, a limbless snake, her eyes sliver-slitted behind her glasses. Greater challenges.
And the far end of the house, perhaps the greatest challenge of them all...
Miko smiled again.

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