Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Falsity of Eternal Verities

"Pack of Lies, was it?" The woman from the bar stepped from beside a grated sidewalk tree and caught my arm. I could feel the pinch of her fingers in the muscle. "I've heard them talk about us before--Pack of Lovelies, it used to be. Compact of the Butterflies. You never know how they'll remember you in there."

I stood still, arrested in mid-thought. "Forgive me for listening, then." Hearsay's formal etiquette escaped me. She laughed, bone and sinew spasming against my arm, their visible armatures flexing beneath her shallow skin. After a minute, dry chuckles brushed the bottom of the joke and she let go of my arm.

"Apology accepted. Gossip is why we go, eh? We had such lovely flutters when we were all on the wing. Not so long ago, but stretching further back than you, I see." She reached up and ran her hand over the red mark from her grip. "Felt a pulse, just now." She tittered. "Of course you listened. I would have, and asked questions. Still, you're not...well, you've inherited that booth."

Gossip wasn't the reason I went to the Pollen and the Sting--acquired heritage and an ineffable sense of coolness sighed from the door as it opened. I have neither, but I needed such a place to go. Church was pleasant, but not my particular flavor and the shops, well, they aren't really places to stop.

"You don't really understand how we inherit those old-fashioned booths, do you?" She continued and I realized I'd dropped the conversation, flubbed my lines. "Thought it was just your lucky day when you walked in and found it waiting?"

"Yes, ma'am. And, of course, it was." A place to go meant that I had both a home a holt, two places to run.

She brushed again the mark on my arm, reminding me of the scar upon my mothers' arm that I had forever rubbed as a small child. The smooth indentations of the skin running in patterns over her arm meant that I could find her in the dark, half asleep. My companion looked at the mark she'd left, touching it again but feeling no difference in my skin. "My sisters and I shared the booth above yours and I'm the last of them left. Maybe you'd like to be able to share the story with the next person who takes it."

Of course. "It would be an honor to do so." Participation is part of patronage, although I hadn't thought of it that way. I hadn't even asked after the former owner of my booth. She didn't look old to me, her surface powdered and brushed into order. My eye was caught by a ruffle at her neck, the upper connections of her wings to her skin. Not a scarf, then, but ragged wings, rustling in the warm exhalations of the street. Those, like the hands of some women, spoke of age marked by sets of years, rather than years alone.

"Perfect. We shall meet tomorrow night in my townhouse. I shall have the address and time conveyed to you. Where is your place of employ?"

I gave her the name, which she recognized. "The place with the indoor garden?" I nodded. It was a lovely place that was off limits to lingering, even at lunch. If she was interested, though, I would make an effort to delay purposefully along its length tomorrow.

"There are those who say that wine is the proper accompaniment to a dinner and sherry to conversation afterward, but I find that good conversation grows best in the presence of a guest's favorite blooms. A good hostess counts it a good gift to know her guests." She turned and walked away.

I realized that I needed to find a florist and, perhaps, an unfamiliar favorite on this shore. Thinking of waxy, forced blooms, I wondered what manner of artifice we would discuss on the morrow.

Pack of Lies

"Watch your hand, there!" The barkeep flipped a heavy brass catch. I pulled my hand into the booth, sliding toward the window and further down in the seat. The outside is quaint and people stop to stare. I know I did for months before the familiar features suddenly looked relaxed instead of worn. Most of them out there will just keep walking by, stopping to look in the windows, cupping their hands around their eyes and bending over the slight gap between pavement and foundation.

A set of stairs thumped behind me. The booth above and behind me was occupied when I arrived from work. I've only been here a few times since the first and I'd never met the woman in that booth. All of the booths have regulars, according to the barkeep. The first day, I sat on one of the few open tables and drank to myself. I thought I'd been looking for company, but he could tell that I wanted to space to unwind from work. In my office, we all participate in polite games with one foot in and one foot out the door. I didn't need to meet more facades afterward, I just needed to meet a couple of glasses of warmth, preferably something sweeter and stronger than beer.

When I'd been shown to this booth, it was something else. I was curious about the other inhabitants and, I spread several pages in a fan to my left to have an excuse to glance at her while the barkeep helped her down. She was delicately old, velum skin, spun sugar hair, and a sheen to her clothes like fine porcelain. Her back was to me, but her hand gripped the barkeep's. I shuffled the papers while staring at her back. I was only recently welcomed to the bar, no?

A thunk and giggle drew my eyes to the window and group of girls peering into the bar. When they saw me they slapped each others' hands from the glass and huddled together, gasping and laughing. Something tickled my memory, some crazy story I'd heard when I moved here about looking in the window to see your future husband standing in the field in the middle of the structure. I looked toward the grass in the center of the bar. The lady above me had already made her way to the door.

I shifted back toward the inner corner of the booth, but the girls were still standing together outside and I was caught in a curious conflict of identity. Bar or Street? Grass or Cement? Humans or dreams?

"Good place to write. I think the gentleman afore you used to draw. Good light, either way. Higher up," he jerked his head toward the upper booth, "the eaves sometimes cut the light." He climbed up the stairs, leaning against them to polish the booth and stepped higher to reach the table. "Sad to see the last of the Pack getting on like."

"Last of the Pack?" I may be a writer, but the distractions are my favorite part.

"Pack of Lies. Whole group of sisters who came back years ago. Flighty bunch, even after the years started to wear them away." He came back down. "I never knew them all that well. My older brother, he's the one who told me who they were. 'Pack of Lies, sisters with a taste for nectar and gossip.' I don't know. Tea's more her style, but I've seen drink Ambrosia against the chill."

I couldn't write this afternoon, had to get out of the close air. Despite the Persian woodcuts around the open area in the middle, the air felt like it was dripping like varnish over my thoughts. I nodded thanks and shuffled the papers into one hand. They bent as I bounced the heavy door from wrist to elbow, shoving my work satchel out into the afternoon breeze.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Welcome, Welcome

And it's not that we haven't seen you peering in the window, wonder if we're open, or if we'd give you the time of day if you stopped in. But then, we're not going to roust ourselves out from behind this lovely counter just to bang on the window for everyone who wonders by. It was the look on your face, see. Half smile, squinting under your arm. You looked like you had time for us, time for each and every one of us to introduce ourselves. Have a seat here, in this booth.

You can see everyone's about here. But that's a bit much for anyone's first time, eh? Let me introduce the pub instead. The Pollen and the Sting, she's a good old place. Been here for years, ever since that first wave of clovers tumbled out of the forest and set themselves up under the sunshine. First it was the bees who met here. They're a social bunch, just like us. Like to have their drinks and their stories, like as not about drinks, right? How to get to that sweet little bloom just over the horizon?

Sweet as this, right? Set it right back on that counter, looks like it was glazed with honey this afternoon. Need another? Yup, as do we all, that first time in a new place. I'm the owner, direct descendant of bees myself. Busy as, know what I mean? Well, literally, too. Somewhere back in the great-old line, my grandma used to tell me about how the fairies would enchant the bees to serve them in their plaited castles of living flowers.

One young lady, she wandered right into the middle of a field in the middle of the day, when it was so hot that the air flickered and the shadows just crawled right under the soles of your feet. She was looking for the perfect bunch of flowers for the table, since her betrothed was coming that night. There she was, standing in a patch of clover, sight blanched by the sun, lungs filled with the condensed breath of the flowers. The fairies must have slipped a circle of blooms on her head and there, in the shade from that circlet, was their palace.

Well, she went in. And not very far in, one of the servants hurrying by happen to catch a whiff of those flowers, hot and sweet from the sun. She thought he had fallen for her, but he had really fallen for the scent of those flowers. She said she'd give them to him if he lead her out. That he did, and disappeared. Grandma said she dropped the flowers and never saw the bee still clinging to them.

Her betrothed found her, flushed and sunburned on the lane and they lived for a number of years after that. That first child, though, he was supposed to be part bee. I dunno. Still, it's a good story. And we've got both the pollen and the sting here, depending on your mood. Enjoy the cup, eh? And don't worry about peering in any more windows. You're in the right place. Watch your head, though. Hexagonal booths can surprise those as aren't used to them. Well, we've had one leave recently. But that, my friend, is a story for next time.