Yael R. Dragwyla email: polaris93@aol.com http://polaris93.livejournal.

com/

First North American rights 11,340 words

Club Vesta: A Journey Beyond the Mountains of Madness to Find a Sea of Stars (Love-Letter to America)
Level -1: The Gateway
§3 “Hi!” said Mrs. Skua with great cheer, holding out a long, slim hand to me. “Uh, hi,” I said, taking her hand in a rather weak handshake. “You – you’re Lou?” “My friends call me Lu’ – short for Luciferia,” she told me. She had thick, honey-gold hair cut off in a page-boy not far below her ears and lovely, kind violet eyes which, however, had disturbing depths to them, a hint that not too far below the surface there lurked something cold, reptilian, utterly ruthless. Though slender, her body was in top form, a fascinating combination of hard muscle and lovely curves. “My mom named me that because she said that Lucifer was originally the name for the morning star, Venus when that planet is rising before the sun, ruling the astrological sign Libra the way that the evening star, Venus setting after the sun does, rules Taurus.” “That’s pretty . . .” “On the other hand, she was raised Catholic and I think she did it as much out of rebellion against Mother Church as anything else,” she continued, laughing. “And I can’t say I don’t agree with her – I think Roman Catholicism is one of the great banes of the world’s spiritual existence, but then, that’s my opinion (and hers; I take after her a lot).” “Here, honey, let’s get you set down on the couch, here,” Jane interrupted, guiding me over to a long couch upholstered in the same heavy, rich gold, scarlet-patterned brocade that her bedroom curtains were made from. “Lu’, honey, you sit down next to her, so the two of you can chat while I go get the dinner. You want to stay for dinner, Lu’? I did up some sage hens, got them special from Johnny Fong for that favor I did him the other day, there’s plenty for all three of us.” “Well –” “Hey, you told me Erik’s out of town this evening, you’ll either be eating alone or at a restaurant otherwise. Wouldn’t you rather stay here and have dinner, sweetie?” “Oh, what the hell, why not? Sure – you’re one of the best cooks I know, Jane, loved the last time you had me and Erik to dinner, when you served us the steak and lobster tails!” Chuckling richly, Jane told her, “Well, I can only do a meal like that about twice a year. Tonight, all I’ve got is Italian, but I’ve got a lot of Italian!” “Spaghetti?” “Mostaccioli. And a salad so fresh you’ll slap its face – made the dressing myself, a honey vinaigrette. And pistachio ice cream for desert, with frozen slices of real cherries on it, some of the ones I picked last summer when I took that trip to Vashon Island.” “Mmmmmmmm! – Okay, I’ll stay!” Lu’ said, grinning. “I’ll bring in the soup and the garlic bread first,” Jane told her, bustling back to the kitchen.

While Jane brought in the soup, a rich minestrone, and a platter of garlic bread slathered with real black-market butter instead of the often frankly rancid margarine that was all I could afford most of the time, and began setting them out with cutlery and plates on an ornately carved, low teakwood table she dragged up to the couch, Lu’ turned to me and said, “I’m glad to meet you. I heard you had a rather . . . upsetting experience last night.” Up until then, I’d been able to shove the memories of the horror to the back of my mind and forget about it, but when she spoke, it all came rushing back. It must have shown as I looked at her. “Oh – I’m sorry, I can understand if you don’t want to talk about it,” she told me, looking clearly sorry for upsetting me. “No . . . no,” I said in a zomboid voice I hardly recognized as my own, “that’s okay. I . . . it’s all over, now. I guess I . . . I’m going to have to live with it, might as well get used to it now.” “What – er, if you don’t mind my asking, what actually happened?” “No, I don’t mind . . . I guess.” Haltingly, I told her what had happened to me, the asshole coming through my front door, having somehow picked the lock, coming into my bedroom, telling me I had to do what he wanted or he’d kill me, telling me he would kill me when he was done, slowly, that he’d skin me alive, so if I wanted to postpone that as long as possible I’d better do exactly what he told me, forcing me to do horrible, degrading things, oral, anal, things so disgusting I’d never even heard of them before, then his making me get into a robe and go downstairs and try to open the store so he could rob it, and my not having the keys, and Jane suddenly shoving her shotgun out the window and scaring him off, and the cops coming, and . . . “Sounds like you’ve been through hell, Eshda.” “Call me Esh’, it’s cool. Everybody does.” “ ‘’Esh,’ then. Were you . . . were you able to put up any sort of defense?” “ ‘Defense’? Uh . . . no, I had no idea how.” Instead of replying to this, Lu’, her eyebrows raised significantly, turned to Ruth, who nodded. “Ohho,” said Lu’, turning back to me. “I . . . see. Uh, Esh’, have you ever thought of taking self-defense courses?” “Well . . . I had, kind of, tried to in college, but I was never any good at it, and I felt so stupid out there, getting in everyone’s way . . . I’ve been at some Feminist meetings where they talk about what to say, what not to, maybe kicking the guy in the nuts, but there I was lying down, he jumped on me before I could get my knee up or anything, and I was so scared, I couldn’t even move . . .” Lu’ looked up at Jane again, then back to me. “Okay . . . what sort of classes did you take in college? Aikido? Tae-Kwan-do? Jiu-jitsu? Karate?” “I – no. It was just . . . stuff. Rolled-up newspapers and . . . some grappling. I couldn’t . . . even do that very well . . .” “Oh, shit. – Uh, do you have a gun?” “A . . .gun? Lord no!” “Why not? They’re legal again – for home defense, anyway.” “But they . . . they’re dangerous. I’ve been told that . . . that an . . . assailant could take a gun away from me and kill me with it. Same with a knife.” “Not if you train with them!” My face must have been a real study in utter bewilderment. “Sweetie,” Lu’ told me, “There’s no point in having weapons like that around unless you know how to use them. But if you are properly trained in their use, believe me, there’s no danger that just one opponent is going to get one away from you and use it against you. In the first place, if you’d have had a good enough lock on that front door of yours – Jane said all you had was a key-lock, not a dead-bolt, nothing like you should have had, no wonder that asshole was able to break in so easily! – if you’d had the right lock or locks on that door, by the time he’d gotten in, if he had, you’d have been wide awake and could have had an entire armory out and ready for him, and believe me, the son of a bitch would have been history right then and there! And no way in hell could he have taken your weapons away from you at that point!” “But . . . but he was . . . so strong . . . and so fast . . .” All of a sudden, I began to cry again, great, big bawling sobs that came all the way up from my gut and seemed to tear my chest apart. Then Lu’, on one side, had her arms around me and had pulled my head against her shoulder and was telling me to go ahead and cry, it would be all right, like the mother I never had, and Jane, on the other, was gently rubbing my back, and I cried until I thought I’d never be able to stop. But that seemed to do what everything before hadn’t been able to: the core of my shame and nausea and self-disgust and loathing and horror came up in one huge knot and somehow made it up out of the constriction in my throat and flowed out through mouth and nose and eyes and away into the evening,

and I was, if not entirely free of it all, able to think and feel and take in the world in a way close to normal for the first time in well over half a day. Finally, blowing my nose on a tissue offered by Jane, I raised my eyes to both of them and said, “Thanks. I – God, I still feel like death warmed over, but it’s a hell of a lot better than I did earlier!” “I know, sweetie,” Jane told me, “I know. – Esh’, Lu’ and her husband, Erik Skua, run a dojo here in town. They teach all kinds of things, all the way from self-defense courses for children to real Japanese martial arts.” “Karate?” “Gesundheit!” said Lu’, grinning. “No, seriously, not karate. Something different. It’s based on real combat techniques evolved from 9th-century warfare in Japan, the beginning of the feudal period, developed by the mountain clans there, the ones that were never really controlled by the feudal system.” “?” “The ninjas. The real ones.” “Kind of like Japan’s version of the Gypsies, honey,” Jane told me. “Didn’t you tell me that, Lu”? “I think Erik did, or maybe you were at his lecture that time when he compared the ninjas and the Szekeley,” said Lu’. “Yeah, that sounds about right. – Anyway, Esh’, the real ninjas were just the mountain people in Japan, who lived far away from the big cities, kept to themselves, mostly, and developed their own culture and ways of dealing with things, including what you’d call martial arts, because they often had to deal with bandits or people in the next valley who didn’t like them or whatever.” “That’s right,” said Lu’. “They also didn’t take well to being under anyone else’s dominion, and found ways to avoid it when the feudal system became established in Japan in the 16 th and 17thcentury, so the Shogunate, of course, gave them such a bad press that even now most people think they were nothing but thieves, bandits, and terrorists. “Anyway, because they used their battle techniques for real situations, their various schools of martial arts never got turned into sports arts, the way karate and that sort of thing did. Kinetically – you know, in terms of the way people move and use their bodies – those techniques are actually based on the same principles that tai chi and related disciplines are, in terms of flow and circular motions and other patterns typical of the natural world, the way your body wants to work, rather than the all-speed-andpower techniques typical of karate and similar disciplines which just tear up your joints and muscles and wear you out at an early age.” “I – I hadn’t heard anything about such . . . disciplines before.” “Never took a tai chi class?” “No – I wanted to once, but I didn’t have the money then, and now I don’t have the time.” “Sure you do! You can always make the time – what sort of hours do you work at the shop, anyway?” “Four days a week, about six hours a day.” “Do you work another job?” “No – don’t really need one right now. They pay me rather well there, and I have some money in savings for when I was working at this civil-service job for the city schools up until about a year ago. When I left that, I cashed out my retirement fund and invested it in some stocks and things, and it hasn’t done too badly. And I also got my apartment for half the normal rent because the owners of the building are also the ones who own Eye of Horus, so that helps.” “So you have enough money, it sounds like, and plenty of time. – Or do you? Are you going to school or anything?” “Well . . . I was thinking of it, but it’s been quite awhile since I was in school, and I’m just not sure yet.” “So why don’t you have the time? – Look at me, sweetie,” she said, taking my chin in one slim hand. “If it’s money, we can – er, look, there are ways around that. What’s holding you back?” “I – oh, God, I don’t know . . . it’s just that . . . it’s just –” “It’s just what?” “Hey, you two, why don’t you try your soup before it gets cold, okay? And the bread, too – it’s really good!” Jane interjected, still smiling. “Oh, sorry,” I mumbled. “Sure . . .” “Oh, dear, I didn’t mean to be rude!” Lu’ apologized to Jane. “Also, I don’t want to miss out on your cooking!” With which, reaching out to pull the table closer, she drew the soup tureen over and began to ladle soup from it into one of the bowls Jane had provided. Jane, meanwhile, urged me to scoot

closer to the table, and then, when Lu’ was finished with the tureen, began ladling soup out into another bowl, which she placed in front of me, along with a little plate full of the heavenly-smelling garlic bread. At that point, the wonderful odors of the food worked their magic on me, and soon I was nearly shoveling down soup and bread and looking around for more. “Hey, that’s my girl!” laughed Jane. “Here, let’s try some salad, okay?” So saying, taking away the soup-bowl, she placed a salad-plate in front of me and began dishing out salad from her big tiki bowl into it with the salad tongs, then took up the vinaigrette dispenser and added dressing. “Kids, I’ll be right back – going to go get the entrée, okay?” While she went into her kitchen to get the main course and bring it back out, I polished off most of the salad as well as several huge chunks of garlic bread, while Lu’ stared at me in astonishment. A little shame-facedly, I told her, “I hadn’t had anything to eat since last night, before I went to bed, almost a day ago now, I think. I guess I was a lot hungrier than I thought.” “I guess! – Well, it’s all good for you, and your body probably needs it, to replenish the things that what you went through took out of you.” “And there’s plenty of it, too,” Jane said cheerily, returning with a large rectangular Pyrex dish filled with dainty little meat-and-pasta crescents. These are the mostacciolis – dig in and get ’em while they’re hot!” Later, as we were finishing up with coffees and pistachio ice cream-cum-cherry-au-natural, the latter topped with a pale brown sweet liqueur which Jane said had been imported from Sao Paolo and had real chocolate bean as one of its core ingredients, Lu’ said to Jane, “Actually, I don’t think I ought to bring Erik over here for dinner again.” “Oh? Whyever not?” Jane asked her. “’Cause you’d steal him away from me with your cooking!” Lu’ told her, grinning impishly. “Seriously, Janie, that was one of the best meals I’ve eaten in years!” “I’m glad you liked it,” Jane told her. Turning to look at me – she was sitting in a chair she’d drawn up to the other side of the table from Lu’ and I – she told me, “Esh’, sweetie, I have to confess something.” “Oh?” Not sure what she meant – some still-terrified part of me wonderingly dazedly if perhaps she was about to tell me that she and Lu’ were actually the Mad Rapist’s confederates and were planning to hold me here, prisoner, for him to come back and finish what he’d started – I stared dumbly at her. “Hey, don’t look so upset! It’s nothing bad – it’s just that Lu’ didn’t come here by accident. I called her up when you were asleep, asked her if she could come over so the two of you could talk.” “Talk?” I said, beginning to relax again. “Yes. After what you went through – honey, I don’t want any woman to have to go through anything like that, ever, especially a friend, which you’ve been for almost a year now, since you’ve moved in. You’re one of the nicest, most helpful, kindest people I know – and we don’t have enough like that to go around now, as it is. The psychopaths and perps, they always seem to target good people like you – and they always know who’s vulnerable, who isn’t likely to be able to fight back. “Baby, Lu’ and Erik and their students could really help you learn to handle yourself on a, a physical level, if you see what I mean, and I thought maybe you’d at least like to hear a little about their dojo and what they teach and see if that’s something you’d like to try. And if it’s a case of not being able to afford it, I thought I could, well, maybe help you with a sort of scholarship. I hope I – well, I wasn’t too presumptive, was I?” I was extremely moved. No one had ever gone so far out of their way to help me before, not my adoptive parents or the many foster parents who’d follow them, not teachers or friends or anyone else. Certainly not with anything as important as this. I was still reeling inside from what had happened – I could have died today. In fact, I had no idea why I wasn’t dead now – or close to it, skinned alive and exsanguinating in agony with that asshole laughing and laughing the way he had when he raped me after gagging and binding me, leaving me unable to make any sound that might have attracted a rescuer. Instead, here I was, being expertly brought back to something like health and sanity by someone who, in spite of her rather checkered past, I admired far more than almost anyone else I’d ever met. This woman, who actually had so much socked away from her various investments, the fruit of her many years of working as a call-girl who had commanded small – and not so small – fortunes from kings and prime ministers and presidents and heads of international corporations all over the world that she could have been considered to be wealthy, had chosen to live in this somewhat run-down, bohemian section of San Francisco in an old walk-up building because, as she had told me many times, “Honey, it’s got soul. Not only is it generally peaceful here, within walking or BART distance of a whole world of fascinating places and people, but it’s got about 200 years of history in it, the history of what I think is the most

fascinating and beautiful city on earth! And even if it is in the Glorious People’s Republik of Kalifornia, San Francisco somehow never lost its soul the way that so much of the rest of this benighted world has.” Which is why she also worked for the museum, for which she wasn’t just a simple curator, but also the assistant to its board of directors because of her expertise on the history of the city and the state. Before she had gone off to see the world – and dazzle a good part of it with her erotic skills and instincts – she had gone to San Francisco State College and then the University of California at Berkeley, getting a Master’s in anthropology and a doctorate in history, her major emphases being on the history of the United States and the cultural evolution of the various peoples who had lived on the North American continent, from the paleo-Indians to modern-day white, black, Hispanic and other Americans from Central America to Alaska, the Aleutians, and Canada’s Northwest Territories. And this highly educated, worldly-wise and well-traveled woman, who had been included in discussions and policy decisions about matters that had impacted great nations and the whole world by the great and near-great from everywhere on earth, still trim and beautiful in her 50s, and choosing to live “in a place with soul” rather than in a Nob Hill palace of the sort she could easily have afforded if she had wanted it – this marvelous woman had just taken me under her wing and had offered to pay my way in her friends’ dojo so that I would never again be at the sort of risk I had been early this morning. Stunned all over again, I could only stare at her. “Now before you say ‘no,’ Esh’, the way I know you’re thinking, just look at it as a favor to me – I’ll never be able to sleep well nights knowing that creep could come back and Do Things to you, and you’d have no way to defend yourself if I was out and no one else here knew.” “Look,” Lu’ told me hurriedly, “instead of making any decisions about it right now, why don’t you come down to the dojo one of these afternoons or evenings and see what we do and maybe give it a try, just for fun? Then if you think you don’t want to, well, that’s fine, but at least you’ll have an idea of what we do there and what there might be in it for you, and can make a better-informed decision about it. Okay?” “I –” “Esh’,” Jane asked me, her eyes narrowing, “just what is the problem with it, anyway, sweetie? I can practically hear the gears in there burning out ‘No no no!’ Is there some, er, religious reason you don’t want to, or what?” “I – oh, God, Janie, it’s just that it’s so, so violent! All that Bruce Lee stuff, and –” Jane and Lu’ exchanged a swift glance. “I thought so,” muttered Lu’. Turning back to me, she said, “Esh’, in the first place, what that – that asshole did to you this morning, that was violence! Wouldn’t it have been great if you’d been able to give him the beating he deserved and then turned him over to the cops, where they could have put him in prison with a whole bunch of old lifers who don’t like perverts like that? Better yet, if you’d had a gun you could have wasted him right then and there, and saved the taxpayers a whole bunch of money on trials and prison. Instead, he’s run off God alone knows where, and the odds of catching the sonuvabitch are just about zilch, at least until he rapes and kills a lot of other women and maybe gets gunned down by someone whose house he breaks into, or caught by the cops. And if he decides to give up his career as a rapist, at least around here, he may never get caught. (Unless he’s stupid enough to go to Utah and try the same thing there. The Mormons never did give up their belief in the Bill of Rights and their insistence on states’ rights. Mormon women know how to shoot – and most of them have at least one gun by the time they’re old enough to hit a target accurately. And Mormon men – well, what they do to anyone who tries to mess with their women and kids is not anything we want to talk about here at dinner.)” “But – but Lu’, what if he’d had a gun? And I don’t want to be – I don’t want to turn into a, a monster like that, I don’t want to become a killer, and I, and I –” Starting to sob again, I was nearly on the verge of hysterics. “Hey, sweetie, there are a lot of ways to handle somebody with a gun! And who says you have to turn into a monster, anyway?” Lu’ asked me, peering into my face, searching for whatever it was that had me so frightened. “I remember her saying something about her daddy – her step-father or adoptive father or whatever the hell the son of a bitch was,” Jane told her. “Wouldn’t let her even have a job in the afternoons to earn her own money when she was in her teens – you know, wanted her to be his little princess, all pretty clothes and bubble-brained charm and absolutely useless for anything but getting pregnant and staying home to take care of the house for some asshole just like her daddy . . . or maybe her daddy himself, if he could have just got her mommy out of the way . . . and never having any say in anything at all about her life. As helpless as Southern Belles pretend to be – without the pretense,” she said disgustedly. Lu’, wincing, asked me, “Was that how it was, Esh’?”

“Yes,” I mumbled through my tears. “So when you got up to where you were on your own, you’d already been trained into being physically helpless, even though you were a strong, healthy woman. Oh, great. Just great!” Lu’ snarled. “—No, sweetie, I’m not mad at you. – But I will be if you don’t at least come down to the dojo, meet Erik and our students, see what we can do, try it out a little, get a real idea if it’s for you or not. Okay?” Both women now were looking at me with tremendous concern, more than anyone had ever shown me in all my life. Overwhelmed, I said, “O – okay, I will.” “Good,” said Lu’, smiling. “What days do you have off from work?” “Uh, Sunday through Tuesday. And I have evenings off after 7 p.m. most times on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, though we stay open until 9 on Saturday, and once in awhile I have to help out during lectures they sometimes give on Sunday on things like alchemy and astrology. – Oh, my God, Jane, what day is today?” Startled, Jane looked at me. “It’s Monday, darlin’, don’t you remember?” Holding my head in my hands, I said, “It . . . didn’t occur to me until just now. It’s . . . it’s a little hard to remember things.” “That’ll go away in a day or two,” Lu’ told me, smiling. “A lot of the women who are in our dojo came to us after having experiences like yours, and most of them were more or less okay within 48 hours after the experience, as far as managing their normal lives went. And once they got into training, they soon were a lot better than just ‘okay,’ too. You’ll see,” she told me confidently, as if already assuming I was going to become a member of her dojo. Feeling somewhat stampeded, I said, somewhat sullenly, “Yeah, well, right now I’m not so sure about that, as far as I go, anyway. – Okay, I have tomorrow off, and then I go back to work the next day, Wednesday.” “That’s great! How would you like to come down this coming Wednesday evening and watch us train?” “W-Wednesday? I – isn’t that a little soon?” “No time like the present. And you know what they say: Get back on your horse and ride, podnah!” she added, laughing. “Well . . .” “Tell you what, Esh’: I’ll drive you over there myself – I’m going to lease a car this week, anyway, because I have some errands I need to run and some other things, and it won’t be any problem to drive you down there,” Jane said. “And afterward, I’ll take you out to dinner at the Wharf. A Turf-’ n’-Surf Special at Juliano’s. Okay?” It dawned on me that she was trying to bribe me into going, like the loving parent of some little girl who’d been horribly embarrassed at Cotillion and didn’t want to go back for anything in the world, knowing she somehow had to get her child to give it a try or never do well socially in life. Only this – it wasn’t just a matter of social skills, was it? This was my life they were talking about – about things that could maybe help me keep it a little longer, matters of survival. And nobody, nobody in all my life, had ever seemed to care about me before. Looking up at them, I said, “O-okay. I’ll do it. Sorry if I seem . . . seem to be an asshole about it. I just . . .” “Oh, honey, don’t be sorry!” cried Jane. “There’s no need to be sorry – you’ve just had an awful experience, no wonder you don’t feel like doing much! But – well, I think you’ll find that once you get down there and give it a try, you’ll enjoy yourself. All sorts of people to get to know. And it just might dovetail with the things you deal with down in the store – did you know that most of the great martial arts schools are based on Zen, at least the Eastern ones? And even some Western ones, like the school of San Anselmo of Padua that the monks at the monastery up near Petaluma teach, use the symbolism of religion and mysticism as teaching aids. – Ohh!” she said, grinning, her eyebrows arching as she saw my blank look. “You didn’t know about them, did you? One of the Bay Area’s Hidden Treasures,” she said teasingly , the capitals quite audible. “Even people who were born here don’t usually know about them – including me, up until I was about fifteen, when my big brother Mike took me up to see them before he went off to fight in some damned war in some itty-bitty useless back-of-beyond nowhere country in the Middle East and never came home again. Our family was Roman Catholic, and Mike was a real believer – and he’d gone up to the monastery one time with friends, when he was in his mid-teens, because he’d heard they had these Secret Teachings about the Saints and so on, and he thought maybe learning about that sort of thing would help his relationship with God, which wasn’t doing real well right about then because he’d just learned about jacking off and was having a lot of trouble bringing himself to confess it to the priest before Mass.

“—Oops, that wasn’t very ladylike, was it?” she said, grinning. “Well, anyway, when he got up there and found out that these very holy men – and they are holy, and so are the nuns who come to help teach the classes there – were actually teaching oddball martial arts courses in which everything they talked about and demonstrated in class had a name from the teachings and history of the Church. For example, they called what Lu’ and Erik call the Heart Chakra, the energy center in your upper torso in about the same place your heart is that influences everything in the body and the mind, ‘the Sacred Heart of Jesus,’ and the moves they taught to hit that center in such a way that you could do anything to your opponent from stunning him to killing him dead then and there, just depending upon how you timed and delivered your hits on his body, they called ‘Invoking the Sacred Heart.’ And so on and so on. “The thing is, basically what they taught, from what Mike told me about it, wasn’t all that different from schools such as Tae Kwan Do and jiu-jitsu and even a lot of what Lu’ and Erik teach. Only the names of the moves and the parts of the body and so on were different, Western-style mystical terminology instead of Eastern-style.” “You sound like you . . . like you know a lot about all this,” I told her wonderingly. “Yes, I do. I’ve been a student of Lu’s and Erik’s for about five years now, and enrolling in their dojo is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I enrolled just after coming back here, to my home town, from Paris. At her suggestion, I’d closed out the house I was managing then for another woman over in the Artist’s Quarter, set up a money-transfer route from Free Chad, where I still have my bank accounts and a lot of my other investments, so that I would have funds on hand whenever I wanted them, and then moved back here to retire. “Only, funny thing about retirement: suddenly you have nothing to keep you busy all the time, and the day seems awfully empty. So I scouted around until I found that job with the 49ers Museum, and then, because it didn’t take up that much of my time, I started looking for other things to keep me from going around and stealing hubcaps out of sheer, unadulterated boredom. “I tried taking some courses again over at UCB, but it turned out that fashion had changed yet again since I’d been there as a kid and they had gone back to Traditional Political Correctness, maybe out of protest against the increasingly libertarian sentiments and climate among the people in this country and, especially, this state. You know how so many college kids are, whatever the mawsses are for, they’re agin it. Anyway, my academic counselor insisted I had to go to this stupid Women’s Orientation Class if I wanted to start classes right away, because, she said, my ‘attitude’ had ‘obviously been corrupted by all those years among the revanchist elites’ and that sort of crap, and, furthermore, I’d have to live in a damned dorm on campus so they could monitor my ‘political progress,’ would you believe! I told her to shove it and left there and never went back. “But I was still stuck for something to occupy my time when I wasn’t down at the museum, which was a lot of my time, like it is now. And then a friend of mine suggested I might try martial arts, for one thing it’s great exercise, and at the age both she and I were getting to then, you get to be real concerned about staying in good shape. And there was the self-protection angle, of course, although I had picked up a lot of very useful moves over the years in all the places I’ve lived, as a matter of self-defense, because you never know what’s lurking under Mr. Businessman’s nice, polite façade, just waiting to come roaring out once you and he get down to business. – Or Ms. Businessman’s façade, for that matter. And you know what they say: The female of the species is far deadlier than the male! I remember this sweet, petite little blonde thing in London whose husband, a minister of parliament she’d married for position and money (though as far as he knew, she was still madly, madly in love with him after ten years of marriage), had no idea what interesting passions lurked behind those pretty, perky little breasts of Lovey’s . . .” she said, frowning thoughtfully. “—But that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, I thought, well, that’s different, anyway, and decided to try it. I went there to one of their Saturday day-classes and I’ve been there ever since, in spite of everything the Skuas could do to get rid of me,” she said, grinning puckishly. “Hey, you know you’re one of our best students!” Lu’ protested. “Why on earth would we want to get rid of you?!” “Just kidding, darlin’,” Jane told her. “Okay, then,” she said, looking back at me. “Is it all set for the dojo for Wednesday evening, then, Esh’?” “I – sure. Sure.” “Okay, and let me just give Mr. Thaddeus, our marvelous landlord and your boss, a call here and see if you can take Wednesday off, too,” she said, reaching for the telephone she had clipped to the belt she wore at her waist to cinch in the raw silk blouse she wore over fog-gray bell-bottomed trousers, right next to the little knife-sheath I suddenly noticed for the first time.

While I stared at her, even more stunned, mouth open, she dialed our landlord’s number and then, holding the phone to her ear, nervously ran her other hand through her pixie-cut auburn hair as she waited for him to answer. “—Hello? Mr. Thaddeus? – Yeah, this is Janie. – You know, Jane MacGregor, the tenant in 202, just above The Eye of Horus. – Yeah. – Yeah. – Say, I’ve got a favor to ask of you. – Well, could you lend me your manager, Eshda Drake, for a couple of days? – Well, she’s an expert on some things I want to check out for the museum having to do with American Indian art and culture, that sort of thing. – Yeah, I understand. Tell you what: I’m willing to pay to hire someone to come in and cover the store Wednesday and Thursday for her, would that work? – Sure. Let me get a pencil . . .” Looking beseechingly up at Lu’, she made writing motions with her free hand. Reaching into the breast pocket of her long-sleeved blouse, which was printed in a delicate pattern of spring-green vines and tiny blue flowerets on a field of yellow, Lu’ brought out a small black notebook and a stubby pencil. “Here,” she said, handing them across the table to Jane. Smiling her thanks, Jane said into the phone, “Okay, I have something to write with, now. What are her hours and what exactly is going to be needed?” Writing furiously in the notebook, she quickly took down the information Thaddeus gave her. “Great, got it! Okay, I’ll contact the temp agencies the museum uses first thing tomorrow and find someone who can fill in for those two days. – Great! – Oh, and Eshda won’t get into any trouble over this with you, will she? – Okay, good. She’s a great friend and I’d hate to have problems about this, especially when she’s doing me and the museum such a favor! – Great! See you later, then. “—Hey, baby,” she said, turning back to me, chuckling a little as she re-clipped the phone to her belt, “close up your mouth or a fly’ll get in!” “But-but-but –” “Look, Tad-Boy is a big pussycat, all you need to know is how to stroke him the right way. If he’s given you any problems in the past about work or rent or anything – and I know he has, because sometimes he can be a real asshole and also he has a real LOUD voice, you’d be surprised at how much of what goes on in the shop I can hear up here real good, as it is, and you could hear that man all the way over to the Embarcadero when he gets going – he won’t in the future. He knows I can buy and sell him and everything he owns a hundred times over, and on top of that, I’m the best tenant he’s ever had. I pay him a year’s rent at a time, my checks never bounce, I’m also one of the reasons, maybe the reason, that his little hole-in-the-corner store hasn’t gone under lately, because of all the stuff I buy from it and order through him, and he knows he’d better never forget it. I also know all the top black-market people in California, and if he wants to continue getting his butter and cream and his silk shirts and all the other good stuff he’s gotten used to, he’d better never piss me off. So you won’t have to worry about him ragging on you for taking a holiday. – How long has it been since you’ve had a vacation, anyway? You’ve worked in his place for almost a year, now. Ever had a real day off?” “Well . . .” “That’s what I thought. Okay, kiddo, you’re going to start enjoying life, because you’re Aunt Janie’s friend, and that’s what I like to see my friends doing, enjoying life. And we start with the dojo on Wednesday – not to mention a day off tomorrow, which you can use to go shopping with me, or maybe we can go to a play or the opera or something like that, or you can just sleep in all day and take a good, long soak in the tub whenever you decide to get up and live in wicked, sensual comfort for at least 24 hours. You ever done that? – I didn’t think so,” she said, before I could answer. “Okay, baby, I want you staying here until you’ve recovered a little more – and also until I get that son of a bitch, Thaddeus, to either have the God-damned lock on your door changed to something capable of at least keeping out a half-stoned rabbit instead of that dime-store piece of junk he put on there that dares to call itself a lock!, or let me do it, and then we can have it taken off your rent, for improving the place. And maybe, while we’re at it,” she mused, “I can get somebody to come in and put a real door there, one like the one I had put in instead of what was here when I first moved in here, to replace that hollow cardboard that’s there now. Until then, I want you staying here, Eshda –” – and now her voice was serious – “because Lover-Boy could decide to come back and finish the job he started on you – did you know psychopaths like that sometimes do that? – and if you aren’t there if he does, that’s a plus all the way around. (And if that mother tries to get in here, they’ll carry him out in a body-bag. Or maybe more than one body-bag, once I get through with him.)” I stared at her, at her beautiful, unlined face, the fashion clothing she wore that must have cost her at least Cr 500 at Bullock’s of San Francisco or Martindale’s over in Palo Alto, her gorgeous green eyes which, like Lu’s, seemed to hold unfathomable depths in which lived things I wasn’t sure I wanted to know about, the little SpyderCo Classic clasp-knife in the little sheath at her belt next to where she had

clipped her phone, and thought dazedly, Eshda, how the hell did a little nobody like you end up being the fairy God-child of this beautiful, accomplished, wealthy, deadly woman? Well, as Saint Banzai once said, wherever you go, there you are. Here I was, and even though I didn’t understand at all how I’d gotten here, it wasn’t a bad place, and why not relax and enjoy it? “Lu’,” Jane said, turning to Luciferia, “would you like to crash here tonight, too? I’ve got two spare rooms, one for each of you, if you want, and you said Erik won’t be back until tomorrow night.” “Well . . .” “Oh, come on! I’ll make you both breakfast in the morning, and you can get to know each other better, and there’s nothing you really have to do tonight, is there?” “Well, there’s Toshi and Misu – but I can call Jim Masters, our friend who lives down the street and watches over the house when we’re gone, to check on them and make sure they’re okay and that they have enough food and everything, I suppose.” “Hey – here’s the phone!” Jane told her, holding it out to her, grinning. “Go for it!” “Thanks.” Taking the phone, Lu’ swiftly placed her call. Her friend was home, and she quickly made arrangements for him to watch over the house and check on her pets. “I thought ferrets were illegal in this state or something,” I said when she had finished and had handed the phone back to Jane. “Yeah, they are,” Lu’ told me, sighing. The People’s Republik of Kalifornia still wants to fuck with everybody’s lives, pretend they want what’s good for all of us, and so they’re going to manage every single God-damned detail of our lives, and the current governor has decided that ferrets are horrible, nasty creatures that are just itching to get at the chickens and ducks and whatnot of every farmer in the state, and the fucking legislature – oh, hell, I don’t want to go into it right now. Anyway, our poor little babies are now outlaws, but we’ve got a vet who loves ferrets, has three of his own, and a safe house up in Oregon where we can smuggle them if it gets too hot for them here.” “What a drag!” “The understatement of the year, Eshda. And now Erik wants to get a parrot, an African Gray, and the fucking liberals are getting ready to pass a law against importing any and all exotic birds into this state, and getting rid of the ones who are here – to ‘prevent animal cruelty,’ of course – and it seems like every time we turn around, there they are, waiting for us, ready to stop us from doing what we want to do, just because they can! – I’m ranting. – Jane, am I ranting?” “You’re ranting, love. Hey, I have an idea!” she said brightly. “What?” “I’ve got some lovely videos we can watch, everything from a re-mastered version of that great Golden Oldie from the 1960s, Emmanuel, to some of those erotic masterpieces from Thailand and France you said you’d like to borrow sometime. Or we can listen to music – I’ve got CDs in just about every genre you could wish, from classical to jump-daddy. Anybody want to watch a movie, or listen to music?” Glancing quickly at me to see my reaction to all this, Lu’ said, turning back to Jane, “Do you have Yellow Submarine? I’ve always wanted to see it, but we could never find a copy anywhere.” “Yes! There’s a friend of mine down on Market Street who runs the Golden Age Collectibles outlet there – you know the place? – and he has connections. Found a copy for me in the inventory of an estate sale from the late Dory Gates’ place in Palo Alto.” “Oh, wow – I’ll bet there was stuff in there all the way back to the 1960s and before! Wasn’t she the one who turned her estate into a sort of memorial to her grandfather, Old Man Gates, and everything he ever did, not only Microsoft but also the junk he collected as a kid, memorabilia from his college days, even a crack-pipe he sneaked out to the garage and used to smoke crack with his buddies when he was in his teens?” “That’s the one, all right. All the videos Gates – both of them, Dory as well as Bill and a lot of their relatives, besides – had ever owned, among other things. He decided to sell as many of them as he could. Some of them were pure crap – can’t understand why she kept them – but there were some real classics among them. I lucked out. Bought about a thousand of them for maybe Cr 400 – you can see them on the shelves over there,” she said, pointing to one wall, where rank upon rank of videocassettes were arranged on three huge tiers of shelving, “and in the two guest rooms, as well. So – name your poison. I’ve probably got it.” “Yellow Submarine, then,” Lu’ told her, grinning. “Do you have The Treasure of the Sierra Madre?” I asked her. “I sure do! We can watch both, if you like.” “Let’s!” enthused Lu’. “Hey, do you still have that popcorn-popper of yours?”

“Vintage Black & Decker. Yep, I sure do, and it still works! I found this little shop on Howard that repairs appliances, even antiques. They’ve got this guy in there who’s a genius with tools – you bring him just about any kind of appliance, electronic, mechanical, doesn’t matter, he can fix it, and make it work better than new. They keep my popper going strong, not to mention all my other gadgets, except for the computer. I call in my friend Fred to work on that.” “Well, let’s make a big bowl of popcorn and have something to drink with our movies, okay?” “Sure. What do you want to drink? I’ve got Anchor Steam beer, Sobe Classic Green Tea, Coke Classic, and even some contraband Kool-Aid, if you like. – Unless you want spirits?” “No, but I’d go for a beer about now,” Lu’ told her. “Good. – Esh’, honey, what do you want?” “Uh, maybe a Coke?” “Sure. Can, or glass bottle? I’ve got both. The Coca Cola Company started doing a Coke Revival, and the container plant in El Cerrito has just started bottling the stuff – they got a license from the state as soon as the damned EPA okayed it. Remember that big flap about aluminum cans causing Alzheimer’s or something? And polluting the Bay Area? The EPA finally reversed its position on glass – about time, too. The stuff is chemically inert, about as safe as you can get. Turns back into sand once wind and weather get at it, and why they put a ban on it in the first place is more than I can see. Somebody in the EPA probably had a brother-in-law with an aluminum company who wanted to increase his business. – Oh, well, okay, I’ll go make the popcorn . . .” We ended up watching three movies before finally deciding to call it a night: Yellow Submarine, the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Citizen Kane, all of them part of the estate sale from Dory Gates’ estate. By the time we had finished watching them all, pleasantly stuffed with popcorn and sipping our respective drinks (Jane had opted for a beer, as well), it was going on midnight, Lu’ was yawning widely, and even Jane looked tired. I, however, was somewhat wired on the Coca Cola, too tired to stay up but too hyper to go to sleep. “Eshda, my darlin’, I think that Coke may not have been the best thing for you. You want something to help you get to sleep?” Janie asked me solicitously. “I – I think I’d better,” I told her. “I feel – oh, I don’t know, all wound up and nowhere to go, I guess.” “Mm. Okay, let me go see what I have . . . be right back, kids. Wait while Momma MacGregor goes to check her pharmacy . . .” Getting up from the big floor-pillow she’d thrown down before her giant TV/VCR system, which, like her clocks, ran off LiH-batteries, to sit on while we watched the movies, she went into her bedroom, the one I’d slept in, and began rummaging around in the bathroom. “Esh’, hon’, do you have any bad reactions to Seconal?” she called out. “I – I don’t think so.” “Good,” she said, coming back into the living-room with a vial full of capsules and a glass of water. “I don’t want to give you valium if we can avoid that – it can have some strange effects, and all this will do, at the worst, is make you feel a little drunk and a little hard to wake up in the morning, maybe. Here,” she said, setting down the glass of water on one of the countless hardwood end-tables she had scavenged from antique stores and the like all over the Bay Area, so she could open the vial of capsules and pull out a couple. “I want you to take two. It’ll nuke you into the Sleep Zone so fast you won’t even know what hit you, and you should be able to get a good night’s sleep without waking up. I hope.” She held out the glass and the capsules to me. Obediently I took them from her hands and, tossing the pills into my mouth, washed them down with the water. “Good,” she told me. “Okay, now we decide who sleeps where. Lu’, is it okay if I put you into the Red Room?” “I don’t have any problems with that,” Lu’ told her. “That’s good. Last time the two of you visited here, Erik told me he thought it was an eyesore.” “Oh, he did, did he?” “Well, it is sort of an eyesore. Just a fun one, that’s all. And as they say, all cats are gray when the lights out.” Giggling, Lu’ asked her, “Do you have any nightgowns or p.j.’s or anything I can wear?” “Just look in the chiffarobe in there. You’ll find everything you need. Extra towels in the bathroom off that bedroom. You can hang your stuff in the closet for the morning. If you want to take a bath or shower, help yourself.

“—Eshda, let’s put you in the Yellow Room. It’s kind of like spring in there, or, at least, that’s what I tried to make it into, and I think you need cheering up. I’d like you to have something sunny and cheerful to look at when you wake up.” “Aw, that’s not a problem, you know us Scorpios – we’re never so happy as when we’re touring the local haunted house in the middle of November,” I said, with a grin more complimentary than inspired. “Yes, well, that’s all well and good, but let’s err on the side of whatever it is. Same thing as I told Lu’, if you want to change what you’re wearing, just look in the dresser drawers and all, take a bath or whatever you want if you like, both rooms have their own bathrooms. If you have a headache or anything, there’s aspirin and acetaminophen in the medicine chest, along with all sorts of first-aid stuff. And if you wake up and have a hankering for some chamomile tea or something, just make yourself at home in the kitchen. I’m a heavy sleeper and it won’t bother me at all.” “Oh, thank you . . . Jane, you’ve been so kind, I don’t know how to –” “The way for you to repay me, honey, is to heal up from what that bastard did to you, and get into that dojo and start learning how to take care of yourself in that big, bad, wicked world out there, okay?” she told me, smiling almost tenderly. “I – okay. Thanks,” I told her again. “I – I think I’ll go take that bath. Or maybe a shower. I still feel as if I’d been dipped in slime or something, after this morning.” “I can imagine. There’s bubble-bath in there, too, if you want a bath, and some really nice shampoos and conditioners, and skin oils and perfume, if you want that. I would leave most of that for the morning, though – you’re going to get real sleepy real soon, and you don’t want to fall asleep in the shower, you know?” “Okay, I’ll just sponge off now, and then take a bath in the morning,” I told her. Suddenly I was surprised to find myself yawning. “God, that worked fast!” I told her, astonished. “I think you’re still just really, really exhausted. All the Seconal did was knock down the caffeine so your own body could take over. Go on along to bed now, sweetie, see you in the morning,” she told me, blowing me a kiss. Getting up off the floor pillow she’d given me to sit on – Lu’ had used one, too, all three of us sitting in front of the big 40” screen, avidly watching those classic old movies and gobbling down popcorn like a bunch of kids – I staggered off toward the hallway that led into the rest of the apartment, where the spare bedrooms, a sewing room, and an exercise room were situated. There were five apartments on this floor of the building, four on one side of a long hall and one, Jane’s, on the other, and hers was as big as the other four combined. Apparently at some point in the building’s history, either one of its many owners had decided to carve one of two large apartments on this floor up into smaller apartments, saving the other for the occasional well-off tenant like Jane, or else had taken out walls between four apartments on this side and made them into one big one. Either way, Jane had quite a deal, here, a hidden cove of sheer luxury in one of San Francisco’s seedier neighborhoods, where no one who didn’t know her would ever expect someone with her wealth would live. Jane loved her luxury, but she also loved her freedom, hated the lifestyle of the rich and famous in which one ended up something like a pedigreed toy poodle, entirely surrounded by bodyguards and opportunists and damned few others, never able to get out and have some pure-d fun, just for the hell of it. She’d found the perfect compromise, here. On top of everything else, our landlord, Mr. Thaddeus, wasn’t at all invulnerable to the sort of gracious, covert blackmail Jane was so adept at exerting, and would never be the one to betray her privacy or anything else about her. He knew better. And wasn’t suicidal. Or a masochist. After washing myself down as best as I was able with one of the incredibly soft, fluffy wash-cloths in the bathroom off my room, and exchanging my nightgown for a set of pajamas I found in a dresser drawer – it was promising to be a cold night, and, as usual, Bay Area Light and Power was stinting most of San Francisco on both gas and electricity right now, so it wasn’t really possible to heat up the room – after turning off the main light, I slipped between the creamy-white satin sheets on the bed by the light of another of those little battery-powered Coleman night-lights Jane had in the bathrooms, turned on by a switch, and quickly fell into a deep slumber. Somewhere around weird o’clock in the morning, I suddenly woke up, thinking I heard a noise somewhere in the apartment. Trembling, trying not to make a sound, I lay there in the dark, finally realizing that what I had heard was Jane’s great grandfather clock, chiming out the hours. I had apparently reached a level of sleep close enough to the surface of consciousness that the great clock’s chime was enough to bring me all the way into consciousness. I had awakened just as the last echoes of the last chime of the hour were fading away.

Somewhat relieved, but now too awake to fall asleep again, I lay there in the bed, trying not to think, trying not to remember anything about the assault I’d gone through. It was like trying not to think of a blue hippopotamus – after awhile, it was all I could think of. Soon I was nearly overwhelmed with the horror of it, all over again. Suddenly, nature’s reflexes kicked in, and I found myself sobbing my heart out, crying as I had not since I was a small child, when, every time she caught me crying over anything, my adoptive mother used to jibe and sneer at me, call me “bawl-baby” and “sissy,” making endless fun of me, until I was finally not able to cry at all, not even at the death of my beloved pet cat, or my only friend among all the children at school and in my neighborhood, who was killed by a speeding car as he was crossing the street in the school crosswalk one rainy day. I had not cried like this even when, at 18, my fiancé, the one human being in the whole world who had ever seemed to really give a damn about me, was killed in an automobile accident on the approach to San Luis Obispo as he was driving back to Ventura, where I then lived, from a construction job in Morro Bay. The assault seemed to have wounded more than my body: it was as if it had torn gigantic holes in my soul, through which all the pain and rejection and grief and despair of so much of my life was now pouring through in a flood, threatening to drown me in an overwhelming black tide of horror. I was aware only of the agony in my soul, and the searing pains in my chest and gut and throat where all those hideous memories and the misery they entailed had lodged, and the need to cry it out, scream it out to the heavens if I could, not thinking at all of how it might sound to Lu’ or Jane or even the tenants above and below my room. Suddenly the door to my room opened with a creak. Shocked out of that horrible black pit of despond, now fully awake and alert, I sat up, staring toward the door, terrified that El Fiend had indeed come back, figured out where I was now, and had broken in. Was Jane all right? Was Lu’ –? “Psst, Eshda, honey, are you all right?” “Lu’! Oh, thank God, it’s you . . .” “What’s wrong, sweetie? – Or maybe that’s a stupid question. I know what’s wrong,” she said, sitting down on the bed next to me, putting her arm around me. “Oh, Lu’, it was so horrible . . .” I moaned, collapsing against her, beginning to sob uncontrollably again. “Can you tell me about it?” she asked me softly. I suddenly remembered Jane, who, though she had said she wasn’t a light sleeper, could well have been awakened by my wailing. Making a massive effort to take control of my emotions, I said, “It’s just . . . everything, I guess.” “I understand. Both you and Jane told me what the guy did – what he said he was going to do – and that would be enough to make anyone cry. – At least you can cry, Esh’ – some women can’t, they just hold it all in for months and months, and finally it comes out anyway, in spite of everything they can do to contain it, and they have nervous breakdowns. Or worse. The sister of one of my students committed suicide a month ago – that’s when we all found out that the year before, she’d gone through something like you did, but never told anybody except the cops, and when they came to take her body away, they found her suicide note, which referred to her assault, and then they asked the cops, and it all came out then. She didn’t even have a diary to tell it all to. If you can cry, Eshda, it’s healthy.” “I – know. I used to go to these Feminist groups, back when I was in college and then, when I was working for awhile in Los Angeles for Banner Oil, I found a woman’s center and started going there. They were always talking about rape, and what to do if you were raped, how to report it, actually some useful stuff. And they always said that if you went through that, and you could cry afterwards, you should.” “Was that where – did they have anything to say about self-defense options, anything like that?” “I tried to bring that up, once, at one of those places, and they told me that that was a man’s solution to problems, that women weren’t born to violence the way men were and should find non-violent ways of dealing with the world. And self-defense can be very violent – I mean, look at what a gun can do to somebody, or a knife, or even just fists.” “I . . . see,” she said, her voice about halfway between a sad, maternal tenderness and a growl. “Oh, no, I don’t mean that I think self-defense is wrong, really, it’s just that they kept equating it with violence, and, well, maybe one of the reasons I gave up on them is that it began to sound very, very fishy and I just didn’t want to put up with nonsense at that point.” “Good! If nothing else, it’s a good start!” she said, sounding royally indignant. “So why didn’t you try to find a good dojo and start learning self-protection skills, then?” she asked. “I – you remember what Jane said about my adoptive father? You have no idea just how – well, let’s just say I’m still unlearning a lot of the trips he put on me.” “I – okay, I can relate to that. But maybe the unlearning process will be faster once you get into the dojo, what do you think?”

“Well, I promised you both I’d give it a try, so we’ll have to wait and see.” “Okay. – Honey, would you feel better if there was somebody in here with you?” “You mean, to sleep with me?” “Yes.” “I – yeah, I think I would. If it wouldn’t be a bother . . .” “Oh, bother, pooh! Move over, Eshda. It’s a cold night, damned Bay Area L&P isn’t helping any, and I’m used to sleeping with Erik. – He snores,” she said, giggling. “Oh?” “I mean, if I can sleep through Erik’s snoring, I can sleep through anything. – Unless you have another bad moment and need to wake me up. Just touch me on the shoulder – don’t try shaking me or anything, because that may cause . . . problems, just a touch on the shoulder will do it,” she told me, climbing into bed beside me as I scooted over to give her room.” “I – thanks, Lu’. I don’t know what to say . . .” “No need, sweetheart. Now just relax and try to get back to sleep. You had one hell of a day and you need your sleep, okay?” “Sure . . .” Already, oddly comforted by her presence next to me, I was beginning to slip back into the depths, hungry for the seductive oblivion they could bring, no longer frightened of the possibility of being confronted by the nightmares that lurked in their abysses. As I did so, I felt her slip an arm around me, pull me up against her so that we were lying spoon-fashion, my head lying on her breast. As I slipped off into sleep, I felt her stroking my hair in a feather-light caress, murmuring, “Sleep, now, Eshda, it’ll be all right, it’s okay, sleep now . . .” I only woke up once more before morning. I think I’d had a dream about something that had happened to me in childhood, perhaps the day my cat died, the way the human beings around me behaved. Tears were sheeting down my cheeks – I’d been crying in my sleep. Then Lu’ was saying, “It’s all right now, Eshda, I’m here, it’ll be all right, it’s okay to cry, it’s all right . . .” Suddenly she pressed a kiss to the top of my head, light as spider-silk. And somehow, it was all right. Once again, my sorrow and terror left me, leaving me to fall back into heavy, healing sleep, dimly feeling the comforting security of Lu’s arms around me as I did so. And this time, either I had no dreams at all, or only good ones, for I don’t remember any before I awoke to bright sunlight streaming in through the bedroom windows, whose crocus-yellow drapes printed with tiny, bright-green tufts of grass and small blue and white flowers, a little like the print of Lu’s blouse, had been flung back to welcome in the morning.