Ántonia I

I can’t see the platform tonight.  I glimpse it so rarely now.  In brilliant summer twilights, it glittered like a fantastic city in the distance.  As the leaves fell, I could see the windmill tower– still standing– reflected in the last light.  But the December horizon is an anonymous line of smoke, dissolving as the days fade.  Glowing in the dusk, white shapes bob in the water, flotsam of some faraway wreck.  A cold wind stings my face.  Gone.  The light is gone.  I breathe in winter, its clean, sharp smell of absence.

My hips and knees screaming like a forced door, I struggle upright.  I’m not supposed to sit so long, not supposed to get chilled, but the gray tide has slapped into my shoes.  Every step is a shower of sparks as I pick my way up the littered shore.  No moon.  Salt ice and rustrotten cans crunch under my weight.  The wind brings the scent of tar, of fish, of diesel exhaust.

Cursing, I wrench my foot from a newly emerging tire.  Up the embankment, a dumped couch melts into the sand, its innards faintly phosphorescent like a decaying sea monster.  I step over the rail into a gush of traffic.  Nobody honks as I pass through the waves of cars.  Am I as ghostly as these first snowflakes, illuminated by a thousand headlights?

There are no streetlights to avoid beyond the highway.  Dark buildings loom on either side of me, their shattered doors and windows gaping like lost teeth.  I smell vomit and ash in invisible alleys.  Gentrification somehow skipped this neighborhood while I was away.  It’s a city of the dead.  Five blocks, six blocks, I should be afraid here.  But nothing frightens me anymore.

My passage makes no sound.

Raw, sulfurous light spills up from River Street.  From the shadows, I watch a cabbie slouched against his bumper, flipping a coin high into the air.  Tails.  Tails.  Heads.  His baseball cap hides his face.  Tails.  Heads.  The coin gleams as it falls.  One bolt passes across my face, and I wince.  Heads.  Random, and not so random.  Each toss collides with circumstance: a convergence of air, of snow, of the caster’s indifferent hand.  Every outcome halves possibility, one more irreversible step towards the future.  Heads tails will never be heads heads tails, never progress as heads heads heads.  Heads, not tails.  Tails, not heads.  Heart loud in my ears, I wade into the glare, the sallow streetlights casting triple shadows around my feet.

I’m only steps away before he notices me.  With a hard, angry motion, he snatches the coin from the air and shoves it deep in his pocket.  He jerks his head towards the dead city, giving a glimpse of his vulturine nose.  Nobody comes out of there, he means.  My hands and mouth empty, I shrug and brush past him.  He moves to stop me, but hesitates as his radio shrieks a command.  I don’t look back as he drags his door shut and launches to his next fare.

On the other side, dim porch lamps stain doorways like old urine.  Blue light flickers in windows, and I hear the muted drone of televisions.  Strangers drift past me.  I avoid their eyes.

The city quickens.  Neon, beating like a pulse.  The flood lights of new banks.  The strobe and shouts of a topless club.

My withdrawal stopped nothing.  Our withdrawal.  The world had pounded on, relentless as surf.  Three years.  We were forgotten like a boat over the horizon.

The brick of my building is streaked with rust.  Hands numb, I fumble with my keys.  A teenager catcalls as he drives by, bass thumping.

Grimacing, I shoulder the steel door until it clicks loudly behind me.  The hallway stinks of cat piss.  A few cigarette butts bounce down the steps as I slowly climb four flights.  By the top, the air is clean and thick as steam.  I jerk open the last deadbolt and step into the darkness of my apartment.  A thin curtain snaps in the wind like a battered flag.  Pushing it aside, I look over New Haven through a yellow fog of falling snow.  Beyond the void of the dead city flows the bright gash of highway.  Farther, the blank ocean.  Somewhere in it lies the platform, no beacon on the tower.  We took that down the first day.

 

“And pull!  Pull!”

The warning light tumbles into an explosion of glass and metal on the concrete.  We whoop and stamp.

Shaking her broom like a weapon, Josephine steps forward.  “We’re out of range!  Unseen!  Under the radar!”  Her hair shines red in the dawn.


I yank the window shut.  The radiators shudder and spit as I snap on the kitchen lights.  5:40pm, twenty minutes until work.  Unfolding the can opener from my pocket knife, I pry the top from some bean soup.  All the blades are worn round.  It was a present on my tenth birthday, the only thing I have from before.

The soup boils in the moments it takes to wash my spoon.  Laying my camping pot next to the mattress on the floor, I force myself to eat.  I taste little but salt.  The Tarot cards and miniature gong sit next to the phone.  5:58pm.  I light a single candle.

“This is Ántonia of the Psychic Guidance Network.  What is your name, my friend?”

“Debbie.”  The caller mumbles, and I switch the phone away from my bad ear.

“Debbie, ” I coo.  “Lovely name.  From Deborah.”  I don’t need to consult my baby names book.  “In Hebrew, it means priestess.  What guidance from the spirits do you seek today, Priestess?”

“I . . . .”  Debbie collapses into childish sobs.

Willing the clock to move faster, I make vaguely encouraging sounds while I pick at the mattress binding.  At last she’s quiet, and I pick up my cards.

“The spirits will speak to you through the mystery of the Tarot.  Clear your mind.”  After a weighty pause, I lean over and strike the little gong three times, deliberately, like I’m announcing the arrival of Kubla Khan.  I bought it in a head shop the day I picked up my first paycheck.  At $3.99 a minute, people want their trappings.

“Debbie, your signifier will be . . .”  I pluck a card and glance at it.  The Tower.  I shove it back and put the deck down.  “. . . will be the Page of Wands.  This card symbolizes the young person on a quest, a young person searching for answers.  Are you looking for answers, Young Priestess?”

“Yes, ” she whispers, awestruck.

By July, I had recovered enough, and the money was gone.  I needed a job.  The ad said the open house would serve refreshments.  The hotel ballroom strained with hundreds of applicants, nearly all women.  Trying not to look at my reflection in the mirrored walls, I stationed myself near the fruit and cheese.  I had hoped to look like a wandering fortune teller, but the effect was more bag lady in mourning.  The tea and cakes and ices– I hadn’t seen food like that in years.  I was wondering how I could discretely tuck a wheel of brie under my skirt when someone tapped my shoulder.

“Next.  Let’s go, ” she commanded.

Shoving in one more mouthful, I followed her.  The last applicant floated past us, barefoot and in flowing purple.  She left a smog of patchouli in her wake.

In the interview room, three middle-aged women in pastel linen suits scrutinized me.

“Name, please?”

“I am Ántonia, daughter of Atlantis, ” I declared, locking eyes with the one with the biggest shoulder pads.  Take me to your leader.

Cream Suit smirked, and Pink Suit coughed.

“Ántonia.  Atlantis.  I see.”  Lemon Suit crossed her legs behind her desk.  “How nice of you to come all this way.  What skill would you bring to the Psychic Guidance Network?”

“Clairvoyance.  I was given clear sight when I was struck by lightning in my homeland.”

Lemon Suit suppressed a yawn.  “How interesting.  Several of our applicants today received their gift in the same way.”  Cream Suit smirked again, and I had had enough.

Growling, I yanked the ridiculous gypsy blouse from my shoulder to expose the red, branching scar that curls around me like an invasive vine.

All three stared for a moment, then looked away.

“Well, then, ” said Pink Suit, finally, “would you like to demonstrate your abilities?”  She seemed genuinely sympathetic, and for a moment, I was grateful to her.

I approached, extending my hands.  Her eyes flicked to Lemon Suit, but she took them.  Her hands felt warm and a little moist, her grip flaccid.  I gazed out over her shoulder, as if listening to a distant voice.  In my peripheral vision, I noted her mild expression, the touched-up hair escaping from her barrette.  About my age, fortyish.  Wearing a Mother’s necklace, the kind kids buy with their babysitting money– four birth stones and a puffy gold heart pendant.  No wedding ring.

I shook my head slowly.  “Terrible, wasn’t it?”

Pink Suit started.  “What was?”

“Your husband.  When he left.  Terrible.”  I looked her directly in the face.  “How long has it been now?”

“Three years, ” she blinked.

“Yes, and it still stings, especially when you hear about him and. . . well, her, right?”  Even if he didn’t dump her for another woman, no middle-aged man stays single long.  “At first you didn’t think you could do it, did you?  Dark days.  But I see four bright spirits around you– your children?”

She smiled.

“Two boys, two girls.”

“One boy, three girls, ” she corrected.

Hecate’s dogs.

“Wait.”  I peered over her shoulder again.  “One of your girls, she’s a bit of a tomboy, isn’t she?”

 

Josephine jabs her finger at the podium.  “Ninety percent of all adult women say that they were tomboys as children.  Ninety percent!  That’s how narrow the definition of femininity is in our culture.”  Her face is flushed and radiant and the crowd can’t take its eyes off her.  “Ask yourself, if ninety percent of girls aren’t girls, what happens to us that we become women?  What happens to us?”


Pink Suit giggled.  “Yes, Julia.  Her nails are always dirty.”

“Ahh.  She had me fooled for a minute.”

We chuckled indulgently.  Oh, those kids.

“Your four angels are sent from heaven.  They were the light in your darkness.  Without them, you would have been lost.”

She nodded wildly.

I hesitated, smiling coyly.  “I see someone, someone special.”  Maybe there’s a love interest.

“Really?”  She wriggled like a puppy teased with a table scrap.

No, no boyfriend.

“Yes, in your future.”  I frowned, conferring with the ether.  “He is a good man, but he has spiritual work to do.  If he does that work, he will be your heart’s partner.  If he does not, do not cling to him, set him free.  Just remember . . .” I looked her deeply in the eyes, “. . . you are complete as you are.  Never doubt it.  You.  Are.  Complete.”  I squeezed her hands on each word, then dropped them.

“Thank you, ” she breathed.

I turned to face Lemon Suit.

“You won’t see them on the phone.”  Her lipstick-red mouth twitched.

I closed my eyes.  “The spirits of Atlantis have a message for you.”

“Oh?”

“They say never . . . never, ever skip your colonoscopy.”

She stiffened.  Why can’t I keep my mouth shut?  At least it was over.  Maybe Pink Suit would bring me back to the fruit and cheese if I asked.

Lemon Suit broke into a rapid series of snorts that became a loud, braying laugh.  The other two tittered cautiously.

“Training starts Monday.”  She offered a folder, and I took it.  “Let us know by the end of the week whether you’ll be there.”

“I’ll be there.”

“Excellent.”  Lemon Suit stood up.  “I think you’ll find most of your questions answered in the orientation packet.”  She leaned towards me.  “Oh, and honey?  Lose the shtick, okay?”

But I don’t.  I do dump the outfit back at Salvation Army, but Ántonia of Atlantis holds the regional record for average call length at fifty-three minutes.  Ántonia of Atlantis cashes her bonus checks and hides the money in the freezer.  Ántonia of Atlantis has a refrigerator full of imported cheese and fruit out of season.  I have no other name now.

“Young Priestess, I am going to shuffle the cards now.  Listen to your heart and tell me when they feel right.  Close your eyes.”  I hold the deck up to the phone and riffle it with my thumb.

“Now, ” she whispers.

“I am going to divide the cards into three, and shuffle each pile.  Your inner wisdom will know when they are right.”

“Now.”

Riffle.

“Now.”

Riffle.

“Now.”

I strike the gong solemnly.  “It is time.”

Debbie holds her breath.

“I see a man, ” I pronounce.  No, really?

Debbie gasps.

“Who is he?” I demand.

“Tyler!  My boyfriend!  Oh!” she wails.

“Knight of Swords, ” I intone.  “A little rough on the outside, but you see the finished gem inside him.”  I poke the candle, and a rivulet of wax runs down onto the floor.

“That is so true!”

“What is the problem, my friend?”  Well, Debbie?  Do your parents hate him?  Did he screw your best friend?  Did he knock you up and leave town?  You don’t cry hard enough to have had him beat you until you gave him your paycheck.

While the customer tells me her story, I empty the Major Arcana cards from the deck.  Justice, the Magician, the Lovers.  The Wheel of Fortune seems to turn in the stuttering light as I lay the Minor Arcana into a game of solitaire.

“. . . broke up when I was in school.  But then . . .”

Long term relationship, off and on.  I flip the Ten of Wands into an empty spot.

“. . . if he really loves me.  My aunt says I can do better, but . . .”

Aunt doesn’t like him, aunt in position of giving advice.  One, two, three, I cover the Five of Cups with the Four of Swords.  One, two, three, the Ten of Pentacles onto the Page of Wands.  I move the Nine of Swords on top and turn over the Three of Swords.

“It’s like that song, you know?  Don’t give up this love, baby, it’s like a tree that’s shady.  Oh my God, I love that song.”

The Queen of Pentacles won’t fit anywhere and I’m stuck.  I scatter the cards across the floor.

“Young Priestess, I see a heavy heart.  A heart ripe with love, but burdened with questions.  It asks, where is my true love?  Why doesn’t my young man answer my song?  Is this your heart, my friend?”  Somehow I’ve lapsed into an eastern European accent.

“Yes!” Debbie exclaims.

“You have known your young man before, in past lives.”

“I knew it!”

“But he has never married you.  Your Tyler is a young soul.  A boy.  A boy who has not put away childish things.”

Debbie breathes raggedly.

“Your young man is back again, but he has forgotten the lessons of his past lives.  He stands at the crossroads of love, hesitating.  He looks to the left, then the right.  Does he want to join hands with you on one path, or does he answer the call of adventure from the other?  He does not know.”  We do not use contractions in Transylvania.

“How can I make him choose me?” she begs.

“Young Priestess, you cannot force him.  He has free will.”

“Who’s Will?” she gasps.

I swallow a sigh.  “No, I mean he has to choose for himself.”  I pause.  “Do you know you have a guardian angel?”

“I do?”

“Yes, I see her.  She is incarnated, which means she appears as a person to you.  A mature woman.  Not old.  A friend?  No . . . an aunt?”

“This is so freaky, you know everything!  My Aunt Janey.  She is so good to me, we’re really close.”

“Listen to her, she will guide you towards Heaven’s purpose.  Your outcome card is the Ten of Cups, the card of dreams come true.  Your Aunt Janey will advise you as you walk towards your golden future, which is your destiny no matter which path Tyler chooses.”  I glance at the clock.  Sixty-one minutes, and I need a break.  “The spirits are fading, my friend.  We need to thank them for their wisdom.”

Three chanting, gong-banging minutes later, I limp to the bathroom and gulp straight from the faucet.  My voice gets stronger all the time, but I still rasp by the end of my shift.  Fresh, cold water, here whenever I want it.  A marvel.

 

I gingerly touch my tongue to the end of the glass tube, and a few drops run into my mouth.  Blood warm, but not scalding.  Thank you, Goddess, thank you.  I suck the flat, insipid water from the distiller eagerly, panting between swallows.  I slowly become aware of cold air flowing over my sweating neck.  The door of the Fireshack hangs open, and Ixchel stands watching me, glowering.

“Look at you.  You look like a hamster.”  Her waxy face darkens.

I jerk my head up.  “Animals are not ours to use materially or metaphorically, ” I counter, mechanically.  A few precious drops spill down my chin and I lap at them.

“Thanks for the correction, sister, ” she spits from between clenched teeth.  “But you are holding back our transformation from our domesticated bodies to our wild be-ings.  How can we ever reclaim our true selves if you cling to what Patriarchy says we have to drink?”

“Ixchel, ” I wheedle, “some of us are able to get the oppressor out of our heads more quickly than others.  And our bodies.  I admire your success.  What are you up to now, yourself?  Twenty-five percent?”

She calms.  “I personally drink a third directly from Mother Ocean now.”

“Wow.  Do you feel different?”

“Very.  I can’t describe it.  But I can’t carry the burden of our shift alone, Ántonia.  You’ll have to try harder.  How else will we break free?”

My heart drops like a pebble through water.  “Keep on reminding us, sister, ” I defer.

Ixchel bares her translucent teeth and closes the door.  I stare at the distiller as it drips onto the concrete floor.


“This is Ántonia of the Psychic Guidance Network.  What is your name, my friend?”

“This is Ántonia of the Psychic Guidance Network.  What is your name, my friend?”

“This is Ántonia of the Psychic Guidance Network.  What is your name, my friend?”

2:10am.  The candle has long since blinked into darkness.  I wind myself into a sheet.  The radiators growl as lightning flashes in my closed eyes.