Take Your Carriage Clock And Shove It

Author: Amberite (lj-amberite, delirium-at-toast-dot-net)
Recipient: The_Grynne
Featured Character: Thessaly
Summary: Shortly after The Wake, Thessaly's journeys take her to Portland, OR. Some other people find her there.
Thanks: The city of Portland. Powell's City of Books, for letting me sit and re-read Sandman in their café.
Rating: If this is a movie, I don't see that they'd give it less than an R for disturbing imagery.
Spoilers: Sandman in general.

1.

The first sign is the reflection in the window of the bus. She's downtown, and it's raining, barely brighter on her side of the window, so the reflection is a ghostly tracery. She can barely make out the image, but it's undoubtedly a man's face with all the flesh flayed off, and blood coming from his eyes. Well, the window isn't darkened enough for her to make out the blood, but she knows it's there.

He's a god all right.

She looks closer, but the drizzle redoubles and makes giant fat raindrops that run down her round glasses. She hooks the bridge with her thumb, pulls her glasses off and cleans them on her sweater. But when she puts them on again, the bus is gone, and the god is nowhere.

She hitches up her duffel and walks on across Burnside Street, moving through the legion of beggars and crossing from the northwest to the southwest quarter. Earth-water to earth-fire, she thinks, in the old correspondences. She pickpockets a small, well-dressed man near her destination, and slips away entirely unregarded. No need to put a no-notice on him: he does that well enough on his own.

2.

She walks into the hostel, gives her name as Trikala, and slips a twenty-dollar bill out of the borrowed wallet. She'll count the rest later. The Joyce Hotel came up first in her search for low-cost, European-style lodgings that didn't have to be reserved long in advance. It is exactly the sort of place one would expect it to be. Thessaly does not mind. She has lived too long to bother caring one way or another about the young lotus-eaters who sleep here like spiders under rocks, and if they tried to bite her, she wouldn't care either: merely do the same as with the spiders.

(Her methods involve neither drinking glass nor index card.)

Her room is tiny and the last inhabitant was an angry pregnant woman, young, alcoholic. She can smell these all, over the stale stink of cigarettes. No serious witch gets anywhere with second sight that only works through the eyes.

In a room behind her some desperate young man goes into a fit of sobbing. Silent, she faces the mirror, and runs the brush through her hair one hundred times exactly.

So many little lives she moves through: a witch, a spy, a doctor, a student, a librarian. A vagabond. A little lady who passes through, out of nowhere, and goes nowhere, and means nothing. She keeps them strung together by sheer order, holding to simple routines. Sometimes it seems to her that the years are easier to earn than to spend; other times they seem to run away from her like water.

The next two thousand will come hard to her. She plans to love them thoroughly for all her trouble. Outside, she smells the broadening Moon, which is terribly calm. She recognizes that calm. For once, she does not inhabit it.

Trikala changes into her nightgown and walks down the hall to the bathroom. There she takes a Dixie cup and urinates into it, does the rest of her business, and walks back to her room, carrying the paper cup with her.

"No harm come o'er the threshold." She scatters some drops across the doorway. "None through the window either. Maleficent spirits and malodorous humans, take no route to bother me or you'll face much worse than my piss."

They'll listen.

She checks for bugs, finds none, and falls into a dreamless sleep.

3.

The second sign comes to her several blocks away, the next morning. With a simple tourist's camera, Trikala is taking photographs of photographs of the Lovejoy Columns.

They're tall concrete pillars, sprouting wild rebar at the top like fingers reaching for a ramp that isn't there, the sides covered with illuminated plastic. The siding reproduces the paintings underneath: entanglements of nightingales and wolves in the very old style; a tree spirit, but not a nymph -- the artist must have seen that one himself, to put it in his gallery of unseen life.

Someone she knew dropped off a tip about these, said they looked like the sort of thing that couldn't have come from the brush of an immigrant railway worker born in 1892. The source was probably wrong. Younger artists see the unseen things, and know what they look like in the old modes, and make icons like a child's drawing of a house. A caption decides her on the matter: "God is Love," it says, "Light - Hope - Truth." That mode of thought came into vogue somewhere around indoor plumbing.

The paintings are still bonafide Greek art, a link in the chain, and one of three reasons why she chose to come here. So she documents. Trikala steps around the foot of a column to take in the view of the other side, and gasps slightly. Maybe that artist was following a stranger muse yet. Writ in the man's unmistakably Greek style she sees the white-on-gray lines of sinews in a man's flayed face, open round eyes, streaks of blood trailing down his face --

She blinks hard, and it fades to a painting of Diogenes.

"Diogenes," she mutters to herself, annoyed. "And they got his nose wrong. Oh, well. I didn't like him anyway."

She finishes snapping pictures, and walks back to the hostel. No one has disturbed her room.

4.

Uncharacteristically, she drinks. A small dim bar on 10th Street does not quite drown out the scent of the broad Moon. Neither does the bright red drink. Campari and grapefruit, for bitterness. "Fuck off," she says to the Moon. "I owe you nothing now." Except the mutual debt of a long history, she thinks. It should be quite cancelled out by now, but somehow these things only grow stronger.

"Chinotto oranges and cactus parasites," says a voice, right in her ear. It's coming from a man five feet away, or what looks like a man: the man whose wallet she filched over by the hostel.

Trikala sees quite clearly through her large round glasses that of course it is not this man. He is dead. His skin is clothing a skinless god, who sits five feet away from her, looking short-and-well-to-do. The skinless god taps his skinless feet, in the man's feet and shoes, on the bottom ring of the barstool. He grins at her with the man's little mustached face.

"Yes, in fact, the red color's cochineal," she says. "I don't have a problem with cruelty to animals."

He laughs in his own strange throat. "Good thing, considering. Hello, Thessaly."

She pushes her bitter beverage away and stares at the god who's come to bother her in a bar. "Trikala, please. What's your point?"

"I greet you as an envoy," the god says, drawing himself up in the little man's skin and suit, looking like the horrible shell of a diamond salesman. "I have been known by many names --"

She cuts him off. "Xipe Totec, Rawhead-Bloody-Bones, et cetera. Yes, I'm familiar. We haven't met before. I think that was on purpose, on my end." She doesn't clip the derision out of her tone. "Who do you represent, and why are you bothering me?"

The Flayed One makes the dead man's lips move in silent hrrms and ahs. "I greet you as an envoy of the Council. I was chosen to approach you because you do not know me personally, and we have never operated in the same territory. So no grudges, no difficult politics: you have nothing to suspect, and you will find no strings on the offer."

Thessaly knows the Council: a rough collective of gods who've taken off from their pantheons, along with things that were sort of like gods in their time and the years have rubbed out the difference. "Offer?" she asks. She takes up the glass and drinks more of her Campari after all. It is still terribly obvious to her that the stranger on the barstool is an ancient thing in a dead man's skin, and while it doesn't bother her too much other than the faint scent of rot, it annoys her that the humans don't notice.

"We'd like to offer you a godhood." He talks faster than the dead lips can move, so they form the words a moment after they sound, as if he's badly dubbed on television. "Wise-woman," and he uses an old word for it, not in English or any form of Greek that people remember, "Thessalian witch, you're as old as some silly Christian sects think the world is. Most of the hotshot deities out there could be your grandkids."

"They're not. I kept track."

"Well, regardless. I mean, don't you want to have your own piece of the pie?"

Thessaly peers down her glasses at him. She knows how to look at someone so that they feel it the way a piece of paper feels a thumbtack. "I'm not a god of anything. I'm a god of me. I survive, I study. Mostly I survive. I have my territory right here, and it's exactly the right size for me to defend, as long as I need to. Why would I want to overextend myself? You get into trouble that way."

"There are rites that gods can perform, that mortals can't --"

"I know that, stupid. There are also rites mortals can perform that gods can't. I'm keeping my loophole, thanks."

"Well, but think of the status!" The Flayed One's borrowed lips finish his sentence with a delay, again. She wishes he would stop doing that. It's creepy, and distracting.

"I already rule myself well enough. I command the Moon." And She always takes Her due, says the bitter thing in her, but she ignores it. "God business is drama and grief I don't need, and I don't take suggestions from out-of-work bogies. Someone put you up to this, didn't they? Why?"

He stammers something useless. So she speaks three very old words, staring right through his borrowed skin, and that puts the truth on him. He squirms. The skin doesn't squirm with him; he slides around under it. Still nobody has noticed. Words drag out of the Flayed One and he can't do a thing to stop them. "You're too dangerous," he says. "Can't -- trust -- without --"

"Aha." Thessaly has her calm back, the terrible vasty calm of the Moon. "So they just want to put rules and attachments on me."

The rubbery head nods.

"Who?"

But whoever it is, they don't want to be found out. The skinless god is fading from the body now, leaving the empty skin of a small well-dressed man to sag into a heap on the bar.

"I think he's got a heart attack, or something. I'm sorry. I need air," she says to the bartender in her best bystander voice, and slips out like she is no one at all.

5.

Thessaly doesn't know what the third reason she came to Portland is, but the resonance of the Moon is with her, and everything will come in threes for some time yet.

The old score is settled, she knows, but it doesn't feel settled. One who merely acts as a tool never owes debts afterward, but that's no way for Thessaly to make peace. Even the Moon could not put a geas on her without her willing acceptance. She is, after all, the god of herself. She's a force in any confluence of forces, and pretending otherwise is useless.

Her room is still untouched, her things remaining in the center of the bed where she left them. Under the door comes the sound of an argument between two people in a too-small space without very much of anything to fight over. Old news; it's always old news. Above her someone is breathing raggedly. But she doesn't feel crowded by it.

A girlish voice comes from the closet. "whO's THErE?"

No mortals are here, no spirits, no gods -- no one broke her wards. But her wards were set against harm and interference. Thessaly opens the closet door sharply. There's a faded poster of Tori Amos in here, no more.

The image swims and speaks, tossing her hair. "Oh. It's yOU. i wAS Just cheCKing up oN stUFF, you seE. YoU're not one of MINe. You'RE a BIG THIng." The wide dark eyes on the poster swim, literally, turning into wheeling clouds of tadpoles, then resolve to blue and green. "That's fuNnY. YOu came heRe from the -- UMM with my bROTher anD the rOcket poLICE -- uh I madE THOse up."

"The funeral. Yes." She hadn't warded against Endless, either.

"I'm I thINK I had a -- I got in his wAY, you know ... at the wronG time." Her voice gets very small. Tori, or the being who's borrowing Tori, curls up in the corner of the poster, hands clutched around her knees, and rocks around unhappily. "I didN'T MEAN to! It wAS a thing -- like with SHARKS anD awful weATHEr --"

"No," Thessaly says. "I expected he could hold his own against the silly little mother, no matter whose help she had. It's my fault."

"REally? Did yoU buy the thing? I thougHT it was STILL for sAle and NObody was buyinG it. Too manY EARthquakes." The tree in the corner of the poster, having grown to a larger size so Delirium could curl up under it, begins shaking. Small butterflies take off from the branches. Each of them seems to have someone's face -- Delirium's, Thessaly's own, other gods and people and Endless -- and they disappear into specks of light as they reach the edges of the scene.

Thessaly considers these words very carefully. "You may be right," she says.

"GEt it? EartHQUAkes. Fault, you knOW. I made a JOke. MaYBe i will go to saN FRANCISCO now -- and be a dRAG queen -- with many turtles --" The turtles start forming around her feet, and she dives off the poster, which returns to normal except that the image of Tori Amos is gone, leaving only a tree at the corner of a blank, bright landscape. The youngest of the Endless has gone somewhere else, as usual; the room is now empty except for the last of the Thessalian witches.

"You may be right," she says to no one at all.

Thessaly turns out the light. She crawls into the hard clean bed to sleep and dream in the austere calm of the Moon.

NOTES

The story title is from a Belle & Sebastian song. A carriage clock is a traditional placating retirement gift.

Trikala, like Larissa, is a region of Thessaly.

Burnside Street divides the North blocks of Portland, Oregon from the South blocks. The Joyce Hotel is an infamous junkie hostel at 322 SW 11th Avenue, downtown, and you can find out about the Lovejoy Columns at http://www.jamesmharrison.com/lovejoycolumns.