We found her that sterile winter night with Ariel by Sylvia Plath on the bathroom sink and the first Cowboy Junkies CD tolling from the stereo. The philodendrons, the ficus, and the Swedish ivy in their terra-cotta planters had wilted. The Prophetess herself lay in her clawfoot tub with Xs carved in her wrists.
"Obviously, my boy," said the Great Bringweather after smelling the bathroom, "this was a kidnapping!"
I was crying so hard that I could only speak in fits. "D-D-Don't -- you think it's more -- likely -- that she committed suicide?"
"Suicide, Brune?" Bringweather spun away from the bloody tub and aimed his eagle face at me. "Suicide?" The yellow tassel of his Minnesota Vikings stocking cap bobbed over our heads. "If you're so certain, where's the note, eh? Hmm? Answer that!"
The Prophetess's final letter was in my hand. I'd found it on the lid of her indoor compost heap when I came home. Crying loudly now, I handed him the note.
"Oh. I see. Well." Bringweather removed reading glasses from his London Fog trench coat. "It's her handwriting, at any rate." He smoothed one handlebar of his outrageous moustache and read as if to an audience. "'I hate the incessant needs of my barren body.'" He stopped and looked at me over the top of his glasses. "Incessant? Is that a word? It is? Sounds French to me." He cleared his throat wetly and continued reading. "'The eating, the sweating, the brushing, the bathing, and worst of all, the emitting. All to what end? Old age.' Oh, terrible! The Prophetess stopped seeing the poetry and love of the Great Heap! 'Every morning a trip to the toilet, and it never ends all day long in the unyielding variety of emissions -- the pale liquids, the thick liquids, the odious solids, the gases--"
Bringweather dropped the note on the bathroom floor.
"Sad," I sniffled, wondering if he'd read what I had read between those lines.
"Evil!" Bringweather declared. He strode into the living room, then he stopped by the Prophetess's compost heap and pointed back at the paper on the floor. "An evil spell that decries life and the Cosmic Animus, and we never should have touched it. This was no accident, just as I suspected. Sorcerous trickery is afoot. A midwinter strike against the Holy Heap! Brune! Come with me!" With the skirts of his trench coat flaring, Bringweather took three Groucho strides to the apartment door and snatched it open so fast it smacked my coat tree.
I steadied the tree before it toppled, then grabbed my poncho and backpack. "Where are you going?"
From the stairwell, he shouted, "To the Dumpsters!"
After locking my apartment door, I followed him downstairs. Bringweather was already inspecting the trash. Snow blew down the icy alley, and snot froze on my upper lip. I blubbered like a tot, heartbroken for the loss of my teacher and paramour. "Wh-wh-what are you doing, Master Bringweather?"
"Suicide. Ha! The woman who pioneered prognostication using the Animus in urban decay? A witch of that caliber committing suicide?" He stuck his head in a Dumpster and his voice echoed as he said, "A solstice would sooner depart from the calendar. Ridiculous!" He let the lid slam shut. "Too much cardboard. No, no, something unliving was in that apartment, my dear Brune, and that is why we are in this alley. For if we are to retrieve her, we will need a healthy concentration of Cosmic Animus from living, feeding bacteria." Bringweather hoisted another Dumpster lid with a rusty creak and sniffed. "Frozen. Feh."
"Couldn't you just use the compost pile in our apartment? The worms in that pile are descended from the Prophetess's great-great-great-great--"
"Unusable. You saw the withered ficus. Whatever took the Prophetess sucked the life out everything in her apartment, too. I fear it may have taken the microorganisms from all these Dumpsters, though in this polar clime who can discern the unliving from the merely dead?" He lifted another lid. Steam rose from the Dumpster. Bringweather grinned his teeth at me. "Superb! The holy fire! Smell that, my boy!"
I found a dry spot in my handkerchief and emptied my sinuses. Then I leaned my head into the Dumpster and inhaled. "Smells like a beer fart."
Bringweather twisted one point of his red moustache. "Beer. Yeast. Life!" He breathed in the Dumpster's aroma again. "Some cruciferous vegetable is rotting down there, providing nitro. And more importantly -- fungi! And actinomycetes! Why, I bet those bugglies could digest a telephone book." He swept off his Vikings cap, and his hat-hair made him look like a deranged William Shakespeare. "Jump in, Brune!" He shoved the lid all the way open with a loud clang.
"It seems the Prophetess has grossly exaggerated your progress to me. What," said Bringweather, vaulting into the garbage, "is this?"
"It's a Dumpster."
Bringweather made a noise like a shot-clock violation buzzer in basketball. "Wrong. This is a Portal of Giving and Taking." Squatting, Bringweather fished in the trash. All I could see were his bushy red eyebrows seesawing up and down. "Ah? Oh? What's this?" He stood, handing me a halved cantaloupe.
I couldn't believe it. A long red worm had coiled itself inside. This was the rind of the Prophetess's cantaloupe, which she ate every morning for breakfast. The worm was one of her compost heap's ancestral vermicelli. "She loved the worms of her fore-witches more than anything." My throat clenched. "She didn't know what she was doing, throwing this poor worm away."
"Easy, Brune. Stay with me," coaxed Bringweather. "I can get us where we're going but there's not enough energy in this Portal for me to get us back. You now hold the ticket for our return trip." He pointed to the worm and the fungus-bearded cantaloupe. "Understand?"
I didn't want to appear stupid in front of the most powerful street-witch alive, but the Prophetess apparently had been exaggerating my progress. Like any young witch, I could make bread, beer, wine, cheese, yogurt. I could build and keep a magic furnace, that is, a healthy compost pile, and employ the exhaust of Cosmic Animus to, say, resurrect a dead spider. But I had no idea what Bringweather meant by portal or ticket or return trip. I put the bowl of a melon rind in my backpack. "Where are we . . . going?" I said, climbing into the Dumpster.
The Great Bringweather shushed me and lifted his hand. I could see he was holding humus from the bottom of the Dumpster. As he squeezed it, dark liquid bled between his fingers. It had to be from the Prophetess's altar, perfect humus that had escaped from being destroyed by her unliving kidnapper.
"'There is no guano comparable to the detritus of a capital,'" invoked the Great Bringweather, filthy hand raised to the sky. "'The fetid streams of subterranean slime that the pavement hides from you, do you know what that is?'" He shouted up the alley and his voice echoed against a loading dock wall. "'It is the perfumed hay, it is the golden wheat, it is the bread on your table, it is joy and life!'" His eyes were scrunched tight. His knuckles whitened on the magic gunk. From the corner of his mouth he whispered to me, "Victor Hugo. Les Miserables."
The Dumpster lurched, teetering as though balancing on a precarious point. I grabbed the Dumpster's rim in surprise. "Master Bringweather, what's going on?"
"Anaerobiosis!" cried Bringweather, and the Dumpster lurched again, this time lifting several inches off the ground.
I'd been expecting a storm or a wind. It was the magic he was known for, after all. Instead, the Dumpster began to float, carrying us in it like two men in a tub. We rose over the alley and up past my building's top floor. A red-haired man, playing saxophone in his apartment, stopped blowing his horn, and his round eyeglasses shone as he looked at us through his window. Then we rose out of sight.
Bringweather looked dazed but energized. "We are passing from the Great Heap's world and descending into another."
I looked up at the clouds glowing tangerine with cityshine above us. "Descending?"
"Here it comes!" shouted Bringweather and clutched the edge of the Dumpster's mouth.
As if a rope from above were hooked to the bottom of the Dumpster, we spun upside down with a hard yank. My stomach lurched up my throat, and I gagged as I struggled to get my equilibrium back. The dull orange clouds were now glowing below us, and the lightgrid of the city loomed like a ceiling overhead.
I looked down into the quilt of tangerine mist. "What's the name of this other place we're descending to?"
"The Necropital, chief city of the Ghostmoon," said Bringweather, relaxing into the corner of the Dumpster, "where those who choose to leave the Heap of Life forever go."
Our Dumpster sank into the orange clouds. The mist was so thick I couldn't see Bringweather, but I could hear him muttering to himself. He never stopped talking or shifting.
He had arrived last night to help the Prophetess out of her dark mood and discuss my progress. He slept over, crashing on her futon sofa with a crocheted afghan over his lanky, Tinkertoy body. He ignored me and fell asleep while I watched ESPN. I was amazed to see that even while he slept, Bringweather's juggernaut of energy never abated. It merely slowed to intermittent fidgeting and kicking, guttural throat-hawking, belching, sighing, like an infernal machine that would never shut off.
Even in the cloud mist, I could still hear him. "Ha. The one, true, eternal, aerobic fire shall burn in me the rest of my days, even if I have to walk to the ends of the Streets of the Dead until I find the Prophetess again, yes, I shall, ahem, and young Brune will accompany me until we find his teacher and bring her back to the Holy Heap so that she may repair, yes, repair, his spotty education. Hum. Yes. Good."
Last night, after Bringweather realized he wasn't going to be able to shake the Prophetess out of her midwinter doldrums, he decided to run me through my paces. He inspected the peach stout I had just bottled, asking me what the acidophilus in my yogurt culture was good for (replenishing bacteria in the intestines). I tried to make a good impression, but I was distracted by my teacher's sadness. The Prophetess had been slowly withering for days and I feared it was my fault.
"I can no longer see the future, Brune," she'd said to me the night before her suicide.
Before she was my teacher, the Prophetess was one of my crazy customers. I owned a slot-in-the-wall greengrocery (my dad's and my grandfather's before him). When the Prophetess started coming to my store in June, I thought she might be homeless or mentally ill -- a wild-eyed woman in her late thirties with near-dreads in her frizzy hair. She wore combat boots, dirty overall cutoffs, a lacy spaghetti-string tank top with the logo BUILT FORD TOUGH. Her name threw me too, but this crazed and attractive lady liked to talk about food, one of my favorite subjects, so we hit it off. She came into the store every day through summer and autumn, and finally invited me to be her student in early January, the night she found me picking through cases and cases of rotten produce. "Astounding," she'd said, as I showed her a stack of boxes filled with cruddy romaine, blighty tomatoes, and overripe persimmons. "All this magical rot -- in January!" She pulled back the ratty hood of her parka.
"Happens every winter," I complained, plucking rotten stems out of an old bunch of spinach. "Nonstop crap-a-thon."
The Prophetess had a healthy glow in her high cheekbones. She inched closer and closer to me as we spoke. "There's a raging fire in this store. You're one lucky witch to have all this rot to yourself." She was always calling me "witch" or "witchy" for some reason.
I untwisted the tie on the dissolving spinach and showed her the black slime there. "Real lucky, huh?"
The Prophetess lifted a solemn hand to indicate my aisle of tangelos, mandarins, and my tower of junk, all in one gesture. Then she touched her fingers to the slimy spinach. A shiver shot through the fleshy leaves. The spinach stiffened under her fingers and its black, liquified stems suffused with green. The bunch was suddenly so fresh it felt like it might grab me. I dropped it.
I looked at the Prophetess anew. I thought about her name. I thought I should be frightened, but instead I said, "Show me how you did that."
Her quirky pretense dropped and the Prophetess suddenly had the presence of a bonfire. "I'm in search of a legacy. I'll crone in a few years," she said. "If you promise to come live with me and be my student, I'll show you how I did it."
I didn't know what she meant by croning, but that deep green bunch of spinach sat with its skanky brothers in the case, splaying its perfect leaves as though basking in summer sun. Impossible, impossible, my grampa's and father's voices were saying to me.
"Okay. I'll do it. Show me."
"Shut the door and turn off your neon sign," said the Prophetess, removing her parka. "You're closed for the day."
I did as I was told, then returned to my stack of rotting fruits and vegetables.
"Birth, death, rot. Birth, death, rot," said the Prophetess, raising her index finger and tracing a circle in the air. "Those are three spokes of a wheel that can turn forwards or backwards. The Cosmic Animus is the wheel and when you learn to feel its momentum, you can harness its magic -- which is so bountiful in your store, Brune." With the hand that made the circle, my new teacher picked up a rotten persimmon. It sagged like a draining water balloon. "Rot. Death. Birth!" she shouted, and the gluey innards of the fruit stiffened. The dingy red skin shone orange again, and the persimmon seemed to straighten in her hand, reverting to its classic egg shape. She went through all the scummy, oozing cases of produce like a greedy gourmand, perking up the leaf lettuces, dewrinkling the cherry tomatoes, and asking the russets to close up their eyes.
"Can you do this with people?" I asked.
"No." The half-circles under her eyes darkened with a downward glance. "Though I've tried and tried."
My little market looked like a photo shoot. "I bet you have. I can't wait for you to show me more."
The Prophetess's eyes flirted at me like a girl's. "I've seen the future and, boy, you are it. I'll show you everything. I promise."
That's how I became apprentice to one of the greatest urban witches alive.
But reviving produce and making yogurt was a far cry from taking a magic Dumpster ride to the capital city of the dead. I had little to prepare me for what the Prophetess's teacher had in mind. In the blindness of the orange clouds, I said to Bringweather, "This midwinter strike against the Holy Heap you mentioned. How do you know its masterminds are in the Ghostmoon?"
I had to wait until the Bringweather monologue had chugged past further promises of finding the Prophetess. Then he said, "That letter. That evil, disgusting letter. It was the work of the Ghostlord from the Necropital itself, down there in the palace below us. The one goal of the Ghostlord is to snuff out the Cosmic Animus and its fire. He comes to seduce witches into suicide, taking them back to the Ghostmoon where there is no life and our power is too scant to allow us to flee."
"So anyone who dies becomes a life-hating ghost?" I asked. "Is that what happened to the Prophetess?"
The clouds thinned, and I was surprised to see Bringweather frowning at me with his angry bird face. "Ghosts, Brune, are those souls who die by their own hands. All other souls are consumed in the Holy Heap and reborn. Witches, however, are a permanent part of the Holy Heap -- even those who commit suicide can be brought back from the Necropital. The Ghostlord has succeeded only in kidnapping the Prophetess, not in destroying her."
The image of her red blood in the white tub still terrified me. I wondered if the Prophetess had told Bringweather about our argument. My refusal of her now seemed petty and selfish. But I'll crone soon, my love. I winced at the memory. "I miss her, Bringweather."
"In witchery, the relationship between teacher and student is, to say the least, er, ahem, intimate. When she was my student, she loved me as much as you love her. I believe she chose very well when she chose you, Brune," said Bringweather.
I nodded, but I didn't agree. Her voice was like a song stuck in my head. I foresaw that we would feed the holy fire with life, Brune. New, young life. I closed my eyes and started to cry again. I should have given my teacher what she wanted. She might still be alive if I had.
"You will be a strong witch once you have first-hand understanding of the sacred, steaming pile's power. Hum. Ahem." Bringweather patted my shoulder lamely and added, "'Worms eat sperms. Tombs eat wombs. The Heap eats both and forever blooms.' You see? You will. I have faith in you."
As we descended, the mist slowly turned cadet blue, and when the streams of fog finally cleared, I could see that we were floating down towards a city. The Necropital. It stretched outward from the blue Palace in a never-ending web of tidy streets.
The Dumpster beached itself in the middle of a wide avenue and tilted onto its side, spilling us on a glassy pavement where ghost trolleys floated past on icy drafts of air. The people here all looked as if they were standing on the other side of an aquarium, and the icy walls of Necropital Palace reflected sheens of blue sunlight. I couldn't sense any life in this city -- no decay, no microbial activity, no magic in this pristine place.
The people of Necropital didn't seem to see Bringweather in his stocking cap, nor me in my poncho and backpack. "Are we invisible to them?" I wondered aloud.
"We're the 'ghosts' here. They don't see us now, but they'll catch on in a minute. Come along, Brune, we have business in the Palace."
We walked toward the Palace's honeycomb-tiled courtyard. Twinkling spires towered overhead. As we walked, the cold faces of those around us melted into expressions of disgust and horror. Two guards before the high gates stepped forward to confront us, but when Bringweather extended a hand, they dropped their ghostly spears, fleeing down the avenue with high shrieks.
"Kind of fun being a supernatural force." Bringweather reached through the bars and unlatched the gates. "The Ghostlord won't be so easily spooked, however. He's one anal retentive control-freak."
We walked into the Palace and down a long corridor, sending spectral courtiers screaming into their retiring chambers. On a screen that ran the length of the corridor, a row of forty sofa-sized eyes followed Bringweather like words on a page as he led me deeper into the Palace. Bringweather raised his left hand and gave those forty eyes the finger as he walked and monologued. "The Ghostlord left the Sacred Heap of Life on his own accord, killed himself in order to come here. 'Better to reign in cleanliness than serve in stink,' he said." Bringweather rolled up his sleeves and grumbled, "Time to settle this, I should think, once and for all. . . ."
Ahead, the corridor of eyes opened into a great hall. We couldn't see the entire room, but blue globes, blue chandeliers, and blue tapestries were visible from the hall. A voice from deeper in the chamber called out, "Look at their fleshy weight. They breathe air into the moist bags of their lungs. They are animated carcasses that rot as they walk." The voice rose, crying, "We all know you're here, Bringweather!"
"Smelled me, eh?" Bringweather stopped and shouted into the cavernous doorway. "Then you know why I'm here, too. Let us talk to the Prophetess and we'll let the walls of your palace stand."
"My walls will have to be scrubbed and sanitized after I kill you!" laughed the Ghostlord.
Bringweather motioned for me. "I fear I won't escape this chamber without a duel, Brune, so things may start to seem, um, well, ahem, strange to you. No matter what happens, you just remember that you have the return ticket in your backpack. If things get too frightening, use it! Yes? That's my boy. Onward!"
A desk sat in the center of this huge room. It was covered with hundreds of crystals, each with a pale blue eye inside, blinking at us in surprise and fear. Behind the array of stones sat the Prophetess, wearing a neat sensible dress and neat sensible shoes, her wild mane of hair tamed into a neat braid. It killed me to see her like that. Beside her stood a crowned man with grey hair, his face careworn. In this color-sapping light, he looked ageless. The Ghostlord looked at the Prophetess and said, "She is my counselor now. She likes it here, away from the burden of death and decay."
"You chose this place, Ghostlord. She didn't," said Bringweather.
The pale spirit sneered, "I take it you found her disgusting body. You may keep that. We have her Anima, and her soul is what matters."
Every moment I stood in this room without a kiss or even a smile from the Prophetess was another slice through my heart. She stared at me with unanimated eyes and vacant face.
"The Prophetess chose, as I too chose," said the Ghostlord. "She chose to take her own life for herself, rather than squander it in an imperfect body, subject to the tyranny of digestion, perspiration, and" -- the Ghostlord's eyes drifted to me -- "re-pro-duction."
I wanted to say that was a lie. The Prophetess had wanted a baby more than anything, knowing that she was nearing her mid-forties. I wanted to confess to Bringweather that I had refused my beloved teacher her legacy, that I was to blame. But I couldn't say anything. My tongue was heavy and my face felt as though it were padded with cotton. No one spoke in the cool, blue hall. The crystal eyes had stopped blinking. Time kept eating this moment, lengthening it unnaturally.
The silence was doubly odd because Bringweather wasn't even harrumphing or clearing his phlegmy throat. His juggernaut had paused. It was the first time I had ever heard Bringweather be quiet, and I didn't like the sound of it. It took a great effort, but I turned my head to look at him. His eagle eyes were on the Ghostlord, as if taking aim with an unseen gun. But when he felt my gaze on him, he rasped, "My boy." An hour seemed to pass. Shadows swung as the blue sun crossed the hall's high windows. "I'm too old," he whispered. "Too old to do what must be done."
Behind the desk, my teacher and the Ghostlord were making unearthly twitches with their arms and shoulders. At one point they switched places before my eyes, without one standing up or the other sitting down. The Ghostlord suddenly slumped over the desk as if exhausted or injured, the eyes of his crystals all raving madly at Bringweather. My teacher, or the soul of her anyway, looked angry. Her long French braid was coming undone with wisps at her temples, and she seemed to be screaming, though I couldn't hear her voice. Was this nightmarish dance a spell of some kind? Attack or counter-attack? Watching the ghosts' bizarre behavior, I wondered how proper composting techniques would have prepared me for this.
I said to Bringweather, "What the hell's going on?"
But I turned from the ghosts and found him lying on the ground, trembling in a seizure, his face white and moist. I knelt. The movement made me dizzy. "Bringweather!"
"Hay. Bread," said Bringweather. "Bus tickets. Home." Bile foamed at Bringweather's lips and nostrils. Something wet was happening in his trousers. I felt horrible, watching his body fall apart without being able to help him. "This is nothing. I'll return through a very different portal. No big deal," he assured me. Then the Great Bringweather managed to utter his last word:
The Prophetess was still screaming, but the Ghostlord now lay flat on the desk, laid out as if for burial.
I looked back at Bringweather. He was laid out similarly on the tiled floor next to me. I'm stupid, arrogant, and pigheaded, I thought. If only I hadn't recoiled from her when she asked me for her heart's desire. Bringweather's body was dissolving into soup.
I pulled the cantaloupe rind out of my backpack and removed the pink worm. As soon as I touched it, the odd heavy feeling in the room dissolved and I realized only a few moments had passed since we entered the Ghostlord's hall. Bringweather was gone. I was on my own. I held up the wriggling worm between thumb and forefinger.
The Prophetess flinched as if it had appeared from nowhere. "What is that doing here?"
I wasn't sure what to do with the worm, so I said, controlling my fear as best I could, "I brought her for you. From your pile, teacher."
"You did?" said the Prophetess as if I had brought her a beloved photograph. She took a step toward me. A little dimple dented her precious cheek. "One of my Eisenia foetida?"
A true witch might have cast a terrifying spell, called on the Mother of Worms to rip the Palace in half or bring Bringweather back from the dead. But my teacher's smile had all my attention. "You threw her away," I said. "I'm returning her to you."
The Prophetess looked inconsolable. "I threw her away? Oh," she said, her face inches from the worm, like a thoughtful trout. "I bet she's hungry here, in this place where there isn't anything to eat."
The Ghostlord stirred, trying to lift his head.
"Take the worm, please," I said, hoping that if she touched the worm, this spell she was under would snap. "She's yours. Alive by your care and love. I love you, teacher. I'm so sorry that I didn't give you--"
"No! Don't touch it!" said the Ghostlord, dazed eyes focusing on what I had in my hand. "It's disgusting!"
"She's beautiful," said the Prophetess. "My ancestral vermicelli are all beautiful, and I don't want even this lonely one to die of starvation." The Prophetess reached out and closed her fist around it.
Then worm and Prophetess vanished.
"No!" the Ghostlord and I cried at the same time.
I stood there with my thumb and forefinger touching, as though holding an invisible worm. She was gone, back into the Heap to be recycled, just like poor Bringweather. She'd vanished before I could promise to give her a baby. Too late. Too late. I started to cry again. "I've botched everything!"
The Ghostlord grimaced and all those awful crystal eyes stared at me with hatred. "Yes, you have, young Brune."
Hearing my name in the Ghostlord's voice shook me. The only magic I had was the fruit market and some tangy yogurt. I had no means of defending myself here. I backed away from the Ghostlord, glancing over my shoulder to relocate the door.
He lifted a weak hand, fingers spread in an unnatural gesture. "Stay where you are," said the Ghostlord and his voice draped over me like a heavy constrictor snake.
"Stop that!" I shook my shoulders and the heaviness shrugged from me -- he was weaker than I'd expected. I turned and ran from the hall.
"Brune, you're not hero enough to leave here," said the Ghostlord. His voice was a whisper in my ear. "Your insides have been turning to water."
"Liar," I shouted, but the Ghostlord was right. I could feel the flora of bacteria in my intestines dying, starving in this lifeless land of ghosts. Backpack over one shoulder, I pressed my other arm over my stomach and willed myself to run.
I ran to the palace door and into the avenue, glancing back at the Ghostlord. He followed me like a sleepwalker trying to run. "You're no knight in shining armor, Brune," his oily whisper said. "It's useless. You have nothing left. Stay here with me."
The crowds outside the Palace cleared a path as I ran to the Dumpster. I struggled to set it upright again and my stomach cramped in hard bites. I feared a humiliating disaster. I threw my backpack into the Dumpster, then jumped after it, slamming the lid shut over my head and immediately tugging my pack open to retrieve the cantaloupe rind. It was still covered with good colonies of fuzzy white actinomycetes. Could those fungi be enough to get me home? If I'd ever been taught to fork lightning, maybe. As it was, I sat in the Dumpster, holding a moldy melon and waiting for the Ghostlord to kill me. I could hear him cutting through the throng of phantoms, a non-sound like wind through smoke.
"Bringweather!" I said, looking at the fungus as if for directions. "I don't know what to do! I never read Les Miserables!"
I dropped the melon on the floor of the Dumpster. I had no words, no poetry, no love in my heart at all. I was too sad for the loss of Bringweather and my beloved Prophetess. Too sad that my lover hadn't recognized me or said kind words to me. She loved her worms. That was it and she was gone, dead without her legacy. The wheel of the Cosmic Animus was stronger than my guilt and silly romantic feelings. "Stronger than everything, because everything rots. Even love," I said. "Even here, in this perfectly clean place, decay is all-powerful."
With that thought, the Dumpster scraped the ground and rattled my molars.
Lifting the Dumpster's lid, I looked out to see what had moved me. But I knew I had moved myself. I saw the approaching Ghostlord but I didn't fear him as I picked up the moldy melon and raised it. The Heap was more powerful than the Ghostlord's twisted little spirit. I held the proof of it in the cantaloupe rind, in my decaying heart.
The Dumpster lurched again.
"Take me home," I said to the fungus, fey with surrender. "I believe you are powerful enough to do anything I ask."
The Dumpster shifted, pitched, and went airborne. I cradled my aching stomach and listened to the weary Ghostlord throw feeble spells at my Dumpster. "Believe me," said the Ghsotlord's voice in my ear, "there's nothing left back home. Just more rot and decay." The syllables he spoke snagged, but slipped free, unable to slow my momentum. I continued to rise.
I floated up through the blue clouds and watched them turn orange. About halfway through the cloudbank, I spun butt-over-head again, and when the Dumpster emerged from the clouds, I was descending back into the alley. I cried the whole way home, holding my cramping stomach.
When the Dumpster hit concrete with a clang, I clambered out, in dire need of a bathroom. I ran up my building's stairs, holding my stomach with both hands. The apartment felt hot and sticky after spending so much time in the Dumpster and the Ghostmoon's chill. I barely felt it, though. My vision was grey and I feared I would pass out if I didn't get to a toilet. Had I been less urgent, I might have noticed the bright shoots in the spider plants.
I ran into the bathroom without a moment to spare. Relief is not the word. I felt purified, sitting on that toilet, emitting everything foul from my body -- wetness, sadness, anger, guilt. When it was finished, it occurred to me that I was a witch now. I'd returned to this world under my own power, without either of my teachers helping me. I remained seated, feeling vaguely proud, but more ridiculous, wondering if Lancelot or Arthur had ever raced home after an adventure, tossing aside their fluttering pennants in panic.
Just a few feet from me, something moved in the tub. I screamed and jumped from the toilet. With my pants still around my ankles, I snatched the shower curtain back.
But no bloody corpse was sprawled in the tub. The Prophetess sat in a mound of bath bubbles, scrubbing her arms and smiling at me. Her wrists were smooth. Unmarked.
I felt as though my head had popped. I pulled up my pants. "How? How in the--?"
She splashed her face with water. "You."
"Me? Me?" I shouted, edging toward a hysterical brink. "Me what?"
"You rescued me, my knight in shining Dumpster."
"But I thought you'd be--"
"If Bringweather had destroyed the Ghostlord as he intended, then yes," said the Prophetess, scrubbing her back with the loofah, "I would have returned to the Great Heap." She put the sponge down and held her arms out to me. "Instead, you sent me home."
I bent down and crushed her to my chest in a hard, soggy hug.
Her breath brushed against my ear. "How I love you, Brune."
I scooped her up in my arms and pulled her out of the tub, a banner of water unfurling from her body. I carried her to the bedroom, trailing suds and bathwater all the way, and tossed her on the bed. Then I stripped.
Her eyes glittered as she watched me undress. As always, her gaze went to the bureau where she knew I kept my condoms.
Naked, I took her chin in my hand and turned her head to face me. "I'm ready to set everything right," I said, then gently pushed her onto her back.
We were conquering heroes, conquering one another. Her fingers touched me and I stiffened, suffusing with heat and blood. She clutched me to her chest and hugged me with her legs. I felt like her peer, no longer her student but a true witch now. I was her body and she mine and we made love until the windows dripped with condensation, and I have never felt anything so powerful as releasing myself into the glorious magic of my lover.
But, as Master Bringweather would say, that was nothing.
Seven months later, lying in that same bed with my Prophetess spooning her full moon belly against me, I could feel the truest magic I ever felt. Our baby shimmied in my lover's womb. I could feel its incessant squirming against the small of my back, just as I had the night before and the night before that. Fidgeting and kicking, kicking and fidgeting.
My child's juggernaut never abates.
Copyright © 2002 Barth Anderson
Barth Anderson's work has appeared in Talebones, On Spec, and New Genre, and will appear soon in Asimov's. He received an Honorable Mention in the Fourteenth Annual Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Barth belongs to Karma Weasels Writers' Group, with fellow Strange Horizons contributor Alan DeNiro, and is currently at work on a medical SF novel.
The original illustration for "Bringweather" is by GAK.