Star of the Show
Luke sat with his knees close to his chest, trying not to shiver. The flashlights, both of them dead, rested in his coat pocket. Thankfully he had been dressed for the weather. And so he only felt a little cold, sitting on top of a piece of cardboard against a brick wall in the frigid morning air. The darkness inside the building chased him out after the flashlights died. Not only was it too dark to see, he was worried he would fall asleep.
Luke shivered and yawned. Hopefully the bird was just as tired as he was and would eventually come out and let itself be lifted. And carried. How were they going to transport it across town?
They could wrap it in his coat. Yes, that should do it.
The matter mostly resolved in his mind, Luke yawned again. He pulled his neck in, hiding inside his coat and scarf as much as he could. He watched the door to the tenement from under heavy eyelids.
“Excuse me, is everything alright?” A dark-skinned man in a dark gray suit and a fancy coat walked through the alley towards Luke with quick confident steps. He looked concerned.
Luke’s fight or flight instinct kicked in, and he scrambled to his feet, ready to run for both their lives. The violent motion pushed one of the flashlights out of his pocket, and it fell to the concrete with a loud thud. Thankfully it did not appear to break. The memory of his current mission cleared Luke’s exhausted mind, and realizing he had nothing to run from, he leaned heavily against the wall.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, I didn’t mean to startle you. Forgive me. I was worried you are unwell.” The man stopped several steps away from Luke. He smiled apologetically. His black hair was graying. His narrow, bony face was adorned with a large hooked nose. To Luke he looked like some sort of doctor, perhaps. Which explained his desire to help.
“It’s alright, thank you for the concern,” Luke said earnestly. He rubbed his eyes. “I’m just a little tired.”
“That is put lightly, if you don’t mind my saying so. You look like you have been up all night. Do you need any help?”
“No, no, it’s alright. I just lost something, and I’m trying to find it.” Luke picked up the flashlight. He wiped it on his coat and was about to put it in his pocket, but the item piqued the Good Samaritan’s curiosity.
“Oh, is that one of those new flashlights? A fellow tried to sell me one just a few days ago. Is it any good?”
“Sort of,” Luke admitted. “It is very bright. But both of mine ran out of battery within about three hours each.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound good at all.” The man frowned. “Sounds like the man swindled you and gave you the ones he had used before. Three hours seems ludicrously little.”
“Maybe,” Luke agreed softly.
“Well, it will be sunny today, so I hope you will have better luck finding what you’d lost in the natural light.” The man smiled and nodded to Luke. “Have a good day.”
The stranger walked away, back towards the main street. Luke watched him for a moment. Then he turned back towards the dark doorway.
Something was different.
Luke stared in front of himself in confusion for a moment, trying to understand what had changed. He pocketed the flashlight, and then his eyes rested on a small metallic object on the ground between the door and him. It wasn’t there before. He was sure of it. He had stared at this door for too long to have missed it. Luke walked up to the object and picked it up. It was a copper feather.
⚞ ¥ ⚟
Yen walked through the morning city, feeling like a dirty peasant without his motorbike. He’d had to take the bus. Again. Gross. At least with the holidays in, it’d been mostly empty. And hopefully it would still be so when he went back, as soon as he reached the tenement, and Luke gleefully informed him that the matter had been taken care of in his absence. Yen smirked and nodded to that mental image. It was only a matter of time and letting other people take care of shit, and he was off the hook. He felt so jubilant, he was even bringing some bread with him to give the bird as its last meal.
He turned into the alley and stumbled into Luke.
“It escaped, Yen! Help me look! It must be nearby!”
Yen’s idyllic image of going back to Sam’s place and to his dear motorbike was shattered. He looked through its crumbling shards at Luke’s pale face and the purple bags under his eyes. The bony blond was looking around the street in a panic.
“Did it go into the street?” Yen asked and also looked around.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
Luke opened his mouth, but in that moment loud gobbling came from the alley behind them, and without another word, the two of them rushed in its direction. They found the turkey in a sidestreet perpendicular to the one with the dark tenement.
“Come back here, you annoying piece of shit!” Yen threw a piece of bread at the turkey, then reached into his jacket pocket for another one.
“Good idea!” Luke brightened up. “But don’t toss the bread at it, rather next to it and in front of us.”
The turkey, however, decided it wanted nothing to do with them and their bread and ran gobbling further away.
“Oh, come on!” Yen ran after it, putting the remainder of the bread back into his pocket. “How are you not hungry yet, you dumb bird!”
Luke followed him.
“I don’t think all this chasing is going to work. We must find a way to ambush it.”
“Great plan, Napoleon. What you got? Bear traps? Nets?”
“No, I mean we should try to sneak up on it.”
“Sure. When it stops fucking running.”
The turkey crossed the road. It didn’t have a reason to, but it crossed it anyway. Yen and Luke ran after it into what at first appeared to be a park, but quickly turned out to be a cemetary.
“Ok, now we’re talking!” Yen ran up to a recent-looking grave and snatched a large wreath from it. “I’ll try to sneak up on it from the side. Distract it.”
“Yen, no!” Luke yelled after him indignantly.
But Yen carried on with his plan. The bird had stopped about a yard away and was looking around the graveyard alley. It stretched its neck and gobbled.
Yen was grinning as he snuck slowly between the graves, hiding behind the wreath. It seemed to be working, the bird stood in place and was staring at Luke, who had also stopped in his tracks, mortified by Yen’s maneuvers.
“Yen, put it back, this is horrible!”
Yen said nothing. There was maybe ten feet between him and the bird, and it was its back on him.
“Hey! What are you doing with that?! Vandal! Police! Police!” An old woman appeared on the other end of the trail and began waving a cane. “Help! Vandals are destroying the cemetery! Help!”
The turkey dashed between the graves in the direction opposite from Yen. Yen swore, tossed the wreath and chased after the bird as fast as he could. Behind him Luke ran to retrieve the wreath, beg forgiveness from the woman and put the wreath back where it came from. It did not go smoothly. Yen could still hear the woman yelling when the turkey chase led him out of the cemetery and into another street. This time, instead of trying to run through traffic, the bird flapped its wings and flew above it, then landed happily on a balcony and began to prune itself.
Yen stopped at the graveyard gate panting heavily. A few moments later, he heard hurried steps behind him and saw Luke. In addition to the dark circles under his eyes he now had a pink mark on the side of his forehead.
“Ouch,” Yen said, looking at it. “Did the hag hit you?”
“She’s not a hag, and how could you do that?!”
“Oh, come on, it’s not like the dead guy was using it.”
Luke did not seem to buy that excuse. He looked about as angry as the old woman, though thankfully he was not armed. Yen decided to channel Luke’s anger elsewhere and pointed at the turkey.
“Look, Luke, there’s our bastard of a bird, pruning its plumes, like a rotten rascal.”
“Your wordplay doesn’t amuse me.”
“Too bad.” Yen shrugged. “What do we do now? I can throw more bread at it.”
“That didn’t work last time.”
“Well, I didn’t hit it last time.”
Luke still glared at him. Yen sighed.
The bird gobbled loudly and flew off the balcony and behind a corner.
“Shit!” Yen tried to run after it, but Luke barely pulled him back on time, as a car rushed honking by.
“Watch where you’re going, fucker!” Yen yelled after the car.
The car stopped sharply and a dangerous looking dude got out of it. “What did you say, punk?” The man walked to the back of the car and opened the trunk, pulling out a machete.
“Run!” Yen grabbed Luke this time and dragged him across the street and after the turkey. They ran around the corner, and Yen was relieved to note the machete guy had stayed on the graveyard side of the street. Where he belonged.
The danger averted, the two of them looked around, trying to see their fugitive, but there was no sign of the turkey. The street was empty, except for a man sitting on the terrace of an upscale ice cream place. Surprisingly that one was open and a waitress came out and began taking the single client’s order. Yen stared at them for a moment, wondering what was wrong with people, both keeping shit open on the day after Thanksgiving, and eating ice cream in this weather.
“Yen, focus!” Luke said impatiently. “There, look!” He pointed to a feather at the door of the ice cream place. “And there!” There was another feather at an open door to the establishment next door. Some sort of restaurant in the making or something. A few guys were unloading a truck, carrying a huge grill and elements of decor into the building.
“I’ll go check that one!” Luke pointed to the latter and ran to the guys unloading the truck to politely and honestly talk his way inside.
“Fine by me.” Yen shrugged and looked around to make sure the turkey had not just shed the feathers in flight and landed on another balcony. It was nowhere to be seen. He sighed and went inside the ice cream place. The bell on the door rang and the waitress he saw outside a moment ago, half-turned and smiled fakely at him. “Good morning. How are you?”
“Been better,” Yen said as he checked under the fancy wrought iron tables. “Have you seen a big damn colorful turkey?”
“I mean a live bird. This big. Blue head with yellow pimples, all green and brown and shiny?”
“No…” The woman looked concerned. Shit, she probably thought he was high.
“Nevermind, then. I’m looking for an escaped pet. If you see it, give a holler.”
“Sure… Have a nice day.” The woman went back to making coffee and only cast a few more suspicious glances at him, until he left.
The guy on the terrace outside was now reading a newspaper.
Yen left the terrace and went to look inside the big window of the place next door. He saw Luke coming out with a face even more sour than when he had grabbed that wreath.
“No sign of the turkey,” Luke pronounced.
“And none in the ice cream place either. Looks like a dead end…” Yen checked the balconies again.
Luke seemed to be scanning the ground for more feathers.
“Maybe we should just give up,” Yen proposed.
A phone rang.
Both of them, the guy with the newspaper and one of the dudes unloading the truck all turned towards the noise. It was a street phone across the street. It was ringing.
Luke crossed the street carefully and picked up. He turned back. “Yen, it’s for you.”
Yen looked at him quizzically, but walked over and took the receiver from him. “Yes?”
“Where is the bird, Yen? It was supposed to be here yesterday.” Blaise’s voice sounded displeased.
“What the heck, Daddy?! How did you know where I am? Are you watching me from somewhere?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am watching you from the murder basement.”
“What?! And you got a phone in there too?!”
“No. I came out to make this call. But I am not the only one watching. You’re taking a long time. Where is it? Did you… lose it?”
“Oh, shit, Daddy I am sorry, was this supposed to be your Thanksgiving turkey? I hope you at least got to gorge on the stuffing. Everyone knows the stuffing is the best part anyway.”
“Where is it, Yen?” Blaise repeated tiredly.
“Working on it. Trust me. We’re constantly in the process of having it delivered. For two days now. But I’ll have it for you today. It will be like you had two Thanksgivings for the price of one. Are you not glad you have such a generous, inventive employee?”
“I’m positively thrilled. Well, better get back to it then. Don’t even think of giving up on it, this is very important.” The voice in the receiver died with a crackle. Tone.
Yen looked at the phone, feeling weird. How had Blaise known where they were? There had to be a clever explanation, but he couldn’t come up with one right now. Had somebody really been watching them and tattling on them to the priest through a walkie-talkie or some such? Yen looked around, but could not spot any suspicious characters. In all honesty, Luke and him were probably the most suspicious types in the area.
“What was it about?” Luke asked. “Was that your employer?” He was fiddling with his scarf, his eyebrows were furrowed with worry.
Yen groaned and rolled his eyes at the sight. “Yeah. Nothing new. He wants us to find the stupid bird. And soon.”
They spent the next half-hour combing the street and the bystreets, watching for colorful feathers, listening attentively for any potential gobbling and generally keeping their eyes peeled. But there seemed to be no sign of the turkey anywhere. The guys unloading the truck were done, and before they left, Luke managed to talk his way into the truck just to make sure the turkey had not snuck in there somehow. After a fruitless search through the truck, he stood wringing his hands between the bar and grill place that the movers now locked again, and the still open ice cream parlor. With his pale face, dark circles under the eyes and shaking hands, he looked downright tragic. Yen felt his normally steel cold heart get to slightly above room temperature.
“We’ll find that damn bird. Here, let me get you a coffee. You look like you need one.”
“We should be searching for it, Yen.”
“And we will, but coffee first. On second thought, coffee might make you even more jittery, I’ll get you hot chocolate. I bet they have fancy-ass hot chocolate here. I’ll be right back.” Yen went inside.
Now that he actually was a buying customer, the lady behind the counter was all smiles, and he was soon out with two paper cups filled with hot beverages.
“Here.” Yen held one out of Luke.
“Thanks.” Luke sipped it.
“We might as well sit down on the terrace, I paid for these, we’re legit now.”
They sat down at a table in the middle of the terrace. The newspaper guy was gone now, having left sometime while they were still searching for the turkey.
Luke sipped his hot chocolate, looking a little more alive now.
“You know…” Luke mused. “El probably wouldn’t approve of this one. He says chocolate should be drunk without milk and sugar. If you were to add something it would be chili peppers or honey.”
“Chilli cocoa? Sign me the fuck up.” Yen laughed. “And I can’t have normal milk anyway, so like whatever.”
“Oh? Are you having one without milk now?” Luke looked at him curiously.
“Fuck no. It’s coffee.”
“Can I have some too? I do not mean to be ungrateful for the chocolate, I think I won’t get any shakes. I feel a little faint-”
“Just take it, man.” Yen slid the coffee to him over the table. “Do you maybe want a snack? I guess they mostly have ice cream but I can ask.”
“Thanks, Yen, I’ll be fine.” Luke picked the paper cup up and drank a few gulps. He shivered. “Ah, that’s better.” He drank some more and returned the coffee to Yen.
They sat in silence for a while, each enjoying his hot drink.
“I’ve meant to ask you, Yen, you’re not originally from here, right?”
Yen frowned, sitting tensely in his chair. Of course, this was bound to come up sooner or later. “What do you mean ‘not from here’?”
“I mean, you’re not from New Coalport. Your accent, it’s… Californian, if I’m not mistaken?”
Yen’s frown dissipated, and he felt very foolish for getting offended preemptively. “Y-yeah, I guess it is Californian… You’ve been to the Golden State?”
“Kind of… it was a while ago, but I lived in San Francisco for a while.”
“Huh. How’d you end up here then?”
Luke looked a little bewildered. “Do you not watch the television?”
“What, is your biography televised or something?”
“Something like that.”
“Really?” Yen leered incredulously. “I guess I’ll have to give it a try. What time, what channel?”
“It used to be on the news, but nevermind, please, ignore what I said. It doesn’t have to do much with California, that was too long ago. And it won’t answer the question of why I left.” Luke’s expression sunk. “You could say I keep running away from trouble.”
“That’s what everyone does, really.”
Luke stared into his eyes like a kicked puppy, looking for affirmation.
Yen felt weird, having to reassure a guy at least a decade older than him. But then again, Luke was the more gullible and naive one of the two of them. So it kind of made sense, he had to dispense some wisdom. “Even I sort of ran away from trouble by leaving California. I first made it, then I ran away from it. As one should.”
“Did it work?”
“Yeah, quite nicely too.”
Luke looked thoughtful. Yen felt there was a level of this conversation he wasn’t getting.
Gobbling came from above them. They sharply looked up. The bird sat perched on a balcony above the ice cream place.
“Oh, come on, I looked there before! It’s some fucking conspiracy!” Yen poured the rest of the coffee down his throat and tossed the empty cup at the bird. He hit.
The turkey made a loud indignant noise and flew into the air.
Cursing and lamenting, they ran after it.
“You know, I wasn’t kidding yesterday, I’m pretty sure the bird is trained. And our employers are fucking with us,” Yen said, panting as they ran.
“I mean they’re messing with us. It’s all a sham, like I told you before, this whole shamanism is fake, and this bird too!”
“It seems pretty real to me,” Luke protested.
“Everything seems real to you.”
They stopped in a small garden of leafless trees and withered grass in the courtyard between several tenements. The bird stood on the other side of the courtyard, temporarily entranced by a twig that was moving in the wind and perhaps looked like a worm.
“Why would they have us chase a bird around instead of delivering it?” Luke asked, breathing heavily.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s somebody’s kink. Maybe that person is following us around with binoculars, jacking off and telling Blaise through a walkie-talkie what an amazing time he’s having.” Yen turned around and yelled “We know you are out there, you turkey-chase-fancying voyeuristic sicko!”
“Shut up!” Someone shouted from above them.
Yen turned around and shouted back “Fuck you! It’s a free country! I yell where I want!”
Luke cringed. “Please, let’s be quiet, sound travels really well in such spaces.”
“Bah.” Yen waved a hand. “Not my problem. I’m not gonna limit myself because of some angry asshole…”
A door opened in one of the tenements forming the courtyard, and a man in a wife-beater emerged, carrying a baseball bat and heading their way. Yen saw Luke’s face grow long and turned to take the sight in. His own face grew long when two more similar looking guys with bats came out of the same door.
“Peace you people! We’re leaving!” Yen ran, dragging Luke after himself.
“B-but the bird-”
“Forget the bird, we’ll come back for it!”
Yen dragged the two of them out of the courtyard. He glanced back to see the guys with the bats did not stop or go back. Uh-oh.
“Yen, look out!”
Yen turned to look in front of himself right on time to run headfirst into some sort of giant paper decoration hanging low between two fire escapes. He swore and struggled with the garland for a moment, then tore it apart and twirled, trying to see if they were still being followed. A cautious look from behind the corner assured him that the batters were already headed back inside.
“Phewh.” Yen leaned against the wall. “The fuck was that, some sort of lost kite?” He turned to look.
“I believe it’s an All Hallows Eve decoration.” Luke studied the torn garland. It consisted of a row of ridiculously large bats and very small pumpkins between them.
“They got the scale all wrong.” Yen sighed. “I’d love to live in a world where bats are larger than pumpkins.”
“Some of them are,” Luke said helpfully, though he didn’t sound like he shared Yen’s sentiment. “There are flying foxes, I’ve seen them on the television.”
“Some Amish you are, watching TV.”
Luke said nothing and hung his head, looking hurt.
Yen winced. “I mean it as a compliment. You guys are weirdos with all that grow your own food, wipe yourself with a leaf mentality.”
Luke’s expression turned to one of mildly annoyed skepticism. Yen knew that look well by now. He smirked — deep feelings averted.
“Come on, let’s go try to get that stupid bird. Maybe it came down.”
They carefully approached the corner of the building and looked into the courtyard.
The turkey really did come down. And it calmed down too for that matter. Now it rested passively in the arms of a bearded old hobo who bared his yellow teeth at them in a smug grin. “Ey, kiddos, you wanna trade?”
“No way,” Yen walked out into the courtyard. The angry dudes with the bats were gone. “No fucking way, this is some sort of twisted setup!”
Luke followed him, looking around apprehensively.
“That dumb bird is trained,” Yen continued. “And those batters didn’t even stick around to try to kick our asses, and now this asshole!” He waved a hand at the old man who seemed not at all offended.
“No! I’ve had enough of this bullshit. We’ve been chasing this bird for two days, and now we’re denied even catching it, because of some smelly old hobo? Open your eyes, Luke, they are playing us for fools! All of this is one big sham.”
“No, it’s not. I’ve seen El do magic. This bird could easily be the bird he usually has on his hat-”
“Magic! Oh, please! What did he do? Pull a coin from behind your ear?”
Luke stared Yen down somberly. “I saw him create serpents out of smoke.”
“Colorful smoke, some drugs mixed in.”
“One of El’s people is an older woman who can bend metal pipes, and she beat up two dangerous criminals.”
“Oh, but did you see her do it?”
“Well, I can also bend you some metal pipes with the right equipment. It’s all rubbish! They are fooling you!”
“No, Yen, it is all for real,” Luke said, but he no longer had the same conviction in his eyes.
“Oh, yeah?” Yen grinned and walked over to the old man. “Watch this!” He pulled on the old man’s beard. It did not come off.
“Ouch!” the old man tried to get away, but with the turkey in his arms and his beard in Yen’s grip he couldn’t go far. “Easy there, scamp!”
“Stop it, Yen! You’re hurting him!”
Yen pulled on the beard again. It came off this time, leaving a very startled Penny with red skin on his jaw. Luke’s own jaw dropped. Yen grinned manically. He shook the beard in the air.
“See! Ha! Told you so! How many of the guys who offered you to trade had yellow eyes? Every single one!”
Luke stood thunderstruck, staring at Penny in disbelief.
“Um… Hi, Luke…” Penny grimaced a little and rubbed his lower face against his shoulder. “Looks like… you got me. Uh, please, don’t tell El-”
“Oh, please! Like El doesn’t know! Good save, old dude, but it won’t work on me.” Yen shook the beard at him. “It is all a setup. You, El, Blaise, you’re all in kahoots, I know it. And now Luke knows it too.”
“I don’t know what I know anymore…” Luke said. He appeared upset, and Yen couldn’t blame him. It did not feel good to be taken advantage of, and Luke had been played for months.
“And you…” Yen squinted at Penny. “I know you too, actually! You’re that fucker that tried to sell me tooth powder as cocaine. You do not deserve to be paid. I am taking this.” Yen took the bird out of Penny’s arms, held it firmly and told it “No funny business, birdbrains, or you’re going to Blaise after a side trip to a taxidermist.”
Whether it understood the threat or not, the bird sat calmly in Yen’s arms.
“Ok, you two sort it out,” Yen said, nodding between Luke and Penny. “I’m going to file a complaint with my employer. They should give you a raise or something, you spent a sleepless night outside!”
“It’s not a big deal, I used to sleep on the street all the time,” Luke said with a sigh. It was true, this was not a big deal, and it was the first night he had spent outside in El’s employ. But all this running around, all this worry, it now felt so… pointless. He was suddenly dead tired.
Yen gave him an attentive look, then shrugged. “Well, go and sleep indoors for a change then.” He turned to the turkey. “Off we go, bird, I hope you like taxis, cause I’m sure as hell not gonna walk all the way to Blaise’s.”
The turkey gobbled a little, almost questioningly, like it suspected the taxi trip could end with that taxidermist visit after all. Yen snorted at the bird’s reaction and left.
Luke watched Penny silently for a long while. Then he shook his head and said, “He’s right, you know, I don’t believe you acted on your own, Penny. Not this time, not any other time. I just don’t understand why.”
“Well, why don’t you ask El, then?” Penny smiled, picked up his beard, brushed it off and put it in his pocket. “But first you should go home and get yourself a nice meal and maybe a nap.”
Luke nodded. He needed that.
* * *
Yen passed a ludicrous amount of green to the taxi driver. He smirked as he climbed out of the backseat through the door that the man readily opened for him. He half-expected the guy to roll out a red carpet for him all the way to Blaise’s door. But opening the door and keeping his mouth shut about a passenger with a live turkey in his arms had to suffice. Yen headed towards the back of the house, not really keen on waiting on the porch with the bird, scoring curious looks from potential passersby.
He was maybe a dozen feet away from the back porch when all of a sudden the bird jabbed him in his arm with its beak.
“Fuck!” Yen let it go in surprise. The bird landed on its feet and started running away.
“Fuck no! Come back! You feathery jerk!” Yen ran after the bird, and to his great surprise found himself running up the steps onto the porch and through the open door into the hall of Blaise’s home. Why was the door open? The bird ran on, heading into the priest’s living room, and Yen followed it, too bewildered to stop.
After Yen’s taxi had driven off, and Penny made himself scarce at an exceptional pace for an old man, Luke headed back to the tenement. It was late afternoon, slowly turning into evening, and the streets were growing busier by the minute as the rush hour set in. And the more people there were, the more faces Luke thought he recognised. It was just in his head, of course, but at the same time it wasn’t. Yen was right, most, if not all, of the old men he’d traded with had been Penny. And all those women and girls he’d encountered, old, middle-aged and very young looked very much like Alena, Anezka and Amalka. He thought he could even recall a few times when he ran into Neha in disguise. There had been so many other people, they couldn’t have all been them… or could they? No, they couldn’t, but were they involved in this? All of them? Most of them? He felt like such a fool.
All this time Yen had been right, and he never believed him.
Why were they doing it to him? Luke couldn’t understand. Why this deception? Why make him run around town, worry and work so very hard solving problems that didn’t exist? Weren’t there enough real problems in the world that they could have put him to instead?
Yen had said El was a fraud, but even though he was right about El fooling him, Luke still believed in what he had seen and felt — the snakes made out of smoke, the lifting of his curse, the defeat of Wilma and Betty at the hands of Neha. Those things had really happened. And El was no ordinary man. But why did they play pretend with him for so long?
Luke decided he needed to give El a chance to explain himself. And when he saw El outside the tenement, sitting next to the pile, smoking and wearing his large hat devoid of the colorful bird, Luke knew that rest and food could wait. He needed to know the truth.
“El, I need to speak to you.”
“Oh?” The small man breathed out some smoke and turned towards him.
“Please, don’t think that I am not grateful for what you gave me. I am. But I have just now been shown that all I do for you is fake, and I do not know what to make of it. I have seen you do magic, I have lived with my own star curse, I know these things are true.” Luke’s shoulders slumped with exhaustion. “But I’ve also seen people pretending to be someone else, and I don’t understand why…”
El put a finger to his lips. “Shush. I’ll explain everything. And by everything, I mean everything, though I do know that you’re primarily interested in why Penny is sporting a beard sometimes, and we’ll get to that too. Looks like the time for it has come.” El got up from the cheap plastic chair and grabbed the bundle that lay behind him, throwing it over his arm. He turned to Luke, with a serious expression. “There is only one thing I ask of you, and it is to keep what you hear to yourself. Some of the things I’ll tell you are my trade secrets of sorts, and I do not wish the competition to find out. Is that fine by you?”
El grinned. “Splendid. Then come with me.”
He went into the tenement, smoke dragging behind him, and Luke followed him inside.
El stopped next to the mound of rubble in the collapsed staircase and looked at it and then at Luke again, a spark of excitement in his eyes. “It’s time to take you upstairs.”
“Upstairs?” Luke looked at him questioningly. “You want to sit up there like we did before?”
“No,” El smiled. “I mean the other upstairs. You weren’t quite ready to go there before, but I think you might be now. Technically, we should be going downstairs, as Penny keeps pointing out, or all the way up, but this will be the nicest the first time around. Definitely my favourite set-up for storytelling. And it’s much warmer there too, you should like it. Well, come, come, time’s a wastin’.” The small man beckoned with his still smoking cigar, as he began to casually scale the slope of rubble where the staircase used to be.
Luke hesitated, but in the end decided to follow. He had climbed up there once already.
(Soundtrack: music + sounds – playing at the same time but set the second to quieter)
As he stepped onto the rubble, a broken face of a serpent looked up at him from among the stones. The eyes of the crumbled glyphs followed him. He’d felt this way when coming up here before, but this time it was different. Now the strange feeling could no longer be ignored. Beneath his feet the pieces of debris reshaped, broken stones mended, forming into steps. The steps’ high rises were covered in mysterious signs, and as Luke’s eyes ran alongside them, they proved to be too wide to be contained within a staircase of a tenement building.
They were no longer inside the tenement at all.
He could still see the pile of rubble far beneath, but they were high above it now. These were stairs on the side of a pyramid beneath an open sky, and each of his steps up the pile of rubble was a step up the pyramid surrounded on all sides by a dense jungle.
Luke froze. A part of him rebelled against this ascent, this was how he always got himself in trouble — by going places he wasn’t supposed to be. But this time he wasn’t trespassing. He had been invited. El was walking right before him, and as if sensing his hesitation, he turned back to Luke, his voice so casual that it was soothing.
“There is no need to be afraid. It is just a vision of the past,” the small man said and waved around with his cigar. “Nothing here can harm you, and you’ll be safely in your bed in a few hours. But for now, enjoy the view. And the temperature.” He smiled, and spread his arms.” Welcome to the Maya history. My history. My fairytale. My America, as it is, and as it used to be.“
Reassured, Luke followed. And with each step up, the sky changed as days — or was it years — went by, and the higher they went, the more land was reclaimed from the clutches of the jungle, scattered stones grew back into the foundations of simple households with walls of wood and reed and thatched roofs. Luke could see that they were inhabited by dark-skinned families. The sun rose and fell on the horizon washing the pyramid in its light until the steps were sunset red. To Luke’s relief it was paint on them and not fresh blood.
When they reached the platform at the top, dusk settled around them, and the people in the city below began trickling back into their houses. The city was falling asleep, and the jungle kept a respectful distance around its edges.
Luke stared all around, bewildered. The warm breeze ran through his hair, bringing with it the scent of unfamiliar vegetation. The sound of cicadas filled the warm evening air. El put the cigar in his mouth, pulled a blanket out of his biggest bundle, shook it out and laid it out for them on the cold stone on the edge of the platform, then dropped down on it.
“Come, sit with me.” El said, not taking the cigar out of his mouth. He patted the blanket invitingly, and began rummaging through his shoulder bags and his bundle.
Luke had come here with questions, but now he felt overwhelmed, and El was acting like it was just another evening at the tenement. The small man smiled up at him and reinforced that feeling even further.
“Fresh air always works up one’s appetite, so I brought some sandwiches. If you get hungry, just grab one. Amalka would be happy to know they didn’t go to waste.” El finished pulling out the neatly wrapped packets and started lining them up. “These ones are with cheese and tomatoes, these ones with salad and salami, and these with egg paste. And here’s water,” he handed Luke a bottle. “It’s quite warm in these parts. Better to stay hydrated.”
All this could have — probably should have — been frightening, but instead El was making it feel like a picnic, and it reminded Luke of the first time the small man approached him in a fetid back alley beside a seafood store. That day marked a notable turn for the better in Luke’s life. He couldn’t help but smile and take his place beside El.
His host took the cigar out from between his lips, breathed out some more smoke and gave the blanket a satisfied look. “Alright, good, snacks ready…” He looked up at Luke. “…the audience is here, wonderful. Looks like we’re all set. I know it’s a bit much for you, but honestly, I’m pretty sure it’s not the weirdest thing you’ve seen or will yet see. And I find this setup perfect for the things we’ll talk about. It just gets the message right across. So. Ready for a story?”
“Great! Now, where to start… Perhaps with a… re-introduction. As you’ve already found out, not everything is what it seems. And I’m not just a funny man in a hat. Of course I am that too, to some extent,“ El laughed. Then his gaze and features sharpened. “But I am also a god — one of many gods of the Maya. And once I used to be a ruler among gods as well, but it doesn’t matter, because these days we all struggle the same.”
Luke tilted his head, studying El. It was hard to believe the small man, despite the air of authority and supernatural powers was himself a god. Still, it would have made a fairly odd lie to tell, so Luke asked only “If you are a god, is ‘El’ really your name?”
“It is and it isn’t. My name is written right here,” El lifted the edge of the blanket and pointed out one of the glyphs carved in the stone — “but I will go by god L, until it can be read again, and that won’t be for a while. This is the letter humans have given me in the meantime, and who am I to turn down this gift? Mortals have to rediscover us at their own pace, and there is only so much that we can do to speed things along. We steer them, we point explorers into the right places, hoping they will come with excavation tools and notebooks and not with dynamite, hoping that after looting the tombs of our worshippers, they will display our artifacts in museums, and not sell them off to private collectors. We send our servants — if we still have any — to whisper into the ears of writers and artists, to watch over them as they commit our fates to paper, hoping that they will do so correctly. Some gods try to have the stories of their worship remembered accurately, while others attempt to show themselves in the best light. Either way, we try to discourage speculation. Speculation can change us in such ways that falling into obscurity would be preferable. We try to be rediscovered, to have our names spoken, read and written again, but it’s a slow process, and in the meantime, gods usually make do with what they have. If we cannot be worshipped, then at least we strive to be remembered, because even this much can let us survive.”
Luke couldn’t believe his ears, but if that were true… “That sounds dire.”
“It is. Many live on such memories or scraps of faith, and that would be us, the Maya gods, as well. But I decided not to let that happen. I am a god of merchants, among other things, and I believe myself to be quite the entrepreneur.” El laughed and took a drag on his cigar. “You see, what I do for a living, is I find faith in the most unexpected places. I gather it, sometimes process it, and then I export it back home to those of my friends and enemies who need it. Typically I still end up with enough to make deals with third parties. The actual money I get from this, I transfer back to Yucatan to help my people. They’ve been enslaved, oppressed and made to forget their own written language, but luckily for us, the Maya are still around, and even though the worship of the one you may still think of as your God was forced upon them, they remember us. And we remember them. Which is more than most gods can say about those who brought them to life.” El sighed, looking into the distance. Then his eyes turned back to Luke. “Anyway, I digress, but I’m explaining it, because this whole process is partially the reason you are here. I know you might feel cheated, and you want to know how you fit into all this, and we will get there. Let me explain myself to you, and I think by the end, you shouldn’t hate me for my little ruse. All of us are your friends just like you thought we were, nothing has changed, and I haven’t kept anything from you out of malice. Rather, I did so because it had benefits, harmless to you and making a lot of difference to us. Like I said, I help my people, and you and the others are my people just like the Maya are.”
Luke was frowning. He could believe that El meant no harm to him, but another part of what he said was bothering Luke quite a lot. “You said people brought gods to life? I don’t understand…”
“Exactly right,” El slapped his thigh. “You’re catching on — men created gods, not the other way around. Humans created all of us: big gods from religious tomes and small gods found in folklore, that you wouldn’t think of as gods but rather as their minions, demons, angels, and beasts. And we too, think of them that way, but in reality the line is blurred, if anything, smaller gods are more sustainable these days. But back to humans! How did they create us? With the sheer power of thought it would seem.” As he spoke, El drew a sort of diagram with the smoke from his cigar, presenting figures of gods great and small sprouting from the minds of men. “Why were human thoughts so powerful? We just don’t know. Or well, some of us do these days, but again, first things first. Most of us gods experienced our golden age when people in our corner of the world and nook of history worshipped us. At the peak of our power we did not worry or even think about the future. We bestowed miracles left and right. We blessed our worshippers, animals, rivers, forests, and mountain ranges. We cursed our foes and their lands, we shifted our shapes, we travelled far in a blink of an eye, we took consorts, we fought the heroes blessed by our enemies, and we fought each other, oh, we fought a lot. And each time we did any of it, we expended a part of ourselves. But back in those days, belief kept coming. Demonstrating our power was why people worshipped us, feared us, why we were so great in their eyes, it was how we could grow. It was not only intoxicating, it seemed essential. Every god that is remembered by history and many that aren’t did it. Some of the latter were lost for this reason exactly. They bled themselves dry with miracles and blessings.”
The Maya god winced with a dose of sadness. “Poorly timed miracles and blessings, that is. You see, Luke, some gods are better than others at this faith management business. Your god performed an exceptional number of miracles, both directly and through his favourites. He put his power into a great many people. Samson, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, prophets and dream readers, are just some you can quote from your holy book. He influenced outcomes of small squabbles and great battles alike. But he didn’t weaken himself through it, if anything, he grew stronger. Your god managed things way better than most of us, he made his religion a missionary one, and he had spread it way further than any of us could even imagine. He did that with fire and sword for the most part, but we were much the same, forcing our worship upon the neighbouring lands. The difference was the scale. Scale is often the key. He went big, we stayed home. Eventually, our homelands were invaded, our believers and our powers squashed, and we went nearly extinct. It happened to gods in all parts of the world, and it was not always Christianity that took over. But that doesn’t matter right now. What does, is that when the faith stopped flowing, we finally understood how thin we had spread ourselves. The truth I trust you not to tell anyone, is that while we can still go back to sit in the holy groves we blessed centuries ago and feel the power from the early days, and we can drink from holy lakes and taste it, that’s all it is anymore, just a taste, a memory, a faint glow of our former glory. Once we had given the power away, it’s gone, and we cannot take it back. And once the last of it is gone, if no new worship flows our way, we will fade away until we’re gone too.”
El made a circular gesture with his cigar, leaving a round shape of smoke. He pointed at it. “There is a reincarnation cycle of sorts in place, but we, gods, are not a part of it. Our chosen ones from the past are, however. We didn’t know we were putting them in it, anchoring them at our own expense. I know people who still reincarnate even though their gods are dead and gone. With no one out there to remind them, usually those people don’t even know they are not mortals. It’s kind of funny that way. I know of gods who tried to kill those they once blessed to get their power back. Desperate times, desperate measures. But it never worked. It’s better to treasure them. The same way we anchored them, they anchor us. Which makes them a better investment than holy places or artifacts. If we can make these people still believe in us, they can keep us going even better than mortals can.”
El grew ponderous for a while.
Luke broke the silence. “El, am I such a person? I am reborn into the lives of others. But with such horrible consequences… Why would my god do this?”
“No…” El shook his head, “No, you aren’t. I’ll get there, I’ll try at least.” He lifted a finger, remembering something. “Oh, but before we go there, there’s another matter. Humans created us with their thoughts… but where did the humans come from, and why exactly are their minds so powerful that they could give existence to beings like us? Were there Adam and Eve? Did the gods make humans from maize dough or from differently colored earth, or perhaps humans sprung to life when their god shed a tear? In many myths, gods give life to humankind, or at least are involved in the process to some extent, and we loved and lived this belief, because through it, our creators handed us power over them. The truth is different, as I already said. There were no gods before humanity. Though many humans and gods still refuse to believe it even today, humans really did evolve, just like the scientists say. The power to create life came from space when meteors crashed down onto the early Earth, kickstarting processes that led to the production of biomolecules and as a result, the first cells. Life evolved, then crawled out from the seas. And yet the scientists are not quite right, because despite all that being true, the world was indeed created, and not how they think it was.”
Luke stared into the distant jungle, feeling overwhelmed by these revelations. He came here to ask El why Penny and the others were wearing disguises and having him solve imaginary problems, and suddenly they were on these epic topics that seemed not just beyond his, but beyond most people’s comprehension.
El laughed, as if reading his thoughts. “I told you, scale is the key. We’re doing the big scale now, and we’re going bigger still. I know it feels like knowledge you did not bargain for, but trust me, knowledge is not the root of all evil. It will provide the answers, maybe even… stir some memories.”
Luke felt a pang of unease, but before he could question him, El swiftly continued.
“Now, many cultures have a creation myth, a primordial god roaming the sea of chaos, and while it is a different myth each time, they were all clearly onto something. How do I know? Let’s say I have seen proof. So did others, but many still don’t quite know what to make of it. But let’s press on, like I said, beings like us lose our power. Belief grows scarce, and we have to find ways to get by. Luckily we have found that belief leaves traces in the world. Grooves and pathways that can be walked over and over again. They are patterns embedded in reality, a code, one could say… Perhaps it would be easier to explain if you were a scientist, well nevermind… Let’s call them, references, yes, references, cultural, religious, and so on. We had known for a long time that if you reference a myth related to a time in the past, you can still draw from its power, because the same way human minds created us, they spent a lot of time thinking about and retelling these stories, passing them down through generations. Thanks to that, you could still, let’s say, reenact the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and draw upon its power, which is done every year as you surely know. It is so with all other myths that have not yet been forgotten, regardless of whether or not they were ever based on facts. Gods who struggle to survive, use this, recreating their own myths or asking others to recreate them. That had been known to work for centuries. But what about gods who have no myths to recreate? Or whose myths are not enough for them to survive?”
It sounded grim, but El smiled. “Have you ever heard of fairytales, Luke? Of folk stories? They do involve gods sometimes, but rather rarely so and through that, they are more universal. Regardless of the language they were told in, some storylines had been repeated enough times to leave a trace. And not just a trace. More like a deep trench. The more a motif recurred throughout the world in tales of the locals, the richer is the vein through which now flows the power of belief. These elements that people retold over and over again for thousands of years now hold power, and as it turns out, they hold way more of it than myths do, because they came from the lips and minds of people everywhere, and not just from one given area. No matter the language, religion, or place in the world, there always was a tale told of someone leaving home to seek fortune or a cure, of a lost child making its way back to its family, of siblings subjected to trials and making unlikely friends. Tales of a hero helping the poor, of a brave man standing up to a threat, outsmarting and defeating the villain, tale of mother and child reunited, stories of misfortune and injustice reforged into happiness, of treasures waiting to be found, of choices to be made and riches to be justly shared. Of thieves and crossroads and talking animals. And many others.” El grinned and spread his arms. “So many others. Power contained within a myth is constrained. It can serve only the gods it is related to or those from a particular region. But the power in the repeating motifs within fairytales is… very flexible. These recurrent elements, these tropes, can be isolated from fairytales and arranged into new storylines that can fit anyone’s needs. Knowing what those elements are, one can pick and choose to craft a tale that is just right for the occasion, set the characters involved in it, define the plot, the conflict, the whole narrative. And if done correctly, the power begins to flow from these deposits left by humankind to the ones who need it, and in the exact way they need it to. But one has to know how to stitch it all together. The elements that work, the order they come in. And I know that.” He praised himself, then frowned a little. “Well not all of it yet, but my understanding of it grows the more I experiment. Credit where it is due, I owe a lot to a wise Russian man, who unknowingly cracked this code earlier this century. Russians are rather good at cracking codes in general, I might tell you about them and the Maya glyphs sometime. Anyway, the man did not crack it fully, and he did so only for his area of interest, the Slavic countries. But that was enough for me. His formulas for fairytale making jump-started my own research.”
El took out a stack of notebooks from the bundle behind him and flipped one after another open, showing Luke pages filled with charts and almost mathematical equations.
“For years, I have been building on top of what he discovered. Ever since I found his writings, little by little, I continued the author’s work, but on a global scale. I started by finding common tropes with tales told in my lands. Then I studied other parts of the world and their tales. I mimicked his way of thinking to decompose their structures. It’s been over fifty years now, but I am still testing the boundaries of what works and what doesn’t. It is a constant work in progress, and it always will be. But by now I’m confident enough to mix things up, to combine them in new ways, and I almost always succeed in building a functional fairytale. I can even graft myths on top of them to make them stronger. There are some magic numbers that help as well. Three, four and seven are the best numbers for fairytales. The magic number in Slavic fairytales is three. And it’s so good that it never hurts to use it. So I do it a lot. Amalka, Anezka and Alena are fitting into that perfectly as well.”
Luke stared at the notebooks and El in turns. Of all the possible explanations for his activities, he could not have imagined formalized fairytale re-enactment to be the one. He didn’t know what to make of it.
El continued grinning as he stated with pride, “So this, aside from a thousand other things, is a little something I do. I make custom made fairytales for gods big and small. I help them stay afloat. Such tailor-made fairytales don’t provide too much power, but they are often enough to last for months or even years, and they can be repeated over and over, at least for now. Which of course is good for business. I still have a myth department in New Coalport that used to be very popular before. But the competition is fierce in that market, because everyone knows how to recreate a myth.”
“Why are you in New Coalport in the first place? Why not closer to your people?”
“New Coalport presents unique business opportunities. There is someone in town whose faith is more powerful and dangerous than anyone else’s. Unfortunately for us, gods, he’s presently an atheist, which is a cherry on top of his usual hazard level. Many gods flee, when he approaches. But I am a merchant god — I follow him around. His presence, however dangerous, makes my fairytales more real. High risk, high reward.”
Luke took a long time to process it. He wasn’t sure he quite understood everything El was telling him. “So you make me and others put on a sort of performance, based on fairytales that gives you or other… gods power?”
“Close, but not exactly.” El corrected him with a look of fondness. “You are working in my fairytale department. Your role is that of the protagonist, and despite some minor obstacles we’ve faced, you are the very best one I’ve ever had. You’re genuine, convincing, invested. Truly the star of the show,” he praised Luke with a smile, then lifted a finger in the air. “Though having said that, I’d like to also emphasize that I never attempted to tap into your power to make my enterprise more of a success. I’m not irresponsible. And while some perceived me as evil back in the day, I’m not evil either. I’m a merchant god, and as such, it is in my nature to seek the best deals and ways to profit. But I don’t keep or waste my earnings. Rather than that, I invest them in the future. As you must know by now, I own other places throughout this city, where I offer shelter to those who need it. I help people and in return, they help me. Some become actors in my fairytales. Many of them also didn’t know about it for a while, because the more genuine the protagonist is, the more successful the fairytale. It’s actually best if all the other parties involved stay unaware, so each time I like to keep everything a secret from as many as I can for as long as possible. Of course, I learned already that I cannot keep it from everyone and still expect it all to come together, so these days I have my people moderate the narrative a lot. Some of the safe havens I run, like your tenement, are related solely to fairytales, everyone there is involved now, but long ago the people you live with or meet, were in your situation. They also lived on the streets, in a way, and after I took them in, and just like you, they were not quite sure what I wanted from them, and why they were doing the things I had them do. I tricked all of them a little bit, in harmless ways that we sometimes look back on and laugh about. They all play along with my plans, so if you must blame someone, blame me. But I hope you will forgive me like they did.” El looked at him hopefully.
“I do forgive you, El. But please, don’t lie to me again. Unless you have to.” Luke decided not to ask to be told the truth, lest he learn more mysteries than his poor head could hold. Not being habitually lied to had to suffice. He smiled to El cautiously.
El smiled back and nodded. “Absolutely. Like I said, I needed you to act natural, and that’s really the only reason we didn’t tell you what you were getting into from the very start. Well, that and the me being a god angle. I don’t think you were quite ready to hear that back then. But now you are, and there is no more need to lie.”
Luke smiled, reassured.
El grinned again. “Now, back to the fairytale business for a moment, to make something clear. While I didn’t mind sharing the science behind those in broad strokes, I would like you not to repeat it to anyone else. These here,” El spread the stack of notebooks like a fan, “are my trade secrets, and a livelihood of many. Please do not reveal them or who I initially got the idea from. It is the only thing I ask of you.”
Luke nodded. “Of course.”
“Good.” El looked satisfied. “Everything else is up to you to decide. Now that you’ve found out, you are free to re-evaluate your options. I would love to keep you for longer, and have you work for me this way, this time fully aware of what it is you are doing. The pay, of any sort you want, can be negotiated, and not just for future work, but also for the time you already spent here working for me more than you knew. By the way, I’d like to add that I made absolutely sure that your lack of knowledge about your role in the play would hurt no one. In fact, you still helped many. And not just my customers. Like any employer, I create workplaces, thousands of them across America. I take many off the streets. I shelter humans, gods and smaller gods alike, and they work for me, just the way you did. The success of our enterprise guarantees that more can find work and safe haven with us.”
“I… will need some time to take it all in.”
El nodded. “Sure, take your time. While I do hope you will let me hire you, the choice is yours. Like I said, nothing has changed on my part, or on anyone else’s. They all knew all along, and some of them wanted to tell you, but I forbade them, as always in the case of someone new joining us. They like you a whole lot, though, and genuinely so, rest assured, so they will be relieved to know that you’re finally in on all this. Now you’ll be able to talk to them about everything and go to some new places you haven’t gone before.”
Luke tried to order his thoughts and make sense of all this new information. “So the others are all actors, like Yen said?”
“Yes. But while it’s staged, it’s not ‘fake’, like your fellow courier thinks. It’s all as real and as magical as it seems. Like I mentioned, gods are playing roles for me as well. Your friend would probably not have an easy time coming to terms with this explanation.”
Luke nodded. “What about the villainous Russian man?”
El laughed. “Oh, he’s just a mortal. Not a Russian either. He’s just very good at doing accents. Arthur is an actual theater actor, and it’s a pleasure working with him, on my side at least.”
“And others? I know about Xenia, but Alena, Anezka and Amalka, Neha and… and Penny…”
“You can ask them. They might tell you.”
Luke frowned. “Why did you have Yen work with me?”
“You see, Luke, in fairytales the hero has to make the wrong choices sometimes, fail to heed a warning, disobey his elders, take risks, turn something down twice, just so that the third time when he finally accepts, makes it matter so much more. You were too obedient — normally a virtue, but not always what I needed here — and because of that, you were not as adept at catching onto some of the… let’s call them plot hooks. Yen, well, he turned out to be what was missing to get things moving along. I made a deal with his employer to get him on board specifically because of how unruly he was.”
Luke stared into the distance for a while. Having to work with Yen made so much more sense now. Yen was always misbehaving, breaking rules and ignoring his duties. The perfect protagonist for a cautionary tale. Luke himself had learned his lesson too well. He hoped Yen would never have to pay for his mischief like he did.
“So all this, every stranger in need, every bizarre coincidence, even this turkey chase… it was all a fairytale of your design?”
“Yes and no.” El smiled. “This particular Thanksgiving tale was not my doing. It was constructed as a gift for me by a man I once blessed and chose to always treasure.”
⚞ ¥ ⚟
The turkey dashed behind an armchair, and before Yen could catch up with it, a man rose and walked out from behind the same armchair. He had dark skin, a hooked nose and was wearing a dark gray suit.
Yen froze in his tracks. The man stretched and began dusting and tidying up his suit jacket and slacks. He smiled. Yen pointed a finger at him, opened his mouth, closed his mouth, then opened it again. He shook his finger at the man, struggling with vocalizing or even formulating his thoughts.
“Good afternoon, Mr. deputy mayor. I trust you had a good morning jog?”
The priest’s voice reached them as Blaise stepped into the room and nodded his head in a welcome.
“Good day to you too, Father Ivers. And yes, it was positively invigorating.” The man in the suit grinned, showing off his pearly white teeth. Yen’s struggle with words intensified — he had seen the guy on TV before, this really was the vice mayor. What is more, this was the same guy that had been eating ice cream on that terrace by the barbecue place when they’d lost track of the turkey, though he’d failed to recognise him there. The biker’s expression of wordless outrage contorted into more and more extreme forms.
“I am truly glad to hear that,” Blaise crooned. “Would you like a cup of tea? Water? Anything that a humble man of the cloth such as myself can offer?”
“Thank you for your hospitality, but I am afraid I must be going. Perhaps another time.” The deputy mayor looked at his expensive watch and headed for the doorway leading to the hall.
As he passed Yen, the biker gaped at him and then scrambled to the armchair. He looked behind it. There was no turkey. He lifted it. There was no turkey under it either. He turned to see if the suit was perhaps concealing a turkey, but the vice mayor was too spindly and his clothes too well-tailored to hide a large bird. Yen directed his outraged expression at the priest who was just coming back into the living room, having seen the deputy mayor out.
Blaise ignored his expression of outrage and instead patted him on the shoulder. “Good job, Yen.”
“What the fuck did you just do?! Do you have another trapdoor here? How long was the fucking vice mayor sitting behind your freaking armchair?!” Yen waved his arms. “I know what I saw, where is the bird, man?!”
“The birdman is strolling down the pavement, about to reach the corner of the street, if I were to judge by his pace as he was leaving. Though he did seem to be in a bit of a hurry.”
“No, come on! I know you must have it here somewhere! I’m not some Amish moron you can parlor trick into submission, I will find this fucking bird!” Yen dragged the armchair aside and dropped on his knees on the floor, starting to inspect it from very close up. Finding nothing, he tilted the armchair on its side and looked it over.
“Please, spare my furniture, Yen. There is nothing for you to find here. Your eyes are still keen, you know what you saw.”
Yen looked at him, then at the armchair, the floor, the doorway to the hall and finally at Blaise again. He had no explanation for the turkey man. Just like he had no explanation for the weird creaking this house did when McDollarface went to the basement. That was it. The house was… messed up. Yen pointed an accusatory finger at Blaise.
“I don’t know how you did it. But your house is all whack and probably filled with hidden doors or some shit. One day I’ll catch you sneaking out of the wallpaper, and then I will laugh in your face, Daddy, but not today.” Yen crossed his arms on his chest and looked grouchy. “You win this one.”
Blaise shook his head. “I don’t see it that way. If anything, I feel like I’m losing this battle, because the things I say go into one ear of yours and fly right out of the other. You’ve seen a turkey turn into the deputy mayor of New Coalport, but you still insist I hid the turkey. It’s not my fault he chose to do it behind the armchair. Have you considered the possibility that everything I tell you is true?”
Yen shook his head violently.
“Really, boy? One would think you, of all people, could appreciate the irony.” Blaise waved a hand. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose. As long as you do your job. Speaking of which, money first, or perhaps dinner first? Half the parish brought me a home-made meal for Thanksgiving, and I’m afraid someone has to help me eat all of those.”
Yen shrugged, some of the tension dissipating. “Dinner first, then money. I could use a turkey to carve up about now.” He tried to keep glaring at Blaise, but unavoidably a smirk crept onto his face and then began morphing into something dangerously close to a smile.
“There are at least twelve individual turkeys, or at least parts thereof, that you can vent on. Come, let me introduce you.”
Yen burst out laughing. “With pleasure, Daddy. Are any of those twelve the actual mayor?”
Blaise smirked as they entered the kitchen. “No, I’m afraid our real mayor is not poultry, and I do hope you will not be seen chasing him through the streets.”
“Well, if you pay me, I will.”
It was the priest’s turn to laugh. “Now, that’s my boy. We’ll see what the future brings. But for now, eat your fill.”
On top of the pyramid, the night had fallen. The sky around them grew darker and then brightened with stars. In the light of the moon El’s form seemed to become bigger and mightier but also weary with age. He was a tall but hunched old man in a hat that had no bird sitting on it, and winding serpents of smoke were rising into the sky from his cigar.
Luke watched the smoke float up in fluid geometrical pathways that his eyes travelled further up, into the starry skies above them. He had avoided looking into the night sky for so long. The stars were much more visible here than in New Coalport. Gazing up at them caused a deep set feeling of anxiety, only this time Luke was not sure of the reason behind it. He had always thought it was the memory of the falling star, but for a moment here, he wondered if it was something else.
“What do you see, looking up there?” god L asked, letting out more vision serpents into the night.
Luke turned away. “Stars.”
“Just that? Hm, and how do they make you feel?”
“Uneasy.” Luke shifted. “Why do you ask?”
“The cosmos interests me.” The Maya god was also gazing up into the sky now. “Like I said once before, I know a thing or two about the stars. I’ve been up there — after a fashion at least. My domain is the underworld, but I used to enter it not just through the caverns and cenotes but also through the Milky Way, because that was what our people believed us gods could do. They thought some of us resided there sometimes. As a result we ended up halfway here, halfway there. Nowadays, we don’t roam the night skies as much. People went and checked that gods were not in the heavens, and so gods had to move down here. Same for those who lived underground, too. Humans drilled down and checked that there’s no hell, so now hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” El smiled. “But even so, I was close to the stars once and ever since, I’ve been fascinated by what lies beyond. Maybe… you could tell me some day, hm?” The god turned to look at him, and there was boundless childish curiosity in his old eyes.
“I don’t think I’d ever know, or want to know,” Luke blabbered anxiously. How would he know more about the stars? It’s not like he’d ever been up there… Luke refused to even think about it. It was too painful.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to distress you.” El nodded. “You really had more than enough for one day. Well, I’ve talked a lot and could use a nice cup of herbal tea. And you should really eat that sandwich. Though at this point, I think we could just have a proper dinner instead.”
Luke looked down and realized that all the time he had been holding one of the sandwiches in his hands. He nodded. It was time to go back.
As they descended down the stairs of the pyramid, the god by his side became smaller and smaller, until he was the eccentric little man that Luke knew. El winked at him. “Energy saving mode.”
Luke followed him blankly, still clutching onto his untouched sandwich.
The stairs ended, and they stood in the corridor of the tenement. Luke hardly noticed. El’s words and images of gods, heroes and starry skies danced in front of his eyes. He quite forgot about the deception or the beginnings of resentment he had felt towards El for lying to him. He forgot about everything. He hardly noticed Amalka, even as the little girl took him by the hand and led him away. She said something soothingly, and Luke nodded, but it didn’t register. His mind churned, oversaturated with phantasmagorical images and nebulous concepts. His thoughts returned over and over to the image of the starry sky. Something about it was nagging at him. Like he had forgotten something important and someone out there, among those stars was now cross with him.
“Here, Luke,” Amalka said. “Isn’t this nice?”
They had stopped walking. The intense smell of animals and hay hit Luke’s nostrils, but he didn’t react. He let the girl guide his hand and rest it on the side of a goat. Amalka moved Luke’s hand so that he petted the animal, and Luke extended the sandwich towards the goat’s mouth. The goat eagerly began to chew.
“It is nice,” Luke said colorlessly.
There were animals in the repurposed apartment they were in. Amalka said they were sometimes also characters in El’s fairytales and some of them were trained. One of the chickens in particular was very smart. The girl called it, and the bird came running, then fluttered into her arms on command. Luke smiled automatically. Then his smile grew more genuine.
“What is the chicken’s name?”
“Yekaterina. You wanna know why?”
“Because she is great.”
Luke smiled. “If you don’t mind, I would like to know about the other animals too.”
* * *
When Amalka led Luke away, El walked out of the tenement and sat back down in his previous spot, continuing to smoke. A few minutes later a man in a nice suit and coat approached him with a bow. He smiled, and El smiled back at him.
“How did it go?” the man asked a little tensely.
El made a so-so gesture with his hand. “Well, I sure got to say a whole lot, but I don’t think I cleared much up for him. If anything, he’s even more confused now. Honestly, I would be too. All I said is probably just the tip of the iceberg of things left for him to figure out. But we only added a little frosting on top, so I wouldn’t be too concerned about this.”
The man breathed a sigh of relief. “He had seemed hurt when he saw Penny. I apologize deeply, k’uhul ajaw, it was not part of my plan. But I am sure with time you will win him over again.”
El waved his hand again, in a casual, dismissive gesture. “I will or I won’t, it doesn’t really matter. Don’t worry, my Jewel. That was bound to happen with the wayward boy aboard. I’m surprised we got this long out of it. Five solid months of the two of them, and even more of Luke alone before that. I thought it would be a month at best. I do hope that he will choose to stay with us, and that we get to watch how his own story unfolds, but even if he doesn’t, we’ve had a good run. Speaking of which, aren’t you exhausted? All six houses of Xibalba in almost one day! That was one brilliant fairytale-myth, and I couldn’t be more thankful, but you need to catch a break.”
Jewel smiled brightly and bowed his head. “For you I would run for a century. But yes, I could use some rest. Tomorrow is going to be another busy day at the town hall, and my youngest has a big hockey match in the afternoon.”
El tapped the rim of his empty hat invitingly. “Well, then…”
The man bowed to him one last time and walked closer, and as he did, he crouched and grew smaller and more brightly colored, until he turned into an ocellated turkey and fluttered up on top of El’s hat where he froze completely immobile.
“Have a good nap, my Jewel.” El smiled and stroked the bird’s feathers a few times.
Then he continued smoking.
Now, time for some interesting authors’ notes! Because in case you did not know that yet, our book is heavily researched 😀
El, is indeed the God L of the Maya pantheon.
And we designed “our” version of him very close to the source material.
He’s one of the lords of the underworld (Xibalba), and a god of merchants, very fond of cigars and bird hats! Typically the bird he wears on his head is interpreted as an owl, but we shook things up a little, replacing it with an ocellated turkey, native to Yucatan and also important to the Maya.
That is also partially based on the fact the below image that we’ve seen interpreted as an owl is clearly actually an ocellated turkey, just look at the ‘beads’ on its head!
Speaking of turkeys, Jewel Kuutz, the Deputy Mayor of New Coalport is El’s nagual. He refers to El as kʼuhul ajaw — divine lord — respects and loves him deeply and follows him wherever El goes, making sure to facilitate everything for El — and what easier way to do that than hold some actual sway in the city. El jokingly calls him ‘his crown jewel’ earlier, and generally if you ever read the story again, you will see quite a few references to Jewel before. He was also the one who arranged a momentary encounter of the tenement with a wrecking ball — this caused the tenement to become a cavern and thus enable El to travel through it (caverns are entrances to the underworld, so El can go “upstairs” and then emerge in any other cavern of his choice).
The myth Luke and Yen re-enacted in the last two chapters was the Maya tale of the hero twins — in the original, the twins outsmarted the gods of the underworld, in this one they were supposed to fumble the trials so that the power of the god of Xibalba grows. 😉 You might be able to recognize the creative interpretations of the parts of that story, as our “twins” visited the “Houses” of: Dark, Cold, Fire, Jaguars, Razors and Bats here as well!
Now, the part with the fairytales is all true too, the secret Russian author who cracked the fairytale code was called Vladimir Propp, and here are some random excerpts with fairytale patterns equations from his “Morphology of the Folktale” that El built on top of (just to give you an idea what kind analysis and near-mathematical madness that goes on in the notebooks El carries around – by the way, he writes in Maya glyphs so that nobody can steal his business XD);
This chapter might also shed some new light (badum tss XD) on the whole CD adventure! It was after all, a custom made fairytale for a certain heretic…
If you ever re-read Chapter 7 you might notice some more interesting things there. Did you know that “theft of daylight” is one of the fairytale motives? 😀 And that the villain should show up twice, appear in a disguise, be exposed, and only then proceed onto the final “direct combat” or “competition”? In our case, Yen helped Luke out during the direct combat with “evil Russian” who “stole” the CD. 😀 If you’re still unsure of something, and you have questions, hit us up with an ask, we love to talk about the stuff we wrote c;!
Anyway, hope this was a fun look behind the curtains, and we’re looking forward to hearing your thoughts as the story continues :3!