Editor's Note: Parts 1-4 were published on previous Wednesdays. You can find them by scrolling down through the posts or by clicking on "Series" in the navigator.
Forest beasts in gypsy clothes turned to watch Matt in sly amusement. From a hole in the ceiling, the engineers with their antennae and googly eyes leaned down to observe this incomprehensible earthling with increasing puzzlement.
“Joan, come out!” said Matt.
Theodora and Freya looked at him in mild curiosity. Theodora still had the champagne bottle and Freya held a glass in one hand and the baby with the other. Baby Daisy was dribbling spit onto Freya’s blue silk shoulder. Joan, as distinct and Joan-like as ever with her red clothes and her long black hair, said, “Yes, I will come out. I need some air.”
In fact, it was hard to breathe inside because the few people who didn’t smoke cigarettes were smoking marijuana. They crossed the room, swimming through the smoke, and fetched up on the front porch.
“This lemonade sucks,” said Joan, putting her glass down on the porch railing. She looked ill and frightened.
“What’s wrong?” said Matt.
“It’s just this damn fairy tale,” she said. “How does it, like, work?” Matt stared at her dumbly and she went on. “I mean, in the end of the story, when the girl marries the handsome prince and they live happily ever after, what does that consist of? What does she do all day?”
“Have babies?” suggested Matt. “Make brownies for the PTA?”
“In a fairy tale,” said Joan, “do brownies still make you fat?” Then, a propos of nothing, she was talking about her mother. “When I was little, Mama worked picking fruit or beans or whatever she could. She’d bring me along because there was no one to leave me with, but it was also so I could get stuff to eat. I remember one time it was strawberries they were picking and I ate so many I turned red.”
Matt had a vision of strawberries, a whole field of them, not as they would be in reality, tucked among green leaves, but just spilled on the landscape by themselves in a huge profusion of luscious red. Joan’s boots and her clothes were the same color, violently shiningly red. So was the Mustang in the driveway and so were Joan’s lips, which were covered in strawberry-scented gloss that came from a little round Yardley container she kept in her purse.
He said, “You’re still red.”
She said, “Strawberries were the fruits of our labor and now it’s Mustangs.”
Matt blinked. “That makes absolutely no sense,” he said. But he knew what she meant.
She said, “It’s getting dark and I’m scared.”
Matt looked past the porch railing and indeed the dark was lurking out there, gathering itself to pounce. He was frightened, too. “We should go inside,” he said.
“No!” said Joan. “Those gypsies bring the night with them.” It was another nonsensical sentence but on the whole Matt thought she had a point. “Can you put your arms around me?” she said.
“No,” said Matt. Words were becoming difficult. They were swimming around in a tank and it was not always possible to fish out the one you wanted. “You’re on a different bus,” he told her.
“That’s what that guy said in the kitchen,” said Joan. “You know, something about taking a trip. Can’t you come with me?”
“Not much further,” said Matt. “They won’t let me. You’re going with them.”
“Not now!” That had really frightened her. “Don’t leave me alone tonight!” That made him laugh, which offended her. “What’s so funny?” she demanded.
“Champagne,” he answered. That bewildered her, and Matt couldn’t explain that it was the way her voice sparkled and fizzed in his ears like champagne. He said instead, “It’s what you said that night, after we drank champagne in the park. You said not to leave you alone.”
“And you didn’t,” said Joan. “You held me all night long. I remember.” She stepped into his arms. “Hold me now. I’m so scared, Matt.”
He held her. She put her head against his shoulder, the top of her head brushing his cheek. Joan’s hair was newly washed, thick and electric and so black it hurt his eyes. But it felt like silk and it smelled nice, too, and her lips smelled like strawberries. Her shirt was smooth red satin and her skirt smooth red leather, interesting textures that he couldn’t help tasting with his hands, and anyway she didn’t seem to mind when he did but nestled closer, pressing her breasts against his chest.
Joan was red and shiny, sugar and spice and everything nice, sweet as a lollipop, and Matt tilted her head to his and kissed her strawberry lips. It felt incredibly, deliciously good, precisely what was needed, and Joan must have thought so too because she twisted and moaned so he had to kiss her harder, and she got her hands under Matt’s shirt so that he felt her fingernails against the flesh of his back. They backed into a corner so the porch railings would support the necessary acrobatics. They had been frightened children but now they were frantic little animals trying to mate through their clothes. Matt tore at her zippers though they snapped viciously at his fingers.
Then Haakon came.
It was the spectacle of it that brought Matt a little further back toward normal. Haakon burst through the door like a bull, his eyes on fire. They lit on Joan and he made a hungry sound in his throat and took her away from Matt as a big boy takes a toy from a smaller one.
Joan transferred her affections with unflattering eagerness, emitting a girly little gasp as she was gathered up that turned into a moan when Haakon covered her mouth with his. She climbed him like a cat, wrapping her legs around his waist. Haakon bore her down the steps and into the back seat of the red Mustang.
Matt watched as the car began to lurch as if rolling down a dirt road. He was, after all, the audience.
For a moment clear-headed, he felt not so much frustration as amazement. His desire was all gone and anyway, hadn’t it had all started with a vague yearning for strawberries? But whatever had gotten him had bitten Joan and Haakon, too.
Then it struck him that they had also drunk the lemonade. He had the sudden, lucid thought: “I am so, like, tripping.”
And he had to go to St. Mary’s in a couple of hours and be a doctor!
The thought alarmed him and the alarm turned into another attack of the childlike fright he’d felt earlier. It was quite dark now and the night seemed full of a thousand perils. The house was bad, too, but at least there was light there and he lurched inside.
And immediately wished he hadn’t. He’d forgotten all those animal heads and cloven hooves. Slanted eyes leered at him, fangs flashed. He didn’t see the advertising people or the engineers and he was momentarily sure they’d been eaten. A huge vulpine face loomed closer, blotting out all light, and the mouth opened, threatening to engulf him. Later Matt was able to reason it had been Tommy, perhaps about to say something like, “Is nice party,” but for now he screamed and fled.
And found himself, sweat pouring down his face, in a small anteroom. He pulled the door behind him against the hurtful waves of sound and for a few minutes felt safe. There were boxes in the room and some stacked folding chairs. Also, there was Joan’s portrait of Theodora, still on its easel, tucked here out of harm’s way or perhaps so no one would have to look at it. Matt looked at it.
Joan, he thought, was a beautiful girl but she applied paint the way McDonald's workers applied ketchup. The picture was a mess, a landscape of clashing colors and violent movement.
Movement. As Matt gaped in sick fascination, volcanoes exploded, seas crashed into shores, lightning struck. It made him want to vomit but he couldn’t look away. Forests arose and animals were born and grew up to be devoured by bigger animals. Worms ate the leftovers. Floods washed everything away, then deposited the mess somewhere else and it all started over. People swarmed over the panorama like maggots. A girl had a baby, an old man died.
And it was, somehow, Theodora’s face on the canvas, her little black eyes wicked and wise and old as all the earth. Joan painted monsters and Theodora was the mother of them all. Theodora was the stink of the grave, the burn of fire, the color of blood. He remembered for a minute the radiant smile she’d given him as she’d held the baby who was supposed to be dead.
But then a baby cried and Theodora’s face was smirking at Matt, then laughing, laughing from the landscape that was her portrait and laughing from behind the flames of Salem at his impotence. He saw that she was standing on piled corpses, nursing babies at her breasts. “You call yourself a doctor?” she taunted him. She leaned forward from the fire with a shroud and a needle to sew him in.
Matt gasped and jerked away but the portrait was behind him too, the terrible old face with its derision and its naked power. The shroud descended like death and Matt screamed and dropped to the floor, begging for mercy.
“You call yourself a doctor?” said the painting. “You look shit-faced drunk, my lad.”
“Don’t kill me,” Matt said. “I won’t tell. Let me live!”
And it was just an old woman who stood before him, one wearing a purple caftan and shaking her head at his antics. “For Christ’s sake, Matt, hadn’t you better get off the floor?” She wrapped him in her shawl and led him out of the room, holding well away from him the long cigarette holder he had taken in his delirium for a needle.
“Theodora.” He realized he was shivering violently. “I thought you were the portrait.”
She was amused. “Well, it’s not a bad likeness, I suppose. Joan’s a clever artist in a modern sort of way. Though I thought she should have titled the piece ‘Old Woman in Red Wine Puke.’ The colors are rather bilious, don’t you think?” She led him into the kitchen. “Something hot for you, I think. Black coffee? What did you go and get so pissed for? Didn’t you say you’d got to be at St. Mary’s?”
“At eleven.” Matt looked at his watch. He felt almost lucid but the watch was melting like in a Dali painting. He thought it said nine. “Theodora, it wasn’t liquor.” As well as he could, he explained about the punch, the LSD, the subsequent hallucinations.
“Youth!” said Theodora, lighting a cigarette. “You give them free champagne and the little shits put dope in the lemonade. Well, we’ll do what we can.” She made him not coffee but a kind of foul-smelling tea. “I can’t say I’ve ever coped with LMN before but this stuff will fix anything if you can get it down. I use it extensively for hangovers.”
Matt took a sip and sputtered. “Come now, be a man,” she said, and he swallowed it all. “That’s better.” She went to the stove and poured steaming water into two more cups. Then she got a large basin from a cabinet and brought it to the table just in time for Matt to vomit into it in outrageous volume. “That’s all right, you’re supposed to,” she said, patting him kindly on the shoulder. “Now go wash your mouth out and I’ll give you something that tastes nicer.”
Matt obeyed, feeling weak-kneed and drained but otherwise better. When he came back the basin was gone and a fresh cup of tea ready for him, one that as promised was not foul but rather pleasant.
“Drink up your tea,” said Theodora. “Then you can have a nice hot bath and a lie-down, and if that doesn’t get you sorted I expect you can get yourself looked after at the hospital, can’t you?”
“That might not be a great idea,” said Matt. “They’ll can you for showing up with beer on your breath. How happy would they be about LSD? Anyway, I think I’m all right now. Thanks to you.”
“Don’t mention it.” She sat down at the table across from him. “You’re lucid now, aren’t you?”
Matt smiled. “I think so.”
“Do you know,” she said, “you asked me when you were raving to let you live.”
Matt’s smile faded. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I was hallucinating. I looked at the portrait and I saw –” he searched for words – “things.” He’d been going to say, “I saw you as you are,” but decided it sounded ridiculous. Still, he had a sudden conviction it was true anyway.
Theodora watched him with her shrewd black eyes for a moment. “Well, Matt, for the record, I’d never harm a hair on your little head. You should know that.”
“Yeah, I should.” He was embarrassed. “I was just, you know, tripping.” The drug culture word made them both smile.
“That’s better,” said Theodora. She leaned forward and took his hand. “We used to be such friends, Matt. Then, after that day in the park, you turned off cool as if I’d shot your dog , and now this!” Matt made noises of protest but she ignored them, squeezing his hand. “If I did something wrong that day I’m sorry. I expect I was in the way. I still rather fancy myself as a midwife and you had your hands full saving Freya and the baby. What is it?” she said sharply, because Matt had flinched away.
She didn’t let go of his hand but clasped it as if drawing the words out of him, and Matt said, finally, “You know I didn’t save the baby.”
“Hmm.” She did release his hand then, and sat back in her chair.
Matt felt absurd. He hadn’t meant to say it. It was in a way an accusation. But when Theodora spoke she seemed to be talking about something else entirely.
“You seem like a sensitive young person, Matt, and I think you’ll be a good doctor, but I don’t know if any man realizes what it’s like to be a mother.” She waved her cigarette holder at him. “Oh, I know you’re thinking they’re not my children, Freya and Haakon, I mean, not in that sense, and it’s true I didn’t bear them in the traditional way. But by God the delivery was still pretty bad.
“All that death, Matt, you can’t imagine, the camps and the ditches and the towns full of dead people. Bloody war. I couldn’t save them all but I got my two out all right, when children all over that part of the world were being starved or shot or gassed or just left to die in the elements. It’s how I started with them and I went on as I began. Having saved them from the Germans I wasn’t going to let them die of the measles or the mumps, was I?”
She fitted a new cigarette into her holder absentmindedly. “Every mother wants her children to be safe and happy and it helps to have piles of money. Joan’s mother didn’t and look what happened there. But I may have overdone it a bit. I know they’ve got to go out in the world and make their own way and that always entails some degree of suffering. Freya’s always breaking her heart over some lout and I can’t do a thing about it, it’s how she’s made I expect. But when I can spare them pain I can’t seem to help it.”
“Of course not,” said Matt.
Theodora continued: “I expect you think Freya’s feckless, and I’d have to agree the child was born without a feck to her name. Certainly she had no business getting knocked up in the first place. In the early stages I think the baby was just an idea to her, then a medical condition and even an annoying one, something that made her vomit in the morning. But she’s a woman like other women, and after her baby had moved and kicked, after she’d carried it around in front of her for months, certainly when it was threatening to be born any minute, it had become a real little person to her, the most important person in the world in fact. I wouldn’t like to think of her grief had Daisy died.”
“No,” said Matt again. “Of course not. But I didn’t want her to die either. I just couldn’t stop her.”
“Well, fortunately,” said Theodora, “I happen to be one hell of a midwife. So I didn’t let her. Case closed.” She laughed at the expression on Matt’s face. “You’re looking at me like your great-uncle Cotton must have looked at those other midwives in Salem. Luckily there are fewer legal recourses these days to deal with the suspicions that seem to run in your family.”
That made Matt laugh, too. “I wouldn’t want you burned,” he said. “I guess I just thought it was a little scary.”
“Hmph,” said the old lady. “After what I saw in the war, I would think it’s scarier to kill people than to preserve life.”
“But to give it?” said Matt.
“Oh, every mother does that,” she said complacently. She finally got around to lighting her cigarette and she waved it at Matt in conclusion. “Anyway, I’m still the same old girl I always was and there’s no need to give me the hairy eyeball.”
Matt laughed at the slang and in fact felt easier. All right. She was one hell of a midwife, case closed. What other possibility was there?
To be continued....