On a grimy sidewalk outside City of Paris department store, a girl wandered back and forth at dawn on the first day of Spring. Her feet were bare, her skin pale, as if whitewashed. Nervous eyes darted from face to face. Atop her cropped red hair rested a crown of woven apricot shoots. She wore a long white gown of sheer fabric, spotted with blood, and no underthings. The rounded head of a crystal phallus protruded from her fist. The year was 1947, the world now at peace, and the sight of a mysterious girl anointed with blood appeared to frighten the busy people hurrying to work at that early hour.
An honest cabbie lured the disoriented creature into his cab and drove her a few blocks to the nearest police station, where a female jailer bundled her up in a rough wool blanket after examining her and deciding that the blood on the girl’s gown was not her own.
She was soon placed at a table in an interrogation room, before a steaming cup of coffee. A detective sat across from her, smoking a cigarette. In the corner, an alert stenographer, her gray hair twisted into a tight bun, sat at a small desk, waiting to take down the statement under harsh fluorescent light.
“Can you tell me your name?” asked the detective.
The girl removed the crown of woven shoots and set it on the table.
“I am Goddess,” she said.
“You’re English?” asked the detective, noting her accent.
“I speak English.”
The detective looked at the stenographer, who smiled.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“I… I don’t know,” she said. The crystal phallus lay between her and the detective. She reached out to touch it, to run her fingers along the shaft.
“Can you explain the blood on your gown?” asked the detective.
“I am the eucharist,” the girl said, without emotion. “Goddess. All acts of pleasure are my rituals.”
The stenographer giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. The girl rose, glaring at the middle-aged woman. The detective grabbed her arm.
“Sit down, Miss. Do I need to put you in handcuffs?” He eased her back into the chair. The girl rubbed her face, stuck out her tongue, then shook her head a few times and began to gag.
“I’m going to be sick.”
The detective handed her a metal wastebasket from under the table and she threw up into it for half a minute. Her eyes began to clear when she sat back and stared around the room as if seeing it for the first time.
“This is a police station,” said the girl.
“What else can you tell me?” asked the detective as he set the wastebasket in the hallway and closed the door.
“I’m a waitress.” She shivered and pulled the blanket tight across her chest. Why am I wearing this gown? Where is my uniform? She could think a bit now. Make sense of her surroundings. She could remember her name. Maggie. She’d been wearing her white-trimmed yellow uniform at the club the night before. Drinking beer if men paid for it. The band hadn’t started yet. It was early, maybe eight o’clock. An older gentleman sat next to her and offered to buy her a shot of good Irish whiskey if she’d toast the vernal equinox with him. She remembered saying that she heartily approved of such a plan, and with a wink added that she was a pagan at heart. The man’s green eyes seemed to light up. She toasted with him, his graying goatee coming attractively to a point below his chin. There was something alluring about his smile, his perfect teeth. They talked for a few minutes. Then he invited her to a party at his home, looking impatiently at his watch. The guests would be arriving soon.
His eyes continued to sparkle, and suddenly another shot of whiskey appeared in front of her. He raised his fresh glass. She followed. And soon she was seated next to him in her plain wool jacket, in the rear of a plush automobile, a uniformed driver steering them through the hills on hard, rain-slicked streets. Her elegant partner told her that his name was Janus. Then he took a reefer out of his pocket, lit it with a silver lighter, and she smoked with him as they rode. The evening clearly promised to become a bit of an adventure. She didn’t mind. In fact, she relished such things. Drinks with strangers sometimes ended with shared pleasure. Life was short. She’d seen how that was true. Then she disappeared for a time. And now she was here. At a police station. No longer in her waitress uniform. Her head full of chewing gum.
“Is that a dingus?” she asked, pointing at the phallus. “I’ve also heard them called Burmese bulls.”
“You were carrying it when the cabbie brought you in.”
“It’s obscene,” said Maggie. “Beautiful.”
“Are you really a goddess?”
Maggie glanced at him. A goddess? How silly, a slight, freckled girl like herself.
A goddess. And suddenly she remembered a velvet couch in a well-appointed home, and more liquor, and two charming elderly women laughing on opposite sides of her, touching her arms, sucking at reefers as they nodded and leaned close while Maggie helplessly opened up about herself, her years in the prison camp. They held hands as she went on and on about the humid nights, the crawling insects, her own crawling like an insect over the high wall, meeting guerillas to exchange information for medicine and news of the outside world. Manila. The heat. The death. She couldn’t stop talking about what had begun to feel more and more like a fabricated history since her liberation to San Francisco. A made-up life to entertain strangers in bars and these pleasant women with tender fingers.
And she liked the attention, the balding, gray-haired men kneeling at her feet, looking up at her with glazed eyes, smiling, smoking, touching her ankles and calves, the air full of the acrid smell of swamp mist. When she looked around, she noticed that there was no one in the room who couldn’t pass for a grandmother or grandfather. She was the only mark of youth. And she felt at home.
Janus eventually came to stand in front of her. With a smile, he asked her to rise. Her worshipers sighed when he offered her a strange green drink in a stemmed glass.
“What is this beautiful concoction?” she remembered asking, a little wobbly on her feet.
“Absinthe,” he said. “A favorite of you bohemians.”
“Bohemians are old-fashioned. Hepster is the term these days.”
“It’s the way of youth to offer change, my dear,” said the man. “Are you ready to give new life to the old-fashioned?”
Maggie nodded. She’d heard of absinthe, and its hallucinogenic properties. The green liquid she hungrily swallowed tasted of anise and fennel, something darker even, and she immediately felt an uncultured urge to take off her clothes.
The detective interrupted her thoughts, bringing her back to the realm of the police station.
“What makes you think you’re a goddess?” he asked.
She looked at the phallus on the desk, the talisman, and floated back to the house or hall again in her mind, a bit astounded to remember so clearly now how she had climbed onto a raised platform, completely naked, and called forth the elders with beckoning arms. She could see herself from above, from a hummingbird’s eye, as she lay on her back, and her body tingled before the detective at the remembered pleasure of wrinkled hands reaching to paw her smooth flesh as they circled her, removing the wet talisman from her thatched cottage, each in turn, and with darting tongues licked the shaft before pushing it into her again.
“I have no memory of last night,” said Maggie, embarrassed a bit by the lurid fever dream in her head. “Where did the cabbie find me?”
“Union Square. Frolicking about in your blood-stained gown as if high on dope.”
Maggie remembered the ceremonial room more clearly now, the red velvet drapes surrounding her, lit by flickers of light from what appeared to be an oil fire in a metal birdbath. At one point a thin woman with silver hair lifted her to a seated position on the dais and fed her more of the green drink as she stroked her back, the liquid rising in swells as it poured through her lips like moonglow on the sea. One might have expected an eerie score to be playing over the ceremony, as if in a horror movie based on a tale by Poe then rendered into cheap Charlie Chan pulp, but Maggie recalled the room being quiet except for the labored breathing of a couple of the elderly male worshipers. Everyone was naked.
“It’s a bit of a haze,” she said, looking at the stenographer, then the talisman.
“You don’t recollect how that blood came to be on your gown?” asked the detective.
After shaking her head, Maggie remembered some grand poobah-like character coming into the room wearing a long velvet robe and an actual ram’s head as a mask. Two elderly men gently pulled her down and began to bind her hands and feet to the dais with soft sashes, but she didn’t recall being frightened at that point, even remembering a tingle of pleasure at the pull of the bindings. The elixir must have been doing its job, and she recalled feeling quite aroused by the spectacle. Displaying her vaguely bruised wrists, she turned them front to back before the detective.
“I’ll have the police photographer take a picture of those contusions,” said the detective. “You seem to recall being bound. Do you remember what came after?”
Once she was fully splayed on the dais, the high muckety-muck blathered some incantations, undoubtedly in druidical fashion. The lesser mucks muttered in response and backed out of the room, disappearing behind the red velvet curtains. Maggie was sure she was in for a going over at that point, as the perverted priest removed his robe to display his bare body, then climbed onto the narrow dais to kneel between her legs. She recalled thinking that the horned mask must be very heavy, and that it was likely to fall onto her face if he wallowed in her with any sort of vigor.
Maggie remembered now, again with embarrassment at the effect of the dope, the pleasure of his hands moving around on her hips and stomach for a bit. She could see that he was ready for business down below, and he had just risen above her when there came a scream from behind the curtains, and the sound of rushing feet and slamming doors. The high priest returned to his knees, turning his head so quickly that the mask did fall off and thud onto the dais next to Maggie’s ear. She was hardly surprised to see Janus revealed. Then she spotted a young woman in the glow of the flames, fully clothed in a smart jacket and skirt and holding a revolver out in front of her in two hands.
“So, you’ve found another queen, have you?” said the young woman, her long blonde hair shimmering in the firelight.
“It’s lovely to see you, my dear. Have you finally brought the child to me?”
“Never, you pagan rat. Untie her. Now!” she shouted, waving the pistol back and forth.
“I’m really quite enjoying myself,” Maggie said, raising her head to look at her rescuer.
“I told you to untie her!” The young woman focused the gun on his head. “You’ll never see the child. You’ll never know his light. You and your hoary brood.”
“My dear, the child belongs to Nature,” said Janus as he loosened the sashes binding Maggie’s wrists. “Its tender blood will feed the cycle of life.”
Maggie slid from the dais. A child’s blood? The heat of the fire warmed her skin.
“Give her something to wear,” said the girl.
Janus reached to the floor, then handed Maggie the gown. She slipped it over her head, the fabric tickling her dope-addled flesh.
“Her crown?” asked the girl. “Every queen of yours gets to wear a crown once she’s been initiated.” The young woman bared her teeth as she spit her words out. “Queen for a day, then the brush-off.”
“We were just getting to that,” said the man, reaching to the floor to pick up the crown of woven shoots.
“I saw what you were doing. Knocking up another girl for your bloodsucking cult. Give her the crown. She’s earned it.”
“We’ll finish the ritual soon,” he whispered to Maggie, gently placing the circle of shoots upon her head.
“During the war I contracted gonorrhea. It went untreated,” she said. “Bloody nuisance. As a result, I’ve been told I can’t produce children.”
Janus frowned. As he turned back to the young blonde, she shot him through the chest, the bullet just missing Maggie’s head as it exploded out his back in a mist of blood.
Maggie dropped safely to the floor next to the dais as the girl shot him again. Clutching his chest, Janus staggered blindly into the birdbath, tipping it onto the floor, where a flaming flood ignited the long drapes, running up the fabric in a wild release of passion.
Janus lay dead upon a flaming pool, which soon consumed him. Without thinking, Maggie reached back for the talisman as the girl took her arm and pulled her through a thick flap of unignited drapery. They emerged through a door to the night sky, and the girl hurried down a sidewalk. Maggie turned to look back at an old wood-framed church as smoke began to fill the air and people began to shout in the street. They trotted for a few blocks, the rough sidewalk grating Maggie’s bare feet. A firetruck roared past them. The young woman eventually dropped the pistol into a shrubbery.
The two queens walked for a time, hand in hand, but Maggie couldn’t remember when she separated from the girl or how she got to Union Square. An unfocused image of giggling boys in college sweaters helping them into an automobile came to mind.
“Have I done anything wrong?” Maggie asked the detective. “I have no recollection at all of what happened last night. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help to you.”
The detective sighed and put down his pencil.
“At this point we have no proof that you’ve broken any laws, other than public decency standards, though there is the blood on your gown. I’m willing to let the indecency go, since it’s possible you were drugged into commission of whatever sinful or criminal act you fell prey to last night. There have been stories in this precinct, over the years, especially around the equinox, of young women being taken for bizarre religious rituals.”
“You shouldn’t have to worry about that anymore,” said Maggie
The detective looked at the front of her bloody gown. Then at her eyes.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because such ritual is madness, and madness must always end,” she said, brushing at her gown, at the dried blood.
“If you think of anything else, please call,” said the detective, handing Maggie a card with a name and telephone number printed on it.
“May I go, then?”
“Yes. I’ll have my Sargent drive you home.”
Maggie stood and pulled the blanket over her shoulders. She reached for the talisman.
“I believe this is mine,” she said.
As a result of Maggie’s misdirection, the driver of the patrol car pulled up in front of the New Orleans Swing Club.
“I was ordered to take you home,” said the officer, with a pained expression.
“Who will care if you didn’t?” she asked.
“I was ordered to acquire the address for the detective to add to his file on you.”
“Oh, for God’s sake. I live above the Ristorante Bella Rosa on Powell.” Maggie rolled her eyes, nearly upsetting her crown. “Don’t you get tired of being ordered about so much? I’m a goddess. Or a queen, anyway. Show a little respect for my wishes.”
Maggie pushed through the front door of the club as the police cruiser rolled away. Couples drank in the shadows, waiting for the band to take the stage. Approaching the warm light of the bar, Maggie set the talisman onto the polished wood, dropped the blanket onto the dust and peanut shells, then crawled onto the stool next to her friend, Vivian, who turned to study her getup without much emotion.
“Long day?” asked Vivian, staring at the bloody gown, the crown of twigs.
“And there was the night before, as well,” said Maggie. Smiling at Otis, the barman, she asked for a ham sandwich.
“And we’ll have two Lucky Lagers,” said Vivian, looking relaxed and ready for an evening of slick dancing. Maggie liked Vivian best of all the other patrons because she was extremely pretty, had good taste in clothes, didn’t mind dancing with Negroes, approved of jazz, and threw a lot of money around. Maggie wanted to be just like Vivian when she grew up. A real goddess.
The two women licked their lips as the golden lagers arrived.
“Let’s drink to the arrival of spring,” said Vivian, raising her glass.
“If we must,” said Maggie, touching Vivian’s glass with a musical clink. “I’m ready for summer already.”
“Is that your blood?” asked Vivian.
“Good Heavens, no.”
“Is that your dildo?”
Maggie glanced at the talisman as the first swallow of beer cooled her throat.
“It’s mine now,” she said, covering the tip of the crystal phallus with her hand. “I wish I had a pocket to slip it into.” Maggie then looked sideways at Vivian.
They began to giggle.
— Russell Thayer’s work has appeared in The Phoenix, Evening Street Review, Cirque, Close to the Bone, Bristol Noir, Outcast Press, Expat Lit, Hawaii Pacific Review, Punk Noir, Pulp Modern, and Tough. He received his BA in English from the University of Washington, worked for decades at large printing companies, and currently lives in Missoula, Montana. He can be found lurking on Twitter @RussellThayer10