[short story] The Mourning Belles of Mexico

[No article this week, come back next week for the Bowie article. Until then, enjoy this story. -M. F. S.]

There was one time in Mexico where something happened to Susan which she could never quite explain, so she never did, and in fact never talked about it to anybody at all. It was a day she bought a black mirror. This was before phones were the big thing so every human being had a black mirror with them at all times, you see— in fact, this was just after her brush with the Young Man, in the early 90s.

It was a really very funny feeling, knowing that she had come so close to Death. Something about it rattled awake, just slightly, her hubris: it chastened her. While she was naturally still a dragon in a woman’s body, Susan was now wholly aware of the fact of her mortality. Yes, there had been many brushes with it, reminders of it. Lest we forget, after all, there was one fateful morning when she awoke, blindly hungover, to find herself holding a gun she had, up until that point, never owned. But never before had it come so close to her in this way. Entered her, in this way.

And yet, though she knew the Young Man to be Death, she also knew that she could not possibly stay away from him. She had burned with furious love for him from the first and it had destroyed her to leave him again, even if it was true that she was making the choice to do so. So she went to Chicago to say good-bye to someone she knew, and after Chicago she, and her tarot cards, and her silk dresses, and her two boxes of books whittled down with haste in the silent bleak breaths of night all fled to Mexico, where it was hot and crowded and where, unwanted, unloved, anonymous, she might fade into the crowd and become but an atom among atoms.

But it didn’t work. The resort hotel’s margaritas and gourmet cuisine soon gave way to the torrid remembrance that Death was not the Young Man, necessarily: that Death came from within her, and she could not escape herself. In her luxury suite from whence she could view the quivering pool of Mexico City, she cast out the view of the outside and found herself quickly sitting a sort of shiva in the face of her pain of heart.

“Why am I always alone,” she would ask the air from time to time, the sound of her self-pity ringing satisfactorily in her ears enough that it might drive her to tears again, and so she would have the pleasure of crying, briefly, again, in a big vulgar private display which made her feel appropriately wretched. There had, after all, been a death, and a death that she had in a way spurred onward even if it had been the work of the Young Man, and it certainly wasn’t as if she were about do to something. No police work would uncover a thing, she was sure; she herself had barely chastised him. Though how, exactly, does one chastise a murderer, even being what she was to him!

As she discovered her mini-fridge was empty of liquor, requiring that she dress and go out, there murmured a component of her shiva which she’d denied. There was, after all, a profound statement about the sort of person she was in all of this: that she should have ever played into the Young Man’s attraction to her, even for a moment, was a thing so terrible that it seemed the subject of Greek tragedy. And yet—and yet.

And yet, as she dressed, she thought of that first kiss, and how she felt then the tearing of something great, as if in that second she were standing upon a most serious branch of a great and tangling tree, and it, all the same, was cracking with such haste that she had but an instant to leap to one of two remaining options. She thought of the Young Man, oh, the Young Man! In that instant of his kiss when she had tried to pull away and he had fought to keep her in the grasp of his mouth and hands, in that instant of her choice, she had considered one very significant fact of her life, and that was the fact that she was, in a sense, not the only Susan. There were hundreds, thousands, an infinitude of could-be, would-be Susans, after all. All that business about parallel realities and the multiverse, well, Susan didn’t think the secret of existence was that, necessarily—but if it was a real phenomenon, that was all the more reason for her to do what she wanted. What she felt she needed. To do those things which, while depraved or wrong or evil, intuited to her as the most desirable course of action: and to kiss the Young Man, then, in that big house, with the party raging downstairs and all those secrets a veil with which she hid her eyes— that had been the most desirable course of action that night, and, as she adjusted the rose on her gray sun hat and paused by the door to straighten the bunching of her black dress around her hips, she considered that it was still, in retrospect, the best decision she could have made, and the only decision she could now imagine herself making.

Well— that wasn’t true, necessarily. Of course she could imagine many choices, but to kiss him then, and have him for dinner, and then to see him again and again, as much as she could in the time which she knew, increasingly, would be short— it had been the only right choice. Yes, of course, it had been the cruelest and most terrible choice. From behind her sunglasses she felt as if even the chipper gringo porter who bade her good afternoon could see the stamp of her wickedness upon her forehead, and, when that same porter was the one who gallantly caught her when her heel slipped out from under her a few seconds later, she wondered, then, of Cain. What mark had he been given, that men might not do him harm? Was it that same mark which kept him wandering alone through the ocean of the world, forever?

The streets were vibrant outside the hotel. It was what she needed; everybody was colorful but her, yellow t-shirts, blues and pinks, smiling faces, nods, people talking, laughing, touching each other, brushing up against her, and she hated it, the touches of these strangers who seemed to her as automatons, and yet she longed for it, and envied them their joys. She knew it was a cunty thing to think that other people were asleep while one was awake, but she supposed she was a cunt, then. Not like that was news! She had been so glad that the porter had caught her, and she was glad now that people were brushing against her, because, alone in her room, she had begun to feel ghostly. There was, truly, no convincing her that she was not dead already, and indeed she often speculated back on past brushes with mortality and marveled that she had survived. All the drugs she had done, and continued to do! All the strange and random lays who weren’t murderers, and the son she seduced who became one because of her! Her Uncle, her boyfriends, herself! By God, how, exactly, was she still alive?

And: why? Though her self-pity was better left for the privacy of her suite, Susan could feel it beginning to sneak over her now, rising in her throat and over her head where it clutched her skull with cold bone fingers. Yes, ‘why’ was a fair question, she thought— ‘why’ was a fair question to begin with, ‘why’ was a question she had asked again and again since she was a little girl. It didn’t seem right— it seemed so impossibly cruel, that God would create a world, and all the people in it, and let them suffer in all these ways. Let them do such hideous things to one another, let them ever feel alone. God, she was so alone! Why, exactly, did she have to be so alone? Why did she have to be so pretentious, so pathetic?

“Pardoname,” was the word that snapped Susan from her thoughts, and she realized that she had wandered to a certain market which she frequented for liquor, and that now, lost in thought by a lovely begonia vendor, she was blocking the way of people who actually needed to shop. With a faint apology, she slipped out of the way, slid off her sunglasses and squinted in the glare of the light which cut right through her corneas.

It was easy enough getting regular liquor, but she really was in the mood to be fairly cruel to herself. One particular vendor lit up as they made eye contact, and, from behind her bottles and totems, the shriveled abuela sat up and waved.

“My girl,” said the woman in thick English as Susan came to arrange herself before the otherwise unattended counter, “you look pale. Mezcal isn’t exactly the hair of the dog, you know?”

Laughing, Susan looked down at the bottles arrayed on the counter before her, the agave liquor glimmering within its flasks of glass. “I could probably use the whole hound today, darling.”

“Tsk! Is it troubles with a man?”

“Yes and no,” said Susan, bending down to squint at the label of the nearest bottle, then looking past, at the stock of items behind the woman, a fascinating collection of dried rattlesnakes, jars of garbage, tinctures, feathers, the fangs of some sort of animal, little boxes the sizes and shapes of fingers, incense, crystals, all of it strange and fragrant and indicative of the true meaning of the stand, and its cheerful little woman. She had often admired, but never had time or interest enough to ask— but that day, she felt so alone, and it suddenly felt so nice to talk to someone, that she asked in a cajoling way, “Are you a bruja, then, madre?”

Instantly, the little abuela’s keen face became marked with the shrewd look of a conspirator, and Susan thought at first that she had said something woefully inappropriate, and, strangely, found herself enraptured by an inward spell of panic at the thought that this one opportunity to connect to another human could go so poorly. But, instead, the lady inclined her wrinkled chin, her jaw jutting slightly as her hands found her hips. “Americans never believe in magic— you don’t, do you?”

At first, Susan just laughed, but when she realized the woman was waiting for an answer, she found herself feeling strangely guilty as she said, “No, darling, I don’t.”

“Ah,” tsked the woman with a sigh of disgust and a wave of her hand, reaching over to the wall of her stall to draw back the curtain-door, “what a silly thing for a bruja to say. Come here, come on.”

Bemused, glancing all around her, Susan removed her hat and held it to her breast; then, head lowered, she slipped into the stall with the little woman, who she could now confirm to be no taller than four feet, all her height owed to the stool down from which she slipped. This was almost as fascinating as the contents of the stall, but the deeper they went, the more this collection of strange eagles’ claws and ravens’ feathers hypnotized Susan, and stole the show entirely away from their little keeper.

“Americans don’t believe in magic because we don’t have stores like these,” she said, her eyes traversing across the ceiling, where hung the dismembered feet of rabbits. “We have silly crystal shops filled with books about kundalini yoga and ‘light-working’, whatever that’s supposed to be.”

“The stores don’t matter, girlie,” said the woman, physically pushing past Susan to reveal that what the American had once taken for robes or cloaks was really the bunched fabric of another doorway, which surprised her, for she had expected the stall behind the bruja’s to be an unrelated affair—instead, it seemed as though it were only an extension of the entrance tent, full of things that seemed far more important. Vines which breathed alive in pots, the skulls of stags, jarred chicken feet, powders and herbs, poisons, things Susan wanted simply for the sake of wanting, because they were enchanting and bizarre conversation pieces, before she realized that there was no one with whom she might engage in such conversations.

“I do the tarot,” she said, absently, her eyes falling upon a tremendous crucifix of the goriest variety, Christ’s rolling eyes agonizingly fixed towards his dispassionate, invisible Father despite the blood drops slithering over his lashes. “Cards, you know. I’ve always heard people say these things are gateways into the occult.”

“Because they are, mama. You shouldn’t go messing around with that fortune-telling,” chastised the old lady, crossing herself and emphasizing with a wave down the hall of the stall, “unless they’re visions that come upon you from the Lord.”

Of course she wanted to laugh as this woman, a self-proclaimed witch, chastised her for trying to tell her fortune with the cards. “They’re not really for telling the future, though,” explained Susan, while the woman marched on, oblivious to the collection of monkey skulls they passed to the left. “The tarot is a way of organizing your thoughts— sort of,” the woman had paused now and was scrutinizing her face, but seemingly listening, “like therapy you do for yourself. It lets you read your situation. The longer you look at it, the more you don’t think about it— the answer you’re looking for…presents itself to you, I suppose.”

Squinting, the bruja nodded. “I see, I see— like a magic mirror.”

“A magic mirror!”

“Si, si— you see,” she caught Susan’s hand to hurry her pace, and then, suddenly, they were at the end of the surreally long stall, where a series of crocodile skins hanging out to dry gave way to an altar of the Virgin Mary, the Madonna depicted in burnished brass-gold paint and soft teal-blues, her brown palms open as the flame of her heart, which sizzled there upon her great icon, as tall as the bruja, a foot shorter than Susan. Before her sat offerings—marigolds, candies, what looked like part of the woman’s lunch, maybe, a baby’s shoe, many candles. There, the bruja bent her head and crossed herself, genuflected, and tugged on Susan’s hand to say she had ought to do the same. For a handful of seconds she flashed back violently to the tedious experience of Mass, but she managed, somehow, to focus herself, mostly by adjusting her gaze someplace above the altar, slightly to the left, where there rested a very simple and beautiful oil painting of the moon, pregnant there among the silken sky of stars, while its reflection danced shimmering in the waters below, cradled in the cup of mountains rising jagged in the background.

“She is the mother of all things,” said the bruja, indicating the altar. “Holy Mary, Mother of God. Did you ever think about that, mija? You Catholic?”

“I used to try to be,” she said, drawing her gaze away from the oil face of the glowing moon, directing it back, instead, to the altar. “I asked my— father that, once. About that line in the prayer— Christ is the Lord made flesh, of course, and so she is the mother of God.”

But the little old woman shook her head, turning away to dip her fingertips into a silver-white powder in a wooden tray to her right. This, she used to cross her forehead, then Susan’s, smiling a little as the redheaded American laughed. “We must never ask our fathers about our mothers, mija, because they only ever see the worst of themselves cast upon their faces. Look at her, do you see? Mother of God, and your mother, too, and mine.”

And she did, then, look into Mary’s eyes, but Susan had to admit to herself at the time that she couldn’t feel anything at all. She felt so apart from God, or anything resembling the experience of God, that she could see only a painting, and could only hear the surface of what the bruja said when she called Mary ‘the Mother of God’.

“So,” began Susan after a cautious few seconds of meditation, “you say I’m a witch, too.”

“Every woman! And every man, too, but they think they know better, and when they don’t know better, all of the sudden they know too much. It’s the power of God, mija, that makes for magic. It’s these monkeys, us, that make it something— gross, say.”

“I thought God didn’t care for magic— witch-burnings and all.”

“That’s black magic. Bad magic, used for ugly things— the heart knows the difference between good magic and bad magic, mija. God will tell you, will keep you safe from the Devil. And teach you how to work with him,” added the little woman in a sly way.

Of course, Susan felt as if the Devil were already coursing through her veins, but that didn’t seem a wise thing to say to a religious woman, even if she identified as a witch. But the pulse of evil hovered around her like a cloak, now; she had facilitated murder and yet felt no guilt, and felt only the slightest twinge of guilt for her lack of guilt— because, she felt if she did not feel the modicum of guilt that was her due, the universe would seek to repay her viciously. That, she supposed, was her version of God— a kind of haphazard, half-assed karma which operated solely to keep her oppressed.

“I don’t know if I can believe in this magic business, darling—the devil and all.”

“If you can’t believe, then you can’t achieve.” The old woman cackled at her off the cuff bilingual poetry while Susan rolled her eyes and then received a shove in the shoulder for her lack of appreciation. “Why’s it so hard for you to believe, huh? What happened to you?”

“I think you need a doctorate before I can talk to you about that, and you’ll want to charge me by the hour, then, anyway.”
“I don’t need your life story— I just mean you need to ask yourself, talk to yourself about why you’re letting yourself get buried in all these things. All this that happened— all that out there.” The old woman mimed picking something up and throwing it away, far away, over Susan’s shoulder. “That’s gone now, mija, and what’s left? Once upon a time, I was in an earthquake. My little boy,” she waved down at the baby’s shoe and shook her head. “We were both crushed, but I managed to get myself out. Piece by piece, I pushed the rubble off of me, squeezed out from the concrete and wood. And I discovered, when all of it was gone, that, by the grace of God, I had lost my son, and my house had fallen to ruins and crushed me, but I was whole. You know what I had wrong with me, mija?” The woman pulled back her gray curls and pointed to her forehead, where the ghost of a gash had been paled by time. “A cut on my head. That’s it.”

With a small smile that was intended to be teasing, she dared to say, “Perhaps you hit your head a little hard, my dear, to find yourself thus.”

But that seemed to delight the old lady, who only laughed and patted Susan’s arm, saying, “Si, mija, that’s right— I hit my head so hard that God slipped in! But you see, baby?” The patting hand gripped her, now, but Susan couldn’t draw her eyes away from those of the woman, which, though dark in the light of the tent, seemed flamed with the passion of divine glory. “Do you see what I’m telling you?”

“To push away my rubble.” Somewhat idly, Susan cast her gaze out across the contents of the tent and found herself meandering away from the woman again, and from Mary, towards, instead, a collection of polished stones and strange chalices, pieces of glass, and one beautiful black mirror which pooled like a drop of dark matter upon the wooden table. “I’ve heard it said that everyone is God— the Buddhists seem to believe that.”

“No, mija, we’re not God, but God is everybody. Some people,” said the woman, suddenly at Susan’s elbow with an encouraging smile, “more than others. That mirror is forty American dollars, mija, just for you, you want?”

And, distracted by talk of money and material again, Susan was as snapped from her reverie as she might have been from meditation by the sound of a doorbell. “I’d love it, yes, please. Some mezcal on the way out, too. And— you know,” as she dug through her purse, she lowered her sunglasses and glanced over her shoulder at the pencil cup full of multicolored feathers, “perhaps one of those blue feathers.”

With a thoughtful look at Susan, the old woman tapped her chin and glanced over at the feathers, and then, slyly, said, “I want to give you a blue one, baby, but I need that last one— you want a red?”

“No,” said Susan, inexplicably disappointed and resentful of the idea that she should accept the harsh red feather over the soft blue one, then, shaking it off, baffled by herself, “just a passing fancy, I don’t know what I’d do with it anyways.”

“Maybe you’ll find one,” suggested the old woman, extending her hand for the twenties Susan handed over, offering in exchange the small black mirror. “Then you’ll really know you’re loved by God.”

Of course— what could really assure of a person of a thing like that? With the mirror and the bottle in her purse, Susan returned to her suite and thought the whole time of how hubristic it seemed to her, this habit of people to declare God’s love for them. What did they know of the opinion of God? How could they possibly feel such a thing from such a deity, from a concept that was eternal, undying, so far removed from everything? It seemed to her that there was something wrong, either with the way the world thought, or with herself— of course, it seemed more likely, based on sheer logical principles, that it was more a case of the latter. But there was no way to prove that, of course, not when she was floating around Mexico by herself and interacting almost exclusively with (possibly insane, ancient) medicine women working in stands which mostly otherwise sold peppers and very good tamales.

It didn’t matter, really. She wasn’t hurting anybody, hadn’t actively hurt anybody. Through inaction, maybe she had. Certainly had, in fact. But the real fact of the matter was that there was only so much a woman could do in the world. The Catholic God, Susan had thought for some years, was unsuited to women, and the same was true of all His iterations in the Christian faith. The paternalistic hand of the alleged Mother Church was so heavy upon her shoulder in a Catholic country like Mexico that she felt as if it might well smother her. Out amid all the crucifixes, all the rosaries, all the dios and mios and madres intoned as she navigated the crowded streets, Susan felt as a vampire upon the threshold of a church, and retreated in haste to the darkness of her suite, where, with her curtains drawn, she poured herself one shot of mezcal, and then a second, before going to sleep.

Very funny dreams. Meaningless things, she would suppose upon waking; eating a soft-boiled egg in a movie theater and becoming annoyed when the yolk started to run all over her fingers, she got up to go to the bathroom and wash her hands only to realize she was obviously pregnant, indeed, on the verge of delivery. Shocked, she exited the bathroom and marched through the lobby to angrily demand her money back, but the teller’s mouth was full of spiders and she found him to be distasteful. Gradually, she made her way to the hospital, and there delivered two children, Sibyl and Dante— her dead mother arrived and offered, kindly, to watch the babies, and returned them some days later now toddlers, much to Susan’s shock. They were indeed her children, they assured her— the right children, and that, she would see. She’d woken up sometime after she’d joined a procession of other parents, all of them taking their children out of the country by wading across a sea.

It hardly made ay sense, the dream. And it was hardly as if a silly thing like that could be said to have a meaning. But, still— it stuck to Susan’s ribs as she brushed her teeth, certainly followed her while she brushed her hair, did a line, daubed on perfume and made her way down to dinner.

“Ms Vasko,” said a young voice to her left as she stepped into the silver elevator, and she looked, and there, handsome, was the young doorman from before, who had caught her as she’d begun to stumble. She was living here far too long if even he knew her name; she’d have to start looking around for someplace more remote. Maybe further south, or maybe on another continent.

“Good evening, Claude,” she said with a discrete glance to the young man’s golden name embossed upon his red lapel. “Thank you again for earlier. I’ve been feeling so clumsy lately.”

“It’s no problem at all.” He smiled, and she wondered, absently, as he hit the button for the lobby, if he was remembering what it was like to have her flesh in his palm. Was that all men thought about, was sex, or was that just what she expected because it was all she thought about, the only way she knew how to relate to other people? She squinted at his profile as his eyes stayed focused on the silver panel of light up buttons before him: yes, he was a fairly handsome boy. A little rat-faced from certain angles but, with low lights and the proper degree of head tilt, he could be made good-looking. “You know, I never asked; are you in Mexico for business, Ms. Vasko?”

This young man was talking to her as if they’d been conversing every day, and she supposed that they had, though she maintained no real memory of it, just as she maintained no real memory of the bruja who had greeted her with such familiarity, and who had been familiar to her only in a deep, wordless way, in the manner of a city bus driver glimpsed wearing street clothes in a grocery store. Young Claude was much the same, and so his personal question grated, somewhat, upon her consciousness, as if it were an untoward intrusion. Her nerves were all wound up on top of one another because of the coke, into whose clutches she was starting to slip again. Maybe that was the problem, she thought—the wrong drugs. Too wound up for her own good, too wound up for coke, certainly.

Between floors five and four, Susan snapped forward her finger and pressed the emergency stop button, Claude giving a violent, bodily jump in the corner of her eye. “You look like a nice young man, Claude,” she began.

“Thank you, Ms. Vasko, but I don’t think you’re really supposed to stop the elevator. I could get into trouble for this.”

“I made you do it, if anybody asks.” She was leaning into him, now, close enough so he could breathe the aroma of subtle perfumes, the frankincense she hung in a halo around her head to entrance those weaker spirits into doing her bidding. “Do you know where to get weed, Claude? Good stuff, I mean, not trash.”

A look of pleasant relief washed over the young man’s face, and Susan could all but taste the excitement in him, now, because it was the same that welled up under her stomach whenever drugs were the topic of conversation, and this particular conversational partner cheerfully answered her, “Oh, sure, sure, of course I do.”

“Good.” Leaning away and clicking open her black pocket book, she took what was roughly two hundred dollars American out of her wallet and handed it over. “Can I trust you? There’s a ten-dollar tip and a few joints in it for you. And I’m no fool, you know— I’m not about to let you walk into my room with anything less than two ounces, do you understand?”

“Good God,” said the boy.

“You can start the elevator,” she reminded him, and he blinked his way out of it as he tucked the bills into his jacket pocket. “I’m not playing with you, Claude, sweetheart. I’m an easy woman to disappoint.”

“Well,” said the young man, doffing his cap as he hit the lobby button and the elevator’s angry emergency buzzer went off as it resumed its descent, “I’m a hard-working sort of guy when it comes to pleasing our customers.”

“I’m sure you are,” she said, bearing a tight smile and suffering a pat upon his elbow as, at floor two, the elevator stopped and the pasty fifty-year old Wisconsonite tourist belched out, “There it is! What took this darn thing so long? The elevators here are so slow.”

With a sweet smile as the doors slid closed again, Susan asked her, “I suppose the stairs were broken?”

A petulant little scoff. “I don’t see you taking them either.”

“I don’t seem to be as in desperate need of them, my dear.”

And though the woman gave a gasp of disgust, Susan refused to look as she exited, vibrating blackly with irritation at the whining impatience of other, stupider people. It wasn’t even a satisfying interaction; indeed, in retrospect, it had felt rather needlessly cruel, but the woman had struck her as so entitled and whining that it made Susan feel raw. After all, she had just begun to bond with her new little friend—she could hardly help but feel the distant urge to defend his honor somewhat. It was a strange thing, how Susan made friends. They weren’t really friends, she supposed. But they were something, at least; stand-ins, symbols. A friend seemed to Susan somebody who she’d have for an extended length of time, and it never seemed to her that such a thing was possible. Eternally mystified by tales of people who had been best friends since kindergarten, she had, for years, simply watched on the other side of the glass as people, like ions, formed bonds which escaped her.

The restaurant began on the north edge of the lobby, floored with clay tiles, filled with people, and she wanted nothing to do with any of them, but the bartender was into her, just like the mosquitoes, and so her drinks were a little heavy. Halfway through her first margarita she glanced up and laughed, saying, “Oh, yes— I came here for food, darling. Would you bring a menu?”

A couple of tacos later and she was swinging one leg back and forth, the black heel of her pump dangling slightly from her foot, sitting there upon the stool, and finally, someone found the balls to sidle up to her, some greasy gringo business man out of town on God only knew what excuse.

“My friends over there think you’re a singer,” said the repugnant man as she wiped her fingertips on the burgundy napkin in her lap. “But I don’t know. You strike me as more Wall Street. Here on business?”

“Mourning,” she answered plainly, waving to her all-black ensemble with a disdainful glance in his direction. “I have little patience for the speculation of strangers.”

“Ah— Jesus, sorry,” said the idolater, vacating the leather stool next to her with such haste it spun.

“You never say ‘sorry’ to the bereaved,” she chided, picking up her glass to hide her smile as he vanished back into the flock of his friends. “It’s ‘condolences’.”
That was the last time somebody bothered her who she didn’t want to have bother her, and upstairs in her room ten minutes later she was lying on her bed, fully-clothed but for a single shoe. She made eye contact with the bottle of mezcal but instead turned away after and focused on the ceiling. Barely, she dragged herself to the opposite side of the bed and dropped the needle on the record already there, and she asked along with Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is to a fire?”

“Ms. Vasko,” came a voice from the lobby of her suite, “I have your room service order.”

“I didn’t order anything.”

“I think you did,” said the voice, and she sat up with irritation, the room jerking behind her, her body jerking behind her consciousness, proof of one drink too many, just as was the fact that she had forgotten all about the boy and the weed, and was thus taken aback when she entered the foyer prepared to be mad and instead saw the ridiculous child, standing there with the room service cart and a big smile on his face, hands balanced on either side of a tremendous metal lid.

“Oh!” Laughing lightly, Susan put her hands on her hips and said, “Well, why, yes, now I recall. I do hope you didn’t have any trouble.”

“Well,” with a flourish, he swept off the lid to reveal a plastic bag which looked disappointingly small, “I could only get one ounce on short notice, but the guy I talked to— well, how do you feel about acid?”

How did she feel about acid! Why, what a question! She all but pounced on the boy, her hands gripping the lapels of his coat. “Claude, my dear boy, if you stay here, some day you’re going to run this hotel— but I sincerely hope that you do something better with your life than own a hotel.”

He laughed, and after she released him he revealed from his breast pocket a square of tin foil roughly the size of the well of her palm. “The price was for twenty-five hits, but he threw in an extra two because he felt bad about the weed, and because I’m a good customer.”

“I can’t imagine I’m the first person in this hotel who’s been desperate for weed,” she said, accepting the packet with reverence and unfolding the foil to reveal a pattern based on characters from an old cartoon about a bunch of pot-heads who broke up insurance scams with the help of their dog. It made her laugh, and smile, and then, with an affectionate pat upon the boy’s hand, she asked, “What was our tip? Ten dollars? I think we need more than that.”

The poor thing was probably very excited for a few seconds, thinking he was going to have an opportunity for a piece of Susan, but instead he ended up with a fistful of two twenties and a couple hits of acid. There couldn’t be any interference here— the Universe aligns to bring random LSD into one’s path only when it is a necessary sacrament, and it seemed to her it was no experience to be sullied by the presence of strangers. Although— to be alone. Frowning near the mirror hanging by the entrance, she glanced at the silver packet in the hand of her reflection and wondered if, after all she’d been through, this was really such a good idea. No doubt her soul was home to some pretty heavy karma, for lack of a better term— it was a black place, covered in nicotine tar and tragedy. Was it wise to explore it with a tool as powerful as lysergic acid?

“I’ll start with two hits,” she told herself, meandering into the bedroom of her suite and unwrapping the packet again. “We’ll see how it’s going in an hour.”

The two little tabs had the same strange, peculiar taste they’d had in 1980 and 1983, something between ear wax and morning breath, and she held them primly between her tongue and the roof of her mouth as she set about preparing the room for the trip. The first matter was consideration of the veranda. She’d have to leave it open for the sake of air, though she was distantly considered about herself— not that she’d think she’d gained the ability to fly like some utter fool who believed LSD gave them the capacity for superhuman acts, but that the trip might lead her to such a dark place that she could decide to kill herself. Of course, if she got an idea like that into her head there was plenty around the room she could kill herself with. Jumping out of a window struck her as a little absurd. Needlessly dramatic, even for her. At any rate, she was going to have to smoke, because nothing inspires chain-smoking in the nicotine fiend like a drug trip, and she had the pot to consider now, too. Thus, the balcony doors remained open, and the hustle of the city below drifted up like the breeze beneath the sound of her music.

Music! The next and most important matter. Here Jimi Hendrix would do, she’d had the foresight to take that album among her few rescues, at least. Those high vibrations would make her feel good— yes, that was what Susan wanted. Wanted to feel good. To feel not-bad for a while. She wiggled out of her dress to the sounds of a moaning guitar and wandered into the bathroom to fill the tub, standing naked but for a necklace of lapis lazuli which she hated removing, had, in fact, been wearing two days since she made the mistake of putting it on. A book had at some point made itself at home upon the edge of the bath tub, Raise High The Roof-Beams, Carpenters by Salinger. She wasn’t sure why she was reading it, maybe just because it was in one of the cartons with which she had absconded while the Young Man slept. It was fairly good, though—she’d had it for years and somehow had avoided it until then, but soaking in the bath with Jimi rollicking in the background and her first joint in months hanging out of her mouth, she was disappointed in herself for having avoided it such a long time.

“These people seem so real,” she laughed to herself, sinking back in the tub and thumbing blithely through some pages, slightly ahead, into Seymour. “I don’t know how he does it. Salinger, shutting himself up in that house of his.” Just slightly, she smiled, fanning herself with the book, realizing either the water was warm, or she was.

There’s a strange vibration to the come-up of an acid trip— at least, that had always been the case in Susan. She could feel it straining in her frontal lobe, working through her brain and down through her muscles. The downside of the drug was that something about its action caused her to tense up, and that was one of the reasons she’d not taken it for just over a decade; she could already feel the kink she’d have in her neck for the next week. It was always so worthwhile, though. The past two occasions she’d had to try acid had been fantastic— nothing like the drug trip she had expected, like what word of mouth had geared her for. She had hallucinated nothing at all. In fact, it seemed to her that LSD sharpened her mental acuity in a manner which had initially shocked her. Her intuition was heightened and she had felt in those first instances a great connection to all things, though it had been quick to fade after the trip was over and always, of course, replaced by her usual void of ego self.

But this trip— she couldn’t help but feel this was going to be different, due in no small part to the fact that she wanted it to be different so strongly. Those last two had been such artificial things. They had offered her nothing, really, but that was in part because she had been hesitant to accept anything from the experiences. This time, she wanted it, craved it, but, alone in a hotel room and naked in Mexico City, she wasn’t sure exactly how she was to begin to accept what the trip had to offer.

For starters, the book wasn’t holding her attention, and out in the suite Jimi was reaching his end, and so Susan, leaving the water in the tub, abandoned Salinger precariously near to the edge before briskly wiping herself off and marching into the living room. The cool air of night beginning to caress her water-beaded flesh, she bent over the carton of tapes by her bed until she found Pink Floyd’s Meddle, and then, with some effort, she uncovered her collection of Shakespeare plays from a box near the desk. The room was so cluttered with things it seemed a quarter of her life was here, in this hotel room, and it made her wonder about all of the times she had left things behind. Perched upon the edge of her bed and thumbing through Shakespeare, which had now become a sensory experience more than an endeavor at reading, Susan traced back through the roots of time and remembered her father.

God, her father! Not her Uncle, mind, but her Daddy, who had been such an angry and hateful man. She had nearly forgotten about him, forgotten him and her early life in that squalid little apartment, Hell on earth in Chicago, Illinois. Her only regret was that she hadn’t found a way to escape sooner. Of course, she might have, ideally, found herself in better company than she did, but that was life, wasn’t it? It was cruel, no matter what that wacko old woman in the David Lynch market stall seemed to think. Who could look at the life of Susan Vasko and suppose that the God who orchestrated it was anything but a sadist, assuming He existed at all?

“I was just a little girl,” she said, frowning very sadly at the glint of her reflection in the silver clasps of her handbag, lying open on the bedside table. The book open in her lap slid from it as she reached forward to drag over her purse, initially going for her cigarettes but becoming distracted partway through the motion as her fingertips brushed something cool and out of place. This, she removed, and she saw with a small breath of surprise and understanding that it was the black mirror.

Her lips parted just lightly. At once, she thought of him, with his own disdain for the mirror. How his eyes would dart away from his own reflection, and how he explained, “I can never look at myself,” when pressed.

“But why,” Susie asked, hanging beside him at the sink adjacent, her curious gaze turned upon him in genuine unknowing, for she was then deeply suffused in denial that there was anything wrong, that there was any kernel of displeasure to be found in their happy family home.

“I just can’t,” he insisted, looking somewhere past his ear and tilting his head slightly as he shaved himself. “I haven’t been able to for years and years. Your great-grandmother used to say if you looked in the mirror too long, you’ll see the devil.”

In the silver mirror before her, Susie preened, and in the black mirror, Susan gazed deeply, her lips slightly drooping, her tremendous pupils barely visible in the depths of the onyx. It was a funny thing—she’d always heard that one had ought to never look into a mirror while tripping, but she felt so drawn to it and could hardly see the harm. Why, she could hardly see herself in it, dark as it was! A powerful device of meditation, among other things; it was as though she could feel herself sinking into the open void of it, plunging deep into black water, like a shark diving to the depths of the ocean. Bent forward above the little slab, her lips barely parted in a manner of which she was entirely unaware, Susan felt her body sinking, dissolving away in the black density which surrounded her, until it seemed that she was in a place where she had not been in quite some time: the stage. Not a hallucinatory stage, mind, for she knew of course she was sitting naked in her Mexico City hotel room, but rather she felt as though she stood upon, for lack of a clearer term, the stage of her heart. The urge to act came upon her, and she found herself rising from her place upon the edge of the bed, intoning, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women, merely players,” in a soliloquy she had memorized in high school and hardly thought of since, but which had somehow, it seemed, stayed with her, in the back of her mind, the way a song lurks, word for word, unheard since childhood but perpetually echoing in the unconscious.

She got up, then, lifting her head to the ceiling, feeling all at once as though she were being observed, certain of it, touched by it; and she recited, then, and after Nina ran out she sang and danced and laughed along with David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, which she’d listened to a thousand times in the years after the Young Man was born. After Richard was born. Yes, Richard—he had a name. A name she had given him after that of her true father, who she had slain, small and in terror; and in his place had come Julius, who was so much worse than Papa Dick ever was, because Papa Dick may have yelled and cried a lot in his room, and he may have hit her and he may have been rotten to her because he didn’t know what to do with such a bad little girl as Susie, but he never did the things to her that Julius did and never acted like he was kind for them. Never acted like Susie owed him something.

Julius! Invading her thoughts, now, even now! Would she ever evade him, slip free his shadow? Her singing ended somewhat abruptly and she felt his presence, paused before the lime green wall of her suite’s little kitchenette and lay her hand upon her forehead. It was odious, how easily that man could enter into her and ruin her vibrations. Tears filled her eyes and she leaned against the kitchen counter, her head vibrating with a drug trip in potentia that was being violated and stunted completely by the mere existence of Julius Vasko within the mixture, by other things, by Lewis, too, for instance, and by the shadows of men to come, by the terrible knowledge that she would never find anyone and she would forever be alone as she was just then, sitting on the kitchen floor and not even able to enjoy her acid trip because she felt so sad and lonely and violated.

But— wait. No, no, that wasn’t right— she wasn’t alone. She had just felt not twenty minutes before that someone was with her! That feeling of observation— she remembered having felt it before and she felt it again in that instant, and did not feel it in a paranoiac sense of being watched, say, by the police, or a voyeur. Well—maybe a little bit of a voyeur. Not in a bad way, though, necessarily. Not as if this person were causing the bad things in her life, either: more, something neutral had upon her its eye. Slowly, she rose up and looked around, and wondered when it was, exactly, that she had left her tarot cards out upon her kitchen table, and wondered at the significance of her coming upon them in that exact moment, in that exact state and way of being, and she took the box from its place upon the table to examine it and there fell from its contents, its soft cardboard lid long-since having been torn away, the entirety of the deck tumbling; and what card gazed back at her but The High Priestess, her hands folded in her lap, her solemn way of being written in the nobility of her face. Heart fluttering with excitement, Susan gathered together the deck and realized if she began to divine with them she would be playing with them an hour the way she felt now, and so she simply lay the disorganized pile, Priestess up, upon her table that she might return in pursuit of her observer.

What observer, this? It was something which, she realized now, predated the drug in terms of presence. It was as though the drug simply drew her attention to it; made her aware that there was something with her. But what? A strange thing, this feeling— as though there were a ghost inside of her, or, if not inside of her, perhaps just slightly to her right, sometimes leaning close as if to see or kiss her face, or maybe even standing before her, or watching her hands, or observing her tragedies and triumphs. In fact, now that she considered it, she’d had this feeling before. There were times when it seemed as though she was not moving upon the Earth: rather, that the Earth and all Her things came to greet Susan, who was experiencing at all times the mere illusion of movement. She had always chalked it up to her more or less pathological narcissism, that sensation, but suddenly as she found herself upon the threshold of her bathroom and found everything arranged within so perfectly that it was as if the plant, the paintings upon the blue and brown tiles, the book upon the edge of the bath tub, the sounds of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung playing on tape in the bathroom to combat the sound of contemporary music from the living room, had all been choreographed. But, by whom? She looked around, at the water in the bath, the robe lying upon the floor, and then, all at once, looked up into the mirror, and laughed.

“Aha! There you are.”

Why, yes! There she was, indeed. She was the observer, there, naked in the mirror, laughing at herself from behind big drug-blackened eyes. Yes, of course! Why— there was only a monkey there in the mirror, after all, a monkey like all the other monkeys, like all the monkey skulls which had been in the bruja’s tent, but she, Susan, now she was real, something more substantial and significant than a monkey. She had something the monkey had not: consciousness. Why, was she consciousness observing Susan, or Susan being observed by consciousness? There was no telling, none at all, why, how queer, how queer!

It was strange in that instant to look at herself, it was true, but not in a bad way. By God, she was fine! She laughed to see herself, feeling in that instant so much more real than she had ever felt in her life, somehow; more incredibly present in the moment, more aware of the transient nature of that moment, it was as though she were seeing herself in three dimensions for the first time, and leaned forward to make eye contact with herself, observing, “I don’t think I’ve seen you since you were twenty. But look at you.”

It was a funny thing, but she felt as if the person in the mirror was really an altogether different person from the one looking out from within her eyes and saying things like “I don’t think I’ve seen you,” who was, in and of itself, an altogether different person from the one who hovered to the right of her her insides, observing in a silent way, a part of her, separate from her, imperceptible to her. She had heard of epileptics hearing voices and feeling presences, and thought also of schizophrenics, and drug-induced psychosis, and all of the other reasons why somebody might snap and start feeling the presence of something indescribable, and it seemed to her that it was a perfectly rational feeling to have.

“I mean, I don’t think you’re bad,” she announced to whatever it was, bending to pick up her robe and slide it on for the sake of modesty, shivering pleasantly at the feel of the green silk upon her shoulders. “It’s only that I’m not entirely certain what you are, darling. I mean, are you God? That doesn’t seem right.”

A strange sense of deja vu came over her, and she perched upon the bathroom counter, folding her legs and staring at her reflection, saying, “Maybe it’s just that word that’s the problem. That’s really always the problem after all, you know, words. Using the wrong words or just not using the right ones.” With a slightly sad smile, she ran her hand over her cheek as though to comfort herself, feeling her own softness, thinking how she had denied three people today, and then thinking back, back to the little woman in the market stall. All at once she was back there, in utter clarity, and fell back against the door jamb with a thought for the little old woman and her wily ways, and Susan’s request for the feather and how it had been denied for some strange reason, but all at once she was urged, maddeningly urged, to go and check her purse, and lo, and behold, what should she find hidden beneath where the black mirror had been placed but a feather, a blue feather, slipped into her bag by the little bruja, slipped into the bag by what, by what, by what? And, trembling with certainty, with the feather in her hands in the hotel room, she found herself suddenly awash with utter grace, and a perfect understanding of what grace really meant—what it really meant when there was no moment but this moment. What it really meant when you thought in terms of alternate possibilities. What it really meant when you thought about God, when you said that all the world was a stage, when you stood naked in a hotel room in Mexico holding a blue feather in your hand all because you helped the Young Man bury the body of his earthly matrix, that the metetrix might ascend— and then? And then? And then— gnosis. Not for Susan, she did not think— but for whatever it was which watched her. Whatever it was which animated her, whatever stream of consciousness it was which possessed her, whatever being it was which seemed so keenly fascinated by the doings of her putrid life. Why, she was just as asleep as everyone else! Only a monkey in the end— but that made it all perfectly okay, she supposed, and so she laughed and fell back upon her bed.

The record skipped in the living room, and the tape broke up in the bathroom, and the next afternoon, when Susan returned to the market, still in the post-trip glow, to try to thank the bruja, she was not even slightly surprised to find a man there, instead, selling mezcal and tamales, and certainly no black mirrors. It wasn’t worth worrying about, or trying to explain. It wouldn’t make sense to anybody but her, anyway.

[Read DELILAH, MY WOMAN in hardback or kindle.]

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