Springer the dog howled like a wolf when the ambulance arrived. I clapped my hands to my ears but her sorrow broke through to my heart. She was an old dog, Roberto’s dog, and followed him around the grounds of the former church and theater auditorium and kitchen like a piece of his own self. When she barked, not a rare thing, Roberto laughed a bit and shushed the dog, which almost never worked. She didn’t shush this time either, since Roberto was on the kitchen floor, unconscious. The ambulance was for him.
The gang of three alley Chihuahuas echoed Springer’s howls. They were always yowling about something, lonely, I believed, that they weren’t invited into the circus. The ambulance plowed into the back lot, scattering the suddenly-voiceless Chihuahuas and raising a dust devil that picked up bits of raked leaves and discarded plastic. The ambulance’s brakes squealed, competing with Springer’s howls. Half a dozen men poured out of the wagon and I thought about clown cars but did not grin. Some went around to the back of the wagon and removed the gurney. The others carried heavy briefcases that I identified from television shows: heart defibrillator, scan monitors, cases with saline and needles and bandages.
A destructively-handsome man – curly dark hair, blue eyes, Adonis-sculpted muscles – asked where the victim was. Victim. He meant Roberto. I jerked my chin towards the kitchen. The bunch of them flooded into the kitchen. They were quiet and deliberate and quick.
Springer stood over Roberto and howled again. She did not have an aggressive bone in her body but she was not going to budge.
“Can you move the dog, please, miss? And what happened? Can you describe the event?”
I clipped a leash onto Springer’s collar and pulled her away. Roberto, conscious but not alert, followed the dog with his eyes. Men bent over him, cutting his tee-shirt and placing monitors, wrapping a cuff around his upper arm. I was not sure he noticed them. He did not say anything. No one else spoke up, either.
“He fell down,” I said. “Apoplexy.”
The paramedic threw me an odd glance. I remembered that ‘apoplexy’ was an old word. I shrugged.
Roberto’s wandering gaze accused me every time his eyes met mine. Even as the ambulance guys and the circus people and Vicky, his wife, pushed me and Springer further away from Roberto I could not stop staring at him as though I had never left his side. I swallowed the excuses and apologies that wanted to flow from my mouth, my throat, my heart. Nothing here was my fault. He had made a deal with the devil and the deal fell through. He needed someone to blame. I was convenient.
But I was not at fault.
Roberto whispered instructions while the ambulance guys – medics – stuck needles into his arms and placed monitor leads and inflated the blood pressure cuff.
“Alice,” he gasped. “Take care of Vicky.” He pushed aside the oxygen mask.
“I will,” I promised from across the room. Roberto could not have heard me.
The ambulance guy, Adonis with the cold blue eyes, pushed him flat again. So gentle, yet implacable. Roberto did not resist. From across the breadth of the kitchen commons, I saw him give up. Stop. Lay back and accept help against whatever came next.
In the blink of an eye, or so it seemed to me, the room emptied. Roberto on a gurney, the hilarious number of medics, the circus performers, herded along by Vicky, all uncommonly quiet, all fled the room. Chasing off to the hospital.
Springer curled around my feet. Her hurt and puzzlement washed over me. I bent down and rubbed her ears. What I had to give, I gave to her. Some peace and some love, some reassurance. Nothing miraculous.
Just a few days ago I had smelled my brother’s miracles and followed his stench to this place. A church, unconsecrated. A circus, dedicated to performance art. A sign in the front window heralding miracles with every show. Another sign, smaller, advertising rooms for rent. A tall wooden door, brown paint peeling off in strips, represented my choice: enter and fight again, or walk away.
I’m tired, I cried wordlessly. I am not ready. I glanced at the tar road behind me. Then I faced forward and knocked.
Roberto had opened the door, but Springer let me stay. I sat at the big wooden table while Roberto had discussed ifs and maybes and possibilities. We don’t usually rent to women, he said. The dog had walked into the room. Springer. She held her human-given name in the first layer of her soul. I plumbed it easily enough. She stopped in mid-step, her left paw raised, and gazed at me with her caramel eyes. When her inspection ended she padded over to me and licked my bare ankle. Then she sauntered over to Roberto and laid out flat next to his chair.
“Good enough for me!” Roberto exclaimed. “Any friend of Springer’s can’t be all bad. You’re in.”
He assumed I was one of the desperate homeless and I didn’t disillusion him. I did offer him money. He took half. He told me where to get free food and medical attention, gave me a sheet of paper listing the rules. ‘Don’t hang out in the theater’ was number one with a bullet.
“I can’t go into the theater?” I said. I was here because of the theater, or rather because of what my brother had done with the theater. Because of the miracles.
“It’s for the performers only, the artists.” His assessment that I was no performance artist was accurate and instant, though it hurt a bit. Who doesn’t want to be a circus performer, somewhere in their soul? I nodded dumbly.
“You can join the audience during the shows, though. Free. There’s a show tomorrow.”
He walked me through the dirt-packed compound to my trailer, a cold metal bullet every bit as unpleasant as I had expected it to be. I had a small sack of possessions: a change of clothes, a book. Roberto loaned me a blanket, well-worn and multiply-mended, but clean.
I wrapped myself in the blanket and sat cross-legged on the floor, waiting through the night. But my brother didn’t show himself then. He was far too wily.
I’d find him, my brother, my adversary. I’d find out about these miracles of his. He was the devil to my angel and I’d fight him if I had to. I hoped I wouldn’t have to fight. I was tired. Winning would not be a certain thing.
I closed my eyes to listen to the world around me.
The muezzin at the mosque across the black tar road sang his final night call to prayer. His mind strayed from God and into his creature comforts, dinner, soft clothes, where he was happy. Content. His content flowed around me like a sweet breeze.
The theater was louder than his song, discordant.
Someone played a honky tonk piano riff.
Someone else strummed a nylon string guitar through a few cowboy chords.
Someone, no: two people, a man and a woman, threw pins at each other, meaty thuds each time a hand caught one, shouted ‘Ha’s as they tossed them again.
Someone sang breathlessly while balancing on a skateboard balanced on a box on a chair on a bucket. He juggled tennis balls above his head. All those sounds, song click roll thump, mixed in a rhythm. Ah! That was how he did it, synchronizing all those rhythms.
But I heard nothing of my brother.
The muezzin began the day break call to prayer. Venus hung bright in the pre-dawn sky. There would be a full moon later. Later, I would search the grounds for him. My adversary.
I shrugged off the blanket and wandered into the yard. Uneven red brick laid in pathways to big Persian rugs spread over the hard-pack dirt to a little bit of worn concrete surrounding the outside of the theater. Dirt and weed and stones. A glossy black raven perched on a barren jacaranda tree and laughed.
At me? Maybe.
Coffee stank up the kitchen. I filled a mug, grateful that someone had been kind enough to brew it. I straddled a bench. Springer rambled into the room and woofed at me. Roberto followed close behind her.
“Show tonight!” he said, enthusiasm wafting from him in clouds. “You’re welcome to watch. For free. I’ll bet you’ll like it! We have a special, a special, a special…”
Springer raised her head and whined at him. Me, I could smell my brother’s work, mental sulfur. I frowned.
“I know, dog. I got it.” I said a Word, not strong enough to knock out the enchantment but Roberto’s head should clear temporarily.
“Uh.” Roberto’s eyes cleared. “Guest performer. He does sleight of hand. We’ve all been very impressed…” Again he paused after delivering wooden words. Then he shambled out of the room. Springer followed with her tail drooping.
My brother had made a strong home here.
I huddled around the still-hot mug. The Word had taken so much from me. Not physically, no. I was a strong wiry girl. But my mind was blank, used-up. I had nothing, no resources, no reserves. I would need to gather more to myself before trying to find my brother.
Who would be here, tonight, performing ‘magic.’
A woman lurched into the kitchen on stiff legs. Blonde hair sat in a pile on her head. The knuckles on her hands were enlarged, gnarled with arthritis. She cautiously poured a cup of coffee for herself, adding sugar and milk and delicately stirring it all together.
She glanced at me with red, worried eyes. A crease ran deep between her eyebrows.
“I’m Vicky,” she said. “You must be the new one.”
“Alice,” I said.
Time froze. My cheeks flushed and my whole body tingled. I knew this woman. I had fought for her before, against my brother. I had won, the woman released. Surely this was no coincidence.
I raked through the layers of her soul that I could reach. Nothing but fatigue and disease. I saw where I had touched her previously. She was uncompromised. And she did not recognize me.
“Alice,” she repeated. “Goodtameetcha. Roberto said you’re doing chores for your rent. Let me show you around.”
I rinsed out my coffee cup. She brought hers with her.
The kitchen side-door opened onto the theater lobby. The lobby inclined upwards to a concession stand swathed in disco-sparkly decorations. Black velvet curtains hung at the two entrances to the theater auditorium.
“Don’t go in there,” Vicky said. “Performers’ safe space.”
I nodded. The entire space, though neat as a pin, oozed decrepit age from its polished wood to its care-worn walls. Dust glazed every surface. I ran my hand across the counter. No dust after all. The glaze was metaphysical, dried-on ectoplasm. Vicky couldn’t see it, I was certain. I would try to wash it away, later.
Vicky led me outside.
Chain-link fences ringed three sides of the yard with the theater building, the old church, on the west side. Walls stood against the fencing, wood stakes, bricks, a hedgerow. Artistic diversity. Many hands had labored to build these fortifications.
Vicky slid into a rocking chair under a shade-awning. She waved me away.
“Make yourself at home,” she said, faint and faded. “If you have questions, just ask anybody.”
I hadn’t seen anyone else. Not that I had questions. I nodded to Vicky and continued my explorations alone.
I followed the fencing around to the side gate. The wall here was built of bottles, all the rich colors that soda manufacturers used, amber green yellow red blue. A spectrum in glass. When the right wind hit the bottles’ lips, they whistled eerie as a Theremin. A rug propped up as a canopy protected me from sunshine and shaded the yard from prying eyes.
I grabbed a broom and swept. I raised tornadoes of dust from the rugs on the hard-pack. I raked the barren ground. Inside the common rooms I swept and mopped and scrubbed. A vacuum stood near the front door. I plugged it in and tracked it over all the worn red carpet, wall to wall and up and down risers and aisles. I cleaned out cobwebs. Supernatural crud, the gleaming dried ectoplasm, dissolved with little effort. All the time my mind was blank. No songs or prayers or thoughts. Just blank. Recharging.
In the lobby I dropped the vacuum back in its place. I meant to take a cloth to the walls but there was too much hanging decoration. Art, I guess. Strong women in acrobatic situations. Writs of wisdom scrolled on the wall. Plaques, awards, newspaper clippings.
Wait. Wisdom on the wall? ‘Miracles Wrought Before Your Eyes,’ promised with a Bible quote and additional painted flourishes.
I laughed aloud. Yes. I would witness them.
It was time to wash myself. Earlier I had scrubbed the shower clean. Now I scrubbed myself clean. The joy of modern baptism flooded me with wonder until I shouted with joy.
I wrapped up in a bath towel and stepped out, soggy and cleansed.
A clown sat on the toilet, resting his head on his hands, a red wig of tulle and glitter spilling over his face.
“Hello,” I said, tugging my bath towel tight.
“Uh,” the clown said. He sat like his colorful clown pants were glued to the toilet seat, which was closed, I noted.
“You need the shower,” I suggested. His thoughts were opaque. Perhaps he was drunk. A shower would help.
“You can’t help me.” His voice, distant, calm, echoed in the steamy bathroom.
“Do you want my help?” My automatic response. Ancient. I had that phrase in languages that no one spoke any longer.
“It’s too late, too late,” the clown muttered. He stomped into the shower, one clown-shoe-clad foot rising and slapping down, his other foot dragging with a whisk across the tile floor. He leaned against the glass door. Water spattered and flowed.
I whispered, “Have faith.”
I sat front row center during the show. My brother would know I was here. I had no reason to hide. The lights dimmed. Hidden spotlights sparkled on the worn red carpet and green velvet of the seats. A big-screen above the stage showed a film of colorful shapes morphing into new shapes. Droning music played low, enough to itch a mind to alertness but not yet a signal for silence and attention.
People occupied all the theater’s seats. Families with kids of all ages, popcorn and soda. Couples on dates holding hands. In the seats near me, the front row, wheelchairs and crutches and walking sticks and a guide-dog resting his head on someone’s shoes.
Oh. Those kinds of miracles. I had wondered.
A piercing shriek of feedback startled us all to silence. Was it deliberate? A brilliant horrid way to catch a happy audience. I scowled.
From the first moment I was swept up in the night’s entertainment. The lights doused and neon-glowing performers tumbled onto the stage. My gasps and laughter and applause mingled with everyone else’s. I allowed the ordinary enchantment to engulf me.
I enjoyed the performances. Masses of athletic men and women, and even a child, swarmed on stage from left and right and front. Some gyrated in dance and gymnastics, flipping somersaults and kicking up high-stepping can-cans. Performers entered and exited the stage at random, changing the acts, lights flickering and changing color and intensity. Should I have felt guilty about appreciating their art? No. Not even the drunken clown had asked for help.
Some musical note must have signaled a pause. I stirred in my seat. The whole theater rustled as people fidgeted, moved, changed position. No one stood up, though.
The lights brightened. The wild calliope crashed to a stop. The performers on stage froze in mid-finale. Surly Girl stretched on an aerial ring. Giorgio juggled tennis balls, now motionless in a circle above his head. The clown paused with a half-inflated balloon. The magician was caught sliding a card into his coat. And my brother…
My brother sauntered on stage, right up front. His jeans were uncreased indigo and his boots alligator-green. He squatted and a spotlight made his average clean-shaven face gleam.
“Five,” he said. And, “Choose.” Then he stood up, relaxed, waiting on the audience.
In my experience, that kind of command resulted in chaos. Easily fifteen people near me sported injuries, handicaps, bottles of oxygen, helpers. I tensed against the inevitable fight.
But no, quiet consultations and five people were pushed forward. They lined up at the step to the stage. My brother towered over them.
He pointed at a young woman. “You have eyes but you cannot see. Open your eyes. The scales shall fall away.”
All so quiet. The woman’s mouth dropped into an ‘O’ and she flailed with both arms. Two friends grabbed her, supported her, hushed her – unnecessarily – and dragged her up the aisle.
“But I can see!” she wailed.
My brother called from the stage. “Don’t leave! The show isn’t over. Let her see it.”
The woman and her companions sank into the nearest seats.
“Now you!” he said, pointing to a man in a wheelchair. “You’re sitting down on the job. Get off your ass.”
The man stood up, shaky at first, then like Charlie Bucket’s Grandpa Joe, with hope and joy and increasing strength.
My brother pointed at a woman with no obvious handicap and told her that she was clear and clean. He pointed at a one-armed man and said that the arm would not grow back but his mind was healed, incisive and ready to work. He pointed at the little boy and had him dance a jig. He said disease was banished by physical activity and the boy’s gymnastic future was assured.
I sank in my velvet seat, deflated. These people were honestly cured, truly miracled. They wouldn’t relapse in an hour or two or twenty-four.
My brother had performed good deeds.
The calliope music wailed to life and the performers unfroze. They completed their paused acts. I struggled to my feet. This was not my fight. True miracles? I would not interfere with those. I retreated up the theater aisle. I wanted the door. I could leave! Springer, on stage, wearing a ruff and walking on her hind legs, rolled an eye at me and whined. She continued her performance, like a trouper, and I kept walking.
Until I was not. I was in a dim tiny closet of a room, the projection room. So was my brother.
“Hugh,” I said.
“Alice,” he replied. “I’ve missed you.”
The silence increased between us.
Then I sighed. “I was just leaving.”
He laughed. “They sent you after me – you, my favorite sister – and you’re giving up without a fight?”
“What’s to fight? You’re helping people. This was a mistake.”
“Oh. You missed it?” Disappointment. My brother was disappointed in me. Nothing new there.
I did not say anything. He would show me.
He pointed to the windowless aperture. We were in the projection room, high above the theater floor. He gestured and the aperture widened, swallowing most of the wall. Would anyone, looking up, see us? I doubted. This was one-way magic.
The performers were on stage, taking bows. My brother pointed at the little boy he’d cured. The child pinched an infant held by his mother. While the infant screamed, distracting the adults all around him, he dipped into the pocket of the man in the next seat over and drew out a wallet. He slid it inside his pants. No one saw this.
“Catch ‘em young and they’re yours forever,” my brother said. His satisfaction painted the air between us.
I folded my arms across my chest and shook my head.
“That was practiced,” I said. “He was like that before your miracle. You cured his body, not his corrupted soul.”
My brother stamped his feet. “Look! Look you! Where is my sister who knows how to see?”
He swept his arm out. The five people he’d cured – not touching them, never from him a touch – they glowed like jellyfish on a moonless night. Like fireflies on an infinite summer night. Like mushrooms on a velvet painting under black light. Dark, rotten, luminous. My brother, a lord of light, had illuminated these people as his own with dark torches.
“They’re mine,” he said. “Here and forever. She’ll murder when I tell her to. That one-armed man can still hold a gun. As for the boy, well, you’ve seen my little thief in action.”
“Oh, boastful,” I said. My voice shook. So did the rest of me. “I would have gone and let you continue. But you had to brag.”
He snorted. “My sister would have let it go? I think not. You are here for the battle. How is it I always know you better than you know yourself?”
My fists shook as I held them close to my ribs.
“You don’t know me. You just follow the script of our fates. You run, I chase. You harm, I fix. You challenge, I fight.”
“Yes, yes,” he nodded. “Let’s get on with the fight, shall we?”
My brother and I stand at the same height, 5’8”. We are both built slender and straight. He wore his hair short and mine was coiled above my ears. When we rushed each other, our conflict was equal, like twins come to blows over a constant argument.
We battled in front of the projector and our shadows played on the theater curtain. The house lights were up and people milled with performers for end-of-show mix-and-meet. They all saw our shadows then, and they watched.
Hugh and I grappled, wrestling. Our cast shadows showed our wings, our hair straining in a numinous breeze, our muscular bodies, skin to skin, struggling. We were perfectly matched. Neither gave, neither gained. Our shadows locked.
In that endless minute, the audience watched and listened while angels fought.
The dog barked. Oh Springer! I received a thrill of energy from her. Her life and support and pure doggish loyalty infused my spirit.
I threw my brother down.
The breathless pause broke. The people in the theater cheered and yelled and continued to disperse. Damned good show, for them.
I panted as I stood over my brother. The aperture returned to its true size. So did our shadows.
Hugh, my brother, my adversary, lay prone on the floor. He’d flung an arm over his face.
“Defeat is never easy,” I said. I offered my hand, to raise him up.
He ignored me.
Springer charged into the room. She placed herself between me and my fallen brother. I put a hand on her head. “Good dog,” I praised.
Roberto ran into the tiny room right after her. Crowded, too crowded, we’d have to exit soon, I thought, my brother and I.
“What have you done?” he shouted at me. Springer whimpered but didn’t move. Roberto knelt at my brother’s side. “Are you all right?”
My brother ignored Roberto. He lifted his arm and looked at me.
“It’s always a dog with you, isn’t it?” His voice could have doubled for Eden’s serpent.
I gripped Springer’s collar to keep her from lunging at him. “You are defeated,” I said. “You must go.”
Roberto cried out, “No! Vicky! You promised you would cure her! That was the bargain!” He was on the verge of violence, ready to hit at Hugh or at me. Or at himself.
“My brother keeps the bargains he wants to keep,” I said. “If Vicky isn’t healed already, she won’t be.”
“You lied?” Roberto grabbed Hugh’s shirt in both hands and shook him. “You promised!”
“He is the liar,” I said. “And now he must go.” We both knew that, as victor, I could enforce his departure. I preferred to let him voluntarily go. A weakness on my part, sympathy for him.
My brother pushed Roberto away. He sprang to his feet. “I will go,” he said. Then he laughed, a hard ugly sound. “But first…” He pointed at the dog. “Stop.”
My brother’s Word, vicious as a cobra’s backlash, failed to meet its target. I brushed it away. The freed Word should have dissipated but my brother’s hot anger goaded it forward. The Word gained another victim. Roberto laid out flat on the projector room floor, stopped.
My brother’s laugh was the only thing left of him and it too faded like the Cheshire cat’s grin.
I stood over Roberto. Miracles are hard and exact all kinds of prices, from the giver as well as from the receiver. I breathed in deep and said a Word. The strength of my wish staggered me and I tripped against Springer, falling onto my backside. Roberto’s heart started again, along with his rasping breathing.
His eyes clouded. I did not know how much he would remember. I did not care. He turned from me and climbed down the stairs like an old man, hesitating on each riser.
Springer and I followed him into the kitchen. Roberto leaned against the counter, his back hunched up like he was warding off blows.
The performers danced and drank and spoke in high excited tones. Their good energy filled me.
“Roberto!” someone yelled. “Best show ever! That angel-shadow-play thing, we have to do it again!”
Roberto turned around. Drool spilled from his lips. He took a single step forward and collapsed.
Roberto passed away. He struggled but never managed to forgive himself. He bargained with my brother. Deals with the devil never work out well.
I grieved, as much as I could.
Vicky kept the theater going. She had always been strong, under her illness. Now she showed her strength and more. She threw her energy into organizing the shows. The performers honed their acts. Gloom, the otherworldly glaze of despair and bad choices, gradually faded. Even the clown walked with a jaunty step.
The shows attracted the whole neighborhood, despite losing the miracles. I never looked for my brother’s cured audience. The miracles were transferred to me as I had won the fight, victor’s spoils. The dark light he had contaminated them with would fade. Hugh would not be able to call them in the future. I suppose this should have pleased me. I was indifferent.
I did not feel the need to attend another performance. I sat in my trailer and listened to music and laughter and applause. I hung out with Springer, that good dog.
After a while, Vicky visited my trailer. I had not been invited to Roberto’s funeral or even to the wake held in the kitchen. I had an idea that Vicky blamed me for his death. Maybe the performers did, too.
“You have to go,” she said simply.
I nodded at what she left unsaid. Besides, it was well past time for me to follow my fate to its next destination.
“Vicky,” I said. She paused in the act of turning away.
“Thank you.” I grasped her hand. Some miracles required more than a Word. My restored energy poured into her. And the lupus drained away. She would not know it immediately. She pulled her hand from mine.
“Tingles,” she said.
I left my borrowed clothes and blankets in the trailer. One last time I swept and cleaned and raked. I left Words behind, using the last of my strength. This place had refreshed me. I returned the favor.
I went out through the front doors and no one saw me go. I walked around through the alley to the back fence. The gang of three Chihuahuas yipped in their tiny dog way.
I wove my fingers through the chain link fence, never mind the oxidation and bird-dirt. Vicky gripped a coffee mug and took in the changes to the compound. The bemused look on her face pleased me. The dirt and dust and trash were all gone. Flowers bloomed: hardy geraniums, hedge roses, long-necked poppies and thick stands of jonny-jump-ups. Bright green grass tufted up through the bricks and coated the paths between the trailers. Even the sad jacaranda tree dripped with purple blossoms. She might have sensed it, that the freshness was there to stay.
She closed her eyes and tilted her head towards the sky. I heard the edges of the prayer she sent up.
Springer danced around her legs, yipping like a happy thing. Vicky reached down and stroked her head. Springer sat and barked at me, on the other side of the fence, once.
“Whatcha barking at, old girl?” Vicky said.
She couldn’t see me. But Springer could. I waved at the dog. She watched me fade away.