Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 50—Riding the Hag (The Chicken Wizard 3)
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.
—William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act IV, Scene 4
In the grass at their feet the newly-dead corpse of a cricket twitched as a foraging party of ants dismembered it. The ants had formed up in two parallel lines—the departing line was weighted down with gobbets of cricket flesh. “Motor memory,” said Lucy. “The twitching. Mr. Cricket lingered for a post-coital cigarette instead of making a run for it, and death in the form of a wasp caught up with him; the ants are cleaning up. He has sung his song; he has procreated. Sex then death, this is the way of things—The Case of the Listless Lothario. Any larger cricket predator would have made away with its catch; it’s just that the ants are so much smaller that we stop and gawk. My son, Elliot...”
Elliot the fruit of his loins had been dead for fifty years. Why was he still here and talking with this woman in a field of daisy fleabane? He had asked her if she could drive. Lucy felt the corners of his mouth twist upward; he had a private joke and Samantha Cherry Hobart, like Sarah, would not suffer gladly being made a fool. Samantha said they were soulmates, whatever soulmates was when considering two women. Lesbian lovers? No big deal—not these days. Damned fool, he had propositioned someone else—another girl, woman—to help him die. Or appear to have died. The Driver’s Ed. thing. He hadn’t asked her right out, but there was enough of a hint. Were the two close? Sarah would be mightily pissed-off if she felt cheated out of her birthright—seeing him safely underground and no chance of getting back up and out again. Sarah wanted to play ring-around-the-Lucy with the neighbors in for drinks and a smorgasbord, decorating his lapsed life like a dimestore Christmas tree. And with him standing right there. When he was dead what would become of Cat? If anything. She was over a hundred years old and confused. Yet she lived on. “Cat...”
“Your wife isn’t all that bad,” said Samantha. “Cat. Crazy, I mean. She always has a cheery word for me when I look in; usually after Daz—you know. The old lady likes him. And he likes her.”
“Cat. The Mormons are tying her shoelaces together while she sleeps. Has she told you that? No, most likely not. Not yet. Wait till she gets to know you better. Her anecdotes are endless. For Cat time stops with New Year’s 1938. She missed the atomic bomb and World War II even though I was in it. She has always been good at history, but slipshod with her centuries. Practical jokes by a terrorist underground, al Qaeda, the Pope, whoever, are right on schedule in her realms of the probable. The fall of the World Trade Center was on TV so it had to be real. Like Jeopardy or Hollywood Squares.”
“She always has the TV on,” said Samantha.
“Always,” said Lucy. “By which you mean she keeps up with world affairs. No.”
Between them, the chicken burbled softly where it sat, a gentle purring interrupted by hiccoughs, the chicken snore. It was staring straight ahead, wide-eyed and glassy. “Out like a light,” Lucy said. He picked up the chicken and set it on its legs. When he removed his hands, the chicken fell over. “Classic case.”
“You have my undying respect, Chicken-wizard. How may the Empress of Tarot serve you?”
“Empress of Tarot. That is your magical name, then—a secret name that only we two shall know. Good. As Chicken-wizard is mine. Drive me. Someday. Not today but someday. I’ll let you know.”
If I am really and truly dead, someday—cashed out at the Bank of Souls—who will look after Cat? Lucy thought. She might never die but live in a suspended state punctuated by blips on a screen to signal sporadic alpha wave activity.
“Cat,” Lucy said.
“Lucy, you’re always getting a bloody nose. Has to be hereditary. Did your father bleed all over the carpets? Here’s a tea towel; stay right there.” And Cat would go bustling off to the pantry to return with a piece of sterling flatware—a dull knife intended for serving salmon pâté.
“A sliver knife behind the neck. That will fix a nosebleed.” Cat’s mother’s store of remedies was a failed naturopathy, her favorite nostrum paregoric for everything from frostbite to trench foot, “chilblains,” as she called it. Cat and Gladstone were dosed regularly.
“My mother was a licensed practical nurse; I went with her on calls. Horse and buggy—the way we traveled. Remember? Of course you do, dear Lucy...” He would be seated in an antimacassared armchair with his head tilted back so that his neck hurt. “Could we go for a drive today? Just you and me. That Chevrolet roadster holds such fond memories...” By now the nosebleed would have stopped on its own but there was no telling this to Cat: “Yes, I know the Hobarts are unrivaled clotters; you always say that. It will start again as soon as you stand. That clotting—stops up your arteries, Lucy. I’ll be a widow. What then?”
What then, indeed.
Cat felt it necessary to catch him up on her father’s health, her mother’s professional qualifications. “My father was a bleeder. My mother, she was a nurse and took good care of him. He died when he was 40. She took a splinter out of his toe once—‘Gladstone, white socks only; it will fester. You are wearing dark socks. What did I tell you? It’s the dye, infection will set in.’ And it did. He died three days later just to spite my mother.”
Lucy heard the story over and over as Cat wandered in and out of her blurry half-life as if waiting for a train that only sped up as it entered the station, leaving her behind on the platform. “She felt left out, denied access to the good parts of the book where pages were torn out. They sent her to an aunt while her father died.”
Samantha was plaiting a wreath of stalks of daisy fleabane intertwined with blue asters drying on the stalk. “Naturopathy, then—and her mother was a trusted nurse with a free pass on whatever ailed her friends and neighbors. That gives a new meaning to practicing medicine. The emphasis on ‘practice.’ Did many of the friends and neighbors survive?”
“Surprisingly, most. Is the wreath to be a crown? For you? Me?”
“For me, Empress of Tarot. I will make you a wreath too, Chicken Wizard.”
“After this day’s good work—the chicken and all—I will deserve a wreath, a bit of premature funeral greenery. Don’t tell Sarah. She is possessive of her crafts projects. I shall tell you a Cat’s-tale, O Empress. My wife. No, she is not crazy. She has been blessed. While the world plummets along beside her, sure of its own destiny, she waffles in the gardens of forgetfulness. Catherine, my widow-yet-to-be, rides the hag.”
“Hag-ridden. That is a phrase I have heard, but I don’t know what it means.” Finished with her wreath-making, she passed Lucy her hand rolled cigarette. “Want a toke?”
“So young, so lovely. Youth betrayed by ignorance.” Lucy accepted the smoldering joint and inhaled deeply. He let the smoke go slowly, choking out words between exhalations. “You think I don’t know what this is. When I was your age, this was legal.” Gasp. “Or not illegal. Pick one.” Gasp. “We used to buy belladonna too. At the pharmacy. Over the counter.” Gasp, a long, last exhalation then a grateful intake of air. “The drug of choice—from the drugstore. Know what we used to call it?”
“You are full of surprises, great-grandfather. No.”
“Marijuana.” Lucy laughed and leaned back on the grass, stroking the mesmerized chicken. “Users report a minty lavender odor, a midrange of lilac, and a base note of fermenting gym locker. Ah, yes. Riding the Hag, bear with me. Beyond Newfoundland—where the airplanes go? Past the Northumberland Strait and Bay of Chaleur—there is a place called Labrador. Where the Newfie fishing families go in the summer, to fish, QED. Mean place in winter, Labrador. Cold, frost on the doorknobs and the inside walls till April. A homunculus comes by night to warm the beds of the fishwives; their husbands are at sea, perhaps to never return, so why not? Folklore says they have been ‘hag-ridden,’ the breath forced out of them as if by a great weight; they sometimes die. The less imaginative scientific community calls the phenomenon ‘sleep-paralysis.’ But Cat has reversed the effect—she rides the hag.”
“Canadian voodoo, dope, death and homicidal nurse-practitioners. You’ve got one hell of a family, Lucy.”
DazL, the miraculous child, awakened and let out a furious howl. He was being ignored and this was not acceptable. He crawled through the stubble of flattened pasture to the chicken and put its head in his mouth. The chicken was still out cold. “He wants to nurse,” said Samantha. At the words, the child released the hypnotized hen and eyed his mother’s breasts. “No, not today, thank you,” said Samantha and passed the child the remains of the marijuana cigarette. The toddler swallowed it.
Lucy reclined on his back to watch cumulus clouds reshape themselves. He tried to see cartoon faces, pirate fleets in full sail—familiar forms, but there were none. He closed his eyes. The vapor trail of the passing jetliner had dissipated. “Less scientifically advanced peoples, less Christian folk than the Newfies, ascribe the deaths to night-marauding sacred trees, the hounds of Herne the Hunter, which feed on human essence in sleep. Sometimes a person will awake during the trees’ feeding, resulting in paralysis.”
“I have panic attacks,” said Samantha. “When I wake up suddenly, in the bathroom usually. On the toilet, a spiritual dread. I thought it was because I got raped there once, maybe twice. But I can’t remember any of it.”
“You just said that you did,” said Lucy.
Samantha was wary. “But your wife, I mean all that paregoric when she was a kid, right? How could she sleep, anyway? Is that why she has the TV on all the time?”
“TV is otherworldly, night fright all the time and in living color. Terror comes from losing control. TV offers a rudimentary kind of control—the remote control, in Cat’s case. Spectatrix ab Extra. Sit in front of a TV long enough and you can’t move; TV stimulates the fear centers of the brain; all her darkest fears will be realized if she can’t make it to the next commercial break. They never are so she keeps on coming back for more.”
Lucy sat bolt upright. The pain had returned. “Cat has wrestled the hag and won. It has been a Pyrrhic victory. ‘Whoever battles monsters should take care not to become a monster too, for if you stare long enough into the Abyss, the Abyss stares also into you.’ That’s Friedrich Nietzsche. Sounds profound. Time for a nap.” He rolled over next to the chicken and fell asleep.
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