Done by the Forces of Nature

by Ray Davis


There must have been a street called South Street once, laid out as part of the human city. Perhaps the Fay were in retreat at that time, or their jungle hadn't grown so far north. But now South Street names a transitional neighborhood, where shards of human and inhuman life overlap, scrape, and fracture. A place of exchange, it seems exhausted with exchange, littered with tatters of old song and skittering hungers.

Most inhabitants find themselves carried to South Street by a natural drift too subtle to be quantized into decisions. But even those who come seeking some particular security or excess eventually find themselves, at their most successful, at a loss to go on, or to go back, or to do more than cling to that very pain of loss. This is the state called glamour: a befogging ache which flares into stabs of drunken fire; the gift of the Fay and a passage to their jungle.

The gift of humans? Small sacrifices: of artifacts and labor, of immediacy and impermanence.

City dwellers picture the Fay as delicate twists of things dredged in milk and sequins, but they can come big as people and sharp as tomcat piss. Oddly furred and furrowed, the Fay seem most at ease when most transparent, most powerful when most distant. They move slowly and jerkily, as if they know their time's almost up but they're too wound down to use it.

Still they can dazzle a person, if a person bothers to look.

I. Kareen

Kareen got caught looking late one night.

She and Demmi had filled a cassette side with diminishing retakes, and, needing some peace from Chi-Z's nattering, Kareen had begged off the usual post-playback autopsy. Demmi'd left with her, passing by Chi-Z's glare with a bland "Later, doll." Not that Chi-Z'd stoop to asking Demmi to stay. He'd just complain about it a week later is all: Chi-Z aged his whines.

The two girls strolled the inward declivities of a long-ago burnt-down block, comparing family hassles and personal enemies, till Kareen cooled enough to broach the evening's practice session: "You know, Chi-Z's collected himself a fat stack of records to jump off from, but someone better tip him off soon we got the words."

"One of us has, anyway," said Demmi.

"Shit," Kareen offered as disproof.

"No, I know both you well enough to know what's what. Chi-Z was feeling a little raggeder than usual just 'cause of harvest time coming in."

"Back home up in the city, we're probably in winter already," said Kareen, looking at the backyard arbor gone wild around them, the stunted fruit trees a patch of fall between edgy spring greens and a summery patch of high pale brittlewheat.

"Not that kind of harvest," Demmi said in her aren't-you-a-babe-in-the-woods tone. "Didn't you hear about Preach coming out for a tour?"

"Not really my kind of music," Kareen said.

"The music's not what's got Chi-Z jumpy. It's what Preach brings out the jungle with him and what he takes back. You heard of Dox anyway, right?"

"Preach's producer, I expect."

"And manager and agent and more-than-half-Fay talent scout. What's got Chi-Z fleabit is he's got a connection to Dox and Preach while they're here. It'll be a good opportunity for us. And for you."

Apparently, Kareen was meant to express anticipatory gratitude. Without comment or hurry, she struck off into the sharp dip at the end of the lot, where everything went to common seed. Demmi trailed behind her.

Down the slope, blackberries brambled through ash-colored crown-of-thorn. "Hey now," Kareen said facetiously as she snagged her sleeve on a vine, "you stay in your place, I'll go back to mine."

"What you expect it to do, you steal its babies?" said Demmi.

The berries in the shade at the bottom were sweetest, and easy to get at. Strange the rats and birds hadn't raided them. In the low midnight light, Kareen's red sweatshirt looked black, and she couldn't tell if she'd stained it. Demmi, who seemed graceful enough to dance around raindrops, probably didn't worry much about berry juice.

As they gathered and ate, a companiable silence drew over them, comfortable as a quilt. Which Demmi, with typical South Street impatience, kicked away. "I reckon I'm filled for the night."

"You go on then. I'll digest some here." Besides, Kareen felt like working out rhymes.

They embraced and bragged on each other a last time. Kareen closed her eyes to listen to Demmi brushing through the weeds, away. Like having a bowl of quiet cupped over you. Not like city quiet; here there was always the jungle noise ready to step in.

Try it slow and chanty, wet in the throat. "Capsule'll capture you... catch you like a cat will... kitty cornered... coroner..." Corona?

She felt self-conscious without an audience, kept hushing down, but helped along by the occasional rattle of night birds, she worked out an oddly abstract chorus and first and last verses. She shut her eyes again for a run-through.

When she opened them, everything had outlines. Even the mist drew itself in, clenched. Kareen felt more exhausted than she would've thought possible just seconds before. Wanted to prop against a trunk for a spell, or trample a dogsbed in the brittlewheat. Or, more sensibly, to walk home quick and have done with the night.

She guided herself out of the lot by a streetlamp's glow. When she emerged, she stopped, a little staggered by the relief of free air, and looked at the street to steady herself. And stayed looking.

She looked into the reflection of the halogen light, looked till the asphalt wore thin over white heat. Then she looked on till it was melted through. The hole was spreading. And then she barely broke off.

Her legs were trembling; she'd been there a long while.

What was it?

A craving for something. She didn't know what, but the reflection was the closest thing she could think of, and where would she go when it went out?

Her gaze stole back. The illusion had already been submerged some by the morning sun. Watch out little god 'cause the big god's moving in. She watched the contrast continue to fade, and she felt she travelled with it a ways. The bass of her pulse quickened and dampened into a wavering tone with the timbre of woodwinds. Her lips formed words.

Something was in her way, clucking like a cold motor. Kareen's eyes stuttered as they focused: round bestubbled middle-aged baby-face: that friend her father had had, the one who had trouble talking: Cottonmouth. "Oh my, Kareen," he said. "You're so quiet a party hardly knows you're around, and then you land in something like this."

He seemed necessary but not entirely welcome; his words, intrusive, harmless, might've as well been birdsong. Sunlight flared around him and through the sky, and Kareen realized that she'd gotten distracted and lost her place in the road.

"Come on," Cottonmouth told her, "we'll get you away from here." Kareen flinched. "Just for a bit, Kareen. Bad neighborhood for you right now. Come on, I'll put you up. Too early in the day for a fight."

Though she shied away from the gin smell, she let him guide her by her arm.

After a few blocks, Cottonmouth grumbled, "Hope you break out of this soon. Last thing I need is changeling bait." He smacked his dry lips, and Kareen looked over at him.

Not taking his eyes off South Street, he fumbled a knife and a bit of aromatic branch one-handed from his side pouch, lifted them to his lips, and trimmed the soft tip of the branch into his mouth. He chewed slowly while he fumbled knife and branch back, then spat and continued, his lisp punctuating his speech like a beetle's thrum: "People say you're smart. So maybe you got some slack to work with. I don't know; you always quiet when I see you. Or dreamy, I bet folks called you. 'Ts how you got in this fix. Look at those big eyes. Oh, you're in a fix, all right. Don't feel so bad yet, do you? You will."

Sure enough, the first layer of dream broke around 3 AM, with the whoops, gun shots, and shattered glass attendant on a nearby bar's closing. After an hour of feverish cramping, in desperate surmise Kareen pulled down the dishcloth Cottonmouth had draped over the rod angled into the window. Her burning eyes cooled against the half-moon's light, and, convinced that she was herself somehow halved as well, she sent up a moan, and finding that this keening dulled her fright, she slowly softened it, alternating breath and hum. And so to sleep. And to light.

# # # #

Next morning, Kareen woke up groggy but angry. She stomped around lost on the way to the bathroom; in the cold gritty shower, she slapped her hands against the tile; when she opened the bathroom door and found Cottonmouth waiting there, she actually hissed at him, and he jumped back to let her pass.

Dressed, she waited at the warped and splintery sideboard which demarcated the kitchen. When he showed, she asked him, "I'm in glamour, right? I can't think straight."

"Mm," Cottonmouth agreed, looking tired, and sat out new brown bread, a knife, a pitcher of dusty-looking milk, and two mugs.

"What the fuck do I do now?"

"Work," said Cottonmouth.

"With you, right? Just like Chi-Z, except you know I got no choice now. I bet you got connections with this Dox freak too, right?"

"That I do," he said. He filled a rusty kettle with rusty water and set it on a burner. "We aren't going to talk to Dox yet, though. Got too much to do round here first."

A new wave of loss and pain bullied her under the surface. Kareen didn't know much about glamour, but she knew enough to know she had to get to the jungle. Where Preach was coming from and going back to. She clutched the bread knife hard to hold back from screaming or moaning or whatever.

Cottonmouth dashed a jot of dark rum into his mug, poured milk into both mugs, and went on like nothing was happening. "Preach got his own costs to defray. He gets caught up short, you get tossed like scraps to a dog." He sipped his laced milk as if he didn't want to rush the experience. "You need the Fay now, so we got to be more careful than this Krayzee whoever, get over the border on our own. Get fixed here first. This week and next studio rates are cheap, everyone else dangling off Dox and his boys."

She needed to follow through on this. That thought, ambiguous though it was, was very clear.

("They notice the club play," Cottonmouth was saying.)

The anaesthetic didn't cover everything, then. Just where she'd been, as if her nerves had been remolded. Aiming at new appetites. When she thought about "following through" -- on her songs, to the Fay -- she felt as giddy with fear and pleasure as when she'd first acted on a crush on a boy.

And it made sense that she'd have to be just as goddamned careful. Go slow on the outside, double time on the inside. "If only I wasn't so knotted up," she said aloud. She set down the knife, and pulled some bread from the belly of the loaf.

"Good morning," said Cottonmouth gravely, sliding her mug forward. "Thing you got to remember through this shit, we know the Fay want you."

Kareen felt moisture cooling on her face. "It's nice to be wanted, I guess."

"Mm," said Cottonmouth. "That's one charm going to wear off in a hurry. Hey, you're clearing up real good. Get a bucket of black tea in you and we might even start work tonight."

Kareen forced herself to drink the milk, her mind racing at the thought of getting into a professional studio. Every couple of swallows, she looked up to see Cottonmouth watching her with mopish eyes; he didn't drop his gaze.

Noises came down the hall, Kareen's name among them.

"Word traveled," muttered Cottonmouth. He opened the door a bit and called softly, "Over here, children."

"Where you got her?" Demmi asked Cottonmouth through the door, while Chi-Z waved a thwacking big piece of vine wood behind and said, "Start talking, granny." Then they saw Kareen.

Kareen looked back into the apartment. "Water's boiling," she said.

"You want tea?" Cottonmouth asked, opening the door wide. "Plenty to go round."

"Fuck the tea!" said Chi-Z while Demmi shook her head and glared.

"That's the trouble with this neighborhood," Cottonmouth said. "Kids got no respect."

Demmi shoved past him and pointed her index finger towards the floor as if training a puppy. "Kareen, why didn't you call us? Chi-Z's just about set up a meeting with Preach at the Meriodional."

"Don't be whoring around on us now, Kareen," said Chi-Z. "You drop out now, you lost your last chance."

"What d'you mean, 'whoring'?" asked Kareen.

"Chi-Z damn it!" shouted Demmi, and then held her palms up imploringly. "Kareen, remember, we're all in this together."

"Maybe," Kareen said, a bit softer. "But we're getting out one at a time. Cottonmouth, you talk to them, OK?" And she retreated to another room.

She came back when she heard the door slam.

"First pot's about ready." Cottonmouth looked at her and laughed. "Kareen, you got a hell of a jaw when you stick it out! Make that mood rhyme, you'll be just fine. All you need's a good flyting to get the poison out."

"Flithing?" Kareen said, misled by Cottonmouth's lisp.

"Flyting. Kind of smushes together 'fly' and 'fighting' and 'flay'. It means playing the dozens. Battle of the MCs."

Which led Kareen to write "Flyte of the Killer B," and to salt the word through her freestyle. She worried about overkill, but Cottonmouth pointed out that expansion of the common vocabulary is a poet's greatest honor.

II. Chi-Z

The Meridional was a towering slab of black volcanic rock, hollowed out and honeycombed into rooms and gardens. Thick ivy covered one side and painfully crooked Chinese pines pressed moss-gloved knuckles against the other. The idea was to make Fay visitors feel at home and humans feel like they were away someplace.

As children, Chi-Z and his friends had played beneath it and dared each other to dart into the lobby to touch its blood-moss carpet. Later, Chi-Z and Demmi would sometimes break into an expensive suite and use it as a make-out spot. Once, it'd been raked clean, meaning a VIP must be on the way, but Demmi'd said, what the hell, they might appreciate the show. As it turned out, Chi-Z finished in plenty of time.

The night they were to meet Preach was the first time either had come to the hotel intending to attract attention: bribing, namedropping, bluffing their way through to the eighth floor Vine Room -- it felt uncomfortable but exciting, like starting real life.

Inside the party, discomfort and excitement intensified, and Chi-Z felt instantly exhausted. First you'd be stuck like a fly in incomprehensibly dense crowd, then get dropped into space so free you'd want to jump back for safety. The dips and rises of the floor were unpredictable. The mint underfoot was dizzying. The Meridional had high ceilings, but Chi-Z couldn't see anything up past eight feet or so, since the beeswax candles were too dim and the hanging vines were only luminescent in scattered spots. Most disconcerting was the noise: not the roar with beats that you get in a human crowd, but a headache-inducing high buzz shattered by even higher shrieks, bass courtesy of the room's reverb: they must've sealed the pores of the rock with acrylic or something.

Steering Demmi at random, Chi-Z brushed against something dry and cold. He looked and saw a Fay, roiling around inside a suit of black leather. Moving but solid. At least as solid as a person. "Sorry," Chi-Z yelled, wondering if he'd touched the leather sleeve or the tufted hand. The Fay's hum got choppier. Chi-Z spotted a bar table carved out of the rough rock. God help you you get knocked into that when you're drunk.

Demmi yelled, "Maybe they're over there. Where it's kind of darker."

Chi-Z grabbed a vodka and ice for the road, and they pushed through.

Their connection was Fawn, a fairly well-off young man who hoped to become an impresario. Body-built, hesitant in his voice, usually shiny pale in shiny clean short-sleeves and baggies, tonight his muscles were strangled in full-length jacket and pants and he was bright pink. He made a little wiping motion in the air to hold them back when he saw them.

Chi-Z said to Demmi, "That's Dox with him. The tall one, see? Shit, looking up close, you still can't tell what he is." Dressed well in gray; opaque, but too light somehow: tethered down, not weighed down.

The clump around Dox thinned at one side, and Fawn motioned to them. Chi-Z took Demmi's arm and squeezed into the magic circle. The noise shut off with a little click, like Chi-Z's ears had popped.

"Dox, Dox," said Fawn. "This is Demmi I was telling you about, and this is her producer, Cheesy, right?"

"No, man, it's 'Kie-Z.' It's Greek, you hear what I'm saying?"

Dox barely glanced at them. "Yeah, good, we need a new around-the-way girl."

"What happened to the old one?" asked Demmi.

"She broke a leg," said Dox. Nobody laughed. The brief silence brought Preach over, looking exactly like he always has, year after year, hard cheekbones and soft beard and eyes like a cynical doe. This was it, Chi-Z thought, thrilled.

Keeping their attention while it was available, good girl Demmi said, "Yeah, I guess you get those reckless types all right. I always wonder if any of us real steady ones ever even make the crossover."

Preach said, "Of course you can cross. No bordercheck but right here," and he pressed on her forehead with what looked like very soft fingertips. "Really, there's no difference once you get high enough up."

Chi-Z nodded.

Dox said, "That's where South Street has it over other places. Some places the Fay get sour dispositions and there's no getting over at all."

Demmi said, "Yeah but -- now I'm not saying it's on purpose, but some people seem to give up something when they cross. Like they get leached away after a while."

Chi-Z shook his head with a worried look.

Preach said, "There's a lot of leeches in this business."

Dox said, "Some people say they'd sell their soul to make it. Now, I don't say that, but say it cost your soul. Well, I say eventually it gets lost no matter what. Why not rent the nag out for rides instead of leaving it out back doing nobody good? That's how I see it."

Demmi said, "I hear that."

"Well, good," said Dox. "Now, the portable studio's set up in the Players Suite, and we'll be having a sort of private audition party around about midnight. You come over there and we'll try you out."

Demmi said, "I'll do that. And Chi-Z can bring some of his tapes."

Dox paused, then smiled expansively and said, "Yeah, hell, let them all in."

"We might have a spot for another girl if you know one," Preach told Demmi. "Right, Dox? Doesn't have to be a beauty queen, long as she can flow."

Dox said, "Someone real human. But smart."

"Can't get better than Demmi," Chi-Z said.

"You don't know anyone else?" Dox asked. "Well." Chi-Z couldn't read his expression, but it was aimed at Preach, so it must've been important. "Well, if one comes up, you bring her here."

Demmi told Chi-Z, "You get the tapes and I'll meet you at the audition." She winked at him.

# # # #

Why hadn't Demmi reminded him about the demo tapes before? Irritating to make the extra trip, but by the time he was headed back to the Meridional, Chi-Z felt good again, poised. It was a chilly night, bulking up for the rains. Good excuse for him to keep his hands in his pockets, guarding the cassettes.

He was ready. This was the culmination of years of honing his skills, training his protegées. Hard dues-paying, but worth nothing without talent. Have to have both the talent and the discipline. And Kareen didn't have either, you get right down to it. With or without the glamour saddle slapped on, no way she would hack it in the jungle.

Sharp? Book sharp, yeah, but Street stupid, and spoiled as jungle fish. Kareen and Fluffy Peter Cottonballs, now there's two of a kind. I never liked that greasy old fuck. Standing right at the edge of the dancers like, "Oh, I like to watch." Always jerking off over all these people no one ever heard of, and you know what? They never heard of him either. Biggest do-nothing lump of fake elephant shit....

Someone jostled into him hard and muttered, "Watch it, faggot."

"What?" said Chi-Z, surprised.

The guy had two other guys on his left. They all wore red and black shirts, black slacks -- with a black stripe? "Don't you touch me, fag. I don't like fags touching me."

Some other people walking from the same direction stopped. In the dark, Chi-Z couldn't tell if they were with the first group or not. "Yo, I didn't touch you," he said.

"I'm loaded," the guy said, getting real close face to face with Chi-Z. His eyes looked absolutely cracked. "You hear what I'm saying? I'm loaded and your faggot ass is on ice." He stepped forward.

Chi-Z stepped back. "Look, I got no time for this."

The other people not saying a word. Looking from a distance. Like the shrunken attendants of a pharaoh. Or naturalists at a mating ritual.

"You a tough little suck, huh? Like a flea. So jump."

Chi-Z grabbed the invitation, walked fast around the guy and through the biggest gap he could see in the others.

He heard from behind him, "Yeah, you better run." Then he heard laughter.

# # # #

The walls, floors, and ceilings of the Players Suite were smoothed with clay, painted with clouds of black and silver. For tonight they'd somehow replaced one of the walls with a slab of plexi, and installed thick soundproofing doors all over. Or, who knows, maybe the Players Suite was always like that; depends what kind of playing they did. Through the plexi, Chi-Z saw Demmi chanting into a microphone. When she saw him she waved him back, her flow unbroken.

A well-balanced herbal stink drifted from the picture window where a couple of young blades were getting blunted, conversing from hoarse whisper to howl and back. Chi-Z tried to mingle but was feeling edgy after the confrontation outside. Wild boys always seemed to get wilder when the Fay showed up in force. Cycles of nature synch that way.

When Demmi came out, he asked what they'd had her sing. She said, "Just whatever," and excused herself: she needed something to drink, she was dying. Someone else went in.

Who was he supposed to talk to? "Fuck this," Chi-Z said softly, and let himself into the production room.

Inside, Preach, Dox, some girls, and a bunch of Fay were talking in broken whispers. The loudest thing there was that high mechanical noise which followed the Fay around like B.O.

Not wanting to intrude, Chi-Z waved out one of his cassettes as a signal. Dox nodded at him. Chi-Z started forward, but Dox shook his head sharply and said, "When this one's done."

It hit Chi-Z that no speaker was on and no one wore headphones. No one could possibly be hearing the boy at the microphone behind the plexiglass.

After the boy went away, one of the prettiest girls surprised Chi-Z by taking his tape. "Hey," he started to protest, but it looked like she knew what to do with it. She bent over some controls, and a hiss filled the room, and then the demo. Chi-Z suddenly realized that one of the other songs would have been a better choice, but his strongest work put Kareen way up front, and she hadn't given him time to figure out how to take her out. He smiled and nodded to the music.

A minute into it, just when the toy piano cut in, someone said "Christ." It was one of a couple of Fay; he didn't even know they used the word.

"Yeah," said Chi-Z, "it's --"

"It's a mess, man," said a young man in a toneless voice, "it's fucking embarrassing."

Chi-Z knew what was wrong, he'd been through this before with other people. "No, no, it's just the equipment, you got to listen close."

"Close?" the young man said. "You already got it so close it's spraying me."

"Then you got to listen farther away," said Chi-Z, grinning at the controls and about to ask about the knobs to the left of the last bass calibrator.

Dox said, "Get rid of him." The realization clunked into Chi-Z all assembled: He'd blown one chance; you get no more. With the pointless detached fascination you might derive from a new twitch, he heard his own voice start to protest.

Dox wasn't fascinated: "Get rid of him, get the motherfucker out of here. I got work to do." Then he turned his back. Might as well paint a target on it and hand out party-favor bullets, thought Chi-Z, blinking fast and hard as a man and woman approached.

"OK, OK," said Chi-Z. "Just tell me where Demmi is, I got to get her first, don't I?"

"Demmi?" asked the woman.

"Think that's the friend of that girl," said the girl who'd taken the tape.

"Don't worry about her; she ain't worried about you," said the young man.

Ripped off again. Fuck if she'd get far without him, though. He'd have to make it all by himself, that's all, make it easier without the extra weight; he'd grind past Dox too, keep that twenty-percent for himself. Yeah, it hurt, but he'd make it, he knew that. He was alive, wasn't he?

III. Cottonmouth

A knock, persistent, regular, woke Cottonmouth. Without bothering to put on his robe, he opened the door.

Two Fay were there, one draped in gray silk, and one in brown.

At least they'd waited outside instead of just showing up over his sofa.

"Hell," Cottonmouth said. "Do you know what time it is?"

"Winter?" guessed the gray Fay in a voice which burbled as if it was under slush.

Cottonmouth reminded himself not to invite them in. Because if he did, he was sure he would forget and offer them something to eat, and then they would offer something in exchange, and then where would he be? "What can I do you for?" he asked, straddling the doorway in his breezy boxers.

"We would be interested in recordings," said the talkative Fay, while the other one continued to simmer.

"Your friend's just along to help carry those hundreds of recordings, huh?" Cottonmouth said.

"There are that many?" asked the Fay.

Cottonmouth snorted and coughed. His tongue was painfully dry. "Excuse me," he said. "A joke. No recordings yet. You have to wait. Won't be long, though. Hope you like them. Excuse me now. Got to make those recordings. I'll call you." He shut the door.

He leaned against the closed door and stroked his jumping belly, trying to soothe himself down. Well, that's basically good, he thought, that's real good. Actual real-life expressed desire. Don't see that every day. Wonder if it's too early for a beer.

"Who you talking to?" yelled Kareen from the bedroom. Cottonmouth had hoped she was exhausted enough from last night's session to sleep through the noise.

"Two little Fay come a-calling," he yelled back. "They're getting into position, honey."

"Tell 'em to hurry it up."

Guess it wasn't that early after all.

# # # #

The Low-End Studio, like Cottonmouth's apartment building, was on the mostly-city side of South Street. That twilight, they took a long swing ocean-side to check out one of Cottonmouth's publicity moves.

Right past the Doggy Diner, as they entered a cradle of massive black maple, Kareen opened her mouth as if to say something. Then her expression abruptly changed. She hugged herself, bending over deep.

Cottonmouth held her around the shoulders, not too tight, waiting for her shakes to stop.

"Shit," Kareen groaned.

"Not the first time the Diner seen someone doubled over," Cottonmouth said. "You want something for the pain?"

Kareen shook her tucked-in head, panting. "No, I can't. I get started on any shit, what happens if I run out? It'll be -- shit! -- a permanent problem. Instead of just a temporary."

"Temporary? Kareen, girl, didn't any of those children tell you anything? The pain'll get easier, but it won't go away. My old friend Art Rackim, he called the jungle 'honey with the stings left in.' Can't ever get far enough over to stop it; specially not stubborn types like him and you. You'd have to be more Fay than the Fay. Even if that was possible, they wouldn't allow it; they want you human." He added, "You want yourself human, too."

"What's so great about human?" she complained. But she sounded clearer, and under Cottonmouth's hands seemed less clenched, so he moved off her.

"Oh, you're all right," he said. He scrounged around at the side of an ancient maple and pulled some elf dock. "Here. It's nothing strong, just helps your body clean up the poison." He plumped down beside her.

She took the leaves, sat back, looked at them with weary reddened eyes, folded them up into a neat square, tried to swallow it, and choked.

Cottonmouth said, "Mostly people just chaw it a little, or make tea."

Kareen spat the lump out. After a bit, Cottonmouth looked at the sky, checking the light. "You feeling better?"

Kareen nodded, and stood up. And reached a hand to help him stand up, which tickled him.

Just another block on was what Cottonmouth wanted to show off: a twenty-foot hunk of soft orange rock spraypainted with a ten-foot cartoon of Kareen, tough and bulky in blood-red sweats. Above and behind her, "NO SUGAR" was written in midnight-blue amulet script outlined with silver. The muralist had worked with the granite lines scarring the surface of the stone so that they might form a web which Kareen had strung, or might be a mirror which Kareen had broken.

"Have to be gaudy to compete with the Doggy Diner," Cottonmouth explained, since Kareen looked worried.

"No, it's nice, Cottonmouth. But this is going to be some kind of embarrassing if the records don't get made."

"We're making them," Cottonmouth said, turning to start on the long walk to the studio. "I know it seems like we're going slow. The Fay think so too. But you have to get established here. Means less isolation in the jungle. Just remember, they wouldn't hit you this hard unless they really wanted you. So that keeps you safe. Not like they're that careful once they have you. I had cooperative friends. Pretty well known, too -- Ephusia? Splash?"

Kareen shook her head.

Kids these days. "Well, trust me. Plenty of good talent stomped down without them noticing what's under their feet. But they still want to pluck you green. Probably worried if they let you get ripe, they'll miss you when you drop."

Kareen said, "You make them sound like the devil."

Cottonmouth turned politely, spat white every which way, and shook his head. "If they're the devil or not, I don't know, but I know either way, anyone calling them the devil hasn't got to call for long."

That night, Kareen was feeling her oats. They polished "No Damn Mercy" (a ballad whose chorus Kareen literally sang, revealing a creditable city-bred alto); laid down "Green Baggies" and "Bug Juice" (a scabrous answer song to "Flytrap," still peaking in the clubs); Kareen even talked Cottonmouth over to the mic to mumble gangsterisms behind "Mack J-Davey." They already had at least a CD's worth of songs, and next Kareen wanted to help with the remixes. During a beer break, Cottonmouth allowed as she was the hardest worker he'd seen since the old days when everyone had to play their own instruments.

Kareen shook her head. "It's not like I have a choice. No matter how long we go or how tired I get, I can't get a taste for anything else. Whenever I take a break, just sitting here talking with you -- it's like cystitis, it feels all the time I got to pee even if I just went."

"Cystitis," Cottonmouth lisped, and laughed. "Now I know the Fay would appreciate that."

# # # #

The first pressing was to be a 12-inch of "Bug Juice," and Cottonmouth invited a few friends from the music and dance scenes to a back room of The Broadway Tunnel for a preview. The Broadway Tunnel was a pit and underground maze on the jungle side of South Street, covered by a mesh of bamboo, palms, and rushes. In the rainy season or on particularly crowded nights, the soil fall prompted quick turnaround, perfect for broad exposure.

Cottonmouth started off trying to handle introductions and to track reactions, but before long the party opened up too wide to keep track of. No Fay, though, which surprised him a bit. Not that they needed to manifest themselves to know what was up, any more than to make mischief. It was more a matter of courtesy, not to mention convenience. Maybe he'd rubbed them rawer than he'd intended to. But he and Kareen had been too busy to fuss with the Fay protocols, and they sure couldn't argue with the results.

At any rate, the nearest thing to Fay were some candy-ass wannabe fluff who floated in on the current, got told a couple times what was up, and sacrificed a green velvet bag's worth of E -- on top of the very special old cognac, the very earthy oily bhang, and, must have a few other old-timers around, the very traditional lines on the very traditional mirror. Hardly even remember what to do with those, but it's like falling off a bike.

Only invited guest who didn't make it was the NO SUGAR muralist; he'd gotten himself mauled by a jaguar, according to the muralist's ex-boyfriend. Better tell Kareen be careful, Cottonmouth thought; might be bad cess was getting stirred up. But the next time he was pushed close to her, he only had time to yell, "You meeting people?" before he was pushed on, watching her smile and nod.

Nice people all around, but hard to really judge the record when there was no room for dancers. He earnestly tried to explain this to a sweet little queen in black lycra shorts, who kept yelling back, "But we like it fine!"

While he swayed, rephrasing, a skinny high-cheekboned guy grabbed Cottonmouth's arm and yelled, "Where's this girl of yours been hiding?"

Cottonmouth yelled back Kareen's lyric, "She's a holler-point bullet, lets you know when it hits," and saw Kareen beaming a couple of layers away, holding tight to her tumbler of ginger beer. Ginger beer, I swan. Even on a night like this, you can't get her to relax and try anything stronger, poor girl.

He felt his eyes start to tear up with tenderness. He felt his foot step on something which crunched. At least two people he didn't know if he knew started talking to him.

A lot of the night got lost between then and when Cottonmouth found himself out on the Street staring at an albino macaw asleep behind some elephant-foot vines. He didn't remember how he got there, but he felt pretty sure that Kareen had gone home long ago and that he wasn't feeling sorry for her anymore.

The chill air snapped him together, made him feel clear-headed even while wrapped in the high like flannel. He walked slow, treasuring the experience. Been a while since he'd gotten fucked up so well; he was getting on.

This year he'd be, well, way past 40 anyway. But a high-caliber 45. May look 45 but I feel like a colt. All that time wasted. The trade papers would want an explanation. He pictured the interviewer, skeptical in a friendly way, listing the impressive list of artists Cottonmouth had known before he'd brought himself to the forefront, and asking, why not then, why now.

It's true he'd stayed on the fringes of the business. Lend a hand, fetch the smokes, run the tapes, but basically a connoisseur. It was simply time to stop watching because he'd learned enough from watching to know the right person when he saw her. He was the good land that the seed fell on; it'd be a sin against the seed not to do something with it.

Because there was no point to hooking up with someone already involved with the Fay. Even if the talent was determined and flaky enough to break free for a bit, you'd have to watch them like a cobra to make sure they didn't end up like poor Art Rackim or Splash had. On the other hand, you could waste your life on independent mediocrities and then get your first real star snatched away without hardly noticing.

So you had to find the talent right in between, catch her right on the road, and show her a shortcut. Well, sort of a shortcut. The longest way there but the smoothest way back. And then you had to know how to negotiate with the Fay, get 'em to understand that compromise is good for everyone in the long run. That they got to give up a little control to get anything worthwhile back. It takes real experience and real spine; not like those blowhard punks Kareen had been hanging with.

Time to get his real spine back onto his couch and sleep it off. Must be around dawn: the gray lights of sun and street balanced perfectly. Pampas grass like thicker tufts of fog.

Down a ways, a group of kids were making a racket. Cottonmouth started to cross the street to avoid them but then figured, fuck it, you only live once. This was his and Kareen's audience, after all. Good to make new youth connections every couple of years.

They were in sort of a circle, moving around funny and yelling; gambling, or trying out moves. Dressed all alike in red and black, like an old-fashioned harmonizing group.

"Now, what are you all doing up so late at night," Cottonmouth said expansively, joining the circle.

Inside curled up on the ground was a kid who looked to be dead.

"We're taking a piss, bitch," said one of the boys. "Why, you want some?"

There were shouts of laughter. "Ooh, look how big his eyes got!" "I got some for you, bitch!"

"Smoke him," said one of the boys.

"No, now," said Cottonmouth knowing they didn't understand he was no threat and wishing his record was here or someone who could explain to them, but he realized focusing first on one's gun and then on another's eyes that it would've done no good, they can always not listen. It was easy to forget that.

IV. Demmi

Demmi wasn't sure why she'd been called on to join Jubal Lee's Roots Tour -- with his elaborate pomade and plucked brows and pseudo-religious hokum, Jubal was not really her kind of music -- but it would be nice to catch up on what was happening outside the jungle. And the job was a good career move: Dox had asked her to help prep the smaller venues, even to try to pick up another opening act during the early South Street stops, which made her halfway an impresario herself. To reach that level of trust without ever falling into glamour was an impressive achievement. Maybe the Fay preferred things businesslike after all, same as she did.

When she got free of Jubal's entourage, first thing she checked was the date.

It was seven years since she'd left.

Second thing she checked was news on Kareen, since, providing further proof that glamour didn't always beat hard work, Kareen had never managed a single concert in the jungle, had in fact retreated back up to the city. Word was that her live show was pumping, but, without even a video available, one couldn't be certain.

As best she could from another world, Demmi had followed Kareen's career. "Bug Juice," her self-financed debut, had been overpowered by the commercial muscle Dox put behind the official answer to "Flytrap": "Venus Replies" (already in the can when Demmi had been brought over; Demmi'd just re-cut the vocals). Kareen's later releases were on a variety of badly distributed fly-by-night labels; it didn't help that her best work also seemed to be her most venomous and most eccentric. In fact, Demmi'd heard one callow jungle transplant claim that Kareen only did all that weird shit because she couldn't handle normal songs.

Even so, Kareen's lack of success was surprising. It wasn't like the Fay to give up on someone before bringing them in. And there was no doubting Kareen's talent, or that stubborn streak which used to come along like Jones. Anyway, given how things had worked out, Demmi didn't hold a grudge against Kareen for her betrayal back at Cottonmouth's: there was that jealousy between Kareen and Chi-Z to consider, and she mostly blamed Chi-Z for mishandling the situation. Hell, thinking back on it, she even felt like she might owe Kareen, a little.

Curiously enough, when she asked at the hotel, it turned out that Kareen was making one of her rare South Street appearances that week. These first few shows there wasn't an awful lot of prep work to do: Jubal was playing the same hall as on his last trip a decade before, though the old owner was dead and his daughter ran it now. It seemed an opportune time to check Kareen out, maybe even give her that break she'd been needing.

Demmi wandered far from the Meridional that afternoon, dropping easily into the old South Street rhythms, scrounging around for new tapes and murals, half-expecting to get an old home welcome every place she walked into. But all she met were new kids or old strangers. Somehow the whole neighborhood had been turned over, like soil. Still growing the same old shit, though.

Just as the sharp empty smell of the place was beginning to give her headache -- how had she managed to live here so long? -- with real jungle luck, Demmy saw Kareen heading toward her. A middle-age-not-going-to-make-old-age version of Kareen, looked like she'd gotten blown up and deflated a few times, but she was sure enough Kareen, with the same scary distant expression she'd had the last time Demmi'd seen her. Like she'd been through such bad times, they just meant more time.

Although she showed no sign of surprise, Kareen seemed to recognize Demmi as Demmi hurried forward. Of course, Demmi wouldn't have aged much. "Kareen! Damn, it's good to see you."

"Thank you," said Kareen guardedly. Was she on something?

"I, uh, hear you're playing tonight," Demmi tried.

"Yeah, at the Slippery Elm," Kareen said. "You coming?"

"Yeah, I figured -- I hoped," said Demmi.

Kareen's smile wasn't exactly broad, but she said, "I'd like you to."

Demmi immediately warmed up. "Good! And I'd like to talk to you, too -- listen, Kareen, would it be all right for me to invite you over to Stilts for a drink?" Stilts had a greenhouse atmosphere, and she could relax there.

"If you wouldn't mind paying for tea instead," Kareen said.

After a few blocks of silence, Kareen said, "I wondered what you were up to, but I didn't know what name you went under."

"'Andalusia,'" Demmi told her, a bit worried that Kareen would say something about their competing debuts, or the couple of lines she'd adapted from Kareen's notebooks.

Instead, Kareen said, "That's pretty."

Demmi laughed. "That's because you never heard anyone say 'And a loser' when you walked in. Better than 'Demmi,' anyway."

Kareen looked confused.

"From 'cause I had a small cup. One of those awful South Street nicknames...."

As they neared the bar, Kareen stared down and to the side with more intense attention than she'd given Demmi so far. Curious, Demmi looked over, but all she saw was a typewriter ribbon unwinding down the gutter stream. Kareen's eyes followed its spool rafting around the downhill corner at Marks Place, pink and white petals dotting its path.

Demmi shook her head and fondly laughed; god, Kareen was out there.

At Stilts, Demmi took a couple of sips of her stale daiquiri, shucked its plastic mermaid, and offered Kareen an opening slot for Jubal. "Depending on tonight's show, you understand, but if it goes as well as I expect, maybe we can finally get you out of the city and where you belong."

Instead of thanking her, Kareen looked grim. "I'll play the other spots, but I'm not going into the Fay's country. Not after Cottonmouth."

It took Demmi a moment to process. "You don't think the Fay killed Cottonmouth?" she asked incredulously. "That's one of those things that just happen, Kareen!"

"They didn't do it directly, no. But he wouldn't have died if it wasn't for them."

"He wouldn't have died if it wasn't for being drunk all the goddamn time, either. Really, girl" -- it felt weird calling this haggard woman a "girl" -- "you have to be realistic. No point blaming every bit of bad luck on the Fay. They're not that busy!"

Kareen shook her head, eyes shut in childish denial -- then seemed to shake herself right out of it, opening her eyes and smiling and looking almost as freed up as the old Kareen. "You know, sometimes it seems like I disagree with everything."

"Well, I know it's been no easy road for you," Demmi offered. "In your condition... without even a visit...." She stalled.

"Oh, it's no worse than what other people deal with. If they go blind or lose a finger, they just work through it. It's probably even easier when you start out that way instead of getting used to it good first."

Demmi reached for some axiom that would fit, but before she found it Kareen spoke again.

"It's not even the worst I felt myself. The worst pain I was ever in was an earache when I was fourteen. Worse than when I broke my wrist playing ball. That earache had me screaming and no one could see a thing. They sent me to a nurse and she told everyone I was faking it. When my father died I remember thinking it wasn't as bad as that earache and feeling guilty about it."

"It wasn't your fault," said Demmi.

"We don't have any choice about how much something hurts," Kareen agreed. "All we can do is add to it or leave it alone."

"Well, I reckon I left it alone all right," Demmi said. "All alone. At least you stayed in your own land. There's some comfort in that."

The silence lasted so long, Demmi worried she'd riled her again. Then Kareen said, "My land. I've never even seen my land. I've been in exile for seven years and I'll be in exile when I die. They have my land."

"Your land?" asked Demmi, and suddenly felt coolly superior. Demmi knew what the Fay's country was like. It wasn't worth much, but even so, Kareen could only imagine it, and Demmi knew.

# # # #

Demmi pressed Kareen's arm for good luck, then walked around front to watch her performance. The crowd, pushing in to position themselves for the next act, forced Demmi farther and farther to the side, and finally she gave up and went back to the wings, a little behind one of the massive P.A. speakers.

Even from that vantage point she could see some of Kareen's tricks: using body language and comic mugging to magnify lyrical subtleties; making melodrama of a cycle between ever-more-uncontrolled transport and ever-more-desperate wrenchings back to earth. She should use a live DJ, though, instead of those cheap tapes which sounded so muddy and piercing. She also needed to work on the finish, which slumped into one of her recent, least distinctive singles.

Demmi could figure out a way to follow that act and still do right by Kareen. And maybe Kareen would change her mind by the time the tour headed south again, finally get a bit more practical; Demmi'd be a good influence that way. On the other hand, what would Dox say if a gap had to be filled last-minute? Well, at the very least, Kareen might be able to help Demmi find someone younger and more cooperative.

When Kareen came off-stage, Demmi hugged her, and then held her at arm's length, slightly repulsed by the unfamiliar feel of a sweating human being.

"That was just fine, honey," Demmi told her, one professional to another. "I tell you true, those Fay don't know what they're missing."

"Oh, I don't know," said Kareen. "I sort of think they might."


Copyright 1997 Ray Davis