There are men on horseback giving chase, Sagittarius, but you are not afraid. They have their crops, boots, and jodhpurs, but you have four long graceful legs of your own. You easily put a bit of distance between the hunters and yourself—vaulting across the meadow on your hooves.
You veer into the wood, but before you can crash through the underbrush and vanish, you discover archers waiting in your path with quivers drawn. Turning to gallop off another way, you find the riders have already caught up.
In your peripheral vision, one of the riders suddenly does the unexpected. Climbing up, they stand atop their mount and spring toward you through the air like a cat. You've never seen a human foolish enough to do such a thing, you're in shock.
You feel a weight land on your back then and cling there astride you. You buck and buck, but try as you might, you are unable to throw them, and at last the muzzle is slipped over your mouth.
"I've broken many a foal," she whispers in your ear digging into your middle with spurs, "but never saddled a centaur before."
"And what is this supposed to be exactly?" the professor said standing before the thing you spent all morning shaping from clay. A creature with a goat's head that ends in a fishtail. Your classmates are eager to get on with their own critiques.
You open your mouth to speak, but you know the professor's rule—if you have to explain art, it isn't.
The professor gives it a prod then, "Oh, would you look at that," he says, "it's a bit wet, still—the head part's malleable—did you do this in the period before this one?"
The professor doesn't know it was the only available time you had. About the new job you've had to start. He thinks you were just phoning it in.
The professor encircles the head in hand and starts to squish it, taking it off the figure.
"No need to waste good clay," he says.
He flattens the bulk of it out like dough, rolls it up, and presses his hands into it beginning to knead. Clutching the fist-sized clump squeezed, he starts pulsating it in his hand like an expanding and contracting heart. His clipboard remains in the other.
In that moment you see he's shaping a new face in that gob of clay that was the goat's head. Several times you see a mouth opened wide as though in agony of the metamorphosis—a gaping chasm like Edvard Munch's The Scream. He managed somehow to change the shape of the head itself, but not the goat horns. At last, he smacks it back down on the neck to dry.
"There," he says, "I call it 'Failure.'"
In your shame, you realize the face is yours, Capricorn. A single tear runs down her cheek. You can feel it falling now.
Perspective can have a great deal to do with how you handle a situation, especially after your Bedouin tour guide abandons you to die. You aren't quite certain how you insulted him, but you must have. He gave you a bit of water in a calabash, at least.
"We'll see how far you get," he said, took his camel by the reins, and left you in the dust.
You wrap your head to protect yourself from the bone-bleaching sun. Then you take what is to be your last sip from the oblong gourd for quite some time. People always say whether or not a container is viewed as half empty or half full depends entirely on your perspective, but does it matter if you haven't anything else to drink?
By the time you've counted seventeen vultures waiting for you to drop, you've wandered the sand for several hours. When at last you reach the top of the dune you'd been climbing, you can see around for miles. Standing there, from this perspective, you spot a rippling body of water in the distance—a distant oasis.
You start in its direction—hoping to refill your canteen. You swear you won't have any more of your water—not until you find more. You have to conserve what little there is.
And we will leave you there, too, Aquarius, to endlessly pursue your mirage. Don't worry, the Bedouin will be back—just as he said, to see how far you get. Hopefully, by then, he'll still be able to identify you—if the vultures haven't stripped your bones clean.
"Pieces?" she asks.
"It's pie-sees," you tell her—pointing to the brightly colored duo swimming in their respective circles around the glass aquarium.
You try to be patient. You asked one of your co-workers to watch your fish as you take a few of your sick days. Your mother has died and you have to fly home to make her arrangements.
You tell your co-worker that, basically, all they have to do to take care of your fish is not overfeed them.
"Right. Feed the fish, but don't feed them too much. Got it."
You give her the key and are off to the airport. Your father is waiting for you at baggage claim—he needs your help to do this. He always said she would outlive him, but no, she didn't and he wasn't ready for that.
On the day of her wake, as you're thousands of miles away, your co-worker unlocks your door, and steps into your house to sprinkle a bit of food on the surface of Pisces' tank. Not too little. Not too much. Goldilocks' zone.
She looks at the two fish in their separate apartments. Each swims on their own side of the opaque divider wedged in between the middle of the aquarium. The two fish do not even know the other is there.
To your coworker, this seems sad. "Dogs and cats get lonely," she says, "I'm sure fish can get lonely, too."
She opens the lid to the aquarium once again, reaches one hand in, and scoops up the bright red one—the color of blood.
"I bet the both of you would like being together better."
And opening the hand she drops the fish in like a raw egg splashing into a piping hot soup. Then she closes the lid and locks up. She'll be back tomorrow. To her surprise, only the blue one will remain alive. The other will be in pieces. You won't be back until after the funeral.
You never wanted to leave your boyfriend. Not this way. (Not at all.)
Your dads do not know where you get your crazy ideas from, Aries, but you do—that’s the only thing that matters.
You remember being very young sitting in front of the glowing television screen. You were watching a nature show in which an enormous ram—a bighorn—climbed a cliff-face of sheer rock simply by digging in its hooves and (through possessing an incredible sense of sure-footedness) was able to lean against and balance atop the outcroppings in the wall—on footholds sometimes of no more than a few inches—all the while ascending the pinnacle to lick salt deposits from off the mountaintop.
The feat seemed to defy gravity itself.
You think of it now every time you climb. Whether it was on top of both your dads' backs as a baby, up the outer stairwell as a child, or on the old oak trees in the park in middle school.
You dabbled a bit in parkour next.
You were in junior high when you started seeing people posting the videos online, decided to shimmy your way up a drainpipe, and were hooked. You didn't bring your camera along. It wasn't about the attention—though you still got plenty of it. You were eventually arrested and your fathers were fined for your publicity stunt.
You heard the call to climb it then—it was in its name. Everest. Ever rest.
You took a break from your dreams for a while to focus on getting into a good college. Your dads, fearing you were a danger to yourself, were relieved. What they didn't know was that you'd only sworn off man-made structures.
Several years later and you were backpacking in California during your summer between high school and your first year at university.
Quite steep was the climb up El Capitan. You had to back down. You were too ambitious the first time.
You swore that you would be back.
In college, you skipped your graduation ceremony specifically for the purpose of hitchhiking down to Arizona where you proceeded to conquer the Grand Canyon. Reaching the top, you saw the tiny trickle of the Colorado. The reason locals say it's just a Big Ditch.
Then in the Fall, you returned to Yosemite to finish what you'd left undone. This time managing to reach the top of The Nose. You sat in awe for a moment admiring the view.
On the way down, nature itself seemed to reward you with a bird's eye view to see a pair of wild bighorns rutting down below. You watched as they provoked each other and knocked heads through their thick layers of skull. It's as though the sound of a walnut cracking was ringing again and again over the entire terrain—abounding off the rock for miles around.
Naturally, you weren't satisfied with your climb—not for long.
You have a boyfriend now. He is a photographer and you are his subject. Your dads love him—finally someone who can keep an eye on you.
You don't mind that he follows you around like a lost pup. He doesn't mind how insatiable you can be. He lives to please.
Shortly after, you turned your eyes not toward reaching the peak, but the sky itself. Entering grad-school, you got your passport and student visa and set your eyes on climbing Everest. The climb, as you heard, would take somewhere in the neighborhood of two months—it wasn't something you could do all at once.
Gathering your supplies, you started mentally preparing for your journey beforehand by conquering the mountain in your mind. There was just one problem. You found out solo climbs of Everest had recently been banned.
Your boyfriend suggested he come with you—up with you. He told you he wanted to make your big moment immortal. That, this time, you'd be able to take a physical copy of the view home with you amongst the other mementos of your climb.
Departing from the base camp, the first thing you noticed about Everest was that they didn't remove the dead people. Seeing them lying there didn't bother you. It was the idea that they had to remain there—frozen. Climbing the mountain if only to remove them was an extremely dangerous task in its own right.
You tried not to look at the crumbling brittle faces of the corpses lying in the snow, but you do still remember the bright colors they wore—they're landmarks of a kind. Meanwhile, your boyfriend resisted the urge to document this part of your expedition. He focuses his lens elsewhere.
You knew it was going to be like this. You'd read there were somewhere in the neighborhood of two-hundred bodies. The Sherpa mountaineer takes you as far as the site of an avalanche that claimed the lives of several of his comrades, looks at you both grimly, and tells you, "Bon voyage."
From that point on, you think of yourself and the mountain as a pair of bighorn rams in contest. You keep straight ahead, dig in, and batter with your horns. You are determined not to be bested.
There are no bighorns on Everest, but you do you manage to spot the mountain's equivalent—a tiny-horned ungulate known as the Tahr. As your boyfriend snaps a photograph, you realize you'd never make a good photographer because you don't have that hair-trigger instinct he does. When you look at something beautiful it doesn't occur to you in the moment to document it—you remember it in your mind's eye.
(This was all before the storm.)
As the snow picks up and whirls around, you form your mental picture of the mountain, telling yourself, I've been through this before. It's a lie, but it's a lie you believe. That makes all the difference.
Catacombs of ice and gorges open up, but the two of you manage to avoid falling through the snow—if only because one of you is always there to catch the other. Making your way along the edge you realize that a mere slip and hair's distance falling one way or the other could make the difference of whether your body would land in Tibet or in Nepal. Either way, you'd die long before you reach the ground.
Just short of the summit one of you has to stop.
A total white-out surrounds you. Not like a fog or flying through a cloud, but like a blank sheet of paper. You huddle together for warmth, but you can feel he's fading fast.
Your boyfriend has been with you through razor-sharp ridges of rock and shale, through all the meals you enjoyed together in your tent (he's such a good cook and, with just a bit of heat and herbs from the camp stove, can make shitty MREs taste like gourmet food), but it doesn't look as if he's going to make it to the peak or down the mountain.
"S-s-sing me to sleep," he chatters through his teeth.
"What do you want me to sing?" you plead with him. He starts to hum and then it's too late—he's gone. After that, the warmth leaves his body quickly, but you won't go.
He told you to leave him there, but take his camera along. That you at least have to bring the view home with you. He also said there is something in his parka pocket that he wants you to have.
You feel something box-like through your gloved hand, you open up his coat, reach within, and unzip the breast pocket. You were right—it is a small box. Inside you find a ring which you presume he originally intended to give to you as he knelt and proposed at the summit.
You leave your boyfriend on Everest then—where he will ever rest.
That's when you realize what he was trying to say. The tune comes to you then. The tune he was humming.
You're singing The Smiths' "Asleep," one of his favorite songs, through frozen tears as you reach the top—you know the words by heart now.
Click! goes the sound of a perfect snapshot.
For every maze there is a minotaur and for every china shop, a raging bull.
You've come a long way since the day you were born and raised in the horrid labyrinth. You've left that life behind, you even live in a great big city now.
Each evening you return, stoop to avoid scratching the ceiling with your horns, and cram yourself yet again into your tiny cabinet of a tenement. It's plenty of space for any twenty-something who doesn't mind living in little more than a box with a mattress on the floor, but practically a broom closet for someone of your size. You even have to stand outside in the hall each evening just to take the ironing board down so you can get the wrinkles out of your clothes.
You have to look nice for your job. You work in an emporium called All the Tea in China. The selection of fine herbal blends is exquisite, but if truth be told, it's the merch that makes the business pay.
When the manager saw you ask for an application he couldn't refuse—being an Equal Opportunity Employer. He could just see it now if he turned you down, "It's because my father's a bull, isn't it?"
He hired you, knowing you were bound to make a mistake. That he could always fire you later, perhaps citing something trivial. That's why you have to be extra vigilant. If you break something—anything—it's coming out of your paycheck. A few of your paychecks.
The manager watches you now as you entertain a woman who is both a wealthy elderly heiress and frequent client. The manager always smiles and talks excitedly when she comes in. Careful not to spill, you pour her tea. You make small conversation—about the weather. Things progress from there. She titters and the two of you enjoy a pleasant flirtatious rapport. While leaving she tells the manager she likes you and hopes to see you, again.
A little later you catch him having a fit as you step into the back to fetch something for a customer. He stomps his foot. His eyes go red. His nostrils flare as he snorts and lowers his bald head, and just when he seems about to charge, he begins to cry. To your mutual humiliation, he looks up then and sees you watching him. You pretend not to see, fumbling awkwardly about the storage closet before rushing back to the front.
Carelessly, in your hurry, you knock something over and it shatters—a china bull of all things.
You don't feel like yourself sometimes, Gemini, but you don't exactly feel not like yourself either. You decide to visit your psychic Madame Muriel. She's always been there for you, acting as a remedial mum.
It's a good thing you'd already scheduled an appointment with her in advance—you haven't been acting this strangely since the last time Mercury was in retrograde.
Moving her hands over your meridians, Madame Muriel warns you that you've been holding onto the ghost of a dead relative. That it's remained dormant for years but is now awake. She couldn't go into specifics about their name—or which of your organs it's residing in—she says only that it's gravitating toward your belly.
As you sit up from where you were lying—on the massage table—you wonder who it could be. You try to imagine everyone you were really attached to. Everyone who was difficult to let go of.
Is it your great-uncle in there? An aunt perhaps? Or your late cousin?
You made a list and returned, once again, a week later, to consult Madame Muriel.
Together, you both sit around the table, hold hands, and attempt to call forth each spirit from beyond the veil. The table shakes a bit, a lamp is hurled from its stand and broken, but no such luck. The true identity of the specter continues to elude you both.
Trying to contact the departed only seems to make matters worse.
You've been going through a dry spell of late, so you're understandably a little confused by the cessation of your period. The results of the drugstore hCG testing stick you buy and urinate onto comes up negative. Angrily, you wonder if the kit you've purchased has malfunctioned.
Your gynecologist confirms that what you are experiencing is called Pseudocyesis.
She performs an ultrasound to show you there is, in fact, nothing there—no heartbeat. The doctor explains that often presenting this mere fact to a person experiencing a false pregnancy has caused symptoms to abate. She also says this condition is not uncommon for women nearing middle-age.
Over the next few months you've begun experiencing the nausea of morning sickness, spasms, bloating, and pain in your nipples, and your abdomen is slowly starting to swell.
Your doctor prescribes you medications for your cramps and then suggests you see some specialized shrink—a professional who deals with this kind of psychosomatic manifestation, not a psychic.
Gradually, you start to have the feeling that you're not alone. You swear you feel a presence inside you—the kick of a ghost or ghost of a kick—you aren't certain. Unfortunately, little else can be done, you have to let this take its course.
For nine months now you're stuck.
Everyone begins to congratulate you—wherever you go, they hold doors or stand up and give you their seat. You are unable to decide whether or not to tell them that the baby you're carrying is just a phantom. You wonder if they would treat you differently if they knew.
The next day as you stare into the bathroom mirror, you see a face that isn't yours. It looks exactly like your face, but it's not your face because it's like looking at a mask instead. Like something's trying your face on for size.
You touch a hand to your cheek, and just like that, the ghost beneath the surface evaporates—like a crocodile sliding beneath the water. You feel another kick. At that moment, a thought occurs to you.
You and your mum aren't on the best of terms. When you telephone out of the blue asking to meet her for tea, she seems both shocked and pleasantly surprised. You haven't spoken in years, but there's something you need to talk about.
"Something urgent," you tell her before hanging up.
As you approach the table she is already sitting there munching her tea biscuit. Upon seeing your belly, her eyes grow wide as the white saucer her coffee is on and she asks who the father is. When you aren't certain how to answer, she looks disappointed. You tell her the whole story.
She asks if you're going to eat your tea biscuit, pointing out that you really don't need to eat it considering there isn't a real baby inside you.
Now you're thinking about what Madame Muriel said. About the dead relative. You ask your mum if it's possible you had a twin that died in the womb.
Your mum is appalled you think she would keep a secret like that from you. She wipes the crocodile tears with her napkin. Then in a rare moment of sincerity, she really breaks down and tells you something she's never told you before now.
She admits that yes—it's true—you did have a sister.
Your mum tells you of her surprise when the doctors revealed her first child was supposed to be twins—but by the time she had her first sonogram, you were the sole survivor. She pretended to be disappointed that your sister would be a stillbirth, but the truth is, she was relieved instead. Still, you can't really blame your mum—she thought she wanted a baby, but treated you more like a dress-up doll than a daughter.
She'd wanted the accessory—not the responsibility.
Your mum reveals how she only had the best intentions in withholding the secret from you. How she worried having to bear the knowledge of a sister you would never have known might have haunted you—that is, if she had revealed it. She doesn't even imagine that, whether you knew about your sister or not, she's come back to haunt you anyway.
You aren't really listening anymore as your mum talks on.
You're too busy imagining another reality in which you grew up having a sister who looked exactly like you. You're very angry that you were denied this—never mind that you wouldn't be the same person you are right now. You feel a rage welling up inside you that the world was denied the existence of one twin on behalf of the other.
You aren't quite certain whether or not these feelings are yours or whether they belong to the ghost.
You look down at your hand and realize you are holding a quivering butter knife in your grip as though you intend to stab someone. You try to let go of it, but your hand is not responding. You realize the entire limb is not in your command anymore—it was, but not now. You seize your wrist with your opposite hand, force it down, and wrest it from the ghost's grasp.
You feel the ghost kick again, excuse yourself from the table, and go into the bathroom. Your mum raises an eyebrow. Then she returns to your tea biscuit and her coffee.
You lock the door just in time to feel the thing nestled inside your belly uncoiling like a serpent and traveling—slithering up your spine like a tree trunk. As you look into the mirror you see not yourself, but the twin, again. There is glee in your eyes—which are now hers. You are saying no, but now, it is you locked in the mirror and the twin in your body and the twin says yes.
It takes control of your nerves and flexes your fingers experimentally until it settles in your nous—the mind's command center. You can hear its thoughts as it pilots you. Like a tiny thing inside you pulling the puppet strings of a giant, she starts moving your mouth and using your vocal chords.
"You want answers," your twin says. "Very well. I'll tell you what you wish to know. I can oblige you that."
How are you doing this? you ask, but not in your voice anymore. It's more like thinking than speaking. Each of your questions is like tiny bubble drifting up from deep inside a cold cave pool.
"How am I talking to you—using words? Because, dear sister, I've been listening…all these years I've listened...I learned reading, writing, and arithmetic at the same time as you did. I was hiding in that pool you are now—inside your mind. In the place I've put you."
Why now? your question bubbles up—you feel thoughts getting farther and farther away.
"Why after all these years? That's simple—the average life expectancy for a woman is about eighty years. You're about to turn forty."
Forty? you say—sounding unsure of your reply. You can't believe it's been that much time already. You try to wriggle free of her—to get your head beneath the surface, but it feels like she's kicking you down deeper into the depths.
"That's right‚ I gave you half a life to live in this body—it was technically yours after all. The other half will be mine. I could have done this little switcheroo a lot sooner, but I decided to be fair."
Don't do this, you beg.
"You are a lucky girl," she says with your mouth—speaking to the reflection, "you were an only child. You never had to share anything. You and I were supposed to share a womb for nine months—that's why you murdered me. You slipped my own life-giving umbilical cord around my neck and strangled the life from my body. I'm only returning the favor."
But you were just a baby when it happened, you tell her, not even that—you didn't know what you were doing. You couldn't have possibly known that you were murdering your sister.
"Do you think a fetus is any less capable of struggling for survival—of choking out its competitor in pursuit of resources that must be otherwise shared? It's survival of the fittest. We all understand that from the very moment we are conceived. I didn't fight hard enough for my life the first time—I won't make that mistake again."
Please, you say, but you feel yourself drowning...fading away...
"Don't worry about our mummy," she says, "I am going to take care of her—a good retirement home and all that. Anyway, you needn't to worry yourself about the details, the decision will be out of your hands."
You probably thought you were about to be told you had cancer.
No. no. You have crabs.
Each night you can feel them with their pincers and every single one of those tiny little legs. You tried to keep it a secret. It was all the scratching—that was what gave you away.
When your friends heard the news, they woke you from your sleep by dragging you out of your tent, into the open, and holding you down. Hazing rituals are common among the men, being regarded as good for morale, and establishing a sense of fraternity, so the officers are happy to look the other way. It was just last week that you participated in kidnapping one of the new recruits for a connect the dot stick-and-poke of the constellation Cancer—the unofficial symbol of your squad.
There must be a mistake though because you've already had your turn under their makeshift tattoo gun—a cobbled together contraption consisting of a ball-point ink pen and hypodermic needle sterilized by Zippo cigarette lighter. Your mark is a year old—it's even a bit faded by now. You try to point out where it is—on your ass—but despite your protests, nobody is listening.
It isn't until they've got your pants around your ankles, and flip you on your back, that you realize they know.
Four of your friends are holding you down now, one on each of your limbs. A fifth sits on your stomach and says, "Watch this, fellas, I saw this once somewhere." Then he takes the lit cigarette from his bogarting lips to hold it down by your privates where he plans to singe each and every single one of the little buggers off with the burning end.
The nightclub you're performing at is called The Den. It's dark out in the audience. A white-hot spotlight shines down illuminating the folds of the velvety curtain behind you, your smile, and the microphone.
You wouldn't say it's a tough crowd, more of a preoccupied one. As they chatter amongst themselves it's as though they're growling to one another. You're determined not to bomb. Call it vanity, but you won't allow it—not tonight.
"What happened when the lions ate the comedian?" you ask.
At last, there's silence. Your last joke hadn't even managed a chuckle. This time you've got their attention.
"Well, does anyone want to know what happened when the lions ate the comedian?" you repeat.
"What happened?" someone roars from the back.
"They felt funny!" you say.
The lights come up and you see their red eyes—flashing up at you. The gentlemen in their tuxedos, cuffs, and long manes. The ladies in their finery, pearls, and razor-sharp manicured and painted claws on their respective dining tables.
Suddenly you remember the name of the club and understand. You realize then the joke might have been in poor taste. They're licking their chops now.
You exit stage left pursued by an entire pride.
Waking from your chloroform-soaked sleep, you see two red-robed figures busily moving about what seems, from its dampness, like a wine cellar. You feel the hands of a third as they tie you to the pole, gag your mouth, and ready you for sacrifice. One of them puts music on the phonograph—you watch as a pale lanky hand touches the needle down on the vinyl and recognize the name on the slipcase album cover.
You don't know why, not right away, but suddenly you're thinking of the night you lost your virginity. Let me see if I can help you remember it, Virgo.
It was the night of the concert—a show you'd been dreaming of since the summer previous. You spent all your savings on the ticket and your plan was going to work out just perfectly. Your parents were gone for the weekend.
You were going to have a boy over, weren't you, Virgo?
The band playing at the crowded venue was called Titus Androgynous. Their debut album got you through high school. Growing up, you had posters of a shirtless Titus plastered all over your bedroom wall—his nipples covered in little +'s of electrical tape. A gothy skellington of a white boy who loved the Blues.
That night you were standing just to the right of the main stage with a nearly perfect view of the deranged duo—Titus and his drummer, Devi. You were just close enough to be sprinkled but not showered with the fake blood as Titus pretended to slit his wrist, put down his guitar, and knelt praying before it—in hopes of summoning a demon. Devi stood up like a windup clockwork princess wearing black lingerie. Rising slowly from her drumkit, she seemed to sleepwalk. Step-by-step, she gradually approached her partner-in-crime, Titus, on the main-stage—pretending to be possessed by the devil herself.
Together, they sang an a cappella cover of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues." Wielding a pair of silicone dildos, they strutted about the stage like two cock-fighting roosters. That interlude was when things truly peaked.
After the show, things quickly went from the best to the worst night of your life. Correction—it was almost the worst night of your life. The actual worst night of your life, that would come much later…we're not there yet, Virgo, not quite yet.
The night of the concert ended with you lying in your sweaty bed as your date came, cried about his ex, and then dozed off without helping you finish.
You sat awake until you heard the birdsong signaling dawn all the while wishing you could have the night back. Thinking about how you would do it over. You'd definitely would have gone home with someone else—anyone besides the date you took to see the show—the poet who ruined your perfect night.
Then you thought of how you'd been in the same room as Titus—with his crow-winged hair, emaciated ribs, and black combat boots. For a moment you'd locked eyes and you were sure he'd seen you. Seen you.
After the show you'd waited in line to get his signature, but, at the last minute, the event was abruptly canceled. You never even got to meet him, or shake his hand, or have the CD you'd brought with you autographed.
That was many years ago, but you never gave up on your hero—even when Titus Androgynous broke up. Their manager at Nugatory Studios referred to it as a hiatus. Titus has a new band now—having replaced Devi with another drummer and a rhythm guitarist. To be honest, you're sure it's probably good, but you haven't listened to much of Devi's solo work. Does that make you a bad fan?
The reason the night of the concert wasn't the worst night of your life, Virgo, is because you're having the worst night of your life right now.
You stand there unable to do anything but stand there tied to a stake driven into the floor of some kind of dank cellar room. You bite at the gag, tearing at the fabric with your teeth, but it's of little use. You make little more than a pinhole in the material.
You look at the various articles they've arranged around a large pentacle on the floor. You listen to their muttering as they read from the tome. Speaking in a dead language you recognize from your high school class you never cared quite enough to get an A in and catch the words...
"...virgo sacrificium...virgo intactum...sanguinis virginem..."
A virgin sacrifice is what they're after, you realize—the blood of a virgin. Only, you're not. You should probably tell them that.
The trio of cultists approach now. The one in the middle is very tall. He carries a knife with a bloodstone fashioned into the blade's hilt. He reaches around the back of your neck, takes hold of the tie, and yanks it down.
"Wait," you say as the gag comes off your mouth, "this is a supposed to be a virgin sacrifice, right?"
They look at one another, exchanging what you presume are meaningful glances, and then the hood in the middle nods at you.
It all pours out then.
You tell them you're not a virgin. You tell them about the second most miserable night of your life. About how you wish you'd lost your virginity to someone who would have taken their time with you—someone who might have actually cared a damn that you were giving them your first time.
The cultists stand in silence, their faces shrouded in darkness beneath their hoods. At last, the tall one speaks.
"Shit...I'm so sorry," he says, "that's really terrible." He lowers his head, swivels it toward the other two, and says, "I don't think I can do this anymore." He turns away and leaves you there with the other two who simply shrug at one another and look back at their leader.
The tall one begins to walk up the cellar steps. "Just let her go," he says as he leans on the banister. He begins to climb then.
"But Titus," one of the other robed figures says, "the success of a virgin sacrifice has nuffink to do with whether or not a person has lost their virginity, mate. That's just a formality."
The figure on the stair pauses. A bit more like freezes. Your heart stops in your chest.
It has to be a coincidence. You don't believe it. No—more like you don't want to believe it.
In a flash, the tall robed figure turns its head to look at the other robed figure that just addressed him—his unmistakable wide staring eyes out of the hood's darkness. You catch one of those signature crow wings of hair swinging out then. Your chest rises and falls.
"What I mean," the one with the cockney adds, "is that if we want the ritual to work—and by ritual, I mean, if we really want to bring Robert Johnson back from the dead—all we have to do is use blood that's never been harnessed for a sacrifice before. That's what virgin blood really means. It's got bollocks to do with whether or not a person's had sex. That isn't what really makes it pure."
The third robed figure to speak, silent until now, turns back to address you then.
"Young lady, do pardon me, but has your blood ever been used in a sacrifice before? We need to know so Titus, the leader of our band, can meet his hero—Robert Johnson."
"You're both idiots!" the tall robed figure says while descending the creaking stairs—still carrying the knife. He sighs, removes his hood to reveal that same eternally boyish face and elfin profile you glimpsed at the show all those years ago. Then he points the tip of the blade at each of his bandmates and says...
"What did I say about using names?"
The Egyptians believed a jackal-headed god weighed your heart against a feather on a scale—measuring the worth of your life. The Greeks believed in a goddess Justice who was blind and carried a pair of scales in one hand—as well as a sword to punish those judged guilty.
In your experience, a bathroom scale can be as equally unforgiving—especially if it's off a few pounds this way or that.
One day two different letters from two different firms representing two different lawyers arrive addressed to you.
Each firm advises you to seek their counsel, but without so much as a single mention of why specifically you should.
Both lawyers urge you not to talk about your case—to anyone. Not even family. Even they, prepared to be your sworn defenders, shrink from and prefer to avoid the subject when you ask them, "What exactly am I accused of?"
It would seem that you have done something unspeakably, indeed, even unprintably wrong—I regret to inform you, Libra, that I can't tell you what it was, either, or of whether or not you are guilty of the crime.
You were driving west and decided to stop at a roadhouse to have some chips and salsa to eat and drink a watery beer on a raggedy, moldy coaster. You can hear the Mariachi-style horns from the jukebox. Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" is playing.
"What's your sun sign?" the stranger across the bar asks you.
You look up from your own drink and see it's the man wearing the ten-gallon hat, a western shirt with glinting silver star buttons on each of the shirt pockets. He stands up and you hear each Tock. Tock. Tock. of his cowboy boots as he comes over and sits down on the barstool next to you.
"Scorpio," you reply.
It could be the lead into a pickup line and you hope he's not coming on to you, but, if only for once in your life, you've got time to kill and can't see the harm in answering his question. It isn't as though he'd asked for your name, address, or social security number.
"A Scorpio, huh?"
There is a pause as he sips his beer.
"You fuckers are the ones to watch out for," he says knocking his bottle down hard on the countertop. "Those are the ones who blame your tempers on the horoscope. You say, 'I'm sorry I did that, I'm a Scorpio.'"
He gives you the finger and then smiles a great big shit-eating grin.
You extend the stranger the same courtesy, telling him in so many words, to politely fuck off and leave you alone—then you proceed to ignore him. You go back to your beer and chips and salsa. The bartender grunts and wipes the countertop.
What bothers you or rather when you can't get over is the feeling that somehow you were the rude one in the exchange. The way the stranger said all of it was more playful than offensive—almost mischievous—as though he was challenging you to defy it. You have no idea who this guy is, but he talks as though, just like that, you have entered into that kind of familiarity between long-standing friends who can insult each other as a form of endearment.
The stranger remains seated next to you. He asks you another question. A question you have no intention of responding to.
"Have you ever heard the fable of the Tortoise and the Scorpion?" he says—rhetorically, because he knows he's going to tell it to you anyway.
He doesn't wait for you to say yes, you have heard it, or no, you haven't—he just tells his story.
A scorpion asks a tortoise to ferry it across a rushing stream.
There is a pause.
The scorpion feels nervous then and begins to speak—if only to end the uncomfortable silence between the two.
"You don't trust me—is that it?" the scorpion says.
The tortoise continues to stare at the scorpion for a long time, regarding the creature in the gentle blinking way that tortoises do.
"I suppose you believe what the other animals, birds, and insects have said of me? That by the time when we get halfway across the stream, I'll have stung you and killed us both—that it's in my nature because I'm a scorpion."
The tortoise slowly and silently shakes his head in reply. He blinks again. Then, at last, he speaks.
"No," the tortoise says. "You're welcome to ride on my back, but you must be patient and listen to my story on our way across—I must warn you, I like to take my time."
For a moment, the two of you sit in silence.
"Are you going to tell the story the tortoise tells the scorpion?" you ask.
"Does it matter?" the man sitting next to you says. "My point is, the scorpion almost fucked up—he jumped the gun. He's been a scorpion so long he's started to half-believe the things he thinks the other creatures whisper about him. He carries the story people have made up about him everywhere he goes like a tail poised to sting. That jumpiness, that lack of the ability to trust even himself, it could very easily scare off anyone who actually might have intended to help him from the start."
It's like he knows you. As much as you want to deny it, you have to admit there is this feeling that's been missing all your life. Like you're talking to an old friend.
"And the horoscope—all that cock and bull—it's the same way. I mean, you think I actually believe in that shit? If you slap some defining qualities together that a few people have in common and give it a name, anyone will identify with it. What's your Meyers-Briggs? Who you rooting for come Sunday night? What's Heaven going to look like when you die?"
Then the man leans in, winks, and whispers, "Watch this."
He takes a swig of his beer, swallows, and shouts out, "Don't mess with Texas!”
Voices come from round the bar then. From the people throwing darts to the people playing pool to the people playing the gambling machines to the couple lip-locked in the back who were edging ever so slowly toward the bathrooms.
"Shoot and holler!"
"You're damn right!"
"See?" he says, eyes twinkling like the silver stars on his Western shirt. "That's the secret. That's all you need to make a friend for life."
Just like that it's already closing time and pretty soon everyone else had gone home and it's just the both of you standing out on the black asphalt looking up at the high moon hanging above the desert. Only one car remains in the parking lot—yours.
"Have you ever seen a scorpion before?" the stranger asks you. "Like a real scorpion?"
"Not yet," you reply.
"Well, you stay here long enough you'll wake up one morning and find one waiting for you in your shower. Welcome to the West." He drains the last of his beer and pitches it into the empty street where it bursts into scintillating amber moonglow glass.
"You ever see The Wild Bunch?" he asks.
"No," you say.
"Don't—it's a good movie, but it's just too long. The best part of the film—the part worth seeing is how it begins—just before the robbery—it opens with a bunch of Mexican kids and they're playing with a scorpion—poking it with sticks, see? The whole story—the entire premise of the film is contained in that opening. The kids find the scorpion, pick him up, dangle it around, and then throw it into a bed of ants. Then the camera zooms in and you see the big scorpion being eaten by those tiny ants. The scorpion stings again and again and again trying to get at the ants crawling on him—and maybe he gets a few here and there—but there are just too many of them and he keeps missing and stinging himself and ends up dying of his own venom. Fucked up, right?"
"Gruesome," you say.
"There's just one problem," he says, "it wouldn't happen that way. The ants killing the scorpion—sure—if there were enough of them, but scorpions are immune to their own sting. The only way they could die of their own poison is if it was injected directly into their body. It makes a good story though."
Later, when you do watch the movie, you notice portions of his description that are inaccurate. First, there are two scorpions in the pit of ants. Second, not all of the children torturing the scorpions are 'Mexican.' Third, it also isn't necessarily evident that the scorpion stung itself. It's certainly one man's interpretation of the events depicted on the screen. Interesting what people remember of a movie.
"I've heard," you say to the stranger standing in the parking lot beneath the moon, "that if you put a scorpion in the middle of a ring of fire, it will sting itself to death, because it knows there's no hope of escape."
The stranger in the ten-gallon hat reaches into the pocket of his denim jeans then and fishes around for something.
"Yeah—I've heard the same thing," he tells you, "but trust me, it ain't true. It's a myth. Man is the only animal that will voluntarily do something as stupid as ending his own life."
You never get a chance to ask the stranger if he's ever tossed a scorpion into a ring of fire, because right then, he slips a switchblade out of his pocket—flicks his wrist and some internal mechanism spins out and the ugly thing flashes like a stinger tail.
"Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way," he says pointing the blade at you as it glints in the moonlight, "give me your fucking wallet."
The stranger takes your keys, too. He leaves you there to walk the highway soaked with the blood of armadillos and deer and coyote beneath the slowly wheeling stars. You tell yourself you'll never trust anyone again, but you know it's a lie.
Romey Petite is a Sagittarius Sun, Scorpio Moon, Virgo Rising. Originally trained as an illustrator, he graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies and then spent some time self-publishing comics before trying to tell stories that don't require pictures to lean on. His short fiction has been published in 3Elements Review, Scott Thrower's podcast Fairy Tales for Unwanted Children, Coffin Bell Journal, Luna Luna Magazine, Moonchild Magazine, and The Fiends in the Furrows: An Anthology of Folk Horror. He is also writer and co-author (with illustrator Laurel Holden) of the illustrated middle-grade novel Spiderella: The Girl Who Spoke with Spiders. He met C. A. Nieto in the small town coffeeshop where the two befriended while chatting about F. W. Murnau's FAUST (1926). He is recognizable by his wire-rimmed spectacles, pinstripes, and suspenders. You can visit romeypetite.com to read more of his work or follow him on Twitter / Instagram: @romeypetite.
C. A. Nieto is a Virgo Sun, Aquarius Moon, Capricorn Rising. After doing artwork for punk bands in Atlanta, GA, he decided to hone his craft and enrolled at the Academy of Classical Design in Southern Pines, NC. At a local cafe, he crossed paths with Romey Petite and they started talking about doing a book together. Nieto designed the timepiece for Horrorscope: Stories based on several astrological clockfaces from around the world, but mostly the one of St. Mark's Square in Venice, Italy. He eats raw spinach leaves like potato chips.
You can give Romey Petite a piece of the moon and stars by tipping here.