The Queen of Swordsby Jen Michalski
It started when Vanessa Falkenstein across the alley threw all her plates in the back yard. I was planting strawberry seeds like we used to in the old house when my mother and I lived with Dad when she barreled out of the back door and down the steps, a stack of plates in her arms. She threw each individually, not like a discus, but like a firm statement, beginning from over her head and letting go of each it around her chin. The first couple of plates scared the neighborhood dogs, who started barking and carrying on. I don’t blame them--the plates sounded less like glass and more like gunshots, which I heard once. Although my mother told me it was a car backfiring, I knew better. It was just like on television.
So after the plates Vanessa got tired, I guess, and went in and got only a few glasses to throw, which didn’t sound as good. Then, she sat at the top of the steps, smoking a cigarette and talking on the phone to someone, the avocado green telephone cord snaking out of the house in little C’s. And when Clarice, the other woman who lived there, came home, they stood on the steps together as Vanessa yelled at her and pointed at all the broken plates. I don’t know why Vanessa was yelling at Clarice about the plates; I mean, Vanessa was the one who broke them.
From my bedroom window, I could see the yard across the alley, and Vanessa never did clean up the plates. I never saw Clarice, who was thin with fiery red hair, again, either. Rain would collect in the little curved rims of plate pieces, along with snow and bird poop. I asked my mom whether she could read the plates the same way she read Tarot cards and tea leaves for the Romanian teenagers on the street, who always wanted to know whether Stefan or Seneslav would marry them.
“I see new beginnings,” my mother would assure them, pointing her crooked finger over the ace of cups. Mostly, the girls would be terrified when the death card came up, but my mother always assured them it was the card of change, a destruction of the old and useless. I would always think about the broken plates in the yard. In my Tarot deck, the death card would have a picture of our neighbor throwing plates. The ace of pentacles, with often is connected with planting the seeds of one’s labor, prosperity, would have a picture of my mother and me planting strawberries.
I didn’t have much use for the cards in between those; our life was a series of new beginnings after sudden changes, never endings or long periods of prosperity. Like soon after the plate incident, when my mother got laid off from the community center where she bathed severely mentally retarded residents, got them dressed, and fed them breakfast before rolling them off to their classes, where they learned useless things like learning to hold a block. Well, I thought the lesson were useless because if the only thing you ever learn is how to hold a block, life just doesn’t seem rewarding or fair. But I guess the government didn’t find block holding particularly useful either, because they closed the center and dealt the residents to remaining hospitals like a hand of poker.
So my mother read a lot of cards while looking for a new job, and even wound up talking to the Vanessa Falkenstein, who didn’t really interact with the neighbors much. She taught drawing classes at the community college uptown. She wore a lot of black, had ragged, short hair, and looked like a pipe cleaner. I always called her the caterpillar, although not to her face, because of her spiky, furry head and long, lithe body. She was a rakish, boyish woman who kept to herself mostly. In fact, I’d never seen her with anyone except for her roommate Clarice, who I’d always see more than Vanessa. She leaned over the fence to talk to me when putting out trash, had an easy dimpled smile, and would even get readings from my mother, which naturally made Clarice a positive, charmed person in my mother’s eyes.
“Such a beautiful, radiant woman, Clarice,” my mother had mused some time after Clarice moved out. “The high priestess. I see a bright future for her.”
Even though my mother knew Clarice, getting to the elusive and quiet Vanessa was tough. But somehow my mother convinced her to create some signs advertising my mother’s Tarot reading services to hang up in some of the neighborhood stores. I shouldn’t say “somehow”; my mother was pretty charming when she wanted to be and, when that didn’t get her what she wanted, incredibly pushy. Whatever method she used, the signs were made, and they were very nice.
Even with this favor, I had never really spoken to Vanessa until she caught me one day in her back yard picking up her plate shards. I wasn’t doing it out of charity; I wanted the shards, even if I didn’t exactly know why. I imagined the shattered pieces on my windowsill, their enameled tops catching the sunlight.
“What are you doing?” She asked from the door, smoking a cigarette. I couldn’t tell whether she was pissed or amused, or maybe both.
“I thought it might be dangerous, all these pieces here,” I stammered. I was pretty crafty in many ways, but being a liar was not one of them.
“Dangerous to whom, exactly?” she said coldly, and at that moment I was happy that Clarice was no longer her roommate.
“I guess you...and maybe the birds and strays.”
“Come here.” She held her back door open. I straightened, not sure what to make of her invitation. “I want to show you something.”
Inside the house was dark and smelled oppressively of cigarette smoke. Some disjointed classical music warbled out of the corner from an old tape recorder that had stacks of cassettes surrounding it ominously. By the windows that overlooked the backyard was a large sketchpad on an easel. The unfinished picture was of some of the shards in the yard.
“I’ve been using those plates for some studies, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t take any of them,” she explained, standing before the easel with her arms crossed.
“Oh,” I laughed. “I thought you broke them because you were mad at Clarice.”
At my mention of Clarice, her lips parted, and some silent disappointment, or frustration, fell in silence from them.
“Sometimes you can find art in the ordinary,” she explained finally, turning to face me. “In fact, most of the time.”
“Well, I’ll put those back.” I took a step toward the door. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to place them exactly where I found them, but I’ll try. I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”
“You really want to make it up to me?” She cocked an eyebrow, and I imagined myself weeding her overgrown garden. “I’d like a model, now that Clarice is gone. You can come as you are, wearing what you’re wearing. I just like to keep up on human subjects. I’ll even pay you---it won’t be much, but I’m sure a lot of kids would love to be paid to sit around doing nothing, huh?”
I began to pose for Vanessa a couple days a week after school so that she could practice some angles that had always eluded her. She would play strange French records like Edith Piaf and smoke thick cigarettes that would leave blue smoke hovering in the dark, damp apartment. She never had sodas or candy or anything remotely edible to a teenager--mostly yogurt and teas and carrots.
“Your body is ready to change, Tara,” she remarked one afternoon, a pencil between her lips as she propped her big sketchbook on her lap. She sat cross-legged on a wooden, straight-backed chair and was all angles. In fact, her body didn’t look like it had changed at all. It was merely a little girl’s body that had stretched. “This will be very exciting--I will be able to capture it all, if you let me sketch you long enough.”
“As long as you pay me,” I answered in the all the tactfulness a thirteen-year-old girl can summon. “You can sketch me until I’m old and gray.”
“Has your mother found work, Tara?” She asked, not paying attention to me. I watched her eyes follow a line on the page. She was not beautiful, although I suppose a case could be made for her beauty, if you argued very hard. Like her body, her facial features were large and angular--high cheekbones, pointy nose, bulgy black eyes with thick, almost-meeting eyebrows, a thin, long mouth. But if she let her hair grow out a little, to cover her large eyes, and maybe if she filled in those lips with lipstick she would be passable. I was an expert on these things because I spent hours pouring over my mother’s Cosmopolitan magazines, albeit mostly out of boredom. I refused to believe that the universe Cosmopolitan advertised existed and often wondered why they spent so much time and money trying to create it.
“She interviewed at a nursing home yesterday. The pay is less, but I’m sure she’ll take it and hope something better comes along.”
“That’s good. How about her card reading?”
“Okay. Svetlana got pretty mad when that boy broke up with her after Mom predicted a few months ago that they would get married.”
“I don’t believe in the cards. I mean, artistically they intrigue me, but I think we are more responsible for our future than outside forces. Of course, Clarice regarded fortunes very highly, and even based her life on it, even when there were other factors--people--at play.” She pursed her lips, then put her pad flat on the table. “I think that’s all for today.”
“How come you don’t have any boys around, Vanessa?” I asked, standing up and stretching. She leaned back and smirked, studying me coyly as if I had said something really interesting and grand.
“I’m too old for boys,” she answered finally, stabbing out her cigarette. “But I can tell you’re just getting started. Any boys in your life, Tara?”
“No.” I blushed. Vanessa could always make me blush. Sometimes the way I’d feel her watching me, or when she asked what I dreamt about, even just looking at her complicated face. Her face was never easy; it was always compressed, furrowed, as if deep in thought or sadly confused.
“Well, I guess we’re even.” She stood up in one elongated motion like someone unraveling a curled straw wrapper. “Would you like some tea?”
She went into the kitchen, and I stood up and poured over the sketches in her pad. Mostly they were of me, but some were of buildings downtown, and there were other young girls like me--I guessed her students. There were also some of Clarice, but they didn’t appear to be as staged as mine. They were of while she was sleeping, a long, nude limb hanging out from a rippled sea of sheets, her profile sunk deeply into a pillow while a small breast, like a saucer, rested on her chest. There were also some of her clothed. I wondered whether Clarice was actually sleeping when Vanessa sketched those bedroom pictures or whether she was just pretending.
When Vanessa reappeared in the room she pulled the pad away from me quickly, spattering a little bit of her tea over the rim of her mug and onto her hand.
“Shit.” She bit her lip, letting her burned hand travel to her mouth after she set the mug down quickly. I took a step back as she closed the sketchpad carefully and set it on the table.
“I’m sorry, Vanessa. I didn’t mean to snoop.”
“It’s all right.” She waved her red, splotchy hand. “I don’t like people to go through my sketchbooks. There are many…unfinished pieces. I don’t like people to look at unfinished pieces.”
“I have this idea for a store,” I said, after a long silence. “To break things.”
“What do you mean? To fix broken things?”
“No--people come in and pay money, and there’s all sorts of things they can break, you know? Plates, glasses, televisions, ceramics. They break stuff for like ten minutes, get it out of their system, and then they leave. They don’t even have to clean it up. I have this theory, you see, that we’d break more stuff if we could, kind of as a release, but we worry about all this broken stuff we have to clean up. But we can just walk away from it all. No responsibilities.”
“Hmm. I like it. So where would you get all the stuff?”
“You know--thrift stores, landfills, the trash. I’d call it ‘Broken Things’ or something.”
“You think people would know what it was?” She set her mug down and fetched her sketchbook. “As opposed to a second-hand store?”
“Well, ‘You Break Things’ sounds kind of stupid.”
“Let’s see.” She picked up a pencil and began to sketch tentatively. “Maybe something like, ‘you bought it, you break it’?”
“Yeah.” I rocked back and forth on my feet. “Yeah, I like it.”
“Well, let me play with a few ideas, and I’ll get back to you. See you next week?”
“I don’t see how she lives.” My mother shuffled through her deck absently. “She’s an adjunct at a community college teaching drawing, you say, and she pays you to model once or twice a week. I saw her at the grocery store the other day, and she bought three cups of yogurt and three cans of cat food.”
“Well, we live, and we’re pretty tight on money.” I pushed my macaroni and cheese around my plate.
“I don’t think she has any friends, now that Clarice moved out. I’m not even sure I like you hanging out with her. You’re a thirteen-year-old girl and...I don’t think she’s good for you. She’s probably forty, you know?”
“What, you want me to hang out with the Romanian girls?”
“Can’t you get involved in something after school?”
“She pays me decently, Mom. It’s no big deal. She’s helping me with a project.”
“Oh, really?” My mother wrinkled her nose, her glasses moving slowly up the long, thin shaft. “What?”
“This idea I have for a store. You know, how she helped you advertise the cards.”
“What kind of store is it?”
“You break things.”
“You pay to break things.”
“You spend too much time alone.” She slid her cards into the velvet case. “You know, I did a reading for Vanessa once. A lot of swords, a lot of sevens. A lot of conflict. She’s a troubled woman.”
“So is she going to marry Sven or not?” I smirked. My mother frowned at me. She didn’t seem to find many things funny nowadays. She started at the nursing home on the 3 to 11 shift, which cut into her evenings reading cards, and now she was reduced to reading at the crystal store on Saturdays. If I got my store idea together, maybe she would laugh more, like she did when we still lived with my father. He always ridiculed the cards, accusing her of spending more time using witchcraft to fix others’ lives than her own marriage.
“I want to draw your face today.” Vanessa chose a pencil from her box. “You have a beautiful face. When your angles fill out, you’re going to be stunning, you know.”
“Thanks,” I answered. She had never paid me a compliment before, mostly murmuring ‘keep still’ when I had an unbearable itch or something. In fact, we never talked about beauty much, which was weird, since she was an artist. “I never thought about it.”
“Well, it’s not something you have to think about, necessarily. I mean, if you are at peace with yourself and like yourself, that beauty will radiate out. It’s not something you can fix with makeup.” She studied my face clinically before returning to her sketching.
“I guess you don’t read Cosmopolitan. ” I smirked.
“Not at all. Do you?”
“Sometimes. My mom gets it.”
“I’m surprised. You seem like a very intelligent girl. Inquisitive. Mature for her age.”
“So why did you get a Tarot reading from my mother?” I reclined on the loveseat that smelled faintly of mothballs. I wondered whether she had gotten it at the Salvation Army where I bought all my plates---the store always had an air of mothballs and intestinal gas.
“I didn’t—she offered it to me as a thank you for the signs I made. Plus, Clarice had raved about her, and I--being naturally quite suspicious—had to see for myself.” Vanessa put her pad on her lap. I could see the reserved, gangly Vanessa seated across from my dark, animated mother—my mother’s heavy perfume and makeup, the boisterous laugh, the shine in her eye as she slipped the cards, carelessly and expertly, on the table. “Your mother kept pointing to a man who would come into my life—a boyfriend, she kept hinting.”
I knew my mother, based on the body language and facial expressions of her clients, would always tailor her readings, accentuating, without going beyond the spread of the cards, what they wanted to hear.
“Is there a man coming into your life?” I asked.
“No—at least not in the manner she was suggesting. I felt as if she kept returning to him, to test me—to see whether or not I would correct her.”
“It’s nothing,” she answered, drawing her pad back up between us. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bring it up again.”
Meanwhile, I had my first customer. Although my 11-year-old neighbor, Joey Baron, had been skeptical of paying to break things he could break for free, I’d sold him on the breaking of them in the front room of our basement, which I’d cleared out mostly except for a ratty shag carpet and some old sofa pillows I’d pressed into the windowsill and other troublesome areas. I played a rap tape Joey had brought for the occasion and watched from the steps as he swaggered around the basement, chucking plates and coffee mugs while donning a pair of goggles I’d stolen from the biology lab at school.
Even with a vacuum cleaner and dust pan, I’d discovered it was almost impossible to completely clean up the shivers and cracks of glass. It was much more work than the five dollars Joey paid me, but I figured I could charge more once I built my client base.
“What do you think?” Vanessa held up a color poster, a small smile on her face. Intricate shards exploded with a great force from the center. The caption underneath read breaking things was never so much fun.
“It’s great.” I held it in my hands like the finest china. “Thank you. You know, I had my first customer last week.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“My friend Joey brought a bunch of stuff in our basement—he paid me five bucks. It was a lot of work, though, cleaning everything up.”
“That’s life for you,” she concurred, taking a sip of her tea.
“So do you see Clarice much?” I asked, staring at the stained spot on the ceiling where there had once been a leak.
“No.” She sat back in her chair, looking cross. “And there are some things…of which I will not discuss with you, and she is one of them, all right?”
“Okay,” I answered. I had always wondered how someone as seemingly friendly as Clarice could live with someone as dour as Vanessa. I wanted to ask Clarice. I had always looked for her—at the delicatessen, where she sometimes bought goat cheese and pecorino, or at the five and dime, where I saw her get her prescriptions refilled and her maxi pads. She wore big, tinted sunglasses and her jeans tucked into suede boots, the wire arms of her store basket hooked casually around her elbow.
“I’m sorry.” Vanessa shook her head, looking over at me. “I don’t mean to come off so meanly. I just…”
“You loved her, didn’t you?” I sat up. I had seen it in Vanessa’s drawings, the lines and curves, sketched with care and loving, not the somewhat bold, heavy strokes she had used in creating my likeness. Even her sketches of the shards were about finding the soft, shiny surface trapped in the sharp edges. It was the only soft thing about her, I thought. “Did she love you?”
“I think I’ve had enough for today.” She closed her sketchbook and dropped it onto the table. “You’re free to go.”
“I’m sorry, Vanessa.” I didn’t get up from the couch. “We can talk about something else.”
“It’s not your fault, Tara.” She waved her hand at me. “Please understand…I will not discuss it with you. Not because I think you’re incapable of discussing it with me, or what have you, but because I am incapable of discussing it.”
“Well, thanks for the sign.” I held it up in a gesture of thanks. “It looks great.”
“I’m glad you like it.” She stood up, her face doing some sort of contorted gymnastics, and I thought, for a minute, she was going to cry. She walked me to the door. “You’ll have to let me know whether it helped you gain any new business.”
I never hung Vanessa’s sign anywhere, as nice as it was—my business was more or less word of mouth, and the breaking done during the afternoon, after-school hours, when my mother and neighbors were working and less likely to hear the sometimes blood-curling crashes against the concrete walls.
But because my overhead became much more expensive than my earnings—supplied mostly by Joey and his other nerdy friends—I stole a bunch of plates from the cafeteria. Well, I didn’t exactly steal them because I was caught hauling the box from school by the janitor, resulting in their return to their rightful place.
“What the hell is wrong with you!” My mom stood at the kitchen counter, holding a cigarette in one hand, an ashtray in the other. “Stealing from school? What’s next?”
“They didn’t need all those plates,” I shrugged. “I need them for my business.”
“Business—breaking things—that’s a business? I thought you were kidding me when you brought it up.” She shook her head. “First you’re stealing plates, and the next thing you know, you’ll be selling drugs. Or doing them.”
“Please—I was trying to make money. I thought you would commend me on my business acumen.”
“Did Vanessa Falkenstein help you with this?” She asked, stabbing the cigarette out and pulling my sign out from underneath the table. I had kept it in my bedroom closet, and I wondered what other things she had discovered searching through my things. Not that I had much incriminating, but a girl’s privacy is a girl’s privacy, you know?
“She made it for me…I told her about my business plan.”
“Why would a grown woman condone this type of behavior? Look, you’re not to sit for her sketches anymore, you understand? I don’t want you spending any more time with her.”
“Mom, she didn’t do anything. She was probably humoring me.”
“Humoring or not, she should know your mind is impressionable…about many things.” She pressed the garbage can pedal with her foot and stuffed the now-folded sign into it with the remains of some coffee grinds. “I don’t want you hanging out with her anymore, you understand? I’m going to have a talk with her myself.”
“Mom, you can’t,” I spat out, backing toward the door. Although my vehemence surprised me a little, I didn’t want to lose Vanessa’s friendship. In a way, she was my only real friend, if one could even call her that. Whether it was about stuff I should have been telling my mother or my friends made no difference. Vanessa would sit quietly and nod her head as she sketched, asking me to elaborate a point here and there, never judging, never asking. It was different from the school psychologist, who my mom made me go to when Dad left and we had to move into our dingy, two-bedroom place uptown. The psychologist always drank bad coffee out of a rainbow mug and talked getting in touch with my fears of abandonment while playing some weird, space-agey music, even weirder than Vanessa’s.
“What, are you going to disobey your mother, too?” She took a step toward me, and even though I knew she wasn’t going to hit me, the gesture seemed threatening in some way. Ever since we moved here, she didn’t have much time for me, and things weren’t the same. No planting and picking strawberries. No playing gin rummy on Friday nights and watching movies and eating popcorn. I ran out the door and down the street, toward Vanessa’s, although I didn’t stop in, since I figured that was the first place my mom would look. Instead, I loitered around the trash bins of the music school a few blocks over. They didn’t have much in terms of breakage, but sometimes I would find neat things like an old tympano drumstick or snapped strings, which I once tried to fashion into my own string instrument.
“Your mother’s looking for you.” Vanessa stood in her doorway when I approached later. “I told her I’d send you her way immediately.”
“So I can’t come in at all?” I knocked the front of my foot against her step. She eased down into a sitting position at the top.
“No, but you can talk to me here, for a few minutes.”
“She told me I can’t see you anymore, that you’re not responsible.”
“You mother...is just scared. She’s alone and works a lot and is worried about losing control over you. Although I know you’re too smart to get caught up in something stupid, and I’m sure she is, too, she worries. It’s understandable.”
“Yeah, but aren’t you...sad?”
She looked at me carefully, and I could see this spot in her eyes, beyond her stiffness and her tight, long mouth, that made me feel soft, protected. A spot I longed to touch, to curl up in.
“You’ve been a great model,” she answered finally. “I’ll never find a better one.”
“I wish you were my mother,” I pouted, but somehow, that didn’t seem quite right, either. She was not quite what I imagined in a mother, or liked in my own. Yet, I knew I there was something about her I wanted to be close to, all the time seemingly, if possible. A favorite sweater against my skin, or my pillow at night.
“You have a good mother.” She stood up suddenly. “I know she doesn’t mean any harm. Now, I told her I’d send you right home. If she comes back and you’re here...”
“I want to see the rest of your sketchbook.” I didn’t move from the step, even though, now that she stood, I was staring at her navel. “I want to know about Clarice.”
“Maybe when you’re older.” She smiled thinly, tucking one leg back behind her screen door. “Or maybe when it doesn’t hurt me so much.”
“But I’ll never see you again.” I felt tears in my eyes. Images of the death card, so feared in my mother’s readings, stood between us, the hooded skeleton throwing its cape over her and stealing away into the night. I imagined going back to the school psychologist, listening to her stupid music and just wanting to break things.
“Don’t be so glum. As your mother would say, who knows what the future holds? Good luck with your broken things.” She smiled again and, for an instant, she was the most beautiful woman I’d known.
Vanessa moved out of the house across the alley not long after that. I don’t know whether she couldn’t afford it without Clarice or whether it was too hard for her to go on without her, whatever their relationship was, but I’d often thought of them, together and separately, as a whole plate and as shards. I’d collected the pieces of plates from the yard after Vanessa was gone—she hadn’t bothered to take them with her, and they reminded me of a sudden pain, a ferocious cut I got unexpectedly when cleaning up a rather large job of breakage in the basement before my mother put an end to the whole business. Joey and his friends had been throwing some cheap crystal goblets and such, and there was a smallish slither wedged between the floorboard and the floor. I took my glove off and tried to push it out, not realizing how sharp the edge was and sliced my finger right open. Of course, I lied to my mother and told her I did it on the cheese grater. Sometimes, after it had scarred and healed, I’d take a piece of one of Vanessa’s old plate shards and run it along the fleshy ridge, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Always, when I least expected it, it cut me.