Honi Jade and the Jar of Desert Greens
Somewhere in the city, copper bells sang for Ho-naya-Jad. "Honi Jade," she was called, a corruption of name in a world turning from the old ways, skeptical of the unseen. Yet the copper bells sang above Jade's door. Her fingers, bleeding fingers, sewed the singing in beads. She could see the song's telling as her needle dove in and out, front to back. The needle's eye, like her own, punching through time.
Then rattled the bead curtain separating Jade's Mystic Bead from Body Inks, the tattoo den. Leon the Lizard Man waved his inked arms to clear Jade's smoke--pipe smoke and incense smoke, burning sage and cedar. Through the smoke clearing, Jade watched Lizard Man's spirit self-bloom a neck plate. A frilled collar flapped above his tattooed trunk, a green-inked netting of lizard scales, then disappeared like wallpaper behind the shelves of Jade's bead cases. A monster of the desert, this Lizard Man, his tattooed scales alive with slits of eye and the sway of backbone. Jade could not guess how Leon matched tattoos so well to his spirit self, that other world grafting to his skin as if he were wrinkled, or scarred.
Leon startled the copper bells from their singing with a rude push on the shop's front door. The story clouds of Jade's smoke dispersed. The Lizard Man, what did he mean?
"This you've got to see," he said.
It took time to focus, time for her to be just Honi Jade.
"This 'believe it or not' crap they're selling out at Ripley's now." Leon struck the newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. His scaled fingertips landed on a Ripley advertisement. The ad claimed that Sequina Starr, tribal shaman newly arrived from the Brazilian jungle, sported an epidermis entirely of beads. She was a living skin of ceremonial decoration, and she bared it all to the Ripley crowd beneath a bell jar blown up to human scale.
Human? Honi Jade wondered. Ripley seemed at pains to disprove it. "See the beaded legend perform the graceful dances of her tribe while completely submersed in water!"
Jade couched her pipe in a bone-carved trivet, the embers burnt out. She hadn't disturbed herself to re-light. The physical world could be so mechanical, tiresome, heavy moving as dancing in water.
"If this Sequina Starr woman is real--which I doubt--you know where she belongs," said Leon. "Not in some Ripley stunt. Put her in National Geographic with ring-necked natives." He made a fake effort at stretching his frilled lizard neck.
Jade laughed at what was there but not seen.
"The ones with earlobes hanging at their elbows," he continued. "Jaws as long as feet."
She tied off and knotted her thread, folding the sewn story beads over so Leon couldn't rake his tattooed fingers over their telling. On Jade's canvas, the nubby stick figure of this Sequina Starr glittered inside a dome of clear glass beads. Having so lately sewn the figure, she was not prepared to answer any of Lizard Man's questions.
"A good stunt, a goddess, or demon." Jade had not wanted to say so. Power is power, equal in force whether for good or evil. She didn't yet know all that was in this telling, the copper bells having lost their clang by now in the city's fog. No, she could not speak particularly on the subject of Sequina Starr.
"This Ripley queen's no god. Or devil," said Leon.
"Everything returns," said Jade. "Being is being, good or bad."
"A native rule?"
"Rule of life. Even for beads." Jade cut a strand, sent the row of beads falling in a line. They hit and bounced across the floor, scattering to the far corners of the shop.
"There is sewing? There is ripping out. Making and unmaking. Scattered beads and the threads to bind them. Until they are cut free." And the singing. She did not tell about the song singing itself to her. A song unheard by the Lizard Man who splashed through the bead curtain and back into his tattooer's den. Whether he sought out this Sequina Starr, or she came to him, Jade saw they were two beads on the same thread. Their two heads twinned on the same snake. She hoped she might knot off this telling. Snip her needle's eye free.
The bells jangled for Winks Galen who stopped in at Honi Jade's every third moon. He supplied her with traditional beads: bone, metal, stone, wood, glass, turquoise, rose stone, polished pearl.
She fingered a magic eye bead, cloudy and veiny. These she sold for a dollar forty-nine. How had it come to this, that a bead once magical sold with a gummy orange price sticker? She asked Galen. Observed, "It's blasphemy, selling such a bead for pocket change." She was speaking also of herself.
Galen's brows jerked, his lips quivered as if to whistle. His face was a panoply of twitches, puckering and dimpling in places unusual to the human face. Whirls dipped his cheek, his chin. His features shifted and shaded like water. He laid it down to a combat injury, the poison of Agent Orange, perhaps. Leon had said it was street drugs. But Jade saw beyond. In another story somewhere Galen was being eaten by desert ants--a story that was not yet Jade's to tell. If only more eyes saw past the physical to the troubling landscape beyond. It's just as well, thought Jade, since the balance of power favored the unseen. She offered Galen a fresh pipe, one with a larger bowl, for guests. Pinches of her tobacco blend could momentarily calm his tormented face.
"Not to worry, Ho-naya," Winks said of the magic eye's price sticker. "The gods no longer look on us."
"Who is supplying you so well?"
"If I tell you, I lose my best customer."
The beads he showed were hand-smoothed and pierced. She tested the holes with thread. They were rough-cut. The richness of color, the luster, told her they were hand polished, worn, touched.
"Jade, you suspect me of plundering sacred places?"
Jade hummed brokenly. "Stories are strong in these beads."
"Our stories," said Galen. "These have told much to the Kaehwo. It is right you should have them."
"Maybe just as well they stay buried."
"Might stay buried, except for Jade and me. Tell me to come back no more, I keep walking. Find the next Naya who sees so well with beads."
The buttery yellows, Crow pink, Cheyenne greens, the rose white-heart bead, they spoke to Jade of fish gods, bird gods, rain makers, moon catchers. Snatches from before snagged the beads just as the dried beeswax threads of a former pattern or a flaked-off bit of brain-tanned hide. Like the dirt clogging the holes, the old gods clung to these beads, telling. Jade closed her eyes to them, shook her head clear. If Ho-naya Jad but listened, the prophetic might still sing through her tribe, through her. But what of the cost? What would the spirit world take back in trade? Or give?
She bought all he had.
In a fit of spasms, Winks pocketed the paper money, slung his gourd-shaped bag on his shoulder and set the copper bells on Jade's door clapping.
Jade was lightheaded with spent patience, waiting for the Sequina Starr legend to sing through her. To hear the spirit songs is not so great a gift, she was thinking when Leon slunk through the bead curtain. He cupped his hand as if cradling a broken-winged bird. Instead, four large beads rode the cracks of his palm.
"What do you make of these?" said Leon.
"Nine millimeter," said Jade, measuring them with her eye. She expected the beads to be hot to the touch, but they were not. She thumbed the red one along the crease of her fingers. Stone-ground? The hole, rough-cut.
At her table, the beads warmed in the spotlights. The unvarnished oak slab, now pocked with Jade's tin-gold cups, had come from a sacred circle tree. She dropped the beads into an empty cup and brought each beneath her loupe. The deep red she guessed to be ruby but never saw one so large, so did not say. The green was jade, a tiny flask richly carved in blossoms. A third was bone, carved as two skulls, one emerging from the back of the other. The fourth wasn't a bead so much as a charm. A silver fish. Jade forced her thumbnail into the fish's blowing mouth, just to be sure. A row of sharp points. Teeth.
Leon stood over her, his tattoos squirming. "They came from Sequina Starr, the Ripley queen."
"How'd you get them?"
"From the lady herself."
Jade waited for explanation. "She isn't a fake, as you've said?"
"She's real. I've got the scars to prove it." Leon showed the abrasions on his scaled chest.
"From this Sequina?"
"She was wild, a hurting ride," said Leon. His dirty grin, his hooded eyes.
"You would defile desert thistle," said Jade.
"She came looking for you but found me first. Left these ones for you, and some others. I'm still picking them from the bottoms of my feet." His head shrugged at the tattoo den.
"It's true then, this beaded skin?" Jade re-examined the beads. Inside the ruby one there was a piece of stained thread. "She sheds."
"Wait for her--unless you want me to take care of her again." Leon was drunk with himself, with what he had done.
Jade's eyes felt about to pop. If they did, would the color leak out in richly polished pearls of deep honey?
As if the clappers dared not strike their own cups, the copper bells did not sing to Jade that night. Silence emptied the place of story song until rattle of gemstone, tinkle of shaved glass, of crystal, the itch of bone and wood stepped inside like the smoke of sweet grass, heavy, insistent. Perhaps she'd expected the stealth of spirit, but Sequina Starr's beads were not only those of the mind. Into Mystic Bead she clattered as with a queen's retinue. Tall, taller than woman stood Sequina. An Amazonian without tribe or country, not of this world. A hooded wrap covered her beaded body. The hair on her head swinging forward, clicked. Movement sent the dull clatter of beads shimmying the air. The Ripley queen smelled of disinfectant, strong as formaldehyde.
Jade had worked finely brain-tanned skins as did her ancestors who sewed elaborate costumes of bead and bone. Tribal lore held that certain shamans beaded their own skins. The pierce of the skin, the pull of thread through nerve made them strong. So strong, they crossed to the other side on their own. This Sequina, she had not crossed over. Was trapped now, Jade imagined, in a skin traded to the gods a pin-prick at a time.
Sequina folded back her hood. Jade could not look, she could not look away. Beadwork swarmed up Sequina's neck in the hungry curves of a lotus. She parted the wrap, on display, as at the museum. The design darted along her hip bones, climbing down her legs and curling in flourishes at her ankles. She was exquisitely painful to look at. A true Ripley queen if Jade ever saw one--had she not seen a little further into things.
"Touch," said Sequina. A strangely accented command. Even outside the bell jar and lights, she was commanding, magnetic.
Honi Jade put out her hand as if to test heat on the air. But Sequina took hold of Jade's fingers, ran them along her arm, her neck, up to her beaded cheek. Jade probed Sequina's knobby, scabbed-over face. When she pulled back, her hand glistened. Sequina's skin leaked, the threads giving way. Jade's skin tingled as if she herself were pierced.
"What do you want?" said Jade.
"Repair or return. I am between."
"I don't have this kind of bead."
"No mystic. Just Honi Jade, daughter's daughter of Shaman Jaden."
"Ho-naya Jad will help me."
"How do you know that name?"
"It's not yours?"
"I can't help you. This is shaman's work."
"It's a pierce at a time. A stitch, a knotting off. Bead by bead."
"I can't do it," said Jade. Then, "I'm not prepared." She did not think only of prayers and smoke offerings to the gods. Of dancing herself into the oblivion of mind. Skittering on the edge of thought, Leon's sterilizer, disinfecting needles and scissors, dressing. She would work up a jar of desert greens. And what about Galen, would he help her in this?
"Prepare, then," said Sequina. "Time is water spilling from our hands."
Jade puffed a thin curl of smoke from her pipe. A dirge sang through Sequina's beads, a snake's rattle, the click of bones.
The smell of desert greens fogged Honi Jade's shop and Leon's tattoo den next door. Fragrantly unbearable, a burnt sweet like the pain of picking desert thistle. It brought Leon rattling through the curtain from the other side.
"What in hell...?" said Leon.
"That's good for business."
"It hardens some, then dries," said Jade. Grandma Jaden's desert greens salve was a powerful exfoliate, melted and applied hot. When it dried, it peeled off, leaving a layer of clean new skin.
"What, you've got a pimple? Couple of eye wrinkles?" Leon finger-tested the salve, burning himself.
"Hot," said Honi Jade. She let the salve bubble and cool as she counted out beads with a pin, a loupe at her eye.
"Can I have some of this?" said Leon.
"You got a pimple now?" She wondered at this scaled Lizard Man, fooling with desert greens. She poured the honey-thick salve into an empty bead case for him.
"She came by last night?" The stripes tattooed on Leon's forehead puckered. He smoothed the salve on the abrasions left by Sequina Starr.
Jade lit her pipe, offered Leon a smoke. He declined.
"I don't know what you already know," he said.
Jade moved the pipe in her mouth, clamping down on it with her teeth. She knew she was helping something along. It had been given her to do.
"Ripley's putting her in the tank, like the ad said. But the dancing's being done by the piranha," said Leon.
Jade puffed on that. So this was what had come. "What about Fake Swami?" The retired Hollywood stuntman played his Ripley role inside the museum and outside.
"Fake Swami's out," said Leon. "He got bit real bad."
"No, the rattlers. One of his own. Believe that? A pet's love bite." Leon whirled his arms to dry the salve. It would sting by now. "So now your shaman, goddess, whatever, she goes into the tank. It's a media event," said Leon.
"What do you want from me?"
"I thought you'd know what to do."
"Maybe piranha have something to tell." Such a telling, there was no stopping it.
Honi Jade passed through the smells of the Fish Market, the steamers, the deep fried dough and sticky sweet lemonade. Tourist fare. She waited at the curb for the trolley's rude clanging to pass. If only more eyes saw further into things. If more ears heard the music singing itself to the world.
At Ripley's lighted marquee, she met Leon. He had put on a shirt for the occasion and produced two tickets, good ones, second row. The showroom at Ripley's smelled like an aquarium. A deeply woofered sound system generated underwater noises while a radio voice ticked off a deadly, "Did-you-know?" list about piranhas. "Piranhas swim in schools and attack much larger prey like a pack of wild dogs!"
The lights dimmed on the tourist crowd and a scattering of local body art fans, the off-beat news reporter. The music drove and thumped toward a point of light, widening with Sequina Starr. She stood on a platform above the tank, her plastic visor magnifying her eyes, a snorkel protruding from her mouth. She looked like a different kind of animal, thought Honi Jade. One about to step off that platform and into another life.
"What's she got smeared all over her?" said Leon.
Jade unscrewed her eyes from a focal point in the unseen world. "Desert greens!" So Galen had come through for her. He had gotten the salve to Sequina Starr. What was taken or given in trade, she'd rather not know. The repair or return, that was up to Sequina.
"What's that going to do?"
"What desert greens do."
The radio voice recounted Sequina's vital statistics: "The entire surface area of Ms. Starr's 6-foot, 11-1/2-inch frame is covered in traditional beadwork of the Brazilian Anaweuk tribe. With 365,000 beads and a quarter mile of thread, she tips the scales at 250 pounds. At two pierces per bead, Sequina's skin holds three-quarters of a million pierces! The most successful pierces any human epidermis has ever sustained--even among body piercing aficionados!"
"Fat chance," said Leon. He had not bothered to count the punctures required of his lizard skin.
This Sequina, she was one for the annals of Ripley curiosities, no matter her connection to Jade's lost sacred world. A Ripley queen, it was the radio voice that said so this time. The newspaper reporter wrote it all down for tomorrow's feature.
Sequina lowered herself into the tank on an L-shaped bar, her beads bobbing weightlessly like soundless little bells. A nubbled, human-sized penny, she sank. The music thumped louder, and a spiraling column of bubbles shot the piranha into the tank. The fish were silver with red markings, a hive of shiny bleeding dimes. They swam as one entity at Sequina's head, circling down her chest, a dynamo of shine and fin and gill.
Jade knotted her hands with her own hair. She couldn't see the piranhas' teeth, but she knew they were there. Everyone did. Jade hoped the piranha were no more dangerous than a pet rattler's love bite. "So be it in our minds," said Jade.
The fish reached Sequina's ankles, and the swarm moved off. Jade breathed as if she'd been held under water. These piranha were tame, she reminded herself. But she knew well that tame went together with wild in the same animal. No wildness? No taming, either. The profane secured the sacred--Jade saw such things as two heads on the same snake.
One fish, a straggler, made its way crookedly toward Sequina's head. With a ragged dorsal, it swam, darting for unseen prey. Unseen by the swarm, invisible to the crowd in their seats, but there. Unseen, even, by Honi Jade, who waited for this telling in all the din humming through the world. She sheds, Jade heard herself say. The one fish had the brute detachment to see the flaking skin. Bits of it floated around Sequina Starr like broad petals opening in the currents. The fish sucked up the floating bits, eating its way to the beaded woman before taking its first bite.
Sequina's hand, also flaking, knocked the fish away. Like an attacking dog, the straggler swam at her fingers, and the pack returned. The swarm dove in to feed, picking and pulling at her beads. Jade's salve melted in a cloud, inflaming them.
From the confusion of salve and piranha, the beads emerged like bubbles. Some floated to the top, bouncing at the surface; some sank like stones. Jade saw Sequina's snorkel pitch, hit the glass, and float to the surface before filling with water. A curtain flourished and paraded to a close.
"So be it," chanted Jade, there, not there. In the mind, outside of it. She would sew it as it had been told her.
Honi Jade danced in the ceremonial garb of her ancestors: a fringed leather tunic, a breastplate of bead and bone. Copper bells ringed her knees, her wrists. At her neck twin snake heads flapped on a single body coursing down her back. All night she danced on the beach around fires of driftwood. Her shadow melded with sand and surf, diving and returning until the sun climbed her back on the ladder of the snake skin.
She danced to the song of Sequina Starr returning to the other side. Her feet wrote the stitches on the sandy shore. Later, she would knot the song in threads and secure it to the fabric that binds all and sets all free.
When Jade opened Mystic Bead, Leon's Body Inks was still dark, the Lizard Man gone. Perhaps he had returned himself to the desert for a time. He would be back, thought Honi Jade. His story sang to her from far away.
It was yet early when someone with a familiar gourd-shaped bag rang through the front door. Winks Galen wore a new coat. Something else, his face was not his, or rather, it was his own again. The ants eating him in the netherworld had washed away. Jade's fingers grazed his cheek, steady. He was clear-eyed, smiling as a man who has just shaved away a matted beard. Galen was serene, and Ho-naya Jad's eyes took in the power of serenity.
"Shaman Jaden's daughter's daughter has seen well?"
"I saw what I had to see."
"Ah, but there is more than seeing in this, and you will see yet more. Make a trade today, Ho-naya?"
"What've you got?"
"Beads and beads. Nice Brazilians." He opened his bag, alive with the squirm of beads cut free. Some with tongues of fraying thread. None were tagged.
"The price has already been paid. Choose from them to finish what you have sewn. And seen," said Galen.
"I've one panel to go. A starfish sunk in the sea. A two-headed snake, cut. And now, those ants eating your face, curled with drowning and black as shadow beads in a rippling pool," said Jade.
Galen's eyes held her telling.
"But these beads, they don't match the others," she said.
"They don't match to the eye? Then perhaps you must choose them another way."
"It won't look of a piece," said Jade.
"As you know well," said Galen, "tellings must be seen through the needle's eye, from this side, from the other. So be it in our minds." He touched his palm to her forehead.
"So be it," said Jade.
Galen left his bead bag on Jade's oak table and set her copper bells telling. A new telling, one of a sweet Jaden jar that never emptied and never filled.
MaryAnn Suehle's stories have been published or are forthcoming in Antietam Review, Cafe Irreal, Fodderwing, Folio, Gargoyle, the New Orleans Review, and Passager. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and is writing a novel, By the (S)word.