by Pat Nolan
It’s not like I didn’t have any clothes. A model always has clothes. Mine were in the trunk of my Volvo. There was a basket of laundry I never found time to do. And two shopping bags full of clothes I never got around to donating to the local thrift store. Underneath all that was a large garment box my mother had mailed to me in a fit of spite. It contained the cast-offs of a life spent in the promotion of my classic good looks.
I had spread most of the clothing across the bed and on the wicker furniture of the cabin I was now renting at the Mint, just a few doors down from where Rikki and Wallace were staying. The laundry basket contained the usual delicate items gone stale, the tops that stained too easily, and the jeans and skirts that were too confining for the summer months. I was amused and not a little surprised by the items I pulled from the thrift bags. Things that were long past fashionable seemed like treasures now that they were all the clothing I had. Some of the items went back twenty years to the mid-sixties when the styles, by today’s standards, seemed laughable. There were miniskirts and plunging necklines as well as the colorful confusion of paisley gowns. Each piece had its own history that I could have called up wistfully, but I had to decide on something to wear and in a hurry. JJ was getting impatient.
For a brief moment I had the sense that the long narrow garment box was a cardboard coffin in which a life that had once been mine was now entombed.
I had promised to be her moral support when she strolled down the runway at the Montague Winery Charity Fashion Show, something that apparently took precedence over the burden of my recent calamity, and she was going to hold me to it.
“That’s nice,” JJ commented on the beaded bolero jacket I held up. Unfortunately there was nothing else that went with it. The belted miniskirt tunic was a little too twiggy, and I had thrown away my white go-go boots long ago.
“What’s in the box?” She lifted the flap and poked around disinterestedly.
“I can’t remember.” A few years back I had gone to the post office and the box had been waiting for me. The enclosed letter contained the usual irrational accusations of diminished affection my mother liked to imagine and use as a guilt lever. It had worked before, but no longer. The emotional blackmail in that letter still made me angry. “Some old things.”
“Is this a cheerleader outfit?” JJ held up the blue and gold sweater, beaming. “I had one just like this, except it was maroon and white!”
“I don’t think I could possibly wear that,” I dead-panned.
“And a tutu?” She had turned her attention to the other items.
“I must have been twelve when I wore that. I’ve grown a bit since then.” I held up a silky iridescent shift. “I wore this when I was crowned Miss Teen America.”
JJ gaped. “Oh my god, that’s right, you were a Miss Teen America!”
For a brief moment I had the sense that the long narrow garment box was a cardboard coffin in which a life that had once been mine was now entombed.
“You wore this?” JJ held up an embroidered peasant blouse with an expression of disdain.
Seeing the blouse again startled me. I reached blindly into the box certain of what else I would find. Yes, it was there too, the red, black, and white tiered full length skirt. It and the blouse were some of the only clothes I had worn when I was being held in the villa compound on Sabbia Negru. I remembered Xuxann explaining the significance of the colors to me. They were the colors of the goddess: white for innocence, red for fertility, and black for death. Those items of clothing were tangible proof of the most bizarre chapter in my charmed yet otherwise disheveled life.
I felt a stab of pain at the tip of my finger. Cautiously this time, I extracted the skirt from the box and spread it on the bed. Pinned to the waistband was the small bronze medallion that Treyann had given me not long before we parted ways. It depicted a woman around whose lower torso twin snakes were twined, and whose heads she held parallel to her own. She was the great earth goddess, mistress of the underground, and prototype of the caduceus.
“I think I’ve found what I’m going to wear.”
“What?” JJ wrinkled her nose. “That? That’s so. . . ethnic hippie gypsy earth mother peasant. . . .” And when I turned to seriously reflect on the blouse with its intricate embroidered history, “Kind of passé, don’t you think?”
I ran my thumb over the embossed medallion smiling to myself, and pictured Treyann swirling in dance, a dance in which the arms were extended over the head and the hands brought together in rhythmic thunderclaps accompanied by flute and tambour.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen stitching quite like this on a peasant blouse before,” JJ observed when she realized I wasn’t going to be swayed by her disapproval. The embroidery was as unusual as it was ancient. Ears of barley were depicted in the distinctive motif as well as small purple flowers similar to forget-me-nots.
She pointed to the multicolored spirals embroidered at intervals along the neck line. “These look like little galaxies.”
I had to smile. “Mushrooms.”
Her eyes widened. “You mean like. . .mushroom mushrooms? Shrooms?” She gave a tentative knowing grin.
I nodded. “Yes, when I. . . .” I was going to say, “was held captive” but decided on “lived at Sabbia Negru, I partook of them regularly.”
Again, I puzzled her. This was something else about me she had failed to anticipate. “Sabbia Negru?”
“It’s a long story.” And it was a long story, one that I thought I had extricated myself from but was once again insisting in capturing my attention. My confinement on the grounds of the villa had been made less of an ordeal because of the daily companionship of Treyann. She was the wise old priestess at whose knee I learned about an ancient selfless world, a world in which inner beauty complimented outer beauty and made one radiant. They were lessons in the power of the female that did not reside solely in the triad of attraction, the face, the breasts, the pudendum. I was made aware of this awesome unity with Treyann’s guidance through the sacramental mushroom. My eyes were opened and what I experienced was a power both benevolent and cruel.
JJ glanced at her watch. “Well, we don’t have time for a long story. If that’s what you’re going to wear, get dressed. I don’t want to be late for the preshow rehearsal.”
I happily complied, the feel of natural fabric on my bare skin like a recovered memory. I brushed my hair out and let it fall to my shoulders like I wore it when I was a free spirit running on the black sand beaches far from the daily pressures of high fashion and celebrity.
JJ was looking at me like she wasn’t quite satisfied. “Shoes, you need shoes.”
All my shoes had gone up in smoke. “I’m thinking barefoot.” That was how I originally worn this outfit.
JJ shook her head, “Mmm, no, not quite.” She flashed me a sly grin as she held the door open. “I’m thinking glass slippers.”
Chapter Thirty One
Tommy Montague was a real charmer. JJ had every right to gush. He was a good looking guy, attired in dark slacks, a gold polo shirt, and a tan dinner jacket with the Montague Winery crest on the breast pocket. His manner was professional, his handshake firm. But there was something about him that bothered me.
For one I had no effect on him. Even with a thousand watt smile that would normally turn most men’s brains to mush, his eyes registered nothing, nada. What also bothered me was that if you took an eyebrow pencil and drew a raggedy goatee around his mouth and then combed half a can of motor oil through his hair, you would have the man in the gray van, the one with the vicious dog.
Tommy personally took us on a tour of the petite castle. Except for the private apartments, which, of course, were off-limits. We were shown the wine cellar, the tasting room where a sumptuous buffet was staged, and the spectacular ballroom with the runway the models would soon be catwalking down. The mezzanine led to an open terrace overlooking sloping stretches of vineyards interspersed with little oak oases. There were champagne fountains in the tasting room as well as on the mezzanine. I availed myself of a flute as soon as the server came by with a tray. I have a weakness for bubbles.
Our guide had a two-way radio that called him away. He made his apologies and left hurriedly. I accompanied JJ to the dressing room and got caught up in the crush and hysteria.
There were two kinds of women elbowing each other for mirror space to make last minute adjustments. The professional sticks, ‘twiggys,’ who are nothing more than skeletal clothes racks, and the amateurs, or as they are known in the trade, ‘heifers,’ who are mostly high school girls, innocent and perfect, or middle aged women who think they still have something. Amateurs have a tendency to carry more meat on their bones which made them dangerous to the intent of high fashion. As every designer has told every model he has ever draped, flesh destroys fabric. There were some models who took it to the extreme. I had been one who had trod that fine line. JJ, on the other hand, as an amateur, had bulges that stretched the limits of design. But then some men find that attractive.
Rikki and Wallace had volunteered their services to do hair and make-up for the show. I was greeted by Rikki who eyed my outfit and immediately dubbed me the ‘barefoot Contessa’ and cracked that I was not doing the fashion world any favors by parading around like a hippie princess in front of all these impressionable young women. He was aghast that I was shoeless. I reminded him that my shoes were charred rubble. All I had in the way of footwear were a pair of hiking boots and rubber flip flops. That shut him up though it didn’t change his look of sour disapproval.
I had to laugh. Here I was, a world famous model at a charity fashion show, and I would not be sauntering down the runway. Certainly not in my archaic pagan outfit. I was aware that I had been recognized and that my presence was causing a minor commotion among the participants. As usual I remained unapproachable.
I quit the hubbub of the dressing room and wandered among the arriving patrons with my flute of champagne. I had determined earlier that the terrace off the mezzanine would be the ideal place to await the start of the show. I was feeling especially bright and forgiving. As chintzy as the phony miniature castle appeared from the outside, the interior was expensively and, to a certain pedestrian extent, lavishly accoutered. I was particularly taken by the large medieval tapestry at one end of the mezzanine in what Tommy had indicated as the private suites. I was drawn to it by the intricate weave of story it told. It was a classic, a lithe blonde female with her hand on the snout of the pure white unicorn. I felt as if I were being drawn into the woven landscape and wondered if I may not have had a horn too many.
On the stage, in tiered skirts of ancient fashion, the women of SAPHO performed a whirling foot stomping version of a primitive flamenco.
A door opened at my left to draw me out of my reverie. A large man in a large dark suit approached and glared at me with large disapproval. I got the message and made my way back through the wide gold filigreed doors that took me out to the terrace and the cool of early evening. My bare feet seemed to sense the deep warm character of the marble paving. My eyes were drawn to the misty distance where an orange aura backlit the ridge of conifers. The air was heavy with earthy fragrance and the scent transported me to my time in captivity, or as I had come to consider it, my retreat and rebirth. I had experienced a similar overwhelming sensation, but at the time I had voluntarily imbibed in one of Treyann’s herb, amphibian and mushroom cocktails. I ran my lightly throbbing finger over the image of the brooch that had pricked it and let the realization sink in. A tincture of that potion applied to the brooch pin would have been enough to produce the heightened awareness I was now feeling. A tiny pea shaped mouth in my head was telling me to panic but I held firm. One of the many things I had learned from Treyann was how to fearlessly walk the gossamer tightrope into a state of pure delight. I also learned that there was a dark side to this particular power.
Again it was an instance where my curiosity had got the better of me. It was one full moon night when a large group of women had been ferried over from the resort at the northern tip of Sardinia. I had been prohibited from joining the evenings of music and dancing on the chance that I would be recognized and my presence at the old Roman villa on the St Bartholomew straits would get out. After months of custody I was trusted enough that I no longer needed to be escorted by Xuxann. Besides, I had been biding my time in the company of Treyann. I had spent that particular day hiking on the hillside behind the villa and had come back exhausted and famished. Treyann had fed me homemade stone ground bread, goat cheese and olives. I had fallen asleep on the little cot that she kept out in the open space between the garden and her hut. I was awakened by a chilly breeze off the Mediterranean. It was late evening and I heard the strains of fife and drum coming up from the courtyard of the villa. I called for Treyann but got no answer. She never went anywhere after dark. She did not trust her eyesight to walk the winding trails at night.
I wandered back to my little cell above the villa, but the sounds of gaiety and the throaty ululations called to me. Stealthily, I slipped into the courtyard and was not disappointed. A mass of women, bare breasted or in tiny shrugs covering not much more than their shoulders, exulted in their freedom, arms waving in the silver air of a full moon like fields of grain in a breeze, their feet stamping to the rhythm, hips undulating to the hypnotic music of a primitive orchestra of breath and skin.
The musicians were mostly African women, one of whom was Xuxann. Their instruments included a variety of drums, from the tall African type to smaller single head Celtic tambours. The flutes were of all sizes as well, shrill piccolos and the larger bass breaths of the Australian outback. They had cut a groove and the dancers followed it like water down a chute. On the stage, in tiered skirts of ancient fashion, the women of SAPHO performed a whirling foot stomping version of a primitive flamenco. Among the mass of swaying bodies I was anonymous. Then everything I had ever assumed turned upside down and inside out.
The music stopped with the exception of the low moan of a large bamboo flute. A female figure was paraded around the stage on a palanquin carried by four women dressed in sheer glistening gowns. At first I assumed that it was a statute like the one of the Virgin Mary I had seen carried in processions in Mediterranean villages on certain holy days. On her head, a large elaborate gold headdress perched like an exotic bird. Very much alive, the woman was helped to her feet by her attendants. She was astride shoes with soles that were easily two feet high, adding to her already towering presence. Even though she was draped in layers of multicolored scarves, her face painted to exaggerate her eyes and highlighted with fearsome red streaks, I recognized Treyann
The music started up again, slowly at first then building to a frenzy. Treyann twirled and whirled to the frantic beat of the drums and the piercing shrieks of the fifes as gracefully as if she had been barefoot. All eyes were fixed on her and a great hush descended over the assembled women as we all seemed to breathe in unison with the spinning apparition. As the tempo changed from frenzied to that approximating a steady heartbeat, it became obvious that Treyann was enacting a ritual, a paean to female power. A piebald Old World Nubian buck that had seen better days was brought onto the stage and placed before Treyann. She spun like a dust devil around the trembling animal. The flutes fell silent. The drums continued with rolling solemnity. A towering Treyann swayed, stomping her elevator shoes in time to the beat, hands held above her head clapping a polyrhythm. The drums stopped abruptly. In the rushing silence, every woman breathed as one. Treyann clapped her hands thrice like the crack of thunder. She directed all the gathered energy at the sacrificial animal. The old goat tottered and then crumbled, a mere bundle of skin and bone.