The Lorelei Signal
The Miracle of Dry Cleaning
Written by E.E. King / Artwork by Marge Simon
Sally slung her dry cleaning over her arm and began the short walk back home to her sensible, spotless, beige, condo perched on the edge of Oak Valley Village.
Oak Valley had once, long ago, contained actual oaks as well as other trees, but these had been replaced by malls, bearing woody names like Spruce, Yew and Birch that needed no water.
Still, Sally’s apartment was enclosed by a tidy white picket fence, and fronted by daffodils, zinnia, marigolds and roses.
Though the flat’s walls were paper-thin, her neighbors were, for the most part, elderly like herself and not given to noisy parties or amorous interludes.
Besides, her hearing had dimmed. Now even the raucous scrub-jays and boisterous magpies, feasting at her next-door neighbor Crystal’s messy bird feeders, sounded as faint and far away as lonesome doves.
Sally’s building did not allow animals. She circumnavigated loneliness by naming her toaster oven and sewing eyes on her tea cozy. They were quiet, much cleaner than live pets and totally legal. Sally was content. She didn’t need much: a few flowers, a dirt-free house, and a nice cup of tea. She wasn’t like Crystal who was always seeing miracles and omens to give life meaning. Life was just fine as it was.
Sally climbed the front steps, shaking her head at the ugly stain on the front porch. Caused by a carless delivery boy’s leaky motorbike, it been there for over a week, resisting all her efforts. Even a through scrubbing with Filth-B-Gone, a solution known to clean paint from doors, plaster from walls and glaze from tiles, had made no difference.
Hanging in-between Sally’s sweaters, swinging from a paper-covered hanger and carefully draped in plastic, was a roughly woven, badly stained white cloth.
As she pulled it out, her fingers tingled as though she’d touched something alive, breathing, and warm. She laid it on the table, trying to ignore the heat that spread throughout her body like sunshine after a long winter.
Sally prided herself on being practical. She did not believe in the authority of dreams, or the power of prayer. She was not like Crystal who sensed signs in the slightest of breezes, saw omens in every sunrise, and heard portents in the nightly cries of barn owls.
Still, no matter how much she tried to ignore the tickling of her fingers and toes, she could not help but be aware of the warm, wonderful current coursing up her body and into her mind, filling it with wonder as she gazed out at the rainy sunset. She’d never seen a sky so lovely, so full of color, light, and hidden rainbows. All of her worries seemed small and unimportant, even the intransigent grease on her front porch, that had been plaguing her with its stubborn refusal to come clean. Life was full of love and light, understanding, sisterhood, and…. Crystal pushed open her door and lurched into the dining room without even knocking.
Really, Sally tightened her lips. Some people have no notion of….
“Sally,” Crystal cried. “I had the most A-MAZ-ING…OHHHHH.”
Crystal fell to her knees before the dirty, linen rag on the table. Tears of joy ran down her cheeks, glistening in the fading light like drop-shaped rainbows.
“What is it?” Sally asked, usually she was a bit annoyed by Crystal’s dramatics, but even she could not deny something uncanny was emanating from the badly stained cloth on the table.
“I believe it is The Shroud of Turin,” Crystal breathed. Her words glittered like falling snowflakes. They formed tangible waves of light and transubstantiated into two shining white doves who flew toward the sunbeams shining through the window.
Unfortunately, Sally’s windows were closed, it was after all the end of fall, the days were cooling, and nights were cold. The celestial doves crashed into the glass with a very real thud and fell lifelessly onto her carpet.
“OHHHHH,” wailed Crystal. Sally marveled that two such different emotions could be voiced by the same sound.
Sally hesitated, wondering if she should get some newsprint to wrap up the bodies, but as she pondered, the birds vanished, leaving only two brownish smudges on her rug.
“Where did you get it?” Crystal asked, in a breathy whisper.
“At The Clean Conscious”, Sally said.
“I never go there,” Crystal clicked her tongue. “They use HOR-rible chemicals.”
The two women stared at the cloth, lying innocuously beneath its plastic coverlet. It was marked with a dark red stain that no cleaning, and no chemicals, no matter how horrible, had ever been able to remove.
Eons before, when the blood was still fresh, slaves had beaten it with rocks and left it to dry on rough, slate stone of Papyrus lined riverbanks.
Centuries later, The Sisters of the Galactic Prophecy had soaked it in scalding water and scoured it over metal wash pans, until the skin of their fingers grew as white and desiccated as albino raisins.
Decades after, the cloth had been stirred for forty days and forty nights by catholic, orphan paupers and saturated in vats filled with solvents so caustic they would burn the flesh off of anyone they touched. And, most recently, the shroud had been bleached, and spot cleaned. But still the stain remained.
Sally heard a faint whisper. If a breeze had hands and were knocking on my door, she thought, that is what it would sound like. Despite the preponderance of wonders, she marveled at her imagination. Never before had metaphors dropped into her mind like this, as easy and unrestrained as the quality of mercy.
Sally’s door creaked. I must oil the hinges, she thought. I know I have some…
Into the room shuffled, a dozen or more, dirty, tattered souls. They might have been men or, women, or children. It was impossible to tell. The bottom halves of their faces were covered by rags. Their eyes, though crusted and cloudy, gleamed with a fierce hope.
“Lepers,” hissed Crystal.
Both women backed toward the window, unconsciously stepping over the blood of the vanished doves.
“Tap-tap tap.” In came twelve blind men, and one blind woman. They were followed by three who might have been either, their faces, hands and limbs were so swollen, their features hidden in folds of enflamed flesh.
“What’s wrong with them?” Sally whispered.
“I think it’s dropsy,” Crystal whispered back.
They eyed the bloated trio.
“What’s dropsy?” hissed Crystal.
“I think it’s water retention,” Sally hissed back.
“I keep telling you about the dangers of too much sodium,” muttered Crystal. “Well there you are! I rest my case. I imagine all they need is a bit of boiled dandelion root and…”
“How do you know they have dropsy if you don’t know what dropsy is?” mouthed Sally.
“It’s in the bible,” Crystal whispered. “The shroud, the lepers, the blind men, some people with dropsy and…”
She was interrupted by an unearthly howling and moaning from Sally’s front yard. In staggered two dozen children in the throes of demonic possession. They were followed by six dumb men, five paraplegics, a few epileptics, a deaf man with a speech impediment, a woman with ‘blood issues,’ and a man with a withered hand.
The cries and laminations of all who were not mute, not nearly enough in Sally’s estimate, shook the walls of the tiny flat. She wondered if her hearing had improved. She wondered if that was yet another miracle, and if it was, if she could somehow refuse it. The stench was beyond biblical.
“Jesus,” Sally prayed. “Please heal these people. Please take your shroud and get the bloody hel—uh heck—out of my flat,” she pleaded. It was the first, and most heartfelt, supplication she’d uttered in years.
The shroud blazed gloriously.
The blind saw, the deaf heard, the paraplegic danced. They twirled, boogied, waltzed and sang their way out of Sally’s home as fast as she could shoo them.
The only remaining signs of portents and miracles were two brown smudges that had briefly been heavenly doves.
Sally went to the sink to wet a sponge so she could scrub away the blood of the blessed birds, but the liquid that poured from her tap was red and even darker than blood. Crystal, who was right behind her dipped a finger in.
“Ummm…Cabernet Sauvignon with a hint of Shiraz.”
Sally sighed and poured them each a glass.
That winter, she and Crystal opened up S & C’s Holy Spirits Wine Bar. Her brew became famous for filling patrons with warmth and good fellowship. The flat/bar was homey, yet spotless, immaculate except for the slightly stained rug in the corner. Sally had decided not to get it dry cleaned. Sometimes cleanliness was a little too close to godliness.
E.E. King is a painter, performer, writer, and naturalist - She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals.
Ray Bradbury called her stories, “marvelously inventive, wildly funny and deeply thought-provoking. I cannot recommend them highly enough.”
King has won numerous various awards and fellowships for art, writing, and environmental research.
She’s been published widely, most recently in Clarkesworld and On Spec.
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