It began one hot summer night, when the moon was full. Jeremy T. Mankins was doing what he normally did on hot summer nights, which was to sit out on the old beat-up couch he had propped up on his front porch, drink beer and yell at the cicadas to shut up. This, of course, had absolutely no effect on the cicadas -- great lovesick vibrating spacebugs that they are -- but that didn't deter Jeremy: if they were prepared to sit out there and buzz effect every night, then he was just as prepared to sit out on the porch with a sixpack or two and yell at them to quit it. He was stubborn that way. But that night, things weren't going quite right.
"Pipe down, you six-legged gargle snort!" Jeremy yelled. Gargle snort? This was new. The cicadas stopped buzzing for a moment to consider this development with their tiny, prehistoric brains. After determining it was no reason to stop buzzing, they quickly redoubled their efforts.
"Ah, why don't you cram it right snurkel sputter cough!"
Snurkel? The cicadas decided Jeremy was being very rude, trying to distract them with these new sounds he was making, but they were determined to rise above it and buzz even more loudly than they had ever buzzed before. Which prompted even more coughing and yelling and snorting, which led to even louder buzzing, and pretty soon the whole thing had spiraled out of control. The buzzing became so loud and joyful that when the coughing and yelling and snorting eventually stopped with a ragged gurgle, it took a while to register with everyone that the battle was over.
Jeremy wasn't on speaking terms with many of his neighbors. All that yelling at bugs in the middle of the night. But Norbutt from across the street didn't seem to mind it, maybe because he was half-deaf and could always turn down his hearing aid, maybe because Jeremy was always good for a beer or two. That night, when he came over to check on the whole beer situation like he usually did, he found Jeremy on that old couch with his head in his hands and a puddle by his feet. Flowing out of Jeremy's mouth, nose, ears, even a little bit at the tear ducts, was a thick stream of a chunky yellow goop. It actually smelled pretty good: sweet, with maybe a hint of rosemary. The stuff squirted between Jeremy's fingers and ran down the back of his arms, pooling on the couch and the rough cement floor. Norbutt stared, open-mouthed. Finally, after a long, breathless silence, he spoke.
"Hey, can I have some of that?"
That's how Jeremy found out that he was cursed. Every month, when the moon was full, a seemingly endless stream of thick, yellow goo would ooze out of all of his head-holes, chunky and steamy-hot. It was creamed corn, as he soon discovered, and it was quite delicious.
Of course, it was no picnic to have this stuff oozing out of his ears, nose, and throat, a sensation that lasted anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour and a half. It was actually completely awful. He didn't get used to it, either. Every time was just as bad, if not worse, than every other time: his mouth and throat slowly filling, his ears and nose clogging with chunks, it was indescribable. After the second month he broke down and started calling doctors. They would be hesitant at first, the ones he called: let's face it, it isn't easy to get an ear, nose, and throat specialist to come by in the middle of the night to look at creamed corn. But once it started to flow -- for real, no hidden wires -- they would spring into action, poking and prodding, hooking up electrodes to this and sticking needles into that. They took x-rays, CAT-scans, MRI's, and bombarded his head with powerful ultrasonic beams. To a man (and two women), they pronounced the creamed corn excellent. But for all that effort and activity, very little was accomplished, other than the gumming up of some very expensive equipment. The creamed corn kept flowing. It could not be plugged, absorbed, decongested, or limited in any way, and one by one, the doctors grew disinterested, and gave up.
"UNHAPPY? FEELING CURSED?"
The sign was plastered to a bench at a bus stop near the Nasal Trauma Center of St. Mary's hospital. Underneath there was a picture of a pair of probing dark eyes and the telephone number for one Madam Mamie, Spiritualist and Clairvoyant. Jeremy shrugged to himself: he'd given science sixteen months to show what it could do, and all he had to show for it was a stack of bills for PET scanner de-cornification. What did he have to lose? He poked the number into his phone and made an appointment for the night of the next full moon.
Madame Mamie was younger than he expected, with somewhat more purple hair and considerably more eyebrow-piercings than he'd have liked. But she did at least have a real crystal ball, right there in the middle of the coffee table on top of a stack of Backyard Poultry magazines, next to what looked to be a deck of "Hello Kitty" tarot cards.
After seating him on a dilapidated couch next to a pile of astrological charts from the 1970's, she settled in across the coffee table and studied him with the same dark eyes from the bus stop ad. He had told her his story, expecting the same reaction he got from most of the doctors he'd spoken to, which usually started with "Get the hell out of my office," but Madame Mamie just nodded.
"I see," she said. "I wondered why you had to see me tonight, when the moon will be full -- you will stay for awhile perhaps? Come. We'll have some tea, wait for this moon, and see what it brings."
They sat together and drank tea from an ancient teapot heated over an even more ancient hot plate for the rest of the evening. A couple of times he caught her watching him over the edge of her teacup, watching him in the slightly unnerving way a cat might watch a nature show about ostriches. When the moon peeked its face into Mamie's one cracked window and the creamed corn began to ooze, she didn't gasp or rush over to poke at him, she just studied his face carefully and let her eyes get even deeper and more mysterious. When it was over, her table looked like it had been covered by a lumpy yellow sea of creamed corn, with a crystal ball for a lighthouse. She offered him a tissue.
"I know what this is," she said, slowly rising to her feet. "This is a very rare thing: a real and true curse." She dipped a finger into the sea of creamed corn on her coffee table, squinted at it, then had a taste. "Most people, they come to me, they say someone gave them 'the evil eye,' just because their goldfish die. Ha! Nobody outside Romania even knows how to do the evil eye. Today if someone's mad at you, they put pictures of you in stretch pants on your facebook. But you! You have a curse!" Her eyes glinted with something close to real lunacy. The thought of politely excusing himself and getting another set of prescription nose plugs played through Jeremy's mind.
"No!" she said, rising to her feet and holding up one imperious finger. "You cannot go. I must uncover the rest of this mystery. For you, my wretched friend, have been afflicted with the Curse of the Creamed Cornucopia!"
Silence descended upon the room, broken only by the muffled sound of buses and taxies jockeying for position in the street outside.
"Oh come on," said Jeremy, after an uncomfortable minute. "That can't be what it's called."
Madame Mamie slouched back into her chair. "That is its name," she said with a shrug. She took another taste of creamed corn and made a face. "But how did this thing come to you, eh? It's a well-known fact -- at least amongst seers and clairvoyants -- that there is only one being mighty enough to cast the Curse of the Creamed Cornucopia" -- Jeremy rolled his eyes; she glared at him and continued -- "only one spell-caster gifted enough in the arcane arts: Maybelle, Queen of the Sea Cows."
Jeremy picked at something on his knee, suddenly nonchalant. Madame Mamie squinted at him and circled the table.
"It's also a well-known fact that sea cows are placid and gentle creatures, and Queen Maybelle is the gentlest of them all. It's almost impossible to make them angry, and if you do, the worst thing that'll happen is maybe you'll wind up with a little pair of horns on your head, or you smell like a goat for a couple weeks. But this, this is her most powerful curse." She sat on the arm of his chair, leaned over, and watched him try not to squirm.
"What did you do?" she said finally.
"What, to the sea cows? Nothing!"
Madame Mamie folded her arms across her chest.
"Really! I've never even seen one. What is it, some kind of manatee?" Beads of sweat gathered on Jeremy's forehead, which he wiped away on the back of his sleeve. Still Madame Mamie's dark eyes bore down on him.
"OK fine!" Jeremy said, after he could take no more. "Maybe once, when I was younger, I might have accidentally -- accidentally! -- jumped into a canal with a saddle and a cowboy hat and rode around on this big old flabby sea critter with big, whiskery lips. I might have. My memory is a bit sketchy. And anyway, I got off after five, ten miles, tops, so I don't see what's the big deal. Oh yeah, and she had this goofy-looking crown made of coral and old bottle tops and junk strapped around her neck, so I snatched that off and slapped the cowboy hat on her."
Madame Mamie's jaw dropped. She looked at him with a mix of horror and amazement.
"What?" Jeremy said.
"I can't believe they didn't eat you."
"Oh come on, it's not like I chased them with a motor boat, I know how they hate that. Anyway, that was years ago. She can't possibly still be mad."
"Of course she's still angry! Sea cows don't forget an insult, not one like what you did. No."
"OK, fine. It's my fault: the manatees are out to get me. Why now? Why not ten years ago?"
"The sea cows are slow, slow in everything they do," she said thoughtfully. "They don't understand the world of men. Maybelle, she probably didn't know who you were at first, or why you'd want to do such a thing. It probably took this long for her to find you. But she got you now. I bet she knows all about you, Mr. Mankins."
Jeremy squeezed his eyes shut and then rubbed them too hard with the palms of his hands. "What now?" he said, his voice muffled, "Can you fix it?"
She sighed. "Well ... everyday curses, hexes -- even the evil eye -- these I can take care of no problem. This one? I don't know. And even if I could fix you up, I'm not sure I want to get the sea cows mad at me, you follow? Then I'm the one with stuff coming out of my head."
"So you aren't going to help me."
"That's not what I said," she answered mildly. "Anyway, you know what you need to do: seek out Maybelle, return to her the crown of corals, and apologize. You still have the crown?"
"What if I do? It's not like I'd ever be able to find her again."
"Don't worry about that: she'll know. All you gotta do is let her find you. Think you can do that?"
Jeremy thought about it for a minute, then shrugged. What did he have to lose?
The little town on the bank of the Caloosahatchee river where Jeremy grew up was depressingly unchanged from what he remembered. Flat, hot, and treeless except for a few miserable palms, it baked under a merciless summer sun. He stopped in briefly to get supplies and then drove out of town on River Road without a backward look. A few miles out, the road dead-ended alongside the river. He got out of the car, pulled out a large backpack and two grocery bags he'd picked up in town, sat by the car, and waited. This was where it had all started, all those years ago: if Maybelle really was looking for him, this is where she'd be.
He waited. The sun boiled down. He sweated through his shirt -- which was brand new, thank you very much -- and still he waited. He swore under his breath and threw rocks at the alligators, and still he waited. And then finally, just as the sun was beginning to set, just as he was about to give up and head home, he saw them, lazily paddling their way upstream, occasionally stopping to nibble on this or that. Can manatees be said to frolic? Watching them heave their ungainly bodies through the water -- for all the world looking like slabs of sausage contesting for dominance in a pot of stew -- Jeremy had to admit there was a ponderous grace to the way picked at the mangroves at water's edge.
He caught his breath, and slowly, carefully made his way down to the water's edge, pulling the backpack and grocery bags behind him. The bags were filled with cantaloupes and week-old heads of romaine lettuce, which he began tossing into the water. Soon, without even a breath of wind to move it, the smell of rotting cantaloupes hung in a thick, cloying cloud about Jeremy's head. He breathed through his mouth and kept on; the manatees were showing signs of interest: first one then another drifted closer to investigate. Jeremy inched closer to the water, and the manatees drifted a little further off. He tossed in more of the sodden, oozy romaine, and the manatees let themselves drift a little closer. And so they danced.
Was one of them Maybelle? It was hard to tell with the half-submerged, slowly frolicking beasts, but somehow Jeremy knew: she was here. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and then opened the backpack and rummaged through it. For a few panicked seconds, he though he might have left it back at the hotel, but then he found it: the crown of the sea cows. It wasn't much: just a length of rope and elastic about a yard long that ran through an old styrofoam floater off some boat. The floater was encrusted with barnacles and bits of old coral and bottletops, and sitting on top, like a deranged hobo riding a buffalo, was a bald and naked Barbie doll, the crown's piece de resistance. Even after so many years in his attic, it still smelled of diesel fuel and dead horseshoe crabs.
Looking at the thing, Jeremy suddenly realized he hadn't the slightest idea what to do. "Ahem," he said finally, giving it a little shake.
One of the manatees swam nearby to snatch a bit of cantaloupe rind from the water with its fleshy, prehensile lips. It poked its head out of the water and snorted, somewhat derisively.
So that's how it's going to be, he thought. Fine then. He tossed the rest of the lettuce and cantaloupe rinds into the river and moved down to the water's edge. His shoes sunk into the thick, foul-smelling mud.
"Look," he said, addressing the manatee-filled river, "I'm sorry, all right? I realize now that what I did was wrong, and I want to make amends." The sea cows continued browsing amongst the mangroves in a most contented way. "So let's let bygones be bygones, eh? What do you say?"
The largest and most sausage-like of the sea-cows drifted closer and peered him with one beady eye from about ten feet away. Jeremy gestured with the crown.
"Shall I just put it in the water then?"
The sea cow drifted away languidly, giving the surface of the water a little slap with her paddle-like tail. Jeremy muttered something unpleasant under his breath. Following the big one's lead, the whole troop of manatees started wandering off downstream, toward an altogether more interesting clump of mangrove around the next bend.
Seeing his last, slender hope drifting away, Jeremy charged into the water. "Hey, you stupid fat fish!" he yelled. "I brought your dumb crown back, what more do you want from me?"
He winced the second the words came out of his mouth, imagining what new horrors might start dripping out of his head the next full moon.. And yet, for whatever reason, the big one was turning back. She swam up even closer this time, probably about as close as she could get to shore without beaching herself, no more than five or six feet away. Her front flippers hung beneath her in the water like fat little gondolas. The look she gave him was infuriatingly placid.
An idea struck. He took a step closer, so that the warm, turgid water was just starting to stain the bottom of his shorts -- also brand new, by the way. "Do you want me to put this on you?"
She made a sort of low rumbling moaning sound that could mean anything. He took a couple steps closer; she stayed where she was, contentedly munching on a piece of rind. When his shorts were filled up to the waistband with river water and leeches, he was almost close enough to touch her. For an instant, he was seized by a fierce desire to leap up on to her back, dig his heels into her pudgy flanks, and ride her all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. "Be cool, Jeremy," he muttered to himself. "You can do this."
Now she turned to face him, the bristly triangle of her snout just inches away from his chest. Her little dark eyes, looking up at him from the water, were almost comically sad. She was huge, more than a yard across and close to 15 feet long, but she floated there as delicately as a blimp over a college football game on some crisp, autumn afternoon. Jeremy unclasped the velcro fasteners he'd put on to the crown to make it easier to attach it around the neck of a large, flabby sea beast. Bending over the queen's great grey torso, he soon found that she was far to wide for him to get his arms all the way around. He would have clasp the fasteners from below.
He sighed. It was probably too much to hope for that any part of this would be easy. "OK, Maybelle," he said, patting her lightly. "You sit tight for a second, all right?" Then, without letting go of either end of the crown's strap, he ducked under the water.
The only way he could see to keep the thing from falling off was to clasp it behind her front flippers. It wasn't easy. Thanks to the murky water and the muddy footing and the slight current, he slipped a couple of times and had to relocate the ends of the strap and start over, but through it all, Maybelle floated patiently, with little more than an occasional swish of tail or flipper. Finally, on the third try, Jeremy managed to bring the two velcro fasteners into contact, and it was done.
He popped out of the water and took a few seconds to adjust the position the floater part of the crown so that it sat right atop the broad hump that defined either the back of her head or the top of her neck, it was hard to say which. "I replaced some of the rope with elastic so it won't cut into your skin," he whispered into the region behind her eye where he thought her ear might be. "I hope that's OK." Then he took a step back and studied his handiwork with a critical eye. Maybelle looked back at him expectantly. "Yes," he said finally, "that will do."
At that, the queen swam a little figure-eight out in the middle of the river and returned, looking practically frisky doing it. Her little black eyes almost glowed with excitement as she nuzzled him with her snout, just about knocking him over. "Easy there, Hoss, easy!" Jeremy chuckled, the beginnings of a smile creeping across his face. She made her rumbling moaning sound again. "I guess that means you like it, huh?" He gave her another pat behind the head.
"So I guess that means we're good, right? What say we forget about this whole curse business?'
She bumped him again with her snout, not hard but not exactly gentle, either. He stumbled a couple steps back toward the shore. She bumped him again, and he couldn't help but notice how much larger and more powerful she was than he.
"Careful!" Jeremy said, backing away and holding his arms up. "You don't want to beach yourself." And it was true, she was now so close to shore that her belly must have been rubbing against the mud. Then, as he watched in amazement, she did the most extraordinary thing he had ever seen a manatee do. Propping herself up with her front flippers, she pushed her head out of the water, and, with the sound and the force of a jet engine dipped in clam chowder, sneezed.
Jeremy had just enough premonition to cover his face, but that did not keep him from being coated in a layer of slimy, foul-smelling, yellow and black chunks. By the time he'd recovered his senses, the manatees were swimming off down the river, Maybelle at their head, the crazy bald Barbie on top of her head-hump jauntily bobbing in and out of the water. Jeremy watched in amazement until they disappeared from sight, then stood there for a while longer baking in the sun in a cloud of biting insects and green, fetid fumes.
Ten nights later, the full moon rose as fat as a sea cow into the late-summer sky. As if pulled by the tide, the creamed corn rose and spilled from Jeremy's head-holes in a torrent of gurgling, chuckling streams. It smelled faintly of cantaloupe.
"I never said she would for sure lift the curse." Madame Mamie sat scrunched up in her chair, knees up under her chin. She was dressed casually, even for a spiritualist, in jeans and an Invader Zim t-shirt. "Now sit down. You're starting to bug me."
Jeremy was standing with his hand out, palm up, in the universally accepted 'pay me' pose. "I could sue, you know," he said. "False advertising. Unethical business practices."
"You want another curse on you, is that it? One's not enough for you?" She eyed him sharply. "Maybe I throw in some fire ants to go with that creamed corn, what do you think of that? Sea cows, they're nice. Me? I gotta real mean streak."
"You don't scare me." He shook his hand at her.
Mamie sighed. "Don't you ever think that maybe this is how you get yourself into trouble? Now sit down, before I turn you into a little frog; let's see if we can figure this out."
Somewhat reluctantly, Jeremy took a seat on her couch, moving a plate of lo mein out of the way to make room. "You couldn't really turn me into a frog."
She didn't answer, only came over and sat down in front of him on the coffee table. Pulling a pen from behind her ear, she studied him appraisingly, tapping the pen against her jaw. Finally, she spoke:
"Giving the crown back might not have been enough, after what you did. Maybe ..." Her voice trailed off. She stared at a spot just over Jeremy's left should and tapped the pen. Stared and tapped.
"She sneezed on your shirt," she said, after a long minute.
"Yes," Jeremy said levelly. It was all he could do not to snatch the pen out of her hand and throw it out the window. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"What happened to it? It's stained, no?"
"Ruined is more like it. Brand new shirt, too, not that it matters."
She rolled her eyes. "You didn't wash it, did you?"
"What? Of course I washed it -- it smelled like rotten spinach and clam chowder. It didn't come out though: it's sealed in there or something."
"Good, that's good." She eyed him knowingly. "You brought it with you today, yes?"
"How'd you know?" he asked, startled. "Yeah, I have it. I was, um, going to throw it in your face -- you know, after you refused to give me my money back. I thought better of it, though."
She sighed dramatically. "With you, that's probably the best I can hope for." After a few more pen-taps, she prompted "So? Let's see it then."
Jeremy pulled the shirt out of his backpack and handed it to her. He gasped when she spread it out on the table between them. When he'd last seen the shirt -- after his third attempt at trying to wash it -- it had been covered with large green and black splotches that looked like exactly what they were: giant hunks of manatee-snot. He'd crumpled it into a ball and thrown it into his backpack without a second thought. But now the shirt was completely different: the blobs and splotches had moved somehow, merging into graceful, multi-colored forms of blue and green, or thinning out into fine, filigreed lines that almost looked like a sort of calligraphy. It was actually quite beautiful. It wasn't something he'd ever want to wear -- it was more like something a woman of a certain age might wear to a gallery opening, as a scarf -- but he still marveled at the transformation.
"What happened?" he asked.
"I told you, the sea cows are strange and mysterious beings," she said primly, laying both palms flat over the shirt. Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes, she continued, "Now let's see what Maybelle wishes us to know."
Jeremy watched her run her hands over the shirt for a couple of minutes with growing impatience. "What's this supposed to --"
"Hush!" She spoke without looking up.
Jeremy made a low sound in his throat and wandered over to the window. In the street below, people scurried about, getting on with their normal, non-creamed-corn-infested lives.
"I need something to write with," Mamie said abruptly.
"You're holding a pen right --"
"I think there's a Sharpie under the cushion, fetch it for me."
Jeremy bit his tongue, reached over, took the pen out of Mamie's left hand and put it in her right. He thought he saw her blush, ever so slightly.
"And something to write on," she continued, without looking up. She was hunched over the shirt, eyes closed. The only thing Jeremy could find was an old chinese food menu. He slapped it down beside her on the table.
"You better not be charging me extra for this," he muttered.
She ignored him and focused on the shirt, swaying and muttering softly to herself. Every minute or so, she would furiously scribble a couple of lines on the menu and then cover it up with her hand so Jeremy couldn't peek. Jeremy occupied the time by poking around at the various charms, amulets, and fetish dolls she had stashed around the office and generally stomping around until she hissed at him to sit down and stop distracting her.
Finally, it was done. Madame Mamie straightened her back, folded the shirt carefully, and handed it back to Jeremy. "I know now what you must do," she said.
"Really?" Jeremy said. "From looking at this horrible thing?"
"Yes. I have seen it. There is a message imbedded into the fabric of this shirt," she said, as she placed the menu down on the table in front of him. "I've copied it down in plain English, for those who lack the sight." She arched a pierced eyebrow at him. "There are not many who can read such things -- you are lucky you came to me."
Jeremy picked up the menu and squinted at it: wild red lines scrawled over descriptions of spicy prawns and kung pao chicken. He tried flipping it over, then looked at it from the side. "Is this an 'a'?" he asked, pointing at a swirly bit, "or is it a 'q'? You'll have to forgive me, I don't have 'the sight.'"
"Give me that," she said, snatching the menu away. "You try writing when you're in communion with the Eighth Sphere, see how your handwriting looks." She held it up at arm's length, squinting. She flipped it over. "Ah, here we go." She cleared her throat and began to read:
"'I, Maybelle the Wise, Queen of all Sea Cows, thank the skinny legs-and-arms for the return of our crown and for the stretchy bit that keeps it tight without biting into our skin. However, the effrontery of your actions so many years ago still lingers in our memory, O walking land-beast. Such an insult cannot simply be washed away: much like our curse, it is indelible. If you are truly desirous of the friendship and the forgiveness of the manatees, then you must complete for us one final task: you must seek the great and terrible Purple Rhino of Mount Kilimanjaro, and from him you must obtain twelve of those Nose Boulders that are rightly celebrated throughout the land and sea for their wondrous succulence and aroma. Make of these a necklace: twelve golden orbs strung together on a chain, and wrap it around our moist and buxom form. Only then can you be free.'"
Mamie sighed. "Look. Here's what you gotta do. You're gonna go to Mount Kilimanjaro. In Africa."
Jeremy nodded dumbly.
"You're gonna find the Great Purple Rhino. He lives there."
Jeremy nodded again.
"You're gonna get twelve of his nose boulders. That's the tricky part. Once you get them, all you gotta do is string them up on a necklace and give it to Maybelle. That's it. Then she'll lift the curse."
"That was all on my shirt."
This time Mamie nodded.
"Written in manatee gunk."
She nodded again.
"And you expect me to believe this?"
Mamie sighed. "You're skeptical. I understand that." She slid in beside him on the little couch and patted his knee. "You're just gonna have to trust me, OK?"
Jeremy wanted to throw something, or at least say something sarcastic, but the look she gave him was so disconcerting that all he could do was take the menu, crumple it up into a tight little ball, and then carefully smooth it out again on the table. "Fine. I'm to go to Africa and, what, stick my hand up a rhino's nose? You do realize I'd almost certainly be killed."
Mamie gave him an appraising look. "It is true that the purple rhino is very powerful and fierce, even for that tempestuous breed; and he hates nothing more than when people come and try to steal his precious golden nose boulders, and has stomped or gored many dozens who have tried. But still, there is something about you, Jeremy Mankins. Maybelle sees this, or she would not have set you to this task. Who else could have ridden on the back of the queen of the sea cows and survived to tell that tale?"
"That was pretty cool." For an instant, Jeremy relived the memory of wind and spray in his face and a huge, bleating manatee trying to shake him off. "But come on. A rhinoceros? Even I'm not that crazy."
A crooked smile crossed Mamie's face. "Are you sure about that?"
To be concluded next week ...
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