Foundation

The work of generations, setting bones, curing warts, delivering babies. They don’t get much call for war-work, but every spring and summer the men drain off to the east and return lighter a limb, shorter an eye, aching in joints broken and reset in haste; these too need tending. Half of what Jillian knows is useless garbage, an indecipherable bit of success scrawled in the margins of the little Red Book; words have shifted, since then, or men, or climate, assuming it ever worked at all.

It’s a dark night with the rain coming down and she’s up late writing the day down in her logbook by the watery light of the coals when the knock comes and the door opens hard on its heels, spilling rain and a man all over her floor. “God save us all,” she growls, and levers herself over to see what the devil has brought her.

It’s a well-made shape he’s taken this time, barring the scarring and the blood all over his front. “Well, let’s see what you’ve got,” she tells him, and humps his leaking corpus over to the side bed redolent with rosemary and ivy. Underneath the wreck of his clothes he’s a marvel in ruin, a shipwrecked statue, his belly torn open down to the fork. Jillian looks up and his eyes are open, but milky. “You’re bound to die, son,” she tells him, but he either doesn’t hear her or doesn’t care.

She does what she can, but it won’t be enough.

Morning finds her asleep in her chair, arms black to the elbow with dried blood and pine tar. She pries gummy eyes apart to find him standing over her, numinous with health. It hurts to look at him, and when he speaks, it’s a tall tree in her ear. He passes, and the day is empty for his going. The side bed is pierced through with blue flowers of new-grown rosemary, black berries of ivy.

Even That Which They Have

NO DRINKING, NO DRUGS, NO DESPAIR

She watches the sign slyly, her pigeons awhirl around her, rubs a running nose with one dirty fist. They drove the teeth out of her head years ago, before she took to the streets, and her gums ache something fierce. The birds settle upon her, shoulders and back white with their droppings, their feet half-rotted away or swollen and sweet. Crowd parts before her, in fear of her birds; she catches more than one hopeful tongue, hands twitching to wring one succulent neck. “Peck out your eyes,” she hisses, and they draw further back. “Rot your feet away.”

Cleanhands behind her bulletproof glass is stone-faced at her approach, braced against the smell of alleys and mummifying garbage. “Checking in? You’ll have to leave your birds outside.”

She sneers toothlessly at the woman. Takes one of the birds, old, weak, sick, and blind, wrings its neck and pulls it open with her fingers. The mob groans, sways back and forth, hunger hollowing out their cheeks; cleanhands is bloodless as a rat. “Here,” she says, and snaps the drive down on the counter. “A year and a day’s worth of secrets. I want to buy me some teeth, new and clean.”

The counterwoman could swallow her tongue, looks like, but the drive disappears fast enough, for all the pigeon viscera still clinging to it. The door into the clinic opens soundlessly and they go in together.

She leaves the carcass for the crowd.