If Florence had dreams, it was the sort of thing that would have given her nightmares.
The girl should have come to her right away. Florence only learned what she’d gotten into because she heard the other young ladies murmuring and gasping over the girl’s bed.
They were gathered around her like ghosts of bad things done and unforgotten, white arms and nightgowns and frowning young lady faces. Florence could smell her, sweet like bile.
“Let me see,” Florence said; she tried to be kind. She always tried to be kind. It did not come naturally to her.
The girl in the bed was feverish and sweating. Her name was Alice. Apparently in fever madness, she’d tried to cut her own hair, and it was ragged against her grey face and slick neck. Chunks of hair, sprays of dark brown, spread out on her chest and the blankets. She raised her arm limply, gestured towards the bedclothes. Florence realized she didn’t have the strength to lift them.
Florence sat down next to Alice; the girls around her scattered to let her through and reformed around the two of them again, like a flock of chickens. Florence raised up the blanket. Heat, in waves, and that bile stench, an order of magnitude stronger. Florence swallowed hard. Some of the girls gasped and turned away.
Alice’s nightgown was soaked and translucent in the middle, as though someone had poured kitchen oil on her. It was tinged pink, but not from blood. Florence lifted the hem of the nightgown delicately; it peeled away from Alice’s body in a way that made Alice grunt and squirm.
The infection was raging, already black in some spots, mostly green in others. The edges of the letters were so swollen and red that it was nearly unreadable. Nearly. Florence touched her fingertip to the point of the “A;” Alice jolted underneath her. Florence pulled her finger away, shiny with rot.
It said “Thomas.” He’d used a dirty shaving razor, and he’d cut her so deep Florence could see the dribbling yellow fat underneath her maimed skin.
One of the other girls, weedy and big-eyed, one who hadn’t turned away or turned green, asked Florence: “Should we tell Miss Em?”
Florence shook her head. “We aren’t going to tell Miss Em anything. I’ll take care of this.”
The office was new; Miss Em had given it to Florence just a few weeks ago, just before she had retired to her bed on a permanent basis. It was still filled with the woman’s mementos; trinkets from admirers, flowers she’d allowed to die in a vase on the window.
Florence sat down on the chair facing the desk, a place she had often occupied and found more comfortable than the identical chair behind the desk. She pressed her knees together until they ached. She imagined that Miss Em was sitting across from her, smiling her kind and toothless smile, telling her just what she should do.
Florence closed her eyes. She could still smell Alice. When she was eleven and her father shot Elias Barnes, the hired hand, Florence had seen his wound turn green then black like that. Florence’s father had less compassion for Elias than he did for a cow or goat; he let him crawl away wounded and hole up in the barn. “He’ll feel it this way,” Florence’s father said; “he’ll die knowing he done wrong.”
Florence had snuck out the back door, gone to him with water and blankets that he turned away while the infection burned him alive. She’d watched his skin swell and crack and she’d held his hand while he muttered and babbled. He cried out for his mother, and Florence cried. She was eleven; she didn’t know anything else to do. He’d smelled like Alice, and Florence knew this girl would die just like him without the proper attention. And Florence wasn’t eleven years old anymore.
“Jerome,” Florence called out. Her voice was hoarse. “Jerome, bring me Thomas DeRoss.”
Miss Em had asked her about Elias the first time they ever met, though not in so many words.
“Who was the first man you ever loved?” Miss Em hadn’t been so skinny then. Her hair was shiny and dark; it sat in ringlets on her head like a dessert in a bakery window. Her eyes were clear and bright and only a little hollow underneath. Florence sat in front of her, thirteen years old, road dust ground into her coat and boots and hair. She’d been too afraid to sleep on the streets, so she’d been awake for three days. That was how Miss Em found her, slumped over the pint she’d ordered with the last of her savings in order to have a booth to sit in for a spell.
“Come with me, little one,” Miss Em had said.
But she must have been sleepy still, because she had told Miss Em: “Elias. My daddy’s farm hand. He’s dead now.”
“What happened?” Miss Em asked her.
“My momma said he was interfering with me.” Florence ran her tongue along her teeth; how was it that she had never noticed the texture, the contour of them? What strange things to be inside of her.
Miss Em leaned forward. “Was he?”
Florence shook her head mutely. She used to sit in the great pile of yellow straw while Elias forked it over the stalls to the farm horses and the one evil-tempered mule. He used to tell her story about the city, where he’d come from. He told her about his little brother and all the scrapes they used to get into.
Florence had loved him a little. She wouldn’t have minded if he’d tried to kiss her, but he never did, he never did.
Florence sat across from Miss Em, a young girl but already round of hip and bust. She had a tender, cupid face and men looked at her when she walked. Men had always looked at her.
Elias never had.
“Why did your momma say that?”
Florence was mute. She had never understood her mother. Her mother came from across the sea, from cold and white Sweden. English was her second language and she had never learned how to talk to her daughter. She watched the girl, watched the fullness of her body, the brightness of her eyes. Something in the tilt of her chin that resisted a mother’s love, the good lord’s favor. Florence’s mother distrusted the daughter of her body, doubted her. She knew stories about women-beasts in the forest dark that devoured men, ate souls for their own benefit. And didn’t her boys die? Her baby boys, hadn’t she found them cold and hard as a shank of beef in their bassinets? And hadn’t she put them there warm and thrilling against her? They had sought out her breast and rested their softness, their tiny, mewling mouths against her. They had lived and cooed and stared at her with blue eyes. And then she placed them in her bassinet and they were taken away from her. And still Florence lived. Florence thrived.
See the way the men looked at her?
Florence was thirteen; she’d been in the city, sleepless, for three days. She had travelled long before that. Florence couldn’t tell these things to Miss Em, but Miss Em knew all about mothers and daughters. After all, she was a kind of mother herself, and she had so many daughters. Daughters of joy.
“You’re safe here,” Miss Em told her; “I will take care of you.”
“There was nothing I could do for him,” Florence said. “It took so long.”
She didn’t know why she said it. It was a secret that she had never told anyone. “I tried to kill him myself. I tried to choke him, but I wasn’t strong enough or I couldn’t do it right. I tried. He... he cried out. He... stank. I couldn’t....”
Miss Em rounded the desk, enfolded Florence in her arms. She smelled so good, clean as talcum powder and sweet. Florence rested her face against Miss Em’s shoulder and breathed deeply.
“Don’t fret, don’t fret.” Miss Em stroked her frayed and tangled hair. “I see a light in you, little one. I don’t pick just anyone, you know.”
Miss Em pulled away. She was smiling like the madonna.
“I can teach you so much, Florence.”
The DeRoss boy, Thomas, had a face like curdled milk; he looked about thirteen years old though Florence knew him to be near twenty and still raising hell with whatever stipend his steel-money daddy saw fit to give him. “You can’t even grow whiskers,” Florence said, shaking her head at him. “What the hell did you need a razor for?”
The boy’s hands fumbled in his lap, just itching to reach for his wallet.
Miss Em had always told Florence that it was important to keep their more affluent clients happy. “Money can buy a certain latitude,” she said. But she always told Florence that there couldn’t be no hurting of the girls. “We can’t teach them that we’re cheap,” Miss Em said, “because we are terribly expensive.”
The boy looked up at Jerome, a wordless plea for clemency. Jerome didn’t meet his eyes.
“You’re gonna need to pay attention to me,” Florence said, leaning forward and putting out her cigarette on the taunt flesh of the boy’s knee. She burned a hole through his trousers and into his skin. He screamed and the smoke rose. Florence fished another cigarette out of her delicate silver case.
“You gotta know you’ve done wrong.” Florence stared at the boy. He was grasping his knee with both hands and staring at it in disbelieving horror.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he demanded, still holding his knee as if to staunch a geyser of blood.
Florence looked to Jerome, who moved over silently to stand behind the boy’s chair. He placed his big hands on the boy’s shoulders. “What, folks can’t just hurt you for no reason? That ain’t okay?”
The boy looked at her, outraged. He even strained a little against Jerome, as if he were going to jump up and come at Florence. “It’s not like I cut up her face or anything.”
Florence stared at him. Under her gaze, he relaxed, seemed to grow smaller, even. “You think men want to be with a girl who’s got another man’s named carved in her belly? Ain’t so good for business, son.”
Thomas leaned as far forward as Jerome would let him. His face was sincere, sweating. “I just wanted her to be mine, not to go off with the others. That’s all I wanted. I like her. I like Alice.” He smiled at Florence. “I wouldn’t pick just any girl.”
“Don’t you think that’s a mite selfish?” Florence realized that she had yet to light her cigarette, was still holding it cold and inert in her hand. She reached for her lighter slowly, all her movements as conscious and controlled as a ballet dancer’s.
The boy stared at her. Florence couldn’t tell if he was quelled or just not terribly bright. She lit her cigarette. Smoke gathered heavy in her lungs.
The boy drew himself up, crossed his leg over the burned one as if to hide it. He looked like a fine and upstanding young man. He smiled all glossy at Florence. “I realize I’ve been careless,” he said, “and I apologize for that.” He spread his hands like a king offering pardons. “I’ll pay for her,” said Thomas DeRoss.
Florence blew her smoke out towards him; it wreathed him in blue. “You certainly will,” she said.
Jerome didn’t trust Florence. He didn’t trust any whores, not really. Living day in and day out in a cathouse opened a man’s eyes to certain things. Like a butcher who don’t eat meat. Jerome wasn’t fooled by outsides. But Jerome loved Miss Em.
Miss Em had rescued him when he was a teenager, a mutt with no father and a dead mother; he’d wound up at a place like Miss Em’s, but not as good. Not as good at all. Miss Em knew the madam there, and when Jerome aged out, got a man’s body and a smashy unbeautiful face from one too many fights, Miss Em took him on. Jerome was grateful; he’d always hated the heaviness of the men and how they pushed the air out of him. The taste and the muttering whispers. The other boys used to beat him down for being a nellie. Jerome wasn’t a sodomite; Jerome wasn’t anything at all.
Until Jerome was Miss Em’s bodyguard.
She never made him do fuck-work for her and she didn’t use anybody, boys or girls, younger than thirteen (though she did have a few that looked uncommon young, because Miss Em never did like to cut herself out of a market if she could manage it). Miss Em was good; Miss Em was the only one who’d ever been good to him. So when she said: “Florence is in charge now,” Jerome listened to her. But he didn’t like it.
Florence sat in Miss Em’s desk and looked small and wrong there. She was awful white. “I’m gonna fix him,” she said softly. “Miss Em taught me how.”
She looked up at Jerome, uncertain. It wasn’t Jerome’s job to interfere. He was there to keep the order and keep his mouth shut. Those were things he was good at. But Florence was very white and she looked awful young.
“Miss Em’ll be needing her supper soon,” Jerome suggested. Florence nodded, taking the hint. Miss Em wasn’t dead, just sick. Someday she’d get well and she’d come back and take care of them all. She could tell Florence what to do; she always did know.
“Miss Em?” Florence called softly from the doorway. It was dark in the room, and in the darkness, something stirred. The air was thick with a warm, moldy scent and the only light came from the narrow crack between the room’s only window and its shade. The light drew a thin line on the floor and illuminated the thick layer of gray dust and discarded bedroom slippers. They looked forlorn lying there. Soulless and unoccupied. Florence kicked them underneath the bed as she crossed the room.
Florence had suggested sending a girl up here to clean the room, clear out the dust at least, but Miss Em had refused. “Don’t you know that the light hurts my eyes? And they are all like a troop of elephants, those girls. Not a one of them walks like a lady.” And so the dust pillowed upon itself.
The woman—perhaps it was a woman—in the bed was fragile and hollow as a teacup. Her white hair wisped and curled around her skull, and her eyes looked like stones dropped in deep snow. She opened her mouth and made a weak, kitten-ish sound. Florence nodded and bent to adjust her pillow.
Florence touched her arm; the skin was stretched tight. If she exerted just a little bit of pressure, she thought she might tear through, expose what could only be the driest of bones. Florence was careful with her, like a child, like something defenseless and beloved. She sometimes wondered if this was the way that daughters were supposed to be with their mothers; if they lingered at their bedsides and attended to their every need. Florence wondered if what she felt when she looked at the brittle seashell whorl of Miss Em’s ear and the roundness of her skull, visible through her hair, was love.
Florence cradled a bowl of broth in her lap. She lifted small spoonfuls into Miss Em’s eager, babyish mouth. There was something obscene about her lips, husk-dry and grasping. Florence stopped after a few bites.
“Miss Em,” she said, “you have to eat.”
Miss Em waved her hand as though trying to shoo a fly. “I’ve got no appetite.” She turned to Florence and her eyes brightened and, for a moment, she was almost like the Miss Em that Florence had met those years ago. “Did you bring my medicine?”
It wasn’t medicine. Back when Florence was new to the city, Miss Em was just smoking it. It was for her pains. She told Florence—Florence was the only one she told—about how she’d had a baby seen to once and it had ruined her insides. Each month she got terrible pains, and the opium was the only thing that helped. Miss Em would take to her pipe and sleep away an afternoon or two when her times came on her. But then she started smoking when she wasn’t bleeding; then started drinking it, an ink-colored water, even eating it whole and sticky. Things had gone bad after that. Every time she tried to stop, she got so sick they were all sure she was on her deathbed. The doctor had given her the little Bayer bottle; he said it was a safe version of what she’d taken in her pipe. He said she could take less and less of it each time and, in that way, free herself from it.
And now she weighed no more than a child, and her hair was as white as the land Florence had come from.
Miss Em was forty-six. “Florence,” she had said, “you’re in charge.” She’d moved upstairs. She asked Florence to inject her everyday. She didn’t say that she was dying, that she was allowing herself to die, but Florence loved her and Miss Em had always known best.
Florence prepared the needles in the kitchen on a silver saucer. The doctor who came every month to inspect the girls and see how they were doing gave her a new bottle each time. He smiled at her sadly. But he never said that he had been wrong too, or was sorry for how it had all gone. Florence carried the needle to Miss Em on a tray with her broth.
Miss Em’s arms were an eruption of purple, green-y old bruises and deep little pockmarks, like pits in a rotten fruit. When Florence injected her, her body went slack and her face smoothed out. Her mouth moved gently, like a fish searching for water in the air.
“Miss Em,” Florence said, “there’s a client who cut up a girl. She got sepsis, nearly died. The DeRoss boy.”
Miss Em snorted. She knew him.
“I think....” Florence hesitated. “I think I should fix him?”
Miss Em didn’t look at her but stared at the ceiling as though her eyelids would not obey her and fall. “Don’t think,” Miss Em said. “Do as I taught you.”
Miss Em put her hand over Florence’s. It was like having a bird’s wing rest upon her skin. “Didn’t I teach you well?”
Florence leaned down and kissed the old woman’s cheek. Like old, well-used writing paper, as soft as a baby’s tender slack flesh. “Yes, you did, Ms. Em.”
There were…things…little itching crawling things with too many legs and strange, creeping antennae…living in his skin. He could feel them moving at night. They lived in his belly flesh and ate his dreams. There were little red crescents in the palms of his hands where his nails had bit in deep.
Thomas itched and Thomas burned, in a rented room three neighborhoods away from where he had been holding court for the last year and a half amongst the whores and the bounders, the gamblers and sporters and black sheep like himself. His father had given him a six-month advance on his stipend, but Thomas wasn’t sure that it would be enough. Giving up the pièd a terre was an insurance measure.
He had been told that Miss Em’s girls were special, sacrosanct, but he had never really believed it. Even the best whore was still a whore, after all.
But part of what lured men into Miss Em’s house was the danger, the mystery. The man who told Thomas about it went starry eyed; “the sweetest pussy I ever had,” he said, “and my heart... I could feel it the whole time.” He’d grabbed Thomas’s hand, made him put his palm against the man’s chest. “I could feel it banging against my ribs.”
Thomas had to know; he had to see. “You see?” his father had said, when he asked for the advance; “do you see what you’ve gotten yourself into? Did I raise you to cavort with tarts and conjurers?”
Once, he had tried to get back in, but even two handfuls of bills, sweaty and crumpled from his turned-out pockets, couldn’t sway the big mulatto at the door. Someone was playing piano music inside and he could hear the cheery swell of it. Briefly, a curious white face appeared in the window in a haze of cream and lace. And then the curtain fluttered and the face disappeared.
As he walked away, he was certain he could hear the singular liquid trill of a woman’s laughter. He clutched his head and his hands came away covered in thin, fragile hairs. “I can pay!” Thomas screamed. “I can pay!”
The night was indifferent. The white women in the piano room laughed. Thomas itched.
They called the woman ‘Mama’, though she said she’d never had a man. “You don’t know what I’d have to give up to lose my cherry,” she told people, when the topic was raised. Now she was big and the hair receded from the front of her skull. Her eyes were beetley and amused; her front teeth were jaggedly cracked.
She worked out of a stall with a silk roof, between the cheesemongers and the silversmith’s in the Thursday downtown market. She sold little bags with bird talons sticking out the top, powders in paper packages, and if you came to her in the right way, if you said the right things, if you had the right amount of money, she’d sell you some conjure-work.
“You’re marked,” she told Thomas; “it’s more’n my life’s worth to touch you.”
“I have money.” Thomas started to dig in his pockets, but she shook her head at him.
“It ain’t gonna save you. Make your peace, say your goodbyes. You a young man and all, there’s got to be something you’d like left to do.” She smiled at him. “I’d hurry.”
Thomas hated her, hated the skew of her ruined teeth, the little brown sediments between them. He hated her big, winking face and her chicken feet and grave ash. Sweeping his arm along the table, Thomas smashed her wares, glass and stone alike, against the street. Mama flinched but didn’t say anything. He spit at her. Still, Mama did not speak; she stared appraisingly at the globule of saliva resting barely an inch from her arm. It was shot through with erratic threads of blood.
“I... itch,” Thomas said, reaching under his coat and vest, despite himself, clawing at his stomach with worn-down fingernails.
Mama shook her head. “I’m sorry, little one.”
That night, as he was painstakingly washing his face, Thomas dropped three ivory colored teeth into his wash basin. The blood curled, infected the water.
Officer Clark came every third Sunday of the month, and more and more he’d been bringing Mr. Witting, the accountant, along with him. They were both young and pink-cheeked; Officer Clark had a mustache, Mr. Witting did not.
Officer Clarke craned his neck in the hopes of seeing behind half-closed doors and fluttering curtains; Mr. Witting stared at his hands, or at Florence’s sheet of numbers. Officer Clarke relaxed into the sofas and followed the girls who moved in and out of the room with his eyes; Mr. Witting sat fireplace-poker straight on the very edge of a sofa cushion and bit down hard on his lips.
Before they came, Florence had spent two hours picking out her most demure dress and styling her hair low over her ears. She didn’t paint her face and instead just scrubbed it until it shone, milk and ivory. She faced her mirror and thought she looked like she was going to church.
Every week, she turned the ledgers over to Officer Clark. At the bottom, there was a total and, next to that, a percentage. Officer Clark handed the ledgers to Mr. Witting, who peered at them closely, the little stub of a pencil expectant in his fingers. When Witting had given his nod, Florence handed over a small packet of cash, a sum corresponding exactly with the listed percentage. Officer Clark then smiled and tucked it into his coat. He gestured, with a flick of his eye, at the upstairs. Florence would nod. There would be a girl waiting there for him. He favored the negro girls.
Mr. Witting did not go upstairs. While Officer Clark busied himself, Mr. Witting sat opposite Florence and did not speak. At first, Florence had tried to engage him in conversation, even to offer him an assignation, for services rendered, but it was like shouting into the void.
Florence sat patiently. She was at home with silence.
“Pardon me,” Mr. Witting said. He had a way of begging one’s pardon that suggested no consideration or deference at all. “But, is Miss Em indisposed?”
Florence smiled at him, a smile she reserved for men. “Miss Em is getting older. Running a place like this is a task for younger women. She’s earned her rest now.”
“How old are you?” Mr. Witting asked.
Men didn’t usually ask Florence how old she was; she had never been sufficiently sprightly of appearance to play the young girl. In fact, perhaps she had appeared too old far too soon. “I’m twenty-two,” she said.
“Not so young, then.” Mr. Witting smiled at her; Florence wondered if it was a smile he reserved for women. “A woman unmarried at your age would generally be considered anomalous, no? But I suppose it is not exactly the same for women of your occupation.”
“That’s true,” Florence said. “But I never had much use for marriage myself. At least when some man sweats and grunts like a hog at slaughter all over me for three minutes, I get my share afterwards.” Florence opened her silver case and selected a cigarette; she looked up at Mr. Witting as though just remembering that he was there. “Oh, but Officer Clark says you are just hitched up yourself? Congratulations, I suppose. And to the lady.”
A little blossom of pink rose up in the center of Mr. Witting’s cheeks. A blush. He stared down at the ledger in his hands. He scoured it with his eyes.
The old man wore a shabby overcoat in need of a brush-up and patch job. Maybe he wasn’t so old after all; his beard was still mostly brown and clotted with the remains of a dozen hurried lunches, street dust, blood from cracked lips. His hands were brown with caked dirt and they shook as he took Thomas’ hand and turned it palm-up. His eyes, watery blue and the crinkled red of burst blood vessels, widened involuntarily. “You…” he rasped.
“I’ve got a mark,” Thomas said, jerking his hand out of the old man’s. He’d been to every dark corner of the city, every back parlor and side street. He’d spent half his advance and he hadn’t been able to sleep for three days. And everyone just took one look at him and turned him out again.
“A real bad mark.” His voice was low and his eyes were huge; his breath in the boy’s face was a vile mixture of gone off meat and a yeasty rot. Thomas breathed shallowly through his mouth and tried to pretend that he didn’t notice.
“Nobody will touch me,” he said. He reached into his pockets, half-expecting to be halted. He spilled the bills out careless on the ground below the man, who immediately crouched to pick them up. Thomas’ eyes were watery; the money just looked like paper, like trash.
The man looked up at Thomas, sucked his teeth. “You got more of this?” he asked.
Florence had carefully brushed the hair from Alice’s nightgown and put it in its own envelope. “Write your name on that,” she said, giving Alice a soft lead pencil. The girl was still muzzy in the head from fever and she had never known her letters too well, but she wrote out her name and surname in big, painstaking script. Florence burned the hair and the envelope into ashes.
She had made Jerome hold Thomas DeRoss’ mouth open and she had written an “A” in soot upon his tongue with her fingertip. When she was done, she went to Alice’s bedside and stroked her sweaty hair. The girl’s fever had broken and she was sleeping deeply. Florence checked her daily, after she brought Miss Em her meals and medicine. Alice looked better by the day; soon she was sitting up. She lifted her nightdress obligingly, allowed Florence to check underneath. The “Thomas” was fading quickly; it was just a faint, dusky rose color now. Florence smiled at her, patted her hair like a mother.
Florence was there at Alice’s bedside, telling her all about how she’d be up around in two shakes; how they’d done for the DeRoss boy and it wasn’t something she had to worry about no more, when Jerome came for her. Something like this could spook a girl, make her fearful and hateful. She’d either get out entirely or wind up a corpse. There was something, indelible as a word carved into flesh, that stayed with a body that’d been hurt, been wronged. It glowed; excited certain folks, certain folks who were looking for it. Florence could fix up Alice’s body, but only time would tell if she was truly ruined or not.
Jerome stood politely in the doorway. Alice croaked out a “hello” and he nodded to her. “Florence,” he said.
“Officer Clark sent his bean-counter over, said he has to talk to you. It’s important.” Jerome was impassive as always, but Florence was learning, slow and sure, how to read his face and body. She didn’t think he liked Mr. Witting any more than she did.
But Florence put on her smiling face; she descended the stairs careless as a girl. “Always be enjoying yourself,” Miss Em told her; “this is a world without trouble, you must remember that.”
Mr. Witting had his hat in his hand but he stared hard at her in an ungentlemanly fashion. “Miss DeWitt,” he said.
“Mr. Witting,” she replied.
Florence stood at the bottom of the staircase and smiled and smiled, waiting for him to speak. She was in her house, her universe; he spoke at her pleasure and she could wait until the second coming if she had to.
After a protracted silence, Witting cleared his throat. “Officer Clark requires a larger percentage.”
“Why?” Florence sputtered. She spoke before thinking; she sounded outraged and girlish. She thought she saw something smug and grossly pleased flicker in his face.
“I am not privy to that information, nor do you require it.” Mr. Witting smiled. His eyes were light, bright blue. He looked like a hungry winter wolf.
“You expect me to tithe more to a crooked copper than I do to the good lord?” Florence asked, recovering a little of her cool. Her heart was beating so rapidly; she willed it to stop, she willed her skin to resist the flush and redden.
“The lord has nothing to do with this house,” Mr. Witting intoned. Florence could easily imagine him at a pulpit, listing the sins of the assembled and relishing their everlasting punishment.
“We pay him as much as we can,” Florence said; “you want us to work in the red?”
Mr. Witting shrugged. “I am not your accountant,” he replied. “But I would suggest recruiting additional young ladies? Re-evaluating your rates? Work, as anyone else must, harder and faster and better.”
Florence eyed him, wondering if that was an innuendo. He didn’t seem the sort. “No,” she said simply.
“You have no choice,” Mr. Witting told her, just as simply.
Florence’s heart seemed to leap into her throat; she pressed her hand there and she could feel it pulsing urgently. She swallowed hard; she swallowed it down.
His hands grew dry and brittle and cracked. They opened up across the palms and the knuckles, and soon he was leaving lines of red blood across his bedclothes and the possessions he had left to his name. Light hurt his eyes; he was sleeping now twelve, fifteen hours a day. He hadn’t kept anything stronger than water down in three days.
Underneath his nightshirt—which he wore at all times now—he could feel welts raising on the skin of his stomach. They were sticky and painful to the touch. When he was not sleeping, he looked at himself in the mirror and marveled at the pale ghoul who stared back.
“What you’re doing…whatever you’re doing…it’s not working,” he told the ragged conjure-man, who met with him in his apartment now that he could not longer negotiate the stairs. The man looked nervous and much cleaner than he had been when Thomas had met him; his hair was combed and he’d gotten a new broadcoat.
The man smiled; his teeth were still rotty and awful. He held up a large brown sack. It seemed to pulse gently, bulge outwards and then suck inwards, but Thomas could not be sure. His eyes had become... unreliable, of late. “I finally got ‘em. Miss Priss, the deli cat had her litter! You’ve gotta get ‘em ‘fore their eyes open. Gotta be an innocent thing, ain’t a thing more innocent than the new and blind and dumb.”
The conjure-man approached Thomas, white and recumbent. “I’ll be gentle,” he promised, holding Thomas’s straight razor over Thomas’s wrist. Swiftly, tenderly, he opened Thomas’ wrist lengthwise. The pain was new and sharp, distinct from the constant dull aches from each part of his ravaged body. The conjure-man collected the blood in a little porcelain saucer begged from the landlady. He’d set his bag beside Thomas; it was warm against his side and he could hear minuscule, croaky complaints from deep inside it.
The conjure-man wrapped a roll of cleanish cotton around Thomas’ wrist and told him to hold it against his heart. “Pressure points,” he said. Then he mixed up the blood in the saucer with the half-bottle of milk that had been sitting on Thomas’ dresser all morning, since the landlady had brought it up. She wasn’t a kindly woman by any means, but Thomas’ grisly deterioration had moved something in even her hard heart.
“There,” the conjure man whispered tenderly, opening the brown sack. “All warm, just like momma’s.” Kittens, six of them, waddled out of the sack, nosing one another and inching towards the saucer of milk. They were mostly grey with dark stripes, but there was one that was mostly black and another that was all soft smoke-colored. They found the saucer and dug in eager. The rose-colored milk vanished quickly in the little scoops of their bristly pink tongues.
Thomas watched while the conjure-man slit their throats with Thomas’ straight razor. “There, there,” the conjure-man said, touching them softly, petting between their tiny ears with his smallest finger. He cradled them in one hand; he kept them warm against his chest. He smeared the blood in a circle around Thomas’ bed. When he was done, he placed them all in a neat little row in the burlap sack. “I’ll bury them behind the deli so’s they can be near their momma,” he assured Thomas.
“This will work?” Thomas asked.
The conjure man nodded. “Oh yes, and you’d do well to thank them;” he gestured towards the corpses, small and pathetic; “for all they done for you.”
“Thank you,” Thomas said, “thank you, thank you, thank you.” He was crying. Thomas cried often these days. He found that he could not stop.
Hating Mr. Witting didn’t make him wrong. Florence remembered the days before Officer Clark and the deal he’d struck up with Miss Em. Periodic raids, and half the girls spending the night in jail. Any copper who liked could come in and demand a free frenchy for the privilege of not being arrested. A reasonable dirty copper was a whore’s best friend; an unreasonable one could ruin her.
Florence gritted her teeth over the accounts ledger. Taxes on the house, room and board for seventeen girls, salary for Jerome, food, drink and clothing. And now she had to make space for a man’s greed. It wasn’t the money; at least, it wasn’t all the money. Florence hadn’t run away from home before even her first bleeding had come upon her, on foot, in the deep winter, all to spend her life with a boot on her neck anyway.
And so, when Jerome came in to tell her about the gossip he’d heard, how that DeRoss boy had hired out a conjure man, it was like striking steel against a flint.
Florence had lit a three-week candle for the boy and placed it in her window. When the wick sputtered out in a pool of melted wax, Thomas DeRoss would be dead and Alice would be back in fighting shape. Florence stared at the candle now, trying to decide whether it had noticeably altered since the day before. She should have been paying more attention; it could have been days since the wax had stopped dripping and the candle had stopped shrinking.
Florence knew what Miss Em would have told her to do. Calling down the dead was unsafe; dead want life more than anything else, they’d chase your breath down and burrow inside you. They’d ride you back into the world of the living and suck you dry, if you weren’t careful. Miss Em would have told Florence not to bother with it; Miss Em would have told Florence that the boy had suffered plenty and they could call themselves square now.
But Florence didn’t go to see Miss Em.
Who was he to run away clean? Miss Em always said that magic worked better when invoked by the wronged party. “It’s a way of smoothing the world out,” she said. Florence couldn’t hurt Thomas with her hands; the law was a laughing sigh, an option for other sorts of people. Florence owed it to Alice and to Miss Em not to lie down and suffer. If the cold white woods drew in on you, if the wolf came to the door, you pulled your rifle down and fired the first shot. First chances were too few and far between to go hanging your hopes on second ones.
Florence used Thomas’ candle to light three more. She set them in front of her in a triangular shape. Thomas’ candle she sat directly in front of her crossed legs. Florence told Jerome to slice the lobe of her right ear off. The gates of death demanded a gift of flesh.
Florence did not flinch; it was important not to flinch. Jerome’s hands were shaking. He had known, without ever really thinking about it, that things like this must have gone on in the house, but Miss Em had never let him see it so close. He held his handkerchief against Florence’s throat, so that her blood did not drip down and stain her collar.
Florence went stiff in front of him; her eyes were glassy and sightless. She spoke to herself, but her voice was so low and so deep that Jerome heard it only as a animal rumble. For the first time since he was a child, since he stood at his mother’s death bed and felt the madam standing behind him, owning him, Jerome was afraid.
Florence knew that there was only one way to lay the sort of wards that could keep her out. They came to her shyly, skittishly, thin fuzzy shadows dripping something dark. Florence stretched her fingers out to them; they licked at her with pink tongues, nipped at her with white little fangs.
Jerome watched Florence stretch her fingers out, curl them inwards, in a vacuum of air. Her guttural muttering was the only sound. She had said: “don’t touch me. It’s just like waking a sleepwalker.” Jerome looked at the carriage clock on the desk he still thought of as Miss Em’s. Three minutes, Florence had said, not a tick more.
In her haze, Florence smiled. “We carry the dead with us whether we like it or not,” Miss Em told her. “You can feel them in weak moments, when you can hardly carry your own weight, let alone theirs. You can hear them when you dream at night and your mind is unprotected. They’ll steal your breath like a cat, little one.”
He didn’t have words and he couldn’t take shape, but Florence recognized Elias Barnes out of the corner of her eye. She pretended not to see him; she coaxed one of the small, mewling shadows into her lap. It leaked something on her. It was the color and consistency of ink, but it moved over her flesh like a living thing and left no stain behind.
Elias tried to speak. Humans aren’t meant to know the language of the dead; it would drive them mad, muttering, chattering, screaming on every streetcar and corner. Miss Em said you could learn it, but you’d lose more than an earlobe.
Elias Barnes was closer now, close enough to put his hand on her shoulder.
Florence lifted the tiny shadow in her hands; it was strangely dense, much heavier than it should have been. “I’ll give you your own back,” she whispered.
Elias’ hand was cold; it made her whole shoulder cold. Florence remembered crying “mama, mama, mama,” in the kitchen; she’d learned that there was no reasoning to be done with her daddy. She remembered the way her mother looked at her, face like the side of a mountain. Cold and impassable; beautiful but lonely. Florence couldn’t imagine having come out of her; Florence didn’t think her mother had anything soft inside of her, anything that could feed a baby. The night before she left, Florence said as much to her, still grieving over the slimy purple remnants of the baby they had been going to name Daniel. “They don’t want to be inside of you,” Florence had said. It was the only time Florence’s mother had ever hit her; it was the only time Florence had ever seen her mother cry.
Florence turned to face Elias Barnes. He was a shadow with not even the slightest striations to suggest a human face, a mouth or eye sockets. But she knew him all the same. She carried him with her and saw something of him whenever she looked at mirrors in the candlelight.
“I couldn’t save you then,” Florence said to him, “and I can’t save you now.”
Miss Em had said, “If you’re going to call down the dead, make sure you have an excellent reason and make sure you are prepared to accept whoever answers you. This is the oldest magic, Florence; we are shouting into a dark forest.”
Florence reached out. Foggy black wrapped around her hand like a caress. “I am truly sorry, Elias.”
Florence turned her white face towards Jerome. Her eyes were sightless and such a shocking blue, like the hottest part of the flame. Jerome remembered when he’d first seen her, hardly older than himself. A mouse girl who quivered and listened. He’d thought she was a child. But Florence’s face... oh god, it was old. It was so old.
“I’m sorry,” Florence said to him, but not to him, “but you have to go back where you come from.”
Something whispered in the dim. The room was full of invisible movements, sightless hungers. Florence was white as a stone. She would hold them at bay.
Jerome held her shoulders tightly. If he let go, he expected he might have shuddered all the way down to the floor.
With Thomas’ money, the conjure-man had first procured for himself a fine Irish breakfast; baccy, eggs and boiled beans. He bought himself a wash and shave, a trip to the seamstress and the laundress’. And then he bought himself a berth in an upright opium parlor, a nice one, where when you came out from under, you still had all your change in your pockets.
The conjure man had plans for the rest of the money; he always did. He would just pay his dross for the night but soon he’d rent out a real room in a respectable boarding house, like the one Thomas was staying in. Then he could send for Elna and Charles; he could do the things he’d promised them.
Dross for the night became two nights, then three, then seven. He spent his mornings in the opium parlor, his afternoons reminding Thomas all he’d done for him.
At night, before he slept, the conjure man thought about Charles and Elna, resolved again to make everything up to them. In the morning; just one more morning. Charles must be so big now; he’d barely been walking when the conjure-man’d lit out. He was tow-headed, the conjure-man remembered, but children grew out of that. When the conjure-man was that age, his mother had told him that hell was eternal twilight, neither light nor dark, day nor night. She said the in-betweenness of it tormented a good soul. In one more morning, when the sun came up, the conjure-man’s new life would begin.
He heard them before he saw them.
They were dripping. He could hear the drops pitter-pitter-patting on the wood floor. It sounded like a soaked man come in out of the rain. Then he heard the little tack noise of separation, sticky piddy-paws coming away from the floor.
The conjure-man’s mother had taught him all about how to catch a soul in a glass jar, all about how to make a person fall in or out of love, how to dodge a curse. About how to turn magic back on its maker. You had to be powerful, she said, or mad. Or both.
They were the softest of weights on the bedclothes. The conjure-man had started to sweat. His neck prickled. He couldn’t raise his arms; he couldn’t sit up to look into the darkness.
They made sounds, gurglings and hissings, interfered cries, as monstrous as the leavings of a pregnancy unfinished.
The conjure-man hadn’t thought he was going to die this way; the conjure man hadn’t thought he was ever going to die. His mother always said him was a great one for getting in over his head. He should have stayed away from the city, from the pipe, from that rich boy and that vicious, evil woman.
They was on his chest now. They looked like pieces of the night, cut out and set into motion. The conjure-man looked them straight-on.
Their eyes was opened now.
“I’m sorry,” said the DeRoss boy, who could not stand up on his own and slouched in a weak and disgusting way against the back of a chair. He was pathetic, and Florence had a sudden urge to knock the chair out from underneath and watch him fall to the floor.
“You’re sorry you’re hurting,” she said instead.
“I swear.” His hands gripped the chair so tightly at they had gone all white and drowned-man blue. Florence wondered if the design of grapes and flowers that was carved into the chair’s back would be carved in his flesh when he let go. “I swear I’ll never do it again, I’ll pay you for her…I still have money, lots of it.”
Florence said nothing for a long minute and just looked at him; looked at his hair thin on his skull and tender little threads on his shoulders, the dark blue hollows of his eyes, his bleeding hands. She turned to Jerome, who was standing in the doorway with a carefully blank expression. “Bring Alice here,” she said, and gestured towards the hallway where a girl was waiting, hesitant in the shadows.
Alone with the boy, Florence shook her yellow head. “What made you think you was special? You know, I’ve known a thousand of you.”
The boy’s eyes were rheumy like an old man’s. “I don’t understand you,” he said.
Alice entered then, flanked by Jerome. In front of the big man, she looked very small and very vital, like the kind of small creature that quivers and jitters in the deep woods. She worked her hand in her skirt and looked at the boy. She was afraid; it came off her like a sigh. Florence reached out a kind hand and took Alice’s shaking one.
“Would you show me your stomach, honey?”
Alice nodded. She tilted her face down and let her hair tumble over her like a protecting fall of water. She took off her jacket, her skirts, her blouse and her corset and stays. She lifted her shift over her head and discarded it. She peeled down her pantalets until she stood in front of them, slender and ivory as a wax candle. She was goose-bumped and expressionless. Her arms hung heavy at her sides and she made no motion to cover her nakedness.
Florence peered carefully at the ghost of red words on her abdomen. It was healing well. Miss Em would have been proud of her. “What’s that say?” she asked, softly.
“Thomas,” said the girl. Oh, and what a girl she sounded like. Not a woman at all. She was rocking back and forth on her heels very slightly.
The DeRoss boy seemed to have been infected with her shakes; a shorter chair leg wobbled audibly against the floor. “Thomas.”
The boy’s hand strayed to the inside of his bed shirt, looped with dark and light stains, and felt the raised texture of the terrible artwork there. It was weeping blood and he wore a bandage over it, but it never seemed to get any better.
Florence turned her head like a dog, sly, to face Alice. “Your scars are fading. I hurt him to save you. Would you like him to die?”
Tears welled up in her dark eyes, rimmed the edges of her lashes. Thomas thought about the first time he’d been with her and she’d smiled up at him through those lashes and told him that she didn’t use cosmetics because they were naturally that way. The tears spilled over the edges of her eyelids, trailed down her cheeks and flattened out in the a slug-trail of slick wetness. “I want him to die,” she said.
The boy went slack against the chair; his blood crept through the white of the bandage and the white of his shirt, and red carnation flowers bloomed across his abdomen.
Alice, naked and new, stood up straight. Her fingers traced the contours of his name on her body; they seemed to move independent of her. He stared at her; the blueish spot alongside her ribs where her veins showed through, the softness of her white shoulders, the dark, heart-shaped cusp of her pubis. Thomas could remember when she, that flesh, those bones, hair, eyelashes, sweet breath and pink lips, was the only thing he wanted in the whole world.
“I want him to die,” Alice said again.
Florence nodded. “You can put your dress back on now, sweetie.” Alice nodded and gathered up her clothing, pulling her shift over her head as Jerome guided her out the door. Jerome paused once in the door; looked to Florence, as if for direction. Florence inclined her head gravely towards the open door and the hallways behind it. Jerome shut the door behind him.
When they were gone, when Florence and the boy were alone once again, she drew close to him, tugged the chair gently out of his hands until he tumbled to the floor. He made a weak and sighing sound, with his fingers pulling restlessly at the fringe of carpet. “I won’t...” Thomas said, “I won’t.... I won’t ever do it again.”
Florence moved the boy’s chin with the toe of her boot until he was staring hopeless up at her.
For the first time he’d seen, there was something of sadness, something of horror in her sweet and sharp face. When she spoke, it was so soft, it was like a prayer, like grief. “I know that you won’t, honey,” she said.
That night, when Florence brought Miss Em her supper and her needle, she did not tell her how things had gone with the DeRoss boy, and Miss Em didn’t ask. Florence left the old woman in a narcotic stupor and, that night, she started another set of ledgers. Ones she wouldn’t show to Mr. Witting and Officer Clark.
When she was done, she took Miss Em’s flowers out of the vase in the window and her daguerreotypes off the desk. She put them deep in a desk drawer and marveled at the cleanness, the newness, of the space before her.
Florence moved out on to the landing, Miss Em’s dead flowers still in one fist. She stood at the top of the staircase and looked down; yellow lamplight lapped at her like a foamy tide. She could hear the girls laughing, the rustling of their gowns. From up there, it felt as though, if she could simply stretch her arms wide enough, she could enfold the whole of them.