It’s the smell of blood that draws me to you. Salt like the ocean, and iron. Not cold iron, but flaming with life.
Who am I? Never mind.
You’ve stumbled out the back door of the nightclub, stinking drunk, followed by the sounds of violins and blaring horns, to lean against the railing and empty your stomach into the canal. My canal. It’s as acceptable an offering to me as carelessly secured laundry blown in on the wind, or the corpses of sparrows that wash down in a summer storm.
Oh, but you: One stocking laddered, and your fox-fur wrap hanging askew, the hair that was carefully crimped and tamed earlier this evening become a wild halo around your face, and the berry-red of your lipstick smeared with too many kisses and too much wine. Under your red sequined dress the belt meant to hold your pad in place has gone crooked with dancing, and a smear of blood marks the top of your thigh.
You stare down into the canal as your stomach settles, gripping the railing to steady the swaying of the world, and you catch bits of your reflection in the spill of light from windows onto the water. You don’t guess that there is one looking back. But the ground seems to tilt beneath you, and your hands can no longer find purchase, and you feel yourself plunging headlong into the water. You wonder if you’re dreaming.
You are. And your dream gives me shape, hands to rid you of your fox-fur wrap and linger on the back of your neck, slim clever fingers to feel the gooseflesh that I’ve raised there. Knees to push yours apart, rucking up your skirt as I pull you to me, the press of damp underthings against my leg. A mouth to lick my way down your throat, and teeth to bite, breasts to press against your own and a full lush behind for your hands to grip and your nails to mark as you groan and shudder.
You dream me, and I dream you, with a sharp smell of wine and cigarette smoke. The hands that knead my flesh are strong and calloused, a factory-girl’s hands, a fact you can’t quite hide with bright polish on the blunt-cut nails. The mouth that tickles my navel is hot and avid. Dark eyes in a dark face catch on my eyes and hold while you kneel for me like you should for a goddess, though I’m a very minor one in the scheme of things.
You drink me like a butterfly drinks a flower, with a small darting tongue and more thirst than finesse, like I am the sweetest thing you’ve tasted in your bright, fragile life. My fingers twist in your corkscrew curls, pulling you closer. Joy comes in ripples, then in a flood that spills over the banks of my body with a roar. You are still clinging to me when it ebbs away.
We lie in my bed, a bed of pebbles and mud and the forgotten detritus of ages. It’s my rhythms I am teaching you now, the rise and fall of tides and the heartbeat of cities. My hair streams over your bare shoulder, and I can feel the heat building inside you when the rising intensity brings you to the brink of completion and hear the barely-voiced whine you make when I walk you back from the brink. By the end, the space between each drawing-in of breath and each noisy exhale stretches like a shining, sharp eternity. You cling to my arm and your mouth spills its incoherent moans into my shoulder. I cradle you in my lap and lick your blood off my fingers, savoring the taste of you, stroking your hair as your eyelids grow heavy.
You drowse for half a minute, no more than that. Then your eyes snap open, dark and aware. You’re charming like this, a facet of you I haven’t yet seen, intelligence in your look to match the strength in your hands. Taking everything in, from the pebbled surface of my bed to the dark glimmer of waves in the sky above, to me, with doubt and avid curiosity and not a little fear.
“I know I got hammered. But I don’t think there’s a big enough hammer in the world to make me come up with this. It must be real, innit?” Your voice is unsteady, but your smile is brilliant. “You sure as hell pinched me, and I didn’t wake up.”
“Real as breath,” I say.
You push up off my lap. It feels emptier without you already. But that’s the way with me: whatever washes up, the currents carry away again. I watch the way your back moves as you adjust your clothing, and in my heart I am bidding you goodbye.
“But where’s this place?” you ask. “What’re you?”
“A place forgotten between sleeping and waking. Where things meet and come apart and leave no trace, a nowhere on the way from one somewhere to another. As for where we are, it’s the Tailor’s Bridge Canal.”
“Huh.” A dry chuckle, down in my realm where nothing is dry. “Been saving that one up, innit? Or do you trot it out for a new girl or boy every night?”
I cannot fathom your anger. “It’s what I am.”
“Or is it what I am? A good-time girl, good enough for a dance until the wine runs dry, good enough for a tumble until dawn breaks. After that, high-town swell or magic faerie water-spirit, you’re all the same, aren’t you? Don’t want to see my face come morning light.”
You’re crying. I’m entirely unprepared to deal with this.
“Sorry,” you say, trying to swallow your tears. “Sorry. It’s just—I want to see you again. Want to feel all the stuff you made me feel—your hands, your mouth. Want to duck out at lunch break and meet you in some cafe, eating cheap sandwiches and watching the world go by—but I can’t, can I? I’ll wake up in my bed and this’ll all have been a dream, and if I take another tumble into Tailor’s Bridge Canal I’ll get nothing but drowned.”
It’s all true. I shake my head and grab your hand, though holding on isn’t in my nature. “There is a way. The tide will show you. If you remember when you wake, if you still want to. But you’ll need my name. And if you forget it—worse things can happen in the borderlands than drowning.”
“Tell me your name. I won’t forget.” You turn your face towards mine, eyes shining with hope and tears, and I lean down and whisper in your ear. You repeat it softly, catching your bottom lip in your teeth like a shy virgin for the first syllable—Vi—and letting your breath out in a sigh for the second—aaah. “I’m Josephine,” you add. “Friends call me Jos.”
You rest your head in my lap again. “Sleep, Jos,” I say. You do. As your breathing grows slow and even, the currents carry you far away from me. I don’t think I will ever see you again.
A stick raps against a still-dark window; the knocker-up is doing her rounds, waking the factory-girls for another day at work. All around you, girls are groaning and cursing, finding yesterday’s clothes by touch and pulling them on, fighting for a turn in the boarding house’s only bathroom. You linger in bed, chasing the fragments of a dream as it slips away from you. Your hand rests on your belly, and you are half-tempted to move it lower, and never mind who notices—that sort of dream. But if you’re late again the foreman will dock your pay, so you swing your legs over the edge of the bed and shove your feet into your clogs and take your place in the line for the bathroom. By the time you’re on the assembly line, winding one copper coil after another under the hot lights, you’ve forgotten it.
The lunch bell rings. You have half an hour before you have to be at your station again. Most of the girls open box lunches and eat where they’re sitting, or gather in groups to gossip, shouting to be heard over the thud of machinery. You need to get away, to breathe fresh air and fix your eyes on something further away than the end of your nose, even if the time spent walking to and from the corner cafe and ordering the same cheap ham sandwich you could have gotten boxed means that you only have five minutes left to scarf it down.
The cafe overlooks the Green River, and as you eat your sandwich you watch a garbage barge make its way downstream. A couple of sparrows are fighting over some offal that’s fallen off the back. Something stirs in you, not quite a memory, and you leave your sandwich half-eaten on the table and go down to the water. You can hear factory bells ringing the end of lunch hour all along the street, but the tide is going out, and you are following it.
The river makes its way through the manufacturing district and an outdoor market, past tenement houses and under a railroad bridge. Following the tug in your gut, you turn away from the bustle of the docks towards the shallow side of the bay where the city gives way to tin-and-scrap-wood shanties. You step out of your clogs and strip off your stockings, wading in among the mudlarks looking for treasures left behind by the retreating waters. The tide is still going out. No one else seems to see the path it reveals, smooth and pebbled, only a few centimeters underwater, lit up in the setting sun. At the end of it—a gateway, an island, a curtain that shimmers like the surface of water seen from beneath.
Each step you take out is harder. The water tugs at your ankles and then swirls around your knees. By the time you reach the gate it’s waist-high, and you have to struggle not to be pulled off the path. There’s a figure standing on the island, a long sword unsheathed in its hand, wearing overlapping plates of armor that remind you of the odd creatures that fishermen sometimes pull up from the deep sea.
“Child of Man, stranger and no friend,” the armored one rasps. “By what right do you walk the borderlands?”
There’s a thing you should say. It’s at the tip of your tongue. You bite your lip nervously, and slowly release your breath, but no sound comes out. Your feet slip on the slick pebbles. The water pulls you under. It’s a long, dark way down.
You’re so close to me now, here where salt water meets fresh in a wild churn. I reach out for you, but you twist desperately, trying to throw off my hands—you can’t tell them from a hundred other chilly hands wrapping around your legs, dragging at your clothes and your flesh. I call to you, but my voice is lost in a froth of bubbles. There’s nothing to give me shape; you don’t know me. Once again, you’re borne away from me to a place I can’t follow, as the cold and dark and wet gives way to searing light.
When we lay together in my bed, spent from our lovemaking—I should have let you rage and weep, and kept my silence. I meant only to offer a moment’s comfort before it and I were forgotten altogether. I never dreamed you’d come. But you have, and the everyday world will never take you back any more than the foreman would give you back your job. You are here, lost and beyond my help. I can only watch you plummet, land hard on your hands and knees on a surface of glowing coals. I feel hurt for your hurt, and fear for your fear, and something else when you stagger to your feet, your hands red and blistered, your clothes torn away leaving you nothing but a shredded and singed slip. If these things hadn’t happened to you, I would never have known how tough you are, how brave.
You’ve found the path again, where the cinders are hottest, and you keep walking though you can see no end of it now, though every step burns. Your skin bakes in the heat, your lips crack and bleed, and you lick them with a tongue gone harsh as sandpaper.
The taste of blood recalls me to you. You stagger and nearly fall in the flood of memories, as if in this burning borderland you can feel my cool arms around you, holding you close.
“Love,” you say. It hurts to force words from your parched throat, but you keep talking. “I’m no stranger—I was invited, innit? I came to look for my love.”
A figure appears before you in answer to your challenge, sword drawn, burnished armor crested like a flamebird. “Have you? Find your love, then.”
The armored one stabs downward, and I let loose a scream you can’t hear—but the sword passes you by, embedding itself point-first in the ground. The light of the path is extinguished, its heat dimmed. You stand in a twilight forest now. Mist drifts low to the ground, and in the distance, unfamiliar birds call to each other. This would be a pleasant place to rest, if you could rest, now that you remember why you’re here.
The armored one is nowhere in sight, though you can hear its rasping, mocking laughter in your mind. Its sword has become a tree, branches hung with overripe fruit that drip onto the forest floor. The smell of blood overwhelms you, and you understand—the fruits are hearts.
Disgusted but compelled, you reach up to touch one. It’s Maria—you haven’t thought of her in years, but you went to grammar school together, and you kissed her in the coatroom during recess. Later, after she sat at lunch with another girl, you came back with a pair of scissors and cut her coat to shreds.
On the branch above is Conrad, who used to read you poetry and buy you cheap brandy with borrowed money. The first time you had sex, he left you bleeding and unsatisfied on a mattress in a garret room. You drop his heart with a shudder and keep looking.
There’s Paula, who was ticklish below her ears, dead in the flu epidemic three years ago. Carl, whose wife took him back in the end. Others, faces long forgotten and names never known, a kiss in a stairwell or a tumble in the alley or a beautiful way of walking that brought a flutter to your heart from across the street. But my heart is nowhere to be found.
You’re growing desperate now, heedless of the half-dried blood that coats your hands and the scratches scoring your arms. A branch snaps as you scramble to reach a heart just above your head; sap flows forth, and with it my voice.
“Jos!” I call. And you stop mid-motion, your eyes wide and your lips parted, almost as if you have heard me. A name has power, a woman’s name as well as a spirit’s.
“Via?” you whisper. Your hand is touching the broken branch. Sap flows down your fingers. Slowly, as in a drunken dream, you touch your fingers to your mouth and taste—along with blood of the more ordinary sort—what you have only tasted once before, when you knelt for me. You know you will never find my heart if you hunt for a hundred years, for I have no heart to keep my love in, as a woman has or a man. I am only a place forgotten between sleeping and waking, a nowhere on the way from one somewhere to another—and I love you no less for that.
“Here she is,” you say. “I’ve found my love.”
And your words give me shape, arms to draw you two me, legs to wrap around your waist, lips to speak against your ear. “Jos, my champion, my wonderful human girl.”
You laugh; I can feel your belly ripple against mine. “Via,” you say, and that’s all, all that needs to be said. You let your hands speak for you instead, tangling in my hair and pulling my mouth around to yours.
The twilight forest fades, and you look around when you come up from the kiss, pulling back a little but not letting go. “Where will we go now?” you wonder. “Will you come watch the birds and the barges on the Green River with me, sitting at a sidewalk cafe?”
“Anywhere you like,” I say. “Everywhere and nowhere. Anywhere but back.”
You flash a wicked grin. “Dunno, I’d like to see you on your back. Bet you’d look fine like that.” I pinch you for the pleasure of seeing you jump. You yelp, but your grin just gets wider. “Must be real, innit?”
“Bed first,” I say. “Everywhere later.”
• • •
Copyright © 2017 Naomi Libicki