I was born under a waning crescent moon, got the gift of getting a quick read on people. Maybe that’s why, despite your name ringing no bells, and the lack of details you provided about the nature of your business, I agreed to meet you, anyway. But only in this place. Familiar ground, all else aside.
Two hundred years of smoke and smolder has stained the hand-carved alabaster pendants hanging over our heads the color of old parchment. A soft tawny glow coats all the regular sinners like they’ve been baptized in thin honey. But the taut skin over your high cheekbones don’t have enough texture for it to cling to. Like the stiff, shiny leather of your brand-new boots, there are no signs of wear on your face either. No hollows for the light to settle into, no creases to map your fault lines. You are too pristine to even be in here.
Yet, here you sit, spitting small talk in a building whose history includes a mercenary order of nuns, an underground ruby trade, parrot smuggling, a boarding house where the only thing less legal than its girls in residence was the half-poison gin they poured. And of course, witchcraft—or something else entirely, depending on who is telling the story, and which part of it they’re telling. I’ve heard it all, and it’s all worth hearing, but the disconnected words tumbling out your mouth are worthless.
You’re nervous and I’m suspicious. I raise my glass in salute to the tale you’ve not yet told, and then I suggest you start telling it straight because my patience ain’t what it used to be.
Like everybody from somewhere else always does, you begin with a fabled anecdote about this town where my family has lived for five generations, a snippet you read in a book and it touched your soul, opened a gateway to some past-life-memory bullshit, and rendered you a fucking local historian in the process.
As you carry on, an affected lilt slips into your voice, unnatural and overwrought. But you can’t help it. You just accidentally mimic accents, adopt them, you say by way of apology—thing is, before you supposed I had an accent that needed apologizing for, I didn’t actually feel like you owed me one. Now I’m not sure I feel like sitting here long enough for you to get to the point of your story.
My restless agitation spurs you to speak abruptly: “I’m here because of Ruby.”
A name with the power to shake old timbers, rattle long-locked doors. You have my rapt attention now. Hell, you got my blood roiling like a storm-churned tide. And this go could either way for you.
You produce a picture. It’s recent but I know it’s her because I may as well be looking at a mirror into the past. My fingertips traverse the lineage of her jawbone. “They didn’t change her name.”
“It suits her. All that vibrant red hair.”
“Oh, you got it all puzzled out, huh? You must be a bona fide detective.”
“Her wife, actually.”
“Oh. All right then.”
“She inherited your lack of patience, too.”
“Why are you here?”
“Because she can’t come to you so I want you to come to her. She needs to meet you.”
“Her choice or yours?”
“Mine on her behalf.”
“If she’s as much like me as you think, she probably don’t care much for other people making choices on her behalf.”
“Her time’s short. She needs a miracle and I can’t give her that. But I can give her the chance to meet you before she dies.”
“It’s not her time to die yet.”
“Yeah, well, I guess cancer didn’t get the memo.”
“Damn doctors call everything cancer.” The legs of my chair scrape against history as I stand. I walk past the bar with my hand open and raised. “Keys!”
The bartender tosses them to me without question. They fly to my palm as if magnetized, and I ascend a back staircase that once led to all manner of things beyond my control.
“You work here?” you ask when I return and present the offering.
“A lifetime ago. This is for her.”
“That supposed to mean something? A souvenir drinking glass? Jesus. You don’t even care enough to meet her.”
“You think you’re smart like them doctors. This souvenir, as you see it, carries things you know nothing about.”
The glass nearly slips through your loose grasp, its heft unexpected. You tighten your hold on it, pull at the tiny drawstrings of the muslin bag nestled inside, and pry it open an inch. Your irises glisten and flicker like wildfire, boundless and enraged. “She’s got no use for jewels at this point.”
“Put them in her hands while she sleeps. Her fingers will fold over them by instinct and she will hold them until morning. The rest has been done.”
“You don’t even want to see her?”
“I’ll come, but not until she chooses for herself. Usurping somebody’s rights causes bad blood. You might want to tread more carefully going forward. Your instincts ain’t all off, though.” I lower my gaze to the unassuming vessel you now clutch to your chest. “You did good coming for those.”
Your head snaps to the side as if it’s been yanked by a wire. You stare at the photograph of the nuns behind the bar. You say they called your name. You say one of them winked at you and another won’t stop nodding. You say their lips are all moving in prayer.
Some would say the same. Others would say something else entirely.