One Life for Three

Long and hollow are the phlebotamist’s teeth, long and hollow and delicately red. When the fires have died and the samaritans have departed, their wings black against the sky, the phlebotamist comes creeping, body held low to the ground, one eye cocked nervously toward the horizon.

Gentle creature, timid and fearful, they wait their turn. Their soft unwrinkled fingers plead consent after the crisis has passed. Their breath is sharp with rosemary, cold with copper, warm on your cheek when they nuzzle close after the worst has subsided. They give comfort; they sympathize, they do.

Like you, they have much to give. The worst has happened, the rains are never coming, night stretches out into an infinite future, but life goes on. Long-skulled and hairless, colorless eyes watery behind dusty glass, the phlebotamist reminds you, even now, to think of others before yourself. Their voice flutes reedily through the syrinx of their teeth.

Their teeth turn red and darken, and the cool curve of their body grows hot and familiar against your chest, tucked into the crook of your arm. You pump your fingers, ball a fist, as much as you can. Someone, somewhere, may live, a red piece of yourself.

Better Than Both, He Who Never Saw the Sun

It’s been three weeks since Cohen last left the studio. She’s been too busy, and there’s a chemical shower in the corner, and a sub shop that delivers round the clock, and someone left a cot here ages ago, so. She sleeps on decades of sweat from others too busy to leave, maybe, but who cares?

They took her leg when she was fourteen, dead rotting meat. She screamed when they touched raw flesh: she remembers their eyes, all whites behind red lenses, the long edge of their beaks, the ineradicable reek of burning oil. They let her live, that full of scruples.

This her latest is a self-portrait in plaster, a dragon’s nest of left legs hatched from the egg of her hip. She is smeared white with the making. When it is done — done enough, good enough, close enough — she stretches, yawns, longs for fresh air.

They are waiting for her outside, samaritans, eyes red and blank with the setting sun, beaks sharp with borrowed time. They let her live, that full of scruples.

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.

Cazador

Dressed all in blue and black Time settles upon Caz and impels her out into the streets, those impossible Carnival streets thick with color, reeking with light. The crowds swallow her whole in a swirl of orange. She is heavy with potential, vibrant with venom; it is the middle of the year, and she is gone a-hunting.

It’s a stone knife she uses, and one she carved herself from the volcanic rock of the island: sharp as memory, black as the sea, half as long as her arm. Like her father before her, and his mother before that, on and on into the past. They were founded here with the city, washed ashore with the first settlers, feared and suffered in equal measure.

The city gives itself this one last week of license before the long austere spring, one week where the fountains run with whiskey and masked celebrants fuck in the streets and pass out in doorways. Children conceived this week are lucky, though often unhappy; distant cousins of hers, they are never quite settled.

She finds one, a fat spider, front soaked with wine, eyes muzzy and unfocused behind the reflective mirrors of his mask. Too drunk to feel the thin point of her knife slipping in just above his hips; he feels the poison, right enough, but the fire that scorches his brain locks his jaw shut and freezes his lungs. Caz slips his arm over her shoulders and humps him back to her studio.

From a distance, they might have been two friends, drunkenly weaving toward a more private lovemaking. The city knows her family, though; they throw themselves into the whiskey as she passes, desperate to fog her passage from their memory. Caz accepts it all, fitting tribute, and feels the future stir within the cradle of her pelvis.

Unsettled Land

Weather-beaten and rangy. The library at her hip was grey steel and rainbow mother-of-pearl.

It’d been a dry year, killing dry. Ulloa could hardly breathe for the dust, spat mud even with her breather before she could get a swallow out of the bottle. Damn thing was probably dead anyway — indicator claimed otherwise, but her nose was full of algal rot like an aquarium gone bad.

Supposed to be work up to the Double B, some big project they were working on. Tarkovsky had said it was some energy thing, but that didn’t signify: everything was an energy thing these days. Still chasing the big score and a return to the fat days. Well, so. She’d take their money and ride herd for a season or two, build out a few processes or whatever they needed, enough to keep Nova fed, anyway. Poor dumb beast was happy enough with his steady diet of garbage, but she’d feel better for the effort.

She passed another wreck, some poor schmuck whose planning or luck had run short; just another sacrifice to the ‘9. Samaritans had been and gone, thankfully — not even enough grease left for Nova’s undemanding stomach. Ulloa glared into the mountains and thumbed the volume high on her library. Miles to go, and nothing owed to strangers.