Hamilton

The screams rise up every evening at sunset, echoing and harmonizing off the blunt-fingered towers of Hamilton. Cedar submerges herself in them at first, then stops her ears with wax, then suffers through them, then ignores them. Days she loiters by the river, ducking back into the reeds when the children come down to the water, arms and legs frogskinned and scarred. Hidden, she listens to the rusty creak of their voices, words broken in half against shattered teeth, and wonders what they say. Hamilton speaks an interior tongue not shared with outsiders.

She trades burbots for a night’s rent, pulled gasping and fighting from the oily green ooze of the river, trades them still barbed on her hooks to her landlord. His fingers twitch and caress the metal, tease it out from their mouths. He throws the fish back to be caught, pierced, and ransomed another day.

She rises early, before the sun, to get to the river and away from the women who throng the streets at dawn, breaking their nails off bloody against streetlights, fenceposts, closed doors. They come into her room while she’s gone, men and women both, and burn themselves on her stove, stab themselves with her pens, bite hunks out of her soap. When she returns, dogged by the evening, they have set things to rights, the only testimony scars on the door and teethmarks deep in her soap.

The Black Cat’s Sign

Colleen steps down from the mural into the golden syrup of a late September afternoon, and puts forth a hand to steady herself. There are hands to hold her up (six, with between four and seven fingers each: ninety-three dactyls all together). The wall behind her is all eyes — Argus, the ever-vigilant, closes now one, now another, and watches the seven points of the compass equally. The painted sun in the painted sky is a crown pierced with a sword.

She wanders lost down familiar streets, knowing the bones but learning the skin. How tall the buildings are now! She marvels at the byzantine growth of walls, the renaming of avenues. Rutger has become Powell, and Havard, Wada. Japanese streets now run through Japantown, and Portuguese through Brasilia, but still: the architecture is pressed into her clay. She could no more forget her coming and her going than she could lose count of the hairs (236) on her palm.

“Report,” the Devil says, and she feels one long-boned finger (five dactyls) pressed against her cheek, holding her head from turning. She shivers, and leans into its touch, humming tunelessly. “What have you learned, and what have you made?”

 

Cedar

There is one path into the city called Cedar, and Cedar takes it, wriggling her way through the narrow canyon walls, dizzy and breathless with the high mountain air. She comes to a high place overlooking the plains, and she stops to roll a cigarette, blunt stained fingers wise around tobacco, paper, spittle.

High blue skies, and a windless day. Far, far off to the west is the glimmer of water, peering from the curving throat of the earth. Behind her are the mountains, weeks and days of mountains, barren of people, just her and the rocks and the furs. Months since she saw a bath, and her pants are filthy enough to stand on their own when she climbs out of them at night. She is laden with trapping for her namesake city below; maybe she’ll take a husband to clean for her when she’s home, some soft-limbed, dreamy poet she can keep in luxury for three days of balling the jack. Down in the city they know little of the mountains, and less of the woods; she spins a figure of romance for them, once she’s cleaned and oiled to their taste. Always good money in lecturing; enough to keep her out in the wilds for months at a stretch.

She twists fingers and thumb together to give the butt to the wind, and descends.