It was dark in the living room of my family's apartment, save for the lights from the street outside.
"So what's that you're listening to on the Radio?" I said. "Sounds like a set of numbers."
"Hell if I know," said Grandma. "This station used to play the most beautiful crystalline music you ever did hear. But that's not what you're here about, is it?"
"No. I...there's a lot I have to ask you."
"So why did come here at 2 AM?"
"I don't know. Why are you awake at 2 AM?"
"Best time to listen to that station," said Nonna from her rocking chair. "It plays '80s rock until midnight, then it's static for 2 hours, then...some lady comes on and sings like she's made of glass. What did you want to ask about, anyway? And how did you get in h -- you know what, it's best I don't ask. Just listen to me, Child. You should not be wandering the streets at 2 AM, not in this city." She glanced out the window. "In fact, you shouldn't even be IN this city. There's things here, things I've heard of, things that whisper in the shadows, that know you, Child, and want your power."
"I've met a few of them already. I can avoid one -- I hope -- but the other -- "
"Invades your dreams?" said Grandma."That's why you're up so late. You don't want to sleep."
"I...maybe I can ask Jo to make a spell to keep me awake all the time. Or maybe you can?"
"I've got no roots that can do that," said grandma. "No herbs, no charms. Heh. And nothing in my specialty either. But I can keep you awake for a little while longer, by telling you the story I should have told you a month ago, back when you needed me most. And I wasn't there. I'm gonna tell you why. But it starts -- "
"With me," said Nonna.
"It starts in a lot of places," said Grandma, "but since this is MY story, I'm gonna start it my way. Now, listen up, child. This is a story. This isn't the facts. I don't remember all the facts. This is just the truth of the thing, and I'm building on that. Get it? Good. Let's begin.
My story begins a hell of a
long time ago, a long time before me. When the first blood was spilled.
That was the old magic. Bright red blood showing where a body says it isn't supposed to. That's supposed to be on the inside! If it's on the
outside, oh, someone's working power over someone else. Someone's
killing someone else. When the first blood hit the air and turned red
and angry, God heard the scream. He always hears. If no one else hears,
he does. Whether or not you want him to.
And I'm sure that, even
sitting up in heaven, he heard the scream of the man I slashed, and
looked down from the clouds and saw a frightful scene, and me in the middle of it all.
And I don't know what judgment he
wrought upon me that day. Maybe I'll find out soon. Maybe he'll have
mercy on an old woman who's grown up and out of a youth that was red in
tooth and claw.
But I'll tell you, it took me a while.
Anyway. My story begins late at night on a street in Harlem, with a broken bottle in my hand. The bottle has blood on its jagged edges and there's a man in front of me with a long gash in his arm, and a man next to him staring wide-eyed, and a little Italian girl behind me on the ground.
And there's some of the man's blood on my hand. And I can feel his pain. In that moment my arm is screaming like someone slashed it. And I'm terrified of the little girl with the broken bottle, and as the two men run, I run in the opposite direction.
As I duck into an alley and hide behind a dumpster, the blood dries and the pain ceases. Fear is replaced by dread and confusion.
"Well, that was something," says a girl's voice. "I've seen grown men do that thing with the bottle, but not girls. How did you learn to do that?"
I glance at the girl, but say nothing.
"Why did you go after those men anyway?"
"Same reason I know how to break a bottle. It's a rough world." I turn to face her. She's peeking around the dumpster, head silhouetted in the glow of the streetlight, dark curly hair backlit into a shining halo. "What on earth is someone like you doing here in Harlem? All alone? At night?"
"I ought to ask you the same question."
"I asked first."
"Fine. Do you know what tonight is?"
"It's...a summer night. July 31. What's so important about that? Summer nights are summer nights in this city, you know? Heat, bar fights, people barfing, drunks stumbling home, someone snatching a kid and stuffing them into a car..."
She grabs my hand and hauls me to my feet. "Come on. Tonight's the night, and I'm not going to miss the show like I did last year."
She drags me out of the alley and all the way to the Harlem River Park, to the place where we can see the cars going by on the Harlem River Speedway.
"I don't get it," I say. "This is just a bunch of -- wait, that car doesn't have its back lights on. That seems dangerous. Wait...none of the cars do. it almost looks like they're not there at -- "
"Bingo," says the girl. "Just like two years ago. Vittorio told me it always happened on this night, July 31. Now I know for certain. The cars come by on the Harlem River Drive and they aren't there. Just the lights." She turns to me, brown eyes gleaming in the light of the streetlamps. "And now you know."
"But you...you came all the way to Harlem just to see that?"
"Yeah, Nonna's going to give me hell when I get home. But what about you? You're up late. Running around with a broken bottle. I'm not the only bad girl here. What are your parents going to say when you come back with blood on your hands?"
She raises an eyebrow.
"It's not worth getting into. Look, what's your name?"
"Elizabeth. Liz. Nice to meet you, Hannah. But what's all this about? This car-lights thing?"
"That's what I'm going to find out," says hannah. "Maybe I'll spend more nights out alone. Or maybe I'll just stay in my room, wondering about the city, wondering if I shall ever see -- "
"Alone nothing," I say. "If there's something interesting to find in this city, I want to see it too. You're not leaving me out of this."
She grins. "Meet me here next week, then, same time. I've got some leads to follow."
The next time we met it was under the bleachers of the baseball field, which did little to save us from the cold rain. But there are some forms you just have to follow, you know, when you have these clandestine meetings, and one of them is to meet under the bleachers, in the dark. Hannah's eyes shine in a narrow beam of light, while I'm in one of the long bars of shadow.
"I don't understand why we're meeting here," I say.
"Mama told me that God hates people who do magic," says Hannah. "So I figured if we wanted to talk about it, we'd have to hide."
"Adam and Eve couldn't hide from God in the garden. How are bleachers supposed to be better? And how is a park supposed to be better than your neighborhood, or mine?"
"Mine has Stregas. I'm sure of it. They cursed my cat and now he has hairballs all the time. You don't want them to give you hairballs, do you?"
"Stregas, huh? Sounds like the old conjure women around my place who threaten to make me break out in puple spots. Okay, so a park is probably safer than a neighborhood. What leads did you want to follow?"
"Follow me," she says, and she runs out into the rain. I follow her until she stops at the street. "Okay," she says, "pick up a rock and throw it at me."
"Go on. Hard as you want, I don't mind."
"But...fine." I grab a pebble.
As I fling it with all my might, she says, "City shield me!" And there's a manhole cover right in front of her, and the pebble bounces off.
"Neat, huh? The manhole covers will do that if you're near them."
"I don't understand what's going on here," I say, "but I'm wet and cold, and the open manhole stinks. I'd like to go home."
"Same time next week, then?"
And in the weeks after that, we meet all kinds of things. Clockwork dogs with gnashing steel teeth. Subway tunnels that echo with the sound of the organ grinders, long gone from the surface. Hannah says that the tunes mean specific things, like the drummer in an army. We meet a monkey in a red vest in Central Park, who pours fortune-cookie notes out of his cup that say things like "watch your back" and "everything's going to burn." One night, we spot a pair of gleaming green eyes in the water, and Hannah tells me it's one of the merfolks and how they're all mutated because of the pollution. And one night, I spot an extra water tower on a roof, and Hannah tells me never to go up there when such things are feeding.
As Hannah keeps saying, the city is alive.
And who knows what else I might have seen of it with her, had it not been for that last night beneath the bleachers?
We're there in the darkness, between the narrow bars of light, planning our next expedition, when a big bag falls over Hannah and something blunt hits me on the top of the head. Through the stars that swim through my vision I see one of the men I saw before -- he's got a new partner this time. Taller, burlier, paler. Not from Harlem. Easily hefting the bag full of the little italian girl who I've only known for a few weeks.
But when he hefts the bag, he hisses and clutches his arm. No, not just him. I hear two sets of cursing -- one from his mouth, and the other forom his arm. A drop of blood shines in the narrow light as it falls.
And I reach out, and catch it, and I am no longer dizzy, and my eyes are no longer starry. And I want more. More blood. More power. I grab the man's arms and the blood flows out of his arm, and flows, and flows, until my hands and arms are covered in red scales, and my finers end in claws. The man who'd been holding the bag is lying on the ground and not moving. The other man, I whirl to face. He picks his jaw up off the ground, shakes his head, and raises his blackjack to strike. As he swings down, I block with my arm -- and he drives me down, but his strike does not break me, or give me pain.
No, the pain comes when I lay the man open from stem to stern. He screams, and something else screams, loud enough to hurt my ears, and as I rip him open I feel the same tearing run from my abdomen to my neck, though my body is whole.
In the midst of the agony there is elation. His blood, all of it is mine. I can take every drop from him and cover my body in hard red scales, and walk without fear, now, without worry anyone will take anything from me ever again. I can take what I want. I can take my revenge upon those who have stolen everything from me.
The scales are about halfway up my face when I hear a ripping sound from behind, and the bag is open, and hannah is there, holding a switchblade. The big man beside her is not moving.
Hannah's wide eyes shine in the light.
"You...how did you...Oh Mary, mother of God. You're a Strega."
Then she runs.
And I don't see her for a long, long time after that. Partly because my Aunt hears that there's some kind of werewolf loose in Harlem River Park, so I have to stay indoors all night and be escorted wherever I go outside. And since they can't find the werewolf, everyone is on edge for the next few months, which means that everyone in my neighborhood has their whole summer ruined because they're never out of their parent's sight. Which is unusual. We're talking 1960s here. 1960s Harlem at that. You don't remember a time when kids were expected to play all on their own, but I do.
What a boring, stifling summer. And yet...maybe staying indoors is better than facing what I had done. Maybe being shut away from the newforund wonders and horrors of the city is a fitting punishment for my misdeeds.
There are times that summer when my Aunt and I go down into the subway tunnels, and between the times when the train comes roaring by, I hear the faint sounds of a hurdy-gurdy, and the chitter of a monkey, and I shudder. And when I look out the window the neon sign of the convenience store doesn't move, but I can swear it grins as I turn away.
Oh, what has Hannah led me into?
What have I led myself into?
What has my Aunt gotten into this time? I hear her saying something about how her father has died with a lot of debt and it's all fallen on her. How she might lose what little savings she has. And neither her borhter nor her friends have any money available to help her, so if we lose everything...
The rats don't deserve to live anyway, right? They don't even make much sound as I slit their throats and drain their blood. Better rat than human, right? Right? I'm just going to meet the bill collectors with my scales on and politely request them to go away.
Of course, confronting them in broad daylight is not the smartest of moves, and it's at that point that everyone on the street starts screaming something about werewolves. Including my Aunt.
I decide that it would be a wiser option at this point to run into the subway and maybe forget about showing my face anywhere ever again.
New York City has a fair few subway tunnels that have been blocked off and abandoned. Here is a good place to sit alone forever and eat beetles and think about things.
It is cool, and relatively quiet. The noise of the city makes its way down even to the deepest and darkest holes, but it's a background noise.
And it is currently being drowned out by the strains of a hurdy-gurdy. From far down the tunnel I hear the organ grinder, shoes tapping, organ grinding, the noise echoing in the space. A green light shines behind him, casting his long, long shadow down the tunnel.
Heading towards me.
I decide to head towards him and get this whole sheningan over with. But as I walked toward him, he and the light seem to recede.
Eventually he stopps grinding, and raises a hand, and points to my right. There's a narrow gap in the wall through which wafts the scent of...something.
A gnarled hand appears through the gap and beckons me.
I step through the gap, into a small space -- about the size of your regular Manhattan apartment. Barely enough room for a bed, a wooden chest, a fireplace and the pot bubbling. Who knows where the chimney goes.
And there's a little old lady, about as tall as me. She's stirring the pot. She fixes her watery eyes upon me. "So," she says, "I hear there's some kind of monster running around Harlem, is that right?"
"Is that what you think I am?"
"No. I didn't say you were. But it sounds like you do."
"I don't want to be a monster."
"No? Good. Have some of this." She hands me a cup of the concoction.
I sniff it, and say, "Will this make me more normal? Will it take away my power?"
"No, it will fill you up. It's Gumbo."
"What's in it?"
"Never ask what goes in the Gumbo. Just trust that it won't hurt you. Now, what exactly happened to make you tear a man to shreds?"
"I didn't -- I just split him open because he was -- I mean -- "
I can't speak, not when tears are filling my eyes.
"There, there," says the old lady. She hands me a handkerchief. I blow my nose and tell all I've done.
"Blood magic," she says, "is that it? How about that. Blood magic. You stumbled upon something extremely powerful. Dangerous. No wonder your friend called you a strega. if you're messing with someone's blood, you've got a direct link to them that you can use for all SORTS of things. Nasty curses and such. All the most powerful spells involve blood. Usually when you add blood to a potion it's your own. it's blood given freely, you know, you're saying "here's a part of my life force I'm adding to seal the deal." That kind of thing. You use stolen blood for curses. But what you did...you worked magic using blood alone. I've never heard of that...except in the opposite direction."
"What do you mean?"
"You've heard of blood transfusion, right? When it's given freely to save a life. Well, here." She takes a mouse out of a little cage near the fire, and, holding it by the tail, she smacks it against the wall.
She hands me a pin and says "Quickly now, prick your finger."
"but -- "
"Do it! I'm sure you want this mouse to live. Come on. You just have to let one drop of blood fall into its mouth, and if you will it, the mouse will survive. Quickly. It's fading."
I jab my thumb and hold it over the little mouse's mouth. A fair few drops of blood fall in. The mouse wakes. It squeaks, louder than a regular mouse, and jumps out of the old woman's hands. By the time it his the floor it's the size of a rat, and it rushes out of the room.
"There," says the old women, "you see? You can use your power to heal, as well as harm."
"And it looks like it can be equally dangerous."
"Quite. You probably shouldn't give anyone a full blood transfusion unless you know how to control your emotions. But in the meantime...Look, child, I can't keep you down here. There's only space for one. But what you can do is go back to the surface, and give your services to your community. Protect them in the night, and heal them in the day. And come see us each week and we'll teach you about roots and bones, so you can work some magic that's less dangerous. How does that sound?"
"Who is 'us'?"
"I meant, come see me. Yes. Come see me. There's nobody else down here."
Well, that old lady teaches me about roots and bones, all right. Smack-dab in the middle of New York City. In New York City, the roots are metal and the bones are stone, and when you throw the bones they sound like angry cab drivers, and when you boil the roots they smell like an idling truck. My Aunt never lets me boil those roots inside the apartment. Nor does she let me leave the apartment, not when people could see me. I think she also wants to make sure that I'm not going to threaten anyone with disembowelment again. To actually DO it, that's one thing, but to threaten someone in broad daylight, that's not very smart. If you want to kill someone it's better that they never know you were there, and even better, that they never meet you beforehand.
Not that this is my function, at first. At first I just give people bags of herbs and charms through slots in the door. Small things. Occasionally someone comes in really hurt and I give them some blood, hiding my face all the while. And that's how it goes for the next few years. Auntie has forbidden me to go to school, as well, so without the old lady's tutelage down in the subway I might be missing an education entirely.
But one day, as I'm sitting at the window that looks out onto a brick wall, I wonder about that mouse again. What if someone gave me more than a few drops of their blood, freely? What power would I gain? What if lots of people do it? I could do more than heal. I could protect people by night, like the old lady says. I can do it without having to rip the blood out of the people I'm dealing with.
And so, the next time someone comes by needing a charm, I slip a little note into the bag that says, I could become your great guardian if you would help me. Get everyone to put three drops of blood into a bottle. Just three drops from each person. Only if they want to. If you have to cajole them it won't be effective. This blood must be given freely. Bring me a bottle of blood, and I will become strong, and I will protect you when you need me.
A week later there's a knock on the door when my aunt is home. She opens the door before I can reach it, and there's Isaac with the bottle of blood in his hand. A big wine bottle. I duck out of sight, but he says, "Come on, girl. No hiding now. You asked for this."
"I don't know what you're talking about," I say from around a corner. "Go away."
"I'm sorry," says Auntie, "What's going on here?"
Isaac spills the beans. Oddly enough, I don't hear Auntie getting angry. Maybe she's beyond anger. Maybe the shock has turned her to stone. I peek around the corner.
She's got the bottle in hand and she's closing the door, and there's no blood stains anywhere, so Isaac must have escaped with his life. Auntie takes me by the hand, drags me into the kitchen, and sit sme down at the table. "Right," she says, "have a sip."
"Have a sip. You requested this, you might as well figure out what the hell it does. It's not congealed or anything. Isaac told me one of the local doctors added an anti-co-agulant or some such, that's supposed to keep it liquid so it lasts. We'll have to keep it in the fridge, though, because blood doesn't keep very long."
"I...kind of thought you would be mad."
Aunti sits down and sighs. "There's only so much I can do to keep you out of trouble, kid. You seem to have a knack for getting yourself into it. You might as well figure out how to protect yourself. If it's supposed to protect everyone else at the same time, that's even better." She uncorks the bottle. "And based on what my grandmother used to tell me, there's only one way to test this stuff. Drink."
It's a heavy bottle for twelve-year-old arms, and I drink slightly more than I intended. Mmmm, the taste of iron and salt. And nervousness. And despair. And resentment. And anxiety. And nihilism. And hope. A lot of hope.
My fingers become red claws, and the shining red scales of old spread up my arms and over my body.
"Wow," I say, "all that from one sip. They must really believe in me."
The next year there's a big riot in Harlem. Some police officer shoots a black kid, and 300 students pour into the street in protest, and the whole thing kind of goes out of control, as such things do. Only one person dies, but a bunch of stores are busted up andeverybody is shaken up.
And everyone is confused, because after the second day particular 3-block-square section of Harlem is blocked off by a big red wall that comes up right out of nowhere. Nobody can get in; presumably nobody can get out.
The wall comes down after the riots stop. Isaac comes around the next day to tell me that some people liked what I did, but he doesn't, and his friends don't, because they wanted to go attend the protests.
A lot of people come to my door to say about the same thing. They say they would rather have their blood back than let me do these kinds of things without their input. I tell them that the blood WAS the input, like casting a vote for a senator, but then they tell me that people can be voted out of office, and that if they with draw their willingness to donate blood, maybe the bottle in my fridge will lose its power.
So maybe I'll have to consult with everyone after all.
"Alright", said Grandma, "I've spoke too much already, and it's really late."
"Really early," said Nonna, "depending on your perspective."
"But what happened to Nonna?" I said. "Where does she come back into the story?"
"Next week," said Grandma. "Come back at a reasonable hour next week and I'll tell you about the rest of the story. It's about what happens when you become a Golem for your community. And it's about what happened to New York City in 1965. Among other things. Go to the couch and sleep as much as you can before dawn, child."
"And have dreams take me? I think I'll just wander for a bit. See you next week."
"Pat -- "
"I'll be fine."
3 AM in the city. Not a good time to be out at night, but I didn't care. Better the street than sleep.
Only the foolish, the lost, the mad and the hungry are out at 3 AM. Midnight is one thing -- many are awake at midnight. But 3? Equidistant between night and morning, 3 AM looks like night but almost feels like morning. False dawn is not far away. But not here. You should not be here. You should not know this time. You should be asleep. You should be deep in the midst of REM sleep, not dreaming, not waking.
Many are awake at this time, but they are at parties, and are keeping themselves awake on pure adrenaline, perhaps mixed with alcohol, or cocaine, or amphetamines. They remain In. The ones who are Out, though...how do they keep themselves going? It's easy for the ones working night shifts. They think of money. Perhaps the cars that pass at this time are full of people also thinking of money. Then, of course, there are the thieves, also thinking of money. And the beggars, who, if they've been found by police and forced to move, are desperately searching for a new place to lay their bodies down. And thinking of money.
And there are the cats, whose will is the wind's will, and move as it moves, day or night.
And there was me. Not hurting for cash -- just trying to keep myself away from dreams.
How to stay awake, thought, as I yawned and stumbled through the city towards the Metra station? I had to think of something fast before I started to look like a target. Ah, food. A place called the French Market. How fortunate it was open this hour. I stumbled through the door.
This place looked...oddly low-class for something called "French Market." Brown carpet, maroon booth seating, a shiny steel counter that looked like something out of of a diner, and above the counter a big glowing sign that said "BREAKFAST * LUNCH * DINNER * LATE NITE". This wasn't a French Market. Not in the least. This was a Denny's. How had I gotten the sign on the door all wrong?
Before the person at the counter could say anything I barged out of the restaurant, back onto the street. Okay. No Denny's this time. This one here said "Jamba Juice." I looked through the window beforehand. A single counter with bright fruit colors and a menu of smoothies. Okay.
I pushed through the door and it was another place with brown carpeting and maroon booth seating.
Exiting the Denny's before the featureless person at the counter could say anything, I dashed across the street and through the door of a place whose sign read "Milo's Gyros." Alas, it was another Denny's. and so was Joe's Steakhouse, the Snack Shack, Frybits To Go, and fifteen other establishments. I even tried going through the back entrance of a few, in case their font entrances had all been portals to the same Denny's. No such luck.
I finally gave up and stumbled through the door of Giotto's Pizzeria, sat down in one of the maroon booths, and looked at the menu. "Grand Slam Slugger" was only $8 and it had eggs and pancakes and coffee and orange juice and sausages and hash browns.
But I don't remember getting a chance to order. I must have fallen asleep before the waiter reached me.