"And so you ask me about my past again, again in the small hours of the morning."
"It's not like I've ever seen you sleep anyway."
I sat on the small rug in the tiny living room of my family's apartment. Grandma King and Nonna Adriano were both in their rocking chairs. The woman on the crystal set was singing her crystaline tune.
"Alright, alright. Well. I'll keep going with my story."
My protection of my little Harlem neighborhood starts to get noticed, over the years. When I go out, by day or by night, people look at me with awe and whispers, wherever in I go. They spring out of my way as I stride down the sidewalk. Throw their coats over puddles when I setp into the street. Tip their hats. And donate blood. I start getting two bottles of blood per week, then three. Everyone is purchasing my protection.
And yet...well, Suppose I want to go downtown to Central Park? Oh, no. Gotta stay and protect the neighborhood. Suppose I want to ride the subway down to the Yankee Stadium? No, no, gotta stay and protect the neighborhood. Suppose I want to have a look at the old Dyckman house near the cloisters? Nope, sorry.
And I hear of this girl who's been seen around the entire city, asking everyone these weird questions while I'M stuck in my neighborhood. There's no photographs of her, because she always manages to blur away just as someone gets their camera out.
I'm getting real cooped up, and figured I ought to do something big and public so that everyone in and out of my neighborhood will stop making trouble there and I can get some goddamn vacation. I'm about ready to go out and slash a man in broad daylight when I hear a knock on my door. I open it up, and there's an young Italian lady on my doorstep, curly black hair and concerned expression.
"Yes?" I say. "Are you here to make a donation, or a request?"
"I want to discuss your recent activites, Strega."
"My Lord. Hannah?" I slam the door in her face.
Knock, knock, knock.
"Please listen to me," says the girl's voice through the door. "I have word from the city and the city is concerned."
I open the door again. "What, like City Hall? I'll fight City Hall if I have to."
"No, I mean from the bones of the towers and the rumbles in the deep. They're scared of you. They're scared of the magic you're doing. They've never seen it before. I can feel the city shivering, my old friend."
"Old friend yes, but now friend? I don't know. You ran away from me on that night so many years ago, even though you'd seen me slash a man open before. What got into you?"
"You're a Strega. I was scared. I've seen them turn a man inside out, you know."
"Elizabeth. Please. Just let me tell you what I've been hearing."
"You keep calling me a Strega, Hannah. I'm not -- I have no idea what that is. if you're going to keep calling me that -- "
"I won't, fine, i won't. I just want to talk to you. I'm ready to forgive you if you just tell me what happened that night."
"Come on in, then, and why don't you tell me where you've been for so long."
"Now I get to tell my part of the story," said Nonna Adriano.
What happened on that night, when I saw my dear friend turn into a blood-drenched demon, well, I ran. I ran all the way home. And, let me remind you, my home was in the Lower East Side, and I was running all the way from Harlem. I ran all the way home, I did, and I ran right into the building and right into my apartment and right into my room and I flung myself on the bed and cried.
And when I woke up the next morning, I realized that I didn't recall how I'd managed to get all the way home on foot, nor did I recall opening the doors to the tenement, nor the door to my apartment, nor the door to my room.
Well. I cried some more. What else could I have done? A dear friend whom I had known , who had seemed so nice, so -- okay, not so innocent, but she'd seemed like a really fine person to have around, and I saw her turn into a bloody demon before my eyes. This person who I thought was safe turned out to be a monster.
I did not make any more friends that year.
And when July 31 rolled around once more, I did not go out to Harlem and the Harlem River Speedway. Instead I wandered, lost in a daze. I didn't really notice that I was heading down into the subway. I didn't really notice that the part of the subway I was in was oddly empty and quiet. Look, here in the light of my little flashlight was a subway car sitting dusty and unused, and a platform that was equally dusty. And here was a hole in the wall with wind coming out of it --
and through the hole, a much wider, taller tunnel, curved like it was under a river. And yet there was light at the far end. And the sound of a hurdy-gurdy.
And to the right was yet another hole in the wall, and a gnarled hand within, beckoning me enter.
And within that hole, there was a little wrinkled old lady, and a pot bubbling with something, and a bed, and little space for much else.
"Well, well," said the little old woman, "I don't often get many visitors down here. Not much traffic in this place. Usually it's only the truly lost, or the brokenhearted. I won't ask what brings you here, if you do not wish to tell me. Just, here. Have some Gumbo." She dipped a ladle into the pot, scooped some of the mysterious stew into a cup, and handed it to me.
"Thank you," I said, "but who are you? And what is this place? And what goes in this 'Gumbo'?"
"Don't ask, don't ask, and don't ask," said the little old woman. "Just drink and relax for a little bit."
I finished my gumbo quickly. It was spicy and hot and filling.
"Now, you sound awfully familiar," said the little old woman. "Just from listening to your voice, I can tell you sound like the voice one of the clockwork dogs recorded and played for me. Might you be the little girl who goes around finding wonders?"
"Yes," I said, "Clockwork dogs and jumping manhole covers and strange things, men made of music and buildings that lean down to listen."
"And in all that time, all the doors you found that led to the city's dream, all the puddles after rain that reflect your possible future, all the telephone poles that buzz with the whispered words of millions, did you ever wonder if the city iteself was alive as a whole?"
"No," I said. "Is it?"
"I can tell you are in a funk," said the little old woman. "What you need to do to get out of it is to keep doing what you are doing, in a way. Keep finding wonders. But...what you must do is find the beating heart of the city. You must find the pulse. For the city knows what is coming. If you can listen to that pulse, you can hear the city warning you of great events, great change."
"How do I find the beat of the city?"
"That's up to you. Run along now."
And so I left that place, and got up to the street level, and started walking. And I found myself atop the empire state building, hoping to hear the pulse of the city. But from that vantage point, all I got was white noise. And I found myself in a music bar on 45th street, hoping to discover that the beat of the city was music. But all I got was rhythm. I found myself a construction site near Little Italy, hoping to hear the beat of the city in the thump of machinery. But all I got from there was the thump of machinery. So I thought, wait a second, what about all the people? What do they fear? So I asked a woman in Brooklyn Heights what she feared, and she said, communists. I asked a man in Flushing Meadows what he feared, and he said, muggers. I asked a cricket in Times Square what he feared, and he was worried his friend would eat another 2-dollar bill out of someone's till. I asked a dog in Central Park what she feared, and she said she loved to go on walks. I asked the mayor what he feared, and he said, the state legislature, and wasn't it interesting that I fit the description of a girl who'd been missing for a month. I asked a man in Chinatown what he feared, and he said he was worried his building was going to be torn down to make way for a new one. I asked a child in Hell's Kitchen what they feared, and they were worried that their parents would have a hard time finding a new apartment after Urban Renewal took the old building down. I asked a woman on Staten Island what he loved, and he said, construction, business was absolutely booming. I asked a man in Harlem what he feared, and he said, the scary lady with the long red claws. I asked the owner of Katz's Deli what he feared, and he said, changing neighborhoods and closed shops. I asked a man in the Metropolitan Museum what he felt the pulse of this city was, and he said, change. I asked a woman on fifth avenue where she thought this city was going, and she said, wherever it's going, it's going fast and we can't stop it. I asked a dog on Madison Avenue if he wanted to play fetch, and he said yes. I asked a professor in New York State University about urban renewal, and he said it was a terrible crime to get rid of old buildings. I asked a fellow in Little Italy about the changing nature of neighborhoods, and he said to scram. I asked the mayor about Urban Renewal, and he said, yes, it's sad, but neighborhoods change, ethnic groups come and go, progress must be made, and wasn't it interesting that I fit the description of a girl who had been missing for three years? He showed me a picture in the newspaper from three years ago, and there was my face on the cover.
I ran home and explained to my parents that I hadn't meant to be gone so long. It had felt like I had asked everyone in the city about the city, in a New York Minute.
After all the tears were cried, the welcome dinner was done, and I was finally slowed down, I picked up the day's New York Times and found an article near the back about the mysterious Italian girl who had been seen almost everywhere. People were claiming to have spoken to me, people whom I had no memory of, and I could not tell if they were lying or if I had spoken to more people than I could possibly recall.
I only knew two things. First, that the pulse of the city is change. Second, that I was going to have to go underground for quite a while before the heat cooled off and people forgot my face.
And so, though my parents did not let me out of their sight by day, once they were asleep I slipped out of the apartment and made my way to the nearest tell-tale manhole cover. The one marked with a skull.
The CHUDS had long been driven out of the city, but they had left their reeking tunnels, which, long before, I had discovered led quite close to the foundations of various skyscrapers.
And the skyscrapers comforted me. The pulse of the city is change, they said, and know this: buildings rise and fall. The material world is like a stormy ocean tossing you about. But you ride atop the waves, and the water does not enter you. Though the world changes, you are still alive and whole. Though mountains crumble into the sea, though we too shall be gone one day, life will endure. Cling to your family, whatever family that may be, and put mroe trust in love than in stone.
And every now and then over the next three years I came back to them to hear that message again. But after a time, they started to shiver themselves. "What is wrong?" I ask. "What can make you afraid?"
A magic we hardly know, say the towers. The bones of the city tremble. There is something happening in Harlem. Something will happen in Harlem that is unheard of. You must find your dear friend. She's involved. We hear of her from the low towers of harlem. Find her. Warn her.
And so that's how I wound up in front of the door of someone who I had not yet forgiven. All right, Elizabeth, your turn again.
"Right. My turn," said Grandma King.
"Someday," I say, "I want to know who that little old lady is. And I want to know how you managed to avoid being photographed for 3 years."
"Maybe once you become an urban legend, cameras don't work around you? I don't know. But Elizabeth -- let's get to the heart of the matter here. You're doing blood magic. That's kind of Strega stuff -- "
" -- but it's older than that, and more universal. So why would the towers be trembling? What do they fear?"
"I have no idea," I say, "but I'm just, you know, protecting my neighborhood."
Hannah frowns. "That's a disturbingly familiar phrase. And you're extracting something fomr your people as well, in exchagne for their own safety."
"It's freely given! Hannah, I just suggested it to one person and suddenly I've got this bottle full of blood being handed to me. What am I supposed to do with it? Let it sit?"
"We let nuclear weapons sit. Think about it, Liz. You've got a magical connection to every single person in a huge area. They've made themselves extremely vulnerable to you. You have no idea what you can do with what you've got, but as soon as you've got the idea, what's stopping you? There's no Mutually Assured Destruction to keep you in check, there's only your own conscience."
"And my aunt. Believe me, if I step out of line she's going to come down hard on me."
"And what if you're more powerful than her, and she can't control you?"
"What if, in the heat of the moment, you get mad and -- "
"Stop. I get it. I might be dangerous. Did you have something in mind to stop me? Or did you just come here to say that I make the city tremble?"
"Let me show you," says Hannah.
And so we wind up in one of the CHUD tunnels, right next to the foundations of the Chrysler building.
Well met, doer of strange magic, rumbles the Chrysler building.
"What of it? Why so scared?"
There are things you can do with your power that you do not know. We among the Tall have asked ourselves if we ought to tell you the truth, to warn you ahead of time, knowing that forewarned is seldom forearmed -- or should we keep that knowledge a secret and hope you never discover it? Ah, but you will, eventually. You can learn the easy way or the hard way...and we have chosen the hard way, which is to let you know ahead of time. It is the hard way because you will not heed our warning, except after it is too late.
"Warning against what?"
The most dangerous magic of all...the ability to manipulate free will. Of all the powers we have seen, all the people we have come and go, none have ever achieved this by magic directly. But some of our stones remember, long, long ago, when wizards dabbled in blood, and did bend the will of others, if only for a few moments...and here you are, blood magician extraordinare, with the full license of your people to do as you will with their blood --
"Not full," I say. "Conditional. It was freely given and can be freely revoked."
That is a comfort...although perhaps it would only be revoked after a misuse. In which case the damage is done already. Elizabeth King, understand that there are no laws of magic, save what you can and cannot do. There is nothing stopping you from achieving full mind control save your own conscience. We forsee that there will come a time when you will consider the safety of your people more important than your integrity. It happens so often among leaders. We forsee you practicing a magic that makes the very heavens tremble.
"I promise I won't go that far."
We shall see. In the meantime -- there are other threats. The sea approaches. Now.