<--Younger | Beginning | Older-->
St. Vincent’s hospital lurks at the corner where Seventh Avenue angles to the west on its way downtown into the heart of Greenwich Village. It may have loomed there one day, but now things are simply too tall and it’s all it can do to lurk, pushing its emergency entrance out into the avenue in a bid to be noticed.
I don’t like hospitals. I haven’t since my parents passed away. This was altogether too familiar.
Still, I went in anyway and stopped at the receptionist. They eye you peculiarly when you wander around New York in a long Burberry’s trench coat on not-particularly-cool fall evenings. The orderly behind the counter glanced up from his computer monitor, beige plastic stained with finger oils and unknown greases. “Yes?”
“Here to visit Nan St. Cyr.” I had to spell it for him.
“Room 727. Have you been here before?” I nodded. He grimaced in apology. “Right. Elevators over there.”
Room 727 was like all the other rooms I could see, but this one was bathed in a brilliant light, because my grandmother was in it. She was lying in a throne-like bed of medical technology, face peaceful, sleeping. I walked to her side and looked down at her. The machines muttered to themselves in their secret chatter, glyphs winking out furiously for those with medical training decoder rings to decipher. I just looked at the woman.
She’d raised me, those years in the west Village. Taken me into her small apartment when my parents were taken from us, and made me a part of her life and her a part of mine. The grief of those long ago years wasn’t lessened, but it was countered with the love that she had lain over the wounds.
A nurse walked past and looked into the room, saw me, and leaned in. “Sir?”
“Oh, Mr. Wibert, I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you.”
“It’s all right.”
She came into the room and stood by me, looking down at Nan. “She’s had that half-smile on all day. She looks very peaceful.”
I didn’t snarl at her, but it took a great deal of effort. Instead I swallowed and said, “She’s dying.”
The nurse patted my arm. “Yes, dear, she is. But she’s at peace, with her family, and she’s not in pain, and she’s led a full, long life. Would you have her go any other way?”
I didn’t answer. The nurse patted my arm again and slipped out. I just looked at the woman in the bed, because I knew something the nurse didn’t know. I slipped one hand into my overcoat and rested my palm against the lump just over my breastbone, where the Baba’s vial lay. I could feel the Power concentrated there. I knew it wouldn’t diminish it in the slightest if I let it free. That’s what the Water of Life did, after all - it granted life to a soul and to a body, if used for that purpose. That’s what Baba Yaga did with it as a Goddess of Nature.
And she’d given it to me.
I turned away from Nan and found a chair to sit in, my arms trembling. I rubbed my eyes with sweaty palms and arranged my coat to hang in a more comfortable manner over the bandolier at my chest and the large gun at my side. I’m not all that small, and the chair was struggling to make it work, but I didn’t care.
I have no real Power as a mage, or sorceror, or witch, or whatever word you’d like to use. I have one talent, one which is shared by many more people in this world than realize they have it, but which is discouraged by society and religions and science; discouraged to the point that most people who have it convince themselves that they’re imagining things by the time they’re teenagers. Some that don’t do so burn their minds out later on drugs to make it go away, and nearly all the few survivors of that either learn to conceal it or end up in treatment for various esoteric forms of insanity. Some become charlatans for pay. One in a great many is like me.
I can Hear, and See, beings of power. Gods, deities, demons, whatever you want to call them; I can see through the veils that hide them from normal people. Veils that they place over themselves, and veils that humanity places there - a vast slumbering herd mind too disturbed to recognize the bright light that walks among it, unknowing of its own strength. Remember when Barrie’s Peter Pan urged all you children to believe? Well, guess what. It works the other way, too.
The Djinn in his endless wanderings, Baba Yaga behind her ageless cold mask; I could See them where others saw only their vessels. Looking down at my grandmother, I could See her too, touched as she was with a Power much stronger than mine. I could Hear her as she lay there.
For my Grandmother wasn’t peaceful. She was screaming.
* * *
I went to drink.
This doesn’t help, but at least gives me a perfectly good excuse for feeling maudlin, useless and guilty. Nan was old. I didn’t know how old, precisely, because she didn’t know herself, but she was in her upper nineties. She had raised my mother in France before coming to the U.S. after the Second World War. She had some degenerative illness whose name I kept managing to forget two minutes after the doctors told me, one that despite my considerable financial resources I couldn’t save her from. She’d known that, of course, and schooled me sharply about it before she’d closed her eyes some weeks before.
“Cher, listen to me.” Her voice was thready but still had snap.
“This thing I am doing.”
“Yes, impertinent boy. Dying.”
“What about it, nan?”
She pushed the coverlet back a few inches and moved her hands about aimlessly before clasping them on her breast and looking at me. “It happens to us all, Michel.”
“I know that, nana.” I was sitting in the chair next to her bed, trying not to hulk in my overcoat festooned with talismans of magic and firepower.
“No,” she said, reaching out one hand to touch my forehead. I bent my head forward. “You think you know that. But you do not. I will die, Michel. It is something I fear. But that, too, is something that happens to us all, fearing death.” Then she’d patted my cheek and gone to sleep again. I’d spoken to her three or four more times before she’d stopped waking up.
I waved at the bartender, who brought me another whisky. It burned, going down. This was worse than my parents dying. Much worse.
When they died, I had no Power at all.
My fist clenched against the vial again. It pulsed once, gently, in response. It could give life. That was its purpose. It could take my grandmother and lift her from her suffering, the suffering the doctors couldn’t see; the pain from destroyed nerves that she was no longer able to express, her mind still present enough to feel but her spine long gone and even her muscles unable to grimace. The machines did not need to keep her alive, for she was breathing on her own, and that was the curse.
Every moment, she screamed, and no-one could hear her but I. But I could restore her.
She’d never spoken of it directly. There were no rules, in Nana’s world where she played cards and fenced with the Immortals. There were no judges, no codes; just manners. Manners, she told me, were what would save me if I chose to swim in those waters. Not with humans, who cared nothing for such things, but with those to whom the things which humans cared about were less than nothing - with them, manners were all, and sacrosanct.
Manners had gained me the vial.
But somehow, I knew, without being told, that to use my gifted Power to bring her life would be discourteous. I had never risked being discourteous in the steps of the immortals before. I had no interest strong enough to risk discovering the penalty.
I did now, I thought. But I wasn’t sure.
I didn’t know if I cared.
I went back to the hospital, stared down at her lying in the bed, thought of coming to see her after using the vial to wake her up from her torment. In none of these conjurings could I see her with any expression other than a loving but sad disappointment.
She was still screaming.
I don’t know how long I stood there. I don’t know if I was crying. I know that at some point I snarled something wordless, pressed my right hand to my chest, and willed the world to change.
It did. The machines’ lights faded to green. The screaming stopped.
Later, I took the Six train uptown to Grand Central Terminal and sat down before the bar at the Cafe. A soulless-looking supermodel stood before me without my hearing her approach, and placed her hands on the bar. I looked up at her, tears still tracking down my face, and squinted at the light streaming through the tall windows that framed her. “Baba?”
She touched my face. “You’re crying.” The voice might have been reading a financial headline.
“Baba, I need to return your gift.” I drew the glass vial from the bandolier and placed it on the bar, staring at its crystal haze of refracting light for a moment. Clear liquid sloshed in it. I looked back up, but the supermodel had gone. In her place was a twisted crone with brightened eyes, eyes like my grandmothers’ which caused fresh tears to slide down my cheeks.
“Why, Michel?” Her voice was cracked and aged, but her tone gentle.
“I used it, today. I used it-” I shook my head and pushed the vial to her. She picked it up, unstoppered it and waved it beneath her nose as though sampling perfume.
“Ah!” Her voice was surprised. She held it, looked at me. “Your grandmother. Your own Baba. Is that why?”
“Yes.” My voice was small. “I’m sorry, Baba.”
“But why, Michel? That is what the waters do.”
I looked at her, confused. “I killed my grandmother, Baba. I used your gift to take an innocent life.”
She laughed. “You are forgetting who I am, Michel.” Her form rippled for a moment, straightening into a crone no less hideous but taller and terrible with fury. Her voice went cold again, the voice of the bitch queen supermodel. “I am Baba Yaga, little man; I am the mother of the Earth herself, and I have killed more innocents than you can begin to imagine have existed. I am death itself, and life; life when it is cruel, and death when it is a release.” With that, her shape slumped again into the kindly bright-eyed woman, and she took the bottle and pressed it, open to my face, once on each cheek, so that two tears ran down into it. Then she stoppered it and shook it again, and the ripples in the fabric of the world flowed out from her hand. I stared at her.
“Michel, Michel. The Water of Death. What is it for? You know this answer.”
I recited from memory. “The Water of Death is to allow corpses to decay, to free souls from their bodies so that-” I stopped.
She nodded. “So that the Water of Life may bring renewal from the ashes and the soul may rise to heaven. Did you use the Water of Life?”
Baba Yaga patted my cheek, exactly like Nana had. “And that is why you yet survive, Michel. You did not seek to grant her life, or grant her heaven. You simply chose to release her from pain, and to ensure her body went to rest. That is what the Water of Death is for. It was her time, and past her time; in those cases, that is when Baba Yaga is sometimes called to hasten what must be.” She handed the bottle to me.
I took it, still staring at her. She patted my cheek again. “I will miss her, Michel. She was a worthy opponent. I am glad she sent her grandson to me to help pass the time.”
“What would happened if I had used the Water of Life?”
“Ah, but you did not. For that I am glad, Michel. It is a lonely life here, sometimes.”
I don’t know why I said it, but I did. “I’ve killed others, Baba.”
“I know that, Cher.”
“I’m not a good man.”
“That is not for you to decide.” She turned and produced bottles, and without a flicker the supermodel bartender was in front of me mixing a White Russian, the light and the dark blending into my glass. I picked it up, tucking the vial into my bandolier, and raised it to her.
“Thank you, Baba. Please call on me if you have need.” I sipped the drink, set it on the bar with a bill and turned to go, but a thought grasped me at that moment, cold and hard. Something Baba Yaga had said. I turned back to her. She raised one eyebrow, waiting. “Baba,” I asked carefully, “How was Nan an opponent?”
She looked at me for a time. And then, the ice queen bartender leaned forward-
-and winked, one eye briefly brilliant with life and mischief. Then she stood, disinterested, and I gulped my drink and shuffled off downtown to begin a proper wake for the woman who had raised me.
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