The bricks crumbled under her feet. Down by the docks, repairs to the infrastructure of the thick, stretching city were considered more luxury than necessity. Walking in the dark hours, after the fog slipped up from the churning lake and gave body to every shadow and mass to every lamp, walking then, when even the air closed in around her, she could move freely.
Her long wool skirt blended with the fog. A hooded cape, buttoned at the chin, molded to the back of her head and fell over her face. The heavy folds draped her shoulders.
It had been years since someone had looked directly into her gray eyes. She wrapped that knowledge around her like the fog, wore the isolation like a second cloak, let it melt into her pores as she navigated the city.
Her feet knew every cobble, every crack. She counted the steps. At step nineteen, the brick gave way to yellow, desperate patches of grass. Six steps later, she turned behind a fence, again counting the steps to the streetlamp burning at the base of the cathedral stairs. A statue of the Virgin glowed in the muted light. The Virgin’s robes were faded to gray and a crack scarred her smooth complexion. It crawled from her hidden ear, across her lips, and toward the inner corner of her eye. The crack never lengthened. It was almost as if the Virgin had decided when the pain should stop.
Miriam loved the Virgin. She loved how her stone-carved hair was pulled tight under her cascading veil. Miriam imagined her own brown hair becoming one with her colorless cape and falling to the ground. On damp nights it wicked up the moisture from the stones, and, if she stood still enough, clung to the street. For as much as she avoided the crowds, she was as much a part of the city as the immoveable, silent Virgin.
The church towered overhead. She knew the stonework, the carved faces of the saints, and every piece of stained glass. The windows of her rooms in the upper levels of the warehouse faced the cathedral, and although she had not stepped a foot inside since childhood, she could remember every detail: the sputtering candles to the right of the heavy oak doors, the pool of water that never rippled, and how the sun cast pieces of color across the heads of the penitent, kneeling parishioners.
She hadn’t stepped inside since her mother’s funeral. Her father had sat in the front pew, stonefaced, clenching her eight-year-old fingers. His hand trembled, once. They followed her mother’s casket out of the doors, down the stone steps, and watched the men load her into the wagon. When they returned from her grave, they turned right, into her father’s warehouse. He carried Miriam up the stairs, past his offices, and into her new nursery, where he kissed the top of her head and handed her over to a motherly nurse.
They never returned to the glittering townhouse where her mother had hosted parties for the city’s elite. As far as she knew, her mother’s brushes still sat, a decade later, on her dressing table with her tangled hair wrapped around the bristles.
Miriam looked up to the carved façade of the cathedral. She could only make out the details to the bottom of the second row of windows. There, the light failed.
When her father died, his solicitor knocked on the door. Miriam watched him from her rooms above the warehouse. Eventually, the bespectacled man gave up and mailed the letters. She instructed him through correspondence to leave all as it was, to make deposits into her trust at regular intervals, and to send her the balance sheets. He complied and left her in peace. The few men who worked in the offices were paid generous pensions.
And Miriam locked the doors.
Down by the docks, the city was never akin to the rich, planted gardens where she’d spent the years in her mother’s arms. But they had a flavor of their own. A reality she could smell and taste from her windows above the streets. The changing landscape of people passing, hurrying, every day, gave her an unlimited source of new faces to capture on canvas.
The church was the center of her world even if she never stepped inside. She gave, via her solicitor, and in return was rewarded with glimpses into the lives of the devoted, the employed, and those on the periphery. They were close to the docks and the shipbuilders. While some sailors populated the stone steps to wait for a priest to hear their confessions, others used the deep shadows that ran through the alleyway and found reason to confess.
Miriam stepped around the Virgin and out of the illuminated mist. There would be no one in the alley at that hour, and she was tempted to change her path, to veer down the narrow walkway, to see where it all happened. She didn’t. Instead, she counted her steps back to the warehouse door, pulled her key from her pocket, inserted it into the well-oiled lock, and turned it. The lock opened without hesitation, as relieved to find her as she was to find it, and she stepped into the dark, dusty room. She closed the door, locked it behind her, and turned to the stairs. She didn’t need to light a lamp.
Once upstairs, she made tea. She sat in her living room with her feet up on cushions and her back pressed deep into the upholstery of her chair. Her father’s chair still sat on the other side of the room, with his imprint permanently registered in the sawdust stuffing. Miriam never sat in the chair herself, nor had she ever thought to remove it. It filled the corner of the heavily decorated room as if it had grown there of its own volition, and she would no more extract it from its place than she would chop down some unsuspecting country tree. There simply was no reason.
The cushion under her feet was red, with gold stitching and tassels in a rainbow of colors. On its own, it would have appeared ostentatious, gaudy even. But in Miriam’s room, an echo of her father’s younger years spent in the orient, it was completely at home.
She watched from her lead-framed, factory-grade windows until the sun glinted off the cathedral’s stained glass panes. When it reflected and caught the crystals hanging from the lampshade next to her, she rose, rinsed her cup and saucer, set in on the counter to dry, and found her bed where she would sleep until the bells of the church chimed and the school spilled its children into the streets. The children’s faces were her favorite, had been since she was a child herself, watching them from above.
They wore their day like a mask. Over the years she watched as that mask slowly became their adult face, just as hers did in the mirror. But she painted, painted the children when the mask was still a mask. Painted the child, and then added layers of brush strokes over the child’s face, predicting with color the person they would become.
John had made the habit of watching for her before the sun burned off the fog. As a deacon in the cathedral, he woke before all the others in order to prepare for the morning mass. It was a congregation consisting primarily of aging mothers praying for wayward sons, and wayward sons who had exhausted every other resource. Of course, there was never an opportunity to match mother with son.
The strong coffee he poured from the pot did little to add to the early hour, so he turned off the lights and watched the street through the barred windows. He knew she would be by. The fog had come in heavy that night and had only thickened during the pre-morning hours.
She stopped as he knew she would. Once again he took a step nearer to the pane of glass. He could see a shadow of what appeared to be fine, small features. Under the shadow of the hood he failed to make out the color of her eyes.
He wasn’t sure why it mattered. It shouldn’t. She was a soul, like the countless other souls that passed by every day. She was a soul who never stepped a foot into the church. He knew he should turn away, should review the passages for that morning’s service, should make sure everything was ready. There were more pressing matters, more urgent needs. People walked by every day, desperate, hopeless, yet she filled his thoughts.
Maybe it was the way she paused to face the statue. Her motionless lips open with her exhale, as if she might start up a conversation. He thought of her lips. Wondered if they had ever felt the pressure of a man, wondered how much she had in common with Mary.
Mary. That’s what he called her in his mind. She was called by other names. The school children whispered about her. They called her the factory witch. The eldest priest called her “that poor creature.” John never questioned his superior about her real name. He didn’t trust himself enough to maintain the proper demeanor of concerned, but casual indifference.
Mary she was.
Ione shivered. She hated the fog. Hated the way it hid the men. Hated the way she could hear their work boots slosh in uneven stumbles before she could see their approach. But they always knew where to find her.
She waited at the entrance to the alley and watched the strange, quiet fog-woman pause mere feet from where Ione stood. Ione shifted behind the hedges at the entrance to the alley. The solitary woman with the ghostly white skin unsettled her far more than the men who claimed her time. A drip of water fell from a low branch and traveled down her bare shoulder, into the void between her breasts. Ione shivered again.
The clock struck four chimes. But even that bold, bronze beacon was dampened by the everthickening blanket that suffocated the docks. It was time to go home, to crawl into bed with her younger sisters, and to look in on her mother. She moved her toes against the night’s earnings wadded in a cloth under her stocking. The coins were taking on the chill of the concrete. Her bed would be warm, her sisters’ limbs smooth and soft. So unlike the rough, groping hands of the men that held her still, then trembled as they fastened buttons and dropped the coins into her hand—sometimes with a mumbled apology, sometimes with a sneer. Her mother was too sick to ask where the money came from.
Ione looked up from her hiding place. The fog-woman had slipped away. Ione stepped out of the shadows and into the damp light of the streetlamp. In the morning, after her sisters had left for school, Ione would go to the butcher—to the back door, but to the butcher, nonetheless—and she would buy soup bones. The good ones, with meat still tucked in the crevices. She would buy the bones and boil them to a rich broth, and her sisters would come home to something hot and good. She would spread the marrow on a cracker for her mother, and maybe her mother would eat. Ione wiggled her toes against the money one more time before stepping off the curb and into the street. It had been a profitable night.
Jenny passed by—a white girl with dirty hair and gapped teeth. She was on her way home too, only Jenny lived with her father, one who knew how Jenny spent her nights. They made quick eye contact without slowing down. Jenny nodded her recognition before turning down the alley that led to her storefront rooms. Ione continued into the fog.