Blood. I see it everywhere. Nothing strange in that. It has replaced rain and fills the river. Perhaps the world always was this way. Another of the things people see and keep quiet about, as though silence makes it not so. Yesterday, I noticed a child in the square; she was talking to her doll, a dirty cornhusk creature, and started laughing. I saw nothing to laugh at, but she giggled and kept on until I wanted to slap her silent. I did not hit her, naturally, for then she would only wail and I cannot stand to hear crying. Church bells, wagons, shouts: I hate the sounds of the city. Even the dead aren’t silent. If she began crying, as children do, with such fury, then I would have to stop her. And the only way to stop her would be by drowning. Take her to the riverbank and hold her head under the water until she stopped crying. I would be doing her a favor, of course, and I am not much in the mood to be doing anyone a good turn these days. But it’s important to do what’s necessary.
I have always tried to do what is right. For example, we have official days of fasting. Our rations go toward feeding the soldiers. As a loyal citizen, I cooperate by not eating on those days. It’s easily done; we have little food anyway and what is available wouldn’t tempt a rat. Not that you see many now. Eat or be eaten. And an army is a ravenous creature. We civilians are reduced to scavengers and freebooters, subsisting on imitation coffee, concocting fake ink and other homemade substitutions, trading silver for molasses. Nothing is wasted. Potato and turnip peels are boiled for broth. Urine is distilled for chemicals to make ammunition. I am weary of being resourceful.
As I say, I would have drowned that girl if she continued making noise. She stopped giggling and resumed her parade around the square with her doll. An old woman collapsed on a bench watched the girl. She might have been a doll herself, the kind made of dried apples, for she seemed lifeless. Bloodless. Not like the girl who was dashing after the pigeons. At first, I thought she was chasing them away, but then I realized she wanted to catch one. Stupid child.
The old woman called to her and they left the square hand in hand. I followed close behind but carefully so they did not detect me. Not that I appear in any way unusual. Thin, pale, clad in black, I could be any young woman in this city. With my dry, coarse skin, I look older than my 22 years. I might have a child in hand myself, but we are busy killing the men, so I have no husband. And no blood. I have dried up, barren as a rock. This is for the best. Why add children only to have them die? Let us all die and be done with it. The war has already defeated me.
I shadowed the two along the streets, alert in case the girl cried. I would grab her and let the river feed on her. For that is how rivers grow. The old woman I would not bother with for, as I said, she looked bloodless. We walked down streets crowded with people with nothing to do in the afternoon. It is strange that as more people die, more people arrive in the city. We have the maimed, the weak, the poor, sheltering in tents. The capital is a necropolis. And when-not if-it falls, things can only improve, for I don’t see how they could be worse.
As certain as I was that the girl would cry soon, she refused to, in that willful way children have. They are so unreliable. Finally, the two entered a building. I waited a while, pacing before the brick house, but they did not come out. I returned to the room I rent, disappointed yet also pleased. For I had thought of something useful to do.
At the bottom of my trunk, I found my old doll, swaddled in linen to protect her red silk dress. Faint cracks run across her porcelain face, the same as when she was given to me. Abigail. That’s her name. I always expected to pass Abigail along to my first daughter, as my mother did with me. But Abigail has lost her purpose. Since I last saw her, moths have spoiled her fine clothes; they must eat, too. I tucked her under my arm and went down Seventh Street to where it ends at the river. It was twilight, when every object has a vivid glow and everyone can see that the water is really blood. With my foot, I held her under the water for a minute, recited a prayer, then let her float away. I felt at ease, as when I undo my dress to put on my nightgown. Last night, I slept better than I have in months.
What will I do the next time I come across a laughing girl? I don’t know; I don’t make plans anymore. Besides, a happy child is a rare sight these days.
About the Author
Pat Tompkins is an editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared most recently in the Bellevue Literary Review, Astropoetica, Vocabula, and Cezanne’s Carrot.