Fireside

by Rebecca McNulty


Morgan won’t step in the cracks between the cobblestones. She’s memorized the space between the rocks, the emptiness that leads to hell below the city streets. Her neck cranes and tries to reach the gargoyles that rest on buildings high above the street. If she could see, her eyes would dart across the alley. She uses ears instead, her other sight. The gargoyles breathe slowly. She takes short, quick steps, like a dance, but feels the demon eyes watch as she walks.

The alley smells of ash, old dogs, and smoke. It’s sweet, somehow, and the air tastes musty and enclosed. Morgan pulls her hood to cover ragged wisps of hair. The hair is soft, and she knows how yellow feels; it’s warmer than if she had black hair, softer than brown or red. She knows the night itself is dark. Wind whips her face, but it’s not the thin touch of moonlight. This air wraps against her arms, thicker than her coat. The only light she feels comes from the passing windows.

The air changes when the alley ends. The last building towers above all others, and Morgan feels its bricks stretching to the clouds, farther than her senses reach. She slips into the shadows underneath its steps, but new gargoyles are watching: their eyes are at her level, not high above her head. The watchers. Desire pulses just above her shoulder blades. She wants to leap and soar above the glaring eyes. She wants to see the stars peek through a clouded sky.

Morgan sits, slowly. She pulls a dull knife from her coat pocket. It has no sheath; the metal’s worth no real protection. The handle, though, is hard coral. Her grandfather scooped it from the water off an island coast. “It grows, there,” he always said. “Everything grows somewhere, if you know where to look.” His voice sounded like waves crashing, and she tries to remember. She tries to see the stories as she holds the handle in her fist. The coral ridges are hard with inlets like islands in the water. They feel like the space between the cobblestones, but she knows no hell resides inside. When she holds the handle, she sees the deep green of a jungle, cool blue of water as his ship glided farther and farther through the world.

Morgan cuts a thin strand of hair close to her ear. She fingers it slowly. Gargoyles eat sight, according to the legend. They come from stone below the city where the fires rage. Pure sight is the shifting pictures of that fire; Morgan sees it when she stares into the sunlight. The pictures linger, even when she looks away, and the visions tease her. Gargoyles eat sight, but they crave flesh. They need a share of human tokens, and Morgan knows the sacrifice.

She reaches forward and drops the hair against the largest gargoyle. His aura steps inside the darkness of her mind: deep red circles writhing under harsh, black layers of a shell. The face contorts, and she pleads, “Help me.” She takes a deep breath. “Everything grows somewhere. Let me see.” The stench of stone rises through her nostrils like strips of burnt rubber.

Morgan opens her eyes, but there is nothing. It’s been months and still, nothing. She drops the knife and rams her fist into the stone. “Help me!” Her hair falls from the hood–ragged strands that fly in the cold wind. Her knuckles are raw.

The eyes pierce her chest like daggers. Gargoyle hearts are encased in stone. The fire crackles in their chests, but it won’t reach and touch her face. They won’t touch her eyes. Her fists can do no damage.

She closes her eyes again. The gargoyles are silent, but she knows they’re whispering together. They think she’ll come again tomorrow; they think she’ll cut another lock of hair. “Not again!” she screams. She’s tired. She’s cut too much hair. “Never again. Let me see!” She falls to her knees. The ground is cold and feels as dark and cold as shadow. “I’ll give anything. Anything.” She feels her grandfather’s coral is close. She runs her hands against the cobblestones and tries to stay out of the cracks. The stone is too smooth, and cockroaches live everywhere. She hears their legs rustling, pincers rubbing. Hell rises like steam from the cracks and she can barely breathe.

The thin handle calls, and Morgan finds the knife beside her hand on the wet pavement. She raises it and tries to see the silver metal. She knows how metal looks inside her mind. It feels like moonlight on her skin. Morgan shakes her head. “Anything.” She raises the knife and runs it deep across her palm. It’s dull; the skin is hard to cut. Her blood is hot, angry, like the sun and hellfire. She touches it to her tongue and spits. The blood tastes like sewer water and alley filth. She cuts again and again.

Morgan stands, slowly, and lets the blood trickle down the gargoyle’s face. “Anything.” She’s tried hair, spit, and fingernails before, but never broken through her skin. Memories are worth it. Sight is worth whatever she can give.

The gargoyles are silent. She hears the slop as they lick her drops of blood, but still, she cannot see. Morgan feels nothing, and the picture disappears from her mind’s eye. Her eyes are hot, but she won’t cry. She won’t let tears mix with her blood. Tears are too valuable, too personal. Next time, she can use them. It’s too late, now; she feels the sun begin to rise. The gargoyles will sleep until the evening. Their eyes have closed, and the air is not so rank.

Morgan’s feet echo as she walks back through the alley. They need her to survive, to keep the flames inside their eyes. She’ll find a way to reach them. When they’re pleased, they’ll share the fire. Her hand pulses, slowly. A reminder. She drops the bloody knife into her pocket. When they’re pleased, she’ll hold the pictures in her eyes.

Any sacrifice is worth the memory of color. She’ll find someone else, anyone. New blood. New tears. It will be worth the sacrifice.


Copyright © 2008 by Rebecca McNulty

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