Daughter of Pearl
The cabbie left me off at the corner of Suspiriorum and Lachrymarum, the gateway to the Sorrows, and scuttled off like a mad bastard drunk on coca wine. I went three blocks south to Dolorosa and took the corner, turning onto a street of eternal tenements. The joke had been that the Parliament had intended the Sorrows to be an inviolate necropolis for the heroes and highborn, but few could—or chose—to be interred in the ugly district of looming industrial gargoyles and broken-faced angels, and squatters had infested the tombs for so many generations that the practical-minded simply declared them civil rent-controlled housing.
Dolorosa was part of my beat, and as the duly authorized social services representative for the children of the district I stalked through dark streets who dangling lamps had been shattered and broken, lit from beneath by the strange luminescent fungi that grew in the nightsoil that piled near the bases of buildings, overfilled gutters and became rich black earth in the cracks between the pavement. I was on a first-name basis with every child prostitute in three city blocks, had held bloody little hands until the life flowed out of them, and more than a few times taken a knife, bullet, or beating for my trouble. Sometimes I got them out of the Sorrows, into foster programs and good schools. Sometimes I was the only one at the funeral or the defendant’s side of the trial. My name and number spread among the ones who liked out for themselves and others, and sometimes someone picked up a phone or sent an email and the whispers came back to me. Then I would be out here again.
The tip came from a jeweler, an old man with a hawkish nose and scraggly white brows like hoary centipedes nesting on his face. A man and a girl had come in, selling pearls—sizeable pearls, but not perfect, with no papers or explanation for the source. They had the mark of the perennially poor, the girl in particular looked to be only about eight years old and with thin hair already streaked with grey, and there was something wrong with her eyes and the set of her mouth. The father had done all the talking, a big man gone to fat, hovering a little too close and keeping a familiar hand on the girl at all times. The jeweler had paid for the gems but insisted on the address: 1600 Dolorosa, Apartment 1212. I got the call about half an hour later. That was six months ago, when I first met her.
She had been standing outside the tenement buildings, beneath an apparently impenetrable blue filament lamp, leaning again a graffiti mural of a black dragon. In the eternal half-twilight in the shadow of the buildings, she looked like a macabre fallen angel, reptilian wings spread wide. I slowed down as I approached, studied and was studied in turn, neither of us turning away. Thin, but with traces of baby fat yet in the roundness of her face, sandy blond hair shot with grey and silver, a too-wide mouth that went a little crooked on the right side, and those eyes. I thought it was malnutrition at first, or a disease, the tiny sunken black things that stared out from the pits between her brows and cheeks, shiny and dark and secret. The dead, appraising stare could have come from an octogenarian whore, so frank and unflinching was its appraisal. A single pear-shaped grayish pearl dangled from one ear.
I introduced myself, told her why I was here, asked her name.
“What do you think it is?”
We went up to her apartment. I think she still thought of me as a customer then, not sure how else to treat grown-ups who showed any interest in her at all. Her father was not at home—or at work either, from the responses she gave to my questions—and her mouth became a terrible line when I asked about her mother. She turned away and led me into her bedroom, clambered onto the bed. I didn’t know then what she was doing, didn’t understand, held up my hands and tried to explain I wasn’t here for that as she lifted up her shirt over her head. The words choked in my mouth.
On the pale white skin was a fold or flap of skin, stretching diagonally from just over her right hip to just under her left breast. Then the skin pulled back a little on strange muscles, exposing a long-thin strip of glistening flesh, shot with tiny dark red capillaries. The girl tucked the shirt under her chin, and drew her hands down to her soft little belly. Her left hand pressed gently at the skin about her belly button, drawing the gash open wider, so that I could see inside was not the pink flesh of muscle or integument I might have expected, like a throat or vulva, but a puffy, light gray swimming with clear juices. As I watched, she worked the fingertips of the right hand into the slit, moving them down in small motions against some internal resistance. It took minutes to work down to the edge, and she curled her fingers and dug them in, wincing. When she was done, she let the shirt fall down, and held out her gooey hand in front of me. In her palm were four tiny, shining, uneven grey-white spheres.
I had been back, over the weeks and months that followed. I never saw the father hit her or even raise his voice to her, but sometimes his tone got dark and thick when he would rebuke her for something. There were no more bruises or cuts than any child in the Sorrows might suffer, and the police never picked her up for whoring or anything else. The father still sold the pearls to anyone that would take them, anyone that he hadn’t dealt with or heard of him yet, but where the money went I never knew. If anything, things seemed to be worse in the apartment every time—there was more dirt everywhere, filling the cracks and ground into the carpets and bedsheets. The last time I had been up there was three months ago, and there was a strange wet, briny smell that permeated everything. Her father said she couldn’t talk, that she was taking a shower, but I came in anyway, to wait. The odor was overpowering and seemed to be on everything, but if the old man noticed he said nothing, just sat and stared at me as I made my inspection and waited for her to come out again, which she eventually did—wearing one of his old shirts as a nightgown, the stretched-out tail barely covering her ass. She coughed and spat into her hand, and held up a gray orb as big as her thumb, then put it back into that terrible mouth again. I never saw her swallow.
Then I was shot again, to keep one child from murdering another, and lived on hospital food, painkillers, and the quiet abuse of hardworking nurses. It was a visit from the detective that got me on my feet again, to identify the body.
The morgue nearest the Sorrows was cold and somber and quiet except for the occasional train passing overhead, when dust or asbestos fell quietly from the ceiling like snow. She had been found by the team sent to clean out the apartment, lying in her bed. The father had been killed a few days earlier, something to do with drugs. No one had thought to check on her. No one besides me had even read the reports I’d submitted, done the simplest of follow-up after his death to get her into custody. Not that it might have done any good.
Pearl lay on the cold metal slab, limbs straight and still, dirt caked around every orifice. It filled her mouth, her nose, the great sodden flap of skin was obscenely bulging with earth. There were lines on the body where it had been cut open, a dark-skinned examiner had one gloved hand buried in her exposed abdomen; the autopsy had already begun before they had brought me in. The detective made noises next to me, talking about how oysters made pearls, the secretions accumulating around bits of dirt, the constant irritation—something about the father, how he was forcing her to make them, to feed his habit—but the attendant just shook her dreadlocks and readied her scalpels and probes, explaining that this violence had happened later, after death.
“Death by natural causes,” she said. “Septic abortion.”
The detective and I stared at her, and she drew something up out of the slit.
It was as big as a fist, curled in on itself, and shone like a half of a gigantic pearl had been left out to decay in the wind and rain. The ridges of the tiny spine and the eye sockets of the fetus’ skull could still be seen, but most of the flesh looked almost to have fallen in on itself or decayed, with the rest covered by the first layers of thin, filmy mother of pearl.
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