We painted ourselves in shadows and lived in the cracks between things. Between back doors and black alleys. Between rooftops and the never-blue skies. Between numbness and frostbite. Always between want and death. Sometimes the want was death.
We knew each other by our hiding places, or by the company we kept.
Choir Loft. Glassworks. Underbridge. Belfry. Attic. Closet. Rat. Crow. Worm.
Or by the lies we believed.
I was called Maybe.
I didn’t choose my name. None of us did. Glassworks chose mine.
“Yer always sayin’ that word, like sumthin’s gonna change fer the better,” he said, spraying tobacco through blackened lips with every word. Someone else’s tobacco, always. He scavenged it. Stole it. Scraped it out of trash bins and ash trays and pressed it into dense brown chewing globs with his fat, grey fingers.
“Maybe it will,” I said in reply. That’s when I got my name. He spat it like a sneer and it stuck like tar.
We were misfits: the abandoned, the orphaned, the lost. But we weren’t friends. Except Rat and Crow. There isn’t much elbow room for friendship in the cracks between things. We were fighting for the same scraps, the same rare moments of grace or guilt from the Regulars whose lives we haunted with the stink of unwashed desperation.
Still, we pretended friendship once a month when the moon was full. To assess our ranks, mostly. To be reassured that we weren’t the only one left.
We would meet on the broken bridge if it wasn’t raining. Under it in the muck and piss if it was. It usually was. We knew rain like Choir Loft knew faces. Lofty was blind. Stared at the sun one too many times, he says. But his fingers could see better’n most eyes. Regulars paid him coppers to tell them their future. He says he can’t really see the future, just the longing for things. But that’s kind of like seeing the future, I said.
“No,” he corrected in his gentle, deep voice. “Longing’s all about yesterday.”
It was a Hammering Rain when the stranger joined us. He looked like a priest or a monk, with his faced hidden under a drooping gray hood and his robe belted with a wide brown sash. But he spoke like a noble. Maybe he was once.
He told us about his cellar. Boasted of its warmth in winter, its coolness in summer. “The beds are like those for kings,” he said. “And there is never a shortage of food.”
Crow squawked at that. What’s the catch? We all thought it. Glassworks said it.
“No catch,” said Cellar. That’s the name he got right away.
“Lie,” said Glassworks.
“Then why you doin’ this?”
“Penance,” he said. And that was all he said, because he turned around and walked out into the Hammering Rain, pausing for just a moment before continuing up the bank to the cobblestone. Crow shrugged and handed his empty pipe to Rat, who slipped it between her chapped lips and puffed at imaginary things. There’s a story with that pipe, but I don’t know it.
Belfry grunted and shook his head. Glassworks took a deep breath through his oversized nostrils, then spat tobacco onto the underside of the bridge, where it joined a hundred similar stains.
I thought of the last three nights, sleeping under the threadbare awning behind the bakery. I stretched my back, felt the sharp memory of stones. I sniffed the remembrance of just-out-of-reach fresh bread, tasted the dirt and mold of an abandoned loaf.
And then I followed him.
Cellar walked with purpose. It wasn’t the gait of a man who’d lost everything and was searching for the way back to something. It was a walk of certainty. Of knowing exactly where he was going. There was no fear in his step, though any Regular with a whit of common sense would have felt a flood of it during a full moon.
The threat of wolves. And worse.
Never seen a wolf. But I’ve seen plenty of worse.
Cellar walked right up to the justice hall like he owned it. We’d all been banned from it. “There’s no begging on these steps,” the constable had said with his words and the swing of his club. What about all the begging going on in the chambers? Is that against the law, too? I thought. But I didn’t say it. There was no real justice beyond those doors. Only judgment.
I hesitated, anticipating the swat of the constable’s club on my back once again, but he was nowhere to be seen. That’s when I heard the rain-muted steps. I turned to see all but Glassworks lined up behind me. The Hammering Rain made them look like they were melting. Maybe they were.
Cellar took a sharp turn at the justice hall and walked around it. We followed, close but cautious, like a curious crowd heading to a hanging and hoping it wasn’t our own. There was a small courtyard behind the building, shielded from view by surrounding buildings and trees so green they looked like paintings. In the middle of the courtyard there was a trap door that looked like a drain. Cellar folded his hands together in a prayer, then lifted the heavy door upward and let it fall against the grass with a thud that I felt in my chest.
He pointed, looking more like a specter than a monk.
I took the stone steps slowly, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness below. The smell of meat drew me faster, and at the bottom of the staircase I inhaled all the smells at once –meat, bread, cheese – he had cheese! –wine. If this was death, then I would welcome it.
The room was vast – big enough for a hundred souls. Candles and torches flickered from every corner, a fireplace blazed along the back wall. I didn’t see beds fit for any kings I’d read about, but there were straw mats everywhere. At least forty. I was still taking it all in when Belfry pushed me aside and strode right to the table. He began stuffing his gaunt face with cheese. The rest of us followed, more timidly.
There is always a catch, I thought as I tasted the first cheese I’d had in years.
Cellar watched for a long moment from the bottom of the stairs, the Hammering Rain pouring down like waterfalls into a wide drain below. He disappeared for a moment to close the door above, then returned and sat on one of the straw mats near the food table.
“Thank you,” he said. I looked up from a sip of wine to see him wipe a tear. Or maybe it was just the rain.
We were free to come and go as we pleased, though there was little need to do either. Somehow, the table was always full of food – most of it fresh, all of it edible. There were thin blankets on the second night. Lumpy pillows on the third. A battered lute appeared out of nowhere on the fifth night and Crow picked it up on the sixth. Crow couldn’t sing worth a damn, but he could sure play and Rat had the voice of a seasoned street singer. Belfry had a hundred tales to tell, so between the three of them, they invented a dozen legends and filled the cavernous room with songs of love and war and despair and a stranger named hope.
All the while, Cellar said nothing.
Time passed. I had thought I knew all the misfits within begging distance, but I was far wrong. Soon there were twenty of us. Then thirty. When we numbered fifty, more straw mats appeared. Cellar remained as silent as a corpse, as unreadable as the inscription on an ancient tomb. Belfry said something about “fattening the cow.”
There is always a catch.
When spring came, Crow filled his pockets with food, grabbed the lute and Rat’s hand and left for good on some thin hope of making it as buskers. Belfry followed a week later, promising to return when he’d run out of stories to tell. One by one, others left, no longer hungry for food, but hungry for something else. Eventually I was the last of the original group who remained. I spent sunny days tending the courtyard garden, and rainy ones below it, wondering why I was still here.
Glassworks showed up on a rainy night. I don’t know how he found us. He was much thinner than I remembered, and shorter, bent over. But no less imposing or bitter. He grunted a half-greeting at me, scanned the room, then walked right up to Cellar, who was placing a bowl of fresh fruit on the table. Pomegranates, melons, berries of red and blue.
“What’s the catch?” he asked.
“There’s always a catch.”
Glassworks just up and punched him in the face then. No warning, except maybe the years of hardship that came before. The snap of Cellar’s nose echoed around the four walls like the counting out before a song. He staggered backward, then fell into the lap of a startled young woman I knew only as Rags. She scooted out of the way and Cellar stood, slowly, to face Glassworks.
“No catch,” he said again, smiling weakly as blood poured from his nose.
This time Glassworks punched his stomach. Cellar crumpled to his knees. I took a step toward Glassworks to plead reason with him, but he stared daggers back at me and they pinned me to the floor.
“Nothin’ is free!” shouted Glassworks. Tobacco and spittle speckled Cellar’s already blood-spattered face. Glassworks took another step, kicked Cellar in his ribs. Cellar fell onto the cold stones and curled up into a ball. Glassworks kicked him again and again until the only sound left in the room was the quiet sobbing of misfits who wore their despair like lead cloaks.
Then Glassworks reached down and pulled something from Cellar’s neck. He held it up like a prize. It was a purple glass cross hanging from a leather cord and when it spun it caught every light in the room.
“Why?” he asked. But he was shouting at the dead.
He looked again at Cellar, then dropped to his knees, the cross pressed hard into his big, bony hand. Blood dripped between his fingers onto the floor. The cry that came from his throat was like none I’d ever heard and was surely loud enough to alarm the constables that wandered the nearby halls.
After a few moments, Glassworks stood. He slipped the cross into his pocket, grabbed a bottle of ale, and disappeared up the stairs into the rainy night.
It was a Misting Rain. The kind you didn’t mind so much. The kind that felt like the gentle touch of a lover.
My heart ached to think of it.
Some of the misfits left that night, gathering up whatever food they could carry along with their fears; choosing the rain instead of judgment. That was inevitable. Someone would come looking for Cellar and blame us all for his death.
There is no begging on these steps.
Rags was the first to Cellar’s side, wiping the blood from his face with her tattered sleeve. I grabbed a flagon of wine from the table and joined her, alternately pouring it out to cleanse his mortal wounds and sipping it to cleanse my growing guilt.
“Why?” she asked between sobs.
There were no answers that night or the next. It seemed true enough that Glassworks had recognized the cross. Some believed Cellar had stolen it years before. Others were sure Glassworks had just gone crazy. That was the most reasonable answer. One misfit named Books, who surely would someday follow in Belfry’s footsteps, invented an intricate tale claiming Cellar was Glassworks’ father and that the cross had been his mother’s. The rest of his fiction involved sex and deceit and murder, like all the best stories.
Whatever the truth, a hundred tales would come if it, scattered like crumbs by the two dozen misfits who had been there, and the many more who would claim they had.
The constables never came. That troubled me more even than the threat of judgment. Surely someone knew about Cellar’s secret safe house. Surely someone would miss him.
Rags and I buried Cellar in the courtyard during a moonless midnight rain – the kind between misting and pouring that would feed the flowers we planted above him. A Thankful Rain.
When the food was gone, most of the remaining misfits left. After a week, it was just Rags and me. We’d scavenge and beg for what we could during the day and return at dusk with too little to eat and nothing left to say.
I was awakened in the middle of an early summer night by the sound of the trap door opening. It had been days since the last of the candles had melted into nothing, so the room was black as midnight. I listened for footsteps, but heard none. Just a sound like the tinkling of a wind chime, then the shudder of the door being closed.
I fell asleep into a nightmare of being tossed into a dungeon, and awoke thinking the dream to be true. The open trap door told me otherwise. Light spilled down the stairs and landing onto Rags’ empty bed. I called out for her, but she didn’t answer.
I climbed out into the rare morning sunlight and looked around the courtyard to see Rags sitting by the flower garden. A small weight lifted from my chest. She held something in her hand that sparkled like a second sun.
“I found it at the top of the stairs,” she said when I sat beside her.
The purple cross.
She handed it to me. It was not glass at all. It was a perfect, translucent amethyst.
“Why?” Rags asked.
Penance, I thought. But I didn’t say it.
“Is it worth anything?” she asked.
“A fortune. Enough to buy new lives for the both of us. Good lives. Full lives. Rich lives. Or…” I paused. Why was I still here? “Enough to fill a cellar with food for three or four years. Maybe five.”
We stared for a moment and a lifetime at the shimmering cross and then at each other. She nodded and a half-smile appeared on her scarred, dirty, face. It was such a beautiful face.
“I’m not going to change my name,” I said.
She nodded again. “No. ‘Cellar’ doesn’t suit you.”
“You could change yours if you wanted…” I began, then felt ashamed for suggesting it.
She brushed a strand of tangled brown hair from her face, closed her eyes and turned her head skyward. She took a long, deep inhale of the flower-scented air.
“Maybe,” she said.
Then she looked at me and took my hand. Her touch was soft, like a Misting Rain.