April 12, 1987, In the City of New York
The softest of sighs.
Death and Vincent understand one another. The woman has stopped breathing.
He unfolds her from his shoulder to the tunnel floor, cursing the puddles. She has sustained four, possibly five broken ribs but he has no choice now, starting chest compressions, ignoring the sound and sensation of bone grating on bone.
Her facial muscles severed and unresponsive, her clammy skin slippery with blood, Vincent can find no purchase for the breath of life; he must make his own, and slices precisely through the fragile mucosa at one corner of her mouth, wincing inwardly as his efforts catch on her gums and broken teeth, three of which give way in a gush of clotted blood which he must quickly turn his head and spit to one side lest she choke.
He feels the diminishing moments of the life still left to her ticking down in serene counterpoint to the filthy frigid runoff seeping through her finery, so, cradling her skull, he tilts the woman’s face up hard into his own and bites down with exquisitely calibrated pressure, immobilizing and stabilizing her battered flesh, mentally seeking her forgiveness for inflicting further violation on her destroyed face as he feels—hears—tastes the delicate skin of her lip and cheek puncture then give way under his fangs but he’s successful, he’s able to a make a seal, and now at last he can exhale sweet rich oxygen with measured force deep into her body. Two more; three—
The woman is breathing.
Death, ever gracious, leaves its card.
The specter of Vincent tarred with blood and staggering robs Father momentarily of speech.
I am uninjured, Father. But the woman is near death.
It’s understood that Father will attend to her; his fear and anger notwithstanding, he is incapable of doing otherwise.
Vincent’s face forbids, if only for the moment, the obvious question; the one that goes unsaid— What if the woman does not survive the night?— is far more urgent.
Vincent and his strays,
Devin used to say.
Vincent’s skin burns at the memory. Father’s eyes on him means the older man, too, is remembering another time, long ago, an earlier bleeding armful, though smaller, equally brutalized; was that long-ago stray lucky or unlucky, to have been salvaged and adored by Vincent from the darkness Above?
Vincent and Father never speak of it. It is too costly to them both. But Vincent knows what Father must be thinking,
And now, another.
In the sickroom they work silently, peeling back bloody layers of Vincent’s clothing he has used to swaddle the dying stranger in a makeshift incubator against his skin.
Among other horrors the woman has been punched repeatedly in one spot, her left breast, with blows beyond counting and with such force that the metal underwire of her strapless bra has broken, one end piercing her sternum.
Vincent knows well the wet snap of bone, soft tissue, and tendon giving way to explosive force. But this is different.
This has been a message, a special delivery.
As his examination progresses down the woman’s battered body Father now must cut away the dress and underthings; this part is never easy but tonight Father discovers his hands are shaking— due to the lateness of the hour, no doubt.
He asks for Mary; now Mary is here and Vincent has against his protestations been propelled physically from the sickroom, ordered to clean himself up and rest. Exhausted, he acquiesces for the moment, collecting the woman’s shredded clothing as he goes, more in an attempt to maintain some sense of connection with her than with any specific plan in mind for it.
Heading slowly toward his chamber, he allows his mind to wander again over what he knows of her evening. Before the blood there had been wine in the woman’s mouth, and something fishy (roe? hors de oeuvres, he will realize later); a man’s aftershave and saliva; before that, a breath mint, before that, toothpaste, preceded by some hours by chicken salad on rye and–
male aftershave and saliva–
She had been kissed by someone.
Just hours before his clumsy, even violent effort to seal his grotesque— for so it now seemed— misshapen mouth to hers, knowingly causing her further injury as he did so, to give her life—
—she had given her mouth to a man willingly, knowing the kiss would bring pleasure, not pain.
He slides? falls? down the wall to the floor, his gaze coming to rest on her bloodied garments in his lap, and cannot stop himself. He lowers his face, rubbing it into her things, her things that have touched her, her things— no matter how ruined or beyond repair— they are, no matter, deeply redolent of her. Her. How can he stop now? The word, the idea, will not leave his mind. She had wanted to be kissed. She had taken care to be… kissable. Beautiful. Inviting. What if, for once, this world had been an entirely different place than it is, the kind of world it should be, and it had been him for whom she’d been preparing? For him;
This is how she might have smelled, opening her door to him… opening herself, to him. He breathes in this imaginary banquet of scent and sound, the veil of perfume, the rustle of fabric, the dancerly arpeggio of heels as she drew near. Her.
Her breath and skin—
my heart and more
He is trembling now and doesn’t know why. One shoe rests quietly in his palm. The suede lining is stiff with blood so dark it’s indistinguishable from the pump’s graceful shantung exterior. He is moved to lift it closer to the light by one curved heel and then it happens, so naturally as to seem unremarkable.
He hears her voice. It must be his imagination; but he knows it as if he’s heard it all his life.
This color– it’s called ‘grenadine!’ he hears her say. Isn’t that delicious?!
Her voice, laughing, delights with childlike pleasure at such a word.
Vincent agrees with her. It is delicious. It is intoxicating. This breath of life.
It will never leave him as long as he lives.