ORIGINAL VERSION: Breath of Life (April 12, 1987)

April 12, 1987

With the tiniest, the softest of sighs she stops breathing.

Only moments from home and help, Vincent is pierced through by the death whisper that would have been inaudible to other ears. He has been listening for it with dread and quickly, gently unfolds her from his shoulder, arranging her on the floor of the tunnel, inwardly cursing the muddy water that ordinarily would not have merited a second thought from him. She has sustained four, possibly five broken ribs but he has no choice now and starts chest compressions, steeling himself against the sensation and sound of bone grating end upon splintered end.

At first he cannot find purchase on her mouth, the full, slack lips offering no resistance he can leverage for the airtight seal required for the breath of life. Groping for traction against the helpless yielding flesh, he feels himself slice through her lip at the corner of her mouth but it can’t be helped, and he winces inwardly as his further efforts split her upper gum and rasp against her broken teeth, three of which give way in a gush of clotting blood which he must quickly turn his head and spit to one side lest she choke.

He can feel the few remaining minutes still left to her on this earth ticking away in cruel counterpoint to the frigid water seeping into her torn finery, so, her skull cradled in his hand, he tilts the woman’s face up hard to his own and clamps down again on her bruised and battered mouth, mentally seeking her forgiveness for inflicting further violations forgive me on her destroyed face as he both feels and hears the delicate skin forgive me of her lip and cheek puncture please forgive me— please— and give way under his fangs but at last it works, there is a seal, and he now exhales with carefully calibrated force deep into her body, bathing the starved alveoli of her lungs with sweet rich oxygen from his own. One, two, three more— then he sees it in his mind’s eye, and hears it, his ear against her chest— the upswelling rush of flame, of life, catching, climbing— as she resumes breathing on her own.


Vincent and his strays, was how Devin used to put it.

Vincent’s skin prickles at the memory. He feels Father’s eyes on him; a quick glance confirms that he too is remembering another time, long ago, an earlier armful of limp and bleeding limbs, dangling like a broken doll, brutalized and cast off detritus salvaged and adored by Vincent from the darkness of the world above.

They never speak of how that one had ended. It is too costly to them both. Vincent knows what Father must be thinking,

And now, another.

Silent, Vincent leaves to wake Mary.


This was no ordinary mugging. This was a message, special delivery.

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.

He knows too well the sound and feel, the wet snap of bone, flesh and tendon giving way to explosive force. It’s not the first time hell has come calling from the dark madness Above, thrusting itself unwanted into his shocked and sorrowful sphere, nor would it be the last, yet even after so many years he is still wholly unable to reconcile himself to it.


Mary and Father work efficiently in tandem, the outcome of many years attending to every kind of emergency together. Their voices are low, urgent.

Mary’s voice, tight.
Was she, is—
Father’s, quickly.
No. Everything but, I gather.
Mary’s, tearful,
That’s one mercy then.
Father’s, grim,
Pray there may be others. She will need them.

But Father did not sound prayerful.


Denied the distraction of focus on immediate necessities by the arrival of Mary, Vincent cannot keep still and is banished from chamber by Father. Ordered to clean up and rest, he tarries only long enough to take up the woman’s bloodied garments, intending to carry them away for cleaning and mending, if possible. The smell of her blood makes him feel helpless.

He pauses under the glow of a torch high in the tunnel wall to glance down at the bundle in his hands and notices that her blood has soaked through the suede lining of one expensive pump until it is nearly indistinguishable from the deep plum of its shantung exterior. Suddenly weak, he slides down the tunnel wall to to the floor, staring blankly at the items in his lap, attempting to organize his thoughts.

While he was fighting to save her life, the tastes and smells of the stranger’s evening barely registered in the part of his brain that would otherwise have liked to take its time carefully parsing the compelling new information, and had gone instead straight to the part that involuntarily catalogs things for later study. Now, with a moment to simply think, Vincent casts his attention back to those details, not sure quite what he is searching for.

Behind and beyond the blood there has been wine in the woman’s mouth, wine; chocolate; something fishy— roe?; capers, dill, crème fraîche— hors de oeuvres, he would realize later; a man’s lips and tongue; before that, a breath mint, before that, toothpaste, which had followed by some hours chicken salad on rye and a diet soda, and—
The thought circles back stubbornly:
A man?

Soon enough it clicks: a man. She had been kissed.

She had been on a date.

His gut tightens at the unbidden intimacy, of both his new carnal awareness of a complete stranger; and of the utter terror and helplessness she had endured in the face of implacable, inevitable death.

What on earth had happened to this woman?

How had a date come to this?


Date smells, his mind is calling them. He finds himself dreamily distracted by the dizzying bouquet, shampoo conditioner shower gel deodorant skin lotion face creme hair mousse hairspray perfume nail polish… This is what a woman smells like on a date, a woman who has taken care to prepare herself for a man, a man’s eyes, his ears and lips, his arms, his fingers, his skin, his…..

His embrace.

It is intoxicating.

These things, her things, made of rich silk— silk chiffon— silk velvet— silk like her skin, like her hair, his memory confirms— in colors elegant yet restrained, these are what a beautiful woman would wear on a date. She would have been exquisite, of course she would have been kissed.

The word and the image it conveys stick in his mind, refusing his attempts to banish it.

Disturbed, he is shocked to find himself upright, pacing, trying not to feel what he feels, trying to dispel the sense of uncontrollable yearning for something he can never have, trying to quell the sense of guilt and despair brought on by thoughts of intimacy that would not leave him.

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One Response to ORIGINAL VERSION: Breath of Life (April 12, 1987)

  1. Crowmama says:

    What wonderful, frightening, full experience this story is. Very well done.

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