It was nothing more than a common utility bottle, free-blown and amber in color, with a scattering of bubbles seeded along a neck no wider than two fingers. Underneath its base was a pontil scar the size of a nickel where the gaffer who blew life into it had finished it off by impalement with an iron rod, in the manner of an Ottoman executioner, to hold it in place as he rolled-out its lip. There were thousands of bottles just like it in use in every mercantile store and every saloon from Kansas City to San Francisco.
It was, in essence, a bottle made to hold all sorts of things.
Empty it might cost no more than a penny, but what it currently held sealed inside it was something more valuable than all the silver in the world. At least, to Belle Deeds. Since that fateful day, not the day she made the trade but the day she realized its power, the bottle gnawed away at her mind, fraying its edges.
As for the rest of her faculties, she used them sparingly, just enough to keep herself alive so that she could send her thoughts flying ever back to that dark place, to spend her time there under the canvas cloak where the bottle rested upright, clanking and rattling beside the others and always on the move. These were the moments when she longed more than ever to make herself whole once again.
“Where the blazes did you go off to again?”
Belle found herself yanked rudely back into the third room on the right on the second floor of Madame LaRoche’s cathouse. A cowboy, possibly named Wes (she couldn’t remember now), had had her bent over a flea-infested bed for at least ten minutes. Or was it an hour, she wondered, as Wes banged his hips against her backside like he was riding a bucking mule. The cowboy had nothing on but his hat and boots but had requested that she dress in Sunday finery. Wordlessly, she had obliged. Rarely otherwise put to use, the silk green dress reeked of naphthalene, a smell that always reminded her of the back pew of the Methodist church in another life not so long ago. Before...
“This is damned foolishness!” said Wes, yanking up his pants. “I may as well be poking a stick at a dead horse.”
“You might want to get a longer stick,” said Belle before realizing she had spoken aloud. The cowboy raised the back of his hand to her, but something about her steady gaze held the blow.
He fumbled with his belt buckle, then slammed his hat against the floorboards. “Dang it all to hell!” With a swipe up of his hat, he stormed out of the grimy little room in a jangle of spurs and curses.
Belle calmly straightened her dress and paused at the sight of her painted face in the mirror. She was no longer beautiful, that was clear, but even a broken beauty could be repaired to acceptable standards. A dusting of powder, a burst of rouge on each cheek and a reddening of the lips was all a sporting gal needed to conceal her shortcomings. Put nearly any face behind it and a man’s imagination would do the rest. But since leaving Pandemonium for Harmony, Belle had had a devil of a time getting the cowboys, travelers and speculators who swaggered through Madame LaRoche’s doors to take a second look her way when making their selection. It was only after all the other soiled doves were plucked from their roosts on the parlor’s chairs and chaises that they turned a reluctant eye to the expressionless mope sitting, limp and unladylike, in the corner of the parlor.
This parlor, all brocade and velvet, reclined at the foot of a grand oak staircase. At the moment it was empty, save for Curly, a beanstalk of a drink-slinger, absently polishing the brass along the bar, and Madame LaRoche herself who looked up from her ledger in surprise to see Wes stumble down the stairs.
“Goddamn cockchafer, is what she is! If I’d a-wanted a sourpuss I’d a-called my wife in from the hog pens.”
The very picture of faded elegance, Belle appeared at the top of the steps, and as she slowly made her way down she ruminated on his complaint. It’s not bad enough what they do to you, these men. They want you to act like you want it, as if the money was just an afterthought. Why, you can get a person to believe most anything if you tell them what they want to hear. And she, if anyone, should know.
Madame LaRoche hastened to take Wes by the arm. “Come on now, honey. It couldn’t have been that bad. After all, Belle here is one of our best gals!” She glanced sharply at Belle. “Why, I bet a man as strong and mysterious as yourself must’ve turned a bold girl shy!”
“Bullshit. I want my dollar back. “
“Now, cowboy, you know I can’t just--”
“Five hundred head a cattle I gotta drive up to Sedalia starting tomorrow. Five hundred! And all I asked for was a little bit of comfort ‘afore they work me half to death.” he said, then thrust out his hand. “Now give me back my dollar!”
Madame smiled thinly as she handed Wes a crumpled dollar from the rima between her breasts. He snatched it with a huff and stomped out.
Belle felt the weight of Madame LaRoche’s gaze as she sank down upon a dusty chaise lounge. Curly made an effort to look busy wiping down the bar all over again.
“Three months...” Madame began. “Three months, and you haven’t yet pulled in your weight. Keeping you alive costs me money, Belle Deeds, and I ain’t running a missionary. I’m sorry to say it, but I can’t float you any longer. It ain’t fair to the other gals.”
Belle felt a sinking sensation, the first real feeling she had had all evening. She should never have bothered to come back from her mind’s travels tonight. Every time she popped back in, Fate stood ready with a cold slap. Something hot and wet rolled down her cheek.
“Now don’t go crying and making me look heartless,” Madame said, and sat down beside her. “No other girl got as many chances outta me than you. I can’t count the times I’ve had to tell some poor sot, ‘oh she’s just shy’ or ‘that’s a virgin for you!’ Well, that only works for so long, you know.” She drew in a deep breath and said, “Isabelle, you’re just gonna have to go.”
Hearing her full name spoken made Belle straighten up. “You turning me out on the street, Madame?”
The old bird released a weary sigh. “You gals come out west thinking you’ll find your fortunes or your husbands, and when plans go belly-up you end up here thinking you’ll get back to those dreams again someday. I like to think of myself as a help-meet for the working woman, but I run a business like everyone else here in town. And you, my dear Miss Deeds,” concluded Madame LaRoche, gently smoothing a wisp of hair away from Belle’s face, “are bad for business.”
“Please. This is the end of the line for me.”
Madame studied her for a long beat. “Three days more won’t break the house,” she said at last, then laid a hand briefly on Belle’s shoulder before disappearing into the back parlor office. Well, Belle mused, as she wiped her eyes with the hem of her dress, so much for penance. It seemed the Lord was hell-bent against her since the one part of her that He could have redeemed had been forfeited long before.
Seeing her drag her tired body up to the bar looking pitiful all the way, Curly poured her a generous splash of whiskey. She thanked him with a nod and fixed her gaze on the amber liquid. It was time, she decided, to pick apart the threads that lay tangled in knots inside her head, and the whiskey would help loosen them. The liquor hit her quickly, sending a welcome tingle to her lips and fingers. Her thoughts soon drifted, to somewhere far beyond the parlor, somewhere dark and clanking. Her left hand dropped down from the bar and absently smoothed out the fabric of her dress.
The Methodist church that stood in the center square of Pandemonium was typical of the kind found in a boomtown. Constructed in the Gothic style, of brick rather than wood, it spoke of the town’s desire to establish a sense of permanence for itself and turn a blind eye to the finite nature to the source of the silver that it depended on for its existence.
Inside the church, a rousing final chorus of “O Come And Dwell In Me” reached the highest recesses of its grand vaulted ceiling. Standing in the last pew was Belle in her fine green silk dress, the very picture of a pious wife, singing in a clear, high voice in pleasant contrast to the leaden baritone of the husband who stood beside her. No one noticed that her gaze was not fixed to heaven but on a broad-shouldered man in the front row.
Orvil Jenkins was his name, she learned, having overheard him introduce himself to the minister as a newcomer to Pandemonium some weeks previous. Since then, she had spent every Sunday’s service growing ever more enthralled by the way his ears stuck out from close-cropped hair and how he gripped his hat with strong hands stained a silvery hue from the mercury used at the mill. But it was his fingernails that she admired most about his body. Like tiny chips of sulphuret, they gave the impression that he, too, was made of the ore chiseled out from the hillside, glimmering with the promise of something rare and precious.
She found that if she squinted her right eye she could nearly blot out the woman who stood beside him. Singing in a voice that sounded like copper pennies dropping to the floor was his wife, Mayleen, a bird-like woman who kept her dark hair parted in the middle and pulled down severely on either side to meet in the back in a small, tight bun against her skull. Like a tick on a dog’s hindquarters, thought Belle.
A nudge at her ribs brought Belle out of her reverie to discover that everyone had taken their seats save for her. She gave her frowning husband a sheepish smile and sank down. Augustus Deeds was Pandemonium’s undertaker. In his black frock coat and four-in-hand necktie, he cut an imposing and somber figure, showing a dedicated adherence to his role as a proper undertaker in a proper town. As the undertaker’s wife Belle was also held in high esteem, the soft and sympathetic counterpart to a husband who was stately and aloof. This combination gave the bereaved both the comfort and guidance they needed to make it through their grief. In short, they made a fine pair when it came to the business of death.
For all its talk of civility, this was a rough town. Gunfights, mine collapses and rattlesnake bites were plenty, but it was understood that one didn’t talk about death except in whispers. It was also understood that the Deeds take the back pew each Sunday so that those who had felt the loss of a loved one (and who hadn’t?) would not be reminded of their losses during this time of peace and renewal. And since Augustus was known to squeeze a few dollars more out of a grief-stricken loved one for this or that additional expense -- say, a black hearse carriage instead of a wooden cart -- there was no reason to remind them of that then, either. When they were courting, Belle had admired his no-nonsense nature, adventurous enough to jump into the silver rush but practical enough to get into the only business that guaranteed a regular income. As for her own role beside him, she liked it well enough. Until Orvil Jenkins moved to town. There hadn’t been a sermon since of which Belle had heard a word.
As the weeks passed, she found it ever more difficult to focus on her tasks in the funeral parlor, greeting the bereaved and managing the books, along with the everyday work of keeping house and cultivating the garden in back. Harvesting the apples from the small orchard at the back end of the garden was vigorous enough work, and she took to it with ever-greater will to allow her more robust fantasies to unfold. It was there that she imagined him to be a sensitive lover, shy even, and the thought of being the one to take control of this powerful man in bed nearly brought her to ecstasy right there among the ripening fruit.
At last, luck came to Belle, if a person could call it that. It was the time of Harmony’s annual harvest festival. The wives of the local businessmen had some years since begun a tradition of venturing out beyond the confines of their strict social circle to extend gestures of gratitude to the men who made their town and their businesses prosper-- those grimy alchemists who toiled at turning stone into silver. On a crisp late November day, Belle spent twenty minutes selecting her most modest dress, one of bronze-colored silk and pagoda sleeves, then filled a basket with tiny apple cakes wrapped in paper and joined the group of women making their way to the mill.
Hugging the banks of Calhoun Creek was Pandemonium’s sole stamp mill. As the group of wives were within a mile of it, Belle could feel the ground shudder under her feet. Upon reaching the mill, the women covered their ears and hurried for the front gates as the enormous ten-unit iron stamper rhythmically crushed large chunks of acanthite and quartz into fine gravel. The thundering noise and shaking earth left Belle feeling unsteady and unsettled.
Inside the largest room, Belle wandered among the dust-covered workers and handed out cakes with a shy nod at each man’s mumble of thanks. In the back of the room, a long sluice fed intermittent torrents of gravel down into large pans, and standing beside them was Orvil. Stripped down to his undershirt in the oppressive heat, he was deep in the rhythm of his work – lifting one of many 80-pound lead flasks filled with mercury and letting it splatter over his hands as he poured the quicksilver into enormous pans of slurry, then pulling a lever to release a pressurized jet of steam into the pans so that he may heat the amalgamation and free the silver from its bonds. He began the cycle over again, adding yet another layer of varnish to his silvery fingernails. Belle watched the whole process mesmerized.
As he turned to grab another flask, Orvil startled at the sight of Belle, bright-eyed and darkly beautiful, looking like a widow in a black shawl. The reticule of cut glass that hung from her left wrist shimmered a reflection of the fires behind him as Belle held out a cake. “We’re so grateful for the work you do, Mr. Jenkins,” said Belle in a low voice.
“Ma’am,” he replied in thanks, as he took the cake. Belle flushed and turned heel to scurry off when his voice stopped her. “How do you know my name?”
She turned back to face him and their gazes met, holding long enough for her to imagine that he, too, sensed some powerful connection. She looked at him with an expression that suggested something within her was coming unmoored, before turning and disappearing into the throng of workers.
The encounter played over and over in Belle’s mind the next morning as she picked the apples from her orchard. She knew that her lustful thoughts were a sin, but, she reasoned, she had plenty of good thoughts, too, and surely those served as sufficient counterweight. Since her brief encounter with Orvil, she had become a woman consumed by unspeakable need, even as her thoughts tried to keep themselves upright on shifting ground. All the reasons why she couldn’t and shouldn’t were unable to take seed in such sandy soil. And though she felt the longing most deeply in her womanhood, she knew that their connection went beyond that. Belle convinced herself that in the distant past, on some elemental level, they had once been as one thing, but had been separated by some relentless force bent on extraction. Now she felt an urgency to return him and be made whole. And, after three years in Pandemonium she had come to believe that if a person wanted something it was up to him to crack it free from the shale. But how? Aside from church their worlds did not meet. He was married to his sour pickle. She was married to hers. It suddenly occurred to her that Augustus and Mayleen were as perfect a match as Belle and Orvil, and it made her laugh out loud. At last overcome by helplessness, she left her orchard to have a good cry somewhere no neighbor or passerby might hear or see.
Just outside the town’s borders, Belle found an agreeably secluded cluster of rocks and sage where she might weep in peace. As the sound of her own sobs subsided, she caught a faint tinkling of glass, metal and wood. She looked up, drying her eyes with a handkerchief, to see a short portly figure emerge from the scrub leading a mule who, in turn, was pulling a peddler’s wagon. A jolt of fear hit her, a gentlewoman alone with a stranger.
He drew up a few yards away and tipped his hat to her revealing a silver nose where his own had once perched. Here was a face lined not with age but hard living. Dark brows hung like pine boughs over eyes the color of the milky slurry that flowed downstream from the mill. Around his neck he wore a stained red kerchief and below his swollen belly a belt of rope held up his woolen pants. A gypsy, thought Belle. Or worse, Anasazi? While muttering to himself, the peddler gestured for her to come up to his cart, but she focused instead on straightening her skirts and smoothing down her hair. It was high time she returned to town.
“You can’t leave,” he called to her. Then, with a grin, he added, “without having a look at my collection of enticements, that is. A lady such as yerself would be remiss to miss them.” The peddler let out a wheezy cackle and revealed a tangle of browned teeth. Why that fellow could eat corn on the cob through a picket fence, thought Belle. He gestured grandly to a wagon that was a haphazard cluster of shelves and crates on wheels, crowded with every thing under the sun -- pots and saucepans, bolts of canvas, cutlery, tools of every use, rolls of parchment with hieroglyphic markings and bottles ... bottles of every shape and size, filled with such things as tonics, shoe polish, spirits and snuff. “I’ve spent years, you see, collecting trinkets and notions, peculiar items and one-of-a-kinds.” His voice gave her the impression of a chorus of voices speaking, and this was something she found beguiling.
“Here’s a lovely thing, as rare as it is beautiful.” The peddler held up a sulfide marble the size of a baby’s fist, with the smoky image of a woman’s head suspended inside. “She looks a bit like you, wouldn’t you say?” Before Belle could answer, he pulled out a bolt of dark green fabric. “Or how about a length of fine Egyptian silk? Still time to make that Christmas dress to turn the other ladies green with envy.”
“Thank you, no,” Belle replied curtly and turned to go.
“Then perhaps a tonic,” he said, stepping closer. “For whatever it is that ails you?”
Is there anything as effective as self-pity to bring out the melodrama? Her step faltered as her gaze dropped down to her hands. “I’m afraid there is no cure.”
The peddler clucked his tongue in sympathy. “I carry remedies for every affliction.” But she shook her head. “Don’t be afraid, now. Tell Uncle,” he rasped. “What is it you need?”
In a quiet voice, she spoke her feelings for the first time. “To be loved as I love.”
“Ahhh,” said the peddler, shaking his head as if at the hopelessness of such a wish, and Belle’s heart dropped. Then, with a gleam in his milky eye, “Fear not, deary,” he whispered. “For I have the very thing.”
She stifled a cry. Might the world be crooked enough that this vile little fellow would have the means to make Orvil Jenkins love her as she loved him? Hope burrowed a hole in her heart and sought to worm its way through it. It was true, her passions had become an affliction. Might there indeed be a tonic for what ailed her?
The peddler took her silence as his cue and flipped open a compartment full of glass vials of the kind found in a chemist’s shop. The box itself, as Belle noticed, was lined with a hard dull white substance. Porcelain, she wondered?
“Bone,” said the peddler as if hearing her thoughts. “Buffalo shank, to be more precise.” Seeing the questioning look on her face he sharpened his gaze. “See here now, these are no ordinary elixirs. There’s Life in them! Death, too. So if a person aims to keep a-hold of one for a spell, he best make sure to keep it somewhere it can touch both worlds.”
“I’ll remind you that the Lord forbids us to work in the realm of magic,” replied Belle in mock piety.
“The Lord’s got nothing to do with it,” retorted the peddler. “Magic neither. What you see before you here is the result of the secrets of alchemy, gleaned from the ancients, to turn base objects into elixirs that influence both the body and the mind!”
Bones and alchemy, scoffed Belle. Surely the pox that devoured his nose must now be feasting on his brain. Unlike the other wives of Pandemonium, Belle was not a woman vulnerable to superstition. She wondered what she was doing, giving this lunatic her time and attention. But, what if? An hour ago she’d been weeping till her heart was fit to break, the hope draining out of her with every tear.
With exaggerated care, the peddler plucked from the case a vial containing a perfectly clear liquid. He poured it in a small demijohn and sealed it with a wedge of cork, then announced, “Here!” with a flourish of his hand.
Belle felt a bubble of laughter well up and quickly swallowed it back down. Even Augustus never tried to so blatantly hustle a customer.
“Water,” Belle scoffed.
A flicker of anger crossed the peddler’s face. “This dram of liquid holds extraordinary power.” He retorted, and prepared to pour its contents back into the vial. “But I see now it would be wasted on the likes of you.”
Belle felt her stomach wrench. “Wait! Please!” She placed a hand on his arm, then recoiled at the contact. “Let’s cut to the heart of the matter. What’s the price for this wondrous elixir? I’m without my reticule for the moment, but I can return with it in no time --
At first, Belle could only blink back in astonishment. “Eleven dollars! For a tonic?”
“All right, ten.”
“Ten! Why, I haven’t that sort of money!”
“I won’t higgle with you, that’s my price.”
She shook her head at such nonsense. “Two dollars. And that’s more than a fair shake, I’d say.”
“This here ain’t no hair tonic, deary. I’m offering you nothing less than your heart’s desire!”
Belle looked down at her hands. “I can’t pay it,” she replied, and he could see it was true.
“Well then...” He ran a blistered tongue over his cracked lips. “What you reckon you got to trade me for it?”
“Nothing,” retorted Belle, cinching her shawl in disgust. “What kind of woman do you take me for?” The peddler shrugged and turned back to returning the potion to its vial.
“Wait!” she said, removing her glass-bead necklace. “Take this.” With a deadpan look, he popped open a cabinet to reveal a wide selection of costume jewelry.
“But, it’s all I have,” she implored, and her own desperation astonished her. Could she really be begging for something that was in all likelihood plain water?
The peddler pursed his lips as he held her in his gaze, and she could see that her desperation appealed to him.
“On the contrary, deary,” he said at last. “There is one thing you do have that might make a fair trade.”
“Tell me,” she said in an urgent whisper.
As he leaned toward her she watched her own reflection in his silver nose grow and distort. “Your animus,” he hissed.
It took Belle a moment to decipher his meaning, then let out a small laugh. But the mad gleam in the peddler’s eye made her quickly drop her smile. “I see,” she said, soberly. “The Devil’s Bargain. And will I be damning myself for all eternity?”
“Eternity is an instant, deary, as you’ll one day find out. I’ve no use for it. It’s the here and now that counts.” He put a hand to his heart. “Have no fear, not everything has its price. I confess I’m a collector at heart, and it would remain with me always as the most precious item in my private collection. It’s the having, you see, that I’m after.”
Belle eyed the demijohn waiting in his hand as she contemplated his offer. She had her husband’s vocation to thank for her unromantic view of the matter of the existence of a soul. And not every body brought in through the funeral home’s doors was as dead as it should be. She well remembered an occasion or two when she’d nearly leapt out of her skin at a sudden feeble moan coming from some poor soul laid flat on the back bench, awaiting Augustus’s preparations. She would watch in fascination as the doomed man’s eyes widened and then fluttered shut one last time. Despite the assurances in Rev. Gallows’ sermons, there had seemed to her then no evidence of anything separating from its corporeal bonds to fly heavenward. She knew it was blasphemy, but she felt she was only weighing the facts as they presented themselves. If this cracked, pox-addled fool thought he could own her soul in exchange for even the possibility of Orvil’s heart, so what?
“You want my soul...”
Furrowing her brow to adopt a more somber countenance, she pretended to think hard on such a trade, finally acquiescing with a grave nod. “All right. It’s a deal.” Belle said. “How then do you aim to claim it?”
With a gasp of anticipation and full demijohn still in hand, the peddler hastened to the back of his wagon, his gait a cross between a waddle and a limp. After tossing back a canvas tarp, he unlatched an enormous wooden crate to reveal row upon row of empty corked utility bottles all nearly identical in form and amber color. After careful determination, he selected one with his free hand, removed its cork and held it out to Belle. “Take in a deep breath...” he demonstrated with his own rattling inhale. “Then expel it fully into this bottle,” he said, and released his breath in a whistling wheeze. “But be sure to think of emptiness as you do it. Understand?”
It was all Belle could do not to laugh. In light of this elaborate extraction process she remained confident that even should such a spirit lie within her breast it would nonetheless remain safe within its meaty cage. “Yes, I think so.”
The peddler eyed her closely and licked his lips again. Belle reached out for the demijohn, but he jerked it back. “Uh-uh. Gimme my tin first.”
Out of patience, Belle snatched the utility bottle from his other hand, drew in a deep breath, closed her eyes, thought of a life without Orvil Jenkins and exhaled fully into the bottle. A grimy hand slammed a cork over it and yanked it away.
Nothing, thought Belle, without surprise. Enough of this wasted time. She held out her hand.
The peddler released the demijohn into her grip and held up the amber-colored bottle that contained her breath. His voice quavered. “You’re mine now,” he said, echoing Belle’s own thoughts as she held up the elixir. “No matter where you go or what you do, you’ll always know that a part of you belongs to me.”
Suddenly, her throat felt dry and a flush of perspiration spread under the bones of her corset. Mad, beastly little creature, she thought, turning back from his ghastly grinning visage to the flacon in her hand.
A year she had waited, a year that swelled and bloated the longing inside her while the demijohn remained in its hiding place inside the rotted hollow of one of her apple trees. By the time autumn had come around again, Belle was fit to burst. With her thoughts so occupied, she had been slow to notice the little weeds of bad luck that had begun sprouting up around her. A swarm of stink ants had nested under the floorboards of the front parlor, drawn out at each new scent of death that came along and required her to scrub the floors with copious applications of boric acid until her skin burned. The entire shelf of her favorite books, the chosen few she had suffered to bring with her on the move out west, was blighted by a blackish green mold inside their pages. At the time she had taken them to be the normal setbacks of everyday life. Only later would these make sense as the early stirrings of what would later become her life’s curse. At the moment, there was only enough room for constant vigilance, waiting for the right time to take action. It was only as celebration for the harvest festival was once again underway that she realized an opportunity was at last at hand. Her hands trembled with excitement as she set about baking her famous apple cakes. Taking extra care with the last batch of dough, she mixed in the entirety of the demijohn’s contents.
It had been unusually cold the day the wives of Pandemonium descended once again upon the stamp mill with their yeasty gestures of gratitude. Once inside, Belle did not linger in the shadows as before, but marched with determination towards the rear of the mill. Orvil looked up to see Belle holding out to him with a stiff arm an entire basket of apple cakes. Before he could finish stumbling over a thank-you, she walked off, trembling with anticipation. He watched her go.
Now what, Belle had wondered, as she went about her daily tasks. Will there be a knock on the door? Would he grab her in the middle of the church aisle before God and everyone? Only once in all this waiting had she felt a pang of guilt, but she let it pass over her like a hot breeze.
The peal of church bells in the distance had rung hollow in Belle’s ears as she decorated a small pinyon pine tree in the front window of the funeral parlor. So dark were her thoughts that instead of her usual decorations made of gingerbread men, she had decided this year to carve faces out of apples and dry them to a shrivel. The end result was a Christmas tree with what looked very much like severed heads in the early stages of decay hanging from its boughs. Augustus had been away for the afternoon, fitting a condemned gentleman of means for his coffin, and leaving her alone. For the first time since the exchange, Belle found her thoughts drift towards the amber bottle and wondered briefly of its whereabouts.
Just then Buster Sykes burst through the front door calling out for the undertaker. Belle had nearly fallen over at the sight of Orvil, holding up the other end of a dead miner’s body, standing in her very own front parlor along with him.
“Mr. Deeds isn’t here, I’m afraid, but he’ll be back shortly,” she said with a tremulous voice. Orvil nervously avoided her eye as he explained to her that the unlucky fellow had just dropped dead face down in a sheet pan of slurry.
“I’m truly sorry for your loss,” she said automatically, then flushed at her foolishness. She had led them through thick brown curtains to a small dark room with a high wooden table. The men had draped the body across the table and tipped their hats to Belle. Terrified that the opportunity would pass without some sign between them, she blurted out the next thing that came to her. “Has he family?”
With Buster having already disappeared into the main room, Orvil paused at the threshold of the back room and turned back to her. “That is,” she continued, “someone to pay his burial fees and funerary expenses?” It was something her husband would ordinarily ask, and in a more artful way. She had regretted her words instantly.
Orvil had emptied his pocket of the entirety of his payday wages onto the dead man’s chest and, without a word, made his way for the front parlor. Horrified at how he must now perceive her, Belle hurried after him. “Wait!”
He stopped short, and she bumped into him quite hard. The contact unnerved her and her hand shook as she returned his money. “I didn’t mean to give the wrong impression. What I meant to say was that we’ll take care of such matters if there’s no one to do it for him.” He seemed relieved as he smiled at her for the first time, and she had nearly burst into tears at the sight of it.
Despite her husbands protestations, Belle had made sure that the poor miner’s grave had a headstone and fresh wildflowers regularly placed atop it. As she changed them, week to week, she would find herself wondering whether a person bereft of her soul would do such a thing? No, she would reassure herself, most certainly not. Things moved quickly after that. Sunday was Christmas Day, and from her usual place in the back pew Belle finally caught Orvil turning back to her to return her stare. That was when she knew.
One a mild hazy morning in December, Belle found Orvil rinsing off the gravel dust from his face at a quiet crook in the stream. She had gone to him without a thought, as if they were the only two people in the world. And he had uttered not a word as his body met hers and they sank down among the reeds. Somewhere out in the world, the peddler’s cart hit a bump and rattled the bottles against each other like broken teeth in a drunk man’s hand.
She quickly discovered that a taste of Orvil had only served to sharpen her hunger. After the town rang in the New Year with a perfunctory air of revelry, Belle and Orvil had stolen a few moments away from their separate lives to discuss plans for a life together. She had assuaged his pang of guilt by reassuring him of Mayleen’s likely preference for the solitary freedom found in doing the Lord’s work. And He never did know a greater friend than Mayleen Jenkins, so with Him on her side how could she want for anything? In this way, Belle sent Orvil off fortified for the task at hand. She could not anticipate, of course, the primal cry of grief that would issue forth from Mayleen’s lips nor how traumatized it secretly left Orvil, along with the image of her wrapped about his legs as she begged him not to go.
On the appointed day of escape and without a speck of remorse, Belle had breathlessly told her husband a story. How she’d bumped into the sheriff on the street as he was on his way to the funeral home on account of a gunfight between Hamp and his men at Anasazi Flats, a five-mile ride from town. He told her he needed Augustus to gather a gang and cart back the bodies before the buzzards got to them, and she promised she’d give him the news at once. It was as easy as that. She knew Augustus would be gone within the hour and wouldn’t return for several more. As he grabbed his hat and hurried out of the house, Belle marveled at the efficacy of the tonic she had bought so cheaply. It was all coming together perfectly. Standing in the doorway as she watched her husband ride off for the last time, a second thought unsettled her. If the peddler had been right about the elixir, then could he have been right about the contents of that amber-colored bottle? She dismissed the thought as foolishness. While the man may have known his alchemy, the idea that the bottle contained anything more than a puff of her breath was the result of an addled brain’s diseased imagination..
They had left Pandemonium together atop Orvil’s scraggly piebald horse, and made it all the way to Santa Fe before the money from her savings tin ran out. After renting a room behind one of the better cathouses in town, Belle had soon found scratch as a laundress for the working girls, scrubbing out the previous night’s passions from bedsheets and frayed petticoats.
One brisk winter morning, before heading next door to collect the night’s laundry, Belle had handed Orvil his coffee and toast, as usual, and bade farewell with an easy kiss on the lips. A half hour later, she returned to find him where she had left him and the sight of him made her drop the sack of laundry to the floor. In his left hand he still held the toast. Looking up at her, he tried bringing it towards his mouth but it shook violently until finally dropping from his grasp.
“What’s happening to me, Izzy?”
After finishing his rounds at the brothel, Dr. Whitaker gave Orvil a perfunctory once-over and declared him to be suffering from palsy and tremors. Belle could have told him as much. When she had pressed him for a remedy, he shook his head and said he was afraid there was nothing to be done about it. Suddenly, it all became clear to her. What she had thought was a turn of good fortune in her life was in fact the beginning of a string of bad luck that grew and would continue to grow ever worse. And everyone who crossed their paths with hers would find themselves just as cursed as she surely had been from the moment she gave her soul away. Guilt, which had until now barely licked the edges of her mind, opened wide its jaws.
Gathered for a smoke, the cathouse girls would cluck and shake their heads at the couple’s misfortune as Orvil’s limbs eventually twisted in on themselves and his body became a prison. His face had frozen in a rictus of horror and he had the unmoving gaze of a Byzantine icon like the one she had seen hanging above the desk of the town’s telegraph operator, a dour Greek with an impressive moustache. It followed her as she moved about their room, silent admonishment at what she had done to bring it all to pass. It was because of the singular awfulness of his gaze that she began to dwell instead on the bottle and its contents.
On a hot and dusty July in the late afternoon, Belle had dragged Orvil in his chair over to the open window in the hope of catching a breeze as she fed him his supper. As she dribbled a spoonful of barley water into his mouth, a sudden single violent cough burst forth from him, startling her. She stepped back to watch as his whole body shook and then, for the first time in nearly half a year, went slack. For an instant, she was overjoyed at the sight. But the truth suddenly hit her like a mule’s kick to the head. He was dead, she knew. And it was because of her. How could she have expected any good to come from what she’d done? That night she began to seek comfort in the bottle.
Washing clothes interfered with her drinking, so Belle turned to making money the only other way she could. An odd sense of pride wouldn’t allow her to seek employment at the brothel itself, so she preyed on the passing cowboys too broke to afford the cathouse girls and too desperate to care how incoherent she might be during a quick poke.
She believed in magic now, in portents and signs, and began seeking messages in the broken wheel of a passing carriage or a black crow lighting upon the windowsill. Like a phantom limb, she believed she could feel the constant ache of her severed soul and blamed every sinful deed on its absence. She left no Commandment unbroken. Even murder. For it was murder, what she had done to Orvil.
It was during that time that a fog drew thickly around her. The singular longing Belle had devoted to Orvil now shifted entirely to the amber bottle, and its perpetual traveling ignited her own restlessness.
Belle hitched a ride on a covered wagon with a Mormon family making their way through Santa Fe towards the promised land, as they called it. At one point just before dawn, she realized that the wagon was passing just outside of Pandemonium and began to shiver so strongly that eldest wife draped a homemade quilt about her shoulders thinking she was cold. As they jostled in the back among the pots and pans, the driver’s three wives invited her to join them in reaching their Zion, but for reasons even she was unclear of Belle insisted on stopping as the sun rose at the next town over, a town called Harmony.
Despite its detriments, the fog that encircled her was thick enough to allow her to cast off the last of her pride, and she was able to bring herself to seek proper employment at Madame LaRoche’s bordel, the only one in town. And while a person couldn’t quite call it hope, that stirring in Belle’s breast, it could be called a belief that things couldn’t possibly get any worse. Perhaps now, she had thought, the bad luck was finished with her and she could live out the rest of her life here as penance. But not less than three months later here she was about to be put out onto the street, a failure even at selling her body (when she had been so successful in selling her soul). What she needed was a miracle. But bad luck and miracles didn’t mix.
Riding back from a meeting out at Rep Calhoun’s ranch, Sheriff Payne was near played out from the events of the evening. As his sorrel loped along a dried-up gully, exhaustion and the darkness of the dead of night played tricks on him. His thoughts turned once again to the handsome skittish fellow he spoke briefly with from among the cattle baron’s gang. His mind drifted to shadowy what-if scenarios of the two of them bumping against each other as they struggle to rope a bucking horse or wrestle down a calf, and he fidgeted in the saddle. Suddenly realizing the betrayal of his own mind, he cursed and spat in the dust. “Galldang it!” he muttered in frustration. “There must be something can lift this curse from me!” Rounding a bend, the flickering of a small campfire caught his eye from among the distant brush.
Glasses clinked together as Curly gathered up the empties resting before a haggard Belle. The night’s tally left her with a dull buzzing in the background of her thoughts. For once there was little comfort in it. Clarity was what she craved now, but it wasn’t likely to show up anytime soon.
“Why don’t you go on upstairs now, Belle.” said Curly. “It’s gotten mighty late.”
She blinked back the brume, and the look in his face told her the time for free drinks was done. Behind her came a murmur of voices and a woman’s throaty laugh. It was Mattie, one of Madame Laroche’s more popular gals, seeing her companion off into the night. Once the doors swung shut behind him, she dropped her smile and coolly surveyed the scene inside the parlor. News spreads quickly in a place like this and her gaze landed on Belle and watched as her friend tried to teeter up from the bar.
“Come on now, I’ll help you up,” Mattie said with a sigh, taking an arm to steady her. They slowly made their way towards the staircase. “A gal can make more than one life for herself out here, Izzy. You of all people should know.”
Belle shook her head. “Not me, Mattie. I’m cursed, didn’t you hear? Won’t matter where I go or what I do, it’ll all come to naught until I’ve been made whole again. ‘Til I’m restored to the woman I once was.”
“Now that’s foolishness. What’s done is done and what’s gone is gone. Hell, Izzy, you ain’t the only gal who’s lost something.” Having reached the foot of the stairs, she took Belle by the shoulders and looked her square in the eye. “For once, why don’t you stop pining after the things you know you can’t have? If you did you might find that you’re as free as any of us. Maybe more so. Your problem is you just don’t want to see it.”
With a cry, Belle shrugged off the younger woman’s grasp and headed instead for the front door. “That’s it, exactly! I know what I have a right to. And I have a right to my own self!”
“Now where d’you think you’re going? It’s not even morning yet!” But the doors swung shut behind her.
In the waning moonlight, Harmony looked like a ghost town. For the first time in a very long while, Belle sought to clear her thoughts the only way she knew how. She went walking, down the main street, past the red schoolhouse on the edge of town, and beyond that, past the boarded up mines. Before she realized it, she had left the outskirts of the town well behind and found herself amid the sage and rock. She walked for over nearly two hours, realizing with every step that she was walking with a purpose, back to Pandemonium. Back to that place of despair inside her that had summoned the scalawag the first time.
As she neared a clearing, the sound of men’s voices stopped her short and she ducked down beneath a cluster of pinyons. Her first thought was that she had stumbled upon a gang of cattle rustlers, but as a campfire glow brightened, she realized that there were only two figures standing half in shadow beside it. Her blood went cold at the sound of a low laughing wheeze. Could it be? As one of them poked the fire with a stick, he sent sparks dizzying up into the air that reflected off his silver nose.
It was him! And only a few yards away! Suddenly Belle felt the pull from her lost self, as it woke up to her presence nearby. She thanked the Lord that he had seen fit at last to deliver a miracle to one so long cast out of grace. She moved a few steps closer to see who it was the peddler was talking to and recognized the grim face of Sheriff Payne. At last, she thought, someone is going to bring this beast to justice. She took another step closer, to better hear their conversation.
“...you sayin’ it can set a feller to rights...for good?”
“Straight as an Anazasi’s arrow, my good fellow! Catch sight of a skirt after you drink it and your own arrow will straighten, too!” A cackle, like the scraping together of dry bones, trailed off into a sing-song of nonsense. “Tee, tee, tee, tee...” The peddler hopped about in a sailor’s jig then staggered and wheezed. It was clear that the pox had at last laid full claim upon him.
As she watched the sheriff ride off at a gallop, she wondered what it was he had bought, what bargain had he made? When Belle turned back to the clearing she caught a gruesome sight. While humming under his breath, the peddler removed his silver nose and began to polish it with a dirty rag. Illuminated by the wan flicker of fire, his caved-in face and fleshy cheeks made him seem like some emissary from the space between life and death. After a long sigh, he called out, “You can come out now.”
A cold sweat broke out on Belle’s forehead. She felt the prickle of it in her armpits as she stepped into the peddler’s campsite.
“Another husband to steal? Better stick to the cheap stuff, deary, I’m afraid you’ve got nothing left to trade.”
“I’d like to see the bottle.”
“Indeed, you would. But I’m afraid it’s tucked away.”
“I want it back.”
“No, it's mine. I bought it fair and square.” His interest suddenly piqued, he narrowed his gaze. “Why? Have you felt its absence?”
“That’s all I feel.”
The peddler swallowed hard in his chancred throat and there was a gleam in his eye. “Tell Uncle, deary. What’s it been like,” he asked, drawing near. “Knowing a part of you belongs to me?”
“Since the day you tricked it from me, I’ve committed every depravity under the sun. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
He smiled at this and licked his lips. “Tell me more.”
“You took it from me under false pretenses and I demand that you return it. It is mine.”
“Beg your pardon, deary,” he retorted, setting his silver nose back in place. “But it’s mine. You got what you wanted for it fair and square; it's not my fault if it came to naught.”
“Give it or I’ll take it outright if I have to.”
The peddler cackled, then grew serious. “And what if you tried? How will you know which one of these bottles is yours?”
His words were like heavy stones placed into her heart.
“What do you want with it? What could you possibly gain from having it?”
“Why, this. This right here.” Replied the peddler, waving a hand at her dishevelment and desperation.
Belle summoned her fortitude and drew closer, near enough to touch his chest, near enough to see that his entire body was silver-tinged. A consequence of the treatment for the final stage of syphilis. “What if I offer you something real, something you can touch and feel.” Her eyes were only inches from his blistered lips as he ran his tongue over them. “How the women must cringe when they see you, when not long ago they took you in their arms. But I’m not afraid, you see. For what good does it do me to have a vessel,” she asked, clutching about at her body, “empty of its contents?”
The peddler suddenly pulled back and sniffed, “Are you offering me a taste? Of your gobby knickers? No thank you, deary. You keep your dollar’s worth of flesh, I’ll keep my treasure.”
Utterly debased, she slumped to the ground beside his ramshackle cart. Just as he turned his back to her, Belle picked up one of the bottles, this one heavy with the quicksilver from which he had been dosing himself. She rose up as he was turning back in surprise and whacked him on the side of his lumpy face. Another blow, this time to the back of the head, dropped him, and he crumpled to the dusty earth. She let out a squeal of delight and dashed over to the wagon.
Porcelain teacups and sulfide marbles went sailing through the air and shattered against the dry earth as Belle tore through the peddler’s collection. At last she reached the back of the wagon and, with a dramatic flourish, whipped off the canvas tarp to expose the enormous array of amber utility bottles resting in their crates. Like a fiend, Belle went through every one, uncorking and inhaling their contents. After each one, she paused to note its effects, but none of them left her feeling any differently. Upon reaching the last one she knew -- this, then, must be it. In a triumphant gesture she held the bottle aloft as a toast to her good fortune. Gingerly, she uncorked the bottle and, in a swift movement, put it to her mouth and sucked in deeply. Then she leaned back on her heels and waited for the rush of essence back into her bones, to feed her blood, replenish her tears, and make her whole again. To return her, at last, to the person she used to be.
Belle heard the peddler stirring behind her and turned to watch him prop himself up against a wheel, rub the knot on the back of his head and sneeze out the dried blood from his nose-hole. He blinked in anger and disbelief at the wreckage of his entire collection scattered about the clearing and the pile of uncorked bottles surrounding her reflecting the pink hues of the risen sun. Then he lifted his bleary eyes to her.
Belle held this last bottle up to the morning sunlight and regarded its amber color. A lucky thing it is, she decided, to remain unchanged no matter what is gained or lost. She turned her gaze to a morning sky that was bright and clear. She felt a pang of discomfort somewhere deep inside her, and with it came the discovery that after all she had done and after all that had been done to her the essence of her old self no longer seemed to fit her anymore. Just then, rather than feel herself grow fuller she felt herself grow lighter, shrugging off the vitreous slag to expose the purest form of herself raw and shimmering.
A wheezy cackle came from behind her and she turned back to see the peddler still slumped against the wheel begin to shake with laughter.
She smiled back, and let the bottle shatter against the rocks.