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I glare at passersby from behind my bars, but I am powerless to stop the hungry mouths that flock to my misery. They are eager to purchase a taste of anguish, to sip the sweet wine of sorrow. I am a leaf tossed by a raging sea, battered against the jagged rocks of their desire, stripped of even the power to slip below the waves into eternal darkness. More days than not, I wish I could.
“A silver for her left foot,” says a man, leaning on my bars.
I scramble away from his groping hands, but even crammed against the opposite side, the bars gouging into my spine, his fingers graze the hem of my tattered skirt. He trails a gnarled, stained finger up my bare ankle. I kick out and he laughs, delighted.
“I like a bit of fire,” he growls, pressing closer.
Bits of meat from some long-gone meal are caught in the thatch of his wiry, dark beard, and his eyes peer out from the sunken hollows of his face. He’s missing several teeth, the ones still jutting from his lips blackened and yellow. I hiss, but if he has the money to pay, he will get what he wants. Someone in the cluster behind me pinches my lower back. I spring away from them, back towards the vile man. He cackles.
My keeper looks on, bored by another hour of business.
“Three toes for a silver,” he says, casual as counting cornstalks. Contrary to the bearded man, my keeper is combed, shaved, and pressed. The brass buttons on his burgundy jacket gleam in the candlelight of the Midnight Market, the bruise black and deep blue stripes on his breeches straight as the river that hems in our valley. Not even the lacquered laces on his leather boots are out of place.
“All ‘er toes,” says the bearded man.
“Four toes, cut clean and neat.”
“Aye, four,” the man agrees. He leers at me again, mashing his face between the bars. “And a teaspoon of fresh spilt tears.”
The deal struck, my keeper approaches. He dons the blood-smeared smock, the coarse fabric more rusted brown and still-wet red than its original ashen gray. Onlookers cluster, voices hushing until their collective breathing is louder than my keeper’s footfalls. Louder than the snick of the blade as he draws his favorite carving knife. The silver shines – wicked, sharp – clean and precise as the man wielding it. The crowd leans in, soaking up the energy rippling off my keeper, the terror rippling off me.
I’ve tried to squelch that terror, to chase it deep inside me so that the watchers might turn away, but the moment of the bargain always wrenches it forth again. The panic swirls up, but I fight it. If I cannot keep the fear from spilling from me, at least I can withhold the glee they get from seeing me tremble. I’ve tried to escape before, but the end never changes.
My keeper reaches through the bars; his fingers curl over my ankle. He drags my left foot from under the hem of my patchy, soot-stained skirt, unfolds my leg, presses my foot flat to the floor. His flesh is white as moonlight against the darkness of my own. The bearded man licks his lips. The crowd inhales in anticipation. The blade swings. I do not give them the satisfaction of screaming.
The tears of agony are scraped from my face, captured in a clear glass vial, a teaspoon carefully measured out for the bearded man. The rest is stoppered with a wax cork inscribed with only a triangle of three stars, and my keeper stows the vial in his pocket. The bearded man gulps his meager portion, greedy, almost frenzied, and stares at me as he winds his tongue languorously around the rim of the empty glass. I hold his gaze until he grins and saunters off, jiggling my toes in a translucent jar. With nothing left to feed on, the crowd disperses.
The midnight hour ends soon, and when it goes, the Market closes until tomorrow. It’s a strange place, the Market, though I am not the strangest creature within its bounds. I curl in the corner of my cage, tug the hem of my dress over my foot, cradle the hand with two bloody stumps. There have been worse days, hours spent in agony as my severed pieces regrow. A few fingers and toes and half an ear – they might even all be back by dawn. The pain is a dull thing, a thrumming as constant as my heart. I close my eyes and sleep.
“How much for a slice of her soul?”
A woman swathed in white peers at me. This is a question I have never heard before, but cold terror winds its way through every piece of my being. The certainty that this will not be like losing a toe or even my whole leg only grows as my keeper names a sum so high heads turn. There is no haggling – not for this.
Her fingers interlace through mine, clean and white as my keeper’s. They are cold and damp, and then they are so much more. Invisible knives pierce my flesh and claw, shred, rip, tear through my veins, rending my body from the inside out. Blood coats my lips, viscous and vibrantly crimson, as some fragment of my essence leeches out of me, into her, bought and stolen.
A single tear streaks my cheek, but not a sound crosses my lips as I collapse back, released from her hold, gasping and shuddering. Pain of the flesh can be wrought over and again, but this wound is different. I know instinctively that no matter how my limbs might return to me, my soul can never be regrown. It is not a mendable thing. I look up, sides still heaving, to glare at she who dared do this. My lone tear glimmers on the woman’s lashes.
About Via D'Agostino
Via D’Agostino earned her MFA in fiction writing from the University of New Hampshire and, as an activist and a demisexual woman of mixed race, her writing focuses on social justice issues. Her poem "Ocean" was nominated for the 2021 Pushcart Prize and she has over 25 published stories, poems, and essays. She is currently a professor of English at La Universidad de Cañada in Mexico.