Fiction: Poor Girl

An essay by Jackie Rivera, as provided by Traci Castleberry
Art by Errow Collins


From across the cobbled street, I watched the rag-clad girl who huddled on the leeward side of the Dolphin Inn. She held one trembling palm extended toward a passing gentleman. “Spare a copper, mister?” The man, like all the other passers-by gave the girl a wide berth, especially when she let out a barrage of coughs.

She was perfect for what I needed. The difficulty breathing was bad enough to be indicative of pneumonia or consumption, either of which would probably kill her soon. From the livid red scar and the fused fingers clutching at the collar of her worn dress, she’d been burned, and not all that long ago. No one would miss her, and she was near enough to death that if she passed on, I wouldn’t feel bad.

My missing hand itched as it always did when I was excited. I wound my way through the crowd and crouched in front of her, ignoring the stares of those walking past. “Spare a copper, mister?” she asked me.

I touched the knuckles of my good hand to my cap. “Morning, miss. I don’t have a copper, but I do have a hot bowl of stew to fill your belly and a nice warm bed to rest in.”

It was hard to make out her expression beneath her dirt-stained face, but her eyes widened as she gazed suspiciously at me. “I don’t have nothing you want. I got the consumption. Ain’t fit to lie with.”

“I don’t want to lie with you.” I held out my hand. “I’m just trying to be gentlemanly and help the less fortunate.”

“You ain’t no gentleman.”

I inhaled sharply, wondering if this pathetic urchin had guessed the truth I hid beneath my jacket and trousers. Then again, those near death were often delusional. “It’s your choice. Come with me or stay out here in the cold.” A night on the streets of Whitby was nothing to wish for with the constant threat from the sailors, traders, and dockworkers, as well as the bitter sea wind that almost never stopped.

Another round of coughing left her bent double. When the fit ended, I saw defeat in her eyes. She was so worn and tired that any risk would be better than enduring another moment begging on the street. She accepted my hand. I had to help her rise as she stood on unsteady legs. The poor girl was barefoot, her feet black and thick with calluses, and she shivered when I put an arm around her waist for support. She was hot, feverish, and I wondered more than once if she’d make it to my dwelling, which was not in Whitby proper but hewn into the cliffs below.

There were still a couple of functioning alum mines up north in Boulby, but for the most part the ones in Whitby had been abandoned, leaving me the ideal place to hide. The only time I feared trouble was when overzealous scientists had discovered the fossilized skeleton of a gigantic crocodile and incited searches for more. There were also those searching for veins of jet, the black mineraloid locals carved into crosses and beads and other jewelry. Men and boys scoured the cliffs after each high tide and storm, looking for any veins that might have been exposed. Fortunately, few came near my mine, and when they did, I scared them away with strange noises, letting them think the place haunted.

The main entrance had been sealed up, but I’d found another hidden beneath an overhang, which made it all but invisible from above or below. It was here I guided the girl, who by then had nearly collapsed from exhaustion. I had to catch her when she stumbled, though having her half delirious was to my benefit. The less she was aware of, the less she could reveal later–if she lived to say anything at all.

Once inside, she gazed in childlike wonderment at my furnishing, most of which must have seemed wondrous or foreign to her. She gaped at the ceiling where I’d hung Chinese paper lanterns from the wooden beams. “Pretty,” she said. Then she stared at the rest of the furnishings, the mahogany dining set missing only one chair, the shelves lined with books, the bed frame shaped with elegant nautical themes that could only have come from a captain’s cabin. “You have everything. How’s you get all this stuff in here?”

“I carried it.” All of my furnishings had been scavenged from the multitude of shipwrecks along the Yorkshire coast. A few things, like the lanterns, I’d bought from traders. I even had a small, pot-bellied stove, properly ventilated, to cook, heat water, and maintain the main room at a pleasant temperature.

“It’s just like a proper home, even if it isn’t.” She coughed, hard enough that she bloodied the handkerchief she yanked out of her pocket. Poor girl. She wouldn’t last much longer.

I guided her over to the bed and sat her down, where she stared at me as if I was something miraculous.

“Why you being so nice?”

“I have my reasons.” None of which I was going to tell her. I lifted the kettle from where I’d left it simmering and poured hot water into a mug already prepared with one of my favorite blends. “Here. This will ease your cough.”

“Been an awful long time since I had a proper cup of tea.” She wrapped her hands around the mug and sipped. She paused with a thoughtful expression. For a moment, I feared she’d tasted the hemp and wouldn’t finish, but, no, she was only taking her time and savoring the rare treat.

It wasn’t long before the drug took effect. I caught the half-empty mug before it fell from her limp fingers. She slumped over, fast asleep.

I carried her over to the table and laid her out. With a knife I stripped her filthy dress and shawl and tossed them into the stove to burn. Her age was difficult to discern, sixteen, perhaps eighteen, as she was skinny, bony, and covered in flea bites. The burn that had ruined her hand extended all the way up to her shoulder. Despite my intentions to remain aloof, I pitied the girl having ended up so poorly.

Once I scrubbed the dirt and salt from her face, I discovered something. She was pretty. Illness had sucked much of the color from her complexion, but her lips were a soft rose-pink. Her shift did little to hide the curves of her breasts or the shapely legs.

I shook my useless fancies aside. If she were anything like my previous subjects, she wouldn’t last the night. With a length of rope, I bound her to the table, no easy task with one wooden hand, but I didn’t want her to fall off when she thrashed. That done, I went to fetch my prize.

George screeched at me as soon as I opened the steel door to my workshop. He thrust a fuzzy hand through the bars of his cage and hopped madly until I cut an apple in half and gave it to him. I snatched my fingers back in time to avoid his sharp teeth. I’d bought him off a sailor who’d gone to India and brought back several monkeys. I don’t think he forgave me for letting his mate die when I used her to test an elixir to heal wounds. He probably hated me for trying it on him, too, but at least he’d lived.

The table was covered in glass vials, copper tubing, mortars, pestles, and herbs, but my real prize rested inside a golden pot covered with hardened six-and-one mud. The present mixture, one meant to restore balance in the body, had been simmering for nine days and nights, and I couldn’t leave it much longer.

Carefully, I poured it into a bowl of pure gold and carried it out to the main room. I lifted the girl’s head and held it to her lips. She didn’t wake but swallowed the concoction of silver, mercury, and other minerals easily enough. In ordinary circumstances, the mixture would be deadly.

If I’d done everything right, it would cure.

~

I spent the night seated on a cushion and reciting the proper incantations in Chinese. My ghost hand itched and tingled. The pictograms I’d carved into the table seemed to shift and waver, although I dismissed that as fatigue on my part. After a half hour, the girl moaned and started to writhe. I didn’t stop speaking, even when her moans increased to terrible screams that echoed throughout the mine.

The sound didn’t worry me beyond possible damage to my hearing. It only increased the likelihood of someone thinking the place haunted. Besides, after a while, the screams dulled to a whimper then ceased altogether. I was certain I’d killed her. She’d gone even paler, her breaths almost imperceptibly shallow. I continued to chant fervently, keeping both hope and disappointment at bay. The pictograms twisted and writhed, and for an instant there was … something. An energy, a spirit, I didn’t know which, but its presence left my skin warm and tingling.

When the prescribed nine hours had passed, I rose and felt for the pulse in her wrist. It was faint but regular. Her breathing was steady with no sign of consumption.

I dropped her wrist, not quite believing what I saw. The girl had surprised me.

She’d lived.

~

There were numerous ways of disposing of a body, which included burial or hauling it out to sea, but dealing with a live girl was something I hadn’t prepared for.

Added to that was the risk that she would leave and expose my work to the wrong people. I could keep George in a cage, but callous though I was, something within me resisted keeping a young woman locked up for the time it would take to prepare the next elixir. A chain would do well enough.

But first, I had only the one bed and I wasn’t about to risk it to lice. She was weak and feverish and didn’t wake as I untied her. My initial thought was to simply shave her head, as it would have been simpler, but I couldn’t bring myself to deprive the girl of a piece of her beauty when she’d nearly died. So I washed it with a potion to kill vermin, dragged the comb through it, and it turned a pretty, pale blond. Then I tucked her into bed, certain she wouldn’t wake while her body continued to replenish itself.

After growing up amongst the slaves in Batavia, I loathed the thought of chaining the girl to the bed, but I couldn’t risk her escaping. To spare her pretty skin, I wrapped a length of cloth around her ankle so the manacle didn’t chafe. It wouldn’t do to have her die of infection before the next elixir was ready.

The excitement of the night had left me wide awake. I hurried into town, passing through the marketplace to pick up a loaf of bread and other essentials, and then to a modest store on Church Street. It was rarely busy; the locals tended to distrust foreigners like Xiao Liu unless they were desperate.

But I was neither a local nor desperate and headed right in. The store, made fragrant by hundreds of dried herbs, was empty except for Xiao Liu, who stood behind the counter grinding some dried leaves in a mortar. As soon as he saw me, he poured two cups of tea, as was our tradition. “You’re up early,” he said in Chinese.

“I’m out of arsenolite,” I said, preferring our own language to English. The tea was one of Xiao Liu’s blends to calm the mind and had a faint, fruity flavor.

“Poisoning rats again?” Xiao Liu’s raised eyebrow indicated he knew I was doing anything but.

“I need it for the six-and-one.” Alum, soapstone, oyster, and salt I had no need of buying, since I could find them in the mine or nearby, but the arsenolite was not native to England and had to be imported. I needed a few herbs too and passed him a list.

Xiao Liu glanced at the items then rummaged through the hundreds of drawers lining his wall. “And what are you concocting this time? A cure for the lepers at the hospital?”

He was always suggesting something altruistic for me to do. I hadn’t taken him up on the offer. “My hand is bothering me. I’m having trouble sleeping.”

Xiao Liu frowned. He was my friend and I hated lying to him, but neither could I admit the truth. “Does it hurt?” he asked, genuinely concerned.

I nodded, not trusting myself to say anything. My missing hand did cause me pain on occasion, but not enough to keep me awake.

“Let me see.”

I pushed up my left sleeve to the elbow and unbuckled the leather straps that secured the wooden hand to the stump at my wrist. Xiao Liu poked and prodded, muttered something to himself then brought out his dish of fine needles and inserted a few into points along my arm. After a few breaths, the phantom itching eased. I let my arm rest while he went about collecting the herbs I needed and organizing them into paper packets.

Finished, he removed the needles and massaged my arm and shoulder. He put a new supply of lamb’s wool between the hand and my stump and buckled it on, checking the fit as he did so. “Feel better?”

“Yes, teacher. Thank you.” I set a few coins down, but when I reached for my supplies with my good hand, he grabbed my wrist and set his fingertips on my pulse.

“Tell me the truth, Jackie. What are you up to?”

“I–” Arguing was useless. So was escape. Xiao Liu could break my wrist with little effort. “Testing an elixir. On monkeys.” Human ones, but I didn’t dare say that.

“Which elixir?”

“The one meant to restore balance to the body.”

He let go, but his gaze was hard. “When you were my apprentice, you had all the makings of a good physician. Your mind is bright. These are gifted hands.” He took both my palms and turned them upward. “But you lack compassion. You keep your heart locked away.”

I jerked out of his grip, stung by the reminder of why Xiao Liu had dismissed me. I didn’t care. I’d learned enough to experiment on my own, and Xiao Liu wouldn’t approve of what I meant to do. My skin tingled. He’d struck closer than I’d hoped. “Goodbye, teacher. Thank you for your assistance.” I collected my packets and tucked them into various pockets.

“If you’re working evil, the spirits will know. They will turn on you.”

I left the shop without looking back. The tingling didn’t stop until I reached the market.

~

When I returned laden with parcels, the girl was awake. She hadn’t moved from the bed, but she watched me organize my packages. “I bought some fresh ox tail and vegetables at the market. I’ll make a stew. I promised you that.”

“Am I your prisoner?” The chain jangled as she kicked.

“For now.” I had no reason to lie to her.

She lay passively as I sliced meat and carrots and set the pot over the stove to cook. “What’s wrong with your hand?”

“It’s missing.” I held up my wooden appendage so she could see it better.

Her chin dropped. “How’d that happen?”

“None of your business.” I wasn’t in the mood for stories. To my relief, she asked nothing else while I finished preparing dinner. Once I had the stew simmering, I went over to her and asked, “How do you feel?”

“Ain’t never felt better. Almost like I was cured.”

“That’s because you are.” I checked her pulse just to be sure. Strong and regular, just like her breathing.

“How? You didn’t use leeches or bleed me or nothing.”

“Why would I rob your body of something it needs?” I examined her hand, the burned one, mentally going through the recipes in my book of elixirs and thinking of which ones I might try. “English doctors have a lot to learn about balance within a body.”

“You ain’t English, are you? Your eyes is different and you talk strange.”

I should have cut out her tongue when I had the chance. “I was born in Batavia. My mother was Chinese. My father was Portuguese.”

Her eyes grew big. “Do you speak Chinese? Will you say something?”

I was fluent in Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and English and knew a smattering of Dutch and French, although I didn’t tell her that. It must have been her innocent fascination that moved me, but I recited a poem I’d learned in childhood. She had no idea what it meant but clapped her hands in delight. “It’s pretty. Say something else.”

“Later. I have a few things to take care of while the stew cooks. Rest for a while and then we’ll eat, all right?”

She pouted, but she was still too tired to leave the bed. I grabbed my packets of herbs and arsenolite and hurried off to the workshop where George greeted me with another screech of rage.

“Shut up, you.” I tossed another apple to him. In the other cages, the doves and rats clamored for their dinner as well. I fed them all, and at last could turn my attention to my mixture. The six-and-one mud would take a month to prepare. In the meantime, I had to figure out what to do with my unexpected guest.

~

The girl held her spoon awkwardly in her damaged hand as she downed her dinner. I wondered when she’d eaten last, but she hadn’t complained during the long wait for the stew to cook. “I don’t know what to call you.” She sat on the edge of the bed, legs swinging, the chain going clink-clink-clink.

I had half a mind to yank her onto the floor to stop the din. “Jackie will do.”

“I’m Violet. At least, that’s what Milady called me. She liked all her maids to have flower names.” She wrinkled he nose. “It’s better than the name Mama gave me, though.”

Since she obviously expected me to ask, I said, “Which was?”

“Harriet.”

She was right. Violet suited her better.

“You get a lot of visitors?”

There was a note of worry in her voice. “No one comes down here. They think this mine is haunted.”

Violet paled and went still. “Is it?”

I shrugged. “It’s true there was a cave-in and twelve men died, but if their spirits are hanging about, I haven’t seen them.”

“Oh, Jackie, I don’t like ghosts.” She shivered. “I’m scared of the dark.”

I bit back annoyance at her childish behavior. “I’ll leave a lantern burning, all right?”

I did just that when it was time for bed. I could have evicted my patient but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. I collected a few blankets and a pillow and made do on the ground. The chain rattled as Violet made herself comfortable. She patted the mattress. “There’s room for two.”

“I’m fine here.” I could sleep anywhere and wake rested.

“You sleeping there ’cause I’m sick or ’cause you want me thinking you’re a man?”

Her observation struck me dumb for a few moments. I had to fight to keep my composure.

“I knows who you are,” she said sleepily. “You’re Jacqueline Rivera. You killed your husband and stowed away on a ship where you pretended to be a man. You turned pirate, but it wasn’t treasure you wanted, it was books. The English captured your ship but you escaped. The butler read us your story from the paper.”

The girl was too keen by far. I should have altered my name more than I had, but since it worked as a male moniker, I’d kept it. “Don’t believe everything you hear. Jacqueline Rivera’s husband was a lecherous lout more than twice her age. Now she’s dead too. She jumped overboard and drowned.”

“They never found her body.”

“It’s a big ocean.”

“Do you miss being on a ship?”

My missing hand suddenly ached with a sharp, burning agony akin to that of the day I’d lost it. Crippled as I was, I couldn’t return to the sea I craved, and I hated the girl for reminding me of what I couldn’t have. “Go to sleep. If you don’t, I’ll give you a draught so deep you won’t wake until next week.”

She watched as I readied my blankets and pillows on the floor. “Do you dress like a man because you don’t like being a girl? I mean, I knows you can’t be a girl on a ship, but why do you dress like that on land?”

There were several females serving openly on other ships, but I didn’t bother arguing. I wondered if she’d always been so observant or if her brush with death had heightened her senses. “Shut your mouth before I do it for you.”

I glanced back at her, glaring, but she gazed resolutely at me. Sighing, I kept my back to her, stripped off my shirt and unwound the lengths of cloth I used to bind my breasts. The relief was worth feeling her stare.

“You’re awful pretty, Jackie.”

My ghost hand throbbed. I pulled up the covers without looking at her.

~

It must have been past midnight when Violet’s trembling voice woke me. “Jackie? The ghosts ain’t gonna come, are they?”

Damn the stupid girl. “There are no ghosts. I told you.”

Silence stretched. The chain clinked, then, “Jackie? I’m too scared to sleep alone.”

I sighed. I should never have told her about the cave-in, but I’d forgotten how frightened the young could be.

“Please, Jackie?”

Figuring I’d never get to sleep if she kept pestering me, I climbed in next to her. She was soft and snuggled against me like a puppy. When she curled an arm around my waist, I stiffened. I’d never had any desire to lie with a man, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable this close to a woman, either.

“It’s all right,” she whispered. “I used to share a bed with Rose, before–”

Before the fire had put her out of a job. I didn’t ask for details. I didn’t want to know.

But then she began to cry, a choking, muffled sound that turned into a sob and dampened my shoulder. I lay there stiffly with no idea how to comfort a hysterical female.

It turned out I didn’t need to do a thing. Between gasping breaths, she did the talking. “It were my fault. Milady’s brother … he went to sea and had just come back. He’d been out for a long time with no womenfolk.”

It wasn’t hard to guess where this was going.

“He came in my room carrying a lamp. He put his hands on me and I–” She took a long, shuddering breath. “I kicked him. He dropped the lamp. The bedclothes caught, and then the curtain, and he was burning and screaming. I would’ve burned, too, if Mr. Jenks hadn’t fetched me out of there.”

“The butler?”

“Aye. He was a good man, was Mr. Jenks. Always looking out for us. But even he were too late. Milady’s brother died. Half the house burned before they could put the fire out. Milady let me go, she did. Called me such awful names when I tried to tell her what happened. It were terrible, watching him die.”

Terrible for her, perhaps. I’d killed men, including my husband, but seeing their life drain away had left me with an intense satisfaction.

“Will you hold me, Jackie?”

I didn’t care to. I wanted my nest on the floor where I could curl up alone and forget she was here, but the calculating part of me was curious as to what it would take to make the girl stop trembling. After so many years at sea and living alone, femininity was a mystery to me, and I was never one to let a puzzle go unsolved.

So I rolled over. She pressed against me, her slight figure warm against mine and not altogether uncomfortable. I swept her hair aside and rubbed her back through the thin cotton shift. I fingered each bone in her spine, taking in the curve of her body.

And later, when she kissed me, I didn’t resist.

~

As was my habit, I woke early and went out to walk the shoreline. I needed the smell of the salt air, much as it hurt to watch the ships come and go with supplies. I wanted to be out there with them but I couldn’t, not until I was able to restore my hand.

The past few days had been calm so I didn’t expect to find any usable scraps washed ashore. I was right on that account, but I did find a pair of ammonites. The locals called them snakestones after a legend in which Saint Hilda had rid the area of snakes by turning them to stone. I tucked them in my pocket, wondering if Violet had ever seen one.

When I returned, the iron door to my workshop stood ajar with a length of chain leading inside. Fury pinched my temples as I followed the trail of links. Violet, dressed in a patched shirt over her shift, stood in front of George’s cage. The door was open.

“Leave it alone!”

She swiveled around. The monkey was in her arms, his fingers curled in her hair. “He’s very sweet. Wherever did you find him?”

“He’s a vicious little creature that–”

George hissed and bared his teeth. Violet cooed to him, and to my shock he settled down. I took the hint and left him alone. After all, I didn’t care whether he befriended Violet. The less I had to do with him, the better.

“What are you doing in here?”

She waved a dust rag at me. “This place ain’t bad for a mine, but it could use some tidying up.”

I couldn’t disagree. Housekeeping was never a priority and it was impossible to be rid of the dust. “Did you touch this?” I pointed to my iron pot of six-and-one.

“No.” She gazed at it. “What is it?”

“It doesn’t matter. Go near it, and I’ll cut off your good hand.”

She didn’t seem fazed by my threat. Instead, her eyes widened. “Is that a magic potion? Is that what you used to cure me?”

“It’s not magic. It’s science. A simple mixture involving complex preparation.”

“I gets it.” She gestured to the bowls, jars and vials upon the table. “I was a good lady’s maid. Milady had me make all her creams and lotions. I know a good one for making hands smooth. Smells like peaches.”

The last thing I needed was smelly concoctions for fancy women. “You’re too young to be a lady’s maid.”

Violet hung her head. “I wasn’t, but Milady’s maid Rose taught me how to act proper and all that. I stood in for Rose sometimes.” She scratched George’s head, and he chittered in pleasure. “I’ll help you. I’ll do anything you want. Mix, grind, stir, cook, clean, you just ask.”

George’s adoration–and consequent good behavior–was enough for me to tolerate her presence. “Fine. But clean the main room first. I’ve got work to do.”

She hurried out, George perched on her shoulder.

As she’d boasted, she was a deft hand at mixing draughts, lotions, and anything else I might require. Besides that, she was an excellent cook and housekeeper but never touched my equipment unless I asked her to.

“If you let me go out, I’ll sell the potions for you. I swears I won’t betray you,” she told me one night while we were in bed together. “I likes it here with you.”

Of course she did. She nowhere else to go. I provided her with plenty of food, shelter, and the possibility of earning an income. That sort of independence was something I understood and didn’t want to discourage.

“But if I goes out, I needs a dress. I can’t wear this.” She tugged at her shift.

A dress. Part of me recoiled at the thought of even touching such a garment, but she was right. She couldn’t go out in a shift and old shirt, and she was far too feminine to wear boy’s clothes. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“I want a blue one. Blue as the sky.”

So I went into town and stopped at a shop that sold castoffs from rich families. Most were too fancy and would attract too much attention, but there was a day dress of blue muslin I hoped would work. Not knowing what possessed me, I bought a hair ribbon to match.

She was thrilled and tried it on right there in front of me. “Needs some taking in, but it’s perfect, Jackie. I never had no better.”

I had to admit it suited her. The bodice was moderately low and hugged her breasts. Her hair was pulled back in a braid and tied with the ribbon so her pale shoulders were exposed. The only thing out of place was the chain, and that I removed. “Run, and I will hunt you down. Betray my secrets, and you’ll regret it.”

“I won’t.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed my cheek. “Just you wait. I knows the market, I does.”

~

And so she proved true to her word.

She turned out to be a shrewd bargainer, and once she convinced me to make herbal cures, started selling or trading them along with her lotions in exchange for food or supplies. Often, she took George, who ended up being a great draw for children and their parents and earning a few additional coins.

I suppose I looked on her presence as an experiment in itself. I’d been around women so rarely that I was fascinated by the way she moved and the kindness with which she treated George.

Strange, how I could admire in another that which I hated in myself. I loved to watch her bathe, as she sat in the tub and let the water trickle through her hair and between her breasts. When I took my turn in the water, I arranged a folding screen around the tub as a hint I didn’t want to be disturbed.

She ignored it.

She dashed around the screen, cloth in one hand, bottle of one of her smelly concoctions in the other. I just had time to grab a towel and wrap it around myself.  “Get the hell out of here!”

Playfully, she tried to pluck the towel from me so she could play the lady’s maid and wash me, but I caught her good wrist and dug my fingers deep. “Leave me alone.”

She sucked in her lower lip, and for a moment I was afraid she was going to cry. I couldn’t stand weepy females. Then her gaze dropped to where my left arm ended. “Tell me what happened.”

Cursing, I let her go and stepped out of the tub, hiding the stump beneath the towel’s folds. Her curves, visible through her thin cotton shift, made me uncomfortably aware of my bony, damaged body. “Cannonball.” The loss of my hand wasn’t the extent of it, just the worst.

She rubbed her wrist. I’d probably bruised it. “It must’ve hurt.”

I’d just turned to gather my clothes when she took my arm. I was too stunned to thrust her away. In bed we’d both worn clothes so I’d had an extra layer of protection. Now I had no defenses, and I hated being helpless. I’d fought and killed men armed with pistols and sabers. I’d survived storms, battles and a long swim to shore, yet this wispy girl I’d found on the streets held me captive with touch alone.

“Come on, Jackie.”

She took my good hand in her thin fingers and led me to the bed. I sat hunched over while her soft fingers worked at the towel.

“I’m not afraid to look.”

Perhaps not, but I was afraid to let her. Eventually, her kindness wore me down. Eyes closed, I told her how a cannonball had struck the Santa Isabella. Wood had gone flying. Several large splinters had driven into my flesh. The biggest one had gone through my palm and shattered most of the bones. The Santa Isabella was captured by the English and the wounded transferred to their ship. The surgeon had cut off my hand at the wrist and cauterized the stump, but once he’d seen I was female, I knew my career was over.

I wouldn’t let the captain hang me or turn me over to the authorities, so I’d jumped overboard and clung to a piece of flotsam until I reached English shores. The cold and the salt water kept my wound fever at bay, but once I climbed onto dry land, illness struck hard. If Xiao Liu hadn’t found me, I would no doubt have died in the local hospital. Instead, he laid me on a cot in the back of his shop and tended my wounds with remedies thousands of years old. Once the fever passed, he gave me strengthening exercises and taught me the rudiments of Chinese medicine.

Violet listened with rapt fascination. She traced my scars with her fingers. “You’re amazing, Jackie.”

Her shift joined my towel on the floor. What followed was an experiment and all in the name of science. My reactions. Hers. How this touch made her moan and that one made her wriggle. I didn’t mind the warmth of her body against mine, though I felt none of the enjoyment she seemed to as I ran my hands over her naked flesh and delved into her deepest parts. I let her touch me, kiss me, probe me, but my heart remained as cold as it had when I was Xiao Liu’s apprentice.

I felt nothing beyond the physical. I couldn’t.

The next elixir would soon be ready.

~

I didn’t want to deal with any protests Violet might have, so I dosed her tea with a light sedative. While she was dazed, I urged her onto the table, removed her pretty blue dress and tied an elaborately-knotted rope around her. I made sure her damaged arm was exposed up to the shoulder where the burn ended.

George hopped and shrieked, alternately trying to bite me and pawing at Violet’s motionless body. I finally had to grab the creature by the back of his neck and thrust him into his cage, which he hadn’t used in weeks. The screeching increased, muted only when I slammed the iron door shut.

“Jackie?” Violet’s voice trembled. She was afraid, but it couldn’t be helped. “Jackie, what are you doing?”

“I’m going to fix your hand.”

At this she awakened fully. “It don’t need fixing! Please, Jackie. Please leave it alone.”

I ignored her protest and brought over the bowl. The liquid, while still warm, was no longer hot. “It’s meant to return a body to its true form.” Carefully, I poured it down the length of her arm and pooled most of it on her damaged hand and fingers.

For several moments, nothing happened. Then she tensed, and a wail broke from her throat. “Take it off, Jackie! Take it off! It burns!”

She jerked and thrashed. Tears slid down her cheeks. I could have used acupuncture and herbs for the pain but I didn’t. The dark part of my soul wanted to be certain I could watch her suffer and remain unaffected. “It’s only for nine hours.”

This brought a renewed barrage of pleas and screams. “Jackie! Jackie, please!

I took my seat on the cushion and repeated the incantations to go with this new elixir. After a while, I couldn’t take the screaming. I stuffed a gag into her mouth, ignoring the tears and look of betrayal.

If she hadn’t been tied down, I’m sure she would have torn at her own flesh, but my sailor’s knots held true and she was helpless to free herself. It took over two hours for her strength to fail. By then, she was a sodden, sweaty mess, exhausted and trembling.

I continued my chanting. As before, the words wriggled and twisted on the table. I had the vague awareness of shadows flitting back and forth, darting in and out of the mixture drying on Violet’s hand.

Spirits. The creatures brushed against me, too, but instead of a tingle, they pinched and burned before they flew away.

I resisted the urge to rub my arm, wondering if the violence had been a threat … or a promise.

~

Come morning, I rose to check on my patient. The mixture had hardened around her hand and I had to use a knife to peel it away, but there, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, I revealed healthy pink flesh and five separate fingers. I examined each of them, bending every joint to ensure functionality. Violet stared at me with such hatred that I shuddered.

“Look. Your hand is perfect. Just like new.” I plucked the gag from her mouth then worked at untying the multitude of knots.

“You hurt me.” Her voice was barely a whisper. She sat up and glared at me. “You hurt me and you didn’t care.”

I had her untied. “But your hand–”

“Bully my hand!” She used it to strike me across the face.

My cheek stung. I should have put the chain on her to keep her from leaving, but I couldn’t seem to move. I watched as she dressed and packed her few belongings into a satchel. Then she went into my workshop and returned with George in her arms. He hissed and spat as they passed me on the way to the exit. Neither looked back.

I didn’t care if she hated me. In childhood and at sea, I’d learned never to love, never to trust. Death was always with us, whether from illness, injury or drowning. And since I had more to hide than others, I kept to myself as much as possible.

It didn’t matter that I’d grown used to her presence and would miss her idle chatter. Within a month, I would be back at sea.

I would be whole.

~

Unencumbered by my guest, I went about preparing my next, and last, elixir. I opened the cages for the rats and doves and set them free. They fled, just as Violet had.

I had enough ingredients from the last batch of six-and-one that I didn’t need to visit Xiao Liu. I’d also collected the necessary minerals for the elixir itself. Gold. Mercury. Arsenic.

When the mud was ready, I coated the golden crucible and put in the elixir’s ingredients. For nine days and nights it brewed. I scrawled Chinese characters into the ground around the fire and myself. I chanted and sang and fasted, drinking only water. I alternated various breathing exercises and meditations, focusing on the success of the experiment.

I refused to let it fail.

On the tenth morning, I lifted the crucible from the fire with shaking hands. I removed the wooden hand then stripped and lay naked on the table amidst the graven characters. I had a rope ready and secured my legs, waist and my shortened arm. With my free hand I poured half the bowl’s contents over my stump. The rest of the elixir I drank. It was hot, slippery and filled my mouth with an acidic, metallic taste. My belly churned, protesting the poisonous brew.

I clamped a stick between my teeth then tucked my hand into a small noose and pulled it tight. I was trapped, unable to free myself until I regained sense enough to do so. For a few moments, I reveled in the fact that I’d done it. Whatever came of this elixir, I’d poured my heart and soul and will into it.

Then the pain came.

At first, it was a heat within my belly and a light burn on my skin as if I’d been in the sun too long. Then the brew sunk into my flesh and guts and turned excruciating.

I bit hard on the stick and let out a scream. Every nerve had caught fire. I’d thought Violet weak for enduring her pain so poorly, but now that I experienced it for myself, I knew just how terrible it was. Like childbirth, I tried to tell myself. Hundreds of thousands of women had suffered when they used their bodies to create something new and had been just fine.

I didn’t care to remember that thousands more had died in their attempt to bring a new life to completion.

I twisted and writhed atop the table, yanking hard at the rope as my muscles twitched and jerked by their own accord. The characters on the table twisted into deformed parodies of themselves, and I was certain it was my own fevered brain seeing things that weren’t there.

Until I felt … them.

Spirits. Hundreds. Thousands of them. They flitted and poked and jeered. Their breath burned my skin. Other drove beneath my flesh, ripping and rending. Agony blinded me. I screamed, but the sound was distant.

Xiao Liu was right. The spirits had turned on me. The elixir proclaimed that by drinking it I could transcend to my true nature, but this was no angelic lifting of the spirit or transformation into the body I craved.

This was hell.

Illustration of two people, one with a claw-like hand.

It was a frightening, ugly thing, covered with the bristled fur of a boar and bearing claws as sharp as a hawk’s.

~

I must have clawed myself free of my restraints. Anguish drove me out of my cave and into the open air. Bitter sea wind raked my naked flesh, but I didn’t care. I roamed the shore, barefoot, heedless of the sharp black rocks. I was red and ragged and burned, but the truest shock came when I gazed where my arm had once ended.

I had a hand, but I could not call it such. A paw was closer. It was a frightening, ugly thing, covered with the bristled fur of a boar and bearing claws as sharp as a hawk’s. The skin was tough as old leather and just as impermeable. The rest of me was covered in burns and blisters that stung with the merest touch of cool air.

The elixir had transformed me into what I truly was: a monster.

I howled my fury. The sound echoed against the cliffs and mingled with the loud rushing of waves. Seagulls shrieked in response. I lashed at one too slow or stupid to get out of my way. It fell in a spray of blood and feathers.

The sea would never be mine again. No crew would take a deformed creature like me aboard. I was worse than female. I was … inhuman.

I dropped to my hands and knees and raked the sand. Hatred and disappointment burned as deeply as my skin. I’d failed. I deserved it. Years of preparation. Dozens of deaths, both human and animal.

All for nothing.

“Jackie?”

I struck before the voice registered. Hot blood spattered my face and arm. I licked the coppery fluid from my lips.

Then someone screamed.

I thrust the heels of my hands against my ears, but I couldn’t shut out her anguish. The sound went on and on. I raised my paw, ready to silence the screamer for good.

Teeth sank into the back of my neck. I yelped and swiped at the little beast, but it was too fast. It darted away, and it was the pain coupled with the sheer incongruity of seeing a monkey scampering on a shell-strewn beach that reached past the feral madness that had taken over my soul.

And then I caught a glimpse of blond hair trailing over a sky-blue dress.

Violet dropped to her knees. The screams turned to moans of pain as she clasped her hands around her belly. Red leaked from between her arms and fingers, trickling down to join the wet sand in soaking her skirt.

“Violet?” The word emerged cracked and broken. My fury disappeared beneath a sudden terror. I didn’t have to see the wound to know it was bad. With that much blood, it couldn’t be anything else.

I don’t know how she managed to smile, but she did. “I brought you back, Jackie. Took me a while but I figured out what you was up to. Came back to stop you, I did.”

“It’s too late.”

“Ain’t never too late.” She keeled over.

Violet!” I dove toward her. Blood kept coming, running from her belly in torrents. She was dying. I’d killed her after all.

George screeched and pranced, leaving little monkey-prints in the sand. I’d already murdered one female he’d cared for. I’d be damned if I let another die.

I scooped her up and held her against my body as I hurried up the switchback trail leading to the top of the cliff. “Keep your hands there. Press hard,” I told her, and she whimpered.

I must have been a frightening sight, naked, blood-covered and carrying the girl I’d just maimed. I didn’t care. For once, George didn’t screech at me. He wrapped his furry arms around my neck and hung on as I raced toward Xiao Liu’s shop.

I didn’t have to knock. He was already at the door, probably alerted by the commotion rustling through the street. He waved me inside.

“Here, Jackie.” He swept an arm across his counter, abruptly clearing it of bowls, herb packets, and a pair of unlit candles.

I set her down, watching dumbly as Xiao Liu ripped her dress apart to expose the wound. Her intestines glistened. “How?” he asked.

I held up the inhuman thing at the end of my arm.

Xiao Liu didn’t reprimand me, but his gaze was accusatorial enough. “Put on a robe. You’re going to help me.”

“I can’t.” It galled me to say it. I was a monster, now. Unfit for human company. I headed toward the door. Better that I leave now before I hurt someone else.

I heard sympathy beneath his unhappiness. “Prove the sprits wrong. For that matter, prove yourself wrong.”

Even George had gone silent. He sat on the counter, picking at Violet’s hair. “I wanted to go back to sea. That’s all I ever wanted.”  To be part of a crew. To have a place in the world where what I could do mattered more than what I was or where I’d come from.

“Hurt or heal, Jackie. What will your choice be?”

She was pale, golden hair sticky and red as her life ebbed away. Twice before I’d been willing to let her die. I’d had nothing to lose. This time, I did.

I took a robe from behind the counter and slid it on. The silk cooled my burns. “Tell me what to do.”

~

There was no six-and-one mud this time, no mixtures of mercury and arsenic and gold. Just Xiao Liu’s expert hands as he used his acupuncture needles to minimize pain around the wound.

My talons had an unexpected benefit; the tips were as fine as Xiao Liu’s needles. I dug them gently into points used to induce sleep while Xiao Liu rinsed the gash. Violet’s twitching slowed to something more manageable, allowing Xiao Liu to work unhindered. Remembering how much Violet had enjoyed hearing me recite Chinese poetry and children’s tales, I called several to mind and spoke softly as Xiao Liu used silken thread to piece together what I had so callously torn apart.

I spent days and nights at her side, waiting, hoping, changing the poultices and dosing her with draughts to ease the pain. When wound fever turned her body heated and raw, I fretted and bathed her with cool water. I kept my vile hand hidden, unable to lay eyes upon the method of Violet’s destruction.

Xiao Liu watched me with the same intensity as I did Violet. “You would make a good physician,” he said.

I laughed bitterly. “I’ve killed men without regret. I didn’t care what happened to Violet. I’m a cold, unfeeling creature. I always will be.” George screeched softly. I knew he’d agree.

Gently, Xiao Liu drew back my sleeve to expose my disfigured hand. I longed to snatch it back, but I was afraid I’d hurt him, too. “You might have a man’s soul, but not an animal’s. This,” he said with a slight shake of my hand, “is not who you are. Each of us has darkness inside. Don’t let it swallow you whole.”

I met his gaze. Something inside me cracked. “I’m sorry. For everything.”

“I know.” He patted my hand and left me alone.

Two days later, Violet’s fever broke. The following morning, she opened her eyes and focused on me. She raised a shaky hand and brushed my cheek. “Jackie?”

For the first time since I was a child, I wept.

~

Two weeks later Xiao Liu suggest we go out for a walk. I still refused to wear feminine attire, so Xiao Liu lent me a cotton shirt, pants, and cap, which brought out my Chinese heritage. Between that and the ever-present George, Violet and I earned more than a few stares as we walked to the end of Church Street and up the nearly two hundred stairs to St. Mary’s Church and the ruins of Whitby Abbey. Violet clung to my arm from weakness, but she was determined to reach the top. Once there, I led her through the church’s graveyard to a bench overlooking the sea. For a long time, the only sounds were the wind and the distant roar of the waves.

When Violet broke the silence, her voice was bitter. “I suppose you’ll go back to the sea, now that I’m well.”

“No.” I clenched my paw, careful of the sharp claws. “I can’t.”

“You got what you deserved, and I ain’t sorry for being glad about it. Not after what you done.”

I couldn’t refute this, so I didn’t.

“It ain’t so much that you almost killed me, but you didn’t care. I didn’t matter no more than those rats or doves.”

“I care now.” I gazed at the ships docked and either loading or unloading supplies. The sea would never be mine again, but it had never been as important as I thought.

“Jackie?”

I gazed at her. Strands of blond hair fluttered in the wind. I’d had to buy her a new dress. This one was green with lace and ribbons around the bodice but not too tight around her still-healing belly. I knew what she wanted. An apology. Some sign that I loved her and would stay with her forever.

So I kissed her.

Gently, she put a hand on my chest and pushed me back. I was crushed, especially when I met her gaze and saw the sorrow there. She reached inside my sleeve and withdrew the clawed thing within. “How can I trust you?”

How, indeed? I had nothing to give her. There were no promises I could make that she would believe. My scars would never fade. I looked at the hairy, inhuman hand in hers. I didn’t deserve her. Not after what I’d done. “Burn everything in the workshop and chain me to the bed.” It hurt to say it. I’d spent years perfecting elixirs and herbal remedies. I didn’t want to lose those recipes, but it was preferable to losing her.

“Chain you to the bed?” There was a hint of mischief in her voice. “Make you my prisoner and do devilish things to you?”

George chittered softly as she slipped a hand between my thighs and cupped me there. The hot tingling took me by surprise. I nuzzled her neck, taking in the scent of peaches. George hissed, but I ignored him. This was my girl, no matter what he thought.

“I want you to promise me one thing,” she said.

“Anything.”

“Don’t fix my scars again.”

I rested my paw on her belly. “Never.” She was perfect as she was. We both were.


Jackie Rivera was born in Batavia to a Chinese mother and Portuguese father and speaks a half dozen languages fluently. Jackie has traveled the seas as a pirate, escaped from being a prisoner of war, studied Chinese medicine to become an alchemist and acupuncturist, and isn’t afraid of a damn thing.


Traci Castleberry lives in southern Arizona with two cats and a Lipizzan mare. She’s been published in numerous anthologies, is a graduate of Clarion, Taos Toolbox, and is a first reader for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.


Errow is a comic artist and illustrator with a predilection towards mashing the surreal with the familiar. They pay their time to developing worlds not quite like our own with their fiancee and pushing the queer agenda. They probably left a candle burning somewhere. More of their work can be found at errowcollins.wix.com/portfolio.


“Poor Girl” is © 2015 Traci Castleberry
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Errow Collins


This story originally appeared in Daughters of Frankenstein.

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