The man found the girl living or dying as he liked to say, as a prostitute in the Arizona Territory. It was the early 1870’s and with ranching and silver mining and ample watering holes in the valley, there were more and more settlers coming in. Covered wagons frequently rolled through the area alongside the Gila River on their way to seek their fortunes and there was plenty of business for the cathouses. But the girl found her work distasteful and had become a drug addict. Her prized possession was a medical syringe from the Civil War she’d purchased from a retired physician client. It was made of glass and some kind of brass amalgam. The silver needle fastened onto the syringe with a black rubber bulb. She purchased grains of morphine from the pharmacist and mixed them with water and injected the mixture into her veins. Then she felt good and could handle some more stinky balls and pussy chafe.
A large dark man was her customer one evening, he had the money to pay for the whole night. Even in a drug haze she had managed to feel some strange feelings about this client. She knew men, and could with some accuracy determine which ones would be safe, and which ones were nefarious. She didn’t get the alarming readings off him, just a delicate foreboding. She needed the money so she allowed the transaction to take place. Before permitting him upstairs to her small room with the brass bed and swaybacked mattress, she took a shot and brushed her teeth with a little bristle brush. She haphazardly washed her cooter out in the basin and then arranged her skirts back into place and opened the door. He had been standing very close to it as though trying to listen. Before they fucked he insisted on examining her person. He found a peculiar small ulcer on her nether region. It didn’t hurt or itch but it was ugly. “You’ve got the pox” he told her. He seemed suddenly energized and grimly delighted. “You’re a filthy girl” he said as he whipped out a small silver bottle with a rubber stopper. Actually it wasn’t silver at all the girl realized. The bottle was glass and the man was somehow pouring silver right out of it into his hands. It was mercury! She recognized it. Someone had told her how they mined it from a rock called cinnabar. They crush the ore then heat it in a furnace and the liquid mercury trapped in the rock drips out.
He began rubbing the liquid metal into her crotch. “This is gonna make you tighter too” he said. “I’m tight enough” the girl said. Once he had doused her chancre with mercury he went to bed with her, skillfully leaning his large penis away from the infected side of her crotch. “You are tight” he exclaimed when he first entered her and then began some enthusiastic pounding. “Thanks mister” said the girl and she began to nod off. When she woke up it was early morning and he was still in the bed with her. He asked her if he could see her again that evening. She said yes. He paid visits to her for two weeks. At the end of the fortnight he told her in a business like manner he wanted her to come live with him at his home which was some miles outside of town, close to a bend in the river. He told her it was a nice place, there was a natural seep at the base of a mesquite tree and he’d dug a well there. He now had a hundred head of cattle and also had enjoyed success in the silver mining industry. “You’ll have a feather bed and will be well rested” he said.
She thought he was a weirdo but surprised herself by saying yes. She realized she liked him. She said goodbye to the other girls and to her customers who still wanted to see her even though she’d told them about the pox. Then she and the man traveled to his property in his buckboard wagon. The ride was pretty nice, the vehicle had a red velvet horsehair cushion on the seat and he handed her the shotgun. “There isn’t much Apache interference anymore” he said. “But the dirty Mexicans are another story”. “What’s dirty about em?” she asked. He didn’t answer her. “Do you know how to shoot?” he asked her. She told him she did. He told her some more about his homestead and the rest of the ride was uneventful. At one point he farted and she didn’t say anything. At another bumpier part of the ride she farted and he swatted her bottom. She found it odd how familiar he acted with her. It made her feel strangely comfortable with him.
Months had gone by and the girl was keeping house for the man. There were empty spaces in the rooms of his home with no furniture or rugs in them but there was an odd confluence of various material objects scattered throughout the house and across the property. He had several saddles in his barn. Just as many pick axes and shovels. And women’s horsehair bustles and jewelry, both white women’s and Indian’s, in little piles on the floor. He gifted her some of it when he was in a good mood. He gave her a gold locket with some kind of adhesive inside where small images had once been fixed. And a sterling silver squash blossom necklace inlaid with turquoise. She asked him where he got all these things and he said he bought them or bartered for them.
She was sick often but always found the energy to keep the place scoured and clean. She fed his dogs and cooked him cornbread and beans and baked pies. He had at first insulted her cooking then began complimenting her. An old Apache woman who was married to one of the man’s seasonal cattle drivers had shown her some of the mysterious ways of food preparation. But often there was no one around besides the girl and the man. The cattle were grazing elsewhere, the workers were with the cattle, and it was just them two. For a little while, she enjoyed this. They laughed about something one of the dogs had done or discussed his preferred cattle breeds and he would say she was pretty. Then later lots of times it would just be her alone in the house. He would disappear for days; mining he said. The girl found it odd he never left with any specific mining equipment, like picks or dynamite. He never brought a donkey with a loaded pack on its back. He’d leave on horseback with only a rifle, his pistols, and a knife and some food wrapped in a sack. She assumed he was sleeping with other women, or maybe hiding his silver and money in various places out in the desert.
When he came home he wanted to do her three times a day but always the mercury ritual came first. After a succession of weeks, the girl was getting her wits back. She had gone through withdrawals when she first moved out there with him and he had actually held her in the bed while she shook. At dusk on the third day of her kicking the morphine, he carried her out to the outdoors bathtub which he had filled with water and let warm in the sun and then he washed her body tenderly, while commenting profusely on her purported offensive odor.
Later she realized he had been nicest to her when she was the sickest. As her health improved, he became more distant and irritable. When he was home he often did not speak to her. Once she said his name and his head turned to her like a mechanical owl’s head rotating and it shocked her because there was no one looking back at her. It was like he wasn’t there at all. He began spending even more time away from the house.
That’s when the girl began to venture around the property. From the bedroom window she noticed twins streams of bats emerge from some hidden place in the trees and fly out into the night to find their suppers. She walked back there and found the mouths of two enormous caves, both inhabited by bats. She liked walking back there at twilight and standing very still as all the bats rushed past her with their delicate webbed wings. On rare trips to town she made enquiries and got to talking with an Apache man at the grocers. He told her that a healthy colony of bats could eat around 25 tons of insects every night. And that they lived to be forty years old. Some of them are fruit eaters not insect eaters and these kind “visit their cactus friends and drink from their flowers, this helps the cactus to make their children” he told her. She liked that grocery store because of the opportunity for human interaction. A family from back East had just opened it. They liked her and even offered her a clerking job there. She was so surprised and thought about that all the way home.
One evening while she was walking near the bat caves she discovered a baby bat in the ground in the grass next to her feet. It was crawling around and shivering all helpless and squeaking charmingly. She took him home and warmed him by the fire. She got her old kit out from under the bed where she was keeping it for an actual medical emergency and took the syringe out of its plush lined case, leaving the needles inside it. She drew some milk up into the barrel and placed it on the table. Then she put a tiny wad of cotton in the baby’s mouth and squirted the milk onto it so he could nurse it. She fed the baby bat in this manner. He looked like a baby gargoyle. She named him Beezlebub.
The man pretended to not like Beezlebub but sometimes he sort of did. He laughed when Beezelbub had grown strong and began squeaking and flying out the door at night to get his bugs. But he sometimes was jealous of him and would tell the girl to put Beezlebub back on his curtain because it was time to pay attention to him, the man.
On a very exciting visit to town after purchasing almost all of the goods the man had written on a list for her, she decided to visit the Chinese medicine man who had treated some of her friends for various scourges and female troubles. The girl suspected she could heal her pox with something less poisonous than mercury. She had noticed she did not feel well after the man rubbed it on her and he was still obsessively doing so three times a day, whenever he desired her. The Chinese man gave her various jars of herbs and some tinctures in alcohol. She did not recognize any of the powders or roots, except for one item which appeared to be dried honeysuckle.
She used these medicines secretly for weeks and began to notice a bodily change. The fatigue lessened and her glands were no longer swollen. She grew stronger and had a psychic vision of tiny organisms dying in her blood. At around that time she refused the man’s mercury treatment and he became very angry. His eyes became like hot glass marbles. He dragged her outside and into the yard where he threw her head against the doghouse and when she came to she found a large iron cuff fastened around her neck and trailing a heavy chain. It was locked to a stake in the ground. She tried to work the stake out but it was inserted too deep into the earth. She had to spend the night out there. The dogs wanted to comfort her, they drew close to her, wagging their tails and nuzzling her face. Beezlebub flew by and squeaked with concern but she told him to go get his dinner, she was alright. One of the hounds licked her face and from the concussion she threw up. The dogs scrambled to eat it and then they arranged their carcasses around her so she could rest her aching head on their bellies.
She was furious with the man the next day and he even seemed a little afraid of her for a moment when they locked eyes. He unlocked the cuff and tried to say he was sorry but she went into the back bedroom without speaking to him. After this she began to watch him very closely. She consciously understood what she had subconsciously already known which was that something was very wrong with him. She suspected a violent childhood. She also by this time had learnt his mother was white but his father had been Mexican, with Indian blood. He was ashamed of this. One time when he was yelling at her for having gotten medicine from those filthy chinks she told him it was better than fucking a dirty Mexican. “Oh I’m sure you fucked plenty of those” he said. “Ones just like you” she said and then had to run out of the house because he got the nobody home scary eyeballs again.
The girl was now completely sober and physically well. Her senses were more accurate and precise. She did not speak to the man very often now nor he to her. They slept together sometimes but she could no longer stand the smell of him. When he came home from his mining trips he had an odor about him she previously could not identify. She now realized it was the smell of fear on his skin. Not his though, but other peoples. She wasn’t sure if she was just dreaming this smell on him. The girl felt conflicting feelings about the man. A part of her wanted to leave, but then she remembered how he was so nice in the beginning. She also felt strange sensations of guilt, as though she were ungrateful. And even stranger motherly feelings like she would be abandoning him. A bizarre need that was worse then the morphine addiction was there too. And strangest of all, she found these feelings to be mixed horrifyingly, with actual love. A desire for his happiness. She felt real creeped out.
The next day she sprained her ankle carrying water. Her boot wedged under a tree root and she fell sideways. She had to limp home and put her foot up in bed. She was glad he was gone again. That evening while looking out the bedroom window she noticed something odd. There weren’t twin streams of bats anymore, there was only one. This alarmed the girl. So much that she fashioned a crutch out of tree branch and lurched down there even though it was getting dark. One of the caves had been completely abandoned by the bats. Inside the cave was an entire covered wagon. She looked inside, it was mostly empty. A few gunny sacks lay on the boards that was it. She hobbled past it and was now standing at the edge of the enormous pile of guano the bats had been depositing on the cave floor for years. She hitched up her skirts and went a little further into the pile. Which was where she saw the things. They etched themselves out of the gloom into familiar shapes. They were feet and hands. They stuck up out of the poop at odd angles. One foot had a boot on it.
The girl went back to the house.
Her ankle was real swollen and hurting now. The next morning the man returned. The man stepped through the front door and he found the girl leaning against the kitchen table pointing a shotgun level at his belly.
“Why you killin people” she said.
He just looked at her.
“What have you been doing?” she asked. He still didn’t say anything.
“You’re sick” she said “If you say you’ll stop what you’re doing I’ll stay with you and we can get you better. There’s sanitariums you can rest in”. He laughed at her. “We could go see that one Indian shaman” she said.
He looked at her with derision. “You’re crazy” he said. He took a step forward.
“Don’t come closer” she said quietly. His holster was slung over his shoulder as was his custom when he used the outhouse and was on his way back into the house. It would take him longer than a heartbeat to have a gun in his hand. They both stood very still silently for what felt like a long time. Her low tone appeared to have bothered him. It now looked like two people were fighting inside him. One wanted to attack the other looked scared and little. She felt bad for him. He was obviously the crazy one.
He lunged for her and the shotgun blast hit him in the gut. Something hit her in the face that felt like warm pie filling. He was now on the floor on his back with most of his innards blown out. She knelt down while he was dying on the kitchen floor. He said “I’m sorry mama” in a weird small voice she’d never heard before and then there was some gurgling sounds and he was gone.
The cattlehands were not back yet so she was alone in the house with the body which was a bummer. She couldn’t drag him out and bury it on one good ankle. She sat in the kitchen next to the stove with Beezlebub and darned a sock. She knew the man’s ghost was going to come around anyway and so she sat waiting for it.
As the fire died down Beezlebub let out a squeak like someone had pinched him. “Go on get out of here” she said to the air. She knew it was the man’s spirit that was responsible for this act of harrassment. He telepathically said in her head “What are you going to do with my house?”
“I don’t know” the girl said back to him. “What are you going to do with my fucking house” he said again. “I don’t know” said the girl again. Then she considered. “I’ll have to notify the law” she said. “I’ll have to tell them about that family and whoever else you killed like a fuckin psycho.” She thought some more. “Those people need a proper burial. And that wagon has to get dragged out of the cave so the bats can move back in…. I’ll have to pay the cattlehands when they get back. And then I have to sell the cattle. You’re going to owe money to that dead family’s people…. And I have to find homes for all your dogs and horses.”
“Well we aren’t even married. None of this is your property. It ain’t your money” he said from the ether.
“I don’t want any of it” said the girl.
“This isn’t your house.”
“Yeah that’s true” said the girl.
“You got nowhere else to go though” he said superiorily. “You’ll have to go back to turning tricks or be homeless. You got nowhere else to go.”
“I got places” said the girl. And it was true. She realized she was healthy enough to work, to live, to move somewhere nice with Beezlebub. She suddenly felt happy. “I don’t want strangers living in my house” grumbled the man’s ghost.
“Well that’s some tough titties isn’t it” said the girl.
Copyright © 2013 by Kim Campion