The Barrow Man
by Lisa Batya Feld
She was beautiful. Five years old, tangled black hair, filthy, skinny, her stomach bloated with hunger. But those wide brown eyes, that wicked little grin — I was transfixed. I stopped my wheelbarrow and held it steady, watching her.
The street was crowded with tables manned by craftsmen hawking their wares. The craftsmen took a moment to snarl at me between their cries to the passerby; the rancid corpses piled high in my barrow drove away their customers. A plague brewed in the city, so that day I was an ugly villain, porting my load of rotting meat. In a few years, when the plague passed on, I’d be Gentleman Death again, demanding tithes these commoners were reluctant to pay. They hated me either way.
But the girl stared back at me, bold as you please. “What’s your name?”
“Claire. Are those really dead people? I almost got to see a hanging last spring, but Mama wouldn’t let me go.”
“These are souls.”
“Oh. They look like dead bodies, though. What are you going to do with them?”
“Do you want to come see?”
She leapt up. “Could I? Mama and Papa never let me go anywhere.”
I knelt in the dust. “Climb on my back. We have a long way to go.”
Claire talked endlessly about her parents, her brother and sisters, and the rat they wouldn’t let her keep as a pet. She barely stopped for breath. I halted by a few houses to pull souls from tortured bodies, piling them on top of my cart. Wives and fathers screamed and cursed me. Claire, balanced on my hip, clung tighter to my neck. “They don’t have to yell,” she whispered, burying her head in my hair.
We reached the crossroads, and I put Claire down. I pulled the first soul out of the cart and stood it upright on the eastern road, facing the rising moon. I touched its eyes. A small flare of life force pushed the “corpse” forward, and it stumbled down the road. I set the next two to follow it. The fourth, once a woman of round hips and sly smiles, I turned west, to the setting sun.
“Some to heaven and some to hell? Which ones go where? And how do you know where to send them?” Claire asked.
Soul by soul, I emptied the cart, sending some east and some west. “I’m not sending them to heaven or hell. I did this work long before your god set foot in Jerusalem. Some go east, to peace and silence. They await the end of the world. Those who seem to have something interesting to say, I send to confront the Creator and the Adversary. I can tell you more about it, but it will take a while to explain.”
There was plenty of time to explain on the long walk back to the city, but Claire was a stubborn pupil who insisted on arguing and interrupting. I’m not sure how well she understood the great balance, the wager, or the valley of words and shadows. But she did ask good questions.
When we returned to her house, her brother cheerfully informed us that their parents were searching the town frantically for her. “And why were you out with a filthy barrow man, anyway?” he asked her.
“He is not!” she yelled. “You take that back!”
The two children wrestled on the floor. I backed out the door and pushed my cart down the street, shaken by what I had seen: the plague, rooted in the blood of Claire’s brother. Within a week he would take ill. He would pass it on to Claire. And then I would have no choice but to take her to end her pain.
My next decision was easy. The execution of it was somewhat more difficult. I shifted my consciousness, transformed into the guise of Gentleman Death, and went calling at the local manor. The lord was asleep in his study, but I woke him with a word.
He bolted out of his chair. “What do you want?” he asked, eyes wide with terror and fury.
I eyed the large fireplace and the bronze Italian sculpture on his desk. This was a rich home with much to offer. “Plague has come to your lands. Within the week, you and your lady wife will be dead and your children will die hungry and alone, abandoned by the servants.”
His eyes followed mine to the signs of his wealth. “I can pay you. Anything you want. Just leave us alone.”
“I neither want nor need your money. But I might consider a bargain. There is a girl child in the town, the daughter of the potter who lives by the gate. Take her as your own daughter and treat her well, and I will save you and your household.”
It was a simple matter to attract a cat to his kitchen to catch the rats and keep the plague out of the house. The next morning, the lord ordered his soldiers to take Claire from her parents and bring her to him.
Seven years passed in the blink of an eye. With regular food and better opportunities, Claire blossomed into a beautiful, intelligent girl with a long sheaf of glossy black hair, a slight frame, and an insatiable curiosity.
She complained more than once that she was lonely and confused in the manor. The lady of the house, afraid of my displeasure, felt uncomfortable treating Claire as a servant, or even asking simple tasks of her. At the same time, she didn’t want to treat a common girl as equal to her own children. For the most part, Claire was ignored and avoided. But she had a place to sleep, food to eat, and an education, and I visited often to take her with me as I worked. Whenever I arrived, her face lit up with joy. That joy thrilled me like nothing else.
I always split my consciousness to visit multiple places at once, and usually I took her on my local visits, but sometimes I’d take her to headhunter tribes, the courts of sheiks and emperors, sacrificial altars, hangings, crowded cities. She developed a knack for seeing who would certainly die and who might still claw their way back to life.
I had learned the hard way, more than once, that I could never have what I wanted. If I give pleasure to a mortal, they die, and I have to let them walk from the crossroads without me. No matter how much I loved Claire, I had only two choices: watch her grow old and die or claim her now and lose her that much sooner.
One August evening we made our way to a storefront house in London from which we could hear a woman’s desperate screams. “Another botched birth,” Claire muttered. At twelve she was already a jaded connoisseur of my clientele.
“Almost over,” I said, pushing the door open and waving Claire inside with a bow and flourish of my cloak. To honor the mother and child, I was dressed to the hilt as Gentleman Death.
“Who are you?” whimpered the half-naked woman squatting by the fire.
“Don’t let him in here!” the midwife yelled. “Get out!” She lunged at us, her hands glistening with blood and birthing fluid.
“You know better than to try to evict me,” I said, neatly sidestepping the old woman’s physical attack.
“It just seems a waste,” said Claire, continuing the earlier thread of our conversation as though there had been no interruption. “It always bothers me.”
“It bothers you?” the midwife stopped and stared at Claire. “It bothers you? Then why are you just standing there like a lump? Why don’t you save her?”
Claire frowned, turning from the midwife to me. “Can I?”
The question had never presented itself before. I was as surprised and curious as Claire. “I don’t see why not.”
Claire knelt to touch the pregnant woman’s belly. “The mother’s too close to death to push, even if we could finish turning the baby.”
“Her cheap husband called me too late,” said the midwife, recovering from her shock at our arrival. “Can’t you just keep her from dying?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” said Claire. She held out her hand to the midwife. “I need your knife.”
The midwife debated, fingering her knife for a moment, then handed it over. “If you wanted to kill her, you’d scarcely need my knife,” she said.
Claire took the knife without comment and pushed the squatting pregnant woman back onto the bed. She placed the tip of the knife at the woman’s navel and the woman began to weep. “No, no, please, no…”
Claire ignored her and looked at me for a moment with worried eyes. I understood. It was one thing to know what had to be done, and quite another to cut through one layer of muscle after another without killing the mother or maiming the child. But she brought the blade down the woman’s belly again and again in a smooth motion, ignoring the woman’s weak, fading screams. This late in the disaster there was little blood left in the woman, but what there was welled up to obscure Claire’s work, making her fret over every cut.
“Bring the knife up just a little,” I said, afraid to spoil the moment by correcting her at all.
Claire obeyed, just barely avoiding the pale bladder, and exposed the purple-red uterus for the final cut. She sliced into the uterus, exposing a translucent sac filled with pea-green fluid.
“You’ll have to break the sac,” I told her. “You’re doing fine.”
She cut the sac with the tip of her knife and the pea-green fluid rushed out. Then Claire tugged the limp, blue baby free of its mother’s belly and handed it to the midwife, who rubbed it and slapped it and warmed it until it pinkened and let out a thin cry.
Claire breathed a sigh of relief, then turned back to the mother, who was barely breathing. “I need a needle and thread.”
“She can be sewn up again?” asked the midwife.
“It’s not too late?” Claire asked me.
I frowned, estimating. If the soul was trapped in the body much longer, it would lose the life force it needed to make its journey. “Hurry.”
“Let me do it then,” said the midwife, handing the baby back to Claire, “It looks like I’m neater and faster at it than you are, no offense, milady.”
“None taken,” said Claire. “Be sure to sew up all the layers separately, or it won’t work.”
The midwife cut the purple-gray cord and began sewing the mother’s womb and belly while Claire blotted the fluid from the baby’s nose and eyes and began washing the child.
When the midwife finished stitching the woman’s belly and stood up, Claire grabbed a bottle from the table, unstoppering it and sloshing wine liberally over the midwife’s handiwork.
“What are you doing? Are you mad?” asked the midwife.
“It will keep her from fever and pus,” said Claire, “I’ve seen it done in the East.”
“Will she live?” asked the midwife.
I opened my mouth to answer, then smiled and turned to Claire. “You’re the expert.”
Claire knelt and smelled the stitched cut, checked the woman’s pupils. “She needs rest, meat, and red wine. Wash her with water that has been boiled and cooled, and put more wine on the cut. I think she will live.”
As we left the house, Claire threw herself into my arms and laughed with delight. “Did you see me? Did you see what I did? That was incredible! I can’t believe it!”
Her joy and enthusiasm were infectious. I hugged her. “You did well.”
“I want to do it again! I didn’t even know it was possible!”
It was barely a week before she made it clear that this was no passing fancy. At first I wanted to refuse, to keep her clean and safe in the manor when she wasn’t traveling under my protection. But after all, she was on the brink of womanhood. She’d be married off soon, and be expected to breed until she broke under the strain.
The lord and lady who had raised Claire were relieved to see her go. I brought her to the midwife who promised to train Claire despite her age and her association with me. The canny old woman was ready for us. “Standard contract with a few adjustments, seeing as you can’t pay the yearly fees.”
I looked it over. It seemed fair: good clothes and shoes provided once a year, as well as a daily ration of meat, bread, and small beer. This was followed by Maggie’s promise to teach Claire all the skills of a midwife, and a demand that Claire avoid men, public houses, gambling, and drunkenness. Finally, there was a clause that Claire would take care of Maggie after her retirement and prolong her life comfortably as long as was possible. Maggie and Claire signed, and I signed as Claire’s surety in case she ran away or Maggie abused her.
I hadn’t expected to stand on line for hours waiting with Maggie and Claire to present the contract to the Mayor and the Magistrate, and the long wait left me unbalanced when it came time to say goodbye.
I knelt by Claire’s side. “I can’t keep you awake half the night traveling with me anymore, can I?” I asked her. Claire hugged me tight, and I inhaled the scent of her dark hair. “I’ll come by from time to time,” I promised. “And I will know if you need me.”
Without Claire’s company, my work wore me down more than before. I’d forgotten how it felt to lose a loved one. I had never paid much attention to the people I had to deal with. They never understood what I had to do, what I did for them. Half of them fought me tooth and nail to keep what they loved, and the other half flung themselves and their loved ones at me, unwilling to face life anymore. There was no point in talking to them when they couldn’t be reasoned with, argued with, helped. But now, myself bereft, I had a hard time ignoring their pain.
I visited Claire infrequently enough that my visits were a treat, never a burden. It was a hard time for me, but Claire was happy. She was meeting new people, learning a trade. She’d taught the midwife some of what she’d seen doctors do on our journeys, and Maggie taught her the skill and expertise that only comes from deep immersion in a trade.
One night I came for a woman who clenched and slumped by turns in a carved birthing chair and found Claire working underneath her. I flashed her a grin; it had been too long since I’d seen her. I waited for her to smile back and work harder, challenging my estimation of the woman’s fate. Instead she glared at me and helped the woman stand. “Come on, I’m moving you to the bed.”
“What? Why?” the woman panted.
As soon as the woman was on the bed, Claire pulled out her knife. “You’re too small,” said Claire, “And it’s too late to cut your womb open to free the baby.” She cut between the woman’s legs, then scooped her fingers in, ignoring the blood and the screams.
I knew before Claire did.
“No. No!” Claire pulled the corpse free of its mother. The little body, slick with afterbirth, had strangled on its own birthing cord. Claire let the weeping woman hold the child while Claire stitched her up.
“That was very clever, using the Muslim technique,” I said, “I would never have thought to use the birthing hiatus from their full circumcisions on an uncircumcised woman.”
“This isn’t a game,” said Claire in a shaking voice. “I’ve been here for two days.”
“Where’s Maggie?” I asked.
“She’s home. She slipped and broke her arm.”
“Claire?” asked the woman, staring at me and clutching her dead child to her breast.
“It’s all right, Mary,” said Claire. “But I need to go speak to your husband. If you try to have another baby, it’ll probably kill you. I need to make that clear to him.”
I followed her out of the room and she shut the door. Claire pushed her hair out of her eyes with a bloody hand. “I never understood when I was little. I saw them as you saw them. But they are muscle and bone and blood. That’s all they know, and they fight to keep it. I can’t save them if I keep playing games with you. I can’t be human and see it your way at the same time.”
Barely fourteen, and she was sure that hers was the right way, the only way. She knew better than that. She would remember it, when she grew up a little more and her blood cooled. I just had to give her time. The mother had fallen asleep; I collected the infant’s soul, tipped my hat to Claire, and took my leave.
I no longer came for spontaneous visits, but I did see Claire and Maggie from time to time in the course of their work. A little girl, barely twelve, screamed with labor pains, and the instant Claire saw me, she redoubled her efforts, drenched with sweat as she leaned over the pock-marked, pregnant child.
“Give me a little longer,” Claire snapped as I leaned over her patient.
“I’ve given you as long as I could,” I said.
Claire touched the spindly, cooling body one last time and stood up to wash her hands while I gently collected the souls. “You’re washing often enough?” I asked.
“Of course!” she said. “I’m not stupid. Next you’ll be asking if I sleep on rotten straw or keep rats for pets.”
Every time I saw her I was astonished by how fast she grew. This beautiful, defiant woman bore little resemblance to the curious child I’d carried on my journeys. But those eyes still captured me. I wished I were a man, a dying sack of flesh, so I could join with her again and again and not lose her.
I waited while she settled up with the girl’s father, and we walked out into the street together. “Maggie’s going to make me a journeywoman soon,” she said.
“Congratulations. Granted it’s not freedom, since you’re still bound by contract to care for her, but do you have any plans for your new influx of money?”
She slowed her steps, then turned to look at me. “A dowry.”
If I had a belly, it would have turned cold and sick. “No.”
“He’s a good man, a doctor. I can talk to him–”
“He listens to me! He won’t force me to have too many children, or stay at home and give up my profession. He makes me happy and I make him happy–”
“I never thought I could be a part of life! I thought I’d be outside it forever. Please, I want you to give me away at my wedding. I want you to be happy for me.”
“What’s his name?” I asked through clenched teeth.
“Walter Atte Church. Please, if you just meet him you’ll see what a good man he is and how much he loves me.”
I nodded to her and kissed the top of her head. We reached the corner, the crossroads, and Claire turned her head away. I positioned the soul of the mother to face east. I considered the infant’s soul for a moment, then faced it west. The souls stumbled off, each in their own direction, invisible to the merchants and passerby.
“I have to go,” said Claire, her voice shaking. She hurried off, her skirt bunched in her fists.
I stalked off in search of Claire’s swain.
I investigated around a cathedral and three churches before I found an apartment rented to a doctor named Walter. The landlord said the doctor was fresh from university. He’d been called out to help a man run over by a cart, so I waited in his rooms.
This was ridiculous. That was the only word for it. Claire knew how much I loved her. She had to know. Did she think I showed everyone what I do and why? Did she think I saved her life, gave her everything she asked for, on some casual whim? This was a game she was playing with me, a contest: she couldn’t fight me through her work, so she fought me with her heart. It was just another challenge, to tell me that she’d seen me, bested me.
What if it wasn’t?
When Claire grew older, she’d understand again. But not if she married. Not if she had a stake in believing that this mortal life mattered.
The key turned in the lock, and I changed to the form of an elderly peasant.
Walter turned out to be tall and slender, with a neat beard. “What are you doing in here?” he demanded. “How did you get in?”
“We’ve met once or twice,” I told him, “but we haven’t been properly introduced. “I’m Claire’s … father.” If she wanted me to lie, I’d play along. And after all, she had me in checkmate. She knew I couldn’t take a soul before the body was weak enough to relinquish it. I was powerless here.
“Ah. Claire’s told me about you.” He relaxed. “Your daughter is an amazing woman.”
Daughter? I seethed.
“I’ve never met a woman who was intelligent and strong without being shrewish,” said Walter, “And when she described some of the women she helped, it reminded me of my own battles to save patients dying of fever or pox. I never thought I’d find a woman who understood how losing a patient affects me, a woman who wouldn’t begrudge my odd hours.” He smiled. “Though I admit it’s taking me a little longer to grant her the same understanding.”
Did she expect me to sit here and listen to this? I clenched my fists, pretending to smile. My fists. I couldn’t take his soul until he was close to death, but I had a solid form. I could kill him myself.
I snatched a knife from the table and leapt on him.
He jumped backwards, blood on his cheek. “Help! Murder!”
I slashed again, and he knocked me away, but now I blocked his path to the door. “This is for Claire,” I snarled, and stabbed with speed and strength no mortal could match.
Blood welled up, staining his shirt, but he fought me even as his face paled and his eyes glazed. I stabbed him again and again, then snatched his soul like a thief and vanished before the people pounding on the door could break in.
I set the soul to face east. I’d killed a man. I hadn’t known it was possible. I found myself echoing Claire: I didn’t know it was possible. What a strange effect we had upon each other. I needed to think on it before I went back to Claire and told her I had called her bluff.
I went back to my work, my mind on other things. If I could kill a man, what else could I do? What other doors could I open that I had thought locked? I appeared in a kitchen and took two children, killed when the trivet under their mother’s pot broke, bathing them in scalding water. I entered an alley and took a drunk dead from Cairo’s summer heat. In several places at once, seeing sunset, high noon and twilight simultaneously, I lost track of time as I often do.
Until I entered a bedroom and saw my next client. “Claire! No!”
Poison. Her face was gray, her hair clung in damp strings to her face. She looked up at my arrival. The hatred in her eyes cut me down. “I owed you my life. Not his. Now I don’t owe you anything.”
I ran downstairs and grabbed every bottle I could find, hauled them all upstairs. I forced her to swallow purgatives, to drink water. She spat as much as she could back in my face until she was too weak. Her eyes, those eyes that had always transfixed me, burned into me now with rage and utter loathing.
Finally I held her limp body in my arms. If I waited any longer to take her soul, she wouldn’t have the strength to walk the road. I had no choice.
I gathered her soul in my arms and walked down to the street. She was gone. I’d killed her. I’d fought temptation for so long, I’d been so good, afraid to kill her by joining with her. I’d killed her anyway.
I set her facing east. Her dead eyes burned into mine. There was nothing I could say. Then she turned on her heel and walked away, walked west.
I watched the street long after she’d vanished. Then I turned my attention back to my work. A feverish child died on a straw pallet, surrounded by his wailing mother and siblings. She tried to shield her child with her arms, prevent me from taking him.
“You stupid woman!” I yelled. “Why don’t you wash? Wash everything with boiled water: your house, your body, your children! You can save the rest of them! And stop making them sleep on rotten straw! That’s how they’re getting typhus!”
I collected the child’s soul and pointed to the fireplace. “Go!” I shouted. “Boil the water!”
Lisa Batya Feld is a 1999 Clarion graduate with a BA in Medieval Studies. By day she is an editorial assistant for an academic journal, and by night she gets into much trouble discovering the cults and curiosities of New York City. She can be reached at http://www.geocities.com/qwakamaka/.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish