If you walk the streets of South Side Chicago late on a summer afternoon when the children have broken open fire hydrants and swim in park fountains, tossing balls to each other across streets strewn with litter and broken glass, you can catch snatches of their conversation. They talk of the things that interest children – sports, celebrity, sweets – and they tell each other the stories. Some of these stories are ephemeral, living only in the moments spent telling them, then evaporating into dust on the concrete sidewalks, swept away with the shuffling of feet. Others are immortal, formed of dust that parches young throats whose only satisfaction comes in telling their tale. They rest in the brick of the apartment buildings and townhouses, slumbering in the rust of chain link fences and back alley dumpsters.
The oldest of these stories seeped into the ground of the parks lining the lake decades ago. The trees drew it up from the ground, absorbing it entirely. Every spring it bursts forth as thick yellow pollen, coating sidewalks and cars alike. The children tell it with an itchy sniffle, their voices rich and mature with the scratch of allergies.
That Lizzy should meet the devil wasn’t so very strange given that at the time the city was indistinguishable from Hell. Most people didn’t realize just how bad the fire was until it cut off the water supply, making it impossible to fight, but Lizzy knew immediately. She was already skinny with starvation when the fire started, haggard from the screams of a malnourished baby, desperate for some sign of hope in the future. There was no hope, not in a city where the river itself caught fire and burned like dry tinder. Like so many others, Lizzy fled to the lake, rushing boldly in with her child clutched to her breast, but she had no plans for coming out again.
Eighteen years old and even after six months of near starvation, Lizzy was still pretty, high cheekbones prominent with her thinness, dark coppery skin barely slack where once she’d had a full, rounded figure. The baby was a scrawny girl, stunted and disfigured with a perpetual scowl of anger and disappointment.
Even in high summer the lake water was cool as Lizzy waded out. Her skirts clung around her legs as they were weighted down with the water, then her blouse, but she continued to wade. She was in breast high, just about to submerge the baby, when she heard him.
“Spare the child,” a deep, sooty voice implored from just feet away.
Lizzy turned and saw a man, tall and broad through the shoulders, his skin so black that even with an inferno raging in the city behind him he was a shadow rising from the water. “There’s nothing for her,” Lizzy said, realizing for the first time that she’d begun sobbing as she plunged into the water.
“I can give her power, freedom,” the man said, so calmly that the water fell still to listen.
“What freedom, for the likes of us?” Lizzy scoffed, brushing tears from her eyes. She was about to push the baby in when she realized that the man was on fire. Flames covered his body, burning in a vivid blue that reflected on the surface of the water. Lizzy gasped, backing away from the man, and farther into the lake.
“Freedom,” the man confirmed, “for the likes of me.”
Then a strange thing happened, because Lizzy didn’t want to die anymore. She took a step toward shore, then another, trembling as she did because every step brought her closer to the man with his blue flames and the city with its fire. “What about me? People will say I abandoned her in the fire.”
“They’ll know the truth,” the man said.
“It’ll be worse than ever.”
“No, it will be magnificent. They’ll rebuild this mass of slums and shantytowns into a real city. And you will be part of it.”
There was no heat in the flames, just a tingling sensation that soothed Lizzy, assuring her that she could trust this man. “I can’t…I can’t sell my child,” Lizzy said.
“Never,” the man said. “You’re saving her.”
Lizzy nodded, then passed the baby into the man’s thick, muscled arms. For the first time she realized that the girl had inherited her own good looks, would grow up to be a stunningly beautiful woman.
Much later that night the fire died, consumed in rain and still air. As the sun rose on a mouldering city, Lizzy emerged from the lake and began walking. The places where the fire burned fiercest were still too hot to go near, but there were plenty of other places with plenty of things to do. Lizzy reached one of them before the sun was fully up. Immediately she began organizing the children and willing adults into a squad that managed to find food and water to sustain them until the city lumbered back into operation.
Though she said nothing, by noon everybody knew that Lizzy made a pact with the devil and gave him her child. By evening she was the unofficial matriarch of the neighborhood. In a world where the innocent were lynched and the god fearing were visited with inferno, the community silently agreed that they were better off with Lizzy on their side.
Twelve years passed, and though Lizzy never spoke of her lost child, the fact lingered in the air around her wherever she went. People in the neighborhood went to her for help with matchmaking, child-rearing, and business decisions. She mediated disputes, intervened with mischievous youths, and served as the neighborhood marriage counselor. Who could possibly have more experience, more wisdom in these matters, than the woman who’d sold her child to the devil?
Late one afternoon a slender girl with large, almond colored eyes, the slight hips and breasts of a girl’s body just beginning to experiment with being a woman, and a cat’s grace despite that, knocked on Lizzy’s door. Neighbors on their porches watched with interest because, though they’d never seen the girl before, Lizzy immediately wrapped her arms around her and began screaming with joy. Seconds later she pulled the girl inside and closed the door, but that didn’t stop the neighbors’ imaginations from visualizing the scene inside. Reunited with what could only be her lost daughter, Lizzy wept, and mothered, and did all the right things for a newly redeemed mother to do while the girl silently endured the attentions. And as they pictured it, the neighbors couldn’t help but whisper to each other, anxiously passing along the question from one stoop to the next, “What about the devil?”
That night, long after most people slipped inside their own homes, so late in fact that only the drunks who’d fallen asleep against the buildings remained to witness it, Lizzy and the girl slipped out. They returned an hour later, supporting a limping shadow between them. Later, when the witnesses recounted the event filtered through their drunken dreamings they insisted that all three burned in dark blue flame, but when they checked for signs of scorching along their path all they found was a thin trail of blood.
Lizzy never spoke of her two house guests, though everybody knew about them. In fact, the only sign that anything had changed was that in the market she bought enough to feed three people well when she typically bought the scant minimum required to sustain herself. Then, as whispers spread that Lizzy had the devil in her home, that he was wounded, that she was nursing him back to health, people began leaving offerings of food outside her door. The gifts became so copious that she stopped going to the market entirely.
The devil was indeed wounded, worse than any of the neighbors with their nosy interest and rampant rumors ever guessed. He’d been stabbed twice, deep wounds that bled and became infected. Lizzy ruined all of her linens in staunching the bleeding and binding the wounds, but that was nothing to her. Sheets, towels, and clothes were all expendable if they might save the devil’s life. And there was her daughter, a queer, reserved child who never left his side and tore the sheets to make bandages with a cougar’s ferocity. Lizzy didn’t know what to make of the girl who looked so much like herself, yet seemed so much like the man who’d raised her. They spoke little, connected only in their shared quest to keep their patient alive.
Two days after their arrival, the devil fell into a fever. He moaned in his sleep and burned with the heat always strangely absent before. Lizzy suggested fetching a doctor, but the girl began to tremble and stopped her.
“You can’t bring a doctor to him,” the girl insisted. “They’ll find him and he can’t fight them like this.”
“Who?” Lizzy asked.
The girl shook her head and refused to answer.
For the first time it occurred to Lizzy that her daughter might be in danger. Strangely, she’d always felt that with the devil, her daughter would be safe.
Late that night the girl woke Lizzy. “His fever’s too high,” the girl said. “We have to break it.”
“Okay,” Lizzy agreed.
“We have to cauterize the wounds first.”
“That could kill him. Let’s just break his fever.”
“If we do that his body has no way of fighting the infection.” The girl handed Lizzy a pair of knives with long, wide blades. “Put those on the coals,” the girl commanded.
Lizzy obeyed, reassured by the confidence lacing her daughter’s words.
Once the blades of the knife glowed red hot, Lizzy returned to the bedside with them. The girl held the devil’s hand and stared at him. “Do it now, Mamma. I’ll help him not feel it.”
Lizzy peeled bandages away from the first of the wounds, blood seeping in as the seal on the wound broke, then pressed the flat of one of the knives against it. Instantly he woke and tried to sit up, but he didn’t scream as Lizzy had expected. Sweat covered his brow, but he remained silent and tense until Lizzy removed the knife. Then he sagged back against the pillows with a sigh.
“One more. You have to help me,” the girl said, her eyes still locked on the devil.
He nodded silently, gasping for air. “I will.”
Another bandage removed, and this time he moaned loudly, but it was still far from the shrieking Lizzy expected in response to burning a man’s flesh until it melted and closed together.
“I’ll keep your fever down. Sleep,” the girl said as she wiped sweat from the devil’s brow. Moments later he passed out.
The devil was quick to heal after that. Four days later Lizzy was helping him eat when he sighed and leaned back into the pillows propping him up. “Thank you for helping me,” he said.
“Of course,” Lizzy said.
“I will owe you a great debt all my life.”
“Mine to you is greater,” Lizzy said solemnly.
The devil shook his head, as if to brush away the thought of such a thing. Then he put out his hand. “I’m Patrick, by the way.”
Patrick was curious name for the devil, but Lizzy took it in stride. “Eliza,” she said, grasping his hand and shaking it.
“I am honored to know you, Eliza.”
Two months passed with Lizzy nursing and mothering, Patrick convalescing, and her daughter tolerating it with resigned forbearance. Lizzy would always reflect on those two months as the happiest time in her life, but as winter closed in on the gray city, Patrick and the girl prepared to leave.
“You could stay,” Lizzy suggested lightly as they gathered their things to depart.
“Why would we do that?” her daughter asked.
“Never mind,” Lizzy said, embarrassed How could she explain that two months with a man in her bed – even if she spent them on the floor – and her daughter at home was the happiest she’d been in all of her life. She was safe, secure, and terribly lonely. The devil’s liaison got respect, but not friends.
Patrick must have seen the loneliness she feared returning to, because he took her hand with one of his, put his hand under her chin with the other. “From now on you will always know your daughter is safe. And if she is in need of help, you will know, and you will be able to find her. I promise.”
Lizzy stared into Patrick’s eyes, looking for the devil, finding only the first man to sleep in her bed without breaking her heart. She nodded her gratitude and squeezed his hand to indicate her understanding.
Patrick smiled at her. Her daughter gave her a reluctant hug. Then, because she’d sold her daughter to the devil, Lizzy let them go. When the door of her apartment closed she slumped into a chair, counting the seconds until they would be far enough gone that she could weep without their knowing.
The neighbors watched them leave, spiriting themselves away in the early dawn. As they watched, they whispered and nodded to each other, pointing with a sense of vindication, because the man and girl leaving their neighborhood were trailed by a path of cold blue flame.
The next twelve years in the time after the fire passed much the same as the first. But when, in the late afternoon a stunningly gorgeous young woman knocked on Lizzy’s door, just as many women had over the years, the neighbors knew – Lizzy’s daughter was back. She was older now than Lizzy had been during the fire, but she had realized all of her mother’s potential, her lithe figure round and firm. She carried herself like a panther, slinking down the street to the door she wanted.
There were no surprised screams of joy from Lizzy this time, she seemed to expect the girl. Lizzy opened the door, the girl went in, and that was all the neighbors knew of that meeting.
Lizzy and her daughter sat across from each other at Lizzy’s small kitchen table. The first several minutes passed in silence, Lizzy studying her daughter’s face with wonder as she recognized her own features, the girl looking for the right words. Her fingers traced the grain in the wood of the table, until the silence stretched too far and her need to break it overwhelmed her reluctance to speak. “He’s dead.”
“What?” Lizzy said, disbelief spreading through her like winter frost.
“Patrick. He’s dead,” the girl repeated.
“How can he die?” Lizzy asked.
The girl stared at her. “Why save his life if he can’t die?”
Lizzy wanted to argue, to insist that the devil must be immortal. But she knew better. She’d held the knives to his chest, cauterizing the wounds that nearly killed him twelve years before. And yet, he was the devil.
“I never knew, but I thought you might have been lovers.”
“No,” Lizzy said. Then, because she still couldn’t make herself believe it, “How did he die?”
The girl winced and stared at her hands. “They got him. They beat him, they cut him, and then they hung him by the neck from a tree branch.”
“Lynched?” Lizzy asked, horrified.
“He was already dead.” She swallowed, then forced her eyes up to meet her mother’s. “I thought you would want to know. He would have wanted me to tell you. I think a part of him loved you.”
“You have to stay,” Lizzy said.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll be safe here. Safe from them. Stay.”
The girl smiled sympathetically. “I can’t. I have to take his place.”
“He was supposed to keep you safe,” Lizzy said.
“He did,” the girl insisted. “Now I have to protect his legacy.”
Lizzy didn’t know what she was talking about. She didn’t even know who they were. But she understood her daughter’s expression of resolve, and resigned herself to wait. She would know as long as her daughter was safe, and if she needed help, she would know where to go. That was enough for her.
Another twelve years passed. At fifty-four Lizzy could have passed for seventy. Hunched and wrinkled, her head was covered in white hair, her hands knobby and unsteady. She almost never left her home anymore. Enough people still left offerings at her door that she subsisted on those, though now the offerings were out of charity rather than respect for the devil.
It was late autumn, an Indian summer, gold and crimson leaves dropping in the sunshine and mild, quiet weather. The sounds of street traffic and people in their homes working with the windows open echoed around the block. Then they fell silent, making room for the noise of an old woman shrieking with grief and misery.
Lizzy ran into the street, her clothing and hair in disarray, sobbing uncontrollably and screaming as she gathered breath for it. She collapsed in the middle of the street, wailing as she did, “They got her! They got my little girl!”
One of the young mothers living in Lizzy’s building ran out to put her arms around the old woman and, if not comfort her, at least get her out of the way. Lizzy refused to move.
“Oh God! Why would you take my baby?”
“Please, Miss Eliza, come in off the road,” the mother said.
“There’s nothing left for me there,” Lizzy said.
A moment later the mother backed away from Lizzy, frightened by the blue flames suddenly crawling over the old woman.
The neighbors gathered to watch as Lizzy was engulfed in the flames. Nobody tried to smother them. Nobody went near Lizzy. They just watched as she burned in the cold inferno, cooking down to a sooty black ash. As the flames dissipated, so did the neighbors, and the breeze of a new front bringing snow and ice scattered the ashes, letting them settle in the parks and gardens of the neighborhood, where they fertilized the trees.