I edged my way back into the crowd, pressing close to the buildings, to avoid the occasional shower of slops that splattered into the street from the windows high above. There were several thousand people in Edinburgh, and the sewage from all of them was running down the gutters of the cobbled street, depending on gravity and the frequent rain to keep the city habitable.
The low, dark opening to Carfax Close yawned just ahead, across the expanse of the Royal Mile. I stopped dead, looking at it, my heart beating hard enough to be heard a yard away, had anyone been listening.
It wasn’t raining, but was just about to, and the dampness in the air made my hair curl. I pushed it off my forehead, tidying it as best I could without a mirror. Then I caught sight of a large plate-glass window up ahead, and hurried forward.
The glass was misty with condensation, but provided a dim reflection, in which my face looked flushed and wide-eyed, but otherwise presentable. My hair, however, had seized the opportunity to curl madly in all directions, and was writhing out of its hairpins in excellent imitation of Medusa’s locks. I yanked the pins out impatiently, and began to twist up my curls.
There was a woman inside the shop, leaning across the counter. There were three small children with her, and I watched with half an eye as she turned from her business to address them impatiently, swatting with her reticule at the middle one, a boy who was fiddling with several stalks of fresh anise that stood in a pail of water on the floor.
It was an apothecary’s shop; glancing up, I saw the name “Haugh” above the door, and felt a thrill of recognition. I had bought herbs here, during the brief time I had lived in Edinburgh. The decor of the window had been augmented sometime since by the addition of a large jar of colored water, in which floated something vaguely humanoid. A fetal pig, or perhaps an infant baboon; it had leering, flattened features that pressed against the rounded side of the jar in a disconcerting fashion.
“Well, at least I look better than you!” I muttered, shoving in a recalcitrant pin.
I looked better than the woman inside, too, I thought. Her business concluded, she was stuffing her purchase into the bag she carried, her thin face frowning as she did so. She had the rather pasty look of a city dweller, and her skin was deeply lined, with sharp creases running from nose to mouth, and a furrowed forehead.
“De’il tak’ ye, ye wee ratten,” she was saying crossly to the little boy as they all clattered out of the shop together. “Have I no told ye time and again to keep yer paws in yer pockets?”
“Excuse me.” I stepped forward, interrupting, impelled by a sudden irresistible curiosity.
“Aye?” Distracted from maternal remonstration, she looked blankly at me. Up close, she looked even more harried. The corners of her mouth were pinched, and her lips folded in—no doubt because of missing teeth.
“I couldn’t help admiring your children,” I said, with as much pretense of admiration as I could manage on short notice. I beamed kindly at them. “Such pretty babies! Tell me, how old are they?”
Her jaw dropped, confirming the absence of several teeth. She blinked at me, then said, “Oh! Well, that’s maist kind o’ ye, mum. Ah … Maisri here is ten,” she said, nodding at the eldest girl, who was in the act of wiping her nose on her sleeve, “Joey’s eight—tak’ yer finger out o’ yer nose, ye clattie imp!” she hissed, then turned and proudly patted her youngest on the head. “And wee Polly’s just turned six this May.”
“Really!” I gazed at the woman affecting astonishment. “You scarcely look old enough to have children of that age. You must have married very young.”
She preened slightly, smirking.
“Och, no! Not so young as all that; why, I was all o’ nineteen when Maisri was born.”
“Amazing,” I said, meaning it. I dug in my pocket and offered the children each a penny, which they took with shy bobs of thanks. “Good day to you—and congratulations on your lovely family,” I said to the woman, and walked away with a smile and a wave.
Nineteen when the eldest was born, and Maisri was ten now. She was twenty-nine. And I, blessed by good nutrition, hygiene, and dentistry, not worn down by multiple pregnancies and hard physical labor, looked a good deal younger than she. I took a deep breath, pushed back my hair, and marched into the shadows of Carfax Close.