Soul Painter

by Cara LuechtMiriam paints the future…but can she change it?

Chicago 1890

People jostle their way below the windows of Miriam s warehouse home, never thinking to look up at the woman who stands alone in her quiet rooms, painting their faces. But Miriam s gift as an artist goes beyond a mere recording of what is: Miriam paints their future. Only once was she wrong.

Into her alley, a woman has been coming who doesn’t match the future Miriam once saw for her. The bright girl was supposed to grow into a respected businesswoman. Instead, Ione disappears nightly into the shadows of the alley next to the cathedral with the other prostitutes.

Then one night, while walking through the city fog, Miriam finds Ione broken and beaten in the alley. Miriam is forced to open her home to the stranger whose face she knows so well and open her life to change she never could have foretold.

Together with Miriam’s solicitor and the deacon from the cathedral across the street, Miriam and Ione must combat the evil at work in a city already rife with corruption. Women are missing: some are found floating in the river, some are never seen again. Finally engaged with the world she has so long observed, finally stirred by love and friendship, Miriam realizes the responsibility of her gifting. No longer can she just paint what will be she must now help Ione find the future she is meant to have…and find her own along with it.

Chapter 1

Chicago, 1891

The bricks crumbled under her feet. Down by the docks, repairs to the infrastructure of the thick, stretching city were considered more luxury than necessity. Walking in the dark hours, after the fog slipped up from the churning lake and gave body to every shadow and mass to every lamp, walking then, when even the air closed in around her, she could move freely.

Her long wool skirt blended with the fog. A hooded cape, buttoned at the chin, molded to the back of her head and fell over her face. The heavy folds draped her shoulders.

It had been years since someone had looked directly into her gray eyes. She wrapped that knowledge around her like the fog, wore the isolation like a second cloak, let it melt into her pores as she navigated the city.

Her feet knew every cobble, every crack. She counted the steps. At step nineteen, the brick gave way to yellow, desperate patches of grass. Six steps later, she turned behind a fence, again counting the steps to the streetlamp burning at the base of the cathedral stairs. A statue of the Virgin glowed in the muted light. The Virgin’s robes were faded to gray and a crack scarred her smooth complexion. It crawled from her hidden ear, across her lips, and toward the inner corner of her eye. The crack never lengthened. It was almost as if the Virgin had decided when the pain should stop.

Miriam loved the Virgin. She loved how her stone-carved hair was pulled tight under her cascading veil. Miriam imagined her own brown hair becoming one with her colorless cape and falling to the ground. On damp nights it wicked up the moisture from the stones, and, if she stood still enough, clung to the street. For as much as she avoided the crowds, she was as much a part of the city as the immoveable, silent Virgin.

The church towered overhead. She knew the stonework, the carved faces of the saints, and every piece of stained glass. The windows of her rooms in the upper levels of the warehouse faced the cathedral, and although she had not stepped a foot inside since childhood, she could remember every detail: the sputtering candles to the right of the heavy oak doors, the pool of water that never rippled, and how the sun cast pieces of color across the heads of the penitent, kneeling parishioners.

She hadn’t stepped inside since her mother’s funeral. Her father had sat in the front pew, stone-faced, clenching her eight-year-old fingers. His hand trembled, once. They followed her mother’s casket out of the doors, down the stone steps, and watched the men load her into the wagon. When they returned from her grave, they turned right, into her father’s warehouse. He carried Miriam up the stairs, past his offices, and into her new nursery, where he kissed the top of her head and handed her over to a motherly nurse.

They never returned to the glittering townhouse where her mother had hosted parties for the city’s elite. As far as she knew, her mother’s brushes still sat, a decade later, on her dressing table with her tangled hair wrapped around the bristles.

Miriam looked up to the carved façade of the cathedral. She could only make out the details to the bottom of the second row of windows. There, the light failed.

When her father died, his solicitor knocked on the door. Miriam watched him from her rooms above the warehouse. Eventually, the bespectacled man gave up and mailed the letters. She instructed him through correspondence to leave all as it was, to make deposits into her trust at regular intervals, and to send her the balance sheets. He complied and left her in peace. The few men who worked in the offices were paid generous pensions.

And Miriam locked the doors.

Down by the docks, the city was never akin to the rich, planted gardens where she’d spent the years in her mother’s arms. But they had a flavor of their own. A reality she could smell and taste from her windows above the streets. The changing landscape of people passing, hurrying, every day, gave her an unlimited source of new faces to capture on canvas.

The church was the center of her world even if she never stepped inside. She gave, via her solicitor, and in return was rewarded with glimpses into the lives of the devoted, the employed, and those on the periphery. They were close to the docks and the shipbuilders. While some sailors populated the stone steps to wait for a priest to hear their confessions, others used the deep shadows that ran through the alleyway and found reason to confess.

Miriam stepped around the Virgin and out of the illuminated mist. There would be no one in the alley at that hour, and she was tempted to change her path, to veer down the narrow walkway, to see where it all happened. She didn’t. Instead, she counted her steps back to the warehouse door, pulled her key from her pocket, inserted it into the well-oiled lock, and turned it. The lock opened without hesitation, as relieved to find her as she was to find it, and she stepped into the dark, dusty room. She closed the door, locked it behind her, and turned to the stairs. She didn’t need to light a lamp.

Once upstairs, she made tea. She sat in her living room with her feet up on cushions and her back pressed deep into the upholstery of her chair. Her father’s chair still sat on the other side of the room, with his imprint permanently registered in the sawdust stuffing. Miriam never sat in the chair herself, nor had she ever thought to remove it. It filled the corner of the heavily decorated room as if it had grown there of its own volition, and she would no more extract it from its place than she would chop down some unsuspecting country tree. There simply was no reason.

The cushion under her feet was red, with gold stitching and tassels in a rainbow of colors. On its own, it would have appeared ostentatious, gaudy even. But in Miriam’s room, an echo of her father’s younger years spent in the orient, it was completely at home.

She watched from her lead-framed, factory-grade windows until the sun glinted off the cathedral’s stained glass panes. When it reflected and caught the crystals hanging from the lampshade next to her, she rose, rinsed her cup and saucer, set in on the counter to dry, and found her bed where she would sleep until the bells of the church chimed and the school spilled its children into the streets. The children’s faces were her favorite, had been since she was a child herself, watching them from above.

They wore their day like a mask. Over the years she watched as that mask slowly became their adult face, just as hers did in the mirror. But she painted, painted the children when the mask was still a mask. Painted the child, and then added layers of brush strokes over the child’s face, predicting with color the person they would become.

John had made the habit of watching for her before the sun burned off the fog. As a deacon in the cathedral, he woke before all the others in order to prepare for the morning mass. It was a congregation consisting primarily of aging mothers praying for wayward sons, and wayward sons who had exhausted every other resource. Of course, there was never an opportunity to match mother with son.

The strong coffee he poured from the pot did little to add to the early hour, so he turned off the lights and watched the street through the barred windows. He knew she would be by. The fog had come in heavy that night and had only thickened during the pre-morning hours.

She stopped as he knew she would. Once again he took a step nearer to the pane of glass. He could see a shadow of what appeared to be fine, small features. Under the shadow of the hood he failed to make out the color of her eyes.

He wasn’t sure why it mattered. It shouldn’t. She was a soul, like the countless other souls that passed by every day. She was a soul who never stepped a foot into the church. He knew he should turn away, should review the passages for that morning’s service, should make sure everything was ready. There were more pressing matters, more urgent needs. People walked by every day, desperate, hopeless, yet she filled his thoughts.

Maybe it was the way she paused to face the statue. Her motionless lips open with her exhale, as if she might start up a conversation. He thought of her lips. Wondered if they had ever felt the pressure of a man, wondered how much she had in common with Mary.

Mary. That’s what he called her in his mind. She was called by other names. The school children whispered about her. They called her the factory witch. The eldest priest called her “that poor creature.” John never questioned his superior about her real name. He didn’t trust himself enough to maintain the proper demeanor of concerned, but casual indifference.

Mary she was.

Ione shivered. She hated the fog. Hated the way it hid the men. Hated the way she could hear their work boots slosh in uneven stumbles before she could see their approach. But they always knew where to find her.

She waited at the entrance to the alley and watched the strange, quiet fog-woman pause mere feet from where Ione stood. Ione shifted behind the hedges at the entrance to the alley. The solitary woman with the ghostly white skin unsettled her far more than the men who claimed her time. A drip of water fell from a low branch and traveled down her bare shoulder, into the void between her breasts. Ione shivered again.

The clock struck four chimes. But even that bold, bronze beacon was dampened by the ever-thickening blanket that suffocated the docks. It was time to go home, to crawl into bed with her younger sisters, and to look in on her mother. She moved her toes against the night’s earnings wadded in a cloth under her stocking. The coins were taking on the chill of the concrete. Her bed would be warm, her sisters’ limbs smooth and soft. So unlike the rough, groping hands of the men that held her still, then trembled as they fastened buttons and dropped the coins into her hand—sometimes with a mumbled apology, sometimes with a sneer. Her mother was too sick to ask where the money came from.

Ione looked up from her hiding place. The fog-woman had slipped away. Ione stepped out of the shadows and into the damp light of the streetlamp. In the morning, after her sisters had left for school, Ione would go to the butcher—to the back door, but to the butcher, nonetheless—and she would buy soup bones. The good ones, with meat still tucked in the crevices. She would buy the bones and boil them to a rich broth, and her sisters would come home to something hot and good. She would spread the marrow on a cracker for her mother, and maybe her mother would eat. Ione wiggled her toes against the money one more time before stepping off the curb and into the street. It had been a profitable night.

Jenny passed by—a white girl with dirty hair and gapped teeth. She was on her way home too, only Jenny lived with her father, one who knew how Jenny spent her nights. They made quick eye contact without slowing down. Jenny nodded her recognition before turning down the alley that led to her storefront rooms. Ione continued into the fog.

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Chapter 2

Miriam counted out the exact change, tucked it in an envelope, and folded it securely. The money was for the errand boy.

He had red, red hair, and the face of an eight year old, although Miriam knew he had to be closer to fourteen. She counted the steps down to the warehouse floor as she calculated how long he’d had been delivering her groceries. Soon he would have a job on the docks, and then she would have to find someone else. The potential for a younger brother was always there. That would be acceptable.

One table sat next to the exterior door at the base of the stairs. Miriam kept it uncovered and dusted. Transom windows spaced evenly down the high factory walls let in sufficient light. She checked the time and decided she was early enough to walk the inside perimeter of the huge building. Boxes and crates lined the walls under the windows. Tables, chairs, conveyor belts, and heavy machines she knew nothing about were stacked on top of one another and pushed toward the center of the room. They were covered with tarps that draped to the floor. Miriam’s heart beat faster as she rounded the final, tight corner. Anyone could be hiding under a table, concealed by tarps and shadows, and Miriam would never be the wiser. She quickened her pace back to the table by the door.

She pulled the envelope from her pocket, placed it in the exact center of the table, unlatched the door, and rushed to the dark under the stairs, where she sat on a crate to wait.

She checked her pocket watch again—her father’s watch, really. Dug it out of her waistband and pressed the warm gold button that flipped it open. The second hand never stopped. She clicked it closed without registering the time.

The door latch lifted.

“Why do you do this every week?” A whiny, young female voice echoed through the warehouse.

“Because I get paid.” Adolescence razed the boyish answer. Miriam smiled to herself, considering the color she would mix for his cracking voice. “You can come in, you know.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Well, you can’t stand in the street by yourself.”

“Yes I can.”

Miriam heard the door scrape open to the furthest extent the rusted hinges would allow.

“No you can’t,” the boy argued.

Light from the open door flooded the room in an uneven rectangle. Through the stairs, Miriam watched the boy take a step in and hold the door open with his back for his younger sister.

“Is she in there?”

“Of course not.” He slid across the door and set the heavy brown bag on the floor to hold it open. “She’s never here. She just leaves the money in an envelope.”

The girl took a tentative step over the threshold and looked toward the stairway, her blue gaze trying to discern shapes from the shadows, but Miriam knew she was hidden well enough.

“Why does she live in here?” She squinted into the dark.

“I think she must live up there.” The boy gestured toward the top of the stairs.

“I don’t like that.”

“You don’t have to. Now, hold the door open for me.”

“I hear congratulations are in order.”

John jumped and turned from the window.

“I apologize. I didn’t mean to startle you.” Father Ayers floated into the room, his black robe reaching to just above the carpet. It hovered there as he came to a stop, assisted by his generous waistline. “Anything interesting down in the alley?”

John cleared his throat. “No. Of course not.” He took a few steps away from the window. “Is there something you need me to do?”

“No, I just wanted to congratulate you. I received notice you’ll be taking your vows next month.”

John nodded. He had read the notice days before but hadn’t mentioned it to anyone. He rubbed his sweaty palms against his modest robe and tried to embrace the anxiety as excitement.

“Are you feeling well?” A concerned look clouded Father Ayers’s gaze, but not too much. John envied him for his mastery of a false, simple demeanor. His discrete question, alluding to health, dispersed any questions of intent, and released John from explaining his gaze into the unholy, narrow space running from street to street.

“I’m feeling quite well,” John lied. The elder priest didn’t look away. John pulled a chair out from a small round table next to a bookcase and sat, heavily. “No, I’m sorry. That wasn’t the truth. I’m not fine.” He ground his elbows into his knees and dropped his head into his hands, closing his eyes against the vision of the worn, red rugs.

Father Ayers pulled a chair from the other side of the room and sat down, facing John, remaining silent until John looked up.

“What’s troubling you?”

“Do you ever have the feeling that something is dreadfully wrong?” John sat back, slouching against the hard wooden back of the chair. His long legs stretched under his robes, his knees straining the fabric.

“Wrong with what?”

“That’s just it. I’m not sure. I keep watching out the window.”

Father Ayers looked down to his own clasped hands. “Are you afraid of your own feelings? Is this about your vows?”

“No. Maybe. I’m not sure.” He let his breath escape in a rush and paused to feel the emptiness before taking in another. “I see the same people come in and out of the church and the alley. I pray for them, even those who knowingly live in sin. Then I worry about them, and I watch for them, and I stand by the window waiting to see if they are back for another night of torture.”

John stood and crossed back to the window. The orange light of dusk fell on his hands as he leaned against the sill. “I see things. Things I don’t want to see. And I wonder why I watch.” He turned back to the priest and smirked. “It’s a fine line between longing and praying.”

Father Ayers measured him. “You’re where you need to be.” He stood, picked up the chair, and put it back where it belonged. “It’s the students who don’t understand that line that have difficulty later.” He moved back to the doorway. “Watch over your flock. They live in a meadow of temptation and sin. The meadow feeds them, but it also hides the dangers. What kind of shepherd would you be if you failed to watch over your charges because you feared for your own life?”

“But I thought I was supposed to keep my thoughts pure.” John gestured toward the ground outside the window. “It’s pretty hard to do when watching that.” His eyes fell to the concrete below.

“You’ll know if it switches from about them to about you.” The elder priest slipped out of the room.

John leaned his forehead against the cool glass, hoping Father Ayers was right but unable to shake the expanding evening dread. He wanted to see Mary, wanted her to walk down the alley. Wondered if her serene spirit could accomplish more than the pathetic, curious disgust he mustered, safe on his perch in God’s house.

A lone woman in bright colors walked from the back of the alley. John marveled. They never thought to look up. Even when dropping to their knees, they never looked up.

What he would do if they did, he had no idea. They knew what they did was wrong. Knowing a church leader watched would only add guilt. But he wished to meet their eyes, to tell them to run, something bad was coming.

The girls were tucked in and asleep. Ione pulled a Mason jar from behind the stack of mismatched plates. She reached to the bottom for the coin she would press into the doctor’s hand.

He ducked out from behind the curtain and paused. “I’m sorry.” He frowned. “I’ve done all I can do.” He set his brown leather bag on the table and tightened the buckle before meeting Ione’s eyes. “It won’t be long.”

Ione nodded, glancing toward her sisters’ bed. She hadn’t even told them yet.

“Here.” Ione held the coin out for the doctor to take.

“No, there’s nothing I can do. I’m not going to charge you just to give you bad news.” He pulled up the leather strap and tightened the buckle further.

“But you still came. You were the only one who would,” she whispered, meeting his eyes.

The doctor took a step nearer and settled his stark white hand over Ione’s, closing her fingers around her precious coin. His skin was warm, and his fingernails were trimmed perfectly.

He held her hand in his. “I’m sorry I was the only one who would come.” His eyes bored into hers, his sincerity evident in his scratchy tone. He dropped her hand and turned toward the door. “You’ll let me know if there is anything you need?” He hesitated, his hand on the knob. “Is there something?”

Ione looked down to the wide plank floor, to the one nail that had worked itself out of a board. “What do I do—I mean, when she…” She let the question die off.

“I’ll come back in the morning to check on her. We can talk about it then.”

Ione nodded, not trusting her own voice. She closed and locked the door behind the doctor. She wouldn’t be working that night.

Her sisters snored softly—Maggie, twelve, and Lucy. Lucy rolled over and pulled her arms out from underneath the quilt. Her hands had lost their baby roundness over the last year. Ione tucked her back in and brushed her cheek with the back of her fingers. At four, she would only remember snippets of their mother.

Ione trailed her fingers across their fine quilt. The stitches were perfectly spaced; their mother’s competence as a seamstress displayed in shades of green. Ione hoped to teach her sisters just as their mother had taught her. She would protect them from her truth. If she’d never left in the first place, she wouldn’t be living as she was now. She’d paid for her rebellion. Ione straightened and turned away from her sisters’ bed.

She was still paying. She could only hope her mother knew how sorry she was.

But it was a sacrifice worth making, and it would only be a little longer. Her mother had a warm bed. Her sisters still went to class. They had food. Ione slipped behind her mother’s curtain.

The room was sweet-smelling, the air still. Ione could hear her shallow breathing. Her chest rose in trembles, and her distended stomach strained against her nightshirt. She hadn’t even woken for a taste of the doctor’s sticky pain syrup.

Ione knelt at the edge of her mother’s bed, the wood floor biting into her knees. “It’s fine, Mama,” she said. “If you need to go, you can. We’ll be fine.” She reached up and brushed her mother’s dark hair. Her mother grimaced, as if even that small disturbance hurt. Ione pulled her hand away and laid her forehead against the thin mattress.

In the wee hours, Ione woke. Her mother was cold. Ione covered her face, pulled the curtain closed, and waited for her sisters to stir. She would let them sleep one last night, one last night with a mother.

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