The crone was about a block up from the subway station.
Huddled in a doorway, her legs sprawled out onto the sidewalk; Chris smelled her before he was close enough to make out her features. Her feet wore tattered and fraying converse sneakers, with heavy socks despite the heat. Her legs were scabbed and veined, the skin purple and bruised wherever it was revealed.
She lay supine, watching the traffic. From her prone position, these cars were monstrous, roaring leviathans, snarling at each other, threatening collision.
Chris, lost in thoughts of finding Angela’s apartment, was forced to sidestep by an oncoming mother, pushing a stroller with the single-minded, fierce certainty of a New York parent. He tripped over the old woman’s sneakered legs and fell face-first on the sidewalk, deep into the cocoon of her funky odours.
“Shit,” he let out on a breath, inhaling again, tasting the woman; mingled sweat and Brooklyn grime. He looked back at the parent with her stroller but she had already moved on, into another life, another universe.
Everything moves at speed in New York, time bends on the corner of each block.
He pulled himself up until he was sitting on the sidewalk. There was a graze on his face, but he couldn’t tell how badly it was bleeding. He’d landed square on his knees and they ached as he moved. He was just about to stand when the crone spoke.
“Don’t go diving,” she intoned in cracked syllables, voice grinding through shredded vocal chords.
“Huh?” Chris turned to look at her.
And was shocked to find bright blue eyes within that dirty face. Those eyes, luminescent with reflected sunlight, glimmered back at him with a wiry, lively intelligence. Despite being surrounded by lank, greasy hair and mottled, filthy skin, a scar dragged across the forehead, those eyes shone.
“Don’t go diving,” she repeated.
Her voice was surf running over a gravel beach. When she smiled, her teeth were rotten stumps, ground down and filthy as the rest of her.
Chris went to stand, ready to excuse this as just another example of the raving homeless, ready to continue his forensic pilgrimage to Angela’s apartment.
“You have it in your hand,” she intoned and he froze.
She looked at him with those glacier-ice eyes. Nodded at his waistline.
Chris looked down. His hand was in his jacket pocket, curled around the cube. He could feel the vibration of it. But could not remember reaching for it.
“Don’t go diving,” she said quietly, voice dropping to a whisper, yet remaining clear to Chris despite the neighborhood bustle. “The water is brackish deep, and chokes fish and frogs alike. There are hands in the dark.”
“In the dark water, the cold will freeze your bones.”
Chris was sure that the cube had begun to resonate to the woman’s words. It buzzed lightly with every syllable. He shook his head as if clearing cobwebs, fighting to break the woman’s gaze. He stood, knees popping and reigniting the pain of his fall.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
And the crone suddenly cackled; loud, shrill, piercing.
The cube erupted to life in his hand – still in his pocket, still curled around the black smoothness – and he was certain he was about to puke. He started to walk, and the walk turned into a run, leaving behind her cacophony. As he reached the end of the block and started to turn, he heard her yell again.
“Don’t go diving!”
And then he was around the corner, blocked from her noise by the building and Brooklyn’s uproar. It took a huge effort of will to let go of the cube and allow it to drop to the bottom of his pocket. Angela’s apartment was a couple of blocks from here.
He stopped, stood for a moment, calming his heartbeat and steadying his breath. That done, he watched for a gap in the traffic and ran across the street, attention fixed upon his destination.
Behind him, the crone leaned upon the corner building to watch him go.
“Down, down, a-down we go,” she sang to herself in nursery doggerel, “deep, deep, a-deep we go. Where we drown, we don’t know. But down, down, a-down we go.”
Her ancient hand raised and waved farewell as Chris turned the far corner.