Pain can blot out the world, make the details go missing like a cataract occluding vision. Right then, Maria was missing the smell of trash stacked almost waist-high in the alley, the taint of sewage clinging to a brick wall where the grates had belched up steam, and the ripple-rustle sound of rats scurrying through black plastic, their claws opening holes in the bags and spilling milk rings and coffee grounds, apple rinds and eggshells. Instead, she winced and braced herself against a wall that was clear of trash but tagged with paint that had dripped and run, layer on layer marking and demarking ownership, like a map redrawn by a mad cartographer.
There was something wrong with her, something in her guts writhing and drawing her life, feeding on joy and normalcy the way children suckle on mother’s milk. It wasn’t the C-word. Cancer. That’s how she thought of it every time it came up, every time it intruded on memory, a guest waving a cleaver at a tea party. The C-word had taken her mother. It had touched her father near the end, when he had finally decided to give up the cigarillos and the rotgut. Every now and then, she would smell those things – smoke and whiskey – drifting by on a breeze, and she’d think no. No. He was gone, and the specter of the thing that had taken him wouldn’t haunt her for longer than it took to walk away from the scent and think of happier things.
And still the specter lurked. So she had gone to the doctor, with the C-word on her lips, and suffered with patience the seemingly-infinite pinpricks and bone punctures and machines that irradiated you in hopes of finding what it was that was killing you. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t the C-word, and the doctors said it wasn’t killing her, but of course it was. Of course it was. Inch by inch, in tightening bands in her stomach and back that crawled under her skin like a python in her guts. Of course it was.
They’d told her she had other options. They sent her to a pain specialist, and there were pills and electro therapy and physical therapy. But it didn’t matter. The pain ignored it, laughed at it the way you laugh at the blows of an angry child. She had tried homeopathy and naturopathy and acupuncture. Chiropractic therapy and massage. She had seen brujas and witches, Romani women with high cheekbones and dark eyes, Wiccans and Christian Scientists. In the end, the pain remained, and her money didn’t.
She moved from her house to an apartment, and then from the apartment to a rental motel, her belongings piled to the sides of the single room and in the back of her beat-up car like the trash in the alley. She had sold the things she could, and bartered what she couldn’t, and soon even those would be gone as the money went from scarce to extinct, the last wheeze of a desperate life. Work was hard to come by – no one wanted a broken woman who could only make it five, six hours before the pain settled in and took control, forcing her to a halt as she huddled in her threadbare chair and made fists that left her palms sore. She scavenged, finding things in cast-offs from far wealthier homes, and in back alleys like this one, and chuckled when the words Reduce, Reuse, Recycle flitted through her head.
And then she’d found it. Scribbled on the wall of a restroom in a Denny’s. Two words. Brother Pain. She’d sat the toilet, her eyes trying to unfocus with the ache in her guts, and stared. Brother Pain. It seemed like a taunt. Like a promise. She found a pen in her purse, and scribbled beside it Who, then went home and sat in front of the small TV the motel provided, and watched Seinfeld reruns until her eyes grew heavy and her breathing steady.
She found five dollars in her purse the next morning. Enough for a coffee, and she drove to Denny’s, her stomach in turns aching and shivering. She ordered the coffee and sat until the waitress stared, then left the cup and went to the stalls. She opened the door and held her breath, anticipation like a wire under her flesh. She looked. There, beneath Who, were the words the alleys. Disappointment flashed through her, then curiosity. What alleys? Where? She left the stall, and sat in her car for a time. Florence + The Machine played a dirge on the radio. She started the car and drove.
That first week was like a scavenger hunt. She would find traces of him on brownstone walls hidden from the sun, on dumpsters scummed over with grease and worse, slicker things. Always but a word or two, always just a glimpse.
This last scribbled on a rest stop mirror in lipstick once red, now the color of clotted blood. In a stall beneath flickering lights someone shuffled, and she heard the sound of steel on steel. She’d fled into the night and looked elsewhere.
Maria had stumbled through alleys choked with refuse, both garbage and human. Some shouted at her, some groped, gnarled hands digging into flesh, bruising her private self, leaving her skin crawling hours afterward. She dodged a man wielding a broken bottle, an emaciated pitbull at his side. The dog looked at her with sad eyes, as if to say This is where pain ends, this is where pain leads, and she looked away, moving from the man’s small hovel of scrap pressed against the side of a building that looked as if the cost of the fixtures alone could have fed a small army.
And now here, it was the last. It was the last she would – could – check, the pain having moved, grown, staking its claim like a rogue nation annexing its neighbors. It was in her knees, in her shoulders. It stabbed her with unseen claws just below the breastbone. She was ravaged, emaciated. She was cold and aching, and her thoughts flitted from one thing to the next, as though landing on any one topic would give the pain purchase. She gasped, taking her breath back for a moment, and pulled her hand away from the wall. Over all the layers of paint and grime, one word had been scrawled, the hand hard, frantic.
Her heart skipped a beat, and she held still, fearful that this was the last step. She would find her Brother Pain, and drop at his feet. She swayed, then steadied, and with a gentle sigh, stepped further into the dark.
The alley became a chapel. Not in the literal sense. Maria felt the atmosphere clear, a bucolic summer day in winter. The trash that had sculpted the walls of the space into a defile of decay thinned, and then disappeared. Here, men and women still slept or leaned against cool walls, but they seemed content. They nodded as she passed, raised a hand in greeting. And there, at the end, a simple shack built between the buildings, corrugated tin propped against one another into standing walls and a roof, the opening between them draped with a bedsheet that had been printed in crimson and gold paisley. A man stood before it, hands clasped before him.
“A supplicant approaches!” he echoed across the brick, and Maria cringed. The people in the alley echoed. “Be she worthy!”
The man before the door swept the curtain to the side, indicating she was to enter. Maria paused while the pain intensified, as though it knew this place was the last stop, the last terminal on the Underground. A whimper escaped her lips. No one moved to help. This was a test, she knew. Could she meet Brother Pain on her own two feet? Would she be worthy? The pain passed, and she crept toward the door, the man beside it smiling. Gray whiskers lined his cheeks, wiry in the light. He smiled, brown teeth a testament to his vice. She wondered if it had been the C-word for him. What the Brother had done for his grizzled guts. He nodded, and she stepped into the chapel.
Darkness engulfed her for a moment as her eyes adjusted. It crept back in stages – here, a small wooden table, a Coleman lamp sputtering out light. There, a chair draped with a comforter. Here, a bedroll made neat, a ratty pillow at its head. There, a man, sitting, his skin the color of wet earth. He was wrapped in an old army jacket over a gray hooded sweatshirt. He gestured at the chair covered by the comforter, and she sat. He smiled, his eyes rheumy, and reached a hand out, placing it on hers. His skin was nearly feverish, though his touch was dry.
“And at last, you have come. What do you offer?”
Her mind skirled in panic. She stammered. “I- I have nothing.”
He shook his head. “All things in balance, and all things true. You have more than you know.”
She forced her mind to settle, forced herself to take steady, even breaths until the pain dulled to a low roar. She had given her money. She had given her time. She had given her home and her things. She seized upon something.
“I have a car.”
He shook his head.
“I have-“ she rummaged in her purse, came up with ten dollars and a pin her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. It was a gold hummingbird, tiny rubies for the eyes. They glinted in the light, and she remembered how small it looked in his hands as he held it out for a gift. The last thing he had given her before his blood turned thick, before his eyes yellowed and his breath came in ragged gasps. Tears blurred her vision for a moment. “I have this.”
He shook his head again, and frustration rose in Maria. Of all the things she had given, that was her most precious. Even when she had been forced to wait beside restaurant dumpsters for cast-off food, she hadn’t entertained the idea of parting with it. She opened her mouth to ask him what he wanted, anger making her tongue bitter. He stopped her by touching her stomach, once.
“What can you trade?”
Realization lit her thoughts. “My pain.”
He nodded, and pressed his hand against her stomach. It swirled and growled, and the pain rose, rose, rose to a crescendo, the crashing of a tsunami against her soul. Maria cried out, and her vision doubled, trebled. Brother Pain was saying something, but she just wanted it to end. She wanted it out. She took the pin in her hand and opened it, intending for a single thrust. She raised her hand, and-
It was done.
She lowered the pin, and took a breath. No pain lanced her. No ache tormented her. She looked across at the man in the chair, his eyes closed. A smile trickled across his lips. After a moment, he raised a hand.
“This is a good trade.”
She stood, and made her way from the shack on legs unsteady from newfound relief. She stood in the half-light outside, the men and women in the alley smiling at her. The man beside the door raised a hand.
“Via dolorosa!” he shouted.
“Via dolorosa!” they replied.
Maria found herself repeating it. She stood for another minute, until they brought her a bedroll and a hunk of bread and water. She bedded down as close to the chapel as she could get. The light faded from the day, and she sat alone in the dark for a while. She had given all she could, but would give a little more. She had earned her reprieve, but felt the balance uneven. When she finally drifted to sleep, sweet untroubled sleep, it was with his words on her lips.
“This is a good trade.”