In The Eye
by Gemma Files

Victory Day, 1862. Jenny Everdeane wakes early, shivering--the fire's been out for hours, leaving the Butcher's bedroom worse than an ice-house. The kind of morning when even sleeping three or more to a bed doesn't help much: Two naked whores, a half-dressed William Cutting--more commonly, Bill the Butcher--and a full-dressed Jenny, plus some skinny black alley-cat curled up purring on the pillow next to her mussed red head. Must've crept in off the street last night during all the usual excitement, somehow managing to make it past the cutting floor's distractions, a fireside full of hungry apprentices, Towser's rat-pit and McGloin's near-mad hatred of all felines; the beast has sand, all right. Cut with fast feet, to boot.

"Those things is an infestation!" She remembers McGloin telling anyone who'll listen, and most who won't. "Long-tailed devils should be bagged up an' drowned at birth, that's the only remedy--Christ alone knows they're worse than lice, or rats, or..."

From behind the counter, dry and level, over the steady sound of knives being sharpened: "...thick-skulled, heathen, Pope-lovin' Irish bastards?"

McGloin, after a long minute: "Them too."

"Aw, McGloin. You always do know what to say."

Jenny sighs slightly, her mind playing out the wobble of McGloin's thick neck as he swallowed, throat suddenly gone dry. And the glint of Bill's glass eye in the shadows as he turned away, a dead and roving moon fixed tight in its own bleak orbit.

For a while, right at the start, she'd spent some longish, child-credulous time convinced the eye could still see, somehow: After all, hadn't she once watched Bill cut the ear from a man empty-headed enough to approach him blind side-first, and throw it into the rat-pit before the fool even had time to scream? Or put a knife clean through a wooden door at twenty paces, a scurrying rat's body at fifteen, a supplicant's incautious wrist at ten. The Butcher goes nowhere with his tool-belt--nowhere but here, where most ain't allowed to keep much of their kit on, if and once they're invited to spend the night.

The belt's over there now, spread out neat and reachable on the flash vanity where Bill grooms and waxes his moustache-points of every morning. Just right over there, where either of the whores might be dazed enough to think they could get to it without having their necks opened...

But Jenny knows Bill always keeps a spare underneath his pillow. And the glass eye stays open as always, just the smallest, most disturbing crack: So much more impressive--and expressive, somehow--than the other, that shrewd, perpetually half-squint slit of brown. Bill's eye, with its cold, pale gleam always glaring grimly ahead no matter what the rest of his face is up to, its blue-etched eagle pupil ever half-poised for flight.

So no, it can't see; she's had the proof of that too many times to count, over her years beneath Bill's wing. Yet the eye does have magical properties, of a sort--in that if it falls on you, as Jenny's experience has taught her, you might either suffer an unexpected but permanent change or (in the worst cases) disappear completely.

So to draw the eye upon you, deliberate-like...well, that's blind idiot courage, for sure. Sand without measure. Or maybe a yen for self-destruction.

Jenny's known how to steer men around--or to--her since before she was old enough to bleed, almost. But those've been marks and amusements, mostly--fools fit for the lay, to rifle and drop at will. They're none of them the Butcher. No one is.

She knew when she first saw the eye begin to move her way, inexorably, that it would be different with Bill; would matter, in a way that nothing else had. That here was a dance in which one slip could kill her.

Or kill them both.


"What is it you want from me?" She'd asked him, at twelve, her head still a-ring with the pain of a fresh shiner--shoved tight back against the tabletop and clutching her skirts tight to her, cold to the spine with fright, when she found she'd woken in the very heart of Satan's legendary Circus. Must've looked pretty funny to everyone else, no doubt, for the laugh that went up: Wee Mick bitch thinks her box is made of gold, for sure, the way she's hangin' on to it!

But: "I'm the Butcher," he'd shot back, bloodstained fingers flipping out in a grand, theatrical gesture that took in the whole of the room, the meat behind, the people in front, all of Five Points itself. "You had anything I'd want, little girl, I'd've took it already. And you can believe me like Holy Writ on that particular matter."

Which she had. Still does, it comes to that.

"Still. You got good hands for a moll--s'already proved you can lift a knife, if nothing else. So how's your heart for the true lay, Miss Everdeane? I know some fagins could school the Virgin herself into a bludget to beat all bludgets, they heard it was me who sent you." A pause. "Does takes some sand, though."

"I've got that."

"Do you."

This last thrown over one shoulder, careless, as he moved back to the chopping board. And that'd sent the warming spark through her at last, a jolt of phantom whiskey; opened her mouth before she'd time to think better and let out her dead Ma's sharp tongue to play, like so:

"I have, and all--enough so's I can do what I have to, just like I always done. Mr Cutting, sir."

A fool's angry pride, puffing itself know-nothing bold: Rat against lion, chicken against hawk. But it was that, she knows now, which brought the eye upon her.

She met it and waited, heart a-hammer, hypnotized.

And: "Oh," he'd said, soft, a too-courtly whetstone rasp. "I think you'll do what I tell you to, you bog-Irish hell-cat, and thank me for it like all the rest. Think you won't even dream to breathe my same air, without I don't."

Another pause. "Now stand over there-a-ways, and don't you move--"

--since, seeing you're ready enough with your mouth, it only makes sense see if you're fit to help me with something a bit more close and quiet.

To which she straightened, slowly, and--still staring--stepped back against the Circus's far wall. Replying while she did, almost as soft as he had:

"Do with me what's your pleasure, sir."

Suspecting he would anyways, anytime he wished. And not being too disappointed, eventually, on that same score.


It was maybe a week later, a week of picking pockets to fill Bill's yet barely meeting his gaze whenever she divvied it up in front of him, that she came unexpectedly on the Butcher sitting late and alone in the Circus's snug, that smoky nook nearby where the jakes gave out. His eye caught the light as he looked up from his gin, and Jenny felt her heart squeeze tight--felt the top of her left ear sting fresh, too, where one of his blades had caught it when he'd halo'ed her head in steel that first night.

"Jenny Everdeane," he said, a bit slower than usual--with drink, perhaps, or thought. Or both.

"A very good night to you, sir," she said.

The Butcher nodded slightly, as though he doubted that assessment, but held it wasn't worth the bother of disagreement.

And: "Sit," he told her. Adding, after a moment, when she had--"I spoke harsh with you, when last we met; over-harsh, might be. But I ain't a man to be brooked, leastwise in front of them that needs to fear me. Do you take my distinction?"

"Yes, sir."

Another nod. "Still, you stood up well in the face of a challenge, which quality I value most high--and the trick went all the better for it, to boot. Which is why we'll be working it again, this coming Victory Day. Does that promise make your little heart light, my Irish Jenny?"

" does, sir."

"I'm takin' it you fear me, too. Just like the rest."

"Yes. Sir."

The Butcher smiled. "That's a good instinct; don't never lose it, and you can't go wrong."

Then he turned the eye full towards her, in all its awful glory. "This too, though--you're feared of this almost as much, if I'm not mistaken. Am I?"

"No, sir. It's true, I do--fear it."

"Put out your hand."

Four little words; how they made her want to tremble! But she caught just the point of her lip in her teeth, where she hoped he couldn't see, and did it.

Bill cocked his head sideways, rummaged obscurely--then caught her wrist in one hand, and deposited something in her palm with the other: Something hard, pale, warm, round. Sightly sticky against her skin, even through the grime.

When she stared at it, it stared back.

"No fly handling with that, gal," he told her, unnecessarily. "Goes without sayin' how I'll need it back."

She hadn't even been able to answer him, that time. Just stared in helpless fascination at his empty socket, a tragic pink knot of scar-tissue framed by a fringe of sleek brown lash, 'till he took pity on her at last; took back the eye, plopped it into his gin, then polished it to its regular sheen on the tail of his topcoat. "You gotta keep it clean," he explained. "Or it rots."

"How d'you know?"

"Don't ask: It ain't a pretty tale, and far too indelicate for some kiddie mort's consumption." Fitting it back in, meanwhile: "This geegaw cost me ten dollars, all told."

"Ten whole dollars?"

"Worth every penny, though, ain't it? A true masterpiece of patriotic art."

Jenny nodded. Then ventured, cautious: "When you cut it out--"

"Which I did."

"--didn't it hurt, to do it?"

A fierce grin: "Oh, yes. Thank Christ crucified, the true and blessed Christian Lord Almighty."

"...and now...?"

"It grates in my skull, sometimes--sure. But that's as should be. Gives a man something painful to think on, when he needs it."

And that was the end of it, at least for that night. The end, and the beginning.


By morning, however, Jenny soon found her long road through Paradise Square was well underway--that she'd graduated, almost overnight, from a place around the fire if she was fast (and lucky) enough to snare one, plus the injunction not to never come back empty-handed if she wanted to keep her fingers, to a corner of Bill's own room, so her swag and person could be kept equally safe. By Christmas-time she was already someone of worth, deft and profitable, known and called by name, "Jenny" to all and sundry. A simple "gal" no more, not never.

Jenny to all and the Butcher "Bill" to her, with swift and terrifying intimacy.

Satan's Circus was no worse than any other place in the Points to grow up in, really; far better, by some standards--the floor too soiled for anyone to notice she'd pissed herself during that first test of "skill and danger", for example, holding herself stock-still while Bill haloed her head so close with steel she later found she'd lost the red curl that'd once hid her left ear for good. Not to mention how here, at least, no one ever went without meat.

The years between went flowing by like the dancing girls' long silk sleeves at Sparrow's Pagoda, all bright and strange and cunning--foreign and familiar both, like every other part of this odd new life under Bill's protection. For Jenny was a regular part of the show now, the Butcher's Apprentice: Working the stage, perfecting her dodges and responses, trusting the knives not to come too close, but never losing her fear--the same fear, she felt in her heart, which would surely be what kept her alive the longest.

She sat in the darkness, watching, as Bill drank his Victory Day glass of fire again and again--locked eyes every year with that precious portrait staring down disapprovingly from its votive perch, passing judgement on every dark and secret thing that played itself out below. The daily, nightly roundelay of Satan's Circus like a dragon's lair full of careless treasure, thoughtless sex and sudden violence--and always with the smell and sound of meat being cut and cooked as a beat behind the babble, blood and dirt ground deep into every available surface.

Seasons changed, people changed. Jenny had left her mother's corpse a child and become a woman almost before even she'd seen it happening: Constant thief, sometime whore, the darling of Paradise Square, a vision for every man jack with something between his legs to dream on.

But the Points themselves never changed, not much and not really. And Bill was still Bill, for all he took to wearing a suit more often than not: Hard and tall as a rail, insect-bright and quick, deadly like one of his own knives. The eye swept 'round, never stopping, never resting.

Bill was like the weather, here: Impossible to predict, impossible to elude.


Jenny was fourteen when her usual quarter became a fifth, if that. Fifteen when Bill began handing some of her own tribute back to her, telling her it'd look better worn than sold. Sixteen when he made a game out of almost always greeting her with something someone else had stolen, something he'd bought, or taken from someone he'd killed.

"You've turned out a fine, bleak piece, Apprentice," he told her one afternoon, as she pinned a lady's filigree watch he'd just passed her to the collar of her favorite jacket.

"Thank you, Bill."

"As I thought you might."

"And you're always right about such things, we all of us know."

She'd given him her very best smile with that line, all light and free and easy and teasing. But the eye had lingered on her nevertheless, disconcertingly narrowed--'till he'd replied, finally:

"That's the rumor."

And that was it, right there, she well knows now; the last breathing moment she could've cut and run, if she'd ever really had a mind to.

But in truth, Jenny thinks she's always seen how this would go. Bill's never been her Pa for more than a jest, not even back when they'd still played--haphazard as might be--at the idea of it. He's the Butcher, king of the Points, a man made for nothing but war and blood and battle; she's his Apprentice, the best thief in his train, all his own in every way that counts.

A foregone conclusion, then, that one night that wicked mouth would trace her belly in the dark, those dirty-nailed hands spread her wide at last. That they'd sweat and tumble together in this very bed, snarling with the joy of it. That she'd hear Bill Cutting himself gasp helpless, in pleasure and surprise, under his chosen cuckoo-child's sharp teeth.

So isn't it only for the best, therefore, that she was made--rather than born--his "good, gay girl"?

Hard enough to have their baby cut from her in such desperate pain, not so very long after, without it having been an incest-bred bastard to boot.


Sometimes, at the end of a long day's turtledoving or lifting of fools' billfolds, Jenny kneels on the Old Brewery crypt floor and stares at her mother's bones, her mother's dust, before tucking ten more cents of whatever's she made into the box that holds her fare to San Francisco. That's when she finds herself wishing Bill had let her make a place for the baby down here, no matter the ruin the doctor's tools had made of it--

(him? She suspects so, from that terrifying roar she still shudders to recall--the one which came ripping up from the cutting floor in the very Passion of her blood-loss and weakness, while chloroform fumes burnt the tears from her fever-hot cheeks)

But the last man the Butcher killed who went to his reward intact was Priest Vallon, toasted each year with a burning rush of alchohol and Nativist pride. And she knows that their son, whoever he might have been at the last, would never in a million years have grown to fill that portrait's frame.


Jenny turns her head to look at him now, with his mouth half-open and all his hard lines relaxed at last--as she first saw long ago, the only time Bill Cutting ever really seems to smile is when he sleeps, and she still likes to watch it sometimes, though she knows now it's nothing but an illusion.

But smiling or not, there's the thread of a scar through one eyebrow, the raised slice from brow to cheekbone: The Priest give me that, she's heard him boast often enough, in much the same tone another man would use for some fond sweetheart's token.

So don't you never turn your eyes away from anything you fear, Jen--look it straight on, drink it down, take it to you, to your heart. A great man taught me that.

Every one of Bill's scars has a similar story attached to it, though the rest aren't nearly so grand. After a while, she'd stopped asking.


Cold, cold; Jenny hears one of the whores moan softly, wrapping her arms around herself to stop the shivers and rooting in vain for a corner of the bedclothes. But Jenny knows to simply turn Bill-ward, shape herself fast along the side of him and accept his arm's weight in a clumsy, sleep-drunk hug: Bill, who gives off a constant heat under all circumstances--his chest a furnace, his vengeful heart a firey coal of unhealed fever.

Remembering that first kiss they'd shared, how it'd all but burnt her lips. How she'd felt something pierce her heart forever whether she willed or no, like the beak of an eagle setting deep into its rightful prey. A kiss like a dying man's scream.

He stirs, mutters. Hoarsely: "Jenny. That's you?"

"Who else would it be?"


"That's right. Now go back to sleep, Bill; Victory hoy ain't 'till tonight. You got all the time you want, before then."

This tired monster beside her, this ghost-to-be whose dark will dictates everything around them. Jenny knows Bill won't ever die before he wants to--but he will die, someday. And it's then, then, that she'll be free at last of him, the Points and all...if never a single minute before.

And oh, for the pity of it all, one way or another. Because--she thinks she must love him, now and always, in her way. Just like she knows he must love her, in his: That all-consuming way which makes her hide her San Francisco ambitions like they was the Devil's own mark, makes her flirt and smile and keep things light as air. To stare his fierce love down, brave its slash, bear its scar...and yet move on, untouched. Or as untouched as may be.

After all, Jenny Everdeane's known since she was twelve years old what Bill the Butcher does to those he loves too much.

But: "You too," he tells her, folding her in close, his scarred cheek against hers--making her look the eye straight on, unflinching. Dragging her back down. And she obeys, knowing it's an order, however nicely put, or meant.

Everything always is, with Bill.


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