Warning: Dark. Discussion of death and dying, although mostly a bit sideways.
They lived, if you wanted to call it that, down by the river, the Trade Street Bridge providing the roof and a back wall to their residence , the steps of the Riverside Inn down to the water providing another wall. Their floor was the gravel and slate of the river-shore and the river was their front porch, their food provider, the road they took out of there where they needed to and the barricade that kept most others away.
There were generally four or five of them there; on the coldest nights, there were fewer, and on the full moons, sometimes as many as twenty. The one with the long, long hair (black as a raven’s wing) and the one with the piercings (eighteen of them), they were always there.
Under the bridge, there weren’t names and there was rarely talking, but the one with the long, long hair, others called Godiva; the one with the piercings, some of them called Nails, because the nose-piercing was a nail.
When nobody else was there, they existed wordlessly. They’d collect the interesting debris the river provided and sort it out – Gloves could use this and Hammer could use that; Blue might want that photo but Clacker would definitely want that sock. They fished and smoked the results, muddy bottom-feeding fish that were far better once you’d gotten them full of some stolen mustard – and they might not steal, but someone did. They bribed the gendarmes which could be bribed and scared off or hid from the other ones.
It was cold at night, but Godiva hadn’t felt the cold in a long time, and the way Nails moved and acted, neither had Nails. They did what they needed to and sometimes stilled into a rest like sleep; they woke to scare off trouble; they drifted again. The others, some of those were the same way – the haunted memories of a time long gone, the whispers of a recent crime, the echos of a love that wouldn’t die. Some of them were the same, but made flesh. Some of them, nobody was really sure about. They all ate something, and if it was fish or if it was the tears of the passing glitterati, well, nobody asked questions.
Nobody asked questions. Not names or where you came from or why you were under the bridge. Sometimes, sometimes they would see a body wash up, give it the proper rites, and then see the owner of the body the next week.
Nobody asked them “what made you get up from your grave?” Nobody asked “why were you in the river.”
(Once, once, Hammer had asked, “oh hey, weren’t you dead last week?” Nobody had ever let Hammer live it down. And that had been – well, they were pretty sure it had been several kings-and-queens past, although those under the river, they didn’t keep track of the things that happened upstream save when it washed down to them.)
And then there came a day when a new gendarme, a fresh-faced one with the shiny not yet rubbed off and a smile like he was going to save the world. And he came under the bridge with blankets and meals, with pallets to make a dryer place to sleep and fresh boots for everyone.
He looked at Godiva and wove a scarf from the air, his smile gone sad and wistful. When he draped the gossamer thing around her shoulders, it hung there, warming her like nothing could, and he whispered a name so softly nobody but she heard it.
And that was strange enough, but what was stranger was when he took Nails’ hands.
Took her hands and rubbed his thumbs over her knuckles and draped a coat, a proper one made of leather and canvas, over her shoulders. “Home is still there,” he murmured, though not as quietly as he had spoken the name of a ghost.
Nobody asked questions, but Godiva stared at the woman who had been there as long as Godiva could remember, the ghost who had haunted the place with her as silently, as heedlessly of the needs of the body, as continually, as nobody but the dead had ever done.
She stared at the woman as she touched the young gendarme’s cheek in turn, and with a smell and a feeling only the living could make, she cried.