Originally appeared in The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales (Salt, 2014). Published here with permission from the author.
She found me with my hands around chickens, fingers stretched wide, thumbs over beaks. My skirt, mud-weighed, tugged at my ankles as I dipped low. Silly to curtsey while armed with birds, I knew, but it had to be done. If I’d let go they’d’ve flown at her, chuttering through her red hair. And what a sight that would’ve been! The lady, still horsed, with her legs one on either side and her skirt hitching up to show a handspan of stocking. And her horse as white as cuckoo-flowers, with its little red haunch-spot not quite hidden by the bridle. I kept my thumbs tight over those dangerous beaks.
So there I was, tangle-skirted and chickenfull, and I’ll never know what she saw in me then. Enough, any case, to offer coins to my father – bags full of glinting, enough to make his moustache disappear into the folds of his lips. For my mother, it was the title. Lady’s Maid. Fine fetters for the youngest of eight, last to leave. No word from my siblings for years, long gone as they were – the last we saw was the hellfire from their heels across the tops of the hills. And my betrothed, he of the thick knuckles and pale gold hair? The transparent boy who tumbled me across hay, who licked at my earlobes and stickied my palms? I forgot him within a day.
I’ll never know what My Lady saw in me, but I know what I saw in her. She was a mirror. Mudweighed and birdhanded as I was, she still knew me. She knew the things I had been thinking, down deep between my lacings, under the wooden heels of my shoes. The words I shaped with straw before kicking away: she knew them. We were tied as sisters, cousins, lovers. This link between us is a red silk ribbon, a fine silver chain, a length of daisies punched together. It’s the loveliest thing I ever saw.
I’ll not be taking part in mistress’s activities, oh no. She brings the girls up to the house and that is as it is, but I’ll have none of it. Even fancy ladies don’t need a dozen handmaids, and them changing every few weeks to a new crop of girls. It’s to the end that I can’t even remember their names, not a single one. Just you there will suffice for that sort of girl.
Such harlotry in their looks! Mouths round and red like quims, and their bodices low as anything. The mistress must pick out the stitches before she gives the girls the dresses, mark you. No proper dressmaker would make a lady look such a pinchcock.
The first maid was fine enough. For a while she tied mistress’s corsets and arranged mistress’s hair, and I kept firm out of their way. Plenty to keep me busy kitchen-side. But I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see what mistress was about. Tip-tapping through the back corridors where she’d no business to be, flipping up skirts and losing her rings inside girls. Mistress parading those wagtails thinking it was like to tempt me, thinking I was like to be kept feverish at nights with thinking of their ways. And me with my eyes on the floor like I’m meant! They’ll go to the devil, the lot of them.
Oh, how I have loved. My days are flaxen and holy with love. My nights are viscous, lucid, spilling over. My finger-pads hum. The roots of my hair feel gold-dipped; the meat of my eyes is speckled with gold; gold dust blows across my cheeks. The girls, the girls, and their love.
I find them, I whisper of my home, and they’re up on my horse before the daisies close. The look in their eyes is clean as dawn. Their fingers in my mouth taste of buttermilk. My castle is a mother, is a lover. Once upon a time, I say, and they follow my hooves inside the walls, and I close the door up tight behind them.
My enchantments keep them for a turn of the sun or a phase of the moon, and then they find the chink in the walls and slip out faster than smoke. I know they look back. I see the light glint off their eyes.
Some do stay; one or two starbellied and honeyfed girls. I tuck them under my swan-wing and tickle them close, close enough to share heat. They love love as I do. They see the straight line of my jaw along the length of their thighs and they see how it fits, the geometry of bodies. They have wondered for so long why nothing ever fits, why the knobs of their spines press hard on chairbacks and why they can’t lie parallel in bed, and then there I am. I know how to fill the gaps in a girl.
The Dinner Guest
She wanted us to know. She’s proud of it, I’m sure. The strumpet. The slippering little. . . but let me tell you. You will see.
Two dozen guests for dinner and it was out with the partridge tongues and the songbird hearts in cages of ribs, along with wine sweet enough to pickle kittens. How the ladies cooed! Codswallop, I say. But the ladies like their food to sing.
Three courses in and we were a maid down. I knew because she was a comely thing, applecheeked and applebreasted, with a glint in her eye like she well knew the parts of a man. I’d been devouring her charms between sips of the lamb-blood soup, and then – gone! For moments I frowned my way around the room, as surely even the most coddled maid would never dare abandon her post mid-meal. And then my eye’s wanderings noticed how the lady of the house shifted in her seat! No soup ever caused such moans from a throat, and yet the lady was purring like a pussycat. Seated opposite, I had an artist’s perspective; full frontal, so to speak, perfect for observing that actress’s change in expression. Shifting my feet under the table, I knew the shape of a body; even through the soles of my shoes I could feel it was that applerumped maid. And the lady moaned, and the lady wriggled; and all the other ladies peered into their soup and began moaning around their spoons.
Such soup, they cried! Such flavours! Bravo!
All the ladies were shifting and groaning, rocking in their seats. You’d have thought it was the greatest soup ever to have been swallowed.
By the bottom of their bowls, the lady was smiling wider than a dagger’s blade. The maid was back in her place, her lips plump and wet as a rose after the rain.
And so you see! That grinning tart put on quite a show for me. I know it was for me, because all that ladies do is for the eyes of gentlemen. And I do look forward to seeing more of that lady.
I stayed for a year. I was not the only one, for it was three to a bed in My Lady’s chamber. Living in that house was like living inside a painting – one of those lush, dark oil paintings: a still life of overripe fruit, a severed boar’s head, and a cat toying with a pitted wheel of cheese. Everywhere I went, I was sure people could smell the sweetsalt fleshness on my fingers. Men in the street stopped to stare, stopped to lick their lips, though I was shoulder-to-ankle in my cloak. Her scent went that deep: right under my flesh, all the way to the marrow. For months after I left, I would still catch the breeze of her when I angled my body just the right way. There were creases and edges of me that I just could not get to, and that is where she hid: too far down to scrub out.
My parents knew, somehow. They could smell the shreds My Lady left in me. I went back to the muck of the kitchen and the heat of the stables, but there was no good to be found. Everything was overlaid and underpinned with her. My dresses would not fit: they were too tight, too low, however much fabric I added on. My scarf would not cover my hair, and tendrils slipped like spider legs to frame my cheeks. My mouth felt always swollen, always reddened.
I married – a cutout man, all hands and knees – and I stood wide-eyed as a nun in my white dress, calm as can be, like ice would stay cool in my palms. I imagined My Lady when I vowed, thought of how she would glitter and cackle to see her bedfellow in snow-coloured chiffon. I thought my vows would topple her, but she clambered up on them. She strung each word and wore them as a necklace, warming them like pearls.
I never knew what hate and love meant before My Lady.
Yes, I told. My father deserved to know. He’s a devil with a clefted chin but he still needed to know about my mother’s wickedness because it just was not right. It was not holy. The path to glory is not paved with swooning girls and no one ever found grace between two legs. So I told and I told and afterwards I glowed for days.
God knew about my mother’s sins and my father is the God within these walls so he should have known too. It was my duty, that is all, and it did not matter about my own scuttering feelings or how many times I caught the flash of bare shoulders through the keyhole because it was not about that. It was about staying good. It was about grace, and keeping my own white heels straight on the shining path to heaven. My mother’s own feet were no good for that path, after her grubbing in the dirt like that, ingraining those maids onto her flesh. Such things cannot be cleansed and there are no dirty feet in heaven. There is no jealousy in heaven and there was no jealousy in my heart over those girls. They were welcome to my mother. She was a pitcher full of filth with her mouth full of blood and I did not want her attention. I did not want it.
My glow was not from the deed of my telling, understand. It was from the knowledge of God, deep inside me the knowing of all His glory, His radiance warming me through the dark of night. It was grace shining out of me.
I had to do it. I had to tell, for the sake of good.
I attended their house for dinner, the same as a dozen other lords and ladies. I expected an elegant dinner – rabbit tongues, perhaps, or eel’s eyes – and wine in five different colours. The lady served all my expectations, and her conversation was characteristically delightful – all scandals and intrigues with veiled names. She laughed and touched my hand at all the right moments, and like a fool I was charmed. Me, in a gown with patched underskirts and my jewellery only paste – I was the one the lady wanted! No man ever seduced with such confidence. Her smile was as warm as fresh-baked bread, but her eyes were sharp at the corners.
I did not expect to become entangled in her activities. But I tell you; no one could have resisted the lady. After dinner the gentlemen slumped off for cigars and brandy, and the ladies fluttered to the sitting room for champagne. It was not usual for ladies to have so many drinks – it does go to one’s head, and as every lady is told, there is not much in her head to absorb all that alcohol. It sloshes about in the space. That must be why I was fooled as I was – it must be!
One by one the gentlemen visited our sitting room and held out their hands for their ladies. One by one the ladies flitted out. The room was sotted with champagne and the walls were undulating – I swear they were, the lady is a magician! – and then it was just me and the lady, and then the sitting room became the lady’s chambers. The girls’ hands were soft as the insides of furs. Their laughter was church bells and their kisses; oh, their kisses. I had never known it could be such a way.
Our discarded skirts were piled high as a church steeple and and our throats hummed with lust and we felt honey flow from our bodies and finally the lady sat at the peak of a tangle of girl-limbs and surveyed her kingdom, when in walked the Lord.
It is easy to understand why a lady would wish to escape. We all tire of this earthly plain before long. The way out is grace, and glory exists inside all of us.
The entry into heaven cannot be rushed, and for the lady it will be as slow as she needs it to be. The duty of an anchoress is no easy one, we know that well enough. The contemplation of the grave is perhaps the most difficult, but the lady has as much time as God has granted her. She is young yet, and there is plenty of time for her to appreciate the gifts of her enclosure. She will find peace in solitude, I am sure.
Her husband has assured me that the lady has craved bare walls and silenced voices for many a year. The lady is fortunate indeed that her husband is willing to sacrifice his wife for her own good. It cannot be easy for him to run a household of women alone, but he is a good man to think only of his dear wife, and I am sure that God will reward him.
The lady’s enclosure begins this evening, and I must prepare. The road to heaven is a pebbled one, and she will need a firm hand to steer her through. The contemplation of darkness will help her better than the touch of a hand ever could. Of this, I am sure.
My skin hums with it. My flaxenbelly and my moonsmoke, and there are holes, there are holes in me through which the love escapes. The men are men and they are hard, there are no summits to them, nothing to climb up or slip down. My fingers fit into the gaps between the bricks. The moon is the size of my eye. The buttermilk and the daisies, the redness inside cheeks and within the holiest of holies, within the edges of a girl, and this is grace, and this is glory.