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Laura

Anonymous

This page copyright © 2004 Olympia Press.

CHAPTER one

I know what they want—why they stare after me. The sea ruffles the small pebbles, stirs them, forgets them, and retreats. Boys run along the chain pier. I hear their boots, their clattering, the singing sound of their laughter. The lamentations of the seagulls cut the air. Come now, watch now, come.

There are watchers—I know of them—the aunts tall and lonely on the stairs, waiting for the postman who will never come. The laurel leaves grow dry, the sheets rustle. Breasts to breasts the slow coming and going of breaths.

I have watched them at daybreak in their lonely ways. They have come upon me as shadows, signs, portents. I have pasted smiles upon my lips and stared. My eyes, it is said, are brown, my thighs are long.

“Do not sway your hips, girl,” I am told. What a nonsense is this. I am the lure, the catch, the key, the lock. My arms bind as seaweed binds, as grass curls round the cutter after rain. Come now, here now, kiss.

A breeze stirs the ribbons of my bonnet. I cross the promenade and skirt the Royal Pavilion. The streets extend, the clock strikes four. Shall there be toast for tea? Jingling their harness as they trot, the horses gravely nod. The proud and the foolish note my passing. Their carriages bob upon their springs. Turning I stare towards the distant beach. Too vast the sea, too deep, too wide. I shall speak of this to others and to Julian, but they will not respond. Their memories have curled, grown brown—tired in the sun. I have watched them in their breedings under the elms, beneath the sunshades, in the summer-house. Shall I become as they? Break the mirrors into which they stare—and run.

Julian would not come with me. I wished him to. We are such a short time wed. He is self-conscious in his goings with me. How strange.

“Let the men look at you,” he remarks. How sadly surly is his tone. I wish not to speak of such matters. I disregard his eyes that search mine for denials.

“They will perhaps, yes.”

I am curt in my responses. Why do I speak of things of which I do not wish to speak? I linger at the window of a dress emporium. The brown gown, the brown gown of silk would suit me best. Reflections of the passers-by come and go like ghosts, like people who were lost at sea, far in the deep waves ever falling down. A girl laughs in passing, hanging upon the arm of a man whose hat is at a tilt. He cares not for her, I feel sure. She is but a neat appendage to his goings, his arrivals, his watch chain glittering.

“She is nice. Did you like her—like her nice?”

Her face turns towards me—a roundish face endeavouring to become oval. I am regarded, looked upon. The meeting of our eyes is without purpose. She speaks of me, I believe. In turn he stares—a down and upward look. I am possessed, turned over, done with in his eyes.

“All right, she's all right. A swell, I'd say.”

Gone, they are gone, into their nothing knowingness of unknowing. The pavement slurs beneath their feet, grey, gritty. Memories of the sea that it has never seen. Will Julian have missed me? I shall wear my shy look or perhaps my austere. The austere fits me better, I believe. Father always told me so to look. Let my eyes bewilder and the sun shall dance. In my childhood on the garden swing, father would tell me always to sit upright, my hands high up upon the ropes, the apple blossoms falling on my hair. Sometimes I would throw my head back, going with my eyes into the sky the blue sky but not the grey for the grey was too regarding of me. Perhaps like cobwebs it would touch my hair, entangle me, draw me inwards, upwards. There would be moisture then upon my lips, father said, for the grey sky was the moist sky and the blue the dry.

In between the shadows and the light I move, the faces of the walkers seen and never seen again. They are drawn to the beach, to the sea, to their perdition.

“Where is Perdition, father?” I would ask him often. Not replying, he would shake his head, perhaps aware of my becoming. One day when I had asked too often, he replied.

“It is a place, Laura, where the shadows deepen and the doors are closed. It is a place of supplication, of remonstrance, yielding, and desire.”

I grew not frightened but drew the drapes of the study window against the sun, the seeking light, leaving a thin gap where the particles of dust could dance.

My voice was dull, look solemn as his own. Motionless we stood. Downstairs the clicking of my mother's knitting needles pecked at wool. We were alone, there was a quietness. A cart rumbled past below, rough voices sounded, such voices as sound foreign to one's ears.

“Perdition is within you, veiled. Do you not seek it, Laura?”

I did not know. Sometimes he would know my knowing even though my words had not appeared like players on a stage before him.

“I do not know, father.”

“You must know of it, for it will come upon you—the wanting of release, yet wanting not release, the burgeoning of blossoms in your hair, the air that cools your limbs upon the swing. You are grown too old now for the swing. Your summers count eighteen. When the moment comes upon you in its coming, you must fall. Into perdition. You understand?”

No air brushed my lips within the room. Was there air? I would have moved back to the curtains, but his hand stayed me.

“You understand.”

The question mark had slipped, slipped from his voice. It had hidden at our feet, a small black twist of sound between my toes. My silence was a tunnel in which secrets flowed. I knew the dryness and the summer heat, the far faint sounds beyond, voices floating, passing the house like small clouds urgent in their going.

“Yes.”

I knew. I felt the cold, the warmth. The shadows deepened and the door was closed. Could I be saved? The people would be hushed, the eyes would watch, the woods be searched. Iron railings rusting in the grass would be turned over for the footprints that might lie beneath.

“In the second left-hand drawer of the desk, Laura, there is a strap. You will hand it to me.”

Through a mountain of stillness moving I moved. The drawer squeaked faintly as if surprised that it was I. Only a strap lay within, brown-coiled and broad, a serpent in its waiting. Its surface was subtle, smooth. My hand trembled not. In my handing it to his hand my hand was steady.

Upon his word the desk received me. The leather stung, burnishing my burning. In Perdition there is only the receiving. I yielded, fell far faint, received. Forlorn, the furniture would not look. The inkstand stood busy in its inkness, uncaring of my cries in my undoing.

“Go—brush your hair,” he said at last. Eternities had passed. I smoothed my dress. Our eyes tangled like thorns, fought like rapiers, then I dropped my head. “Walk proudly, Laura, for you shall otherwise be known. The burning of perdition has received you.”

“Yes.”

I had accepted, received. Father drew the curtains back. The street had emptied. Solemn as forgotten sentinels the laburnum trees stirred not. A cat prowled by the railings, descended steps and sat upon the flagstones. My eyes were the eyes of the cat. My hips stirred, moved, fought their rebellions and then were stilled. I of the empty swing, the blossoms from the branches that would fall no more across my eyes.

“There will be moments of proudness, Laura—the high reach of your being.”

“Yes.”

“Even so you shall not refuse.”

My chin was taken, my eyes absorbed. The toys of my childhood were put away, the cupboards locked. A tumbling of dolls—a small unsqueaking silence—then the turning of the key.

“I did not know.”

I excused my ignorance in my burning. My voice was a small wave that laps too hesitantly upon the beach, withdrawing into the vast waters, shy, uncertain of its first tasting of the sand. It mattered not. There was a safety. Nets had been brought, cushioning my fall. I trembled, touched, touched in my tremblings. Burned and infused I sought my comforting. Too brief it was and yet an hour had passed. Passing through fire, I felt not singed. Deeper in my knowing now, I knew.

“You have been long at your speaking,” mother said when we descended.

“There is a time for speaking. Does she not brush her hair well?” father asked.

“In her immaculacy is her salvation,” mother said. She folded her arms and gazed at me. I did not blush. The tide had receded. There was a smell of furniture polish in the room. I was whole in my wholeness. At the tea table I chewed lettuce and felt its crispness, cold to my tongue. Diamonds of water glittered on its greenness in its bowl. The maid came and went, serving her betters. She had known not the searing of the strap, the roaring of the sea about her ears, the aftermath of quiet.

The square before me opens now. Do I venture the right way or the wrong? The streets look ever much the same. Here now, there now—wrong? Where are the builders gone, the bricklayers in their billycocks, hands grey or red with dust? To some far place where hunger took them, the roads angry and hard beneath their feet, forgetting what they built—the doors finished and the windows placed, the air within closed, made ready. Spaces for movement—the grave dance of anticipations. O the poor men gone, long gone.

I glance this way and that. This street? That street? Julian ever said that I would lose myself. I am so bad in my remembering. Window sashes are raised, yet betray not the deep darknesses within, the movements of bodies, the searchings, the unread papers that the pen has left. I shall wear my grey tonight. Will Julian's mother come? The maid will be prepared, turn down the sheet.

A smell of butter. Why? From whence? I like the smell of butter. Mother said it would make me a voluptuary. I ignored her. My quietness was in my knowing.

“Laura!”

The voice that calls I know not. I walk on, my eyes imperious yet my gait subdued.

Do not swing your hips, girl.

“Laura, you are late!”

The voice again. I turn. My footsteps falter.

“Why are you late again—always late?”

From the high stone steps of a tall house the woman descends, my elbow seized. Do I wish to follow? My path is turned. The steps my little mountain to ascend.

“Go within, Laura. He is angry in his waiting. Do you forget this?”

I am shuffled, pushed, the log dark hall receives me. In my confusion I reach for a doorknob. My wrist is slapped.

“Why do you always make the same mistakes, always, always? Here now, there now, go within, to the other door. Do not remove your bonnet before you are spoken to. Why did you not wear your blue one today?”

The room I enter is a mystery of space. Too high the ceiling and too long the walls.

“She was late. Was she late?”

The man who speaks stands and regards me. He is neither thin nor portly. His eyes speak of night adventures. Once father stroked my hair at midnight and told me of tigers prowling for prey in the far jungles of India and the Orient. I have seen the high sun in its descent—have felt the cold of moonlight on my breasts, my nipples sparkling with the fire of kisses.

“She is always late—look at her bonnet—the ribbons are too bright. Stand still, girl. How old are you? Do you not remember?”

“She is twenty-two. It is known. She has not changed. Has she changed since yesterday? No, I think not.”

His voice is gentle, velvet over steel. I want his eyes to be kind yet they will not meet mine. He is perhaps too knowing. I scan the room slowly, unmoving, seeking knowingness, a recognition, rebelling at strictures that must surely seize me here. The furniture is heavy, somnolent. I know it not. It speaks of dust, of buried days. Will it look?

“She had her breakfast and lunch—she was a good girl.”

The woman speaks. Where is Julian? This house is not his house. Father will surely come, importantly, through the door, brooking no refusals. My hips stir. It is seen.

Their hands do not touch me. The man regards me, sighs, reseats himself, takes up a book. I must learn the titles of the books. All such things are important. Father instructed me. A Meissen figure takes my gaze. How inhuman the smoothness. Would I as milkmaid look so smooth, so small? Many are the ornaments, the mirrors— an elegance of shelves, a waiting of whatnots.

“She must be bathed,” the man says. “What does she want for tea?”

“Toast is her favourite. Muffins will serve her better.”

The woman pushes me. Into the hall again. Cloaks of great mystery hang upon a stand. The door stands ajar. She left it so. My eyes seek it with hopes, but it disregards me. Would that the builders would come, running over the Downs, knowing it open.

“Millie will see to you, Laura. I cannot be forever running after you. You have always been his favourite. It is known. The water is run. Let it not grow tepid, Millie— are you there, girl, there?”

“Ma'am, yes.”

She comes at a run. Seeing me, she curtsies.

“Miss Laura, you are late.”

“I have told her that she is late, told her, told her. Take her up.” The woman's voice is irritable.

At the first turning of the stairs. The bathroom is commodious. The fireplace charmed by unburned coal lies dead.

“I would have lit it if you had come late tonight, Miss.”

“Yes, Millie. It is not cold.”

“That it ain't, Miss. We 'ave the best of it here in Brighton, though some folks say Eastbourne is sunnier, but I don't believe it. They're a stuffier lot in Eastbourne, they are. Was your walk nice? You didn't meet any gentlemen, I hopes.”

There is no need to answer. I know her place, her type, her stance—the chirpy, over-anxious, quick desires to please, placate, enquire. Father told me always to disregard the speech of servants unless they were required for errands of a private nature. Unclothed, I throw back my hair and regard myself in a mirror. Was it always stained? I have been here before? Memories of brown around its edges—a splotch in the middle. Was I here before?

The water laves me. The sponge moves in her uncertain hand, drawn from its secret home in some far seabed. Has Julian's mother come?

“What is the time, Millie?”

“Close on five, Miss. He said when you come in that you was to go straight to your bedroom. After your rest.”

“Yes, of course, yes. Use more soap, you stupid girl.”

Five is too late, too late. You shall not refuse, Laura.

The door opens. The woman stands not disapproving as I dry, am dried.

“If I refuse?” I ask her. I wish to know the answer. My eyes are proud. Her stare encompasses my stare.

“You cannot. Have you ever done so? You were always good, were you not?”

“Yes,” I reply. I do not let my shoulders slump.

“There, then. Brush your hair now.”

Her voice is softer. She waits, waits in her waiting until all is done. My pubic hair is fluffed. When dry the curls stand crisp, yet move to the hand. She is younger than mother, tall and well-built. Her eyes have the look of eyes that are looked at. Her rust-coloured dress is neither poor nor opulent. Her wedding finger is unwed. She glances at my own as Millie draws my stockings on.

“Why did you wed, Laura?”

“I do not know.”

I want my voice to cry or laugh. It will do neither.

“He is weak, of course. Wear this chemise—and your boots. Your drawers are not required. Go to your room and wait. Wine will be brought. After your muffins. What a girl you are for toast and muffins. Go to your room.”

Millie is quiet. She gathers up my clothes, her hands more reverential than they were. The chemise of white batiste is short. It floats about my hips, clinging.

My room, how do I know my room, and yet I know. Along the corridor, the second door, opening upon mystery. A scent of yesterdays. Fresh linen, a white bowl on a marble stand, enclosing a white jug of pure still water. The brass rails of the bed gleam. The bedsprings tinkle to my coming. In a moment a maid enters with toast and muffins.

“Will you have white wine afterwards, Miss, or the red?”

“The white. German and not French. Do I not always have that?”

“Yes, Miss, I forgets, what with all the comings and goings. I was told to say it's half past six now you'll be ready. Ill bring the wine straightaway if I may.”

“Yes.”

My voice is distant as befits my mood. A restlessness of waiting is upon me. The curtains must be drawn—a gap left for the dust. No one will think of that save I.

The butter from the muffins runs upon my fingers— rich.

CHAPTER two

The wine is gone. The tang of it upon my tongue. Should I have drunk all? Does it dishonour my breath? When tigers prowled I drank liqueurs, the sheet of my bed ruffled into rivers we had swum. Burnished by moonlight I lay in my quiescence, liquid in sin.

At the first footsteps on the stairs I breathe more quietly. I know them to be his. The doorhandle rattles gently and is turned. My thoughts turn, run, and hide like children in an orchard who have taken apples.

“The sea air, do you like it?” Striding across the room he asks. He has found the gap where the curtains stir.

“It is pleasant, yes. I was born in the country.”

“You do not speak of the past here. There is only the present.”

“Yes.”

My voice is as quiet as a fallen leaf. My legs tremor. He observes me not. I have spoken gently, quietly. I await retribution. Go down, go down, into the grass, the sand, the sea. Find the roots, the fronds, the waving tips. Delicate.

“There were miracles. Once there were miracles, Laura. Men had land, they strode across it, riding the Downs in their coming, tall in the mornings, their hopes unfettered. Upon coming to the sea they knew their journeys. We are the landlocked. All beyond is possessed, reserved and taken. And in the jungles prowl the tigers bright. You know of this.”

The question mark is dropped—dropped as of old. I catch it in its falling, secrete it in the valley between my breasts. It nestles there, coils and uncoils, then it sleeps.

Am I to reply? I know not my place, my stance, and yet I know to lie here in my waiting. The strap hangs from his grasp. It is wider even than the strap I knew—the snapping bites of my perdition.

“Answer, girl, answer! Were you not taught?”

His command comes to me so suddenly that I jump. In my lying-down I jump. He turns—observes the my knees, the thighs, my gleaming calves, the tight-lacing of my boots. I must not leave heel marks. rondeur of

Do not leave heel marks on the couch, Laura.

“I have been where the tigers stir—have seen the moonlight cold upon their flanks.”

“And upon your own? Were there mirrors? Answer, girl?”

“No.”

“No?”

“There was purity,” I reply.

My voice is sullen. I betray nothing. I will tell nothing. There was a mirror on a swivel stand, placed at an angle to my bed. We seemed as ghosts within it. No, I will not tell. There were secrets. In the small nights the small kisses. Hazed by clouds, they would appear and reappear on my lips, dewdrops of touch upon my breasts. My clock would tick. I placed it under my bed and mother asked me what had become of it. Take out the ticks, silvery, small. They would run like mercury across my palm. Shuffled into an envelope, they would be stilled, forbidden to touch, to coagulate, to merge. Remember this, remember.

There is no clock here in this room, no clock. The walls are grey with light. The pattern on the wallpaper speaks of flowers too tired to grow. I wait. Will he be harsh? Closer to me moving he has moved. His gaze falls upon me, the light from his mind brushes the skin of my thighs above my stocking tops. The strap stirs against his leg. Challenges.

“Were you not angry in your beginnings?” His voice is quizzical, kind. I do not wish to cry. The penis memory moves within me still.

“It was told to me that I must not be. I received. It was done.”

The strap moves, tickles, taunts. I roll over in my waiting, my chemise ascends. Gleam-glow of flesh, my hillocks proud. In my waiting.

The door opens and the woman enters. Her hands are busy at her apron, hiding, emerging, hiding. I cannot look. Hands should be stilled. Her eyes examine me—I cannot look. I close my own. The coverlet grows warm beneath my skin. Julian with his mother somewhere speaks. A maid is sent to search the streets for me. A high wind on the promenade may have blown me hither, thither. My dress shall be found upon railings—shoes skewed upon the pebbles of the beach, kicked by boys. I shall hide beneath the small waves waiting, the seaweed wreathed about my brow. Messages will reach me from the sailors lost.

The woman's gaze is one of approbation. I feel it through my eyelids.

“Handle her well. Be certain that the heels of her boots do not scour the bedcovers. You will wear your proper bonnet tomorrow, Laura.”

She is gone, the door closes, echoing the movement of her lips.

He speaks. “Your posture pleases me not. Are you ever so slovenly?”

Am I spurned that I am not first caressed, my nether cheeks moulded by suave and certain hands, lifted and positioned? I was ever mute in my obedience, permitting disclosure, mindful of the stone nymph in the garden who knew no more modesty than to clasp her hands before her. Her buttocks were less well cleft than my own. Perhaps it was thought to be a rudeness. The marble was Italian. In secret I would frequently pass my hand about it. Mother said that I should not, for it brought strange thoughts, withered the eyelids, and destroyed one's dreams. I would have taken the nymph to my room and brought her to Perdition if I could. She was too heavy. Upon her coming two dray horses were needed to pull the cart and six men to carry it in sad sack-covering behind the house where stood the waiting lawns. There was much ado, I remember, about getting it precisely upright. At nights I wished to cover her with a cloak. Mother would not have a name for her and wished her gone, saying that she did not like Italianate things. Father said she was to be called Perdita. At this I fretted a little, yet she stood too elegant to be lost, unloved. At mornings I would gaze down from my bedroom window at the small, tight marble moon of her bottom where the rain had streaked its tears. Once on a summer eve I leaned over the sill, the window open, spurred on by the strap to Perdition while I sought in vain her averted gaze.

I would have wished then the gazing of her blind eyes in my mewing, the small hot churning of my hips, her cold lips to my own.

“Be still—be still.” The words re-echo as I kneel now in this otherness, my palms flat on the bed.

Do all men speak thus—say the same?

There are times for stillness and times for movement. My hips jerk at the first impact of the leather as they ever did. The arrows of the pain that is no pain that stings. I wilt, I suffer, yet my back remains dipped. My bulb is bulbous. Heat invades, my head hangs, my shoulders quiver. Such whimpers as escape me sound no louder than the far crying of the gulls.

“Be quiet always, child,” my grandmother would say. Her shawls had smells of mustiness that I wished not to press my face into, though she saw to it occasionally that I did. Mama's clothes were ever redolent of lavender as were my own. From her I learned freshness of body, the changing of underclothes twice a day. “If your drawers are ever to be seen, they must be clean,” she averred often. By the time I was seventeen she took my laundry-caring habits for granted and thus was comforted that I combined a softness of tone with the virtue of spotlessness. Upon attaining the age of eighteen, I was presented with prettily coloured phials of various perfumes that Papa brought from Paris. I learned to anoint myself—to encircle my nipples with a haze of flowery scents, to touch delicately all about with a thin glass perfume rod the subtle creasing of flesh that curves in quarter circles where the bottom cheeks poise upon the columns of the thighs. Then with fingers that quivered not a little sometimes in anticipation, I would follow the triangular bluff of my pubic thatch about its perimeter.

Today I had not done so, for today was not in my anticipations. Julian knows nothing of my journeys to Perdition. I perfume my lower parts but occasionally in his house, and then for my own pleasure only. The flower of petulance between my thighs exuded its own scent— that odor di femina which frequently brings the male nostrils to flare.

“It is enough,” I heard, “is it enough?”

I would not answer. I had been taught quietness. The frail, invisible gags of mustiness, of lavender, of darkling ink, of dust between the curtain gap, had muffled my first sobs that had sounded as but a memory of childhood. With the closing of the cupboard doors, the silent wondering of my dolls within, I had entered into womanhood and known the springy, muscled thrust of maleness—that force that through embedment of the penis drives the sperm. I had buried my head in deeds of surrender, my drawers spotless at my ankles, my heat-sheened bottom working to the thrusts. Never had rebellion cast its cloak around me.

The leather sears again, for I have not spoken. I should cry out perhaps, for he is more unlearned than I thought. Or here perhaps it does not matter. Do they listen at the door? The splatting of the leather spoils my hearing. I whimper, I grit my teeth. I need.

The brass rails gleam. They merge, divide. As do my cheeks.

Turnabout, Laura. Lie upon the swing so, your bottom uppermost.

The grass mown by my eyes, I knew the sting, the swing-sting of the stinging, and the breeze. The wind. My dress blown up. I cried. I knew not then the call. My nipples did not harden as they should. My legs hung close, unopened. The bee-stings of a supple switch brought forth my cries. I had not blossomed to the follies of desire. I was not finished, not done, undone.

My grandmother would not comfort me.

“Laura, you are too old to cry,” she said.

I ran in fine alarm and hid myself and listened to the ticking of the clocks as if from other houses, other worlds. Oh did it then begin, the urgent shimmering of fine thin flames that licked my netherness?

“Let there be no alarms—this is a quiet house,” my aunt said. She drew me from the cupboard where I had slunk. Her hands dusted the undustiness of my dress, the pitter-patter of her fingers at my globe. “There is no harm done,” she tutted. Mama said nothing, her needles dazzling with their clicking. I was kissed and petted, given cakes for tea. My dresses, it was said, should become me better. Catalogues were searched, comparisons made.

Months passed. I attained to my seventeenth. The rims of my stocking grew tighter. My rounded breasts knew no encumbrances, globular. Led by my paternal aunt to a new emporium, I learned the twittering of shopgirls at my charms. In veiled rooms small corsets were adjusted to my waist. Drawn in, they left me breathless. The out-thrust of my bottom perter grew.

Itheightens your breasts, Laurado not adjust the lace. Your nipples will be the more appeased by its tickling.

My aunt was ever thus as to details. The measuring of distance between the ornaments on her shelves and dressing-table was always precise. When combing my hair she would adjust each strand.

Mother was not so. Untidiness became her. I suspected an art in it, so well adjusted was it that it seemed a virtue—a signal for attraction. At tea parties and receptions I was introduced as the principal maiden of the house. The voices of my uncles would boom in concert with the popping of champagne corks as if to commemorate my elevation. Upon my first strapping, when I had known the penis-thrust—though not spoken of but sensed—they would occasionally pause to fondle my netherness. It was forbidden. My aunts were furious. My uncles were sent back to their books, their accounts, their offices of work. Only females were henceforth invited to tea, save for father who stood over all, turning the pages of our minds by his presence. One of my uncles, it was said, took a birch to one of his factory girls. He was apprehended for it, admonished, and fined five shillings. Such things were frowned upon. I learned each indiscretion and avoided them. The sleekness of my form beneath my gowns was hallowed.

My mother it was who urged marriage upon me three years later. She apprehended, perhaps, disasters where I knew only joy. My once urgent cries had long ceased to float their small balloons of sound. I absorbed the pulsing rod, the spurting juice. In such moments of brief deprivation as occurred, my knickers would moisten with their anticipations. I had become too acquiescent in my acquiescence—-the swing long stilled, ropes rotting in the rain.

“You converse too often upstairs,” she admonished me. Her needles clicked the faster or she would stare more closely through her spectacles at her embroidery, her majestic bottom stirring vaguely on a brocaded chair.

The brass rails rattle now. I would speak of all—ah, surely now! Ah yes, he comes—a sudden leaping on the bed. One should be slow and use decorum. Save for the quiet keynotes of my sobbing I keep my silence. The waters of fulfilment wail for me, to lave my plenitude, my all-receiving. His vibrant entrance plunges, thrills. I know the snowfall of desire upon the tiger's hot and summered flanks. Push, thrust—do not cry out. The spear engages, sundering my cheeks. Unto his maleness, deep within.

I pant, I blubber softly as was taught. The subtlety is gone. I yield not to authority but to sin. Where streams the starlight on my brow, bulb bouncing on my rivered sheets? I have gone into the jungles of the dark where cry the voices of the wild—have heard my own beseeching against sin and yet have sought it. For this I was admonished, strapped anew. At breakfast my aunts would remark upon my pallor and rouge my cheeks. Once returned to my room, I would rub it off. I preferred my paleness. The emissions of desire are pale, the flesh is pale. By mid-morning my colour would return. I had come victorious through the long, slow loop of night.

Do not ask, Laura. Submit, receive. Work your bottom.

“Work your bottom!” The man repeats the phrase. I obey, I breathe my gaspings. He seems to need my sounds. Be quick, be quick.

“Ah God, ah God!” He now blasphemes. In lust is my undoing. I receive. The pulsing jets as from a hose, fine-spurting—then is quiet.

Are you happy? You must understand more. Read good books, attend to wisdom. Thus my aunts spoke, and Mama. I, virginal between my thighs, would acquiesce and smile. I hid my conscience in the small jars of my mind, upon the shelves where none could ever look.

He falls back, he is spent. The cork uncorks, the penis withers. The door opens and I fall forward, hide. The woman appears.

“She was ever rebellious. You must deal with her later.”

“Yes,” he replies. His voice is heavy with discontentment. Here is perhaps a place of disaffection. I have not been seen before in my quietude. The secrecy is broken, the locks undone. Spyglasses perhaps survey me. Men in heavy boots will come and whisper and make notes.

“Go! All of You!” I shriek.

“Do not speak in that manner, Madam,” she replies, “who are you to speak? Come—she is undeserving.”

“My clothes!”

I call too late. The door is closed, he shuffling like a dog torn from the bitch.

“Millie!”

I call once more. My voice finds a thin ring of authority. I stir, I feel the trickling wet. Will Julian's mother scent my sin? There is no coming of angels. The silence hangs. I need Mama—the admonitions of her dogma.

I rise, wash at the bowl. The thin towel scours my servitude. The door is my shepherd, it will lead me into the beyondness, the benediction of descent. I shall blossom into the world. At night I shall listen to the music of the little band, rub hips with passers-by along the moonlit promenade. I shall eat cockles and sing my songs. The women will regard me with envy.

I adjust my stockings. Be ever neat, Laura. Be watchful of your carriage. Do not speak to men.

I seek my drawers, my dress. Perhaps I shall keep the chemise the woman gave me. It is a pretty one. The lace at the hem taps at my bottom in gentle reminders. My clothes lie in the bathroom as Millie placed them. No voices sound to challenge. The drooping silence leaves no gap to speak. I descend with no caution whatever for I am become myself again. The front door stands wide—there Millie stands. She wears her bonnet in a ragged tilt. Her shawl is frayed. I espy now her poverty, the meanness of her dress. Her pose is one of the desolation I would feel were it not for her own.

“They've all gone, Miss. There's all such comings and goings here.”

“What will you do, Millie?”

Have I seen her before? The faces of servants merge in my memory—betray their anonymity. Their faces are the faces of winter Sunday mornings, hoarfrost invisible upon their fingers, the tips of their noses.

“Find a place, Miss, where they might have me.”

She curtseys, smiles, a wan, small, broken smile. I observe her in her going. Born to activities, domestic...

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