By R.C. Carter
The wicker chair creaked on the porch as Idris Schopenhauser pulled his stomach in and pushed his shoulders back. He foraged through his pants pocket for his matches, his tobacco pipe on its side on his knees. With an unsteady hand he brought the pipe to his lips, striking the match against the between his ring finger and thumb. He hovered the flame over the tobacco, the brown leaves burning as he inhaled. He coughed, cleared his throated, waited, then coughed again and grunted.
A shuffle of feet echoed off the wooden floor. Mary, in a long grey dress, rubbed her greasy hands on her white apron. She curtseyed, her gaze meeting his for a moment before fixing her eyes on his breast pocket.
“I heard you, sir.”
“When’s dinner going to be ready? I had a long day today. You understand, Mary.”
Mary stared at his pocket for a moment longer before looking over her shoulder at the stove. The water in the pot hissed and spat, hot bubbles rising to the surface.
He nodded without looking at her, striking another match against the box between his fingers.
Mary went inside. She wiped her damp forehead on the back of her hand. She pushed the ledge of the window over the sink up again, though it was already as high as it could go. The air was thick with a hot, pungent dankness. She twisted her face towards her underarms. She had showered yesterday, but she smelt just as everything she did.
Beads of sweat trickled into her eyes. She squeezed them shut. A blonde woman basked in the sun, smiling, her arms raised above her shoulders, her palms open and chin tilted up. She picked up the yellowed book off the chair beside the lavender flowers, reciting strange words by a playwright who lived long ago. It was the last literature Mary heard that was not Biblical.
“‘Do you not know that I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.’”
The words twisted her stomach in knots. Mary grew dizzy, heaving. The Church and her neighbors had told her that this was shame, something all women were was supposed to feel for their bodies’ inherent sinfulness. But Mary had no aversion towards her body; strong and capable, it had willed her through countless days when her mind could not. She breathed in, the words still echoing as the scene faded.
Mary slopped a few carrots onto the wooden board, cutting them into thin slices. She dumped them into a bowl of ice and placed the bowl on the silver platter alongside Idris’s tea, bread, butter and beef stew. She dropped the knife into the soapy water bin, and it sunk slowly to the bottom. Mary watched her reflection in its silver sheen; her hair was limp, her face sunburnt and moist. But her eyes were different than the other women’s she had seen. Hers lacked fear. Some disease had infected the people around her, moving between them like a worm in the earth- her eyes were different because she saw it.
Mary curtseyed again before placing the tray on the small wooden side table besides Idris. He stared straight ahead, puffing his pipe, mindlessly tugging his beard. Mary got on her knees. She bowed her head into her chest she drew herself between his legs, her forehead inches from his groin, but not touching it. The air grew more stifling, the smell of perspired skin and moist cloth forcing its way past her closed lips and filling her mouth. She breathed as little as possible through her nose, forcing her spine to curl. She smelled just as she did. The routine was always the same, every evening when Idris returned home from work.
Idris took a small sip of tea and put it back down. He dabbed his lips on his napkin before eating. At thirty-three he was now an established gentleman, a high ranking Ministry member with two cars and his own house, but only one woman, Mary. Most other men had at least three to five- one to three for household duties, older women with grey in their hair, and shriveled wombs, though not much older than Idris; and one or two for childbearing, usually women who had just started to bleed, cursed with Eve’s Burden, to those a little younger than Mary. Idris’s friends from the Ministry said Mary was a poor housekeeper and worse cook, and almost too old to bear any more children, but Idris wouldn’t hear any talk of getting another woman. He was loath to share her with anyone; for her own good, he said.
Mary had served Idris since she was five and he was eight. She started by making his bed in the morning, cleaning up his toys in the afternoon, and washing his clothes at night. When Mary was thirteen she finally bled. The red spot in her undergarments ignited not images of Adam and Eve, but curiosity about her body. But Mary had to be silent. She wove together the loose threads of Idris’s old shirts to plug herself with, washing her stained clothes and bed sheets in the dark morning hours when everyone else was fast asleep. But Idris’s mother caught Mary washing her linens on her third month and locked her inside Idris’s bedroom without food until she was with child three days later. Idris’s son was now away at school, learning about the Ministry where Idris worked; Mary pictured the boy at his wooden desk with a pencil, taking notes on mastering households and women. Mary had only spoken to the boy when necessary, and the boy only knew her as Mary the servant, his father’s most prized possession.
Mary had never said a word or acted out against Idris or his parents, nor had she ever gave her opinion or disagreed with the Schopenhausers. She tended to Idris’s son, she was obedient and submissive without fault, a model woman of silence. And so she sat still between his knees with the setting summer sun against her back, not even stirring to wipe the sweat from her brow.
She knew when to get up to take the tray away. She had spent her life patiently waiting.
Mary stirred the lavender scented bathwater as lavender petals floated in a long circle across the rim of the tub. Idris undressed, handing her his clothes as he stepped inside. She placed the clothes at the foot of the stairs to be washed before she went to bed.
“Mary, come. I wish to have a conversation with someone of the fairer sex.” He sighed, sinking into the steaming water.
She knelt beside the tub, her chin tucked into her chest. He motioned her to come closer, so his lips almost pressed against her neck.
“Mary, do you know why I would never dream of getting a second girl? Have you ever wondered?”
Mary remained taciturn, not letting any emotion contort her face, shaking her head.
“It’s because of the way you smell. Isn’t that funny?” He paused, pressing his finger on a petal. “Especially- although it repels me on some level- when you have not bathed. It is the smell of work, – hard, menial, repetitive labor. It is the smell that best distinguishes those who work with their minds- reading, writing, counting money- men, like me- from those who work with their bodies- cooking, cleaning, bearing children- women, like you. But you are the only woman I have smelled that captures this distinction so perfectly.” He closed his eyes, running his soapy hands through his mass of dark curls. “I’ll be in the bedroom soon.”
Mary, her head still bowed, curtseyed and left the bathroom. The smell of lavender permeated the hallway and she lingered, inhaling the scent.
Idris arrived home from the Ministry in the late afternoon. He took his seat in the wicker rocking chair, his stomach in and shoulders back. He rapped his fingers against the wooden side table. He handed his pipe to Mary to be refilled. She packed the tobacco tight, keeping the soft, brown leaves away from her nose.
Idris puffed on his pipe and cleared his throat. “Mary, I don’t think I’ll want dinner tonight. Just stay out here, by my side, and keep me company.”
He looked up at her. She kept her eyes on his breast pocket before she knelt down, drawing close to his groin without touching it. He took a deep breath in and sighed, stroking her head and twirling her blonde hair around his finger. He took out the small, leather bound bible he kept in his pocket, flipping through the pages before he spoke.
“‘But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. I suffer not a woman to teach, not to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.’”
Mary breathed in little sips. Her heart pounded against her ribs, her lungs hot from the lack of fresh air. Mary closed her eyes. The blonde woman was no longer smiling, but screaming as two men in black robes, wearing crosses, stormed across the yard, knocked the book out of her hand, and dragged her across the yard, crushing the lavender flowers. Another scream rang out alongside hers, the cry of a young girl, repeating one word, the name of the woman.
The woman disappeared inside a black car. The young girl never saw her again.
When the sun set Idris stood and went back inside the house. Once his footsteps echoed off the top stair Mary rose and locked the door behind her. She went into the bathroom and drew the water for his bath, scattering lavender petals on top. Some floated on the surface while others sunk to the bottom. She closed her eyes and inhaled, straightening her spine. The pain in her stomach was gone, and her body felt strong and capable.
Idris came in and undressed. Mary didn’t put his clothes by the stairs but dropped them at her feet, only turning to lock the door.
“Mary, why didn’t you leave my clothes…” He stopped, waving his hand. “Never mind. Come sit.” He tapped the rim of the tub.
But Mary didn’t sit. She tilted her head up and looked down at him so their eyes met.
“‘Do you not… know that I am a woman? When… I think, I must …speak.’”
Her voice was quiet and awkward, breaking at the wrong syllables, but the echo from the walls made it loud and coherent. Idris sat still for a moment, cocking his head to the side.
“Mary, you have purple eyes. Were they always that color, or did I just never notice?”
He chuckled, then laughed and kept laughing, flailing his arms in a fit of hysterics, splashing hot water onto the floor. His shrieks stung her ears, but she didn’t shirk away. His cheeks were shining and bright red, his blue eyes wet with tears.
“Jesus, Mary! You have purple eyes! Purple like the petals…”
Mary felt like her tears, hot, sweating, pouring down herself, visible liquid shame. She saw it, Idris saw it, and so did the sunny blonde woman from years past. Mary closed her eyes, her hands around Idris’s throat cutting off his laughter. He thrashed and kicked, gurgled and spat as she forced his head underwater. Petals splashed onto the floor. One landed in her hair as a stream of hot water burned her cheek. But her grip was strong; she kept her chin up and her eyes fixed on his. His swollen face turned deep red, then bluish-purple. He gave one final jerk and was still. Mary released him as he sunk to the bottom of the tub with the rest of the petals.
She opened her eyes, raising her arms over her head, her palms open, inhaling the sweet musk. There was another voice, deep and booming. Mary fell on her knees to the floor.
“‘Do you not know that I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.’”