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jacqueline friedland

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by Jacqueline Friedland

      I could not decide whether it was malice or conceit that inspired Constance to enter through the front foyer again that day. It was as though she thought she was still a guest, as though it was five years before and nothing had changed. I suppose it was easy for her to behave so presumptuously when my own daughter, Regina, was waiting there in her fine green day dress, ready to embrace her bedraggled cousin. I hurried down the stairs, careful not to tumble as I had the evening before when Silas and I argued on the landing. I should have known better than to make demands on him. At present, I was anxious to intervene in the family reunion in front of me before either girl could pollute the situation in the house further.
      “Regina, please,” I implored my over-excited child to stop chattering about like a wild monkey. She was not so much a child anymore either, but a young girl on the eve of her own engagement. My beloved red-headed daughter was the offspring of disaster. She had turned eighteen last month and was supposed to meet a possible intended in less than an hour. Nettie, our maidservant, had helped me arrange Regina’s soft hair in long curls down her back that were fetching in their deceptive appearance of effortlessness. Today’s attempted matchmaking was the reason that foul Constance, with her ratty wool dress and kerchief-covered head had traveled from her family’s tenement near the woolen mill in Wigan all the way to our home in the first place. My husband’s brother’s daughter she was. I looked at the girls, only a few months apart in age, yet worlds apart in everything else, and I wondered again why it was that my Regina was so elated to see her fallen cousin, arriving with that sour puss on her face and dirt under her brittle fingernails. Having quieted the girls, well my girl anyway, Constance was significantly more reserved than her better-bred cousin, incongruous though it was, I leaned out the front door and listened for the sound of the Dollingers’ carriage beyond the drive. I heard no hoof beats, only the rustling of the April buds, and I assessed that we had at least a few minutes remaining to ready ourselves.
      I turned to my niece by marriage and found the refined carriage of her shoulders repugnantly ill-suited to her bony drabness, the superior posture being another vestige of her youth. She still had not figured out her new place in the world. I was cruel in my severity with her. I realize that now, thinking of the strict tone I took. The girl had from a young age been overly-sensitive. You would expect the oldest of five to have rougher tendencies. Constance was always rubbing salve on her brothers’ blistered hands, even from the age of seven I would say. I wondered even back then what she was hiding. Her timid and maternal ways were so unlike my Regina that I found her behavior suspect. I could much more easily understand Regina, with the happy-go-lucky attitude more suitable to a child. Having been reared in adversity, Regina had learned to be deaf, blind, or just plain daft, depending on the demands of the situation, and that careless deportment of hers has thankfully persisted.
      I viewed Constance as an interloper and wanted that girl to remember her place. “Constance, you may proceed to the galley,” I told her. “Lisbeth is finishing in the rear kitchen and can benefit from assistance until the guests arrive, even such as you can offer.”
      “Yes, Aunt Agnes.” The girl, no longer beautiful, answered with such subservience that she managed to sound insolent. How dare the child insult me, I wondered. I thought then that I knew what she was up to.
      When the Dollingers arrived, we were nothing like our usual selves. Regina was quiet at first, and I was the confident director of the home. Even Silas changed, doting on me a bit before we sat. I felt cheerful from his attentions, even though I knew Silas always enjoyed posturing for company, and also that he was glad at the prospect of the special meal. You cannot maintain a waistline such as his without a passionate interest in food.
      I took great pride in Regina’s behavior during the midday meal. She displayed none of the greed nor self-importance that she has learned over the years from her father. Instead, she was demure and pleasant, insightful but reserved. Young Charles Aloysius Dolinger III, or Lewis, as his parents called him, seemed smitten from the moment that he and his parents arrived. We were quite pleased, Millicent Dollinger and Charles Senior and I, as this was the purpose of the meeting, to attach the young people to each other for everyone’s mutual advancement. Silas too was in favor of the arrangement, more for his own benefit than Regina’s, but what did it matter, as long as he was hopeful for the match. Charles Dollinger owns two separate textile mills in Rochdale. Should the couple wed, Silas hoped Charles Senior would invest significant funds in his trading missions to West Africa, where he collected the artifacts that sold so well back home.
      You would not have believed it, but as we ate our meal, Constance managed to serve without a single slip up. More often, she was prone to spilling pumpkin soup or dropping spiced potato pieces onto the laces of my boots, but today, we ate our mince pie and roast vegetables without so much as a wayward sneeze from the girl. I had previously considered her clumsiness as intentional insolence, rather than the nerves that they were. I hardly realized then that the girl was suffering from excruciating fright. Millicent Dollinger could not help herself but had to ask who the serving girl was, having heard the rumors about Silas’ brother wrecked finances, I’m sure. I saw no reason to hide our charity to the girl and her family, so I spoke up immediately.
      “Silas’ niece,” I explained. “Her prideful father refuses to accept an allowance from us. It puts us all in a terrible position. They will not keep so much as a farthing that they have not rightfully earned. We cannot turn our backs on my dear husband’s family, so we have at least come to this arrangement.” Pride is the worst kind of sin. It puts an onerous burden on everyone it touches. It was the truth that Silas was tortured over his brother’s predicament. He always had a soft-spot for Samuel and hated to see his brother struggling.
      Silas looked up from his plate at my explanation, as though he might have something to add. I was surprised he could manage to look anywhere other than his food. His shifty brown eyes rested on me for only a few seconds, but in that short time I could feel droplets of sweat being born beneath my corset. Oh, forgive me. It has been but a few weeks here, and already I am speaking about underthings in public. I wondered what it was I had said this time, as Silas would have been glad to provide the exact explanation to the Dollingers that I had. Perhaps he had already had his first whiskey of the day, the drink often making him more wicked. Just as I began to worry he would make a scene by resorting to his violence, his expression grew placid, bored even, and he turned his bald head downward to refocus on his fork. I remember thinking I felt sorry for that next bit of meat as I watched him masticate furiously and imagined the odor in his mouth.
      He was once a handsome man, for certain, but not since he replaced his stateliness with only a glutton’s desires. Now he was all wrong to look at. His hair was sparse in the places it should be ample and ample in parts where it did not belong. He was just a mess of flab and rolls and stained whiskers.
      “You hardly see such things nowadays,” Millicent informed me as she lifted a gloved hand to her cheek in a practiced gesture of awe. She is an older woman, Millicent, older than you would expect for the mother of someone of Lewis’ twenty-two years. Other than her incessant need to collect gossip though, she is a pleasant sort of a person, petite, but with large white-blonde curls and rosy cheeks. Her husband is the better looking of the pair, very tall with thick dark hair and a young healthy face. Only the wisps of gray near his ears belie a more advanced age.
       Next Lewis spoke up, and despite the predictability of his behavior, I found him endearing. “It is a sorry affair when more people of our station cannot be as charitable as your family,” he said. He turned his square jaw to my Regina and smiled a bit shyly. Perhaps that was what I liked about the boy, that he did not seem to take her affection for granted. He continued, looking at each member of the party in turn as he spoke, “I pass by the tenements on my way to my courses each morning.” Lewis was already studying to become a solicitor, you see. “It’s debilitating to see the severe poverty these people endure, families of nine living in one-room flats and sleeping on hay. It is even worse if you see the deformities of the children, the mill workers.”
      Regina nodded, and I was pleased she was already being supportive of her would-be husband, showing herself to be a potential asset. Silas too looked across the table at her and smiled, his many chins rising along with the corners of his mouth.
      Here Charles Senior interjected, perhaps finding the turn of the conversation indelicate. “That’s enough, now, Lewis.” He put down his wine glass and declared, “No need to be speaking about such things over these delectable dishes, especially since the deformities often come from malnutrition, rather than the mill work.”
      He was simply defensive given his position as a mill owner, as we all know well the appearance of flat feet and turned knees, the mangled limbs and missing fingers that are common in the child laborers, but we allowed it, and Regina ably turned the conversation lighter. “At least the winter has passed now and those people can tend their small gardens again,” she offered. “During the coldest times I figure they have only snow to eat for their dinners. Perhaps they try to imagine that a hunk of snow is a steak. Snow-steak. They could abbreviate and call it snake.” She joked, and we were all pleased.
      For Lewis, Regina was neither deaf nor dumb, nor was such disability required of her. I hated to think of what Lewis might be like as an older man. Perhaps if Regina should conceive more quickly than I had, and a boy, it might be different for her. With the meal nearly finished, I decided it was time we adjourn to the terrace and let the young people walk in the garden.
      I took hold of Regina’s hand in a display of great affection so the Dollingers might think she had been raised in a most loving environment. If Lewis persisted in his sappy ogling of her, I thought, she might very well be married off and out of the house by the next winter. There was no reason Regina should have to remain embroiled in my own despair any longer. At least one of us would be able to escape. All those years forcing herself to ignore the misery in our house could finally be over. That was what I was thinking because this was a point in time before I realized that both of us could be free.
      I remember that I looked at Regina and forced myself to refrain from pinching the girl’s pale cheeks to add a hint of color. At seventeen, how easily they are embarrassed by their mothers, yes? As we rose from our seats at the table, I asked, “Why not take Lewis to view the garden pond? Wonderful fish,” I added to Millicent. “Fat with caviar this time of year, I suppose. Go darlings,” I said gaily. I prodded Regina toward Lewis. Sometimes she needs extra guidance from me. “The rest of us will retire on the front porch and enjoy your walk vicariously from afar.” I thought it was genius that they should be chaperoned by our eyes but not by our ears. A wonderful opportunity for Regina to use her coquette’s skills productively.
      Then Silas stood from the table, belatedly and conspicuously, his orange cravat stained red with dinner’s cranberry sauce. “A lovely idea,” he agreed, finally perking up. He placed a hand on Charles’ shoulder. “I’m sure I have just the right cigars to accompany our rest. I will extract them from where ever they are hiding.” This is what he said.
      That was when I thought I knew that everything I had been imagining was true. It was not, as I had hoped, all my own delusion. I led Charles and Millicent to the wrap-around verandah at the far side of the house where they each found comfortable seating on the teak benches overlooking the rose garden. Regina and Lewis walked down the few steps toward the mossy pond below. I was able to sustain but three minutes of idle chit chat in the wet spring air before I rose again. “Excuse me a moment, as well, if you would,” I begged the Dollingers. “I have a book of drawings of Regina as a child, sketches we commissioned, that I would like to show you. I’ll be but a moment retrieving it.” The drawings I mentioned were not nearly as nice as even the sparrow sketches that I was working on that week. I have always enjoyed drawing and recently began studying under a ladies’ tutor again. Anyway, it was only an excuse. I knew that my face must have been entirely green, but what else could I say?
      I made haste then, toward the back kitchen, which was where I thought that they might go. I imagined them chuckling at our foolishness as they stole into quiet corners, wrongly supposing that they were both drunk on infatuation. I stopped outside the swing door and listened. I could hear Lisbeth clattering about the kitchen, knocking pots and pans at each other with vigor. Such racket, it was no wonder the woman would never be promoted out of the kitchen. I realized they must have gone to the back lawn behind the kitchen. The smokehouse would likely be their choice. I walked into the kitchen, still unsure of what I would say to Lisbeth, but Lisbeth’s back mercifully was turned, and I managed to slip out the back door without her noticing me at all. On the grassy lawn behind our villa, I was alone and somewhat surprised by the seclusion of it all. I moved toward the smokehouse, and when I neared its outer wall, I caught a glimpse of Silas’ ample thigh protruding from behind the left side of the building. The cloth of his black pantaloons was gathering at the knee, and I could tell he was pushing his body up against something, against her. I hurried behind the wood pile and ducked down, peering around the side, praying I wouldn’t be seen. I rubbed my left arm, remembering the last time I had seen Silas in a sexual position and the months it had taken for my bones to reset afterwards. Though that time I had been the object of his grotesqueness.
      From my perch behind the large wood pile, they were now completely within my view. There was corpulent Silas with his bulbous hands and sour breath fondling Constance, his own niece. To my surprise and her credit, Constance appeared disgusted. All this time, I had imagined the meetings were of her design, not his. Now that I saw clearly, I could not rationalize how I ever supposed it was otherwise. Seeing the revulsion she emitted, I wondered whether the other affairs had been one-sided as well. Even so, the girl stood still as a windless sail and allowed his touch. Suddenly, my heart softened toward her as I watched her endure my husband. He was her uncle, and to someone of Constance’s young age, he was an old man. To anyone, he was fat and putrid and depraved. Yet Constance allowed it, and I realized it was her fear that he would withhold money from her father and her four hungry siblings. I cursed my brother-in-law Samuel for allowing his eldest daughter to end up here. He should have known better than to invest everything in his furniture shop. Whatever could have compelled him to build the establishment so close to the river? It is a wonder he was even surprised when the place was destroyed by flood.
      As I watched them together, it was as though something inside of me shattered. Before discovering my husband in this horrific position, his niece’s rapist, I had already considered myself savagely beaten down by my lot in life. I had lived for so many years frightened by the shadow of my husband. Yet suddenly, my spirit broke further, sinking so far and so wildly that it was reborn into something else entirely. As I tumbled towards the bottom of despair, I felt something just as quickly sprouting inside me. My tears and longing and devastation had been gathered up into a cyclone within my being, creating a new force, creating a demon.
      I had seen enough. I inched quietly back toward the small door to the kitchen, taking care not to snap twigs with my heels. I never knew before that I could move with so little sound. Once I was inside, I saw Lisbeth had returned to the dining room, and I was alone in the kitchen. I noticed the cleaver next to the meat block and picked it up fast without any clear thought. I shielded the instrument within my many skirts and felt relieved by the weight of it. I wondered if I had ever in my life held a kitchen instrument such as this before. Mother never did allow me to consort with the servants. Back then of course, they were slaves. I held fast to the cleaver and decided that this would be Silas’ last day with his Constance. His last day. Unimaginable, I know. I wish I could recount when my entire existence had become so unimaginable as to make the ridiculous seem plain.
      I crept again toward the backdoor, this time heading to the right side of the smokehouse so that I might more ably sneak up behind my husband. I hoped that he was as engrossed in his niece as he would be in a leg of goose, unaware of all except that which was satisfying him. As I rounded the shed, I moved quickly, bringing down the cleaver into the center of Silas’ back, mid-hump as he was. As blood hit my face, I was glad that none went into my mouth, not wanting Silas’ foulness to ever besmirch my insides again. I pushed the cleaver as far as it would go, surprised by the resistance of the skin. Perhaps all the fat on him made my job harder. I had to strike again quickly to prevent him from fighting me off. Somehow I found that strength, though I cannot recount the precise number of wallops I managed before I knew to stop.
      Constance looked at me as if to scream, but then she became busy pushing her half-dead uncle off of her before he was all-dead.
      “Don’t,” I begged of her. I meant that she should not make noise, and she understood, the poor thing. I needed to figure out what to do next, as all of this had happened so suddenly. As you would say, it was not premeditated.
      “Hush,” I demanded again of Constance, hoping I perhaps sounded comforting, as well. Envision it, I have just suffered the loss of my husband, and here I am supporting the emotions of his niece. “You have done nothing wrong,” I told her. I advised her to come quietly inside so that we might wash her off and provide a clean dress. Looking down at myself, I saw that I too would need fresh apparel. There was no way to explain away this soaking.
      Constance and I hurried inside and up the back staircase to my boudoir. She helped me into a clean dress and I left her to ready herself from something among my things. She would simply have to tie up the skirts or fold something over to make it fit her smaller frame. I hurried back to the Dollingers out front.
      “Forgive my extended absence,” I implored them, and then remembering my changed clothes, I added that, “I looked high and low for those silly drawings and without even finding them, I managed to spill an entire ink pot on my dress. I never should have begun the search in the first place.”
      “Are we not so often humbled,” Millicent responded good-naturedly, “by enterprises that seem worthwhile at the outset but then leave us with only a soiled situation to remedy? Sit my dear,” she told me. “Let us watch young love in the making,” she gestured with her chin toward Regina and Lewis seated on a distant garden bench. They were clearly having an extremely important conversation, probably about nothing at all. And all the while, Regina having no idea her father was dead. How elated she would have been, I thought, never expecting that she would misjudge me so harshly later. I was then overly pleasant to the Dollingers, so there could be no confusion that I was in favor of the match with their son, but I told them I was feeling ill and asked that they would leave.
      As soon as they were gone, I came at once to your offices. This event with my husband, the cleaver, it was an action of self-defense, which I made no attempt to hide. To think that my confession led to so many days incarceration before you provided me even this meager chance to explain myself. It is shameful and hardly the reception befitting a lady of my station. Eight days! What have you to say for yourself I might ask?
      “Have you been reading the Bible we provided you?”
      “I am familiar with my verses, Constable. When shall I be released?”
      “That depends on the outcome of the trial.”
      “Yes, do tell, when will be my trial?”
      “Hmm. Very well. I have what I need now. Guard!”
      Oh, I see how it is, Constable. For shame. Go ahead and call your guard. Have him walk me down the long corridor back to that overcrowded cell where you will no doubt leave me to rot for weeks before I ever see the inside of a courtroom. Let the people see what happens when women like me do as I have done. Go on home tonight and see if you feel like a big man lying in your down bed tonight, having put me back in my place, as you must think. I will go with your guard now, and I will not make a fuss. No, because now at long last, I am the one who is finally free.

Jacqueline Berkell Friedland is currently an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where she is studying fiction. She if a former attorney and law school professor. When she is not writing, Jacqueline can be found plowing through novels or chasing after her four energetic young children.

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