On the night I left the Velvet Inn, Helen Mabel Walcott came to my room in tears of paranoia. I will not feign a pretense of understanding Mae’s affliction. Mr. Webster says things of systematized delusions, his explanations being as confusing as paranoia itself. I expect it’s much like fear, but different perhaps in the fearing of things not so likely to occur. Understanding has very little to do with occurrences however. Things come to pass whether you understand them or not.
Something else I never understood, something Judge Albert Millen did, came to matter more on that night than I had expected it would.
“When a man’s in love with you, he deserves his right name,” Judge had said to me on a rainy Friday evening near two years prior.
“Marie says I shouldn’t use a man’s right name,” I had repeated, in spite of Abbie’s angry direction to tell the men what they want to hear. “Judge is a right enough title, I expect.”
Judge looked disappointed, but he argued no further. “It will serve my love no greater honor than ‘Sir’,” he sighed. “I suppose I must be grateful for any moniker graced by such sweet lips.”
There was no point to informing him half his words confused me. He wasn’t paying for my understanding.
His strong hand laid me gently back on my bed and lowered himself upon me, rough clothes scratching my naked skin, returning his hand to do what the malleability still tucked away in his trousers could not. His callused fingers were careful with me as his groin chafed against the side of my leg. The tenderness of his manner was unaccustomed, preferable to the way others had treated me, but strange, and his touch yet uncomfortable.
Judge was not a youthful man. His eyes were trapped in a web of creases spun by a barn spider of weather and age, but lust burned out from them, bright as any young man’s.
“Fair Kate,” he said, soft as gravel from the road. “Have you truly no understanding of your unequaled charms? You are indeed an exquisite creature! This harlot’s den is not your home. If I could afford such things, no undeserving pauper would e’er touch so fine a silk.”
So he spoke as he touched me. Soft words in the same manner as the poetry he read helped to achieve what his fingers sought, comforting me from their roughness. When it seemed at last he may have arrived at satisfaction hidden under his clothing, he removed himself from my bed. He stood again with his hand held over his mouth, pondering long the smell of my warmth. He placed his fee in custom on the table near the door, where Abbie could easily fetch it, and then he returned to my bedside where I sat. He reached out to take my hand, tucked two dollars into it, and folded my fingers around the money.
“Abigail need learn nothing of this, my radiant star,” he said, and he squeezed his secret closed in my hand with a wink, the first time I’d seen one since the day William Andruss paid for a virgin. Sugar, when I wink at you, you’re supposed to pretend too, Abbie had explained.
After Judge left to head home to Mrs. Millen, I put the money in the scarred wooden box I’d found in my wardrobe when I took the room.
I kept with Judge to the end as Abbie suggested, although turning him might not be a fair description of events. As times proceeded, there had been more nights like that first one and less actual turning when he came to my bed. I never did call him Albert, however by Judge’s own qualifications, I expect Leon was the only man deserved to hear me say his right name.
When the end came, it came near as unexpected as Walter leaving me the day I arrived. In the dark of midnight, two years and some months removed from that hot, dusty July afternoon, Mae shook me awake in hushed whispers, her hand pressed firm over my mouth. Her cheeks glistened in the dark, awash in hysterical tears.
“Kate! Kate! Wake up, Kate!” Her whole body trembled, shaking my bed near as much as her frantic attempt to wake me.
Alarm sat me up in an instant, but my mind was not as quick to join. “Mae? What…?”
For a time, her trembling and the echo of her shushing in my head were all I heard, but her trembles hid sobs that grew slowly to quiet whimpers.
“Mae whatever is the matter?” I whispered impatiently, but as quietly as I could.
It was difficult to make out what she said. She struggled through half a sentence, stuttering badly. “She’s going to…” was all I made out. Mae’s breaths were stifled, no more than rapid puffs of air, way a rabbit breathes. It was the most frightened I had ever seen her.
I sat her down and put my arm around her, pulling her to me to ease her shaking. My head was still full of sleep and the comfort I’d left behind on my pillow. There were more tears before she managed to stutter out the whole sentence.
“She’s going to kill me!”
I could feel her head nod up and down in the dark.
“Who’s gonna kill you?” My thoughts raced with pictures of Mae swinging from the Hanging Tree.
She made several incoherent attempts, but I could tell she was trying to say it was Abbie. Her shaking was growing worse in spite of my holding her.
“Abbie? Why ever would Abbie want to kill you?”
Our conversation went on like that for a time, Mae blubbering in chopped whispers, I struggling to wake up and make sense of them at once. Times she’d calm some, then she’d start right up again. A little at a time, I learned that there had been a girl in New Orleans who had died. The way she had died sounded quite horrible to tell. Mae talked of a strange look upon the girl’s lips, being like talcum, and how when she died the talcum had taken the whole of her body.
There were things said about weeks I did not quite understand. There was abundant talk of blood and of bleeding, causing me to think back on what Walter had said about how women are supposed to bleed. I’m not sure how long, quite a while after Mae awoke me, it suddenly all became clear. She was in fear for her life over a cleaning!
“Mae!” I interrupted.
She started in fear at the volume of my whisper, and looked anxiously toward my door. I lit the lamp near my bed and turned to look at her again.
“Are you carryin a baby?”
Mae fell back into my arms, way I fell limp when Leon was cut down from that tree, but she shook harder now than ever. I thought hurriedly of words to bring her peace, but holding her such, I could only be reminded of how I’d held Alice during the illness following her cleaning. How frightened I had been she would die in my arms on account of it.
I was not one given over to laughter. I chose to laugh for Mae. “Mae, Abbie is not going to kill anyone.”
I’m sure it sounded most pretentious. A girl at the Velvet Inn had died once before, and I was afraid Mae would sense the knowing of it in my voice, but I could feel her calming in my embrace.
My mind raced, searching for thoughts. It may have raced forever. It may have been less than a moment. As is the way with thoughts at times, it was difficult to tell. My mother’s voice was calling to me yet from my pillow. My head was spinning in confusion, my body nearly detached from me by the fear of Alice’s death. I could see my mother stood over her grave like a light in my head shining upon the dirt on my hands. When I finally spoke, it was as if I was speaking in my sleep, but I was sure of my words. My mother had died trying to protect me from Walter and her courage filled me with resolve.
“Mae, shush yourself now,” I said calmly. “You were meant to give this baby birth.”
Mae turned entirely to water in my arms. Still she shook, but gentle like splashes in a bath. “A-abbie won’t allow me to have a baby, Kate.”
I was full in a moment of thoughts had nothing to do with me, confused and unsure what to say at all, but my voice kept right on knowing what to say without me. “Abbie was not put into this world to decide things on your account.”
Mae at last took charge of herself, while I marveled at the manner of my speaking. “You’re right about that,” she said. “But Abbie won’t allow me to have this baby. You know that.”
“Then you have t’ go where Abbie has no say.”
“How am I just going to go?” Mae asked. “Where would I go? I have no place to go.”
“You have t’ follow the road through Willow Bend to the northeast,” I said. “It’ll take you to a place called Les Clochers.”
“You mean like a church?” Mae looked at me confused. “How do you know that?”
“Leon said it,” I answered. “Said he knew some folks there.”
“How far is it to Les Clochers?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. I only knew the name took my attention when Leon had said it.
“I can not just go off to who knows where like that, Kate. There are things to consider; planning must be done. How will I travel? How will I come about money with no men to care for?”
“I got money,” I said.
Mae’s eyes were stretched wide in the dim lamp light. “You’re sweet, Kate, but I doubt you understand how much money I would need.”
I got up and went to my wardrobe where I pulled out my wooden box. I opened it up and dumped its contents upon the bed before her.
“Oh my sweet, Jesus!” Mae exclaimed, running her hand through the pile of bank notes that fell. Where did you get all this? Your bed is as quiet as crickets in winter!”
“I saved it,” I said. “I don’t pay for much but a few books, and…” I faltered, remembering Judge’s wink, but Mae was not Abbie. “Judge gives me two extra dollars every time. Near two years now. It’s on account of he says this is a harlot’s den.”
“Kate, there must be more than five hundred dollars here!” Her face was still filled with wonder. “Do you have any idea how much money that is?”
“More than a year’s wages for a workin girl, I reckon, accordin to Henri LaRue.”
“More than two years for some!” Then her excitement gave away and she began to cry again. “I can not take your money.” She began piling the paper back together and stuffing it back into my box.
“Why not? I ain’t usin it. I ‘s savin it for somethin. I don’t know what, if not this.”
“It’s too much! And you should at least keep whatever I don’t end up needing. No, I can’t take it!”
Then suddenly, I understood why my mother had been haunting me again since the day I first took Abbie’s employ. Her reflection in my looking glass knew my place sure as Judge and Alice did. When you’re about the business of finding something lost, staying put is the worst way to go about it. If I was ever to find her words, it was not going to be at the Velvet Inn.
“Then we’ll both go,” I said.
A noise came from outside my door causing Mae and me both to jump. Alice!
I bid Mae wait and rushed quietly to Alice’s door. It was locked, but light came from beneath it, and as I turned at the knob I heard her unlock it again. I pushed her door open and stepped inside, closing it delicately behind me. Alice stood near her bed, fixed on me like I’d smashed her sculpturing.
“Mae’s carryin’ a baby,” I said.
“I heard every word,” Alice answered.
My head was cluttered with all Mae and I had said.
“I always knew you’d go,” Alice said, trying to sound staunch about it. “I said so didn’t I?”
“Alice, come with us! You’re all I have in this world now with Leon gone.”
Alice walked closer to me, but would not touch me. I believe it was over the mention of Leon’s name she hesitated, but I can’t know. “I’m not like you, Kate. I never was. What am I gonna do out there?”
I stood at a loss for words.
“Go,” she said. The word forced her face to tears, but she pushed me gently. “Go on!”
It’s odd how life can be so contrary at times. I had once held Alice in my arms, fearing I might never see her again. That same fear had enjoined me in Mae’s predicament, and by its very cause, I knew turning away I might never see Alice again. I’d learned a strength in myself watching Leon ride away. I turned away as he had.
“Kate!” She ran the few steps, and threw her arms around me. She kissed my lips tenderly and then I felt her hug relax.
“I’ll write when I’m settled near a post,” I said.
Alice nodded and I left. I heard the door lock before I reached mine.
Mae and I agreed upon two things: dress warm; carry light. I sat in dismay as she left for her room to pack her belongings. As I drew on my clothing, I considered my own. My books were the only real possessions I cared for beyond a wooden horse stained by a few drops of blood. I would have to leave them behind. I bid farewell to Mister Webster and the others and I took the one book that meant the most to me. I took my letters to Mary.
Mae returned. Moments later, we crept out of the Velvet Inn on the tips of our toes. In the dark of a new moon, with not a firefly to our aid, we turned and started up the road through Willow Bend on foot. Mae would remind me frequently we had set out without a plan, but I wonder if that’s ever true. Life seems to have plans of its own whether you’re making any new ones or not.
© 2013 Anne Schilde