It was one of those storms that made the floorboards creak in sympathy for the roof and the windows, straining to hold the framework of the house upright against the gales of wind and torrents of rain that pummeled it mercilessly.
I look up from where I’m trying to patch a hole in my husband’s breeches by the flickering candlelight of a tired flame, and see the culprit himself, young, clean shaven, and handsome, come into the room. He drapes one of the many blankets I’ve crocheted over my shoulders, planting a kiss on my head as he does so.
“Are you all right in here all by yourself? You should come to bed soon.”
I feel the usual flicker of annoyance that he gives me whenever he tries to be concerned and attentive; I am the oldest of five, all girls, and am accustomed to giving the orders and recommendations more than taking them. My mother warned me that this could make my marriage hazardous and unpleasant if I didn’t learn to curb my impulses, but indeed, that’s why I’ve come out here in the first place—to get away from my handsome, wealthy husband who annoys me so frequently with his idle chatter and unsatisfying attempts to care for me. If you really want to help, I want to tell him, you could offer to help me with the household chores once in a while, or take an interest in the house accounts. But these feel like impulsive things to say, the way they rise up inside me and press against the inside of my lips, so instead I say nothing at all. Of course, I know there’s another reason he wants me to come to bed early.
The wedding was a beautiful spectacle, as we rural Ohioans are wont to have. My family, ecstatic that not only was their oldest daughter marrying but marrying well, drank deeply, while George’s family sipped from fluted glasses and looked at my figure, swaying tipsily beneath the layers of white, to reassure themselves that if their son hadn’t married the richest he could, he had, at the very least, married the most beautifully.
My mother did my hair, long and startlingly black, herself, painstakingly organizing the wild curls and swooping it up and around my head like a nest of interconnected crowns. My eyes blazed an eerie blue against my pale, creamy skin, and the effect truly was mesmerizing on our guests; I thought George was going to fall over when I entered the little church and turned at the top of the aisle to begin my walk toward him. Only his little brother seemed unimpressed, already married to an elegant blonde woman whose bright brown eyes followed me curiously long after I’d passed their pew on my walk to the altar. They live just down the street from us now, Mary and Johnathon. The brothers run a successful general store in the middle of our small town, Mt. Vernon, and Mary and I are still settling into co-managing the store when our husbands aren’t there—I’m not used to deferring to another woman (besides my own mother).
The fire crackles on our hearth as I lose myself in these moody thoughts, wrapping the light-blue blanket around my thin figure. I am tired, and I do want to get out of this uncomfortable dress with all its petticoats and heavy layers. I flick my slippers off and play with the material absentmindedly as George sits own in the rocking chair opposite me with a barely audible sigh. I repress my own; maybe if he was half as proactive in bed as he was about trying to get me in it, I would be more eager to go. I upheld the expectation on my end—I was, technically, a virgin on our wedding night. But like any other arrangement, the success of our marriage lies in the technicalities, and my mother has also told me to let him take the lead between the sheets.
“Yes, he chose you, but you also chose him,” she told me sternly the first afternoon we took our afternoon tea together both as married women. “Now you need to either make do with who you have or find another outlet.”
I’d raised my eyebrows at her, shocked. “Mother…”
She’d waved her hand, her still-beautiful face open and warm with honesty for me, her favorite daughter. “Sweetheart, times may change, but some things never do. The world will tell you that there are expectations and boundaries that you must conform to, but really all anyone expects is appearances. Never forget that.” She’d paused and I’d interjected, sarcastically, “So you’re advising me to keep an underground railroad of husbands, per say?” Her eyes flashed green-blue the way they do when she gets passionate about something. “I’m advising you to always remember that women have always relied on an underground community of support to get through a life dictated by men.”
I jerk out of my reverie; I have no idea how long George has been trying to get my attention.
“Sorry, dear, what is it?”
“I’m going to bed.” His tone is sulky and irritated, and I rise with him as he goes to leave the room, which takes him by surprise.
“Would you mind helping me out of my dress?” I drop my voice into a low, sexy purr while keeping my eyes cast down demurely. I feel him go rigid beside me with excitement, and allow him to tow me eagerly towards our bedroom with the enormous master bed, and fret and worry at the knots that keep my dress tightly fastened to me until I finally pretend that I can’t wait to have him, I must have him now, and I allow him to take me up my voluminous skirt, lying back on the bed in my clothes like our passion is enough to burn the clothes right off my body. Idly, I wonder what it feels like for him as he’s thrusting in and out of me with an unchanging speed and intensity. He finishes in a predictable burst that makes my breath catch, and then it’s over, and I call our maid to help release me from the dress my husband has made a prison with his fumbling fingers.
Her own dark fingers are deft and clever, loosening the knots within moments, which allows me to take large, expansive breaths of air for the first time since she laced me into the dress this morning. She pats me on the back as she gathers up the dress to take away for cleaning, and I turn to go back to my bed, where George has already fallen asleep. Although it’s still raining, I suddenly think I can make out a strange tapping on the front door. I turn back to the door and instantly know I’m right, something is making a noise amidst the natural thrumming of the rain, because the maid’s face is frozen in a strange of fear and feigned nonchalance.
“Never you mind, Missus,” she murmurs, nodding to the bed. “Aye’ll check thu door n’ lit you knaw if there’s anythun you gotta concern yerself wit.”
But her eyes, dark and luminescent in the lamplight of the bedroom, glow with a barely-contained excitement, and I know there’s something she wants to hide from me, badly. I eye her for a full minute before acquiescing to her wishes, going and laying down on the bed with my husband and pretending to roll over and fall asleep quickly. I hear the door close, imagine her footsteps padding slowly away, and then I sit up and slide back out of bed, my green cotton nightshift whispering along my ankles as I peek through the keyhole in the door to make sure that she’s not waiting to see if I’m still up. I exit the room quickly and close the door softly, so softly, behind me, and creep around the side of the bannister so I have the most direct view of the front door. Even though I’m anticipating something out of the ordinary, I have to quell a gasp of fear when the front door is opened and two young black men are ushered inside. One is clearly a relative; the maid flings her arms around him and covers him with the types of kisses that make teenage boys of all colors squirm and protest. This young man stoically waits, however, and when his mother has finished greeting him, presents his friend, who takes the maid’s hand and murmurs a couple words to her that make her whip around in fear, checking to make sure they are, really, alone. No one sees me crouched in the shadows upstairs, so they relax as she guides them through the room and out, away from the staircase and toward a different part of the house.
Safe in the shadows, I have no illusions about what’s happening; I just wonder for how long it has been operating here under my husband’s nose. Our maid is a relative of one of the many at my brother-in-law’s house…
I know I should go to bed, let this happen and think about it or talk about it with someone later. I have no issues with it; like many Northerners, I believe slavery is wrong. However, it’s not something I’ve ever discussed with my husband, and something warns me that his feelings are much more conservative on this point than I would care to deal with.
I slip downstairs silently, walking by memory in the shadows of the early hours of the night, listening to the footsteps of the little group up ahead and grateful that the rain has slackened to mere background noise by this point. The thick carpeting is damp beneath my feet and I know I’m on the right track; how long have they been in the rain, I wonder. Suddenly, I bump into someone and there’s a shriek that’s quickly cut off. Someone grabs me and roughly pins my arms behind my back, hissing, “It’s a woman!” There’s a pause, a flash of flame, and a candle is held up to my face by the maid. “Missus,” she says slowly. “Please.”
Standing with the little group, I see that the man beside the woman is the one she embraced so lovingly; he must be her son. The one behind me, then, must be the friend. I don’t strain against his grip, and I only look at her. “It’s okay,” I say, quietly, though my heart is hammering and I feel a sharp jolt of disloyalty, to what I don’t know. I know what I believe, I have my convictions, yet the darkness and lateness and threatening grip of the man behind me make me feel uncertain and something else I can’t quite place. When he releases me and moves beside his friend though, I see their eyes rake over me, sharply, and suddenly I’m very aware of the thinness of my cotton shift and the hardness of my rounded, full tits at this most insolent scrutiny from two runaway slaves. I draw myself up to my full height, which barely clears either of their shoulders, and glare at them. The maid cuffs her son and snarls a warning to him that’s universal—yes, she’s beautiful, no, you can’t have her, focus on the problem at hand. And yet, I’m enjoying myself. I grasp her hand briefly as she leads the men away and murmur for her to let me know if there’s anything I can do to help, and I feel the men’s surprise even as they walk away from me.
I return to my cool side of the bed, heart aflutter and a strange tightness in my belly, my husband snoring softly beside me. All night, I lie in my bed, looking out the window as the sky lightens through the shades of the morning, filtering in pink and orange with little dust particles swirling in the air. I dress slowly, so that I don’t have to spend much time with George before he’s headed off to the store for the day. I don’t have to be there until lunchtime. I’m determined to meet the men who came into the house so quietly last night, properly. I want to know their stories and where they come from and feel like I’m a part of something bigger than a small town where I’ve already accomplished all I ever will. But the maid is nowhere to be found. She must know I’m looking for her, and though I’m irritated, I can’t help but sympathize with her. Those men were clearly at a loss without the discipline of a mother or woman figure, a tingling sensation goes through me as I remember the way they looked at me so shamelessly through the darkness. I go down into the cellar to begin my search for the men, but as soon as I open the door I realize they’re already down there. Their deep voices cut off as soon as the door opens but I can’t help but bark a laugh at their insolence and stupidity—we seem to be joined in our motives, and I try to push away my mother’s cautionary voice in my head as I descend the stairs, warning me that this goes beyond even what she would condone.
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