After a hiatus, I’m jumping back into Teaser Tuesday, with yet another piece of flotsam from my random crap files.
The hill to the preserver’s house was steep and sandy, no obstacle to the brown woman making her way up it. She trudged against the grade, her eyes focused on the bit of hill ahead of her. The child, however, glanced up frequently, perhaps watching how the sky, dark with promised rain, leaned down over the yellow stones of the building. Every third or fourth step, the child stumbled and the woman wrenched its arm to keep it upright.
The preserver shook his head when the woman and child reached the portico. It had been many years since he had been willing to provide for a muddauber’s funeral. He mentioned the name of another preserver whose price was more likely to be attainable, and the woman said, “Ain’t here for that. Looking to find a place for my girl.” Under the layers of dirt, the child was female then.
“I wouldn’t pay a single coin for an apprentice that young, and a girl for that matter,” the preserver said.
“I didn’t know as whether you could use her as a prentice.” The woman laughed, and then the laugh turned into a deep, bubbling cough. “I don’t mean to sell her. You can have her, if you’ll feed her. It’s all the reason she stays near me. You can hear that soon enough I won’t be in the way of doing that.”
The woman coughed harder and brought up something into a rag. The preserver recoiled, as he always did from the living.
“Can she work?” he asked, intrigued despite himself at the prospect of a free slave.
“She knows how to clam. I guess she can learn anything else.”
“If she can go down to the market and learn the price of imported lavender and how to wash her face clean, I will take her on.”
“And will he feed me?” the girl said. She had had the hawkish look of someone familiar with hunger.
“I will feed you if you can manage that.”
After the girl was gone, trotting toward the market, the muddauber woman began to make her way back down the hill.
“Won’t you stay to see if she manages?” the preserver asked.
“If she can’t do for you, then she must do for herself from here on.”
The woman walked on, pausing once to double over with the force of the cough that was killing her.
When she returned from the market, the girl parroted back the prices she had been told. Her face was also relatively clean. The preserver sent her to carry twig bundles to build up the fires under the nitrate vats. She did it without question, her small dirty feet busy. When she finished, he sent her into the dry room to take a message to his assistant. The message said only, “Tell me what she does when she sees the bodies.”
Her reaction was not even curiosity. Living on the river, she had probably seen bodies. They were likely nothing to her, although they were everything to the preserver. She looked perhaps five and the preserver guessed she might be as much as eight. When offered food, she ate enough for two. After she ate, he put a blanket under the front table, where he received bodies in the first step toward preservation. The girl lay down on it, but her eyes were tirelessly watchful. Perhaps she expected some encroachment from him, and left on her own, she likely would have been in the hands of a pimp within a day or two.
Such things happened, but the preserver had no interest in them. He saw beauty only in the dead. The girl was a pair of hands and feet to him, someone who might do work and so earn money. Nor was his assistant interested in the living, although his passion for the dead went more deeply. So, the girl slept unmolested, and in the morning, the preserver frowned when she told him her name: October.
“A person can’t go about called by a month.”
“I was born in the eighth month.”
“It won’t do,” he said, and as there was no one waiting for his attentions, he went into his quiet room and browsed through his preservation records, looking over possible names. When he sat down with his assistant to discuss ordering of supplies, he broached the topic.
“She needs a better name.”
“You intend to keep her?” The assistant saw only the annoyance of a living creature under foot who might require his care.
“For as long as she is useful, but I won’t call her October.”
“What about Tulip?” The assistant did not have the benefit of the preserver’s records, but in his mind he kept a list of those for whom he had felt something special. So in that way, was he made to feel a bit of fondness for the muddauber girl. She was called Tulip and each time he heard the name, he thought of that lovely girl, just sixteen, with soft lips, who had died of a snake bite. Her left leg had been swollen and black, a grotesque of flesh, until it was properly lanced and drained and pressed and painted. Once she was perfected all over, she had gone to the vats, where the assistant’s love for her faded, and the preserver’s love was born.