This was written for the Heart-eater blog, a collaborative writing project that I took part in some time ago. My story is a companion, a sister, to one written by Remittance Girl, a dear friend of mine. It's called Amnesia's Heart.
Amnesia never knew she had a sister. She did, though, and that sister lived on the other side of the railroad tracks that ran through the city: bright and gleaming on one side, dirty and crumbling on the other.
It had been a drunken tumble, nothing more, and while a rich man may go back to his big house and forget the peasant woman he took on a sweating summer night, the woman (in this case) wasn’t let to forget. Her belly swelled, and her father put her out. “Stuffed with a rich man’s bastard! You might at least have sold your virtue to feed your family,” he roared “not given it for nothing. Girl, your heart is as empty as your belly is filled.” The girl looked to her mother, who only cried. She saw then that she had been stupid, and swallowed down the shame. She had no room in her belly, so it lodged in her heart and stayed there.
In time the rich man’s second daughter was born, dropped onto a stained mattress in a filthy bedsit. Her mother clipped the line between them with an old pocketknife, but wished she didn’t have to. She put her lips to the baby’s trembling chest instead, and breathed. “Rosemary, for remembrance. Remember, remember. You are all I have.” Rosemary heard her poor mother sigh, and swallowed down her newborn cries.
In time, Rosemary grew into a strong, sturdy girl. She worked the fish stalls next to her mother as soon as she could hold a knife, and when she cut herself her mother would lift the wound to her mouth. “Your mother loves you, Rosemary.” she’d say, pulling out the fish slime and licking the wound clean. “Remember that.” The little one nodded soberly, and tucked her mother’s admonitions safe into her heart.
Rosemary was never beautiful, for her hands were callused and her back strong and strait, and her face browned by the sun. Her mother was glad for that: ‘for then the men would want you, and you would leave your poor mum behind.’ Rosemary would always fall to her knees at this, and hug her mother fiercely. “No, no. I’m all you have. I’d never forget you.”
Yet as she grew, she came to know the reality of the danger her mother feared. She saw the hungry looks of the men at the fish market, saw the way they licked their lips at the sight of her young breasts and sturdy wide hips. Her mother noticed it, too.
“Shame, shame! Beware, girl. They’ll steal you away from me if they could, wouldn’t they? And then what would I do, me who’s raised you, given you everything?” Rosemary nodded and took her mother’s shopping basket. Some of the men’s looks made a like hunger tighten her own throat, but she swallowed it down. She found that doing so, however, fed a strange demon of will in her. She looked at the whores with their rouged cheeks, and the ‘fast girls’ that let their bellies brown in the sun with envy, not recrimination. Her mother noticed this, too.
“Shame, shame! Walking around like that. She’s killing her poor mother.” Rosemary took this and swallowed it, as she had all the other little thorns her mother gave her. She had no stomach for it: it lodged in her heart.
She learned to scowl when men whistled at her, and not to smile. She learned to feel resentment and not pride when they admired her body. She learned to smack their hands away, even when her skin hungered for touch. Why should she need it, though? She had her mother’s kisses, her mother’s rough hands brushing and braiding her hair each night. Each night, her mother’s stinging-nettle litany to remind her: ‘men they use you, leave you. Only your mother loves you, girl. Only your mother stays. Remember that’. Rosemary remembered, but she felt the thorns she’s swallowed prick her more and more each year, each kiss she refused.
Peter, the butcher’s apprentice, wanted her. He gave her gin and praise and she kissed him sometimes, under the wharf just before the sun rose. If her mother noticed the sleep under her eyes, she said nothing – she didn’t have to, Rosemary repeated words of shame to herself in prayers each night. Yet in the morning she still met him, and let him press urgent kisses over her hands, her throat, her cheeks. When times were hungry, he snuck away meat and pressed the paper-wrapped treasure into her hands. “Let me have you.” he begged, and she shook her head. He stroked her until she burned, and she cried “What would my mother say?” Peter sulked; he hadn’t remembered inviting Rosemary’s mother to their pleasure-bed, but he was a clever enough lad and thought better than to say so. “Please, please…” he pleaded, and then: “If you get a child, I’ll marry you. I promise. I’ll build us a house, for we two and our babes.” Rosemary nodded. “And mother, of course.” Peter could not hide his sour look. They fought, and so parted.
A rich man noticed Rosemary, one year, and wooed her with little gifts and promises. He was rough and demanding and yet his hands were soft; Rosemary was thrilled and terrified all at once. He praised her, and promised her a life of security away from the fish markets, away from all she knew. “Are you a virgin? I’ll take you to a fine hotel.” he promised, and kissed her hands when she hid her face. “I’ll set you up in a boarding house, I know the landlady. I’ll take care of everything.” Rosemary trembled with hunger for a room and a bed of her own…yes, and for him. “If you fall pregnant,” he promised “I’ll get you work in my factory. Or in my household. I’ll take care of you.” and she wanted desperately to believe him.
“What of my mother?” she asked then, and the rich man raised an eyebrow. “What of her?” Rosemary knew then she could not take his promises, and refused him. All the hopes and selfish thoughts were sour ash in her mouth, and she swallowed them down. They caught in her heart, mixing thick and hard between the thorns.
Over the years Rosemary was courted again, and again, and each time she said ‘What of my poor mother?’ and each time the men departed disappointed, and she returned to the little room and her mother’s suspicious looks. In time, the men stopped asking. Rosemary resigned herself to spinsterhood and worked all the harder. Times grew hard, though, and she could not work hard enough to feed them. Her mother grew too sick and weak to work, and held her empty belly. “Wicked girl!” she cried from her little bed. “Have you no love for me, who gave you everything? Have you forgotten your mother?” Rosemary shook her head, and walked farther each day to look for work, for food. She went to all the men that had once courted her, and asked them for help. Some of them said they wished they could, and some sent her away without a word. Peter was sympathetic, but had his own woman and babes to look after. It was the rich man, finally, that took her aside and scribbled an address down for her. “Good luck.” he murmured, and she pressed the paper to her heart. “And…be careful.” he added, and she wondered what he meant.
That night Rosemary gave her mother the last of their bread. It wasn’t enough, and she tasted salt on her mother’s cheeks as she kissed them. She licked up the tears and swallowed them down. She pulled her hood over her head and walked the streets toward the address the rich man had given her. The doors opened for her, she was led inside and a silent servant took her coat. Rosemary realised fully – though she’d known at her core all along – what she was there for. She straitened her back. It would bring her mother’s shame and disapproval upon her head, but Rosemary was beginning to realise that she already had plenty of that; what was a little more?
Mr. Morningstar was cool and polite. He offered her brandy, and his hands were efficient as he stripped off her clothes. “What is your name?” he asked. “Mary”, she replied, for roses were sweet and it had been a long time since she’d felt anything close to sweet. “Well, Mary.” said he. “We’ll begin.” She shivered and edged closer to the fire. Her shivering could not stop, however, when he drew out a shining set of long knives. Before she could breathe or speak, he seized her by the neck and opened a long, deep slice that curved across her chest. Stinking ichor poured out. Mr. Morningstar staggered back, fumbling for a cloth to press over his nose. Rosemary fell to the floor, but hardly noticed the pain. She watched, fascinated, as a dark stain spread across the carpet. She dipped a finger in, and tasted it. It was…
“Bitter, bitter!” came the cry. Mr. Morningstar clutched his knife, disappointment hot in his eyes. “Do you mean to poison me?” she shook her head, confounded. He clapped his hands. She was laid on a pallet and towels were packed around her. He looked down, resigned. “Bitter, like your name, Mary. I have no stomach for it.”
The next morning, Rosemary (or Mary, for she knew herself better now) rose from the little pallet and saw the towels burning in the huge fireplace. She found her clothes and left that big house, making the way back to her mother’s tiny room. When her hand touched the door her mother’s worries crowded around her, beating her face with tiny wings and keening in her mother’s voice. What will we do? What will we eat? How could you leave me, where did you go? How will you save us? Mary waited for the familiar press of thorns and fear to clutch her heart. It didn’t. She went in.
Her mother was on her tiny bed, looking even more shrunken and pale than before. She raised a thin, trembling hand, reaching out to her daughter and clutching the air. Mary drew near. Her mother spoke, voice gone as pale and wan as the rest of her – only the thin thread of sour poison gave it any strength at all. “You…you left.” came the tremulous wail. “You forgot me, Rosemary. You forgot your mother.” Mary shook her head, taking the sick woman’s hand. It no longer clutched her with the same grim passion. “I never forgot you, mother.” and her voice seemed deeper, stronger. “I could never forget you, even if I wanted to.” Her mother nodded, satisfied, and Rosemary held her until the suspicion faded.
“Daughter, I am hungry. I am cold. Girl, if you love your mother, get me breat and meat.” It must be the fever talking, Mary decided. There hadn’t been meat in weeks…yet she turned and said “There is meat. No bread, but I will give you meat.” She could not tell what made her move, and didn’t care. She took the same sharp knife that had once cut the line that ran between them, and shrugged out of her dress. It hurt, a little. She recalled the way Mr. Morningstar had cut her open, and though her own carving was much less efficient, it did the job. The thick smell of meat filled the tiny room, too thick to tell the rot underneath. Mary’s mother licked her lips. Mary pulled her heart carefully from her chest and laid it on the chopping board. She carved it neatly, pounded it tender, and then cut it into tiny bites for her mother’s loose teeth. Kneeling by the bed, she pulled her mother up, using her fingers to serve the meat. Her mother – starving, desperate – hardly chewed and swallowed down the meat with such need she almost choked. “You see?” Mary soothed, watching the tiny pieces of her heart disappear. “I could never refuse you anything. Not meat, not even my heart.” Her mother nodded, indicating that was just as it should be. Her mouth was too full to speak. Mary held up the chunks of her heart until it was all gone, and her mother licked the plate clean, and for a moment it seemed that strength would come back to the woman. Only for a moment, though.
There was a sudden choking, and Mary’s mother clutched at her throat, then her heart, then her belly. Her hands clawed at her clothes, and she tossed on the tiny bed, her eyes fevered and wild. She reached out to her daughter, and whispered pleas that died in the air; she had no breath. “There is no money for a doctor, mother.” Mary replied, calm. “There is no-one but me, your daughter. I’m all you have.” She held her mother’s hands, and when the spasms shook the tiny bed, held down her mother’s thin shoulders. Finally, finally, it ended.
Mary washed the plate and set it aside to dry. She slipped her mother’s old pocketknife into her boots and laced them tight. She pulled her hood over her head, and patted her breast to make sure the scrap of paper with Mr. Morningstar’s address was still secure. She bent to kiss her mother goodbye. There was one tiny smear of blood on that cooling cheek; Mary licked it up and swallowed it down.