Everything’s quiet. There’s no more time to lose. This is it. Time to jump into the cold water.
My name is Rose. That’s how I’m called, just Rose, the rest’s got nothing to do with what I’ve become, and anyway, it’s been a while since any-one’s even called me Rose. Sometimes, when I’m alone, when everyone is asleep, I repeat my name out loud, but not too loud, just so I can hear myself, faster and faster. After a while, there’s no beginning or end anymore, so I stop and it keeps going in my head, like I’ve started some devilish machine. If anyone heard me, I’d surely merit some special treatment and everything would come to naught.
I thought this writing would be more difficult. I’ve spent so many years waiting for this moment, dreaming about it. Every day I readied myself to put things in order, to sort my ideas, hoping for when I could finally set down my story on actual paper. And now the big night’s arrived. I’ve decided to throw myself into this grand business of words. Most likely no one will read this. That’s not the important bit. What matters is that for once I’ll get to the end of something without anyone stopping me. I won’t back down. This wasn’t possible until I met Génie, a kind soul. I’ll talk about her later. I’ve thought a lot about what I would write first, which part I should start with, obviously not the true beginning of my life, but another beginning, the moment I understood that I was leaving one world for another, without anyone asking me.
I had just turned fourteen. I lived on a farm with my father, my mother, and my three sisters. In the Landes, as it was called. For that matter it must still be called that, seeing as places don’t change names easily, even when people leave. We were four daughters, born one year apart. I was the eldest. Girls aren’t worth much to farmers, in any case they’re not what parents hope for to make a farm run, you need arms and something between the legs to give your name to the time that passes, and me and my sisters don’t have anything of the kind between our legs. If I heard my father say that girls were the ruin of a house once, I heard him say it a thousand times. He didn’t even hide it from the four of us but said it loud and clear, as though we were the only ones to blame for the misfortune weighing on him, us, his own daughters made of his own blood and my mother’s blood, and her listening, frowning, but never saying anything, never contradicting him, or else, if she did one day, I wasn’t there. At least we got along well, my sisters and me. We stuck together and didn’t balk at the work. Despite everything we got done, my father made us understand that it wasn’t enough, it would never be enough. The more we did, the better we did, it didn’t change anything. So we found ways to create moments to amuse ourselves, in secret. We laughed often. We were only children with no concern for tomorrow. I never saw my mother laugh, or really smile either, and my father just the once, the day after my fourteenth birthday, at the fair in L., he had insisted I go with him, but for sure it wasn’t a look that prompted joy, more like a grimace. Yes, he had an odd smile that day, quaffing drinks in the inn with that man who was paying for them, and him never. With years of hindsight, I know that it wasn’t a true smile, or a true grimace, but his way of convincing himself that he had to become someone else to see through what he had started.
They were sitting at a table in the middle of a room full of customers. I was standing at the entrance, where I’d been told to wait, watching them talk, unable to hear what they were saying. The man was drinking less than my father and from time to time, he gave me a look that chilled me like a wind in winter. He was big and fat, clearly a little younger than my father, wearing clothes not like ours, not cut the same and not made from the same cloth, the kind that cost a lot more. I wondered how it was that my father knew someone like him. As the conversation went on, I could see it taking an odd turn. My father’s face was tightening, and it eventually became as serious as the man’s. I understood later that they were haggling, and that it wasn’t easy to reach a deal, seeing as how nobody wanted to give in. I didn’t know it yet, but they were haggling over me.
The fat man got annoyed. He tried to get up and leave, but my father grabbed his arm, though he didn’t seem to like that and my father let go right away. The man sat back down anyway. My father nodded, they shook, and a purse changed hands on the sly, and a bindle too, in the opposite direction. The man seemed in a rush to be done with it, he grabbed the bindle with disgust and my father stuffed the purse in his jacket. It didn’t seem all that full to me. My father gave me a hard look. I couldn’t tell if he was mad at me for something, or if he wanted to say sorry for something else. I didn’t understand what was in that rotten look which I hadn’t recognized on him anymore than I had the smile from before. Now I know it. And then he dropped his gaze. The man approached me holding out the bindle. His fat belly, swollen like the belly of a cow ready to calve, spilled over his pants. In an unkind voice, he whispered in my ear to follow him, that he had something to show me, that my father and he had just agreed on it. I asked what they could have agreed on, what it had to do with me. He didn’t answer. I looked at my father, who made a head gesture that meant obey. He poured a big glass of wine into his mouth, then refilled it just as quick. He didn’t look at me after that. And so, turning around several times, I followed the man, because I had always been taught to obey men without discussion. Nobody paid us any mind. Once we reached a covered cart harnessed to a beautiful black horse glistening all over, he explained to me that we were going to his home, that he had work for me. When he spoke, I got the impression someone was pulling sharp splinters out of his mouth. I was frightened. I didn’t understand why my father hadn’t told me anything. I didn’t want to follow the stranger. I didn’t even know yet that he had just bought me.
I need to say goodbye to Papa, I said, eyes welling with tears. I started to turn around, but the man straightaway grabbed my shoulder, pulling me back. That’s not a good idea, he said in a voice that had nothing friendly in it. He pushed me against a wheel and lifted me to force me into the buggy. I wasn’t capable of fighting back. I stepped onto the footboard and fell onto the seat. The man got up next and I truly thought the buggy would tip over with his weight, then he sat next to me, put an arm around my waist, and took the reins. My heart was dancing a jig in my chest. Let me at least tell him goodbye, I beg of you, Mister, I’ll come back after, I said trembling. The man didn’t react, he cracked the reins hard on the horse’s back, and we set off. I couldn’t stop trembling like a leaf. I couldn’t even cry. All I could think about was jumping, but I couldn’t do it. Where are we going? I asked. He didn’t answer.
We left the village at a trot and I began to imagine all manner of things that would never be as bad as what I was to endure. It was the start of spring. The sun was out. The roads had been battered by the winter snow and the rains that followed. The man still didn’t say a word, he just glanced at me from time to time, an odd, sick look on his fat face, and it certainly wasn’t to check that I was safely seated. At one point, the road narrowed. We entered a forest. The trees were coming together above us, making a dark green sky that nearly covered all of the real sky. I could only see the sun on the side, between the tree trunks. It was as if it were chasing after us, playing at scaring me, and it was working pretty well, seeing as how I’d never seen the sun like that, or at that speed. It’s true that on foot or in a cart pulled by a cow, you don’t see things go by the same way. The forest was getting denser and denser. I’d have liked to get away from the sun, but it always found a way to sneak back through. I really believe that if it could have devoured me, I would have let it.
I can’t say how long the trip lasted, but it felt endless. I had relaxed just a little when the man reined in the horse at a difficult pass. I smelled acacia flowers, which my mother used to pick once a year to make fritters for my sisters and me, nice greasy fritters that we loved. I felt like crying again, but the tears didn’t come. Next, we crossed a bridge over a river, then we turned onto a small road. The ditches were well maintained. We came to a wide-open gate attached to two columns at least twelve feet high and linked by a kind of iron railing, like two lines in a notebook, and between them you could read les forges. I automatically lowered my head as we passed underneath onto a gravel path. We circled around a large bed of bushes with flowers of every color, and stopped in front of a kind of castle surrounded by lots of smaller structures.
Then the fat man turned toward me with an odd smile. From now on, you will call me Master, and you will obey everything we say, he said in a cold voice. I didn’t know what that we meant yet. He got down first and I stayed sitting. What are you waiting for? he asked. I obeyed. One of my clogs slid on the footboard and I landed on my bottom. You don’t seem too smart to me, don’t forget your things on the seat. I stood up. I grabbed my bindle. My bottom was aching and my legs trembling.
When I turned around, an old lady, thin as a rake, was standing on the stairs to the castle. She was wearing a long black dress that the sun made shine in spots and her gray hair was up in a bun held by a black lace net. She was staring at me with a superior air but also curiosity, it seemed to me. I said hello. She nodded at the master. He went up the stairs, and I stayed below, seeing as nobody had told me to do anything. Once he was all the way up, he looked at me, and then the old lady, sighing, like I was nothing.
We really have to tell you everything, are you perhaps waiting for the flood to come up here? I obeyed. The woman entered the house first, the master behind, and then me. We came to a large high-ceilinged room with enormous beams with a single base, and in the back a fireplace where you could have roasted a whole cow. A long wooden table filled the room, big enough for at least thirty to eat without bumping elbows. The old lady said that I was under the blacksmith’s roof now, that he owned Les Forges, and that therefore I belonged to him from here on. She looked at the master. He nodded his fat head. Then she laid out what was expected of me. I would be responsible for keeping house and cooking, she wouldn’t tolerate any dereliction, which would be punished, and she’d be keeping an eye out every God-given day. I marked her words. Then she asked me my name. Just so I know, she said, seeing as she’d been calling me my child, though in her mouth there wasn’t anything kind about it.
If you have questions, ask them now, she added. So I asked her if it was just me taking care of the castle.
The old lady chortled. The castle, she repeated. The girl before you got along just fine without help. Then they exchanged a look of understanding that I didn’t care for. They turned toward me, like the same engine was driving them. I’m going to show you your bedroom, said the old lady. The master didn’t move. She walked to the other end of the room and opened a door to the right of the fireplace. I hurried to follow her. Then we went up a staircase, passed two landings, before finding ourselves just beneath the roof. She opened a small door to a bedroom, with a bed pushed against one wall, a dresser with three drawers, a straw-bottomed chair, and barely any space to move between them, though it’s not like you could say I’ve ever been terribly round. On the bed was laid out a black dress, a white apron, and a white headpiece.
Here’s your uniform, it ought to fit you, said the old lady, who had stayed in the doorway, one hand in the other. She glanced at the bindle I was holding at my side, then she looked me right in the eyes with a crooked smile that changed nothing on her withered face but her lipless mouth, and that said plenty about the way she thought of me. I’ll expect you downstairs in ten minutes, that should suffice to unpack your things and put on your uniform. Then you’ll need to prepare the meal, she said, before turning on her heels.
I was alone, frozen in the room, listening to the footsteps on the stairs. A door slammed and I came back to myself. At that moment I wasn’t thinking of my family, I was only thinking of these strangers whom I would now have to serve. They wouldn’t do me any favors, I was sure of that. I quick unknotted my bindle on the bed. Inside was a chunk of rye bread wrapped in newspaper, a wool cardigan, two pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks, a winter dress, and the small rag doll that my mother had made when I was a baby. Everything I owned plus what I was wearing fit in that sorry bindle. One drawer was more than enough to hold everything. Time was slipping by, and as I didn’t want to get yelled at the first day, I pulled on the dress and the apron over it, placed the bonnet on my head, and I went downstairs.
The master was no longer there. The old lady was waiting for me, impatient as anything. You took your time getting ready, she said coldly.
I went as quick as I could.
Don’t talk back when someone tells you something. Yes, ma’am.
She showed me the kitchen first. I will decide the menus for the next day the night before and you will follow them to the letter. Every morning someone will bring you everything you need to prepare the meals, she said. I stopped myself from asking who was this new someone she had mentioned. It couldn’t mean her, or her son, so who else, seeing as she had told me that there was no one else at the house to help me. I’d find out soon enough.
You can read at least? she asked.
Read and write, more or less, I answered looking up. You will ask me, if there’s something you don’t understand. Yes, ma’am.
On the table was a basket filled with carrots, potatoes, and one cabbage, and also a big piece of salt pork soaking in a basin.
Salt pork and vegetables, that’ll be your baptism by fire.
Nothing too complicated, I thought, looking at the vegetables.
We eat at seven-thirty sharp, she added, pointing to a clock hanging on the wall. We take our meals in the dining room, just the two of us. She marked a beat before continuing, like she was trying to force herself to seem sad. You should know that the master’s wife has been unwell for some weeks now. I am the only one who brings her her meals, she said, emphasizing the only. The silverware and all the utensils you will need are in the large sideboard in the back. But don’t break anything. If you have questions, it’s now.
I bit my lip but I couldn’t stop myself. And my wages? I asked. Her eyes opened wide as an owl’s. I quick understood that I had made a blunder that I’d regret.
Content yourself with doing what we ask of you for now and meriting your pittance and bed, we’ll discuss your wages again when it’s time, she said with a chortle. She didn’t look anything like an owl anymore, more like an old mean turkey. With that she left.
Once I was alone in the kitchen, I went directly to the large sideboard to go through what was inside. For utensils, I wouldn’t lack anything. I picked one of the copper pots hanging on the wall and I set it on the range. I lit the stove with a fagot and fed it with the logs kept to the side. I straightaway poured the water from the basin into the pot, and I set to peeling the vegetables, which I dumped into the water as I went. That was when it hit me without warning. My family came back, and the tears started falling all at once as I realized what I would become without them, far from my freedom, because, even poor, there had still been freedom in my life in the Landes. I was angry at my father, and also my mother. I cursed them for having brought me into the world, seeing as all they had had to offer me was to be a slave to people who were nothing to me and who looked an awful lot like they wanted me to have a hard time of it. I kept crying as I peeled the vegetables, and I trembled, from not being able to get the sadness out of my head. Bubbles were coming up from the bottom of the pot, as if they were preparing to leap into the air, and I would have liked for them to crash into my tears, instead of bursting for nothing at the surface. I calmed down after a while, but the bad thoughts kept coming all the same.
Everything was ready when they arrived. They sat at the table without a word and I served them. The master began eating immediately. The old lady took her time eyeing her plate before taking a bite. Based on their faces, it seemed the food was good, though they still didn’t pay me any compliments. But I knew I’d done a fine job, seeing as I’d been doing the cooking with my mother for ages. The master served himself seconds while the old lady pecked like a bird. Then she placed her silverware on each side of her plate as if they were relics. She raised a glass and examined it from every angle with a nasty expression.
These glasses aren’t transparent. You’ll need to wipe them with a cloth before each meal. In the future, I will not tolerate drinking from glasses that aren’t completely clean, she said. I’m sorry, it won’t happen again, ma’am. I quick understood that in reality, she would always find fault with something.
They didn’t say a word the whole meal. The old lady left the table without finishing her plate. She bid the master good night. Then, without looking at me, she said that breakfast should be ready by seven. The master didn’t take his eyes off me while she spoke, as though I’d always been there and it surprised him that his mother was reminding me of breakfast time. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, words I had never used before, seeing as how on the farm we suppered and sometimes broke bread, and the point was always to fill your stomach as best you could with what was on hand. The master went to bed not long after the old lady, and I found myself alone. Their manner, on top of the night falling, chilled me through and through. The thing that struck me was the sadness that seemed to be coming from the castle, a great sadness, and also something else, that was making me uneasy even before I knew anything else about this family. I tried to swallow a mouthful of cold vegetables, but I was so tense that I spat it out. Instead, I cleaned the dishes and put everything away, hoping to have memorized where the silverware and utensils went. Then I sat on a chair. I was emptied. I started to cry again. I went up to my room still crying, and I cried some more on my bed thinking that I would never stop crying, even when the tears stopped flowing, and at the same time I repeated, my name is Rose, that’s how I’m called, Rose.