Stickman Review Fiction Contest
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The Revolt of the Abyssinian Maid
by Darla Beasley

She left at midnight, to the sound of a spoon. She quit without notice and took all the towels, which she had just washed and folded. She quit because her fingernails were bitten to the quick, because her skin felt faded, two shades lighter. When her hair was unbraided, it would not comb out, but retained the shape of a loose black coil, crouching on her shoulders.  She quit because of the dampness, which seemed to curl around her and sniff. Because of the ice that formed, like one thousand mirrors, on the walls and ceilings. Other servants had gone before her, she had seen the signs. They appeared in the form of forlorn sachets. Hairbrushes, earrings, shopping lists—all things portable, yet forgotten in haste. She wondered if when they closed their eyes they still saw pale English hands, floating like miniature planets in dimly lit rooms. Beckoning, calling.

At 10:15, it was time for the Mister’s medicine.  Yessir, nossir, three spoons full, and he was off to his desk, where he tenderly folded parchment into origami doves. He tried and failed to propel them across the room. In the maid’s opinion, the wings were too heavy with ink, which explained why the birds never got off the carpet. The Mister said they were prophesying war. After he had taken his medicine, his pupils were the size of the coins they gave her, which she’d never spent. Instead she wrapped them in a stocking, next to the brick she used to warm her feet, until she dreamed that a lion was standing at the foot of her cot.  The lion brought a homesickness that she could not afford, so she buried the coins in a corner of the vegetable garden. The Missus exclaimed in surprise, a few months later, when the maid pulled up carrots the exact color of brass.

The household was operated like any other, on a combination of desires. The maid dusted and swept. She ferried trays heaped with nothing, because the Mister was experimenting with imaginary fruit. As for the Missus, the maid launched one thousand boats, whose gravy cargo was substantial enough. Her employers were especially pleased when she played the begena, the notes going places that only the maid’s fingers knew. An outcrop, sandstone, the blue mouth of the Nile.  A miracle of rare device. The Missus preferred low notes, which pleased her ear. This is what the moss knows, a somber green key. The maid would miss tending the gardens most—the way the tulips were planted like match sticks. The flare of pipes and sunlight, the scent of the trees, almost toxic with heavy perfume. 

And she would miss the children, the pink flesh of their palms, their grubby supplications. The careful pressing and folding of their dresses and trousers, a task which always seemed ghostly to her, as if the clothes had shed some vital component. At home she would have washed the garments in the river, where the water would flush through the sleeves and hems. Gently ballooning the spirits back in, smelling of loam and chlorophyll.  Here she was told to use the washing board, nothing more than an oversized cheese grate, which nipped at her skin until her knuckles were raw. 

But it was not as if she was treated cruelly.  She was loved by the members of the household in their own strange way.  The Missus always gave her castaway trinkets—a broach she no longer wore, herbs she had pressed onto delicate paper. Advice. Beware, she told the maid when the Mister had doubled his dose of medicine.  Beware, his flashing eyes, his floating hair.  At times, the Mister got a little out of hand, but the worst thing he had ever done was to accidentally lock the maid in the library with him. 

She watched from a corner in fascination, as he laughed and wept and wrote about savage places.  Occasionally he would stop and put a hand over his chest, until he finally fell asleep upon the desk. She tiptoed around him three times just to be certain that the sentences hadn’t killed him.  Then she deftly extracted the key to the room from the chain around his waist. He was drooling slightly, and the saliva was smearing the ink on the page.

There were men, she had learned, who spent their lives cataloging words and constellations. Tracing and retracing comets and footfalls. And this is what finally caused the maid to revolt. To see the stars on paper, pinioned like butterflies.  To be shown with casual mercy, the flesh of heaven, the exact arrangement of the sky over Kaffa.


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