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From the Summer 2023 issue of The Stinging Fly.

She can’t sleep. The interesting thing about wind is how human it sounds, as a voice, unappeasable. She pulls her knees up. Turns. Turns again. Not sleeping means her back will give out midway through the day. She’ll lift a pot off the shelf, hoist a sheep to the cart, and clench, spasm, bad day. Don’t clench, she says to herself. Hours yet.

Pearl isn’t her real name. No one knew (knows) her real name. It was during her second year of servitude that they began calling her Pearl, because of a necklace. Before that she wasn’t anything. She didn’t speak their language and for a time tried pretending to be mute, preferring her own thoughts to the clotted, dark sounds they made. Eventually she learned a few phrases, which she pronounced wrong and they laughed, unsurprised. Unsurprise, she thought, is useful. Unsurprise is a place I can take hold.

Why did Norsemen go to Ireland for slaves? Because the ocean currents went in that direction. Because they had narrow, shallow ships ideal for raiding. Because the Irish settlements were poor, the people slight and weak, the weapons laughable. Because dogs lift their leg on any boundary they pass. Low and fast as eels along the coastline slid the ships and you didn’t know, you thought it was an ordinary Thursday, you turned from the window to see shadows cross the kitchen wall and there it came, a dark red note like a bellowing deep in your mind.

She has a hut of her own, actually a converted corner of the milking shed. It is a privilege not accorded other slaves; some day she’ll have a table and chair, as promised by the man who brought her to this place, when there is enough driftwood. It will be better if you avoid my wife, he had said to her on the ship coming here. It proves not hard to avoid the wife, who hates her, except for meals which she eats standing up in the wife’s kitchen when the wife isn’t there. She stands by the door to the larder, balancing her cup on the joist of the doorframe. If someone comes in the door, if her cup falls, she takes it as a sign. A cup might fall in a variety of ways; might be full, empty, or bad tasting; might clatter, splash, attract rebuke; might be caught on the fly—that’s a good sign. The day she catches the cup she decides two things. First, she’ll give up pretending she can’t speak, and second, kill the man who brought her to this place. No, think, he is top man in the region, killing him makes her an outlaw, she’ll not kill him, she’ll kill the wife. No, actually, why kill the wife, the wife could be an ally, the wife is as special as a blue fox, the man thin and short and aggrieved. Pearl opens drawer after drawer in her mind. The cup cools in her hands.

She moves to the kitchen table and sits down to wait for the wife, rehearsing silently her few phrases.

I know you, I know what you want, says the wife, emerging from the cellar door.

You are very beautiful, says Pearl.

So you’ve decided to speak. I shall have him cut out your tongue.

Unfortunately I must be going now.

Sit down, slave. He told me you’re a mute, I said no, she’s a simpleton. Now I see you’re no simpleton, you’re clever, you’re planning.

Clever. Planning.

But I decide this. You may be clever, pretty, high-class, proud, but you won’t win.

I am unarmed. Is there an exit?

You bet there’s an exit.

Please can I help you?

What a joker you are. Can’t believe he puts up with that, he has no sense of humor.

Why are you whispering?

I’m not whispering!

Life is difficult.

You mock me.

I want to marry you!

That’s him on the path, you get out of here now, you and your jokes. Don’t come back.

Hungry times arrive then for the slave. I should have stolen a few apples while I was in the kitchen, she thinks after. Submissive as spoiled fish—I can control her, the wife thinks after. But for a while together they keep the secret of the slave’s voice. Conversations between them are tentative, hostile at first, and confused. Gradually Pearl learns more words. Gradually the wife lets her back into the kitchen.

One night they are out riding the big black horse. It’s the man’s horse but he’s asleep. The slave rides behind. Stars move cold and ghostly at the top of the sky. Can you slow down, says Pearl, gripping the wife round the waist. I decide this, says the wife, so no. She kicks the horse faster. Horse foam flies back.

Let’s see what’s going on with the man. Sometimes he is silent all day. Cleaning his arrows. A household containing both wives and slaves had better keep them at variance, mild variance, with one another, had been his father’s advice. Summer comes in breezily and throws itself on forms, blossoms, dawn. The man rises early and goes to town to buy a string of pearls. Wear it all the time, he says to the slave, fastening the clasp. His fingers are rough. He makes it too tight at first. She remembers suddenly the summer the soldiers came and took the town mule. Her father was the town miller but how could he grind grain without a mule? Some people tried to grind by hand the black grass of the fields, mule food itself. Some pulled straws out of the broom. I am always hungry, she says to the man. Your wife does not give me enough. Never oranges. Never oil. The man runs his finger down her throat. Yes, he says.

Night winds lash the forest.

When he is away at a drinking party, which may last till dawn or all weekend, the wife and the slave tell stories in the kitchen. Shadows flare up the wall. Big knotty penis, the wife is saying. They laugh. Then the slave tells how she saw her father, by now two years dead, swimming in the sea the other day. It was the dark side of him but it was him, she says. You called out to him? asks the wife. Never occurred to me, says the slave. Let’s go riding, says the wife, maybe he’s out there. It’s past midnight and you’re drunk and I don’t want to, says Pearl. But the wife is striding to the door. I decide this, she says, just as the man steps into the kitchen.

There is a long, lost moment. But he is narrowing his eyes at the slave. You went to school didn’t you, good school?

Apparently (the story emerges) it is no longer enough that he attend the drinking parties in silk. Next time he comes he must bring verse.

Prominent gentlemen should, so the others felt, follow drinking with original poems. Not a competition, they assured him, but of course it is. When is Beauty not a competition? You have books? the man asks the slave, who laughs. I’m a slave, where do I get books? He turns to the wife. You have books? The wife rises and leaves the kitchen in silence. It is one of her rules that the man not greet the slave first in any situation. The man sighs and sits and puts his face in his hands. Pearl fingers her pearls. Anyway, I don’t need books, she says. I can do verse. (A lie. She knows little of verse, never liked it. You’re smart, you could be a teacher, her father used to tell her. She’d laughed. Teacher! A sort of upper servant! Not me. Had she really said this?) She laughs again, a different laugh.

Mucking out the man’s privy and carrying water for his wife provide her with many hours of reflection on how to make a poem. When she demands from the man a second chair, one on which she can lie full-length, he makes the chair in secret. Next she will ask for cushions, this will be harder for him. Her first poetic effort is of the “history of my own heart” type. It is a sonnet. How did the sonnet go? she asks the man on his return from his gentlemen’s weekend. They said to keep trying, he says. Ha! she says. The gentlemen’s comments will not prove helpful to her. She is working beyond her means. She is working for golden ears. Grammar faulty, vocab limited, each attempt different in form or style but all of them poems about riding in the birch trees and the smell of horse, the love-dark heat of horse surrounding you like an old tree from childhood. That’s funny, you never use that word. What word, childhood? No, love.

So the summer ends.

Everyone sleeps more as autumn moves toward winter and the dark increases, but it has a drained, gray feel and the difference between being awake and being asleep is frail. She lies on her chair watching the dark. Soon the snow will start, soon the roads will close. Before then she wants to make one more poem. Some of them come vomiting out, some are like tying knots. The one left in her is yellow, howling like an egg yolk, the one that will change everything—but she doesn’t know this yet, she just feels its little claws jump.

One night quite late a guest comes into the kitchen. He is a friend of the man, who bustles in after him impatiently demanding fires and supper for the two of them. The guest, pale as a far-off planet, with silvery white skin and corn silk hair, has eyes of absolute transparent blue that search around the room, over the chairs and the stove, over the wife and the slave. When the man goes bustling out again to get beer from the cellar, the guest sits slowly down.

It’s one of you isn’t it, he says, his eyes moving from the slave to the wife, from the wife to the slave. Not him, the verses, it’s one of you. The man returns from the cellar with beer. Supper happens. Hours pass. Pearl dozes on her hand in a smoky corner by the door. Finally all go to bed. The guest leaves his cap on the kitchen table.

Long past midnight. She can’t sleep. She paces her hut. The claws jump. That it is a poem about “happiness” is all she knows. Always, in the middle of the night, she sees a way to make a poem that will lift hearts and be true but in the morning—she wakes on a cliff, flung open, facing something, which vanishes. Anyway, “happiness” in the language of this place is an obscure and unpronounceable word, which someone had described to her as a shape that walks behind you, stepping forward every so often to fill your contour. Like a bear. She imagines a bear. It’s no good, she knows nothing of bears. She thinks of the guest’s cap, left on the kitchen table when she cleaned up supper. She wants that cap.

The yard is moonlit. The big house silent. The kitchen deeply dark and smelling of onions. She stands by the door listening, letting her eyes adjust. Gradually the shape of the cap becomes visible. It is silver. It is terrific. It is not on the table. It is on the head of the guest who steps forward and covers her mouth with his hand.

Night winds lash the forest.

They go in among the birches of the forest and, as if they become birches, you cannot see them.

Hours later, in the hut, while the world sleeps and the wind rocks the darkness and long gleams from the lamp make the room vast, they sit at the table and talk, and as they talk they think, and feel themselves thinking, and seem to be talking/thinking about more than either of them knows, which builds up a third atmosphere all around in the room that they both will remember afterward as a voyage to a place they can’t imagine how they got to, because the horse remained in the barn and the place was miles and miles off, with its high gates and peacocks (in her version), with its sheer chalk cliffs rising from the sea and teeming with seabirds (in his), while in fact they sit till dawn at the table in the hut and by the time she is back at the big house lighting the fires for breakfast he is gone. That guest is no longer part of this story.

The women persist, in their way. Love is strange. Each time the man hides something from his wife, Pearl’s power grows. First the necklace, then the second chair. The sonnets are an open secret, at which the wife scoffs. For his part the man likes chiefly the sound of them, in Pearl’s rag of a voice. When Pearl tells him that the happiness sonnet is to be her last, he slaps her hard upside the head but she does not relent. You’re hard to manage, he says to her—or means to say but it comes out, You’re hard to please. A vagueness swims across her eyes. Nothing is ever clear or simple anymore, he thinks. She wants to move into the big house. What about number one, he says, meaning his wife. She smiles and continues to clean her teeth with a green hazel twig.

The man goes off. She sits thinking. The man is a minor bother. But the wife. How can I stand her? It could be years. I don’t know. I should go in and see her. I hate the shaking. I should go in. She’ll be pouring another glass. It stops the shaking. No doubt. She’ll be sitting staring at her stupid knitting, she’ll talk about going out to shovel the step before it freezes, maybe she’ll go out and slip on the step and kill herself, that will stop the shaking, no doubt!—Ah but no, then I’d be the one left, I’d have to do for him, do everything. No. I should go in. I’ll go in. I’ll say, You are the worst thing I know. I can’t breathe around you. The world is more than this. I am more than you. Put on your black coat, we’re going out. And we’ll go out. We’ll ride through the birch trees. I’ll tie her hands to my coat or she would fall. We’ll ride and yell and ride and yell and that’s the best of us anymore, that’s the only time we breathe anymore. Maybe raiders will come. It is almost spring. Raiders always come in spring, when the ice changes and the water on the bay begins to move its vast killer skin.

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