This story is from a writing challenge that Hyperion offered to me many months ago. I've saved it for a rainy day (metaphorically), and because I don't really have time to write a real post today I thought I'd just give y'all a little dreary reading to do.
What's below is the result of my efforts. Feel free to offer your comments or suggestions.
Butter and Eggs
Years ago, Erae used to joke about running shirtless through the streets of Boughton, saying “wouldn’t that just be a sight, me titties flapping side to side all goggly while the men stare from the front doors of their taverns and their wives glare from the front doors of their houses,” then she’d collapse with laughter, like it would have been the funniest thing in the world.
Once it happened, though, she thought better of laughing.
Erae and I were thick as thieves most of our lives, almost since we were nothing but a bundle of swaddle attached to out mothers’ breasts. Our mams were close, so we were too. As alley-side neighbors, we learned to toddle on the grimy cobbles together, we amused our mothers by finding bits of flotsam in the gutters and bringing it to them as “gifties,” we played in the backdooryard of the drapers and butchers, hoping for a scrap or piece to drop from a customer’s bundle that we could snatch up, thrust under our shirts, and race home with to our poor mams, who spent the days feeding yet more babies gotten from their sailor husbands and taking in the washing of the rich women.
Growing up, Erae used to say I was the skinnier of us both, she’d said I was “a bundle of rags wrapped on bone,” but to my mind she was much thinner than me. Being thin was a sure mark of our poverty, and so we longed to be plump like the candle-maker, who looked dipped in the beef tallow from which she made her wares. We wanted to be all pink and moist, like the shepard girl , who we’d heard drank straight from the udders of her ewes if thirsty and rubbed her hands in their greasy wool if they were chapped. God, to be pink and plump, to be clean and warm. To have bright eyes and bouncy thick hair instead the pissholes and straw we found on our own selves. A real meal, a real bed, these seemed things of luxury.
Skinny as we were, and as starved for good things, there was no denying that turning 16 did something for both of us. Almost overnight bumps grew where there’d been none before, hips swelled from the wasted flanks of childhood, and hair grew from underarms and crotch in lush abundance. Our mothers told us that our father’s Spanish heritage shone in those private places. He’d come and gone from both of them the same night without either of them knowing of the other, leaving them both with child; hence, Erae and I were more than mere friends, we were sisters. This was the first we’d ever known of it, and thus our bond was cemented stronger than ever.
It was on the second Advent Sunday that Baldrun the night watchman approached us as we made our way home from church. He had an idea for us, one that would make us money enough to support our families and line his pockets as well. He’d noticed us of late, noticed how well we’d grown, and knew for a fact that there were men from the ships that would give us money to look at our young bodies, to touch them, to be near them. Baldrun offered to show us the ways of the quay-women and to help us get started on a new life of wealth. Erae and I were to be he start of something big for him, and us, and he would be glad to introduce us to the way of the flesh as a start.
Even as poor as we were, we had a moment’s pause over this shocking proclamation, for even being young girls we knew what went on between men and women; the cries from our mam’s bedrooms when their husbands were home was education enough in that regard. Erae took me to one side and with gleaming eyes started straight at me and said “I’m thinking this is the way to go, Shiavon. Money for a grope or two, money for new bread and fresh milk. Money for a bit of meat. Money for clothing and food. We’ll be rich and fat in no time! We’ll have money for combs and soap and we’ll have cakes and butter. Shiavon, we need this, please say you will.”
There was nothing for it but to say yes. Truth was, no other man in town would have us as we were, skinny and dirty and poor. Baldrun took Erae first, lifting her skirts right in the alley behind the parish house and quickly breaking her bond with virginity. Her cries were sharp and fast, but she said there was no pain, that it actually felt lovely and wasn’t she lucky to have it over an done with once and for all. My turn came and went as quickly, Baldrun taking my marriage gift with a few thrusts and barely any pain.
We were ready for the quay, he said. Be at the Pump and Arbor at 9 tonight and he’d show us how to work. But first, he said, for God’s sake take a bath. No man wants a smelly whore, no matter how long he’s been without.
The appointed time came, and Erae and I met in our alley, as clean as we could be without raising our mam’s suspicions. We’d done up our hair as best we could, wore our best clothes, and told the folks around the fire we were taking some air. It was a fast walk to the Pump and Arbor, us holding our breath against the cold, fairly fainting with excitement and fear.
Baldrun met us as the church bells struck nine, took us around back by the stable door, and told us to strip our shirts to our waists, for he wanted to have a little peek at what he’d missed earlier. Erae, being bold, took down her blouse at once, and Baldrun praised her for being such a good girl, then gave her a penny. That was all I needed to see to be half naked as well, but I got no penny, and I saw that our business was to be a competitive one. Baldrun asked who would go first, and I voiced up before Erae, earning a penny of my own.
We were told to stay where we were, shivering in the stable-yard, while Baldrun went to find some business. As proof of our promise to him to be good, he took our shirts with him, leaving us bare-breasted in the dark December evening. Erae’s nipples were brown, I noticed, much like mine. Her breath came in clouds as she jabbered on about the cold and our money, hugging her skinny arms over her full chest. For my part, I was out of my head with worry should the first man brought to our new place of business be someone from town who’d have me out as a whore to my family and our congregation. Too late for worry, said Erae, too late for anything but to move on toward the coppers that would buy us our first real meal.
A few minutes after Baldrun left, we heard his voice and another man’s coming toward us through the alley. Right nice young girls this way sir, said Baldrun in a strange accent, right this way. My heart leapt into my throat. Ah, here sir, here they are, Baldrun continued, and we could now see he’d disguised himself to avoid being identified. Ar, yeah, said the other man, a fine sight for these sore eyes they are, a fine sight indeed. Those brown nips are callin’ me name, sure and they are. You’ll have the shorter one, said Baldrun. I’ll have nothing of the sort, said the man. I want the taller one with the snappy teats. No sir, we’ve picked the order and you’ll have the one first, and if you’ve got enough for the other after that why then you can have her too for an extra shilling. I’ll do no such thing, Baldrun, said the man, and at that Baldrun growled low and hard, striking the man across the face saying no man knows my name on these docks and lives to tell the tale! The sailor threw aside his hat and hood, and we knew him for the constable, out for a bit of work. We, and Baldrun besides, had been discovered! Instant shame and excitment filled my heart and throat, an icy wash of fear filled my belly. Erae gripped my hand, hard, in her stone-cold fist, and we waited for whatever would happen next.
We were shocked to see Baldrun hit low on the constable’s belly. He went down fast, at the same time kicking Baldrun’s feet out from under him. Erae and I picked that moment to make an escape; we ran behind the stable, afraid of the men and the crowd a fight might attract, afraid of our nakedness and obvious position. From our hiding spot the constable and Baldrun were two gruff lumps of man, fighting like a couple of cocks in the yard. I couldn’t tell the men apart, I could only see shadows and hear their shouts and cursing. It was all I could do to turn my head around the corner to see what our future held. After a good deal of fist-fighting in the gloom, one man drew a blade and thrust it forward into the other, who fell like a stone with a wet grunt.
Death filled the air with groans and the smell of blood and shit. But who had died? Were we saved or doomed? And how would we know the difference?
The standing man approached us on hobbling legs. Erae and I stood, scared as children, to the spot we'd fond, too terrified of moving to think of escape, awaiting our fate at the hands of whoever it was that drew close.
All I could think as the constable's bloody face came into focus was, well, there’s goes the butter and bread money, we’ll not see our chance at that ere more.