Cassandra sat by the window, gazing at the morning sky. She was sipping her coffee, her face warmed by the steam and her eyes unfocused. The children were being watched over by a nanny, taken out to play in the garden and the youngest, born merely ten months ago, was put to sleep by another woman, after Cassandra was told to breastfeed it. She despised the act, feeling degraded, like an animal feeding its young one, while the baby sucked her breasts dry, biting and clawing until it deemed it enough. After six children she still asked her husband to find her a wet nurse to feed them, but he, an educated and well-read gentleman, always reminded her that they had six alive and healthy offsprings because of her beautiful and miraculous bosom and that lower class women would only poison their babies’ pure pallets. She hated that way of thinking, coming from a family of working women, but not able to do anything about it, fearing that her husband would leave her to her previous fate if she disobeyed him.
She could hear the staff running about in the kitchen, getting ready for lunch. She could imagine her late mother being there and she herself in the other room, playing with the other poor children and waiting for leftover lunch. Her father in the barn, teaching her brothers how to take care of animals in the hopes of sending them to tend to other wealthy families, only for them to create their own poor spawns and continue the cycle of miserable existence. Cassandra was lucky to have caught the master’s son’s interest, as her mother had told her. Otherwise she’d have either done the same as her brothers or had gone to a brothel to sell her body and die from shameful diseases. She knew how amazing the opportunity she had was, but she couldn’t help but feel empty.
She hated her husband. He was a cold man, interested only in his business, selling weapons to the French, who were fighting their revolution, which was the reason they hadn’t gone under after the war in America and in her body. Every night he touched her she felt dirty, used and abused by his hard and wanting hands which only took pleasure for him and gave her unwanted children and difficult pregnancies. He’d always get what he wanted and leave her to stay awake all night, wondering how such a normal and pure act of love could feel so sinful and wrong. She’d wright on the bed to bring him satisfaction, to show him how capable and loved he was and then she’d bring her knees towards her chest and silently cry. He’d never hit her or the children, but after the wedding he never even touched her hand during the day. During the rare times he was home they’d sit together in the library in silence, never talking or even looking at each other. In the beginning Cassandra had tried, talking about the war, about the American’s foolishness and their audacity to disobey their king, about their house finances or Greek literature, but he’d always smile at her as if she was just another one of his children, amusing him with their naïve curiosity, trying to impress him. After their second child she’d given up, deciding to retreat in the abundance of books in their home, away from his belittling glances and disparaging smiles.
The one thing she could be proud of was emerging from the lower class and bringing her family with her. She had made her sisters into desirable by well-off gentlemen ladies by making a name for herself and after begging her husband to employ her brothers, made them good suitors for young ladies looking to get wed. Her parents had died from pneumonia after the harsh winter before her wedding, sleeping in the barn with no money to find a doctor on time so they couldn’t enjoy the privileges of a calm and wealthy life, but at least they could rest in peace, knowing their children could.
Cassandra got up from the window seat, leaving her cold coffee on a table nearby. It had been prescribed to her by a doctor for her head melancholy, but she despised the bitter and strong taste of it. She didn’t really feel melancholic, just realistic about the monotony of her life, but she’d made the mistake of sharing her thoughts with her husband one afternoon. He’d looked at her funny and next morning there the doctor was, ready to make sure she knew how lucky she was and how happy she should be for the good sir to love her so that he’d choose a poor girl from the kitchen floor to nurse into ladyhood instead of picking a fully blossomed and well-mannered lady with a fortune behind her name. He advised her to start drinking that coffee they sell in the coffee hoses, but that she had to buy from the pharmacy, because, as a respectable lady, she shouldn’t enter a place full of unwed and strange men. He did fail to mention how the good young sir had to marry her because he had impregnated her and her smart mother had to send her father to intimidate him and threaten to speak to the priest about his late night wanderings into the girls’ rooms. How they had to have their first night as man and wife making sure her thigh had bled enough for there to be no question of her purity. How before him his brothers had occasionally done the same, taking their pleasure from the young servant girls living there and leaving them to deal with the consequences, unwilling to father the bastards and placing the young innocent girls in various bathhouses to fend for themselves. How she knew for a fact that her husband was still having his fun with the servants, had seen them becoming fuller and unhappier by the day and then suddenly disappearing without explanation, replaced by another pretty young face. Not really caring, she’d let him play with them, glad that she was left alone for another night.
She left the bedroom to go down to the kitchen, to check if the preparations for lunch were running smoothly. Her younger sisters were going to visit the house, to finally meet their new niece, to gush about her pretty curls and big eyes and not mention how useless her life was going to be, bland and full of constant childbearing and boredom, having to find some stupid occupation to fill the time between birth and death like gardening or knitting, knowing that literature and paint were for young boys to express their intellect and sophistication, which young girls just didn’t possess. Then, after eating their meal, they were going to boast about their husbands’ latest successes to one another with almost real pride that was not exactly empty, but void of sincerity and filled with jealousy for the opportunities the men had to make their name known and remembered by others, not just their children and staff. They’d gossip a bit about their neighbors and their husbands’ clients in an attempt to buy some more time together but after saying everything positive they had they’d bid each other farewell and return to their big houses full of shiny things and pretty clothes and continue to feel empty.
After Cassandra saw the cooks were hard at work she left them alone. She remembered how irritated her mother was when the mistress would watch over them to make sure they did everything right. Then the young girl thought it was because of the mistress’s attention to detail but now she knew it was because of boredom.
She went to the library to wait for her guests, deciding to try to knit the baby a new hat. She knew they had enough hats in the baby’s cupboard but it did kill time and reading was going to give her a headache after that nasty coffee. She picked the blue yarn for the little girl and started moving the needles slowly and precisely.
After the birth of the last child she decided that was all her womb could handle. The pregnancy had been a difficult one, full of abdominal pain and morning sickness way after the first three months. The birth itself had been almost deadly for her, the midwife thinking Cassandra had died from blood loss. She’d spoken to the women after coming to herself some days later about wanting no more children. The midwife had told her about some herbs that, taken the day after the act, guaranteed clearing the womb from anything unwanted but she warned Cassandra against taking it more than four times monthly, remarking that overusing could lead to poisoning the system. A month later those selfish cold hands had slithered over her nightgown and found what they wanted and the morning after, her husband gone to work, she’d given the herbs to one of the maids to make her tea. The maid had looked at her knowingly, judgement clear on her face, but had done what she’d been ordered. There were no more children conceived after that and the husband was still none the wiser.
Cassandra often thought about what could’ve happened to her if she hadn’t been caught in the delicate prison of wealth and cold sophistication. If she could’ve found a young man with a bit of land to take care of, who could’ve loved her like her father loved her mother, carefully and obediently. Or if she could’ve found a passing through the mansion stranger to love her passionately and fiery like the romance in Shakespeare’s plays and who could’ve taken her to a new and exciting place to grow old in. Or, maybe, she could’ve ran away from the mansion, leaving her family and the repulsing brothers behind to become a nun, living among other women, alone and sworn to celibacy but independent and free from those slimy hands in the night. But she knew that, whatever her fate could’ve been, she’d still be bored and unfulfilled in the end, her days empty and void of anything exciting that could make her enjoy life. The fate of the modern woman was service to one man or another, no matter if it was a husband, master or God, hidden from history in his shadow and unable to prove she was anything other than a tool to be used for children and adoration.
When she was really young she’d sneak in the library and read of amazing adventures of Greek heroes and dream of becoming them, missing the fact they all were male more easily than the fact that those stories were from decades earlier. Later, when those facts were pointed out to her by one of her sisters, she’d dream of writing stories like those, so she could inspire other little girls to go into the wild world and live a life of adventure and love and passion. She’d write her stories on a book, a gift from her father for her tenth birthday, fill the pages with her imaginary worlds filled with heroic women that are not to be loved and adored, but to love and adore themselves. One night, after an exhausting day of preparation for an event the servants knew nothing substantial about except that it had to be perfect and that had taken from morning until noon, Clarissa’s mother had asked to read her stories with a tired smile that had molded her tired and hard face into something almost delicate. The girl had excitedly handed her book over and almost couldn’t sleep from anticipation for her first reader’s opinion. The next morning her mother had come into the room, the other children already out and playing. She’d sat on the bed with tears in her eyes, making them sparkle in the morning light and taken her smiling and expectant daughter’s hands in her own. She’d told her with a sad smile that her stories were beautiful and incredible and the girl had almost bounced on the bed in excitement, but the woman continued. She told her daughter she had to stop writing because writing of those imaginary worlds where women got what they wanted and even more could only lead to crushing sadness. She explained further that even if those were beautiful stories, they were not the reality where they lived, because even if they, as women, could find happiness in childbearing and housekeeping, they could never achieve anything more than that and imagining they could lead to nothing productive and realistic. She got up from the bed and before she opened the door she told her daughter that her book was going to stay with her parents from now on. After the mother left the room, Cassandra felt tears pour from her eyes and down her cheeks, feeling the crushed parts of her heart poke her insides, knowing she’d been changed.
After her parents died she did find the book, tucked under the hay in the barn, but she threw it in the kitchen fire, not even opening it. Her worlds hadn’t disappeared from her head with the disappearance of the book, but their effect on her had changed. Instead of making her hopeful about her future they made her resent it, hating it for leading her to a world of someone else’s making that in which she couldn’t fulfill her dreams and made her live a purposeless life, filled with things she couldn’t let herself hate because they made her a living image of what most women dreamt about – a rich wife with no concerns and endless free time, full staff of servants to tend to her every need and women to care for her children instead of her. Of course, what those women didn’t consider in their dreams was the suffocating purposelessness they’d feel, remembered in the end because of their husbands’ achievements and not their own.
As she knitted the useless hat in her husband’s library filled with books about countless men’s adventures, she heard the door open. The maid was there to tell her that lunch was almost ready and her sisters’ carriages could be seen on the horizon. Cassandra thanked the maid and dismissed her, putting the yarn and needles down. It was time for her to put on her happy façade and greet her equally fulfilled and happy family.
Please, read this:
This was Martina Toneva’s graduation short story, published here exactly as submitted.