The Zeus and Hera
In the Women's Prison
Mrs. Mortimer is Zeus and Hera at Hazelton. She is the lord of all, she is the pursuer of nymphs and virgins, and she is the jealous goddess, filled with dark suspicions and darker vengeance. She does, finally, invite Lillian to the library. Chinky says, Wear two pairs of drawers. It is a small room lined with books that no one wants (pamphlets of uplifting verse, privately published, Mrs. Beeton's housekeeping guide, Lutheran cookbooks, opera libretti, and the occasional first-person account of life among the Canadian Mounted Police, or the Eskimos, or beet farmers).
Mrs. Mortimer has arranged a circle of seven chairs within it. Lillian has been invited to read. The other women have also had their turn as lectrice, as Mrs. Mortimer calls it, and the five of them have their own fairly accurate ideas of what will happen after Lillian reads a half hour of "The Lady of Shalott" or "Tristram and Isolde." They have all read their Bulfinch as well, or struggled through it, and even if one or two find themselves reading from Elsie Dinsmore or Was He Worth It? because of their limitations, the principle and position of lectrice is upheld. When Lillian and Mrs. Mortimer are alone, discussing King Arthur and the knights and romantic friendship and the south of France, where Mrs. Mortimer spent two happy summers in her youth, Lillian holds her breath.
In the event, nothing happens. Mrs. Mortimer pours two tiny glasses of sherry and asks what parts of Bullfinch Lillian most enjoys. Lillian says the myths, an obvious and true thing to say; poor Scylla and Cupid and stupid, adorable Psyche take her mind off Mrs. Mortimer's exquisite hands. She is a horsey, chapped-looking woman in gray worsted and thick laced black shoes, but her hands are long and pretty, with elegantly oval rosy nails and a fine tracing of blue veins on the back. They are the hands of a Victorian lady, and Mrs. Mortimer is not unaware of their effect; she favors heavy lace cuffs stiff with sizing, each row of Battenberg peaks glazed and sharp, and she wears a large ruby cabochon on her index finger.
"What I enjoy very much," Lillian says, "are maps."
Mrs. Mortimer sips her sherry and raises one thick, graying eyebrow. "We don't have maps, my dear."
Lillian sips her sherry, too. There's no reason for Mrs. Mortimer to lie, but someone in the Hazelton Agrarian Work Center for Women must have a map. Someone must, on occasion, need to get somewhere.
"Surely," Lillian says, "there's an atlas or two, something to show us where we are in relation to Africa or India, or the girls' hometowns."
"Just so," Mrs. Mortimer says. "That is precisely why we don't have maps. This is a place of refuge and improvement. Maps encourage thoughts of the larger world. Of escape."
"For myself," Lillian says, "it's the art of cartography. I admire maps."
Mrs. Mortimer shrugs. Everybody here wants things they can't have, the shrug says. I admire you, for example, but I can see you would be a treacherous, twisting, hard-hearted girl in the end. You would choose to become a tree or a deer or an ugly little bird rather than accept my embrace, or you would accept and watch for your reward, and when I brought you a map of Canada, at great personal risk to myself and my probity, you would flick your hand over me without pausing or give me the tiniest rub of your leg and you would sigh over how much you had given away and your coldness would shame me. Mrs. Mortimer leaves a few drops of sherry in her glass and stands up. Lillian is acutely aware that she has been found wanting, that she will not get a map from this woman and that what Hera hated even more than infidelity was ingratitude.
Chinky says, For crying out loud, and coils her hair around her head like a Scandinavian housewife and begs a tiny sprig of silk violets from Fat Patty. She sings at vespers and forces out a few starry tears and Mrs. Mortimer is taken with her. She gives her Bulfinch, which Chinky hands over to Lillian. I don't care, Chinky says --- just find me something about a young girl and an old woman, and if you can't, then two sisters, maybe. Or two flowers, two swans, what the hell --- you get the picture, she says. And Chinese would be good, if they have that. Chinky picks up Screen magazine, laughing, and sucks on a mint candy from a box the redheaded hooker has passed around.
Chinky becomes a favorite. She does try to get a map for Lillian, whom she loves, but she doesn't try so hard as to jeopardize the honey in her tea, the bar of Ivory soap, the promise of early release, perhaps right after the March Event, when folks from Hazelton and beyond come to buy the famous embroideries amid the scones and cakes and to listen to the Hazelton Women's Choir. Chinky asks a few times, until Mrs. Mortimer says, That would be for your Jewish friend, I presume, and Chinky shrugs and says, I can't even read a map, myself.
Lillian goes on. She makes the effort to do one thing after another. She begins to walk around the courtyard in even the coldest weather, sometimes with the deaf-mute, who walks daily, and sometimes with the Christian Scientists, who are great believers in fresh air. One of the walkers, pale and lean, with a shock of dark hair and a gap-toothed smile, says to Lillian as they mark off another mile, "What are you walking for?" Lillian says, "I have to get to Russia, to my daughter." The woman says airily, "I am walking for my spirit." After a few weeks, Lillian knows that Emily Anne Warren means she is walking to calm her spirit so that when she gets out she doesn't accidentally on purpose poison another woman who ruffles her feathers, and Emily Anne knows that Lillian has a very hard road ahead other. She brings Lillian two lead disks from the threshing room.
"If it were me," she says, "I'd wear them in my shoes to build up my legs, you see."
Lillian does see, and Emily Anne's brutal good cheer is relentless.
"You gotta build up those arms," she says. "You can't save your baby with those skinny things." She says, "No run-down lazy bitch is walking to Siberia."
At night, Lillian rubs her legs with liniment and reads her way through the library, although she is not part of the reading circle any longer.
"Jesus H. Christ," Chinky says. "I didn't even know the Micks had mythology. Morty's making us read Cuchulainn."
Chinky puts a slice of stolen tea cake on Lillian's cot. She shares everything with Lillian, the cakes from the library circle and the newest ladies' magazines, which are like cocaine, they're so popular --- the women fight over their shiny, gorgeous pages, poring over every word and picture, even the small, blurry ads at the back for bust enhancement, wigs of human hair, and marital aids. Chinky has offered to do to Lillian what Mrs. Mortimer does to her.
"It passes the time," Chinky says.
Lillian says, "Have you ever been in love?" and Chinky laughs and shakes her head.
"Never have and hope to never be."
Chinky crosses her heart and kisses her pinky finger. She lies on her cot, arms folded like a corpse, and waits until lights-out. She walks quietly to Lillian's cot and says, "Shove over." She runs her fingers around the ribbed cotton of Lillian's underpants and then pats Lillian's stomach. She puts her small hand between Lillian's legs.
"Relax," she says. "It starts like this," and Lillian parts her legs a little, her thighs tightening, rushing water spreading under her legs, up through her chest and throat, until her ears buzz with it, and she sits up quickly.
"I can't," Lillian says.
"Sure you can, goose. We got three more months."
Lillian lies back down, and even as she hears her own voice, from a great distance, saying something indistinct (she is not saying Chinky's name, of course; she thinks Reuben's name but doesn't say it; she thinks her own name, too, but what she says is No, no, no), even as she feels Chinky's strong, sharp shoulders under her hands, even as she hears Chinky saying, Hey, quiet now, quiet, Lillian, use your head, she knows that as soon as she is on the other side of this pleasure, it will be like it never happened. Penis, hand, it could be a foot or a doorknob, Lillian thinks; it is nothing brought to nothing, and that's her fault, not Chinky's. Chinky, God bless her, touches her with determined skill and a speedy but real kindness, like a nurse on a battlefield. Water poured onto desert sands, Lillian thinks as her body relaxes. Five minutes after the last drop has emptied out, has dropped from the cold wet lip of the pitcher to the ground, the dark spot will be dry again and the sands will drift over, undeterred.
Lillian has lost track of time; she has lain silent next to Chinky for too long to be polite, even under these circumstances, and she reaches her hand out to touch Chinky and thank her, although that might not be the right way to put it. The mattress creaks a bit, and Chinky is back on her cot, wiping her hand on the underside of another pillow.
"Don't let the bedbugs bite," Chinky says.--- From Away
©2007 Random House