Chapter 23: The Mission

Stauria wished she were a sparrow, flitting from room to room, doing her chores with the ease and grace of a creature with wings. She remembered herself as a sparrow once, long ago, in the house of her father. There had even been strength for a song then, a happy chirping to pass the time.

She rested for a moment, stretched her back, and smiled at the memory. But then she heard a noise in the hallway and bent quickly to her work once more.

She wished she could be a swan, preening and vain, too pretty to bother with scrub brushes and wash pails. She had been a swan, once, when she was younger and men cared more about what a fine ornament she was than how many floors she could scour.

She looked at her hands, cracked and reddened from the water. She felt the burn in her arms and back as she dragged the scrub brush over the rough tile. You’re no swan now, Girl, she scolded herself. Be done with this silliness and work. Work!

She dipped the brush into the bucket again and started on another segment of floor.

It was early, barely light enough to see. The morning hours were dead time at the brothel. The men were gone. The girls slept. It was the only time Stauria was allowed to move freely through the rooms. No danger of anyone seeing her pocked face.

So it was in the mornings that Stauria did much of her work—scrubbing floors, clearing tables, emptying piss-pots.

It was work she’d never done before. Never had to. Someone else had always cleaned up after her while she focused her time and energies on the men. So her muscles ached in strange places. Her hands blistered and cracked. Her knees protested against the hard floors and the constant bending.

Besides, the disease sapped her. She was not strong. Easy chores came hard for her. Short tasks took long. She had to rest frequently, but could not afford for anyone to see her resting—especially him. He always had a boot ready for her. And a cutting word.

She decided early on she didn’t like this kind of work. It was monotonous. Every day, the same tasks all over again, never-ending. The same dishes. The same floors.

And it gave her too much time to think. Memories of happier times plagued her. Worries about the future nearly drove her mad. So she played games in her head to keep other thoughts at bay—pitiful daydreams about a different life, happier endings, what kind of bird she might be.

There were no pretty feathers left now. There were no songs. So I ain’t a sparrow. I’m for sure no swan. What am I then? She thought hard about the answer, as though it mattered, while her body bent to the rhythm of the brush. She sat up and smiled after a few moments, though there was no joy behind the smile. I am a chicken! she decided. She held up her hands. With claws. The smile broadened. She brought her hands to her damaged face. And a chipped beak. She ran her hands down her breasts to her shriveled stomach and wasted thighs. Not many more roosters for you, old girl.

Her shoulders began to shake and the whisper that came from her lips was both laughter and sobbing. I’m a chicken! The rest of her body began to shake. She clamped her hands over her mouth to stifle any sound. I’m an old chicken. No good for nothin’ now ’cept the choppin’ block and the pot.

When the shaking subsided, Stauria rose from the floor and stepped quietly to the hallway. She looked up and down and then moved back into the room. On tables, the leftovers of last night’s feast still remained—plates and cups, scraps and dregs. She threw the crusts and half-eaten fruit into a fold of her tunic. And then she went around the tables, swallowing what was left of the wine from every cup and flagon.

 [Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.