Picture Credits: Inno kurnia

A friend emailed me yesterday. She wrote, liberty is a funny word, isn’t it?

I looked up the definition. It means the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political view, or the power or scope to act as one pleases.

Loretta loved full skirts and high heels and strands of cheap costume pearls.

She loved her two girls, Agnes and Alice, and being able to provide for them.

She did not want anyone to know how she liked to stand in the bathroom, before stepping into the tub, to admire the new muscles in her arms and calves, now etched with sharp, straight lines of a pencil drawing, how instead of making her feel masculine, her new body made her more maternal. She was taking care of her girls, protecting them.

While she went to work, her girls were home with Loretta’s mother-in-law. They helped weed and keep up the garden. They tended rabbits to supplement the family’s meat rations. Loretta’s mother-in-law took pride in making sure they enough, trading any abundance for other needs.

Mr. Schuler the druggist would haggle with the old woman. Like everyone in the neighborhood, he knew it was not unusual to find at least one double yolk in a dozen of her eggs. And, she got eggs all winter long, when everyone else’s chickens stopped laying altogether.

“How do you do it?” Mr. Schuler would ask.

Only her oldest granddaughter knew the secret, because she was the one who mixed the hot peppers into the birds’ mash every morning now, to make them drink more water, and Alice had not even told her own mother.

This morning, when Loretta walked off the line, she found a ball jar sitting outside her locker in the lunchroom. It looked like it contained pure white sand from a beach, or what Loretta imagined sand would look like. She had never been to the ocean. She had read about beaches and sandy walks, and she believed that her knowledge from stories was enough for her to understand and know these things.

Loretta sat down to take off her boots.

The jar held grains of sugar. She could picture the women she worked with, handing the jar down the line, each adding a couple of tablespoons from home until the sugar piled up and slide down the sides, piling up like the sand that came downriver on barges.

The women had done this so Alice would have a cake for her sixteenth birthday. Loretta couldn’t wait to get home and show her.

When she turned up the sidewalk of their block, she heard the girls’ voices in the backyard. What Loretta envied most about the daughters was something she could never have: each other, someone to lie next to at night and tickle each other’s backs or wake up after a nightmare. She thought when she got married she would finally have that, but it was not the same as what her girls had, unconditional. When Loretta woke up in the middle of the night and rolled into Leo, he would stir, then his hand would go to her breast, cupping it, his lips would try to find hers. His hips would push into her, wanting, not offering.

Loretta stood at the gate, unseen, watching the girls and the old woman at work.

“Look at this one, Granny,” Alice called, her voice still girlish. At sixteen, she was naïve, maybe because so many of the boys were gone.

“Set it in the basket,” Agnes said, her hands on her hips, bossing her older sister. “It will bruise if you hold on to it like that.”

They moved up and down the rows. That part of the yard that was not garden held the chicken coop and rabbit hutches, one for the males and one for the females to control reproduction. A brown handled basket sat on the ground, mounded with produce: red and yellow tomatoes, green squash, crooked orange carrots, with bushy tops that would go to the animals, and onions, shining white as electric bulbs beneath the clumps of dirt that clung to them.

The old woman was collecting eggs in a large blue bowl that rested in the crook of her right arm. Occasionally she would reach into her apron pocket to grab corn that she tossed to the chickens who ran about her feet, pecking at their own reflections in her sturdy black shoes.

Hideous, those shoes, thought Loretta. She had grown so tired of seeing her mother-in-law shine her shoes each night, the smell of the polish, the soft circular rubbing of flannel on leather. When they are middle-aged women, Agnes and Alice will see pictures of their grandmother and recognize those black shoes and her one good dress, in photographs taken twenty years apart, alongside her own three daughters, all nuns whose habits changed to shorter skirts and visible tufts of hair across their foreheads and soft cardigans over white blouses. Laura Striker’s dress will stay the same.

Agnes looked up from the garden and saw Loretta watching them from outside the fence.

“Oh Mother, guess what? One of the hens is brooding. Granny says it is a good omen, so late in summer.”

“Really?” Loretta answered, in the mock questioning voice of a mother.

“Yes, and she says if we get chicks that Alice gets to name them, for her birthday.”

“I have a birthday present too,” Loretta said, smiling and waggling the jar of sugar. “All the girls at work chipped in. It’s enough for a cake. That is, if your grandmother can spare the eggs.”

Loretta, Alice and Agnes all turned to the old woman holding a dark red hen, stroking its back feathers. The bird’s eyes were closed and it looked peaceful. Laura was not smiling, but they knew she wouldn’t say no, not to Alice, though they also knew that she disapproved. They knew her stories of growing up in Tennessee, how at hog butchering time, her daddy would blow up the pig’s bladder and tie off the end, so the children could bat it back and forth like a balloon, and how grateful they were for that pleasure.

“We didn’t have jacks and jump ropes like you girls do. We had to make do.”

Her mother-in-law was a good woman. She would never let any harm come to the girls, but Loretta resented her quiet way of being in the world, how she didn’t care a hoot for clothes and shoes and pretty things. She was happy with her garden and her chickens and her ugly polished shoes that she got resoled each year, paying the cobbler with double-yolked eggs.

Knowing this, Loretta somehow felt duller in her presence.

“Well, we better get this gardening done,” the older woman said, setting down the chicken to count eggs. “I guess we have a cake to bake.”

While the the girls and their grandmother finished up outside, Loretta went on in. The screen door banged shut behind her. She intended to head upstairs and take a bath before Leo got home. She would put on clean clothes, maybe even a dress and a little makeup, for Alice’s birthday dinner. Before that, while the water ran, she intended to sit on the side of the tub and read Ruth’s letter.

Ruth, the youngest of her sister-in-laws, who now went by Sister Marie Celestine, had been sent to London to work in a hospital. She wasn’t a nurse, but she knew how to lay a washcloth on a soldier’s forehead and read letters from home, or help them craft return letters that tried to sound hopeful. Perhaps most importantly, she worked for free. The war was taking its toll. There weren’t as many women who could leave home. Ruth didn’t have any family, or anyone at home that needed looking after since Loretta and Leo moved in with her mother.

Loretta and Ruth had been friends since childhood, long before Loretta met and fell in love with Leo. Loretta had been saving this letter for today. She opened the paper, thin as outside onion skin, and read the words Ruth had written.

Dear Loretta,

   I miss you and the girls. I am not certain if my work here

makes a bit of difference. The doctors sew them up, but it is almost worse after that, these threadbare men, as if people can

be mended as easily as a pair of socks. The sadness stays inside, a wound that does not heal, a festering abscess. Whatever they see when they close their eyes makes them try hard to stay awake. The ones who can see, their eyes are as dull as the boots we remove from their feet when they come in.

Loretta stopped reading, glanced at her own calloused feet. 

When she was a child, Loretta’s father had taken her to the circus, up north, in Peru. They had sat in the front row. She’d eaten popcorn and sipped lemonade through a paper straw. Horses galloped around the ring, beautiful women standing on their backs. A clown had dumped a pail of confetti on her father. She was shocked when her father laughed and brushed the bits of colored paper off of his head.

Afterward, he’d taken her backstage to meet the clown, who her father had fought with in the first war, the one that came before she was born.

They had entered the tent, Loretta hiding behind her father. Bob-O the Clown was sitting in a chair but waved at her father to sit too. The men had chatted. Bob-O pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to her father, who took it, flipping open his lighter to ignite first the clown’s and then his own. Loretta watched as Bob-O drew in smoke through his painted lips and exhaled, leaning back and sighing. Then he placed the cigarette back in his mouth and held it there, bending over to untie his shoes.

When he slipped the shoe from his foot, Loretta sucked in her breath. She was shocked; Bob-O’s feet were the same shape as her own and her father’s, instead of the wide flat foot suggested by the shape of his funny red oxfords. Her father laughed, and the clown man looked at her, as if just realizing she was there.

She was an age when the world was still as it appeared to be, no tricks. She would remember that day, her whole life, as the day she realized people looked different than their clothes and makeup suggested. 

When I get a day off, which they require us to do at least once a month, I try to get out and see London a little. It is not at all how we used to imagine it to be. Once I took the train out to Kew Gardens. There is no staff left to tend to anything but vegetables. The roses have grown wild, the poppies bloom in beds full of weeds. I walked through all the paths, touching trees and sitting in the grass. I found a little place in the town to have tea, a place called Maids of Honor. The walls were covered in flowered wallpaper, and the old brown teapot felt so warm in my cupped hands. They had only canned milk, no clotted cream, but the woman served me a slice of a lovely, airy cake. Then she brought a small pot of jam (sometimes wearing this habit has it benefits) made from raspberries she had picked last July. She told me the tearoom began as a place for working women to take afternoon tea, women who had chosen work instead of marriage and family. They would come here after work for company at little tables for two or three, so they didn’t have to be alone. 

Loretta heard the thudding steps of her husband on the stairs and into the hall. She turned off the tub faucets. The footsteps paused. He knocked on the door.

“Loretta? I’m home,” he said, his voice flat after a day on his feet.

She hesitated, not wanting to answer.

“I’m taking a bath.”

The footsteps continued down the hall. That was how things had been since they moved into his mother’s house, who had moved her own bed into the front parlor and given her bedroom to the girls. She and Leo slept in a makeshift bedroom on the wide landing, which was just as well, since she wouldn’t be able to keep working if she got pregnant.

Slipping into the tub, she listened to the kitchen sounds below, carried up through the open windows. She heard talking but couldn’t make out words. She heard the lifting and closing of the lid to the flour bin, the open and close of the ice box. She pictured them lining cake pans and taking turns stirring the batter. She felt guilty sitting in the bath, leaving her daughter to bake her own birthday cake. The sugar was my gift, she thought, and anyway, my daughter is a better baker than I am.

Soon the house would smell delicious.

  I’ve been reading Shakespeare, at night while the patients

Sleep. I would have enjoyed seeing his plays on the stage. Did you know that in the original productions, men acted every role, even the female characters? In one of the plays I read, a daughter kills her father, and another one is about a man trying to change his wild wife into an obedient one, and there is one where a woman disguises herself as a man, who is, of course, being acted by a man anyway.

Loretta stopped reading. She rose up, water running down, over her ropy muscles. When

she reached for Leo’s old flannel robe, she saw her bicep muscle turn and flex. When she began working, the constant lifting and moving, turning and tightening of screws, left her feeling fatigued. As time went by, less time than she imagined, muscles revealed themselves. And as she rotated through the line at the factory, different jobs lit up new parts of her body. The muscles would burn and then build until she felt a strength she had not known before. It scared her at first. Now she knew she would miss it and did not know how she could go back to the way things used to be.

She stepped out of the tub and slipped her arms inside the sleeves of the robe. She folded first one side then the other across her torso and pulled the belt tight at her waist. The top bloused away from her body, leaving a gap between the fabric and her breasts swayed, suspended in air, when she leaned down to pull the plug from the drain. She needed to hurry, to get dressed and get downstairs, and attempt to help set the the table, but she wanted to finish Ruth’s letter.

She sat down on the curled lip of the tub. The water twisted into a spiral toward the drain. She picked the paper up and turned it over to read the last two paragraphs on the back.

  On Alice’s birthday, I intend to walk to Southwark Cathedral

to light a candle for her. I discovered Southwark by accident.

Even though it’s not Roman Catholic, I feel more at home here

than in Westminster or St. Paul’s.  The Sister who greeted me on my first visit said Anglo-Catholics do everything that we do, except they don’t follow the Pope. We pray for him, she said, but we don’t worship him. I remember her words exactly.

   It is peaceful there. Wrought iron chandeliers filled with candles hang from the ceiling. On one side is a statue of William Shakespeare, reclining on a sofa (the church was his home parish) and on the other side is a statue called the Stone Corpse. It is carved with a sunken face and exposed ribs. I suppose most people would find it hideous, or frightening, and I might have too, before being here. Now all I see when I look at it are the women being sent to us from the camps. They have shaved heads and skeleton hands poking out of dark coats and gray dresses, gray from dirt and wear over months, maybe years. When the first trucks arrived, Loretta, I thought they were men, and I thought, Good Lord, how long since these soldiers have eaten? Nothing identified them as women. Their eyes were gaunt, their breasts deflated, their hips narrowed. It was only after one of them spoke to me that I saw what she was.

Loretta knew Ruth would have cared for each of those women as if she were her own daughter, with a sense of sadness, an impulse to let a cry escape but the discipline to hold it back so as not to startle this lamb who had been sheered of her luxurious humanity.

She knew that at first Ruth would be afraid to touch her, for fear that her touch would cause pain, physical and emotional, practically nothing left but her spirit, which might still be frightened away. A maternal instinct would rise to the Ruth’s surface, like when they were young and found wild baby bunnies, so thin-skinned they could see their hearts beating in their chests. 

She pictured Ruth seeing to each woman with unflinching tenderness, how she must go home each night exhausted and spent after spoon-feeding them broth, warming their blankets on radiators, sneaking an extra pat of butter onto their dinner trays, sliding soft wool socks on to their feet, where even their toes had lost their soft pads of fat.

She heard each one cried out in her sleep, names of children and husbands and sisters, and she knew Ruth wondered how many were lost, ten, hundreds, perhaps even thousands, for every one she nurtured. She knew that Ruth wondered daily if her endeavors would help them heal, help free them from ghosts, or if they would be forever tied to those they had left behind, and how on those days, it would be all Ruth could do to sit in a chair beside their beds, thinking that, like the baby bunnies, they needed first to know that she could be trusted.

She imagined one of those women, weeks later, allowing Ruth to place a cool washcloth on her forehead without tensing every muscle. She wondered if Ruth ever thought of her friend back home, so brash and loud, who would never have known how to approach them. Loretta, who had always been tough where Ruth was soft, all calloused hands and bruised shins and sunburned cheeks. How even back then, she wanted to be more feminine than she was but could not manage it. How she’d always had an edge to her, the way her body did now.

Now Loretta folded the letter and pushed it deep into her pocket. She opened the door and padded across to the girls’ room. She sat down at the vanity Leo bought for her after they were married. She pulled open the bottom drawer and took out a small box of makeup. When she opened it, the smell of treasured powder rose up. There would be no more of these things until the war ended.

Using a small square of flannel, she applied pale powder under her eyes, across her forehead, along the jawline to her chin.

Then eye shadow, pink to bring out her eyes and make them shine.

The liner was cakey. She spat on the brush and swirled it around in the center until the black clump softened into a paste. She leaned in close to the mirror and rimmed her eyes with a thin dark line. Her eyes opened up, like shutters after a storm. Her blue irises bloomed from inside.

A dab of rouge, rubbed in gentle circles.

Finally, she reached down and pulled out her red lipstick. She never wore it at home, but today, her daughter one year closer to being a woman, she would make an exception.

She dropped her chin and touched her lipstick to the right corner of her lower lip, slid it to the left corner and back again. Then shifting to the center of her top lip, she pulled down to one side, then back to center and down the other, like stroking a sleek mustache. She pursed her lips together, placed the scrap of flannel between them and pushed them together, leaving her kiss behind.

Her naked face had become a garden of desert flowers, the kind that wait ten, twenty years for a good rain before they bloom.

In the kitchen, Agnes was setting the table. Alice was laying placing fresh-picked blackberries in a circle around the top of the cake. Laura was stirring a pot on the stove. Soon Leo would join them.

Barefooted and dressed only in her husband’s old robe, Loretta took the narrow steps down to the party.

Julie Stewart

Julie Stewart

Julie Stewart earned an MFA from Spalding University and has published several short stories and essays. Stewart’s blog, Sophie Speaks, explores the challenge of balancing creative and family life as she recopies Anna Karenina as Sophia Tolstoy did for her husband. She lives in Indianapolis with her family. “Liberty” comes from her manuscript Three Sisters, a hybrid collection inspired by her great-aunts Helen, Margaret, and Ruth.

Julie Stewart earned an MFA from Spalding University and has published several short stories and essays. Stewart’s blog, Sophie Speaks, explores the challenge of balancing creative and family life as she recopies Anna Karenina as Sophia Tolstoy did for her husband. She lives in Indianapolis with her family. “Liberty” comes from her manuscript Three Sisters, a hybrid collection inspired by her great-aunts Helen, Margaret, and Ruth.

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