I looked at the pattern on the book again before knotting the 12th bobbin with the 13th and pinned the new knott in place. With a flick of the thumb, the lacing pillow rolled half an inch over my lap. The feel of the cool ivory bobbins in my palm sent my heart racing. Those little things had once been planted in an elephant’s face. An elephant from the land of my mother, a land where she had been free. But like us, the ivory had been ripped away and chopped up into bite sized pieces for the rich to decorate their lives with. We were far from freedom.
I kept knotting the threads silently, playing with a full 26 bobbins. I stopped regularly to check where I was. I had never attempted any lace quite so complicated and my confidence was shattered. This was the second day of work and the progress was slow. Baas was at the embroidery behind me with his own piece of tapisseri showing the patterns he had to copy. His needle went in and out of the fabric. A howling wolf running after lambs bloomed under his fingers. We had never worked from books or seen anything quite like it. Europe was a different place, full of terrible knowledge that let them capture nations, and create lace patterns that knotted my brain into silent concentration.
“Saabeth!” Baas yelled out, making me jump.
I straitened the pin I’d planted wrong under his yell and lifted accusing eyes at him.
“Are you listening to me?” he complained.
And I realised I hadn’t paid attention to anything he’d just said.
“I’ve got to get this perfect. What if he wants to keep you and tosses me out for a better slave.” I nodded at the nine others, all busy sewing and trimming, and cleaning and varnishing in the hall.
“I’ll kill myself rather tha-”
I clasped my hand over his mouth quickly, stopping the words, and looked around to make sure no-one had heard. My lace pillow slipped from my knees and the lace went skewered as a number of bobbins looped together.
“Are you crazy!” I furiously whispered.
“I mean it!” Baas bared his teeth.
“Don’t ever say it aloud again.” I finished with a breath of a voice.
We had seen it before, what they did to suicidal slaves. I’d forever remember that beautiful new girl that had refused food. I had never seen eyelashes so long, skin so shiny and smooth, pupils so soulful and hands so soft. But she hadn’t survived long after the mistress discovered she couldn’t force feed her. There were clients that were after violence. They payed well, but girls didn’t survive long.
“I heard something, Saabeth. Something amazing.”
I nodded for him to keep going as I put some order in my lace mess.
“Lord Gomond hasn’t only invited all the society girls to his ball. He’s invited every single maiden of the colony, no matter her social statues, her lack of dowry, her origines... They are all invited.”
I would kill myself too if Baas was ripped from me. How could I bare it, alone, my shell desecrated by clammy hands in the deceptively soft sheets of the cathouse. But I keep it to myself. Buried deep. Because if I think about dying I might decide it’s a good option, no matter who is around to hug me when I cry in the early mornings. When I don’t answer he continues.
“Everyone says Gomond is an eccentric. What he wants is the most beautiful, graceful, well mannered and all those things, not the richest. Every girl has a chance.”
His eyes weighted on me and I had to look into his face to make sure he was really saying what I thought. There was a large bruise darkening the skin from his neck. The scraped cheek was now a massive scab and Baas still had trouble walking.
“Every girl has a chance.” He repeated.
“I’m not a girl. I’m a slave.” I reminded him.
“Don’t be an idiot.”
“The most beautiful girl is Elise. She’s going to win the prize.”
“Everyone knows she can’t behave in public. Last time, I heard she threw a tumbler of water into the associate of her father’s face.”
I puffed into my sleeve.
“And I mean both the water and the tumbler.”
I couldn’t hide my laugh and two girls turned towards us. Baas continued lower.
“Don’t underestimate how beautiful you are.”
“I don’t look like a woman yet. She does.”
“Only idiots don’t see your potential.”
“I’m black. No church would accept our vow. It wouldn’t be binding. No sure they’d even let me walk in.”
“No one sais no to Lord Gomond. You see all the people grovelling around, and they haven’t even seen him yet.”
“I’m not people, Baas. We’re black. I’m black!” I repeated.
Baas shrugged, “I’m sure the chinese traders are not going to miss the opportunity, certainly not because they can’t get a church blessing. Their daughters will be coming. I heard his man say it: every maiden.”
“Well I’m not that either.”
We both looked back down at our hands for a while. We lost ourselves in the hypnotic knotting and pinning and knotting and pinning of the thread. Baas’s needle kept going up and down in steady rhythm. My pins made the softest piercing noise as they dug into the lace pillow, when the fabric gave way to the sharp point. Suddenly the activity wasn’t fast enough, demanding enough, calming enough. I jabbed hard into the pillow, squeezing the bobbins until the carved faces of them hurt my fingers.
Why had I been born a girl?
I hated it.
I hated that body, that receptacle for my thoughts, so easy to hurt, so easy to use.
If I’d been born a boy the mistress would have never kept us. We might have become pretty serving boys for an upstanding family showing off. It would have been so much easier. Baas grabbed my hand before I jabbed another pin into the lace and definitely destroyed it.
“Hey, we’re still hoping to prove our talents here.”
He smoothed a few slanted holes in the pattern, straightening my pins, before letting me take my pillow again.
“This is the only way for getting our real freedom. While this is all nice and good.” He made a large sweeping gesture encompassing the hall, “We would still be slaves to be thrown under any foot, he can still take you if he wants, beat you to death, sell your children, separate you from me. But if the Lord married you.”
I wanted to yell that this was all a children’s dream. White men did not marry black girls. And I would not be free anyway, I would be yet again a body to be lawfully abused. But what he said next made me swallow my pride.
“I would do it if I could. Believe me. Rather me than you a thousand times. If only I could protect you.” Unshed tears shone in his eyes and I gapped.
I was selfish. One single client for the rest of my life was better than hundreds of clients for the two of us every month.
“I’ll do it.” I brandished my pillow above my head septer-like, “And I’ll win!” The precious bobines knocked me in the head and we both laughed.
“But I better be dressed like a princess if I’m to compete with some.”
“Don’t worry.” Baas pointed with his chin at a door on the side. “That’s where they stock the material for making the party uniforms. I’m sure we can get the trimmings and scraps. With our combined lace skills we’ll turn you into anything we want.”