Chapter 01: Taste of Iron
The charge against me was so vague that at first I couldn’t deny it. I was told by the head of the household that the other servants had raised concerns about my conduct. They were not mistaken, in one sense. I had been sneaking out to do something –it was to read, to write, or at least to try, despite my lack of education. I wanted to write in order to give vent to my deepest emotions while waking, so that I wouldn’t cry them out while I sleep. I am still made ashamed by what the others told me I said while asleep: strange, nonsensical things that they twisted into innuendoes while I blushed and stammered. I believed I could be cured if I could only write it out, the way authoresses do, and great ladies in their secret memoirs. To that end I sometimes slipped away from my duties of an evening, into a copse on the manor grounds or a hole in the mill. My quiet times, my times alone.
I knew it was wrong of me, so when the ancient head of the household called me into his study I entered with the downcast eyes and bowed head of a penitent. Wasting no time with pleasantries, he asked where I went in the evenings.
“To the copse by the stone wall. Sometimes to the mill.” I said quietly. He flicked me a glance of mixed disapproval and suspicion.
“A young woman, alone in such places?”
“I’m not alone,” I said, “I have friends whom I meet there.” I was thinking, my books, my favourite authors, the characters I create. Thinking it would make me look less of a misfit, I said, “I go to meet my ‘friends.'”
I often fail to notice innuendo. This time, it was my downfall. He, stern and silent, nodded his great white whiskery head and wrote something in his memorandum book, his book of days and costs and tasks. Then he told me to collect my things.
I thought I had been dismissed. So I was surprised when, having packed my bags, a hansom cab arrived, crunching out of the fog down the post road. Unmarked, unremarkable, it had come for me. The other maidservants giggled as I was summoned forward out of their midst by the cabbie, a shifty rufous type. He called me “Hanner” –my name is Hannah, but he pronounced it “Hanner”– and took my little black bag from my hands without the slightest hint of care for my well-being.
The manor’s groom, a tall man with a roman nose and hands coarsened by curry-combs, appeared in the barn door as I mounted the steps of the carriage. He stood squarely, framed centered in the open door with his hands on hips and a smirk on his face. The maids always whispered that he was sweet on me, though I never saw it. I was polite to him, or so I thought. Perhaps I was cold. Perhaps I held him at arm’s length when he wanted to be closer. Perhaps. I simply lack the ability to interpret these cues. It was always so with me.
Into the hansom cab I went. It was curtained and, cosseted in darkness, I fell asleep. I woke to find my skirts in disarray, hitched up where I had curled myself to mid-thigh. The rufous cabbie was looking in on me with an odd sort of grin. I straightened my hair and clothing quickly, and disembarked with as much self-possession as I could. But my composure received a dire blow when I saw where it was I had been delivered.
A sanitarium. A prison. An institution. I could not tell, but the building was massive and modern, all brick and chimneys, like a factory. No converted country house this: it was built with a purpose, and that purpose was to house the deviant. I knew of such places but had never seen one inside. I did not want to now, and turned to the cabbie to implore him. But no cabbie was there to implore. He had gone into the mist. And when I turned my head back, there were two men, employees of the institution, come to take me inside.
Inside was a strange mixture of the dim and the sanitized. It was clearly organized as an efficient and rational place with many rooms and straight hallways. And yet, in the corners and in the badpans there was a blurring at the edges, a whiff of mildew and rot. A chill was in the air, and the memory of stone places. After an initial examination, I was not permitted to see anyone those first days. I was simply placed in a small room and observed.
When I know I am being watched, that is when the night-voices speak their loudest. When I try to suppress them, they come all the more. Like a stutterer or a hysteric, my verbal convulsions come on under duress. Day after day I woke with a raw throat, unable to know what I had said, only knowing that whatever it was, I had been screaming it out. The injustice of involuntary disclosure, and my subjection to interpretation I had no chance of contesting, strung my nerves high. I was sensitive. So very sensitive. They must have known.
On the fourth day of confinement, I was brought into the doctor’s office. The smell of leather from his overstuffed chairs nearly choked me. I felt as insubstantial as a ghost in my white shift before him: a powerful man in his 30s, dark of hair and complexion, and with eyes as cold as black glass.
He asked me if I felt any shame over my conduct. I told him I knew it was inappropriate for a servant to seek into matters above her station. He asked me bluntly, forcefully, how many men I had lain with in the copse, in the mill. I was shocked into silence.
“I was not with men,” I faltered out, and at this he raised an eyebrow. He murmured,
“With women, then?”
I did not know what he meant for a long moment. When it came to me, I coloured deeply and replied,
“No, sir, no, with books. That is to say, I went to read only. To learn. You must believe me. I was reading books.”
At this he laughed. “Books! A country girl, a servant girl, with books! And what was it you were reading? Gothic novels? Or perhaps something French?”
Indignant, I stamped my foot and cried, “No, it was only improving works I read, and harmless fantasies like Crusoe. I only read so that I may learn to write, so that I can suppress–”
I stopped. He stared, piercing me with his gaze. And then he said to me,
“We know what it is you try to suppress. We know your dark and repugnant heart. And we will stamp that darkness out of you. We will teach you, since you want so much to learn. We will teach you the error of your desires by showing you just how painful they can be.”
At that, he seized my arm and dragged me swiftly, hectically into another room connected to his office. Being small and slight, my efforts to wrench myself away came to naught. The room he brought me into was like a small den that had been cleared of furniture, with only a faded gold-and-burgundy rug on the floor and a small stand on which a number of curious implements were laid: a carving knife, some twisted roots, a bridle or harness of some sort. Not one of these objects had any connection to the other, to my mind. Indeed, I barely had time to contemplate them before I was cast to the floor on my hands and knees. “Stay,” barked the doctor, and I stayed as I was with my head down while he crossed the room for the knife.
The next moment, I felt a sharp tug and heard a tearing at the back of my linen shift. Cold air flooded in on me. I realized my back had been bared. The doctor’s hands seized the fabric’s edges and pulled the dress open around me, like splitting the husk of a chestnut. I gasped a protest, and he struck suddenly but not too sharply across the back with something long and straight. A crop? A cane? A birch switch? I could not tell, but I froze and closed my eyes tight.
Vision blacked, I listened and heard a scraping sound. Then, a pungent scent filled my nose. Spices? Ginger. He was carving ginger root. Did he mean to season and eat me? It made no sense. I could not fathom what was to happen next.
The sound of scraping stopped. Footsteps approached me from the front, and a touch on my chin raised my head. I opened my eyes, blinking through the coppery haze of my hair.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked
“And do you see what shape the ginger has?”
I stared at it.
“The shape of a stripped branch?” I hazarded
“The shape of the male member.” He replied. “You have behaved shamefully, and now that shame will be purged from you with this. Remember its effects, little Hannah, and think more of restraint the next time.”
Restraint, he said, but there was no restraint in what he did to me. I must be blunt now, and brave to write it, to keep it from coming out in the night. He circled me, took me by the hips and raised my bottom. Then, he spread my cheeks and thrust the slick, cool root hard into my backside. I yelped, but more with surprise than pain at first. My body shuddered. As the coolness slowly kindled into heat I began to sweat, moisture running down my sides, and between my legs. That sensation was new to me. I dripped. He saw it. Striding back over, he reached between my legs and ran a finger along my female organs.
“This hole too, then, must be plugged,” he remarked as if to himself.
Fetching another ginger root, he pulled me up once against and bared my tender sex, bared it so that he could force the long, pungent shaft into me, so hard and deep that a bulbous node of it caught at the very top of my lips, crushing against the soft folded tissues there. The root in my bottom was already burning unbearably; the one in my sex quickly followed suit. With a cry I groped spasmodically back to wrench them out of me.
Sharp and hard, my bottom was struck with the crop. I clenched in pain and then cried out as the burning of the root intensified a hundredfold. I screamed,
“For pity’s sake, stop this! Have mercy!”
But he only admonished me that if I could not take my punishment in silence that too would be taught to me. And then he struck me again.
I could not help my voice now, it flowed strong and strange as always: my poetic words turned to eloquent pleading: “Oh please, please don’t do this to me, I am not like the rest, I will admit it, I am not a proper girl nor human but I am not this, I was not made for this, don’t make me, oh, make me…”
As fast as it flowed, though, my voice was silenced. From the table he took the bridle I had noticed and placed the horse’s bit in my mouth. The scent of ginger was joined by the taste of iron. He pulled my head back and whipped me again, pressing me down to the floor so that the ginger was driven brutally against my most sensitive areas. With my head and shoulders reined high, my arching back pushed my hips to the floor and the burning of the root inescapably into me. My tears flowed, and so did my body, leaking around orifices filled with shafts of heat so intense it was like light inside me, like fire. The flickering whip joined one fire to another, falling over and over, forcing me to a crescendo of sensation that filled my mind and tore through me faster, higher, vaster than the lightning-streaked skies, until I was torn from myself and fell into a hot, deep darkness.
I came to with the scent of spice still clinging to my body. I was dressed in my maidservant’s clothes again, and my neatly-packed bag was set at the foot of my bed. After waiting some time I tried the door to my cell and found it unlocked. No one met me or guided me out. I left the building myself to find the same cabbie waiting with the same enigmatic grin on his ruddy face.
It was not until that night, when I was dressing for bed chastely hidden from the other maidservants, that I found the note intended for the manor’s owner tucked into my bag. I steamed it open, and read the brief report therein.
“Your servant,” it said, “was a maiden true. The flow of her blood following the treatment has proven her pure. But we have performed an important pre-emptive service, as she will not even think to dally with the groom after this. If she does, simply give her a taste of ginger.”
I continue to speak at night. I only pray I do not speak of the scent of ginger and the taste of iron.
–The End –