Monday, January 21, 2013

Rosemary, Chapter 3

Letha woke from force of long habit the next morning before dawn. Light from the high, narrow windows fell across her face and loose hair. In the light, her hair shone like polished mahogany, dark gold and chestnut brown.

The room was hung with tapestries of silver, sage green and pale gold. She lay on the edge of a large bed, hung with white curtains, embossed with embroidery the color of buttermilk. There was a desk of pale wood against one wall and over it was hung a large convex mirror framed in silver. Beside the mirror was a wardrobe with carved panels.

Letha's first waking thought was that she must heat the pottage for breakfast and then she remembered. Red stained her face then, rose from the base of her throat all the way to the roots of her hair.

She lay frozen under the stiff linen sheet, hardly daring to breathe, wondering if he still lay beside her. She heard nothing but the sound of wind whistling against the stone. Gathering her courage, she turned. The wide bed behind her was empty and unmade.

There was a slight knock on the door. Letha grabbed the covers and pulled them up to her throat, though she wore her shift of linen. The door opened and the servant girl’s face appeared around it.

“Awake, my lady?” she asked, openly curious.

“I don’t know,” confessed Letha, confused by her new title.

“Shall I bring you breakfast then?” asked the girl, her hands loose at her side. “Or help you to dress? I’m to wait on you, you see,” she said, putting her hands behind her back.

“I don’t know how to be waited on..."

“What clothes you have are all in here.”

The servant girl went up the foot of the bed and pulled open a large, brass bound trunk that lay against it.

“The lord has sent away for tailor to make you your own things,” said the servant, drawing out a gown.

“Where is… he now?”

Just speaking of him caused Letha's cheeks to grow rosy, and she hardly dared ask the question. In the asking of it, she realized she didn’t even know his name. She was too ashamed to admit to it or to ask the servant girl what it was.
"Oh, he's gone away on business, like he does."

Lost in thought, Letha reached for the gown that the girl had laid on the bed and began to put it on, over her shift. Jolted into action, the servant girl reached out and grabbed the sleeve.

“Here now, that’s not right,” she protested. “I’m to dress you.”

Their eyes met, two girls about the same age, each holding onto a piece of silk.

“I’m not a lady,” Letha insisted quietly. “I’m Letha the cripple’s daughter.”

The girl looked uneasy. “Maybe so, but in this house, you’re the lord’s own wife and his lady. And ladies are dressed; everyone knows that.”

Letha sighed, looked down at the silken cloth in her hand. “Oh, very well,” she sighed, handing it back. “What are you called?”

“Greta’s my name,” said the girl, pulling the gown down over Letha’s head and then lacing it up the back. “I’m old Marta’s daughter.”

“How long have you served the lord?”

“All my life and my mother all her life before her,” replied Greta. “Come sit over here, I’ll put your hair up for you.”

Letha was startled by the sight of her own reflection in the glass. Never had she seen herself so clearly, though sometimes she had tried to catch a glimpse of herself in the quiet bend of the river.
In the water she had seen only a pale shadow of herself- in the polished glass of the mirror she saw herself full in the sun. The sight so shocked her that her eyes flew away and down, her cheeks burning up with red.

The servant girl began working on the tangles in Letha’s hair, her eyes watching her new mistress with curiosity. She herself had grown up in the tower, and would often look at herself in the mirror when she had been in the room cleaning, so it held no astonishment for her.

Letha glanced up at the mirror again, wincing as the comb caught in a rat’s nest. She forced herself to look closely at her own face, wondering. Her neck and face were thin, the bones seemed too large for her face. Her cheekbones stood out, making angular hollows underneath. The thinness of her face only emphasized her large eyes and the shape of her mouth.

Her skin was darkened from days of labor under the sun and flushed now with a layer of rose red. Leaning forward, she peered at her eyes, amazed to see that they held so much color in the sun, green and gold, and brown as beer.

“It’s a marvel, isn’t it?” said Greta, companionably.

“How does it work?”

“Goodness! I don’t know,” said Greta, amused. “But it’s that useful.”

“Where is…is the lord this morning?”

“Oh, he’s never at home in the day, always off on business. He doesn’t bother to tell us where. But he’ll be home after the sun sets. We know always to have dinner ready then.”

In the mirror, Letha watched the other girl. Greta's face was young, freckled, her hair bound back in a braid. She wore simple white cotton, but it was clean and in good repair.

“He’s a kind enough noble,” continued Greta. “But mysterious and you don’t want to cross him. There are rooms in this castle that never get unlocked.”
“How much property does he own?”

“Oh, no telling that,” said Greta warmly, around the hair pins she was holding in her mouth. She began to twist and turn the soft, clean hair up, securing it with pins. “A great deal of property, it must be, for he’s never short of coin. There now.”

Greta stepped back to look at her work with a critical eye. Letha felt the unaccustomed weight of her own hair upon her head, tipped it back and forth to see if it would slip.

“It suits you,” said Greta, placing the pearl comb at the back, where the raised, carved handle set off the coils of dark hair.

Letha saw a strange woman staring back at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were huge, her hair gleamed. The weight of her hair drew her chin up slightly, lending to her neck a certain grace and to her shoulders a new confidence.
“I‘ll bring your breakfast and then tidy up here,” said Greta.

“I’ll go down with you,” said Letha, suddenly not wanting to be left alone in the room.

Greta paused. “Are you sure, my lady?”

“Shouldn’t I?”

“If you wish, mistress.” Greta shrugged, turned away to the bed, and began to shake out the bedding.

“I’ll help,” said Letha, rising.

Exasperated, Greta turned. “You can’t. It wouldn’t be right. Now, wait there, my lady, or go to the solar below to wait for your breakfast, if it please you.”

Letha sunk back onto the chair and waited, clasping and unclasping her hands.

When Greta was finished, they went all the way down together to the darkened first floor. A wide door now stood open into the sunken kitchen. Letha stepped down into the large room, amazed by the huge fireplace with the great three footed caldrons before it, and the iron hooks and turn spits that were secured to the stone mantel. There was bread baking in covered pots that were thrust deep into the embers, the smell of it filled the air.

There was a deep, carved stone sink against one wall, buckets and a great tub stacked beside it. In one corner was a churn with a stool behind it, shelves held bowls, pots and pans. Secured to the walls were long-handled frying pans.

Above the center table hung great wooden spoons, metal forks and other utensils. There were narrow windows set high into the ceiling, sending oblong blocks of light against the shelves on the far wall.

The old woman and another servant girl stood before the wooden table, the girl busy peeling and paring white beets and turnips, the old woman grinding sugar in a mortar and pestle of marble, the sugar chest open beside her. At the old woman’s waist hung a great iron ring of keys.

When she saw Letha, Marta put down the bone-handled knife and gave a wobbly curtsy, but she watched Letha with narrow, opaque eyes. The servant girl stared at Letha, taking in every detail, disbelief in her light eyes, only casting them down as she curtsied, following Marta's example.

“Good morning, my lady,” Marta said, obsequious, with a slight, unpleasant emphasis on the word lady. “You didn’t never have to come all the way down to the kitchens, my lady, for your breakfast.” Her eyes slid over to Greta.

“I…I wanted to see,” said Letha, losing her courage suddenly.

“Not much to see here,’ said the old woman. “Go on up to your solar, my lady, and I’ll bring you something to break your fast.”

Slowly, Letha climbed back up the stone stairs, up to the room where she and the lord had eaten the night before. The room faced east, and morning light was streaming in through the windows onto the wooden table. It brought out the rich luster of the polished wood.

She sat down and put her head, suddenly heavy, into her hands and tried to think. If she had been home, she would have been in the fields by now, helping to sow the winter wheat, and then in the woods, searching for acorns to grind into bread, or gleaning the last of the hay the others might have left behind.

“Here you are, my lady,” said Greta, coming in with a loaded, steaming tray. “Tea and fresh sweet bread.”

“What am I supposed to do?” pleaded Letha.

“After you eat?” the girl asked, confused.

“Now. All day.”

“Well… Sew, maybe? Some ladies embroider.”

“I don’t know how."

“If I were a lady, I’d be happy doing nothing,” said Greta, shaking her head as she left the room.