The wooden pointer sliced through the air with a loud smack as it graced the surface of Madame’s tea table. The gilt-edged china cup rattled as the liquid sloshed over the edge, dribbling down the painted roses, before rippling back to the cup’s confines.
“Your wretched voice could improve if you would put your mind to it!” Madame Isabella trilled disapprovingly.
Her plush, burgundy velvet robes were tied tight around her waist with a fat gold cord, a stark contrast to the simple, stained linens that made up my patchwork dress. Heavy gold necklaces spilled down to her plump stomach, while stringy hair hung matted about my shoulders.
I wondered how she could breathe, how she could stand to live with herself, but such thoughts were a distraction and I didn’t dare allow them.
Her black snake eyes peered out from hooded, coal-lined eyelids. “That Rabbi fills your head with frivolous dreams. I feed you, clothe you, put a roof over your head and you repay this generosity with impertinence?” She slapped the pointer on the edge of the chair, muttering words beneath her breath. The Rabbi of St. Mark’s was a man to be despised from her knowledge.“If it wasn’t for me, you’d be left to the streets, without a bed to call your own.” She thrust her fat chin into the air, the gob of flesh quivering with a mind of its own. “Let me see your hands.”
Fear struck me like the first blow of an axe. I hadn’t meant to complain. I’d only wished for warmth, the girls’ dormitories were bone-chilling, not that Madame cared. I’d felt a cold coming on and I’d heard enough sneezes for the night. The request was not even mine, I’d taken a dare and now…it was too late to retract the spoken words.
Madame had summoned me before I could approach her and I’d seized the moment. My humble proposal was met with icy indifference, followed by a lecture of my voice.
“Let me see your hands!”
Her angry bellow burst through my troubled thoughts as my body obeyed and my mind refused. My hands trembled beside me, as I stretched them out for her inspection.
No! Concentrate! Too trusting…too innocent…always too much…
Long decorated fingernails skittered over my palms, stroking and feeling the roughness of the skin. My assigned chores always included dishwater. I no longer imagined my hands could be anything apart from what they were. Certainly never like hers. The look of boredom morphed to one of superiority. Her head gave a funny jerk. “Wash well before you sleep.”
She settled her bulk into an overstuffed armchair. “Sing…something soft and sweet…for the night.” Her lips pursed. “If I fall asleep, you’re welcome to spend the night here…in the parlor, if it isn’t too cold for you.”
I closed my eyes, concentrating. There had to be something I could sing. Focus on the music…in your heart. God has given you a tremendous gift, child, you must use it for good and not evil. The Rabbi’s words trickled through as I opened my mouth. A mere squeak escaped.
Madame’s chubby fingers curled around a glass of yellowed liquid. “Here…this should help…it’s lemon and honey.”
The syrupy sweetness of her voice, sickened my stomach, but again, my body obeyed as my heart protested. I held the crystal glass for the briefest second of my life before it fell to the floor.
Crystal shards reflected rainbows as the liquid splattered on fine upholstery and Madame’s special stack of printed sheet music. The gasp lodged in my throat, the horror surfacing as I turned to face her wrath.
She surged forward, as the remaining sheets decorated the floor, her skirts sopping up the sticky liquid. Fire flared from her as one hand clenched the pointer. “Let me see your hands!” She demanded.
The traitor hands were held out.
Angry lines of red sprang to life on the whiteness canvas of my hands. She stopped when the first cry was wrenched from my soul.
The thin lips curved upwards in disdain as the pointer fell to the floor. With calculated gentleness, she wrapped a comforting arm around my shoulders, forcing my trembling body closer to her repulsive one. “Shhh! There now…I know you didn’t mean to. After all, I could have you-” She swallowed, forcing the bitterness away, with a smile I dreaded. “Clean up this mess and do not leave this room until my sheet music is returned to their original state.” She tipped my chin up. “Next time, darling, just concentrate…and sing. You are a bird, with a lovely voice…you need not hide it from me.”
I watched her sashay from the room, with all her airs around her. For a moment, I felt deliciously wicked enough for revenge. My gaze fell upon her precious sheet music.
The hearth flames flickered.
I picked up the first sheet and fingered it. The Rabbi would faint if he knew I could sing such songs. He thought me to be an innocent girl, untouched by the darkness that surrounded me. Not a choir girl who knew the words to every street song within the town and the surrounding cities.
Be there better things than this? I pushed the thought and the paper through the grate. It floated onto the coals as the weak flames ignited in sync with the new rebellion in my heart.
© Sara Harricharan