The Freiberg Miracle
Someone stole Emily’s body in her sleep.
The dolls’ glass eyes glared at this imposter climbing from their mistress’s bed. Sprouting hairs and bumping into furniture, sweating instead of glistening; the child had changed. When it slept, this creature longed for the old nightmares, when evil was a melting witch, not half-remembered bodies with soft murmurings and touches, churning her to shame.
She was not herself.
Perhaps closed lids might keep out the red morning glow, as she lay trapped within this unfamiliar skin?
The girl knew defeat as a voice boomed, resolving into Mama’s hectoring tone.
Each syllable echoed up the stairwell as if poor Papa were deaf, and Emily pictured his beleaguered face. She peeled her constricting nightgown away from her skin. The dolls watched on from their celluloid and bisque regiment.
A pause in the sermon allowed her to rise, dress, and smooth her hair. Time to re-enact a prayer-like ritual of childhood, moving the silver-backed hairbrush on to those placid soldiers. The dolls’ hair brushed well, having once graced human heads. It was only as Emily lay down the brush that Mama’s voice echoed again, clutching at her heart.
Enough. Any last vestiges of dreams evaporated with her reflection as she stepped from the room.
‘They are people, my love, just as we are - with families, children.’
‘You think I don’t realize that? I’m hardly unaware, Freddie.’
Emily imagined her father’s sigh, re-enacting it.
‘The issue here is this incessant need to save everyone. Some individuals are beyond redemption, no matter how much you yearn to be their savior. Life is cruel, as we know. For pity’s sake, must we pitch into others’ battles? Do you imagine they’d do the same for us?’
Emily’s naked feet tested each tread of the curving staircase, avoiding tell-tale creaks. Her knuckles shone bone-white on the banister as that too familiar voice rebounded from stone floors to reach her. She paused at the foot of the stairs, trapped in the jewel toned sunlight from the stained-glass door screen.
‘Coleen, my love...’ Slow defeat would dawn in Papa’s eyes - he tried so hard.
‘Why don’t you channel your energy our way, use some of that Tammany Hall influence to get women the vote, instead of trying to save the entire world?’
Mama’s shoes paced the room, and her daughter froze, ready to bolt if their shadows approached the parlour doorway.
She had heard this argument too often, or versions of it. Sometimes her father tore at his hair like a madman when speaking of those administrative ogres looming over the New York boroughs, clubs upraised. His frustrations were clear, so why could Mama not see it? One man could not change the government. When it came to the rights of women, Mama became an ogre herself.
Was it evil to think these things?
‘You have my support–we’ve been through this,’ he tried. ‘All human beings deserve rights –yes, women, but also freedmen, the destitute…’
‘Freedmen?’ Such contempt. ‘That job is done, and thanks to the sinful war you’re set against. My sisters need their own rights, not from the slavery you have in mind, but another sort. Meanwhile, the blessed poor bring in their diseases, deformities, and endless packs of babies like a farmyard of rooting animals.’
Emily’s stomach clenched.
‘You know we tie those women to their fate, like breeding machines?’ Her voice rose, becoming shrill.
‘My love, please don’t distress yourself.’
‘Oh Freddie, I’m not the one doing it–the wretched world provides the source!’
Enough of the wretched world – Emily inhaled and stepped through the open doorway.
A moment of bewilderment danced across her mother’s features as she turned towards her white-clad daughter, before the practised mask reformed.
‘Darling! My goodness, what are you doing creeping about like a wraith in your nightgown? Come along now.’ That brittle faux warmth permeated her voice, continuing as she chided Emily from the room.
Was it her own fault, or had the idea hatched slowly? Either way, Emily found herself talked and bustled from dressing-room to cab with little chance to argue. This would be her first Women’s Club meeting, and - please God - her last. Mama’s world pressed fingertips into her temples.
Papa bid them goodbye, and Emily watched him sit like an elderly child while his wife straightened his tie and smoothed his silvering hair from above.
‘The British Press believes this war will end soon anyway, remember, and why should we doubt it? Let Europe fight its own battles. Frederick Lucas, Borough President. I’m so proud of you.’
Some momentary complicity passed from the man’s eyes to his daughter.
At least Mama never left the house on an argument, even if she must have the last word. That had to be something, didn’t it?
Another of the woman’s well-practised voices narrated the journey.
‘The future’s bright for you now, my love,’ she lectured, eyes shining. ‘No need to worry like I did, and that’s a sure thing. Nevada and Montana have the vote, and we’ll soon follow, so long as we keep right on fighting. Then we move to take back control of our bodies and our lives.’
Emily squirmed and turned her face to focus instead on the world beyond the cab window. Townhouses and streetcars, store awnings and hydrants scrolled in and out of view like the wooden notches on the barrel of the organ grinder. Watery sunlight flickered through the iron girders of the El, the sooty rail tracks climbing like ladders to heaven, but stopping way too short.
How could she fight when the biggest monster sat at her side disguised as a protector?
One last block, and The Plaza Hotel tilted queasily into view. This was Mama’s campaign office; no signs or wall plaques to proclaim it, but her greatest source of pride. The Women’s Club began life at a girlfriend’s home but had graduated to a function room in this opulent setting, no doubt through some member’s connections.
Ivory walls climbed skyward, forcing Emily’s head back to scan the rising banks of windows, imagining herself inside. She drifted towards the grand pillared lobby as Mama paid the driver, searching for the glare of purple sashes, but felt herself guided instead to a shadowed side entrance.
This was far from view of the canopied entrance, and sensing movement as they approached, Emily found her gaze drawn to the shadows. A youth emerged, younger than herself, his colourless overall hung from one shoulder. It dwarfed his slender figure, and he shuffled under the weight of boxes and bags. ‘Cream Shine’ stood out in broad white capitals from the nearest package–so, a shoeshine boy. Cargo thumped against his legs with each step.
As they drew level, his head lifted, and Emily found herself gazing into liquid brown eyes from the shadow of his cap-brim. The gaze was gently curious, and she found herself wondering at the stories he might hold, so far from her own experience. No time to consider - the weight of Mama’s shoulder caved the door inwards and her hand pulled at her daughter’s sleeve. She slammed it hard behind them, testing the handle’s security.
On and on they walked, through labyrinthine corridors, scarcely meeting a soul. At length they reached a cavernous room buried deep within the building, far from valued guests. No white-gloved doormen for them.
A sea of faces turned with frank curiosity, and Emily’s stomach dropped. Mama had no such reticence, issuing greetings in her ringing tone as she strode into the throng. Ladies’ curls bobbed from beneath sleek felt hats, and eyes softened at each mention of Frederick’s name.
Women found him handsome. His hair curled at the temples, lending him a certain dashing air, and that smart moustache ‘so drew attention to his lips’ - all said with a giggle and a blush. Darling Freddie Lucas came up just plenty, his wife made sure of it, wearing satisfaction like an exclusive scent.
When Mama excused herself, Emily focussed in on the nearest pair.
‘Charlie calls him “a man of the times,” and says we need more of those -’ the woman lowered her voice, ‘- despite that wretched wife.’ Her friend, a timid-looking mouse, snorted and covered her mouth with a handkerchief.
‘Lord knows how she snagged him, though I’ve heard a tale or two. Sure, he’s fine, but such an idealist, you know? All this ‘social justice’ talk; well, I know his people were poor, but still. Such obsession.’
Her friend nodded.
‘And all the concern for this darned war in Europe. Have we not enough to deal with right here?’
Emily strained to hear the mouse’s response, but the women’s loud whispers halted, and their gazes turned back towards the doorway. She sensed her mother’s return.
These conversations would never occur in her presence, though she seemed oblivious to gossip regardless. Safely nestled in her gilded bubble of complacency.
How many more whispered barbs did Mama sail past unawares, wearing that beatific smile?
The pains began just as the meeting ended. Rows of wooden chairs hemmed them in, part of an audience rapt in concentration. The speaker on the platform raised a hand to acknowledge applause from all sides. Each time her tone soared in passionate argument, voices cheered and hands clapped. Meanwhile, a nagging ache had taken root in the girl’s belly, and Emily found herself unable to absorb a word. The pain spread its tendrils down into her thighs. As the speech ended, the audience took to its feet, but she found herself anchored to the hard chair by some dragging weight within her.
‘Whatever is the matter?’ Mama hissed.
Emily tried to respond, but no words came. Mama left her to spread beaming smiles and air-kisses to her compatriots, whilst darting reproachful looks across the room.
She bustled over with fury burning from her eyes.
‘What on earth has gotten into you? Think of how you look, sulking like a child - I’m putting my reputation on the line here Emily! What kind of mother…’
Her words trailed off, faced by her daughter’s tear-stained face.
‘What is this?’
Emily clutched at her stomach, watching the anger drain from her mother’s expression as realisation dawned. She frowned, her eyes clouding.
‘Oh sweetheart,’ she cooed in a voice at odds with her expression. ‘Why, of course! We must get you home right away. Don’t you fret, this is all quite wonderful! Oh, my.’ That false note deepened, and Emily’s confused mind whirled. The ice-sheet between them hardened by another degree.
‘You’ve become a woman - a cause for celebration!’
The city passed in a flashing blur of color and noise, and the few blocks home seemed to have multiplied beyond reason. Mama barked at the maid for spare sheets the second they entered the house, and now Emily lay on her bed with them wedged beneath her, cradling a tumbler of warmed mint tea.
Her mother bustled in to perch on the edge of the bed with an overly bright smile.
Why was she so determined to be animated by her daughter’s pain?
‘I preferred to wait until the event itself to explain, my darling. Such a tricksy subject to raise, but we must. Best not to avoid it, like my mother’s generation!’ She chuckled with a wry shake of the head.
‘This is a rite of passage, Emily, the end of one chapter and the start of another, and a joyful thing. Normal, healthy womanhood. One day you’ll be a mother. Only…’
Emily stared over the rim of the tumbler; rising steam obscuring her view.
‘Time for some deeper education, to learn something of the future. Forewarned and forearmed, as it were.’ She reddened, inspecting her nails.
The girl glanced at the looped belt and wadded pads of bandage material discreetly laid out beside the bed. This wound would not heal. Her head ached with questions but her first tentative query provoked outrage, so no more.
‘No doctors,’ her mother spat. ‘At least, not our usual man, and not for this. Blessed experts - on their own bodies, I’m sure. No, there are better ways.’
The expert on women’s bodies was Mama herself, it seemed. Only the previous week, the perfumed dressing room had become the scene for another of their interminable ‘little chats,’ the pair clutching hands like school-pals. That time the favored theme had shifted. No more lectures on how best to pin one’s hair or which color dress best suited her eyes– those were merely dull, whereas this new talk bewildered, linking to the confused imagery of dreams. She’s spoken of an obscure mystery; ‘Twilight Sleep,’ words from a fairy-tale.
Now Emily watched her mother fuss with the edge of a scalloped handkerchief.
‘We’ll speak again later, after you’ve rested.’ She rose and hastened away, her relief palpable. If Emily didn’t know this fearless woman so thoroughly, she would swear to a tremor in that voice. The world could not have tilted so far from its axis.
There was the pale nightgown, clothing the bedstead like a discarded skin. Something indiscernible had transformed beneath her skin, and there was no going back.
She must be perfect. Appearance was all - it was a given.
Emily climbed from Papa’s new car, the gleaming Lizzie, rearranging her skirts as he held the door. She enjoyed this part, right up to the moment of self-recognition, when her Mama-like pride became a swallow of bitter medicine.
An invisible layer fell from her body with each step from car to schoolroom - perhaps by the time she reached the door, she would just be a girl like any other. Sometimes she forgot to breathe; her chest grew tight, and she imagined her fingertips passing clean through that doorknob.
The classroom floor gleamed as if God himself had reached down overnight to wipe away the residue of the previous day. She worried she may slip on something so polished, so she trod with care.
Her desk was in the centre of the room. To her right sat Lucinda; she of the bland smile - always welcome to tea. Rosalind to the left, strictly not to be spoken to outside of class.
Lucinda was a good girl you see – quite unimaginable that she would unhook bloody rags from a sanitary belt before bed. Rosalind, however, with her bird-nest hair and black-rimmed fingernails, was an entirely unfamiliar creature. The wilder girl drew stolen glances from Emily; jewels against the plain cloth of the days.
An arched window overlooked the strange girl’s desk, and the bright morning tipped her hair with fire. She would leave the schoolroom alone at the day’s end, as she always did, and Emily wondered at that freedom as Mama’s manicured hand landed on her shoulder. Somehow it was easier to believe that the colours, smells and feelings of the past few days might occur in her body than the perfect Lucinda’s.
An ache settled in her back as the lesson progressed, and she yearned to jump up from the hard wooden chair. Lulled by the droning teacher and the sibilant scratch of pen nibs on paper, her mind wandered back to the night before, when she had sat just as uncomfortably before her dressing-table mirror awaiting Mama’s enforced bedtime routine.
‘Your hair could shine like Lucinda’s if you brushed for one hundred strokes. How many times must you be told?’ The woman had shot her daughter’s reflection a meaningful look, accompanying the advice with the smack and pull of the horsehair brush.
The days since that unspeakable meeting were strung out like beads on a thread, and there had been no further ‘educational’ talks, so Emily steeled herself for another now. She waited, but the only sound was the brush scraping.
‘I feel much better today.’ Scrape, scrape, scrape.
‘Connie tells me the first one’s often the worst, that it might hurt less next month.’
‘Do stay still, for heaven’s sake. Just focus on keeping yourself clean, Emily. We’ve covered the details, no need to fixate.’
‘Bit I thought I could ask if I wanted to know…’
‘Know what, exactly? Your body will settle, that’s all. There!’
‘I’ve told Constance to change your sheets daily, so see that she does.’
What happened to openness, and celebration of womanhood? This mystery with its attendant messes and horrors had swiftly became distasteful it seemed - not a suitable subject for discussion after all.
Emily wondered at the face staring back from the silvered glass as her mother’s droned on in the background. The theme was cleanliness and order, a determination to wipe out some invisible stain that her daughter had accrued.
She struggled not to flinch as the battle continued, her head pulled from one side to the other.
‘Life can be hard for women–remember that. Present yourself correctly, and people will treat you well. Be your own advertisement, sweetheart. Keep yourself nice.’
‘Nice.’ Emily knew she would never resemble Lucinda, brush her hair as she might. Why could Connie not be entrusted with this task? They brushed one another’s hair as children, and Emily missed her friend’s springing curls, now permanently hidden beneath a lacy mob-cap.
One aversion clearly outweighed another. Dear Connie, little older than Emily herself, moved with quiet efficiency around her friend, disposing of soiled napkins and replaced them with fresh linen, her dark head downcast. Mama’s frustrations flashed all too often in her direction despite her reliance on the girl, and she had learned the trick of invisibility.
Eventually the woman admitted defeat, laying down her instrument of torture with a sigh. She’d regarded her daughter’s reflection, patting at the wretched hair. This was as good as it would ever be.
Emily allowed the stranger in the mirror a few moments’ contemplation as the door clicked shut and listened to her mother’s footsteps recede. Once truly alone, she scrubbed at her head with wild abandon.