I empty my bucket into the copper container and watch Labrina as she shovels coal for the boiler pot. Her palms are black with coal dust, like the palms of someone leaving my homeland forever. The sight of those palms hits me in the chest like a dagger and the question escapes my lips before I can rein it in, for I rarely speak of Olvira and its customs.
“Do you prefer knives or roses?”
Labrina puts down her shovel for a moment so she can look at me and laugh. “What kind of question is that?” she asks, as if she’s not yet used to my ignorance of this city and of the hearts of its people. She wipes her brow with the back of her hand, leaving a dark smudge on her forehead. When she realizes I am still waiting for an answer, she smiles. A kind smile. She picks up her shovel again.
“Roses, of course,” she says. “Doesn’t everybody?”
Olvira sits on the border between this country and the one to the west. Both claim it as their own now and then, but Olvira has always had its own customs, little-known and even less understood.
This was how we chose our mates in Olvira, before the war:
Around the town there were mountains that reached into the clouds and between those mountains was a lake. In spring, the winds blew just so, and all the cold mountain air gathered down on the lake. It was for this reason that, in spring when the roses bloomed, the lake of Olvira froze completely.
We gathered there on the frozen lake every spring. Those with wounds that had already healed would dance on the ice, their backs turned on the rest. Each dancer held either a knife or a rose between their teeth—a decision made in secret; sometimes after careful thought, other times on a whim. And when the dance was over, those of us looking for a mate joined the dancers on the ice. We touched the one we wanted on the shoulder and turned them gently around. Was it a knife or a rose between their teeth? A rose, and you were condemned to be alone, because a rose meant neither they nor anyone else would warm your bed that year. A knife, and you bled, and then you loved each other for a year, or for as long as the wound stayed open—as wounds have been known to last longer than that, in the hands of a lover desperate enough.
Things are different here, and I am given to understand that things in this house are more different still. The mistress of the house summons one of the servants to her chambers every now and then, meets with them behind closed doors; invites them to keep her warm at night, if they want. One morning, I see Labrina dash out of the Lady’s dressing room, her cheeks red as roses. She’s so upset she pays me no mind as I come up the stairs, and she brushes past me on the way back to the kitchen without even a glance. She’s left the door to the Lady’s room ajar.
I don’t know what compels me to walk up to the door, the fresh linens that belong in other rooms resting on my arms. I push the door open. The Lady is sprawled on her bed, her underskirt budding like a flower around her waist. She doesn’t shy away from my gaze. We look at each other, but we don’t say a thing.
At night, I wrap a tuft of Labrina’s straw-coloured hair around my fingers as she lies between the other servant girls and me, her face serene, her breathing calm. You remind me of the girl who taught me how to stab with roses, back in one of my first springs; how to show my desire with a knife, I want to tell her. She let her wounds heal quickly, and that hurt me more than her knife ever could. But I say none of this, because servant girls here know nothing of knives, and roses here don’t mean what they meant in Olvira.
Then the night comes when the Lady summons me to her room and I go, I do.
I know what she wants before she says a word. I slip out of my servant’s clothes. She sits on the bed and I stand before her without shame, scars and all.
Her gaze runs over me, through me, appraising me.
“You’re not like the others,” she tells me.
“I am from Olvira,” is all I need to say.
That is what I am thinking as I sharpen the meat knives for the Lady’s dinner and my hand slips. I cut the inside of my palm. I cry out, more in surprise than in pain.
Labrina puts down the plate she’s drying and is next to me in an instant, towel in hand.
“Oh my word,” she says. “You are bleeding all over the meat.”
The cut is deep. Labrina takes my hand in hers and wraps it in the towel as tight as she can, trying to stop the bleeding, and I want to tell her don’t. Please, please don’t.
Early in my last spring in Olvira, this country invaded and occupied our neighbours on our other border, to the west, enveloping Olvira in a war that was not ours. Our neighbours resisted. Rebels from that country came to hide in our town, just as the lake was turning to ice.
We used our mating knives to wound them, then married them for the year and nursed them back to health. They told us that people in their homeland mated forever. They had no use for wounds, no fear of healing. When the rebels were strong enough to walk back home, a few of our own left with them, lured by that promise of wound-free love, that strange idea of permanence.
“Tell me something of Olvira,” Labrina asks me as we sit under the poplar tree in the garden, having our lunch of stale scones and butter, the cut in my hand almost healed.
This is what I tell her:
When people left Olvira, they smudged their palms with soot from their house’s hearth.
They left their mating knives behind.
She lies back on the grass and looks at the sky, pondering.
“Do you miss it?” she asks then.
I take a long time before I speak. For what is it about life in Olvira that I miss? Everything I used to know about love seems so foreign under this poplar tree, lunching with a girl like Labrina.
“I do,” I say after a while. “I miss the clarity of it. I miss not having doubt.”
This is what I don’t tell her:
I didn’t know what mortar cannons were until a whole army came marching to Olvira. They brought one with them to smoke out the rebels who were left behind, still hurt one way or another, still hiding in our town. They opened fire on us, all of us, not caring who was from where, who sided with whom, why and what for. The shells fell down on us like a hard metal rain, without warning. It shattered the walls of our homes, the paths of our rose gardens, the ice on the lake. The boy that first wounded me died in those blasts.
Most of us moved away after that, Olvira left a ghost town populated by shrapnel and knives.
Then spring comes to the city and surprises me, as if I thought spring was something that only happened in Olvira. I sit on a bench in the big square outside the neighbourhood church, watching the back of Labrina’s head as she dances with the other servants. It’s the May festivities and we have the whole day off. Even in spring, this city does not take on much colour—one could hardly tell there’s a festival if it weren’t for the church bells, blaring all day long, deafening. How can the dancers even hear the music over all this noise? I put my hands on my ears and lean against the wall behind me. I won’t dance this year. My wounds are still fresh, and I have not yet scrubbed Olvira’s customs from my skin.
This morning, Labrina said to me:
“I know you sleep in the Lady’s bed some nights. I know you slept in it last night and the night before that.” She looked me in the eyes with an intensity I hadn’t seen before in her but which I had seen once before in the eyes of a rebel, back in Olvira, when he thought he had been scorned.
“Do you mind that I did?” was all I could think of saying.
She went back to her work without answering.
I still know so little of this city and its people. I keep watching Labrina dance now on the grey stones of the square, the sound of the bells filling my head so full I fear it will crack open.
The song ends and she comes close to me. I think she’s still mad at me, that she’ll curse me, stab me, hand me a rose, but she smiles instead. How quickly your wounds heal, Labrina.
She collapses on the bench by my side, and something about the way she sits in her skin makes my heart beat hard against my chest.
“I’m exhausted,” she says. She takes my hand and keeps it on her lap. “Too bad you don’t want to dance, it’s so fun,” she adds. Her face is red with joy and warmth, beaming, and the church bells so loud I can hardly hear. “It’s so fun,” she says again. We stay there for a while, sitting still, bells ringing and ringing, drowning out the sounds of my heart.
I crave the simple cruelty of life in Olvira. This city is grey and drab and it has too many churches.
Labrina is a pious girl. She goes to church every Sunday, and this time I go with her. The priest delivers his soft-voiced sermon, full of words that teach compassion but hate our bodies and fear our love. My mind drifts. I catch myself looking at the backs of people’s heads, trying to guess the promise they hold under their breath. I turn the old ritual in my mouth like a rosary. Stab with a rose, love with a knife. Over and over again.
People whisper their amens, but I say nothing, I keep silent. I look down at my palms and, for a moment, I see them smudged with coal dust.
I don’t go to church for a while after that.
Time passes in the city and I fight to hold on to Olvira, its own hold on me loose and then looser.
The mistress summons me to her bedroom, but I don’t go, I don’t, not with a knife, not even with a rose. Labrina is kind to me. She teaches me everything she can about the city’s customs, the city’s people, the ways of the house. I learn eagerly, but mostly I care to learn about her dreams. Every evening, she indulges me, a little at a time, before the other servants hush us and order us to sleep.
Tonight, as we huddle together in the damp air, I learn she dreams of things like these: to meet a young boy who knows how to hunt and to go live with him in the country; to be mistress of her own house; to plant roses in her garden; to have ten children at least.
She asks me what I dream of, but I don’t speak, because how could words piece together the shrapnel of my dreams? Things past and gone; hopeless things, like frozen lakes in spring and wounds that don’t heal. I face the wall instead and pretend to be asleep.
I can feel Labrina stare at the back of my head, her lovely breath on my neck. What wounds me is not what wounds you, Labrina, I want to say, but I don’t, the words caught between my teeth.
Tomorrow I’ll visit the mistress in her bedroom, I decide.
I’ll go to her, I tell myself, I will—even as I shut my eyes tight—I will, I will—even as I wish for Labrina’s hand on my shoulder, my mouth biting down on a knife.