I don’t think there was a single moment one could pinpoint as to when I stopped caring. It was a slow erosion, the idealism of youthful independence giving way to a realization that it weren’t no different with Madame Lalonde than it had been with my daddy. Except my clothes were a lot fancier, hand me downs from nameless girls I was too scared to ask about, wonderin’ who would go off and leave such pretty things behind. I used to pretend they had saved up enough and moved on, the way I would someday.
Madame told me, with that sweet note in her voice she used on the customers she was serving watered down whiskey to, that she was putting all my money away for me, and one day when I had enough, I could buy a train ticket east and go find my mama’s family, see if they’d take me in.
If I had to tell it straight, I would admit that I was probably treated better at Madame Lalonde’s. After all, daddy never had any doctor take a look at me once a month to make sure none of those men had tore me up too bad. All in all, it wasn’t a bad life, even if the parson crossed himself when he saw us leaning on the railing of the upstairs porch. Some of the girls teased him, showing him their lady parts, but my mama taught me to read from the bible before she went off and died. I tried to share with them, especially the part from Ephesians about ’let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving,’ but they only laughed harder and called me a sweet and silly girl. I know what we were doin’ weren’t right in the eyes of God, but that didn’t mean we had to be unconscionable sinners.
I consoled myself with the knowledge that sweet baby jesus was kind to whores and let them wash his feet with their hair. Not that I had enough hair to wash anyone’s feet with, Madame made us keep it short, for fear that we’d attract louses from some of those dirty prospectors we entertained. That’s what she calls what we do, entertaining. Some of the other girls have different names for it, but they’re all what Pastor Ridgeley calls euphemisms. I think that means a lie, because of how he says that word.
He used to preach to me, back when I first showed up in town, on a wagon with that nice Mr. Armistead, who brought me to Madame after daddy was killed by claim jumpers. He was very kind and whispered to Mrs. Armistead that they should take me in, that I didn’t have no family here and that I was a victim of circum-ferences beyond my control, what with my daddy trading on my pretty face, bein’ that he was a no good snake and a terrible father. Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t, but Mrs. Armistead didn’t want another mouth to feed, and she had given me up as a fallen woman. That preacher still had hope that I could be saved, even if Mrs. Armistead didn’t. But eventually he gave up too, seeing the set of my jaw harden over time and the shadows gathering in my eyes.
No, I couldn’t tell you when I stopped caring, but I remember exactly the moment I discovered I could still be surprised.
It was the 18th day in June, 1863. I know because I had been practicing reading with the newspaper as Madame thought it was helpful to have a girl who could read and converse about the current events of the day. It gave her house an edge over La Belle Riviere down the street. In more generous moments, she talked about bringing in a tutor to help the rest of the girls learn how to read and write, but then pointed out, “they’re not paying you to use your mouths for talking!” with a coarse laugh that made the smoke from her ever present cheroot tangle in the feathers that dipped over her forehead.
I sat on the threadbare sofa, like every other night, a tawdry display of violet, black lace and taffeta with the shine worn away. Madame said I looked best in violet, it set off my dark hair and made my blue eyes sparkle like stars.
It had been glamourous, to sit half-reclined on what might have once been a dusty rose coloured velvet sofa lounge, waiting for someone to sweep through the door and lock eyes with my innocence. What was left of it. Madame told me that my piety worked in my favour, keeping the light in my eyes from dimming. I figured that was those drops of belladonna she made us all use.
She said it was something that Italian countesses did, to make themselves look as innocent as a baby kittens. I must admit, I sometimes liked the fuzzy vision it gave me. Sometimes I could squint and pretend that the man I was leadin’ upstairs was a real genteel sort, rather than a dirty miner who’d got lucky. Though I didn’t figure on a real gentleman smelling like hard scrabbled dirt layered on top of desperate hope and sour mash rotgut.
I’d been sitting and waiting, trying to look innocent and frail, Madame said men liked women who needed protecting, when a soldier walked in. He was wearing the blue, which I knew would make Madame happy. She was a staunch supporter of the northern side, though she never spoke of her allegiance in mixed company. She said a lady did better by being agreeable to whatever opinion her paramour might state, even if that opinion was a disagreeable one.
I had just been reading about Nevada having raised a battalion of calvary to aid the union, and wondered if I would have a chance to speak of such things with him. My eyes lit up when he glanced at me, something in his eyes I couldn’t read and he made a beeline toward me, before Madame intercepted. They negotiated quietly, while I tried to look demure yet seductive. I was never sure if I came close.
Madame gestured to Francis, the boy she kept on for menial labour and I almost clapped my hands with joy. If Francis was being summoned, that meant he’d asked for a bath!
He stepped to the small bar in the room to his left, opting to take a drink while the bath was being filled. I moved to join him and Madame caught my arm.
“The gentleman has a *special* request.” She emphasized special in such a way that suggested I might want to rethink my enthusiasm for the handsome young soldier. I drooped inwardly, allowing the emotion to touch my eyes only briefly, though Madame noticed.
“It’s nothing terrible. Not like Lacey and her Mr. Hughes.” I shuddered to think of the incident last March and Madame shook her head at the horror in my eyes. “Nothing like that, ma petite. No, our young soldier would like you scrubbed clean of makeup and wearing a night gown. I know, it’s odd, but he’s paying.” I nodded my understanding and turned away. He didn’t want to have drinks with a woman of easy virtue, he wanted the illusion of innocence as intact as possible.
I walked up the stairs and turned right, there was only one room that had a bathtub. It was the fanciest in the house. Normally everyone bathed in the wooden tubs on the main floor, next to the kitchen, but on our birthdays, Madame let us have one decadent hour in the ivory coloured enamel. I didn’t remember when my birthday was, but Madame had decided my eyes were as blue as September sapphires and so I must have been born then.
She used to press me, surely my mama had said something about the special day I was born, but I didn’t have any memory of much before that year she decided I was to learn how to read, because knowing the words of the lord might keep me safe from the evil that exists in the world.
I guess she didn’t know about the evil that was residing in her husband’s heart because he didn’t have much use for my reading after she died. I didn’t consider it so strange that I had no nice memories of being a little one, no birthdays and the like.
Sometimes, when I thought really hard, there was the memory of a sound, a strange whistle or shriek that made my skin crawl so I tried not to think about it too much. Instead I smiled at myself in the mirror, looking at the pink cheeks scrubbed clean of rouge, my naturally almond shaped eyes bereft of the burnt cork I used to outline them. Hair brushed to a sheen and covered from chin to ankle in a soft cotton nightdress, I gawped at myself, for I looked the part of the innocent virgin pretty convincingly.
I sat on the edge of the brass bed, my fingers idly finding the pattern in the white coverlet atop it and waited, though I didn’t expect he would delay overlong. Men never did when it came to gettin’ their needs sought to.
Sure enough, pretty quick the door opened and he stepped through, glancing about the room before his eyes settled on me. The expression on his face was…sad? I couldn’t figure what he was thinking, so I waited in silence, like Madame had taught me. If he was one of those who liked to unburden himself before he unburdened himself, I just had to be patient.
He paced a moment, like he was gathering his thoughts and went to the table where there was a bottle. Sometimes they poured themselves a glass and sometimes they poured me one too. I didn’t like it much, the way it burned, but it did make everything fuzzy when I squinted, just like the belladonna.
He opened the bottle and then stopped, came over and sat next to me on the bed. I kept my eyes down, thinking he’d tell me where he wanted me to look. He cleared his throat, once, then once again and stood up quickly. He walked back to the table and, after pouring a drink, threw it back and cleared his throat once more.
“What is your name?” he asked me, something tangled in his voice. I looked up at him and he was staring intently at me.
“I am called La Petite.” He shook his head.
“No, not the name that woman downstairs gave you. What is the name your mother gave you?” I was confused, no one ever wanted to know my name. Sometimes men had a preference, something they wanted to call me because I reminded them of someone, but no one ever asked what my name had been before I came here. I thought back to the time before. Daddy always just called me girl. But mama, she called me…
“You can’t remember, can you?” He was there, on his knees beside the bed, as though he was about to pray, my hands in his. “You can’t remember because they never called you anything. Because they weren’t your parents. They lied to you, they used you. I’m so sorry it took me so long to find you but I have. And I’ve come to take you home.”
I never thought anything could make me feel as dizzy as the liquor did, but the room started spinning and my head started to hurt. The memory of that shrieking sound getting louder and louder until I couldn’t hear him anymore, his lips moving in a pale face with eyes as blue as september sapphires. And then darkness reached for me, and I fell gratefully into its quiet.