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Aubrey Hansen

Author & Screenwriter

Settling (Short Story)

Content Warning: References to sex and sexual assault.

The Americas were very yellow.

Perhaps it was the glaring summer sun, which laid itself thickly in the air in an attempt to rouse the New England fields from their chilly spring stupor, but the whole scene seemed so colorless to Edwin. The grass was dry, the sky was pale, and the horses roamed with dull coats and listless eyes. It seemed a discredit to the Old World to call this the “New,” as if a faded map were superior to a masterful oil painting. Even the ale in his hand tasted like stale coffee. He continued to nurse it only to feign company with the other servants who perched on the fence beside him.

“When are you going to build yourself a place, paddy?”

Even though it wasn’t his name—or anywhere close to it—Edwin acknowledged the comment with a sideways glance at the wiry negro on his left.

The field hand gestured his nicked fingers in the direction of the servants’ quarters on the far side of the yard. Edwin obligingly turned and looked at the ramshackle huts clumped together like a savage village. The shacks were hedged in with tiny gardens, as if the moat of herbs and potatoes could keep the harshness of reality from intruding on the cold hearths.

Edwin shrugged. “The loft’s just fine for me.” Truthfully, building his own house and maintaining his own garden sounded like a lot of extra work that wasn’t in his contract. His job was to tend the horses; the master could provide his bed and his meals. It wasn’t as if he was paying Edwin anything else.

The negro was undeterred. “Aye, but don’t you want a wife?”

Edwin blinked and realized the negro was staring at him with such force that it was almost comical. Edwin wanted to laugh at the idea.

A wife? From where? The other servants?

The man seemed to realize that Edwin was too reserved to be bullied into an admission, so he accused brashly, “You fancy her, don’t you?”

Edwin blushed, not because he was startled that his fellow servant knew, but because he was surprised to find he knew exactly who “she” was. The fact that they could have this conversation without calling her by name confirmed what Edwin already knew to be true.

“What’s not to like?” he said, and it wasn’t a dodge. Truthfully, it should have surprised no one that he’d fallen for her. They were both Irish, and for many that was enough to justify an attraction. But she had been kind to him when he was most vulnerable, and any man would fall prey to that.

Standing up and leaning against the fence, Edwin pocketed his hands, a gesture meant to be casual, but he winced when the rough fabric snagged on his freshly-scarred wrist. R, the back of his hand now said. Runaway, a crime for which he’d received the humiliating brand and a few more years on his indenture. He’d long lost count of how many years he had accumulated from his frequent attempts at freedom and unhelpfully rebellious tongue.

Eleanor had been there, the day he was caught and branded, with salve and few words. He had attempted to repay her with flowers. These she’d accepted, as she had the other treats and trinkets he snuck to the kitchen door, and yet he had not seen her outside of fleeting glances across the yard. He was beginning to wonder if his affections were misplaced.

The negro downed his ale and stood up. “You should go see her,” he said, satisfied his condescending advice had done its job. “What have you got to lose?”

The words stung, but it wasn’t until the other servants had left and Edwin had lingered in the yard for an undue amount of time that he realized why.

 

***

 

Eleanor had been expecting it. It had been an obvious match from the start. The negroes fancied her, of course, but such a union was uncouth enough that the master couldn’t risk losing an African to the noose should the scandal be discovered. They were much more valuable than she.

Still, a servant of childbearing age, unbetrothed, was a waste of resources. Therefore, when Edwin’s contract had been purchased and he joined the estate’s workforce, Eleanor knew it would only be a matter of time.

This would be her third. The first, she was sure, had been an accident. But the master had fared well; the offending lad had gotten an extra six months for violating his master’s property, and Eleanor had gotten another year to recover the time she was idle while pregnant. So when the second was discovered, nothing was said, and Eleanor realized it would be futile to identify the father.

She watched out the kitchen window, scouting the patch of yard barely illuminated by the dying light. She had been conveniently relieved of duties for the evening, so no one scolded her for standing idle.

And there he came, exactly on time, carrying his peace offering.

It was flowers, again. Only these were tied with a pretty blue ribbon. She wondered where he had gotten it.

She blushed when she realized she would like to have it.

She opened the door before he could knock. She was not interested in entertaining any prying ears.

He seemed surprised when she slipped out the door to share the step with him, so surprised that he evidently forgot whatever speech he had prepared and wordlessly held the flowers out to her.

She accepted them in equal silence. She tried not to breathe, lest she appreciate their heady scent.

“I know you said I don’t have to keep thanking you—”

“You don’t,” she whispered.

“And that’s really not why I keep bringing you… things…”

It wasn’t. She had figured that out several weeks ago. And that’s what scared her.

He seemed to lose his words again. Finally, he blurted, “May I see you again?”

How she wanted to tell him no. She wanted to shove the flowers back at him and flee for the house, refusing to see him ever again.

What worried her was the fact that Edwin would probably respect her wishes.

She tugged at the crude bow and loosened the ribbon from the bouquet. Handing the glorified weeds back to him, she reached up to tie the ribbon in her hair.

“I will meet you in the barn. Tonight. After dark.”

 

***

 

She looked like a ghost.

She had let her hair down and was wearing only a pale blouse and faded skirt. The single lantern resting by her feet cast a feeble, yellowed glow on her fragile skin. Even her eyes appeared wispy. Not with tears or grief, but with a regret and a loss that Edwin couldn’t quite place.

“Are you well?” was the first thing he said as he climbed into the loft with her.

“Yessir.” The response seemed reflexive, but Edwin found it deeply perturbing to be referred to like a master.

“You don’t need to call me sir.” He sat cross-legged near her, although he was careful to leave a foot or two between them. He reached for her hand. She gave it, but it felt limp in his own.

He rubbed it tentatively, as if he could coax life back into the tepid skin. “I wanted to thank you again—”

“You’ve done enough.” Her face looked grieved.

“No, I know, that’s not why I’m here. That’s not why I asked you…” He faltered, realizing he wasn’t sure why he had asked to meet with her.

Eleanor seemed to know. “You don’t need the preamble.” She stood up, and Edwin feared for a moment that she might leave, but instead she slid a hand around her waist and unfastened her skirt. It dropped to the loft floor unceremoniously, revealing that she wore nothing but a long shift. The thin cotton did more to pronounce her features than hide them against the backdrop of the filtered lantern light.

Edwin stared, at first at the obvious, and then in shock and confusion. He wanted to ask What are you doing?—but even as his body warmed and his hands tingled, he knew.

“Don’t you?” she responded. It was an inane question. He wanted to say he hadn’t considered it, but that would have been a falsehood. He wanted to defend himself, to swear that he had no such intentions. It was the truth—at least it had been ten minutes ago—but now he was afraid the clamor in his head and tremor in his throat would make all his words sound like lies, so he remained silent.

She sat down next to him and waited for him to make the first move. Edwin didn’t, but not because he didn’t want to, he realized.

His fellow servant’s words crashed through the cacophony in his head. What did they have to lose? They were both Irish servants stranded in a British America. They had nothing but a long-lost heritage and, perhaps, each other.

The silence grew stiff, and Edwin began to feel as though it would be rude if he didn’t take her invitation. He leaned in, slowly, not close enough to be intimate, but close enough to smell her.

Involuntarily, like a drowning man catching a gulp of air, Edwin inhaled deeply. Eleanor flinched, but Edwin barely noticed. He was distracted by her smell, a smell so strong and intoxicating, yet a smell he couldn’t place. There were whiffs of lye and lavender mixed with stale lard and bread no longer fresh—the murky smell of someone who’s spent all day cleaning and has had no time to clean themselves. There was the rough scent of her sweaty cotton shift, gentle in comparison to the reek of his own clothes. And yet, lacing it all like a tightly knotted corset string, was another smell—familiar as his own heartbeat, yet startling foreign at the same time.

Ireland. She smelled like Ireland. How, or why, Edwin didn’t know. Judging by her distinct lack of accent, he didn’t think Eleanor had ever been. He wasn’t sure he could have even described the smell had he tried. And yet, as he knelt there, panting in her air, the illusion drowning his senses, that’s all he could see in her features. She radiated like the sun off those grand hills, her hair glistening like an unspent coin. The freckles on her cheeks—they mapped out a life Edwin had once known, a future he suddenly dared imagine.

He winced. As it did every time he remembered his home country, the sunlight daydream ended in darkness. The fertile hills turned into broken cobblestone streets and cluttered alleys. Images of his mother and siblings were replaced with the masked sneer of the British ship captain—a coyness he had been foolish enough to trust. He remembered the tears sliding down his childish cheeks as the bullies fled—the captain’s voice had sounded so soothing then. “Would you like to see a real pirate ship, lad?” Only after those tears turned into anguished screams, begging for mercy into the unrelenting hull of the musty ship, did he see through the ploy.

Spirited, they called it. Such a romanticized word, as was all the language his masters had used over the years.

Indentured servant.

Contract.

And suddenly, the bitter story coming full circle like a worn-out noose, he was back where he started. The barn came back into focus, colder and even dimmer than before. The drag of manure and the irritating scratch of hay overwhelmed even the stench of his own sweat. Cows lowed, boards creaked in the wind, and Edwin remembered he was back in this savage land, so recently scraped from the wilderness, about to rape a fellow slave to satisfy his own lusts.

Edwin jerked away, careful not to touch her bare arms. “I won’t.”

“You don’t have to.” Her voice remained as soft as before, as though she were unimpressed by his moral courage. The fact that she seemed disinterested, if not ungrateful, in his resistance left a taste like sour milk in his throat.

To make matters worse, she was right. He didn’t have to.

The silence simmered between them, growing sticky and nauseating. Edwin pressed his hands against the loft floor as though he would rise, and yet, he felt as if he were still waiting for permission to leave.

She finally resigned when she shifted her weight and turned away from him. Edwin let out his breath in thanks and swung himself onto the ladder.

By way of goodbye, she called out, “If you don’t, someone else will.”

Edwin stopped. Against his better judgment, he looked up at her. She had resumed the position he had found her in—leaning against the stack of hay, her knees pulled to her chest, her features calm but drained of color and feeling.

“Who?” he asked, surprised at the anger in his voice.

She shrugged, as though it didn’t matter. Maybe, it didn’t.

 

***

 

She didn’t like the way he was looking at her. He was searching her, but not her face—he was studying everywhere but her face. Not that her choice of dress made the task difficult, and she had no one to blame but herself for that.

She didn’t like the extra hassle. She’d discovered that if she made it easy, it went more quickly. After that first night of terror, locked in a dusty, unused room buried in the belly of the estate, she had come to realize that it was no use making the inevitable worse by pleading or crying or shrouding herself in shame.

Isn’t that why she had agreed to meet him, even forced herself upon him in a way, when she knew full well that was not why he had asked to meet?

She wasn’t sure what had inspired Edwin to make an advance, but she knew his intent had not been to bed her—she saw it in his eyes when he had climbed up the loft ladder to join her in the hay. And that was why, as he stared at her with that hungry, insecure gaze she had seen so many times, clearly asking himself if he was brave enough to take it, she found her body trembling with disgust.

But then again, perhaps disgust wasn’t the right word.

 

***

 

He ended up back beside her, although if pressed, he couldn’t have explained why.

Why are you doing this?

There was no answer to that question. Most, including his fellow servants, would have said it was because they had no better options—neither him nor her.

But as he leaned on his palms, his scarred hand pulsated, reminding him that futility had never really stopped him from testing his bonds.

She hadn’t looked at him for the past few minutes. Gently, so as not to startle her, he touched her chin and prodded her eyes back to his.

“May I kiss you?”

 

***

 

She didn’t remember giving him an answer, although she must have, because he patiently waited until he was assured of her consent before he leaned in. He continued to ask questions, gently breathing them in her ear. Are you ready? Did that hurt? Please tell me if I hurt you.

He went slowly—too slowly, she realized with passion after a few moments—always tempering his actions with silent prods for permission. He was so soft and quiet that she barely heard him over the discourse in her head.

Why are you letting him do this?

She was allowing this, she noted as he hesitated with his hands on her hips, again pausing his exploration to beg her pardon. This time, she responded by reaching up and finding the ill-fitting waistband of his trousers. She yanked him towards her with such force that even his eyes lit up with surprise, a spark that quickly began to flame into unchecked desire.

I chose this, she told herself, as his hands found her hips, her breast, her thighs—places her other assailants had never bothered to discover. I’m bringing this on myself.

And with that thought, she smiled.

 

***

 

The world was white, blander than a stone tomb. If the New England summer was dull, its winters were even more austere. Snow lined the fields and smothered the little gardens clustered amongst the servants’ cottages. The horses huddled close to the barn like beggars, their tails shivering in the uncouth wind. The barren trees hung dead and silent, and the only sign that life still thrived in the estate was the dank smoke chugging from the chimney tops.

Edwin turned away from the window and surveyed the kitchen around him, where Eleanor labored over the laundry. She was surrounded by so many baskets of white linens that it looked like the snow had blown inside.

Only one basket, Edwin knew, did not contain laundry.

The tiny cry echoed above the chatter of the servants, and Edwin flinched, like the horses flicked their ears when they heard his voice. He wanted to run across the room, but he resisted, pausing instead to contemplate the other emotions battling for dominance inside his mind.

It was a poor excuse for a family, some would say, and an even poorer excuse for a life. Settling, most would have called it, and even Edwin admitted he may be somewhat guilty of the charges.

But as he stared across the room at his wife as she obliged their son, he couldn’t help but note how the baby’s handknit blanket stood out like a pearl in the muddy wallow that was the smoky kitchen.

It was green and blue, he realized, colors he felt like he had not seen in a long time.

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