Posted: 06 November 2004
Word Count: 1439
Summary: story of a group of woman who work for a man who calls them all by the same name
My name is Carin, but he called each one of us Anna. With a wave of his hand, he dismissed us briefly to pose for a photo to be included in his family archives. We accepted this as an ever-present reminder of our class and position. But when the photographer smiled with his cigar hanging off one lip and said, "Smile pretty now, Anna," not one of us could muster a grin of acceptance for a man who wore his clothes as soggily as his cigar. That would be except for Anna Next to Me. But her smile was just an extension of her simple mind.
When I first became Anna, I longed for the distinctiveness of my youth. Seven years ago I would have had a notion to lift my ruffled apron at the sweaty photographer just to prove that I was not just another house girl with white gloves and a penchant for high collars and starch. But years of living by day as an anonymous girl in a white uniform, carrying a load of someone else's soiled sheets down the servant's stairs, could convince anyone that their parents had actually stared lovingly at them at birth and said, "What a darling little girl, I think we should call her Anna."
There we were, chronicled for all time and rooted as firmly in our status as servant as the tree behind us was rooted in the ground. Nine little Annas neatly ironed and lined up before a house we detested, which belonged to a man we all feared. But no one so much as my dearest friend and lone confidant in a house of unclean rumors and forced female rivalry, Silent Anna. She was known to me affectionately and alone, during our late night whispers, as Bridgett.
She was always the last to come to bed. I would lay in bed with my muscles tense and my eyes so wide they would hurt so as not to fall asleep. When I sensed her soft fingers on the door I would sit up straight and pull my nightgown over my knees, drawn against my chest. I would watch her struggle to pull her stiff white uniform over her head, some nights required more effort than others. Some nights Bridgett would crawl into my bed and lean her head against my bare arm. Those nights were empty of stories and questions, and I could sometimes feel her cheek dampening and her hair sticking wet to my skin. I wouldn't move, just hold myself tight and strong and tingling against her slightest movement. I would wake with my blanket tucked up under my chin, the way my mother used to do it, and Bridgett asleep in her own bed.
"Carin, do you think that the ways things are is the way they are supposed to be? What in my nature determines the position I should occupy?" I knew she was looking me in the eye that night even though she could only see my shadow in our darkness.
"What does my body have to do with my position? I am not even in possession of myself." At this her head and voice lowered. I looked away, not wanting to be the one admiring her silhouette at that moment. I knew that she was forced to live almost entirely inside her head, and I wanted that to be the only part of her that I loved. She responded to my silence by resting her hand on my arm and I felt her entirely, her body and mind belonging to herself alone for that one moment. I cherished her complete.
"I see what is expected of me, Carin. And I know what my life appears to be worth. What do I do then with all these ideas in my head about what I could do if I were someone else. Somewhere else. I feel so alive inside, but I have no way to bring that out and into my life. What happens to life that isn't allowed to be expressed?" Bridgett shook her head slowly so I could alternately see the outline of her nose and cheek. Her head dropped almost even with her shoulders. I could feel her inner struggle inside my own chest. She wasn’t actually asking me a question, but her hands, raised and palms up, suggested that she expected there was an answer.
I imagined during the day that the house belonged to my Bridgett. I smoothed the quilt on the back of the couch so that she could use it to cover her legs while she reclined at night by the fire. I placed fresh flowers on the breakfast table so she could start her day with the smell of spring and coffee. I dusted her favorite books on the highest shelf.
When she entered the room I stood straight as if she were the one inspecting my work. She never looked at my face during the day. Someone was always watching hers. I followed his eyes to her face, down to her shiny white shoes. "Anna," I could hear him breathe, rubbing the inside of his own thigh with the end of his pipe. I knew he wasn't referring to me. She would not return either of our gazes. I wanted to spit in his face for his presence, if it weren’t for him she may have locked eyes with me for even a moment. When she left the room, we both felt the space emptier and sad. I would storm inside as I walked away, afraid and jealous for her to be alone with him that night before she came to me.
"I must return it first thing in the morning, before anyone notices," she whispered as she unfolded a small black book from her apron. Her hands seemed to caress rather than hold it. Spiraled in gold on the front of the book was the name Isak Dinesen. "Carin, she writes under the name Isak, which means 'laughter' in Hebrew. She took a man's name, and she lives and writes as laughter." I wondered what Anna may mean in Hebrew. We didn't choose it ourselves, but we lived our name, just as Isak lived hers.
She told me a story that night about an ancient city and a convent which displayed the blood stained linens of princesses borrowed from their wedding nights. We walked the dank hallways together, Bridgett and I, and Isak guided us, as she did all others, to a stop in front of the framed linen which was stark white against the stone of the hall. It was the blank page in a hallway of stories. Bridgett closed the book and we silently lived as many tales as we could imagine about that white linen. The feeling was familiar to me, I saw that same blankness in Bridgett's face when I passed her during the day. We did not speak again that night, and we fell asleep filling that page with our own inventions.
I think I must have left Bridgett alone in the hallway that night, starring life into the blankness. She was gone in the morning, probably slipping the book back into place on the shelves above her head. She never returned, not to me at least. I sat up in bed that night and watched her undress, but her eyes never lifted to mine. She slipped into bed and I stared at her back as her breath became regular and slow. I resisted the urge to crawl into her bed and cry on her arm as she had done on mine.
I tried for a while to bring her back. I borrowed the book myself one night and slipped it under her pillow before she came to bed. I watched eagerly in the dark as she set her head on her obstructed pillow. Nothing. Not even laughter could bring her back out.
"Bridgett, tell me a story from the book," I urged.
"Go to sleep now, Anna."
I was startled as if she had called me by an obscenity. Wide eyed, I lowered myself back down to my own pillow. I knew that night that my name had no special meaning like Isak. Anna must actually mean nothing, I decided. 'Nothing' is what Anna was translated into in any language I could imagine. It wasn’t even a blank page, it held no stories or mysteries. Bridgett and I had both come to occupy our name as our name occupied us. That was how we left each other, just as we had found each other, as Anna.
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