Written June 2009, contest on the theme “Black Rose”
How do you know who you are when you don’t even know your name?
The title she had “earned” was meaningless. An infamous whisper wasn’t an identity. A grunt and giggle wasn’t who she was or what she wanted. A nickname isn’t a name.
She remembered having one once, but she remembered lots of things. Lots of things that couldn’t possibly be real. Could never have been. Not in a world of jutting roofs and crowded, stinking streets. Not in London.
A burning on the skin. Like soft fire. A tawny horizon broken only by waves. But waves without water or noise. They broke and distorted the edge of the world into hypnotic slashes and swirls of light.
But they can’t have been real.
The chirping. Constant during the cold, still nights, but slowed during the day by the heat and brightness. The brightness of a sun that she had never seen so high in the sky outside her dreams.
Big People. Massive. Giants, perhaps. Or she may have been small. When your dreams and memories fade together you have no yardstick for the likely. No line of wool to lead you through the labyrinth. They were bigger than her, and talking. Talking words she remembered understanding but could never repeat. A language she could think in but never speak.
She hoped they were dreams. Or hallucinations. If none of the sepia flashes in her mind were real then neither were the smiles. Stretched impossibly broad over happy faces. If it was all a disease then the child’s laughter that haunted the corners of her room during the cold clientless hours of the night couldn’t be hers.
It’s a sad story where delirium holds more hope than happy memories. But to her, never having it was better than losing it. To her being ill, suffering the madness that comes with the inevitable pox, was a victory. A victory over what ever God would curse her with only dimly remembered joy.
There were other memories she knew were real. Solid memories no one could ever forget. Seeing a man flogged to death burns a permanent scar onto your brain. Seeing hungry dogs start to lick at ragged strands of skin as he lay in the dust breathing pitifully meaningless last breaths.
She was lucky to be pretty. She knew that. Her earliest real memories were all about jealousy. Older women frowning at her as the wardens made sure she ate. Scowling as she was let off work. Pretty girls avoid the lash. Because the owners don’t notice one slave here or there, and a warden can earn a years pay for the sale of a pretty girl to a pimp.
Scars lower the price of a whore. And that’s what the pretty girls got. Life as a whore. Pawed and fingered and valued and sold on. Servicing sailors and farmhands and any drunken piece of filth who could afford it. For the profit of a greasy, slave trading pimp. She was the gentle flower. She was the dark beauty rising out of the shit-stinking manure of her race. She was Black Rose.
But now Britain was good. Britain was noble. No more slavery, Black Rose was free. Free in the loosest sense of the word. Now she got to keep the money. Some of it at least. And she had earned a reputation. She had a tiny room above a dank drinking house. She had a bed and three dresses. She had food when she needed it. If you turn your head and close your eyes they assume you’re enjoying it. They don’t know it’s just because you don’t want to remember their faces.
Twisted, sweating, grunting faces. Eyes burning with lust and contempt. She didn’t want to remember that. If you remember the touch and not the look. Remember the actions and not the reasons. You can pretend.
Pretend its real.
Pretend he loves you.
Pretend he even knows your name.
Still, in the dark, quiet hours just before dawn, she would watch the sun rise over the festering docks and soot stained walls and pretend the light was warmth. Try to feel the heat she could almost remember. Try to feel the happiness of a life that nearly happened. She wondered who she would have been, who she could have been. It had to be better than this.
The people, life blood of London, were pulsing through the street below her window. Thousands of souls, and none of them knew who she really was.
Black Rose was who she was to all of them.
Black Rose is the name she’d be buried under.
If she was buried at all.