Hatbox Fortune

It was nearing eight and Janet was about to excuse herself to supervise the champagne toast when she glanced at the sideboard and noticed Mr. Richards’ gift was missing. Adrenaline stabbed through her and she felt fear flush her cheeks. She forced the smile back on her face, hoping no one, especially Ariana Richards, noticed her distraction or the hitch in her breath.

She laid a hand on Ariana’s lace-sleeved arm and excused herself. Her pace as she walked toward the kitchen felt too fast, her posture too rigid, and she prayed no one would notice her darting glances searching for the vanished gift.

In the privacy of the kitchen, Janet focused on the monitors, squinting at the black-and-white displays for the present. The staff continued moving seamlessly around her, laying out glasses, popping corks. She stopped the nearest waiter.

“Carlo, did you notice who moved the gift?”

“No, ma’am, sorry. I’ve been back here the whole time.”

Janet hovered in the doorway, twisting one of her rings around and around her finger, willing Charlie to turn and see her – but he and the other men were too busy billowing cigar smoke into the purple twilight, and as long as Richards himself was out there, she didn’t trust herself to approach her husband.

She set her jaw, smoothed her dress, and stepped out of the kitchen – right into Ariana. “Everything okay?”

The trained smile kicked in. “Oh, it’s the silliest thing – we’ve misplaced a case of the champagne.”

Ariana leaned closer. “Nothing to worry about. I’ll send our driver out for more.” She winked conspiratorially.

“But I couldn’t possibly ask you –”

“This party is above and beyond. Ian’s having a fabulous time – this is the least I can do.”

And Janet could only let the woman issue the order via her watch and return, with another secret wink, to the party.

Janet fidgeted, pretending to have found a broken fingernail, and headed for the staircase. She ascended slowly, her heart still racing, panic condensing into dread. This party was Charlie’s big opportunity – their big opportunity – to impress Richards, and a missing birthday present could mean anything from economic ruin to personal harm.

All over a hat, a small voice warned, but she ignored it. They’d set their plans into motion long ago, and turning back was no longer an option.

The children were giggling in the nursery. Janet tried to pass by quickly, but a flash of blue satin stopped her. Evelyn was playing dress-up in one of her mother’s best cocktail dresses, and that was almost certainly her grandmother’s long strand of pearls around her chubby neck. And on Danny –

A custom Panama hat, trimmed in antique silk; nearby, its box lay open, surrounded by shreds of navy blue paper. The gold ribbon, she now saw, was serving as Evelyn’s belt.

“Daniel!” she hissed. Both children’s eyes went round with fear. Downstairs, the crowd quieted – Charlie, right on schedule, was beginning the toast. Janet snatched the hat off his head and frantically rewrapped it in what remained of the tissue.

“This is not for you!”

“It was Evy’s idea –”

“Goodness,” exclaimed a voice behind her. “That looks like a hat my husband would love!”

Janet stood, instinctively shielding Danny behind her. Ariana’s eyes glinted. “Your son has excellent taste.”

“I’m so sorry, Ariana, he must’ve taken it while we were having dinner –”

“Darling, I have children, too. You don’t need to explain anything.” She reached past Janet to ruffle Danny’s hair. “Assuming they didn’t pack it with clay or use it to drain the toilet, I see no harm done.”

“I’m – I’m sorry I lied,” Janet said breathlessly. “It’s such an odd thing to lose, and I thought – ”

“I said no harm done,” Ariana repeated, revealing a glimmer of the hard edge a woman had to have, married to a man like Richards. Janet suspected she’d develop her own such hardness, in time, like a callus over the soul, simultaneously protective and numbing.

She slowly tucked the hat into its box. For a wild, crystalline moment, Janet wanted to hide the gift, pretend it was truly lost, make her apologies to Richards and escape him and everything, good and bad, a life in his circle would entail.

But Ariana took the box from her and closed it. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Agincourt has the microphone so we have some time. Let’s get this re-wrapped, shall we? After all, you don’t want to disappoint Ian.”

Lifelines

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Seven hours left of the day and it’s only Tuesday…I think. I check the calendar on my wall, but that hardly helps, because I can’t remember the date, either. While I try to remember, I gaze at the September photo: a Neolithic ruin somewhere in Scotland. It makes me miss being on vacation even more.

It’s Tuesday the 19th, apparently. Feels like Thursday.

You know that confusion you have when you come back from vacation and you’ve lost all sense of time? There’s probably a word for that in German, or maybe French. It seems like the kind of feeling the French would want a word for.

Anyway, I have it.

I had forty-two emails waiting for me when I returned yesterday. I spent the day deleting the irrelevant, ignoring the moderately important, and responding to the critical. Today – Tuesday, I remind myself proudly – I had seven new emails and three of the moderately important ones left to deal with.

Carol’s phone rings and I jump. “Trager Industrial Supply, how can I make your day more pleasant?”

She always answers the phone like that. It certainly makes my day more pleasant, but what makes it extra pleasant is that Carol usually starts griping about her client as soon as she hangs up, and her vocabulary is impressive.

“What did you do, Tim? Let me guess, you expect me to pull another one outta my ass for you.”

Tim. I nearly hit my keyboard with my face. Last week, Tim had emailed me about the fall protection kits for his wind turbine guys arriving minus one lifeline. In my post-vacation fog, I had classified his message as one of the moderately important ones, assuming he’d have seen my out-of-office and tried someone else.

Apparently not.

“Missing, huh?” She pauses, presumably while Tim explains his lost lifeline. His team leaves for a Texas wind farm tomorrow, so of course he waited until today to get a replacement. “Well yeah, she was in England all week! You expect her to process your order from England? Why didn’t you just call me? You’re hurtin’ my feelings, Tim.”

Another long pause, which I use to give thanks for Carol sticking up for me. I’ve only worked here for about a year, but Carol has probably been here since before they even invented fall protection, or skyscrapers, possibly even rope. She’s a living product catalog and instruction manual, with an editor who really liked to cuss.

“Nope. They’re lying,” Carol says. “Bullshit. Lies, lies, lies.”

I peek over my cubicle wall. Carol is squinting at her monitor. She taps the photo of the fall protection kit as if Tim was looking over her shoulder. Her industrial-strength fake nails make the whole monitor shake. “We don’t put these together on-site, they come fully assembled from the manufacturer. If you’re missing a piece, that’s on their end. They can’t blame us.”

I sit back down and speed through our available lifelines. The one he’s missing is sixty feet, rated for 4000 pounds – and we have something in stock. I message Carol the link and see her stick a thumbs-up over the top of her cubicle.

“Well, tell you what, if one of your guys can swing by the warehouse this afternoon, we’ll have some rope waiting for him. Sound good?” The longest pause of my life. “You bet, Timmy.”

Carol stands and tugs off her headset, gray frizz springing free. “Thanks, kiddo. Tim is a real dope sometimes.”

“Sorry I missed his email.”

She flips a hand dismissively. “If you’d answered that email from England, I woulda flown over there and slapped you. Now, I need more coffee. Sheezus, how is it only 10 AM?”

I sink back in my chair, waiting for my heart rate to return to normal, and stare up at the Neolithic ruin. Four days ago, I was circling Stonehenge with Matt. It was raining and we had to borrow an umbrella from the tour bus. It already feels like someone else’s life, or something I saw in a movie. The rain seems less dreary now, five thousand miles and a lifetime away.

Seven hours left. One email down. I peek at the November photo: Edinburgh Castle, photographed just after sunset, dramatically lit golden against the purple night sky…we’d follow the streetlights to a pub, spend the evening over good beer…

But Grace has a question about cleanroom supplies, and Mike needs more firefighting boots. Edinburgh will have to wait.

Ghazal: Psalm

The books and the prophets assure You love all.
Forgive me my crying: come show You love all.

Hate dances with ignorance, love’s shouted down.
It meekly invokes Your promise to love all.

I cling to Your command, two words that form
a vow that is, yet must become, true: love all.

Death comes for all, but vigils only mourn some.
Loose our fear-hardened minds – teach us to love all.

Forgive us our crying, we small, broken ones –
Heartsick, I cry You would reach, through love, all.

(Another ghazal.)

Ghazal: Light

To my monochrome life you radiate new light.
First stumbling, now flying, we dance into light.

I’ll stay, sheet-warmed, beside you, our bed an isle,
our room our soft seclusion of peace-hued light.

I’ll crumble looming mountains to ease your path,
rip curtains off muted stars to lend you light.

We rolled our dice, fingers crossed for perfection.
Tired of waiting, we claimed our overdue light.

Now, pen-clasping, I record my promises
to dance on hand-in-hand through darkness, through light.

(I rarely do poems for yeahwrite but the ghazal was too tempting.)

Keeping Fed

Betty stood on the snow-patched sidewalk, frozen fists clenched in her threadbare coat pockets, frowning at the new church.

Well, it wasn’t new – it was probably older than her Catholic church – but it was new to her. It looked almost as forbidding as the cathedral, despite its smaller size. Its dark, rough-hewn stone brought to mind woebegone Dickens characters, and its hulking square tower cast a cold shadow over the street. She could imagine the interior: dark wooden pews, stone walls bare aside from a cross (empty, not even a crucifix), no incense, no Mary. They would sing dour hymns (which she wouldn’t know) and endure a boring sermon (which she wouldn’t agree with).

And yet it had to be better than mass.

George had left three weeks ago. The first Sunday, she stayed home, making a plan to keep herself and their – her – four kids fed in between bouts of silent sobbing.

The second Sunday, though, they went to mass. She thought she knew what to expect – after all, everyone knew George was gone, and everyone knew Betty wouldn’t be allowed to take communion. She thought she was prepared.

She wasn’t.

She’d sat rigid in the pew, alone – except for Jim, who stayed seated with her in silent protest – staring straight ahead while her other children and everyone else took the elements. The people she’d known all her life never so much as looked at her as they passed by. Even the crucified wooden Christ seemed to avert his gaze. Unworthiness and mortification crushed her.

Thoughts and possibilities raced through her mind on the walk home: they could try the other Catholic church, they could move East, she could go back and give Reverend Stevens a piece of her mind, they could try a Protestant church, she could never try church again…

That one was the most tempting.

Initially Betty suggested they keep going to mass, but the children unanimously refused.

“If they don’t want you, we don’t want them,” was Jim’s declaration.

“Well, you’ve got to go to church somewhere.”

“No, we don’t.”

A small part of Betty agreed with him, but she told them the family would continue going to church and that was that.

She just needed to find a new church first. Easy as pie.

And here she was, reluctant to even step inside. She knew nothing about Protestant teachings – never mind being barred from communion, what if divorced women weren’t even allowed in the building? What if she had to go up in front of everyone and “confess her sins,” like the annulment tribunal had wanted her to do?

What if they find out you voted for McGovern? a voice hissed in her mind. What will they think of you letting the kids listen to Fleetwood Mac? What kind of mother are you? What kind of Christian?

Hasty footsteps brought her out of her darkening thoughts. A woman in a long plaid coat was hurrying down the sidewalk towards her, her young son trotting alongside.

“Tommy, run in and find Daddy,” the woman said, herding him towards the church. She stopped to catch her breath. Betty self-consciously adjusted her plain knitted hat, noting the woman’s faux-fur-trimmed coat and fashionable stacked-heel boots.

“He had an accident on the way here,” the woman explained with a sigh. “I try to get him to go before we leave, but he just refuses!”

“My youngest was like that,” Betty said. “Don’t worry, it won’t last long.”

“Well, thank goodness – my washing machine won’t be able to take much more!” They both laughed, which almost made Betty cry again. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d smiled, let alone laughed.

“Are you waiting for someone?” the woman asked.

“Oh – no, I’m just –”

“First time here?”

The whole story tumbled over itself in her mind as Betty tried to sort out what to say. Finally, she simply said, “Actually, yes.”

“You want to sit with us? We’re usually in the third pew back on the right.”

“Oh! Thank you, I’ll – I’ll just be a minute.”

The woman hurried inside, leaving Betty staring at the front door.

They’ll find out, the voice whispered. They won’t want you. What church would want you?

The first chords of the organ drifted outside, tones of comfort echoing back to simple childhood and warm Christmases and her children’s baptisms. They would need this, yes – but to her surprise, Betty needed it, too.

She took a deep breath and followed the song inside.

A Sword’s Sacrifice

The court was crowded in honor of the Emperor’s birthday. Mei Min was seated with the other generals, rather than the harem, an honor she would ordinarily have treasured. Today, though, she needed to be near her Five Small Swords, the wives-turned-secret-guards she had been training, because they needed to assassinate someone.

Mei Min and Jia Fen had overheard Duke Zhongshun bragging about his planned coup: he would strike at the party. They didn’t dare tell anyone – they were mere women, and being Imperial wives and secret warriors made their motives especially suspect. The Five Small Swords were the only ones who knew of the impending danger.

But it was too risky to wait for the Duke to strike. He wouldn’t attack personally – he’d have hired an assassin, or bribed guards – but he couldn’t issue orders if he was dead. All six knew the risk of killing a nobleman with such minimal proof, but the life of their Emperor depended on their success; their honor, and their lives, would depend on his mercy.

Mei Min’s gaze darted between the crowd and her Swords. Their smiles were appropriately demure, though slightly strained. Jia Fen caught her eye with the flutter of a fan. Mei Min followed the gesture and spotted the Duke, deep in conversation.

She excused herself from the generals and made her way across the room, avoiding eye contact with the Five Small Swords even though they were watching for her signal. She hadn’t told them this was her ideal outcome: striking alone, and bearing the consequences alone, for their sake.

She slid a dagger from her sleeve as she closed in, each step a prayer for success.

Someone screamed.

Four guards had left their posts and surrounded the Emperor’s dais. Mei Min was too far away to act. She could only watch as five girls rose like vipers from their seats and struck.

They had surprise on their side, but they also had skill that could only be learned from the Guardian of Heaven herself. Mei Min seized the Duke, holding her knife to his throat, forcing him to watch as her secret guard defended their Emperor.

They were efficient: three men were killed and the fourth dropped his sword when the remaining Imperial guard surrounded him. The Emperor rose, his face a stony mask of fury. The frantic crowd quieted.

“Here is the perpetrator, Majesty,” Mei Min called, forcing the Duke forward. “There are many witnesses to his treason, including these humble wives.”

He nodded slowly. She was his fourth wife and one of his most honored generals – he trusted her. Hopefully that trust extended to the consorts who had transformed from meek wives to skilled warriors in the blink of an eye.

But before he could speak, Jia Fen fell to her knees. Deep red bloomed across her pale blue robes. The other girls surrounded her, but she reached past them towards Mei Min. By the time she reached her side, though, her friend’s spirit was gone. Her sightless eyes gazed up at the gilded ceiling.

The Small Swords wept. Even Mei Min, who had seen countless comrades die on the battlefield, felt hot tears in her throat. She hardly noticed the guards dragging the Duke away.

The Emperor was safe. And Mei Min’s worst fear had come true.

“She will be honored,” the Emperor said gravely. “Her sacrifice will be remembered.”

Mei Min remembered Jia Fen’s words, uttered only when too much drink gave her the courage: They will forget us.

“Will she?” The agonized words left her throat unbidden. The crowd murmured, stunned.

She stood and faced the Emperor. “We are but women, Your Majesty – will we really be remembered?”

He folded his arms. “You saved my life, so I will grant you a request. What is it you wish for her?”

“A statue,” she said simply. “The same as you’d give any man who served you so honorably.”

He nodded. “It is granted. ”

Mei Min bowed. “You honor us, your Majesty.”

The court buzzed like a disturbed beehive. The Swords on the dais were silent, though, as guards came to bear Jia Fen’s body from the hall. Mei Min knelt, touching the girl’s hand. Many words came to mind, but none of them seemed fitting – she was a soldier, after all, far more skilled with the sword than the pen.

But the other Swords were watching her, so she made a promise, as much to them as to Jia Fen: “They will remember.”

Faithful Swords

Mei Min lay awake long after the other consorts had gone to sleep. Rain whispered its rhythm on the roof high above, a pleasant sound that reminded her of sleeping in a tent while leading the campaign against the northern rebels. So rather than try to sleep, she reclined with her goblet of wine near the brazier, wrapped in a fur, gazing at the subtly shifting glow of the coals under the bronze and listening to the rain.

The doors to the women’s chamber opened and Jia Fen entered, escorted by guards. The Emperor had desired her that night, and while she’d gone cheerfully enough, Mei Min could see even in the gloom that the girl was crying.

“Jia,” she called softly. The guards bowed themselves out of the room, closing the red lacquered doors behind them. Jia Fen sighed and shuffled towards her, stumbling slightly. Mei Min stretched out one arm and wrapped the girl up in the fur with her. The dim light of the brazier glinted off tear tracks on her cheeks.

“You’re drunk,” Mei Min whispered, surprised.

“The Emperor had much fine wine for us to share,” she said dully. “He kept refilling my cup – how could I refuse?”

Mei Min held her close. The girl’s silk robes were clammy from her passage through the palace. “You couldn’t. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.”

Jia Fen was silent for a moment. “Do you ever think about how easily we’re forgotten?”

“What do you mean?”

“There have been many Emperors, whom we remember, but the many Emperor’s wives, and consorts, and concubines, and all the other names they have for us…” She trailed off. “There are forty-three of us just in this palace. And unless we become Empress or bear a boy child who ends up becoming a prince, they will forget us.” She stared stonily at the brazier. “I thought coming here would bring great honor to my family, and I suppose it has, but the honor is not lasting. Not the way it lasts for men.”

Mei Min looked warily over her shoulder, but the room was deserted. “Jia, you should try to sleep.”

“Don’t you think about it?” she whispered. “Men are remembered on their own merits. Women are remembered for producing men.”

“Usually,” Mei Min conceded. “But women are also remembered for producing poems, or paintings. Not as often as the men, of course –”

“I’m a terrible poet and my paintings are not as good as Lingyue’s or Lady Gao’s.” She looked up at Mei Min. “You’ll be remembered. You’re the great General Mei Min, the Faithful Sword, Guardian of Heaven. Your honor will be lasting.”

“Only if I bear a son,” she said grimly. “I may be the Guardian of Heaven, but I’m still a woman and a wife of the Emperor. At the end of the day, no matter how many battles I’ve won, I still only have one purpose.”

Jia Fen glared into the coals. Fresh tears sparkled in her dark eyes. “That isn’t fair,” she whispered, almost inaudibly.

“Is that why you stole those weapons from the armory?” she asked gently. “Because you thought if you, too, could win battles, you would have eternal honor?”

Jia Fen lay silent. Mei Min waited.

“Do you want us to return them?” she asked finally.

Mei Min sighed. She knew she had many admirers among the women in the palace, from the Empress all the way down to the lowest maids. But she’d been shocked to learn, upon her return from the latest battlefront, that a total of five concubines had stolen weapons in hopes of learning to use them as well as their General. She was partly flattered, but mostly terrified for them. She was not sure if she’d be able to protect them, should they be discovered.

And if she asked them to return the weapons, they would, out of respect for her.

But they were skilled – Mei Min had watched their demonstration and couldn’t help but be impressed.

“Not all the poets and painters are remembered,” she said finally. “Only the great ones.”

“So?”

“So…we must be great. We must be the best.”

Jia’s eyes lit up. “You mean –”

“How much do you really think you’ll learn from watching those boys train?” She dried the girl’s cheeks. “No – from now on, you train with me. And when the Emperor learns of us, he will have no choice but to remember us.”