Excerpt: The Silksmith’s Girl

I’m turning the silksmith’s music boxes one after the other to punctuate the sound of scratching, me at my beard, him on crisp blank paper torn from the back of my books. Six months he’s been penning my ‘Dear suitor’ letters to the next town in line, since I confessed that wanting to settle down with more furniture than a trunk full of books was the only reason I attached myself to this hodgepodge centipede of caravans, which digs into dirt that changes weekly like paper in a birdcage.

Since he took hold of the task of writing, there’s always a decent date waiting for me as soon as I knock off from my sideshow role in the evenings. Sometimes there’s more than one a night, sometimes more than I remember inviting, but as long as clean coins always jangle in their pressed pants, ‘Roll up, roll up,’ I say. Sadly, none of them have yet seen fit to place a ring, not just their hanging parts and a few of those coins, upon the hand I outstretch for an introductory kiss. All of my rendezvous have been strictly confined to dim alleys branching off the sideshow drag, and to the silksmith’s dimmer caravan while he’s out performing in the big tent a hundred feet away and a further hundred up in the air. I’ve never spent a full night outside his van, always crawling back with my tail between my legs for him to tenderly lick clean.

“How’s that?” He passes one page from the fair haul of loose leaves scattered by his elbow. In the last six months, he’s almost penned his own novel, full of florid prose more purple than the bruises staining his pale limbs and the blotches I tend to spill on the bleached paper he proffers for my chicken-scratch signature.

I broach the first line and am already wading through treacle tarrier than the silksmith’s midnight hair, but the usual meeting instructions, poured out in his soupy cursive, are clear enough to understand. ‘Should it please, kind sir, I shall await your attendance at 7 pm of the second night the circus is in town, at the step of the caravan with the reddest door.’ I nod. “It’ll do.”

His lips curl into a pout of satisfaction over teeth as crooked as a kicked-in picket gate. If I could weave words as well as him, I wouldn’t have to endure my own ambivalent envy and gratitude, nor his irritating welcoming of my clenched jaw as a silent compliment. I read more often and wider than he does, but he effortlessly churns out poetry silkier than buttermilk, although I’ve never seen him sneak so much as a glance toward my library of battered paperbacks in the corner.

He keeps writing the third and fourth nights’ suitors’ letters while I turn the cranks on his music boxes one by one. Over and over, Greensleeves, Auld Lang Syne, and Blue Danube Valse twinkle in the still air: first in a medley, then a chorus, then a cacophony of impatient notes battling for supremacy. They die out painfully slowly, Greensleeves the dubious victor, which accompanies his finishing the fourth and final page with a flourish and handing it to me.

The messier the scrawl of my name, the less plain it is my hands were shaking when I wrote it. My heart’s picked up the beat of the last song to fade out, and is fluttering at a livelier pace to fill its gap, anticipating what other noises will soon follow my signing of the last letter. I kiss the wet ink for luck and to mask, with a sensuous smudge, the blot I spilled. Sucking it off my lips, I wonder if the ink’s poison might slow my heart in the same way the music wound down. If not, I wonder if the non-suitor in the room with me can see the pitter-patter of my pulse hasten its beat in the natural ropes of my throat, especially where they taper into a twine above my breasts, where my skin stretches thin in comparison to the thick flesh beneath.

The silksmith reclines on his bed of cushions. There’s no mattress beneath them, just wooden planes which groan as they swell, denying drafts’ knocks to be let in as cold winds crawl and whinge beneath the van’s fat wheels and axle. The silksmith nestles amongst mounds of velvet, peering over their plush promontories like an alligator lounging underwater, pretending not to be hunting for oblivious prey. As if I weren’t mindful of his intentions. As if there were a chance I’d leave now.

The coals of his voice rattle a little, made gravelly from his strangling himself too hard or too often with his silks during his practising his performance today. “They’ll just be men like any other, poppet. No need to be nervous.”

“Not like just any other. Money means they have room to move.” Unlike the silksmith, I seek out and select potential mates with care. A steady diet of ten-dollar-words in nickel books fed my head and ambitions while inoculating me against the complacency of my class, which too often accepts the lot we were born into. I shan’t settle for less than a castle.

Besides, the silksmith’s a hypocrite. He’s lofty too, but while sturdy book stacks are my ladders, he draws himself up high with dangling silks until he can see far over people’s heads to somewhere beyond our fate. I need a house large enough for a library, like he needs a tent full of empty space to swing through as though on a vine. He knows this, but though I treat his silks with care, he won’t look at my books except to divest them of the empty pages closest to their covers. Those he tears out with finesse, to write on with more finesse.

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