“Your duty is making sure Mrs. Brandon is well cared for,” said Agnes. “There is a pain in her body that grows worse everyday.”
“Does she not see a physician?” I asked. I tucked my wooden suitcase under my arm and sped up, trying to keep up with her.
“She saw dozens,” she answered. “They can’t cure her. She requires medication.”
Being new as the Brandon family’s maid, I should’ve wrote all of this down, but I was too mesmerized by Agnes’ gray braided hair swinging like a handle of a grandfather’s clock.
“And Mr. Brandon?” I asked. “Does he require anything?”
Agnes turned around. She stared at me and took my luggage. “Privacy. Only focus on caring for Mrs. Brandon for now.” She continued walking. “Once Mr. Brandon gets use to you then you’ll be in charge of the house chores, and I’ll finally retire to be with my grandchildren.”
I stopped when I saw a framed painting on the wall. It was a portrait of a black-haired woman wearing a pink dress. The woman’s blushing face was smoothly pale.
“Who’s this?” I asked.
“Mary. Mrs. Brandon,” answered Agnes as she exited down the hall and into another.
I compared my old yellow floral dress to Mary’s. I pulled my shoulders back and straighten my spine. I wished I were beautiful and elegant like her.
I followed Agnes into a small-stonewalled room. The room only had a table, two boxes to put my things in and a bed with a stack of folded clothes on top of it. At the end of the room was a small window, facing a garden filled with pink roses.
“This is your room,” said Agnes, setting my luggage. She pointed at the clothes on the bed. “Come find me in the kitchen after you change. Supper will be in four hours.”
I watched her to leave.
I unfolded my uniform. It was the same dress as Agnes, but smaller. There was nothing elegant about it. I frowned and looked out the window. At least there was a nice view.
I helped Agnes push the cart of food into a dark dining room. All of the curtains were closed, and there were only five candlesticks lit in the entire room. In the center was a long table with a chair at each end. The only person sitting at the table was Mr. Brandon, reading the newspaper in his business attire.
I pushed to the cart to the opposite end, and stood by as Agnes transferred soup into an empty bowl.
Mr. Brandon looked up at us. I smiled, but he paid no attention to me.
“Where is my wife, Agnes?” he asked.
“She’s not feeling well and wishes to stay in bed,” answered Agnes. “We will bring food to her.”
I walked around the cart, collected the utensils from placemat and put them in my pocket. I lifted the bowl of soup, letting it burn my fingertips.
“Meals are not to be eaten in bed,” said Mr. Brandon.
“Yes, sir,” said Agnes. Her jaw tightened as she shook her head at me.
Not wanting to lose my position on my first day, I didn’t protest. I slowly put the food back down, and stood by the cart.
“She will have her medicine,” ordered Mr. Brandon.
“Yes, sir,” said Agnes.
The master bedroom was darker than the dining room. With a candle in hand, I tiptoed to the bed and found a woman sleeping in her white nightcap and gown. It was Mary Brandon. Unlike the portrait, her face was wrinkly and her hair was messy.
As I reached for the blanket to cover her exposed shoulders, she started to whimper.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I whispered.
My voice woke her up. Frightened, she quickly sat up and kicked her way back to the headboard. Her breathing was unevenly heavy.
I placed the candle down and put my hands in the air. “It’s only me,” I assured her. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Katherine, your new maid.”
Mary examined me closely. Her breathing slowed down. “Thank God. It’s only you.” She laughed and lowered back in bed.
I forced a smile. I didn’t understand why she was so relieved to see me, a stranger, in her bedroom. I reached into my pocket for the silver spoon and her medicine.
Mary sighed when she saw the bottle. “Do I have to take it?”
“Mr. Brandon insists,” I said.
Mary listened and opened her mouth so I can fill it with a spoonful of the smelly liquid. She coughed violently as she swallowed it. I watched as she closed her eyes and began quickly snoring. Curious to how strong the medicine was, I sniffed the rim of the medicine bottle. The metal smell made me gag.
I put the bottle and spoon down next to the candle.
There were so many nice things on Mary’s vanity table. I opened a wooden box of blush and applied a little to each of my cheeks. Then I opened the jewelry box painted with gold flowers. I took a pair of pearl earrings and brought them to my ears. I looked in the mirror and smiled. One day, I would earn enough money to buy my own.
“Agnes,” I said, holding the basket as she filled it with carrots and potatoes from the garden. “If I may, when did you start working for Mr. and Mrs. Brandon?”
“Long before Mr. Brandon arrived.” Agnes, on her hands and knees, pulls a carrot from the dirt and tossed it inside the basket. “I served Mary’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ashburn.”
“Oh, it was Mary that grew up in this house, and not Mr. Brandon?”
“Mr. Brandon was the son of a former gardener here.” Agnes shook her head. She pointed at the row of roses across the garden. “Poor boy was always beaten by his father if he made a mistake cutting those flowers.”
My eyes widened. “Over some flowers?”
“Yes,” she answered. “One day Mr. Ashburn intervened. He took in Mr. Brandon and dismissed the gardener.”
“And then he became Mr. Ashburn’s son-in-law?”
“Mr. Brandon was the son Mr. Ashburn always wanted.”
“Why don’t Mr. and Mrs. Brandon have their meals together?”
“She is sick,” said Agnes. “She needs rest.”
“She looks more scared than sick.”
“Quiet,” she hissed. Her eyes lingered to where Mr. Brandon was walking across the yard with four other men who all wore business suits with a top hat and walking stick. “You need to watch what you say, child. Stop asking these questions.”
Agnes and I both curtsied when the men approached us. I stepped behind Agnes when I noticed the guests staring at my body.
“Agnes,” said Mr. Brandon. “Prepare the wine gifted from Lord Stafford.”
“Yes, sir,” said Agnes.
I felt naked when Agnes felt me alone with the men. I could feel their eyes still violating me.
“I am surprise Mary allows such a beautiful, young lady to work here,” said one of the men.
The basket gripped tightly in my hands, I could see the man smiling at me.
“My wife would be worried,” said another man. “I don’t know how you keep your hands to yourself, Thomas.”
All of the men laughed except for Mr. Brandon. He clenched his jaw when I looked at him.
“I will see if Agnes needs assistance,” I said.
Without waiting for Mr. Brandon’s approval, I stormed off. I looked back to find the guests still laughing. Oddly, Mr. Brandon was watching me intently.
With my knees sinking into the wet grass, I was cutting roses from the rose brush with little scissors. One by one I twisted the torn off each stem and then piled them beside me.
Nearby, I saw Mr. Brandon walking across the yard with the same guests from earlier. Their words were too muffled for me to understand. I wondered if they were his business partners from the textile company.
When one of the men noticed me, he interrupted the other one talking by elbowing him. When the man pointed at me, they all laughed except for Mr. Brandon. His face was cold as always. He cleared his throat, and accepted the blue box from them.
The men exchanged nods and handshakes with Mr. Brandon before filling the coach. Mr. Brandon watched the coach ride away before turning around to look at me.
My body stiffened when he fixed his green cravat and marched towards me. I dropped the scissors, and jumped to my feet. Without thinking, I brushed my dirty hand on my apron and combed my hair behind my ear.
“Good evening, Mr. Brandon,” I said.
He pointed his walking stick at the trimmed rose bushes. “Explain,” he demanded.
“Forgive me, sir. I thought they would look nice on the dining table.”
His chin wrinkled as he lowered the stick. He liked my idea. “Be sure to ask for my permission before making changes to my house.”
“I will, sir. This won’t happen again.” My eyes moved to the blue box balancing on Mr. Brandon’s palm. “Is that a gift for the Mrs.?”
“God no,” he scoffed. He opened the lid. Inside was a neatly folded ivory lace shawl. I’ve never seen anything so delicate. “A customer placed a large order for these. Would you like to try it on?”
I looked up at him and pointed at my face. “Me?”
Before my dirty hands reached the shawl, Mr. Brandon shut the lid on my fingers, making me wince. He tucked the box under his arm.
“You can try it on after you’re washed,” he said.
Embarrassed, I quickly bent down and picked up the scissor and pile of roses.
“Meet me in my study room when you are done washing up.”
Mr. Brandon started to leave towards the house, but turned back around. He stood so close to me that I could feel his breathing on my forehead. His eyes moved to my hair. He reached up and started to tug at the strands of my hair. I realized that I might have left dirt in it earlier.
I leaned slightly back, fighting not to run away.
As he flicked dark particles from his fingernails, he looked down at the roses in my arms. He broke off a rose and pinned it above my ear.
“They do add a nice touch,” he said. He cleared his throat. “Remember to bring the roses with you.”
A smile grew on my face as I watched Mr. Brandon leave.
Although I was wearing clean clothes and my hair brushed and braided, the portrait of Mary still made me feel ugly. She was so beautiful in it. Balancing the vase of roses in my hands, I straightened my posture to look like Mary.
Inside the study room, Mr. Brandon was looking out a window next to the armchair where his coat was hanging over.
“Mr. Brandon,” I called.
He turned around and smiled at me. “Close the door.”
With one hand, I shut the door. I lifted the vase up. “Where should I put these?”
He walked over, grabbed the vase and set it down to the table closest to us. He put a hand on my mid-back and guided me to the desk where the blue box sat.
I stood in awe as I watched Mr. Brandon opened the lid and picked up the shawl by its corners. He lifted it up to my shoulders. Squinting his eyes, he was imagining how it would look on me. He lowers the shawl.
“This shawl is not meant to be worn with a dress of a servant,” he said.
I looked down at my dress. The only other dress I had was one I wore on my arrival here. Even that dress was old and ugly compared to my uniform. “I don’t have anything else, Mr. Brandon.”
He circled around me, clicking his tongue on the roof of his mouth. My hands clasped together in front of my apron as I tried to follow Mr. Brandon with my eyes.
“You won’t need anything else,” he said.
“I do not understand, sir.”
My body tensed when I felt his body behind me. His finger ran above my shoulders, tickling the tiny hairs on my skin. Then his fingers traced my right shoulder blade down to strings that held my apron to my waist.
“Take it off,” he whispered. He tugged the ends of the bow, letting my apron fall around my ankles.
I quickly turned around to find Mr. Brandon grinding at me like the guests from earlier. I admired the nice things Mr. and Mrs. Brandon wanted, but I didn’t want that type of attention. I started backing away towards the desk, tripping on the apron along the way.
Mr. Brandon followed me. When he tried to reach for my face, I turned away. My reaction made him angry. His eyes turned red and a vein grew in the corner of his forehead.
I regretted making such a move.
“Whore!” he said.
He slapped my face.
I gave out a small cry, not because of the stinging pain, but because I feared he would kill me.
I tried running out the study room, but he grabbed my braid and yanked me down to the floor. A vibrating pain traveled from my elbow to my wrist as Mr. Brandon dragged me back to his desk. His hands went under my arms, lifted me up and tossed me over his desk.
“Please,” I cried.
He didn’t listen. With one hand he hammered my head down into shawl. I could feel my tears staining the lacey piece.
Muscles tightened when he touched my thigh, but I didn’t move. I figured there would be a better chance of living if I didn’t resist.
Suddenly, there was a loud thump. Water splashed all over the back of my hair and dress. I looked up to find pink rose petals and broken pieces of glasses flying everywhere. Then there was another thud.
I quickly turned around to find Mrs. Brandon standing in front of me, looking down. I followed her eyes to where Mr. Brandon was lying unconscious. Was he dead?
Mrs. Brandon didn’t hesitate to check. She mounted him like horse, grabbed a piece of glass and lifted it high above his chest.
Knowing she was going to kill him, I closed my eyes and looked away. I gagged, listening to the sound of the glass breaking through skin and bones. Mrs. Brandon started to cry as she repeatedly stabbed her husband.
“Mary!” said Agnes.
I looked over to door where Agnes was standing. Her eyes were wide open. I ran into her arms. I looked over to Mary. She was staring at us with blood splatter all over her face and nightgown.
Mary looked back down at Mr. Brandon. There was no empathy in her eyes. With her hands cut and bleeding from the glass, she stabbed Mr. Brandon one last time.
Squatted next to Mr. Brandon, rolled up carpet, I picked up petals and glass off the floor while Agnes washed the bloody floor with a rag and bucket of water. We haven’t spoken a word since the incident.
Mary entered the room. Her hair was brushed and neatly tied back. She changed into a new clean nightgown, but there were still blood dotted on her skin.
“Agnes,” said Mary. “Do you remember what to say if they find his body?”
“Yes,” answered Agnes. “He was alive when I left.”
“Good,” said Mary.
“Where will he go?”
“I will bury him in the rose garden,” answered Mary. “You may leave now. Go to your grandchildren.”
“Thank you, Mary. Please take care,” said Agnes. She picked up the bucket full of bloody water and left.
“What about you, Katherine,” she asked me. “The authorities will come asking you, too.”
“The truth,” I said.
“The truth will get us in trouble.”
“He forced himself on me. Am I not the victim?”
“We are women, Katherine. No one will believe us. Trust me,” she said. She pulled the collar of her nightgown, exposing green-yellowish bruises on her collarbone.
My eyes opened wide. It was confusing why I never noticed them before.
“He stopped being kind and gentle to me when he inherited my father’s textile business,” Mary continued. “You must tell everyone that you saw my husband leaving the house with a prostitute last at night.”
“I’m not comfortable lying to the authorities.”
Mary sighed. “What will it take? Money?”
I thought for a moment. “There is something I always wanted,” I said.
Mary tilts her head to the side with curiosity.
The old painter stopped painting when there were loud voices coming from the stairs of the house.
I looked around the back of the canvas and the painter to find Mary with her lawyer, talking to a man wearing an inspector’s uniform. My heart started to race. What was he doing here?
Mary walked up to me.
“Is there something wrong, Mary?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No. The accountant and lauer will start on the paperwork to have you as my trustee.”
“No, the inspector,” I said. “Is he here because of-“
“The case is closed,” Mary interrupted. “My husband has been missing for months now.” She looked over at the canvas the painter was painting on. “Add a rose in her hair. It’ll add a nice touch.”
I smiled in relief. I didn’t know if I was happier being painted or getting away with murder.
I looked over the end of garden where Mr. Brandon was buried. Grass has ground over him. Even the rose brush we planted blossomed white.
*Tien Taylor is a student at University of Washington, Tacoma. She is majoring in creative writing studies. Motivated by her husband and their two daughters, she loves writing fiction and poetry. Her work has been featured in the CAC Newsletter.