A Bit Of Beauty
by Liz Vance
by Liz Vance
Her knuckles were raw from washing so many clothes. Sweat threatened to drop on the garment she was scrubbing as it tricked across her bent and tired head. The aches in her body made her feel 40 years beyond her actual age, an age she had trouble remembering. It didn't seem possible for one so young to be so burdened. While most young women her age were thinking about fancy dresses and handsome men our exhausted servant was busy mentally willing herself to continue, to stay standing, to finish just one more day on her feet.
"Two more petticoats. I've almost done with this one. Just two more. Breathe. I can do two more. I will pretend they are one and it won't seem to take so long that way. Oh, my back... NO! I won't think of that. A cool breeze, yes, I will pretend there is a cool breeze fanning my neck... Just two more, I can do two more." The thoughts ran desperately through her head. Intent on finishing her work she didn't hear the skittering of small rocks behind her or the huffing of one whose breath was no longer good. The hunched old woman had to cough and mutter, "Ehem… loverly deary, would you, eh… would you mind..." several times before the weary servant even knew she was there.
Trying not to be cruel, but miserable in the interruption, the young woman turned her head away from the burden in her hands to acknowledge the old hag. "I'm so sorry, mum. What can I do for you?"
The old hag tried to giggle but it came out as more of a wheezy cackle as she rummaged through the ratty layers of her shabby shawl, muttering fragmented excuses and apologies, "Oh, I'm afraid... You see, silly old woman that I am... I'd do it myself, only... Well my back is so bent... It's so very little and your hands are already wet, you see... Would you mind?" Then she held forward a rust and soil stained handkerchief that she had finally pulled forth from some hidden pocket.
For several seconds the young woman just simply stared at the offered cloth. Her tortured body seemed unable to process the thought of one more piece of work. The hag gave another wheezy giggle and a small cough that brought the young woman from her fatigued trance. "Oh no. Doesn't she see how tired I am? How can she ask me to do one more thing on top of all that I have obviously just done? And why should one so dirty, as herself, care about the cleanliness of a hanky?" She almost started to cry as the thought slowly and painfully swam in her head. It made her tired eyes hurt even more, but she forced herself not to cry, knowing that she couldn't afford to loose the energy that crying would require. Unable to say anything, in fear of collapsing, she stuck out a trembling hand and accepted the handkerchief. Its wrinkles were stiff with dried sweat, the corners frayed, and the young woman doubted that any amount of scrubbing would make much of a difference. As it touched the water the cloth went limp and then she began to rub it across her bar of soap.
"Carefully, deary, please be gentile with it. It is a very special piece of cloth you hold in your hands. It has done a lot of work itself and deserves to be treated kindly."
Denying herself the luxury of a sigh she tried to humor the woman so that she could quickly send her away. She relaxed her grip on the kerchief and pretended it was some of her Mistresses most delicate silk as she gently dribbled soapy water onto it and then swirled it in the water of the cold, rushing river. Thinking her mind was simply fatigued beyond repair, it didn't surprise her at first when the cloth began to change color. Believing herself to be going a bit addled in the mind she held up the now brilliantly white handkerchief and smiled. How funny it seemed that her imagination could be so strong as to have made the hag's rag look like the cloth of a fairy? The cloth was so delicate it seemed translucent and it was edged with lace the likes of which she had never even heard of. There were trees and birds and lovely symbols weaved into the lace, and the thread used to make the lace seemed to change color, ever so subtly, as she moved the cloth between her hands.
Laughing at her own fancy, she held the handkerchief out to the old woman and told her to lay it on a clean bush to dry in the sun. When she realized the cloth was not being retrieved she looked up to implore the old hag to leave her to her work, only, she found the rocky shore deserted. She would have assumed it to have all been an hallucination, brought on by her exhausted state, if not for the ethereal, white cloth still laying on her outstretched hand.
"I'm sure that this will disappear in a moment as well," she sighed; but there was a dreamy smile on her face as she pushed herself up from her crouching position, and walked to the line of bushes by the trees, to lay the cloth to dry.
Almost an hour later, she had finally finished the mountainous pile of laundry. She gathered up robes of fine organdy, soft linens, colorful silks, enough items of clothing to keep her well dressed for years. Only, none of the items would ever adorn her lean frame. She owned only two dresses, neither of which was fine, colorful, or soft. The pile of lovely vestments in her basket was meant for the family of those she served, had to serve. Her father owed a wealthy man so much money from bad gambling that he had had to give her up as an indentured servant to pay the bill. A bill so high that she was bound to serve for 7 years before she might be able to call her life her own. Trying not to think about this, she shouldered her load and started to turn towards the footpath when something caught her eye. It was the white handkerchief. She started to smile at it's loveliness but caught herself and, instead, forced a frown on her face. It shouldn't be there. It should have disappeared like the old woman did. She decided, since it must be an image of her own imagining, that she would leave it there. After all, why bother to pick up something you know doesn't exist? Yet, before she could get her basket to her shoulder again, she found she was smiling again.
"Ah well. If I'm going to go crazy I might as well do it with a lovely kerchief in my pocket." She giggled, for what must have been the first time in a year, and carefully took the handkerchief from the bush. She folded it lovingly, admiring the fine lace images as her fingers indulged themselves with stroking the soft, delicate fabric. Pulling out her own clean kerchief, she wrapped the beautiful cloth and placed it in her pocket, taking pains to position it so that it wouldn't get crushed. Still smiling, she reached down to pick up her basket and couldn't help but smile just a tiny bit more as she realized that the basket didn't seem quite so heavy as before. She thought of the old woman and was surprised to find that her memory didn’t seem to recall the filth, and the haggard wrinkles seemed to have smoothed into soft lines on her face. In fact, everything suddenly seemed to be brighter, warmer, and more pleasant. As she walked up the path her feet stopped dragging, her back seemed to straighten, and she wondered if she could still whistle.
This story is dedicated to my sister who constantly shows me the magic of beautiful things even though I rarely listen. Thank you, sis!