Lucy Thora Ferrier

Dear friends,
Is there anyone out there who can help solve this mystery?

I opened the door on New Years morning. And there, in a basket, wrapped in tissue, tied with lacy ribbon — was a story. By an unknown writer, with a lady-like Edwardian-sounding name.

No clue as to who the mother of this foundling might be.

What to do?

It turned out to be easy.
As soon as I’d read it, I knew I had to give it a home at Dr. Johnsn’s Corner.

The Mistress

by Lucy Thora Ferrier

They lived in the country in a century-old yellow stone house that stretched like an out-flung arm from one end of the property, rambling toward the east and forming an angle so that the yard, which was half grass and half gravel, was partially enclosed by the building and open toward the south. He was a man who delighted in his appetites, which were insatiable and wide. He had a stomach that hung like a weight between his bulky thighs; it forced into one’s mind the image of other pendulous and heavy body parts, his buttocks and privates and looped intestines and fat-laced liver and cavernous lungs.

She was small, not five feet tall, and the bones of her chest pressed like those of a bird against the freckled skin that stretched between her breasts. He liked her to wear fine cotton dresses, beautifully made, with the necks cut low so that the shifting of her small white breasts could be seen whenever she bent toward him or toward a guest. She was always busy, never still, except when she sat beside him, and then he would stroke her hand over and over, although either the sitting still or the stroking seemed to agitate her into motion again. She cooked and gardened and washed and cleaned and tended to their children, of which there were four, the oldest not yet ten.

There were many women in the nearby town who would have gladly come to work for her, out of curiosity as much as for the wages. But she had so much energy, she said, that she preferred to do almost everything. She was never tranquil because the property was large and always in need of upkeep or tending or repairs. The back fields were let to a farmer for hay, but she pruned the fruit trees to the west herself, and she made sure the man came round to ensure that all the fences were sound so that the neighbour’s bulls (which were kept for stud) could not get in to where the children played. She cleaned the pool and kept its chemistry in balance and made sure that it was covered up at night and all the toys put away. She fed the cats that kept the rats from taking over in the barn, pulled weeds from between the flagstones that made up the paths, cleaned mould from grout, scoured hard water rust from sinks (their drinking water came from a deep, sweet well in the centre of the yard), cut flowers for the table, and bathed and carefully dressed herself and the children late on Friday afternoons.

He worked in the city and came home Friday night. He would come always with something unnecessary and luxurious. Once a snaking bracelet of diamonds, although she seldom wore it, worried that she would lose it down the drain, or in the pool filter, or in the long green uncut grass to the east of the tennis court. She wore instead the gold chains he had given her for her neck and her wrists, and her gold rings, which were as large as his knuckles. Once a wild wind stirred up while she was hanging out the laundry, and she had to crouch and run for the house. Halfway there she could feel herself lifted from the gravel, which was rushing about under her feet in panicked circles, and she had the notion that it was his gold that saved her. It weighted her down so that she was able to struggle to the house and arrive safely at the heavy, painted wooden kitchen door, which it took all her strength to close against the arriving storm.

More often he brought home food. He came through that door with steaks as large as her embrace and thicker through than the tines of a dinner fork are long. He brought three dozen oysters in a foil-lined Styrofoam box slick and rank in their spiky shells, rounds of cheese more than half liquid and alive and smelling of sewers, and bottles of wine: champagne that bit into the nose, or dark red wines made from the grapes closest to the clay Tuscan soil, or translucent white wines from the Cotes de Nuit that tasted of straw and butter and sun and piss. He sometimes came with elaborate toys for the children, but mostly he overlooked them, as they did him; they were planets in orbit around their mother. He was urging her to have a fifth child.

They had married quickly – he couldn’t wait he had told her. While on an afternoon drive, they had roused from his nap the sleepy justice of the peace at the town three over to the west, where they knew no one, and had stopped the only two passers-by to serve as witnesses. That night, when he caressed her in his wide bed with his large, rough hands, he said to her over and over, “My wife.” “My own wife.” He liked to rest his full weight on her when they made love, so that she was pressed into the soft mattress and flattened in the same way she shaped pastry under her marble rolling pin when she made pies on the broad, cool stone counter in the kitchen.

She felt more and more these days what a heaviness he was to her and how buoyant she might be without him; she would become wonderfully insubstantial, she felt, transparent and light. She had in her imagination as a model the butterflies that butted against the hortensia in the yard. He would come up behind her when she was folding clothes in the laundry room with its large deep window that looked out on the back fields, and would push her forward onto the table so that she inhaled the yeasty, grassy scent of freshly washed shirts and underpants, and pull up her dress with one hand. Or, in the upstairs hallway, when the children were outside, he would tilt her on her heels against the wall. He could lift her to the height he required and hold her there for minutes at a time breathing heavily, with the sound of a rasp, into her ear.

She felt sometimes so much his possession, so much under his hands, that she believed she must have acquired the same rampant animal smell that was always around him, so she took to wearing a perfume that smelled of roses and musk and lengthening evening shadows. Her name and home and body and children and possessions were all his. It seemed that her fingerprints must have become the same as his, her heartbeats and her DNA. She was a tossing boat and he was the ocean. She was a lone bird in his vast deep sky, a pebble in his quarry. She thought, more than once, in a dreamy half-formed way, of what it would be like to tie a stone around her waist and slip silently into the wide well. The relief of it.

There was no way to ease his hold on her, she thought, unless she could somehow put him entirely in the wrong, and her in the right, so that the balance would become tipped in her direction. This wrong came into her mind at the end of one long day, as she responded to his insistent love-making in their bed. He was, you will remember, a man of ravenous needs; he ate often three full meals and then a fourth at midnight. He would drive for hours to see his favorite plays or movies or to eat at a restaurant he had heard made something that could not be had anywhere else. Between Friday night and Monday mornings they made love at least four times. It was impossible to imagine him living the days in between like a monk. It was impossible for him not to have a mistress in the city.

Over several weeks the image of the mistress grew more detailed in her mind. The mistress would be blonde, large busted, lusty, amusing, responsive, uneducated. She found the idea of the mistress even more of a release than the thought of sinking under the cold waters of the well. A mistress would change everything. If he had a mistress, he would require her forgiveness, he would be forced to beg, to plead. She could – and the idea made her shudder – punish him, withhold herself, discover and impose her will on him. A mistress would change things between them in the way that she had come to believe was necessary in order for her to go on in their simple life together in the country. She could gain, through his mistress, room enough for her own desires to flow like the rains of early autumn that washed in the night along the gutters of the house.

It took weeks before she could ask him, but she did, finally, one night late in November, her quick heart scarcely beating from his weight.

“Darling. In the city,” she said. “Do you keep a mistress?”

He raised his body from the waist up on his forearms, but he kept his hands buried at the top of her head in her thick black hair. There was no change of expression in his face or eyes, no surprise or pity or greater or lesser fondness.

“It’s you,” he answered. “I have a wife and children in the city.” He moved to complete what he had started.

“You,” he said. “You are the mistress.”