Artifact 8: Around Her Neck, The Weight of Stones
The whores had always been there for the men of the city. They worked in the Flesh District, a narrow, dusty corridor framed by tall stone buildings where they draped their bare breasts and damp thighs over the windowsills for the men passing by. They were the soul of the city, the bloody beating heart. All day and night men brought the whores sweet smelling oils, fresh fruits and, of course, silver coins, always polished to the brightest shine. They also brought their calloused hands and coarse words, their petty miseries and difficult, demanding, often depraved desires. The men of the city liked to believe this was a fair exchange.
On the far side of the Flesh District there was a wall built high enough to block out the sun and on the other side of that wall were the women who knew where their husbands spent their time after long days in the quarry or the Spice Market or at the Tribunal. They named it the Wall of Sorrow and the city’s wives spent their lonely nights beating their fists against the obdurate stone until the bones broke and the anatomy of their hands became unrecognizable. It was the whores who always fixed the broken hands of the wives—a small, terrible kindness—but the wives relished the fleeting affection, the tender touches of the women their husbands loved. The wives allowed their bloodied knuckles and awkwardly bent fingers and torn ligaments to be set right, to be healed and covered in thick webs of scar tissue that would only tear the next time they came to the Wall of Sorrow.
The men didn’t care. They bedded the whores, working themselves into frenzies as they listened to the intense pitch of their wives’ keening. That miserable sound only increased the men’s pleasure.
Isadore was the most beloved of the whores. Little was known about her. She had once been sealed to a man, a solider it was said. She loved her man down through her bones. Each morning when they woke up, she washed his face with a rose oil soaked cloth and massaged every part of his body so he could be limber and alert, satisfied throughout the day. In return, the soldier loved Isadore gently, never spoke cruelly to her, gave her a boy who looked just like him and loved the boy gently too. He died during a war and their son died during a war and the loss of them was not something she bore lightly. The grief made her hard and cold and but not unhappy.
The men did not understand Isadore. They did not know her. They thought, when she held them in her slender arms, when she took them between her muscled thighs or in the humid softness of her mouth, that there was a part of the whore that loved them. She did not love them, nor did she hate them. She was indifferent. She felt nothing for men at all. Isadore was ageless, enjoyed by fathers and sons and grandsons alike. Her skin was dark as was her hair. She had ample hips, a soft belly, and breasts that often brought men to their knees when they entered her chambers. She lived on the top floor of the tallest stone building in the Flesh District in a series of open rooms separated only by long, sheer cloths that changed the configuration of space when they swayed as a breeze passed through. The moans of the men who enjoyed Isadore’s bed could be heard as far away as the edge of the known world. She was always handsomely rewarded. When the sun rose and the men returned to their labors and their families, Isadore would bathe in a deep ceramic basin filled with cold water. The cold made her feel clean.
When men brought Isadore brightly polished stones, she wove them into a beautiful necklace she always wore, whether she was bathing or bedding or walking through the Flesh District, looking in on the women who would never be wives, tending to the broken hands of the wives who would never be the women their husbands loved. As the necklace grew, she had to wrap it around her arm, or drape the length of stones over her shoulder or pull it behind her, letting it gather dust. The weight of the necklace made her gait something to behold. Her every movement was slow, measured. Isadore felt the weight of stones in her spine and the soles of her feet, a dull ache that never went away. Sometimes, Isadore fingered these stones and sucked them clean and thought of her husband who died in a war, leaving her in the city to carry a length of heavy stone. He had not been handsome man but his back was strong. When she and her soldier made love, Isadore splayed her fingers against his thick body, holding him inside her, needing him to fill her, letting him teach her how to be loved. She only thought of her soldier when she felt the weight around her neck. It made her strong. When Isadore lay with the men of the city, she needed that strength to make them believe.
Roxane Gay’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Blip Magazine, Cream City Review, Annalemma, McSweeney’s (online), and others. She is the co-editor of PANK, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, and can be found at www.roxanegay.com. Her first collection, Ayiti, will be released in 2011.