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Rachel Connor
Rachel Connor

Rachel Connor is a former lecturer in English and American literature and the author of H.D. and the image (Manchester University Press). She once had stints of driving around northern France in a Renault Clio, supervising people putting up tents for a camping holiday company. She has cleaned hotel bedrooms in Australia and contributed to a zoological project on dik-dik (antelopes) in northern Kenya. These days, Rachel combines writing with her work for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank – once home to the poet Ted Hughes – which runs residential courses for writers.

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From 'Sisterwives'

There are two of them reflected in the long bedroom mirror: Amarantha on a ladder-backed chair; Rebecca behind, decorating her hair, fixing the curls with pearls from a purple satin box.

          Amarantha sees Rebecca’s tongue dart to her lip as she drives home the pin; feels the flush up her neck and a burning sensation across her scalp. When Rebecca grips her chin and angles it to the left she sees everything slantwise then, in the glass: Rebecca’s face with its veil of freckles. Thin brows the same red as her hair, with edges that fade to nothing. Witch eyes, the children in school say, because of the green, but there’s sometimes a softer light there, too. She listens to the rise and fall of Rebecca’s breathing, feels the contact of her abdomen as she leans over, giving off her sweet and peaty smell, like heather.

          She wonders what Rebecca is thinking: about tonight, maybe. Tobias’s reaction when he takes all her dark hair down again.

          Something in her expands at the thought of it. Yesterday, in Tobias’s workshop, she felt odd when he folded her into him, with his smell of dust and heat and burnt glass. She’s known him all her life but he’s never held her like that before. There were patches of sweat, like islands, on his shirt. His smell was sharp as salt; salty like the blue dye when she dipped in her finger and put it to her mouth. He said it was azure. It made her think of the sea, that she has never seen, or a summer sky.

          She never expected to want him.

          Maybe staying is too high a price to pay, to be with him. It’s what her mother would think anyway; it’s what she would say if she were here. She’s filled with a yearning to hear her voice. A note, at least. She turns to Rebecca.

          ‘There’s nothing from Frania?’

          ‘You asked already.’

          ‘She wouldn’t want it. All this.’

          ‘Do you?’ Rebecca’s words are a challenge. The witch eyes fix her in the glass. But she sees that Rebecca is desperate for an answer and seeing her need gives her a rush of pleasure, of power. She hangs onto that silence. Eventually, she says: ‘It doesn’t matter what I want. Frania left. I’ve no choice.’

          ‘None of us has a choice, Amarantha. We do what’s asked of us.’ Rebecca turns away, tidying, laying down the wooden-handled brush and the comb, placing unused pins in the box. There are bright spots of colour on her cheeks.

          ‘But I don’t know what they’re asking.’ Even as Amarantha says it, she knows the answer. They want the same thing for her as they do for Rebecca and the others: the relentless rhythm of Sealings and babies. She was so sure she’d escape it. Frania promised her they would. But Frania’s gone and Amarantha is seventeen: still too young to study, too naive, they say, to survive alone in the city.

          Rebecca frowns. ‘We’ve been through it before.’

          The words jab harder than the pinpricks in her scalp. ‘Who should I ask then? Tobias?’

          But Rebecca has vacated the rectangular space of the mirror.

          Amarantha looks around Rebecca’s room, reflected backwards: whitewashed walls, fresh and clean; the voile curtains shifting with the breeze at the window and, through it, the apple tree in full leaf. In the corner, the wide metal bedstead with the patchwork eiderdown tugged across. And on top, laid out so it won’t crush, her dress for the Sealing.

          When Rebecca comes back into view she’s lifting the dress as though it were some exotic flower. She brings it towards Amarantha, instructs her to stand. And then there’s nothing but cream and ivory light and the smell of lavender; the rustle of fabric around her ears. Amarantha holds up her arms, feels the tug under them as Rebecca eases down the dress, arranging it. Making it fit.

          She’s never been dressed by anyone before. The touch of Rebecca’s fingers burns her; the contact of skin, then hands skirting her waist. Even through the fabric she feels it.

          The anticipation. Tobias’s face and his burnt glass smell. Wanting it; not wanting it.

          When Rebecca steps away, Amarantha looks at her own reflection. Frania wouldn’t know her, with her hair up, her long neck on show. Her skin is transparent, it’s so pale. The dress gives her a body other than her own: it pushes up her breasts, tightens her around the waist, expansive as it nears the ground.

          Amarantha can’t get enough of looking. This strange self, who is nothing like she thought she was.

          She closes her eyes, absorbing everything. She hears the Meeting House bell, summoning them. Amarantha imagines them there: Goran and Leah – Tobias’s parents – lining up at the front; the rest of his family. The rest of the village, there to witness their joining. Frania’s empty seat. Ammie remembers the scrawled note Frania left; beautiful words, but inadequate: An invisible thread connects us. Think of me and I’ll feel a pull on it.

          She can’t feel it today, though, that connection. There are women in the house but none of them are her mother. The sound of their voices drifting upstairs makes her absence even more acute. Already, they’re swinging into their roles, the women, making beure manié, preparing vegetables; chopping herbs that bleed green onto the board, the knife releasing the scent of dill and basil; thyme. As long as she thinks of today, it’s the smells she’ll remember: the sweetness of roasting vegetables, bitter overtones of rosemary; the lamb brought from the field to slaughter. The scents in this room, too: roses in jars on the bureau, just brought in from the garden. Beeswax where Rebecca polished the floor yesterday, readying the room.



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