Warning: Trigger warning for themes of prostitution, abuse, and child prostitution. I don't go into detail, but be warned.
The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
1 Samuel 16:7b (NIV)
June 12th, 1840
It started with a cough.
At first none of us were concerned, because momma often had a cough due to her delicate nature. However, when she came down with a fever, father sent for the doctor. When the doctor arrived, he quickly told us it was nothing to be concerned about. He said it was just a simple case of hay fever. He said it would go away. It was only when she developed a rash that he became concerned.
Scarlatina, he called it. He said there was no cure, but this time I didn't believe him. He was wrong before, he's wrong about this, too, I reasoned with myself, but the one time I wished he was wrong, he turned out right. I could still remember the doctor emerging from the room with a somber look on his face. Father died shortly after, catching Scarlatina due to all the time he spent at mother's bedside trying to nurse her back to health.
All the townspeople said I should consider myself lucky. They said I must have an angel watching over me, because only I had been spared the terrible fate, but as I watched my parents wooden caskets being lowered into the ground, I wondered if it would have been better if I'd shared the same fate as them. Shaking my head, I quickly dismissed the thought. I was scared of being alone, but was even more frightened of what awaited beyond the grave. I lowered my head and hoped my black bonnet would cover my face as tears slipped down my cheeks.
Father Calvert shut the Bible with a loud thump, making me jump. He closed his eyes and turned his face upward, as if to speak to God personally. "We therefore commit the bodies of Edward and Caroline Foster to the ground, but we commit their spirits unto you, Lord; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life. Amen," he finished in a loud voice.
The people echoed the "amen" and began to disperse. A few people walked over to me and offered their condolences, which I accepted with a curt nod. As I watched their artificial expressions offer me comfort I felt a flame of anger light up deep within me. How dare they? They weren't really sorry. They faked sympathy, but when Father Calvert asked who was willing to take me in, not one of them offered me a home. The passage Father Calvert read aloud Sunday about helping the widows and orphans fell on deaf ears. What would become of me now?
As soon as I was sure no one was looking, I turned and started weaving my way through the crowd towards Father Calvert. I could make out the top of his head standing near the entrance to the parish, talking to a man named Wendell. He knew my parents long before I was born and remained friends with them until their death, even though he rarely had time to come and visit. He had come from many miles away just to pay his respects, and he was the only one whose condolences I could accept without despising him. I knew he would have taken me in, but he was always traveling from place to place, and oftentimes it was dangerous. It was no place for a child, he'd said. As much as I wanted to hate him too, I understood. As I drew closer to Father Calvert, ducking under peoples elbows and brushing past their legs, I could make out the conversation Wendell was having with him.
"I can't leave without knowing what will become of Lavinia," Wendell said.
"The parents have no relatives willing to take in the child, and the villagers have a hard enough time feeding their own children. She will be sent to a workhouse in London," Father Calvert replied.
At that word I felt a cold fear freeze my body in place. I did not know much about workhouses, but one did not need to know much to understand that it was a dreaded place. The few times I heard others speak of it was in hushed whispers, or with an undercurrent of fear in their voice. It was considered a last resort, and to some it was even worse than death. All I knew about the workhouse was that it was a place where you worked almost all day in exchange for food and shelter…and that no one wanted to go there.
A sympathetic look passed Wendell's face, and he had to look away. "Perhaps she would have been better off sharing the same fate as her parents."
August 23rd, 1848
I awoke with a startled gasp, eyes snapping open. I blearily gazed around the room, trying to place myself. When did I fall asleep? I couldn't remember slipping away, but I did remember the exhaustion beforehand…and the pain. An arm readjusted around my waist, and then a burning pain flared up in my side. Tears stung my eyes as I gritted my teeth. A moment later there was a soft murmuring sound as the man shifted again in his sleep, moving his hand from my stomach to my shoulder. I waited until I heard soft snoring sounds coming from my bed companion to slowly slip my shoulder out from under his hand.
I sat on the edge of the bed and brushed my fingers over my waist, wincing slightly at the contact. When I brought my fingertips back up to my face I saw the dark stain of blood in the shadows of my bedchamber. I had a vague recollection of shooting pain near the end, but had pushed it out of my mind as I struggled to focus on other things. I doubt he did it on purpose, or even noticed I had been hurt, but the fact of the matter was that when men lost control I often got scars.
Snatching my chemise up from the dirty floor, I padded over to the small basin of water on the table with two chairs on either side, soaking a small towel. The pain lasted for only a few seconds as I cleaned scrapes left by the man's fingernails. After cleaning off the blood as best as I could, I tore a piece of fabric from my chemise and wrapped it around my waist. I should be grateful that it was nothing more than just a minor scratch—at least compared to the other wounds I had endured in the past.
I found my discarded night robe next to the bed and slipped it on as I made my way over to the window. Moonlight spilled across the mahogany wood floorboards and illuminated the white drapes, making them appear like ghosts out of a Charles Dickens novel, as they fluttered in the breeze. I closed my eyes and smiled when I felt the cool night air wash over my heated skin, instantly giving me relief. With the sleeve of my thin dress I wiped away the sweat from my face. Sometimes I wondered what it would feel like to sleep the whole night through, or at least wake up not drenched in sweat. I could almost recall a time when that happened, but it seemed eons ago. Back then I was at such a tender, innocent age. Now eight years later I was seventeen and living this terrible life.
I glanced back at the man in my bed to make sure he was still asleep before turning my attention back to the city life outside the window. Below my window the sign above the entrance swayed in the nighttime breeze, causing the old chains to creak as it swung back and forth. The name of this establishment, The Merry Maidens, was painted in bright red letters. I couldn't read, of course, but I knew what was written on it. Up above, the crescent moon could be seen clearly in the dark sky, smiling down on London with a grin while the surrounding stars shone like diamonds sewn onto black silk. I could see the Thames River from my window. In the darkness it looked like a long trail of black ink that had been spilt, but the moonlight created silvery white strips on the water, adding to the mystique of London at night.
Letting out a sigh, I reached up to grip the metal bars. I never understood why they were there in the first place; it's not like I would ever try to escape. I almost laughed at the notion, but remembered the sleeping man on the bed and choked back the sound.
What would be the point in running away? It's not like I had anywhere to go. I knew none of the other girls would try to escape either. None of us had anywhere to go. We would die of starvation, or get caught stealing and be hanged for the petty crime. I would rather have a man around my hips than a noose around my neck. At least here I had a slightly more comfortable life. Prostitution was a humiliating job, but at the end of the day I had a bed, food, a roof over my head, and a family made up of the twelve other girls stuck here with me; that was more than the people living on the streets had. Sometimes I envied them, for when they died, they went with dignity and pride, but I was too afraid of death and what awaited beyond to dwell on it for too long.
My eyes filled with tears, but I quickly swiped at them when they threatened to spill over. I wouldn't feel sorry for myself; I got enough of that whenever the night began. Any dignity I still possessed had to be left at the door whenever I brought another man into my chambers, and I had to push down the wave of shame that rose in the pit of my stomach each time I let him bed me. No, this was my time of solitude, even if there was another person in the room. Whenever my customer fell asleep I could sneak out of the bed—if they weren't holding me in a vice-like grip—and stare at the night sky. I'd always been fascinated with it as a young girl, and my curiosity about what lay beyond our own world never waned, even as I entered into adulthood.
Another strong breeze blew in, making the curtains whip around before finally settling down. It was a little cold, but I didn't want to return to the bed, so I wrapped my arms around myself to keep warm. I rubbed my hands up and down my sides, but felt a sharp pain when my fingers brushed over my waist. A cry almost escaped my lips, but I managed to keep it at a soft hiss. The wound was still tender, and the pressure the bandage applied didn't help in the least.
Tears filled my eyes when I realized I would have to put powder on my gash the next night, which hurt more than anything when placed on raw skin, but customers didn't usually like to see proof that other men had been using me as well, even though the fact was common knowledge. I knew all too well that knowing something in the back of one's mind, and seeing proof of it were two different things. Seeing demanded thinking about it, and sometimes unwanted thoughts came up that way. Seeing shattered the illusion.
Some nights were better than others, though. Many men were rough and left bruises or even scars on my skin. Some men were not physically abusive but verbally so, resorting to calling me words I grew used to hearing just by being in this profession. I'd heard it all—loose, whore, depraved, wretched, wicked, immoral, harlot. It became simply another word that lost its meaning from overuse.
I had to admit that there were men who were kinder than most, preferring to kiss me while they bedded me. I liked these men the best—for they would come in, say a couple sweet things, bed me, and then be gone. It was short, painless, and to the point.
Then there were the rarest of men—those who came in who were clearly still virgins. They had either been goaded into coming by an older, more experienced friend, or they were interested in what it felt like to have sex with a woman. They were very young and usually well-bred. They wanted to experience the pleasures of the flesh before they were married, and sometimes even after that. Many of these inexperienced men fell into the category that I preferred, but there were some who were scared senseless. They were almost afraid to do anything to me, and acted as if I would slap them or scream at them if they touched me in a way I did not like. I'd always wanted to laugh at that notion; if only I could slap them! But I was a prostitute and had no right to do anything but lie on my back and let the men do to me as they pleased.
As much as I hated my job, I hated even more were the men who were hesitant about lying with me. I believe I hated them the most, because often I would have to talk them into bedding me. It was all a matter of convincing them of how good I was. It made me even sicker than the men who abused me, for it left emotional scars that could not be cleaned the next day. I despised myself most when I had to describe to them what I could do—all the ways I could pleasure them.
In my mind, doing the act was one thing. Whenever it happened, I knew all the right times to moan and cry out. I had done it so frequently I could play the part effortlessly while forcing my mind to think of other things—but describing it made me think of all the acts I had performed. It reminded me of how truly filthy and despicable I was, but I had to convince them. It shattered the perfectly constructed illusion that I was better than this life I was living, because I was forced to acknowledge that if they didn't complete the act with me, I would not be paid, and I desperately needed their money. There were even some who could not bring themselves to lie with me, and left me naked in my room as they rushed out the door. I hated them—but the one thing I hated the most about my pathetic life was myself.
I turned away from the window and the troubling thoughts that seemed to hover over me like storm clouds. My eyes traveled down to the man's discarded clothes on the floor and I bent down in front of the articles to begin searching the pockets. Madame Delacre kept most of the money we made at the bagnio since we were indebted to her, and what we were allowed to keep amounted to almost nothing, which was why most of the girls would snatch a few coins here and there when they had an overnight customer. They were usually so rich they would never notice a few coins missing. Men who paid for the full night were also rare, since it cost £2. Most men paid for an hour, which was only ten shillings, or a half hour, which was only five shillings.
After a couple minutes my hand finally closed around a leather pouch in the inner pocket of his coat. Opening the small drawstring top, I reached in and grabbed a few coins. He would never even notice. I closed the string and placed the bag back exactly where I found it, then tried to arrange the clothes in a haphazard fashion so he wouldn't know I had been rifling through them. I glanced back at the bed and saw that the man was still asleep. Once, I had been caught stealing and received a beating not only from the man, but from the Madame as well when she found out. I had been extra cautious after that, and found a safe spot to store away the money.
Against the back wall there was a loose brick, but only I knew of it, since there was no indication that it could be pulled out. Inside was a small cavity where I kept all the coins wrapped up inside a small piece of cloth. There wasn't much there, but whenever I added more it gave me a sense of hope. I knew it was foolish to think that one day I would have enough to leave this place and start a new life somewhere, but sometimes that was the only thing that kept me going. Hope was all I had left these days.
I crawled over to the wall and put the money in the hidden bundle, then pushed the brick back into place. As I sat there in the darkness I heard a faint sound on the other side of the wall. I pressed my ear to the bricks and listened intently. There was a sudden crash that made me jump and then the slamming of the door to the room next to mine. The man in my bed jolted awake, sitting up and looking around wildly.
"What was that?" he mumbled, clearly still half asleep. I froze in place, and tried to think of an excuse in case he asked why I was kneeling on the floor.
"I-it was nothing, sir. Something must have fallen in another room," I said quickly, standing up and smoothing out my robe. Thankfully, he either didn't notice or didn't care, since he just grumbled something incoherent as he fell back into the pillows. Within a few seconds soft snoring sounds came from him. I pressed my ear back to the wall and heard sobbing. Madame Delacre recently picked up a girl of ten from off the streets, and I knew tonight was her first night with a customer. I had seen her briefly while I went about the building during her month long training. The Madame taught us to never cry, to never fight back, to never resist, but I knew all too well that even the best training could fly out of one's mind on the first night—even the best of training could not prepare a girl of ten for the horrors of this life.
I made sure the man was soundly asleep before slipping out of the room and into the one next to mine. As I opened the door the sobbing grew louder, bordering on hysteria. I rushed over to the girl and wrapped my arms around her, trying to soothe her. A thin sheet of sweat coated her entire body, but I only wiped away the sweat on her forehead and cheeks before grabbing her dress from the floor. She calmed down a bit once I dressed her, but couldn't stop crying.
"Je suis désolé. Je suis désolé," she kept whispering, a terrified look in her eyes. I didn't speak French, but I could tell from the pleading tone in her voice that she was apologizing. "Je suis désolé."
As I cradled her in my arms, I looked around the room for the cause of the crash. Finally, my eyes landed on a shattered bowl, water staining the floorboards and spreading out in every direction. No doubt Madame would be mad tomorrow and keep the girl's money to pay for the damages.
"What happened?" I asked softly, smoothing back the hair plastered to her forehead.
"He angered when I start crying. Je suis désolé, I did not mean to. It hurt. He tell me stop crying."
I held her tighter and buried my face in her hair. I knew all too well what she was going through, being only a year older than her when Madame Delacre picked me up off the streets.
"It hurt. Always like this?" she whispered in her broken English, voice laced with terror. I shook my head as I ran my fingers through her soaked hair.
"No, it will go away after a while. Tomorrow you can ask the Madame for some laudanum. It will help," I told her. "Next time try to think of more pleasant things, it will take your mind off the pain." I gently pulled away and went back to my room, grabbing the basin from the stool. When I got back to the room I dipped the cloth into the water and began cleaning the girl.
"What is your name?" I asked as I wiped away the sweat from her body.
"Colette," she answered softly. I gave her a small, reassuring smile and she returned it.
"My name is Lavinia. From now on you have a friend, Colette. We are all a family here, so we look out for each other, do you understand?" I asked once she was all washed. She nodded and leaned forward, wrapping her arms around me, sending a bolt of pain through me at the pressure on my waist.
"Oui. Merci, mademoiselle."
This is my first attempt at Christian Fiction, so feel free to leave a review and tell me what you thought-the good and the bad! :)