Muse (short fiction) by Nicola Belte

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White as china, she is, a new polished plate, ready to be broken. She ain’t more than ten-and-fifteen, made very tiny by the master’s heavy, black overcoat what’s thrown about her shoulders. I stand back as the door swings wide, the carriage crunching away over the gravel, her boots tipping and tapping on the step, not wanting in but not keen on staying out, neither. I’d tell her to bolt, to run screaming, but there ain’t no-one what can see me. Her skirts swoosh into the parlour, and there’s that rattle and clank of buckets, as the maids make ready her bath.

* * *

Maud’s her name. The morning sun has her propped up in her nest of feather quilts, her eyes bold and bright. There’s food on a tray aside the bed — poached eggs and bacon and sweet, milky tea. At first. As soon as the master starts his work they quick lose the stomach for it.

“Will it hurt?” she mutters to herself, shaping the burnt rind into the curl of a question. I think of her mother, weighting her empty heart and home to the velvet sack of shillings in her pocket. Think of a sweetheart, perhaps, seeing her face, for a while, in every passing flower-girl; her shape forming in each swirl of steam from the trains what growl across the arches. But they’ll forget.

“I daresay it will,” I whisper. I stare out over the spindly trees and the tall metal gates, run my fingers over the frost what’s gathered on the inside of the glass. I don’t feel nothing, and I’m glad for it.

* * *

“Consumption. To be consumed, to be eaten up, to have all that is superfluous burned away, in one glorious moment.” The master and his men talk in the parlour as I stand outside. I put my face to their long coats on the hat-stand, choke back the smell of January rain and the suffocating smog of the city. “A woman is most beautiful on the brink of death. It is capturing the apple at its ripest, before it starts to decay. There is beauty in death, and in death there is art.”

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