Anuradha Sawkar

    Margaret Rose "Meg" Olsen sat upon a closed commode. The dim light from the bare bulb over the mirror did not reach the corners of this "powder room." Presently, her hands— like white butterflies, she had been told—sat flat upon her skirt. Was that a creaking board? The door opening? Meg's corset bit into her ribs as she held her breath. No, not yet. Meg exhaled to whatever extent she could. Wearing a corset was not at all what it ought to be, she thought. However, this was the least of the things that felt foreign this night. Meg was frightened by the seeming calm that washed over her. What a time to feel peaceful! Yet she supposed the mind had different ways of expressing pain. Quickly, quietly, nervously she began smoothing the creases in her deep purple dress.

    The early 1900s had not been kind to Olsen farm, despite their faith. Meg's father grew wheat, a crop that had been destroyed by drought and falling prices following rumors of world war. Mr. Olsen had been chewing on a stalk of the golden grain that night at dinner when it was decided that Meg should move to the bustling town of Walla Walla, Washington to help support the family, his brow slightly furrowed. It was the only sign of distress her father had shown.

    "Ay, well these things happen," he had said in his customary fashion. "We'll do as we can manage."

    It was all a God-fearing Christian could say. Meg's mother had nodded, tight lipped, while Paul and Mary stared into their plates. They all held their place there: Mrs. Olsen tended to Mr. Olsen and the farm hands, Paul helped sow and till, and Mary was to be married soon.

    Margaret Rose was different than her younger brother and sister. She was often found with her curly, deep-red locks framing the pages of a book. Most girls stopped going to the one-room schoolhouse when they reached their teens. Not Meg: she hoped to be a governess, to write stories and essays. Thus, for Meg, the prospect of Walla Walla with its Whitman Seminary and College held volumes of excitement.

    "College service: four dollars a day, six days a week, church on Sundays with plenty left over for the offering," the advertisement in the Bulletin had read.

    Perhaps, Meg thought, perhaps if I work well they will offer me a place at Whitman to learn. The idea filled her with an eagerness that she could hardly bear! With that in mind, she willingly left her homestead.

    If only she had read more carefully. "..Church on Sundays with plenty left over for the offering..." That sentence remained engraved in Meg's mind. She should have asked where that "plenty" would come from.

    Shuddering away the past, Meg stood up and positioned herself in front of the cloudy mirror that served as a door to a medicine cabinet. The medicine cabinet provided an eave to a meager sink and a small alcove above in which lay rouge blusher and blood-red lip polish. Meg touched the image that gazed back with her fingertips. It felt cold. Her face was not of consequence to her new life, although people in her little town had always whispered that her looks were "too pretty for her own good."

    "I suppose some of my face will be of consequence," corrected Meg aloud, reconsidering the make-up over the basin. Noting pain in her doe eyes, she fixed her gaze on the black and white tiled floor.

    "That one's red locks and her book knowledge will be the ruining of her," they had said. "God will avenge himself on the prideful." Meg would not, however, accept the label of "vain." She never knew what she did to deserve such animosity from the town—perhaps she looked haughty, but she'd never tried to be. It could have also been her "book learning." In either case, Meg thought, they would be happy now. She was to pay a high price for this so-called "pride."

    Mama always said I must accept my fate and do what is Christian, thought Margaret Rose, but what am I to do when fate leads me to sin? Mama certainly would not be able to answer my question—outside of the Scriptures, there are no other answers for Mama...

    It was no use thinking of that now.

    Meg glanced swiftly around the powder room, searching for something to anchor her. She let her eyes linger on the many pegs, towel bars, and the lofty cabinet. These held the tools of a vixen: brassieres, garters, satin gowns, pantaloons, masques, a bustier, costume fancies, an extra hoop skirt, and many unspeakable things besides. They now belonged to her. Did she belong to them? Meg quelled the gasp that came at that thought: the old woman at the door had threatened any unnecessary noise with whipping. She avoided looking at the narrow tub. The gloomy light now bathed the small wash-room with a garish horror.

    The old woman's laughter drifted through the crack under the door, followed by someone else's masculine, expectant grunt. Meg looked at the floor again immediately. The black and white patterned floor seemed like an eternity, before her and after her. Meg thought upon them. The door slowly opened, and the night came with it. Meg was lost in the tiles.