A golden beam of light fell across the mottled edge of the washtub. Dirty water lay stagnant within, milky bubbles dotting its murky glass.
“Have you done with the potatoes, Mary?”
Helna jabbed the younger girl with a padded elbow. Mary shrugged.
“Oh Helna, why do some people get all the goodness in life and others only soapsuds?” she asked the older slave woman. Helna’s thick hair bloomed in a wreath around her face, like a lion’s mane, as she ran a callused hand through it.
“Get to work, child, and don’t question the ways of God,” she said, patting down the pudgy bread dough before her. After a pause, she added as an afterthought, “And don’t you forget that you were once the fortunate one. You’ve no right to complain.”
Mary tossed her curls behind her shoulders and grabbed a potato.
“You needn’t preach.”
“Bah, I’ve grown accustomed to Athens, though I have been through the same as you’ve,” said Helna, pounding the squashed lump with her large fists.
Mary slowly ran a knife through the dense meat of the potato and did not answer. Her heart hungered after the days when she sat in the warm kitchen in Crete, watching with eager eyes the exploits of her Egyptian maid. She remembered laughing as Ashtani pounded the dough like Helna did, and thinking it looked like the servant was punching the stomach of a fat boy.
A sorrowful smile alighted on her lips for a shadow of a second, then vanished.
Helna did not deserve it, this life—she who was of noble blood, who had sat in the shade of olive trees with maids to perfume her feet with oil. And I? I do not deserve it either. She forced the blade to cut through a tough spot. How could you take us away from everything that we loved?
Mary glared at the old wooden beams holding up the roof, waiting for an answer.
She closed her eyes as the disappointment trickled down her spine. Was he even there?
“Melitta wants the evening meal by the fifth hour,” Helna’s voice broke into her reverie. “If you want to have tonight free, you’d better hurry with the potatoes.”
Annoyed, Mary returned to her task with angry vigor. Her mind kept wandering back to Chares, his gentle voice, his humility—begging forgiveness, his bashful quest to become friends.
No, it’s not for a slave girl to rise above her station, Mary. Don’t blind yourself.
But still…I have the right. I am not really a slave.
The soft scratching of metal slicing through to the center of the root kept a constant beat. She shoved harder.
Mary slammed the blade down on the last chunk of potato.
“Good,” said Helna. She twisted the dough in her floury hands and broke off a piece. “The corn is over there.” She gestured to a sack near the door.
Mary trudged over and swung it over her arm when a shadow fell across the threshold.
“Mary,” cried Kesha, tripping in on tiny feet bound with fine leather sandals.
“Why Kesha! I did not expect you until evening!” Mary stared with delight at the little black head that bobbed at her shoulder.
“I always find a way to prolong my visits with you, my friend.”
A giggle slipped from Mary’s throat as she set down the corn on a barrel. Oh, how good it was to have Kesha back! How she loved her silly comments and beguiling personality!
Kesha dipped her hands in a cool basin of water, mocking the show of respect the family at the house played at. Carefully drawing her fingertips out, she shook them out the door, sparkling droplets splattering everywhere.
The two girls sat together, lets dangling from the stonework outside as they shucked corn side by side.
“I think, Mary, that someday, we may wake up in the dark because the sun will be too tired to rise,” said Kesha with a plaintive tone as she pulled at a thread of corn silk.
Mary’s laughter tinkled into the meadow.
“Whatever do you mean, Kesha?”
“Why, simply this: the sun has been rising for the past several…oh I don’t know—hundred years, let’s say, and if it should go on, it might not have the strength to pull itself over the horizon. Don’t you think?”
“Nonsense,” muttered Helna, catching part of the conversation as she bustled out the open door. “What’s fit for the master’s babes to hear is not to be made small talk in my kitchen. Do you have all that corn shucked?”
Kesha rolled her eyes.
“We’re getting there, Helna,” Mary answered, peeling off the messy mop of string at the end of the corn.
A slight gust of wind ruffled her dark hair. With a careless gesture, she flung the blousy strands behind her neck.
In the quiet of the evening, two pairs of brown hands stripped husks side by side, their owners gazing into the vast expanse of sky, watching the sun paint a fiery canvas as it dipped behind the mountains. In the soft breeze, their bared arms lacked warmth, and their scalps tingled with the rustling swish of dry grass brushing against dry grass.
At last, when there were no more stumps of corn in the basket, they filled their lungs with the air, sweet with the faint aroma of acacia.
“Come, Mary,” laughed Kesha, jumping down from the rocks. Taking the taller girl’s hands, she grinned. “Have you done with all your tasks?”
Mary was gazing into the distance, when she started, surprised by the sudden question.
“Oh yes, I’m free tonight.”
“As am I, for Saul cares not if I be gone for an evening.”
“Truly?” Mary turned to her friend in disbelief.
“Why, you speak as if you think he would shut me out at night. Nay—be not alarmed!”
“Forgive me,” said Mary with a shake of her head, “but I could not love a man who would scarce think twice about my wellbeing. He does not take care of you as he ought.”
The last word was spoken in deepest tones of hurt indignation. Kesha’s large eyes fixed upon Mary’s own, stricken.
“How can you speak so?”
Mary bowed her head, shame washing her cheeks with crimson as her friend continued.
“He cares about me, oh, so much! He loves me, and I love him—and I cannot stand by while you abuse him.”
“Kesha, please! I—”
“Mary. Hear me out.” Kesha dropped her gaze and stared into the fields. “I—would you rather me gain a harsh man for my husband—one who would keep me from…from those I love?” And her eyes turned a silent plea upon Mary.
Remorseful drops fell down her cheeks as she stepped into the open arms of her dearest friend and wept.
Kesha stroked the tangled curls.
The shower did not last long.
Mary, startled by her own display, dashed the tears from her face and smiled, but the expression in her eyes had softened, her friend noticed.
Hand in hand, they fell into step, winding along the path, joined by a small brook that slithered noiselessly through the grass.
“Tell me, Mary, how are you?”
“I am doing well.”
Kesha gave a frustrated sigh. “Something bothers you.”
No answer but a sharp glance.
“There’s no use denying it,” added her friend in a gentler voice. “You’ve been acting as if there is some weight on your heart. Please.” She stopped walking. “I want to help.”
As Kesha caressed the dark shoulder beside her, a gentle draft kissed their cheeks. Mary shivered.
At last, she spoke.
“I hate him—oh, I hate him! And yet, he is not like his father—proud, arrogant. If you had seen him, Kesha…” she trembled. “I—he…wants to…be friends.”
The hand stroking her back jerked to a halt.
“What did you…say?”
“Yes! Did you accept?”
Mary tilted her head up to the clouds.
“I…I could not,” she whispered.
Kesha squeezed her eyes shut.
Mary was silent.
Slowly, they turned back towards the house, their arms still linked.
“If,” Kesha began slowly, “he were to ask you again, what would you say?”
For a while, the swish of water against grassy banks was the only noise, soothing Mary’s sore mind, laying the foundation for Kesha’s thoughts. Finally, Mary said, in a quiet voice,
“I just want to see home.”
“You are tired,” crooned Kesha. “Sleep tonight and you will feel better tomorrow.”
“Sleep?” laughed Mary bitterly. “What is sleep when those you love are gone?”
The black head beside her bent.
They had reached the main road, and Mary pressed her friend’s hand.
“Will I see you again before you go?”
“Then I will wait eagerly for you, my friend. God go with you.”
“And with you as well.”