[Content Warning: references to abortion, gender oppression, physical and sexual abuse, religious abuse, and rape.]
Jane walked through the first glass door of the Females’ House of Nutrition Number Seventeen at precisely twenty hundred hours. As she stood still inside the booth, between the first door and the second (still locked), the metal cold beneath her callused feet, she tried not to sweat, to vomit, to faint, to flee in a panic and return to the residence. To the known, the familiar.
Six minutes. Six long minutes to walk the distance from Husband’s residence to the House of Nutrition. (It had been very hot today. The concrete had still been warm. Bugs has buzzed around her shaved head.) The same distance, the same route, at the same steady pace, at the same time every week for the last three months.
But it had been so much more difficult tonight.
She waited. Waited while the Custodian examined her from the other side of the second door (still locked). She tried to meet the Custodian’s gaze calmly, to not twitch or drop her hands over her belly. To behave exactly as she had once a week, every week, for the last three months.
But it was so much more difficult this time.
Through the windows (and the walls were mostly windows, all the way around, for a female must always be in view of any male who wished to observe her) she could see groups of other females: Wives, Daughters, Free Widows.
She did not know how many. More than the fingers on her hands or the hours in a day.
(Did any of them know of The Magdalene? Were any of them part of the coven?)
The Custodian reached down. Pressed a button Jane could not see.
The second door clicked (unlocked).
She pushed it open, the muscles of her shoulder and arm and hand tensed to stifle their shaking. She could feel her heart beating against the metal of her Ring of Ownership.
The floor was smooth and cool, but not cold. She could feel bits of grit (crumbs of food and pebbles) through the calluses of her feet.
Jane smiled at the Custodian behind her desk, dipping her head. The Custodian returned the gesture, unsmiling, lines creeping out from the corners of her eyes and mouth, the light above turning the wrinkles on her bare scalp into deep valleys. The Custodian tapped the book on the desk with one crooked finger.
Jane carefully picked up the pen, muscles still tense, and wrote her name in square, blocky letters on the lowest blank line.
Still silent, the Custodian flipped the book around, her gaze lifting to the clock that hung above the door. She wrote the time (twenty hundred and two) beside Jane’s name, and flipped the book back around, awaiting the name of the next female to be admitted through the locked door.
Jane moved away from the desk, between the tables and booths. She dipped her head in greeting to some of the other females, regulars whose faces she recognized, even if she did not know their names. All in the tight dresses required of females, covering them from neck to knee, from shoulder to wrist, laced so tight that the marks upon their skin never faded.
Husband had complained to her about that once. He had not liked the feel of the grooves in her flesh when he mounted her.
She had apologized.
Turning a corner, following another line of tables and another window, Jane made her way to the booth nearest to the kitchen door. Her usual spot. Nothing unusual. This was a night just like any other, just like all of her previous visits.
She half-crouched, twisting her body to slide between the table and the cushioned seat. A plastic sheet covered the table, the menu visible beneath. The food items were listed neatly in parallel columns. There were tiny images, too, between the columns, for those females whose Husbands or Fathers had not been as diligent in their Education in Letters.
Letters were allowed. A female must be able to read if she was to know the words of the Fathers, and remain true and faithful, and teach that truth and faithfulness to her Husband’s Daughters.
Never her Husband’s Sons, however.
And numbers were not allowed, not ever.
Numbers were dangerous.
Jane knew numbers. Some. She wasn’t sure how many she knew out of all the numbers. She wasn’t sure how many numbers there were. But she knew some, as many fingers as she had on her hands and as many hours as there were in the day. She had learned the names of the numbers from her Father’s second Wife, who had taught her as they walked through the park or selected food from a Nutrition Hub.
(Not from her Father’s third Wife, the womb-who-bore-her. Jane had no memory of the womb-who-bore-her, who had climbed to the roof and fallen before Jane was even properly weaned. So her Father’s second Wife had fed her, and come to love her.)
The Server appeared beside the table, her bare feet silent, her steps steady and short in her tight dress, cinched close around her knees. She wore a pristine, pale blue apron over her dress, and pulled a small pad of paper and a pencil from the single, neatly creased pocket. “The Fathers and Husbands provide. In their name, what nutrition may I serve you this night?”
Jane glanced back down at the menu. She already knew all of the options. But looking away gave her the opportunity to slow her breathing, calm her heart, flex her fingers beneath the table to ease the cramps and shaking in her muscles.
They had told her to eat. That she would need strength.
But her stomach was heaving and weaving.
She looked up at the Server. “Toasted bread with cheese and a small bowl of tomato soup, please. And a glass of water.”
The Server wrote the order on her paper, dipped her head, and disappeared through the door to the kitchen.
(Anyone outside would still be able to see the Server, and any other Servers and Cooks in the kitchen. There were windows there, too, as the staff were all female, and females must always be visible to any male who wished to look upon them. Only the Husband’s residence had solid walls, at least on the outside. Within, there were no walls at all, or walls of glass, for the Husband and his Sons to watch the females.)
Whispers all around her. Wives helped young Daughters with their food, dull knives scrapping across plates; some of the Daughters were unblooded, hair still curling from their heads. Wives and Free Widows played at picture cards, the colorful rectangles of paper moving back and forth across the table, hand to table to hand to table again. In a corner, a very young Wife was reading, her reflection doubled, tripled in the angles of glass; her shaved head was bent over a much-used copy of the Third Book of the Fathers’ Wisdom. Jane recognized the green cover, even from a distance. The young Wife’s lips moved silently as she read, and Jane recognized the words, too.
And so it came to be that the Wisdom of the Fathers destroyed the errors of the past. Truth destroyed deceit, Compassion destroyed hatred, Love destroyed cruelty. And the females abandoned their wickedness and returned once more to the protection of the Fathers, to the Love of Husbands and Sons, and creation knew prosperity and peace once again, as the Fathers had intended.
The inner door clicked and opened, and Jane’s breath caught in her chest as the Free Widow entered. Her dress was all black, her only jewelry the Ring of Ownership that hung on a chain around her neck.
Jane looked away hastily, down at the menu, at the young Wife again, at a Daughter struggling with the peas on her spoon, out the window at the roads and buildings and Females’ Buses and the occasional auto, a Husband or Father at the control wheel. She twisted her Ring of Ownership round and round her finger.
Outside, street lights were beginning to flicker to life. This was the season of heat and long days. The sun had only just set, and the western sky was still red.
The Free Widow slid into the cushioned seat across from Jane. She smiled. Jane tried to smile in return, but could not.
The Server reappeared, the kitchen door swinging shut behind her. She set down a small plate with a slice of toasted bread, melted cheese on top, and a bowl of thick tomato soup. Then the glass of water, condensation dripping down the side.
The Server greeted the Free Widow with a dip of her head, pulling out her pad and pen. “The Fathers and Husbands provide. In their name, what nutrition may I serve you this night?”
The Free Widow seemed to consider the question, her brows drawn together thoughtfully. “I will have toasted bread with a single egg. And a glass of milk.”
The Server’s eyes darted between the Free Widow and Jane and back again, so quickly that Jane almost did not notice. Then the Server tucked her pad back into her apron, the paper unmarked. “It will be ready in a few minutes.”
She turned, steps short and steady, her bare feet silent, and walked back into the kitchen.
“You should eat,” the Free Widow said.
“I will need my strength.”
“You will.” The Free Widow nodded, her expression solemn. “Sometimes the sacrifice is not enough. Sometimes it takes a bit of you, too.” A pause. “You should be prepared for that. Eat.”
Jane scooped a spoonful of soup into her mouth. It was thick and hot. Another spoonful, as more lights flickered on outside. Another Females’ Bus rumbled past the window, making the glass shake, only a few passengers visible. Another spoonful, and a bit of the cheesy toast, her Ring of Ownership too tight around her finger.
The young Wife in the corner closed her copy of the Third Book of the Fathers’ Wisdom and climbed carefully from the booth. Now Jane could see the bruises on her lower legs, disappearing up beneath her skirt. The Young Wife limped to the door, signed her name, waited for the Custodian to mark the time, waited again for the Custodian to unlock the door.
The time on the clock over the door changed. Twenty hundred and twenty-seven.
Sweat dampened the collar of Jane’s dress.
“Breathe,” the Free Widow said. Her voice was even, unruffled.
Jane gulped water from the glass, took another bite of the toast. “Curfew,” she muttered.
The other Wives would notice her absence. Husband might be even notice. If he did not, they would tell him. They told Husband everything.
They had told Husband that she was no longer a Childless Wife. Two nights ago they had told him.
She had wept into her pillow, while they pretended not to hear.
Curfew. Husband would set the Enforcers of the Fathers’ Wisdom after her.
“Curfew,” she muttered again, trying not to choke around a spoonful of soup.
The Free Widow did not have to concern herself with Enforcers and curfews, but Jane did.
The Free Widow did not respond, only turning her head away as the Server reappeared from the kitchen. The door flapped behind her. She walked down one row of tables and booths, around the corner, down another row to the Custodian’s desk. She bent her body, twisting at the waist to keep her balance with her feet so close together, and whispered to the Custodian.
The Custodian frowned, lines gouging deeper into the flesh of her face.
Another Females’ Bus rumbled down the street. A Wife and a pair of Daughters rose and exited the House of Nutrition, the Custodian distractedly unlocking the door with a press of her finger.
Then the Custodian turned. Her steps slow and painful, she moved down the row of tables and booths, her reflection hard in the windows. Around the corner, up the row past the Free Widow and Jane, and into the kitchen.
Flap-flap went the door.
The Server took the Custodian’s position behind the desk.
Another Wife rose and left, the Server noting her name and time, unlocking the door for her. And then another. There were only a hand’s worth of females left.
The Free Widow slid from her cushioned seat. Silent. Jane followed, her stomach cramping. Silent.
Down the row, around the corner, down the row, to the front desk. They wrote their names in stiff, blocky letters. The Server wrote the time beside Jane’s name (twenty hundred and thirty-five) and beside the Free Widow’s name (twenty-hundred and thirty-nine).
A lie. A written lie. A lie of Letters.
One of the worst offenses against the Fathers, to take their gift of Letters and turn it against them.
Jane’s stomach heaved. She swallowed hard, swallowed the sickness.
The Free Widow pushed the door open. Jane followed, the metal of the booth suddenly cold beneath her feet. Then the outer door. It swung shut behind them.
Jane followed the Free Widow towards the west, the concrete still warm beneath her bare feet, towards the setting of the sun.
They walked. Away from the Females’ House of Nutrition Number Seventeen, away from Husband’s residence. Away from the known, the familiar.
They walked, Jane behind and to the Free Widow’s right, as the Fathers had written and taught.
The sky above darkened rapidly, but the red seemed to linger in the west.
They came to a house. The door was painted black. The Free Widow climbed the steps, opened the door, stepped through. Jane followed, entering a wide open room. Bed, wall cases filled with books, stuffed chairs, a low table and a line of cabinets and a sink for food preparation.
The Free Widow closed the door.
And locked it.
She locked the door. A female who was not a Custodian who could lock a door. By herself.
Jane must have been staring at the locked door. The Free Widow touched her shoulder and Jane squeaked, stumbling on her feet.
“Gently, Jane,” the Free Widow soothed. “You are safe here. Come.”
The Free Widow turned, leading Jane through the wide room, towards a door at the back. Jane thought, at first, that this residence — the Free Widow’s residence! — had a second door that led outside. But no. The Free Widow pressed her palm to the door, then traced a finger across its surface.
“Those are not words,” Jane said.
“No.” The Free Widow smiled. “They are numbers.”
The door swung open towards them. The Free Widow motioned for Jane to proceed forward. Jane took a step, stopped on the threshold, and stared down. Down. Down a winding spiral staircase.
Another light touch to her shoulder.
Outside, a low tone sounded. Then a second, slightly higher. And a third, higher still.
She could not return now, not to Husband’s residence, not to her old life.
Forward. Down. Back.
The only way forward was back.
She crossed the threshold and descended down and down and down the stairs.
[End Part One. Part Two of The Magdalene Railroad will run as the special, mid-month Bonus Content in ev0ke in two weeks.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]