The Factory | A Short Story

Digital drawing of half of my female main character's face, from The Factory. Drawing by isobell.dohn.art on Instagram

263M watched as 274F pushed her mop across the factory floor.  The cans of carrots were backing up, but his hands had broken into a slippery sweat.  His job was to check for quality; was each can sealed properly, was the simple label on straight?

The labels held no words, only images. The man could not read. Could not remember what words were.

Every day, 274F came through, pushing her mop, her long brown braid tucked under a hairnet. In and out of the steam she moved, always focused on her mop as it danced across the floor. 

Every day, his heart beat faster.  

Every day, he grew more distracted. 

Every day, he questioned this sensation, this desire to look at the woman with the number 274F stamped on her sleeve.

Every day, the burning in his chest made him want to hold his breath until his heart calmed among the sounds of the factory.

Worker 263M had no name other than the one stamped on his uniform.  He had no history that he remembered, and up until a week ago, he had no emotion or thought.  

These had been taken from him.  

He had no memory of the before, and so it had been no great loss.

“263M!  You’re falling behind!”

In that moment, she looked up at him.  Her eyes, a pale grey, linked with his. Her forehead wrinkled as she tilted her head.

She tilted her head.

An image flashed through his.

He was surrounded by golden grasses, tall to his waist.  A young girl stood in front of him.  His body was small and they looked eye to eye.  The sun was setting and trees lined the horizon.

A photograph of golden grass, a sunset, trees in the distance / Loscotoff 2022

She held something up to him, a round object with brown hard spikes that curved inward.

Pinecone he thought, finding the unfamiliar word.

Her eyes were pale grey and she tilted her head.  She smiled as he took the prickly cone into his hands.

263M felt something heavy come down on his right shoulder as the pain radiated into his hand.  He heard the heavy clunk of the can he had been holding as it hit the floor.

The factory came into focus, the whites of the walls, and 263M realized that everyone had slowed their progress. Everyone’s cans were backing up.

“Back to work!” yelled the man at the top of the stairs, overlooking them all.

274F looked back down to the floor, her mop moving side to side, as she disappeared beneath the stairs. 

263M’s arm burned. He reached down to pick up the can of carrots, now dented and unsuitable for domestic consumption. He tossed it in the bin under the conveyer belt and continued to check the cans.


As 263M lay down in his bed, the top bunk in a long room, the walls lined with other beds and other numbers, he thought back to 274F’s pale grey eyes.  

These sensations were unfamiliar, foreign.

Building inside him, they seemed unreasonable, and yet there was a part of him that sensed unknown pleasure.  

He rubbed the scar on the back of his head, a small raised ridge.  Each of the male numbers had one, easy to see under their shorn hair. He found himself wondered if 274F had one under her long dark hair.  

Other women worked through the factory; cleaning, doing laundry.  All carried the flat affect of the men.  All wore hair nets and, as he rubbed the scar on the back, he began to wonder if they all had the mark as well.

He lay there, his eyes closed, and saw his hands reach out to her hair, the woman with the pale grey eyes, his hands caressing the back of her neck, testing with the tips of his fingers for the ridge.

The girl in his mind turned to look at him, she was taller now.

She wore a simple linen shift and he could see the shape of her breasts and the curve of her hips. Her pale grey eyes held his gaze.

“Why must you always play with my braid, Gideon?  You know that the elders say we aren’t to touch.” But her voice was sing-song and teasing.

A forest of trees stood behind her, a yellow blossom was tucked behind her ear. 

“Let’s go in the forest,” she whispered, “where no one can see us.”

She brushed her hand against his and they each turned back, looking through the field, checking for any eyes upon them.  Seeing no one, she grabbed his hand and pulled him, laughing towards the trees. 

The thick forest surrounded them with dappled light. 

Photograph of dappled light on the trees in the forest/Loscotoff 2022

As they moved into the shadows she turned and pressed her body into his, pressing him into a tree.  She pressed her mouth onto his lips, warm and sweet.  

He felt an old ache, deep in the pit of his groin.  

“Let go to the treehouse,” she whispered, her lips tickling his ear.

He couldn’t catch his breath and allowed her to lead him, deeper into the forest.  She continued to look back at him with her pale grey eyes.

They came to the ladder, branches that they had pieced together and wound with twine when they were children.  

This was their hidden place, their childhood home where they snuck to tell stories and imagine their lives together.

It was where they found their first kiss, where their intimacy grew. 

He followed her up the ladder to the nest they had made with old blankets.

“What’s this?” she exclaimed as he climbed through the small opening within the wooden planks.

He smiled, knowing she had found his surprise. 

He pulled himself through the hole and sat next to her, tracing her ear with his finger.  She was focused on a small bark box, with a bow of twine.

“Can I open it?” she asked.

He nodded, watching the light reflect in her pale grey eyes.

“What is it?” she asked, staring at the dark lump sitting at the base of the box. 

“One of the traders had it.  He said we are supposed to eat it, something called chawk-uh-late.  He said it came from the other side of the world.”

“Why did he give it to you?” she asked.

“Because I was willing to trade.”

“You didn’t!”

He smiled,  “Let’s try it.”

“Gideon!  Those morels were hard to find and they were worth more than this little clump of… chawk… what did you call it?”

“Chawk-uh-late, …something like that.”

“Gideon…” 

But he leaned in and kissed her, stopped her from reprimanding him.

As he pulled back, he said, “The morels will grow there again, and it’s our secret.  How often does the trader come through with something new?”

She knew he was right.

She took the piece chocolate from the box and took a tiny bite.

Her forehead wrinkled and she tilted her head in the way that made Gideon love her. 

“Bitter,” she said.  “But warm and melty.  Here, you try.”  

Instead of handing him the box, she bit a piece off and held it in her mouth.  She pulled Gideon on top of her, pulling his face down to hers, pressing her mouth on his, the warmth of the chocolate melting between them.

The alarm pulled 263M from his dreams.

The men around him sleepily climbed from their bunks in their white shorts, bare feet on cold concrete, and headed to the showers.

263M was slower today, his mind remembering the dream where 274F pulled him to her.  He felt himself blush among the emotionless faces, quickly washing in the cold shower.

Today, he felt the cold, felt it run over his skin and felt the discomfort.  He wanted to be warm, wanted to be wrapped in her arms again with this food called chocolate melting in their mouths.

“263M!” came a yell from the man at the doorway.

He tried to straighten his face, tried to look empty like the other. 

He couldn’t remember how he would have once responded.

“They want you in the infirmary, 263M!”

The men, washing in the cold showers slowed, seemed to shake their heads a bit as if unaware of where they were.  

263M wrapped himself in a towel and pulled on a clean uniform, labeled with his number hung at the far end of the hall.  Everyday a new jumpsuit, every night the white uniform was thrown in a large cart for washing. 

He passed a guard at the door, his face shielded by a dark visor.

“You are expected in the infirmary, 263M.”

263M said nothing but an expression must have shown on his face.  The guard looked at him curiously and began to speak, but then seemed to think better of it and said nothing.

263M walked alone down the hallway.

A woman pushed a cart with laundry down the hall.  She didn’t acknowledge his existence, only looked straight ahead, her face expressionless. 

Sentries stood at different points along the way.  As he passed them, they ran a hand held device behind his head.

“Infirmary,” each little machine said and the guards shuffled him off in the proper direction.

The walls were white, the halls were long, and the 263M did not know where he stood within the building. He began seeing red crosses marked in the hallway with arrows pointing in the direction he moved.

There were more women here, washing and cleaning.  He watched for the girl with the grey eyes, hoping he would see her again, see her away from the factory. He imagined bumping into her, touching her hand.

He came to a large door with a red cross on it. It opened for him and he found himself inside a large empty white room with hard chairs seated around the edge.

He stood for a moment, looking around, unsure on what to do.  Finally he sat.  He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes. He imagined the sensation of her hair.  Imagined his feet tangled with hers in the treehouse; just a dream but so real.  He could smell the chocolate on her skin and taste the bitterness.

“263M?” said a deep voice.

He jerked up into his chair, eyes opening.

A man with glasses and a clipboard stood in front of him.  His hair was light and slicked back as if it were wet.

“I’m Doctor Mislio.  You had an event yesterday?”

263M wasn’t sure how to respond. He had never had someone ask him a question before.  The men on the floor didn’t speak.  The guards directed them and no one spoke in return. 

“Come into my office?” said the doctor, and he turned and walked through a white nondescript door.

263M followed.

There were no guards here.

As he walked through the door, he let out an audible gasp.

The walls were not white, they were a deep shade of blue and there was a picture window that looked out past a large concrete field.  At the edge of the concrete were two layers of barbed wire fencing.  Beyond that stood dense trees, a forest.

Forest, the man thought. Another unfamiliar word.

On the other wall was a dark mirror and 263M was intrigued by the the man staring back at him.  He saw the reflection of the doctor behind his desk and understood that the other man was him.

He was tall, much taller than the doctor.  He looked strong.  His hair was darker than the girls and his eyes a deeper grey. He thought he saw movement behind the glass, and so he turned away.

“Do you like the color?” asked the doctor, sitting down.  “Of the walls? I heard your breathing get a bit heavier as you walked in.  You must get so used to the white–everything white.  I’ve told them they should add some color as enrichment, but they don’t think your people need it.”

263M stood in the middle of the room, unsure on whether he was to respond.

“Sit.  It’s all right.” The doctor pointed at a soft grey chair against the wall.

263M sunk into the cushion and immediately felt himself relaxing.  He had not know what it was to feel comfort.

“You’re here because you had an event yesterday in the factory.  Do you remember?”  

The doctor waited, staring at him, saying nothing else.

263M waited, and finally, after minutes seemed to have passed, he nodded.

“Ah!  There you are!  There is something happening in there.  I thought there might be, I noticed you looking in the mirror. You wouldn’t do that if the chip was still functioning properly.  Wouldn’t look out the window either.”

263M continued to say nothing, realizing that the little nod of his head was all the man needed to confirm he was now different than the others.

“Tell me, what was it that triggered you to start feeling again? Do you even know?” 

263M stayed silent but thought of the woman’s grey eyes.

“No matter, your chip needs an extension.  I think you’re fine for today, but we will schedule you for tomorrow, first thing.  You will return to the line.”

263M continued to sit in the chair, staring at the doctor behind the desk.

The doctor didn’t look up when he said, “You can go now, Gideon.”

Gideon. The girl with the grey eyes called me Gideon in my dream.  Is my name really Gideon then?

The doctor pressed a button under his desk and a guard came to the door.

“Escort him back to the factory line.  Keep a watch on him, he’s starting to remember.  We’ll fix it in the morning.”

The guard nodded and pulled 236M from his chair, grabbing him by the upper arm and moving him out of the office, out of the empty room, and down the hallway.

As the guard led him through the white halls. He saw more women here, pushing carts, cleaning floors. They seemed to glance at him, make eye contact, and then look away.  Their faces were not as empty, their faces showed life.

They gave a little scratch of their ears or cheeks. They pulled up an eyebrow or the side of a lip.  But always, they returned to flat affect as quickly as they had shown him emotion.

The guard took him to the factory floor.

“Find your spot, work your day.  Whatever you think you’re feeling will be gone in the morning.  You might as well enjoy it.”

The guard released his arm and pushed him in the direction of the other men.  He moved to his spot at the conveyer belt and the wave of cans began.  He checked them, he tossed them in the bin if there was an error, he pushed them on if they were in good shape.

He daydreamed of the woman. 

Daydreamed of his fingers in her hair, of her mouth on his. 

He daydreamed of her hand tracing his arm.

They sat on the forest floor, a book spread out between them.  She was older again, her hair loose now around her shoulders.

“I can’t believe you were able to trade this for the morels,” she said.

“I can’t believe no one has followed us and found our spot,” he said.

She traced her finger over the illustration in the book; a heavily muscled man with a thick beard holding a scepter.  Lighting bolts flew through an illustrated sunrise, an eagle sat on his shoulder.

“I wish I could read the words,” she said.

“The trader said it is called a book, from a land called Rome, and this was their king.  His name was Jupiter.  It was said that Jupiter struck down his enemies with lighting and eagles.”

“Eagles?” she asked doubtfully?

236M felt something tap against his foot.  He had managed to keep the cans moving, although he didn’t think he’d given them any glance. He was sure he had allowed bad ones through, but no longer cared.  

Looking down he saw a mop, pushing back and forth against his foot, slopping water over his thin shoes.  His eyes moved up the mop to the woman who held it.

Her pale grey eyes looked intently at his.  Her mouth smiled slightly and for just a second, she reached her right hand out and delicately touched his hand which held a can of carrots. 

“Remember me,” she whispered and then moved away with her mop.

Photograph of a painting by Anna Loscotoff/2022

He saw her under a canopy of trees with yellow blossoms.  Their hands were wrapped in twine and she wore a crown of flowers, her hair cascading to her waist.  He slipped a thin golden ring on her finger, a negotiation from the trading wagon.

“We are bound, Gideon.  You are my husband and I am your wife, forever.”

He looked into her pale grey eyes.

“We are bound, Rebecca, forever.  You are my wife and I am your husband.”

They kissed under the yellow trees.

“263M!  Pay attention!”  yelled a voice from the stairs.

Gideon forgot the cans and begin to turn, looking for the woman.  She was near the wall now, near the stairs.

“Rebecca!” he yelled. She looked up at him, her eyes widening.

He felt hands close on his upper arms, pushing him down.

They were back in the forest, hiding in the depths of the shadows.  

“You have to run, Gideon.  I’m not as fast as you are.”

“I’m not going to leave you.”

“You have to,” she said, tears running down her cheeks. “Come back for me, if you can.  But you have to get away.”

Hoods came down over their heads.  Hands tightened around his shoulders.  In his memory, he heard her screams.

The tide of memory came down over him. 

His childhood friend, his Rebecca, playing with toys in the dirt as their fathers farmed and their mothers processed the yellow grain. Running through the fields.  Running through the forest.  Building a ladder that could be pulled up and hidden in their little playhouse in the trees.  Finding where the morels grew, sneaking there together, having enough for the village, having enough to trade for exotic treasures.  The morels brought attention to their little home. They were no longer hidden from the world.

The hands pinched into his flesh, pushing him down. He was back in the white walls of the factory. The men moved like robots as they checked the cans of vegetables moving down the conveyer belt.

Rebecca, standing under the stairs, was looking around frantically, like a bird searching for escape.

Gideon heard a thunk, the hands loosened on his arms, and the man holding him sunk to the floor.

Behind him stood number 102M; older, grizzled, grey.  He held a can up in the air, its lower rim dripping red blood.

“Run,” the old man said, his expression flat.

Gideon turned to Rebecca, her hand reaching out to him.

Whistles blew.  Guards ran in, down the stairs, from corners.

The men at the conveyor belts slowed until they were frozen and flat. 

And then a can flew through the air.  

And then another.

And another.

The air was full of heavy projectiles.  Cans of carrots and potatoes knocked the guards to their knees.

Gideon reached Rebecca and she dropped her mop, leading him to a side door hidden just beyond the staircase where she stood, the inner workings of the factory.

Women inside were cutting the vegetables, steam filled the room as they were blanched in huge metal cauldrons. The women did not look up from their cutting.  A guard lay dead on the floor, a paring knife jutting from his neck.

An older woman, number 212F, stood holding the door open on the opposite side of the room.

This led to a long white hallway and as they ran, more doors opened.  More women ushered them silently through, saying nothing, leading their way through a maze of hallways, upstairs, downstairs, through open rooms and tiny closets.

Finally, they found themselves in a dark hallway with a single light at the far end.  This light was different.  It was golden and reflected through a barred pane of glass.

They reached the door together, a key stuck out from the doorknob.

They turned the knob and saw the expanse of concrete stretched out before them.  A gate stood at the end of the concrete pad, unlatched and slightly open.

A guard stood at the gate.

Rebecca slipped the key from the door into her hip pocket and said, “Are you ready?  We have to run.”

“What about the guard?” he said.

She reached up and felt the scar on the back of Gideon’s head.  “The guard is like us, he was implanted this morning.”

They ran, hand-in-hand across the expanse of concrete.

The guard stood silent, his eyes glazed over, no expression on his frozen face.

Gideon and Rebecca slipped through the gate and into the forest. They ran through the duff, under the dark canopy, and finally, hearing no one behind them, stopped to rest in the hollow opening of an old tree.

They slid to the ground, catching their breath, slowly calming their hearts.

Finally, Gideon turned to the woman with the grey eyes. He reached his hand up to caress her face. She rested her cheek into his hand and gazed at him, her head tilted in the way he had come to love.

Rebecca leaned forward, pressing him against the inner bark of the tree, pressing her mouth to his.  

“I knew you could remember” she whispered against his mouth.

“What about the others?” he asked.

“Our rebellion has only begun,” she said and pulled him down into the warm earth.

Digital drawing of the main female character, drawing by isobell.dohn.art
Art by isobell.dohn.art, https://www.instagram.com/isobell.dohn.art/

Our Prompt This Week

Week 25 –

Bridgette’s work on this prompt | Chocolate Kisses

A. D. Reece’s work on this prompt | Three Little Words

Notes

When I was a little girl, somewhere around third grade, I used to spend the night at my best friend’s house.  It was a two-door house—one in the front, one in the kitchen—two bedrooms and a single bath with a combined living room and dining room.  Just past my best-friend’s bedroom was another room.  A dark room with little light and old wood paneling on the walls. 

I imagine the room was something else at one point, perhaps an add-on or something unfinished, maybe an old storage shed.  

They set it up to be a guest bedroom with a bed and a TV.  That’s where we would sleep.

My best friend had something my family didn’t, and I looked forward to every moment we were allowed to watch; HBO.  MTV.  These were the days of unending music videos. 

We would lay in that bed with music videos running all night.

It felt secretive.  It felt like lying to my parents.  Was I allowed to watch MTV back then?  I don’t think so; that and Three’s Company were off limits.

It also felt creative and exciting and mind bending.

One night, and it is possible it was a dream, a video came on long past my best friend had gone to sleep.  Even now, some 40 years later, I remember the impact it had on me.

The entire video was in shades of white and involved humans without emotion.  It was very long to my child’s mind—like a short film—much longer than the other videos of the time. I believe it was all instrumental.

The subjects were workers of some sort and they moved in 80’s stilted robotic fashion.  

The man, the focus of the video, soon began to feel.  He fell in love with a woman still trapped in her numb automation. He tried to wake her up, tried to make her love him back. 

She reported him to the authorities, not understanding emotion or love.  The authorities took him to surgery, opened his brain, and disconnected the center that allowed for love.  

He went back to his routine robotic life.

Suddenly, she woke up and realized she loved him too. 

A tragedy.

He was simply a robot once again and she was heartbroken.

That was my inspiration for this story.

I never saw that video again in my life but I’ve always wondered what it might be.  If you have any idea what this was, please leave a message below or email me; anna@loscotoff.com 

Thank you to my daughter, isobell.dohn.art on Instagram, for providing me Rebecca’s face and specifically her eye.

If you liked this story, please share it. Sharing it really does make a difference to my life.

Every Friday, I send out a newsletter with any recent writing.  You can sign up for it here.

I’m in the process of creating a new art website, you can sign up for notifications at www.loscotoffart.com

Links

Jupiter, Roman God

Top 12 Most Expensive Mushrooms in the World

Isobell Dohn Art – Instagram

Hansel and Gretel running through the woods. Encaustic with silk, paper, pen, colored pencils. Original mixed media by Anna Loscotoff.
A painting I did of Hansel and Gretel which reminded me of Gideon and Rebecca running through the forest. \ Loscotoff 2022

Next Week’s Prompt

Week 26 – A dystopian glimpse of the future

Include: wheelchair, Labrador, throne, jungle, prescription, railroad, trunk, gulley, wasp, photosynthesize

My 52-Weeks So Far


What is the 52-Week Short Story Challenge

Week 1 – Avalon

Week 2 – The Rifle

Week 3 – The Cardboard Prince

Week 4 – Rapture in Reverse

Week 5 – Drink the Kool-Aid

Week 6 – The Hitchhiker

Week 7 – The Flame

Week 8 – The Community

Week 9 – The Cult of Cait

Week 10 – The Tango

Week 11 – The Imperfect Self

Week 12 – A Murder of Crows

Week 13 – The Cufflinks

Week 14 – Andromeda’s Lament

Week 15 – White Coats

Week 16 – My Forever Love

Week 17 – The Dilemma of Purpose

Week 18 – Honey – A Story of Love and Time

Week 19 – The Light

Week 20 – Superman

Week 21 – Hierarchy

Week 22 – Secrets

Week 23 – Paradise

Week 24 – l’Empire de la Mort

The Cufflinks | A Short Story

Two Roman Coins, top face of the cufflinks described in the story/ Loscotoff 2022

The woman had grown old in the Victorian house along the sea.  

She walked with a cane now, making her way into the drawing room.  They had once entertained here when the days were young. The furniture had been covered in the finest of fabric, the wood was dark and imported.  A gilded gold mirror hung over the mantel. Now, her easel stood in front of the bay window, looking out over the ocean; an unfinished watercolor reflected the green of the sea.  

She caught a glint of silver reflecting from the center of the oriental rug; worn and a bit threadbare.  Her hands and spine were twisted with age; swollen and angry.  

Slowly and with much bodily protest, Eleanore stooped to pick up the silver cufflinks, turning them in her palm. 

She had given these to her first husband, Stanley, as a gift.

“Hattie!” the old woman yelled.

There was pounding on the stairs as the young girl hurried to her mistress’s aide. 

“Yes, Lady Eleanore?” The child was only 16, her apron crumpled and her hair falling loose about her face.

“How did these come to be here, in the middle of my drawing room floor?”

The girl stepped closer.

“Why, I don’t know?”  The girl looked frightened now.

“I have told you not to go through my drawers.”

“I didn’t, Lady Eleanore!  I promise you!”

“Then why are these laying here?”

“I swear to you…”

“Do not swear, it is unladylike.”

“I only meant…”

“I know what you meant.  Take these up to my room and place them at my dressing table.”

“Yes, Lady Eleanore.” 

The girl took the cufflinks and headed up the stairs.  

It was only her and the girl now. A cook came in a few hours each day to prepare supper and to leave food for the following day’s breakfast, dinner, and tea.  There were no visitors, and the money had dwindled over time.  Hattie was all the woman could afford. 

Eleanore turned back to her easel, remembering her first husband.

He had been a banker, tall and handsome, with soft curling blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She was the daughter of a politician, 20 and beautiful.  He had built her this home, looking out over the sea. He had Copper Beech imported from Europe and planted around the back of the home, saying the leaves, when they turned, reminded him of the copper in her hair.

Representative image of the protagonist's first husband, Stanley/ Losctoff 2022
Stanley/ Loscotoff 2022 – Photo taken in Polish Salt Mines 2016

Years past, and she thought they had been happy, until she found him kissing a maid.  She had pretended to ignore it, to continue her life in the comfort of wealth and privilege.  What was it to her that he sometimes chose to share his bed with other women?  She was his wife. Until the night of the ball, when she had found him pressed up against a girl no more than 16, the daughter of an investor.

At home, they had quarreled.  He told her that she was becoming tedious, that he thought she would have given him children by now.  Perhaps, he said, he would take another wife. 

She had these cufflinks made, a gift for her husband.

Before an opera, she had given them to him.

“I do not wish to quarrel with you, my dear husband.  Please do not put me aside for a younger woman. I have had these made for you, a token of my forever faithfulness.”

Stanley smiled, turning them over in his hand.  Sterling silver with Roman coins as their front face.

“They are finely made.  Who is the man?”

Eleanore smiled her beautiful smile, “Why this is Emperor Claudius, my love.  He was the ruler of Rome and helped to reestablish the Roman finances, just as you have done here.  He was an ambitious builder and began the conquest of Great Britain.  He was worshiped, just as you will be worshiped, my husband.  May I put them on you?”

That night, Stanley slipped from their box at the Opera, leaving Eleanore alone.  He did not return at the end of the show, and while Eleanore waited patiently, the theater emptied.  

There soon came a bloodcurdling scream from backstage. 

Stanley had been found, blood trickling from his nose, laying on top of a young ingenue, his pants around his ankles.  The girl had laid underneath him, silent, afraid to be found, afraid of the wrath of the wealthy. While she lay there, she slowly went mad.

Eleanore came from her memory and seemed to catch a glimpse of a shadow as it moved through the room.  

“My eyes have become old,” said the woman. 

She opened her paints and dipped the brush into the water, looking out over the shapes of the ocean.  

When she looked down at her canvas, the glimmer of silver caught her eye.  Sitting on the lower handle, where the canvas sat, were two cufflinks, the face of Emperor Claudius looking up at her. 

Eleanore gasped slightly, picking them up in her old hands.  She had watched as Hattie took them from her, had heard her ascend the stairs, yet here they sat.  

Eleanore turned and looked around the room. For a slight moment, she thought she saw the face of a man peering out of the gilded mirror over the mantel. She blinked and the face was gone.

He had black hair and his eyes reflected green, like her second husband, Thomas.  Thomas was a politician and well liked in society.  When Stanley died, Thomas swooped in and made sure that Eleanore was supported, finding lawyers to make sure she received all she was due from Stanley’s estate.  He also made sure that Stanley’s death was covered up, paying off the members of the Opera and legally binding their secrecy.  It was reported that he had fallen victim to a heart attack while leaving the theater, allowing Eleanore the discretion of staying within society without scandal. 

Representative image of protagonist's second husband, Thomas/ Loscotoff 2022
Thomas/ Loscotoff, 2022 – Image taken in Polish Salt Mines 2016

She did not love Thomas the way she loved Stanley, but he did care for her and had kept her out of society’s gossip.  So, when he began to be rough in the bedroom, she thought perhaps this was what some men did.  She did not want to insult him, but time came when she begged him to stop.  He hit her.  Bruising her legs and arms, but never her pretty face. She threatened to take him to the police, but her reminded her of how her first husband had been found, pants around his ankles, over a young girl who was now in a mental hospital.  He stated that he would be happy to tear up the legal document keeping members of the Opera quiet, and that he was quite sure the local newspaper would be happy to print the story. 

Eleanore withdrew, only appearing in society as was required.  The household saw the change, saw the mornings when she did not seem to be able to get out of bed, saw the way she limped through the house.  They were afraid of Thomas as well, and wished to keep their jobs, so they kept quiet. 

Finally, the night came when Thomas was to speak at a dinner in front of his supporters. 

“I have a gift for you, Thomas.”

She stood in a gown of silk and brocade, her copper hair twisted and piled on her head.

He was ill mannered, trying to tie the bow at his neck.

“Let me do that for you,” she said.

She fixed his collar and knotted the bowtie before giving him a little box tied with a blue ribbon.  

“What’s this?”  

“Just a gift. They are antiques, passed down from royalty in England, and seemed perfect for you.”

He opened the box and saw the cufflinks, not knowing they had once belonged to Eleanore’s first husband. 

“They are made from Roman coins, of the Emperor Claudius.  He was a great Emperor and sat among the men of the Roman Senate.  He reminded me of you and how you have continued to rise within the world of politics.”

Thomas looked at her with tenderness she had not seen in many years. 

“Thank you my wife, will you do me the honor of putting them on?”

Later that night, Thomas stood in front of his donors and began to speak of their plans, to rise from the local constituency, to become a senator and perhaps even president.  He spoke of their arsenal of men, of lawyers and donors and influential spokesmen, and how they would all climb to the top, no matter who got in their way.

Eleanore watched from her table and, when Thomas began to gasp through his speech, asking for water, and then spitting up blood, Eleanore cried and tried to rush to his side; the affect of a woman in terrible grief. She was held back by men, trying to protect her the sight of her dead husband, lying on the stage.

Eleanore looked at the cufflinks in the palm of her hand, and then dropped them into a tall decorative vase which sat on the mantle, imported long ago from China.  She heard them clink through the narrow porcelain neck and settle at the base.  

Turning back to the room, she thought she saw a shadow pass the drawing room door.

“Hattie?  Is that you?” asked the old woman, walking with her cane to the door.

“Did you call me, Lady Eleanore?” The voice of Hattie drifted down from the bedroom. 

Shaken, Eleanore called up, “No, child.  I’m going to go walk through the garden.”

“Let me help you with the stairs!” Hattie called back.

“I can do it myself, I’m not feeble.”

The old woman moved slowly down the stairs, using her cane to balance while holding tightly to the banister in her left hand.  She came to the landing and passed the dining room on her right, walking to the front door.  She stepped out, looking at the sea in front of her.  The garden was around the side and the Copper Beech, now a grove, grew tall behind the house.  

Eleanore looked at the overgrown plants.  There was no one to care for them now, no one to love the land except her, and she rarely stepped from the house.  The herbs had become tangled bushes, the broccoli was a mass of yellow flowers going to seed.  In the dirt, Eleanore caught the glint of silver reflecting in the cold light. 

Careful not to fall, Eleanore slowly bent to investigate what was lying in the garden bed.  She brushed back the dirt.  Emperor Claudius looked back at her.  Digging her nails into the ground, Eleanore grabbed the cufflinks from the soil and with a scream, threw them as hard as she could towards the ocean. Her arms were weak and she felt the protest from her shoulder. The cufflinks did not travel far, but they landed somewhere outside the fence in the tall weeds. 

Eleanore no longer wanted to be outside, she felt tired as she slowly walked with her cane back to the house.  She seemed to see the shadow of a man as he walked past the corner.

Eleanore thought of her third husband, Edgar.  Edgar was young and thin, a bit mousy, but he made her feel beautiful.

Representative image of protagonist's third husband, Edgar/ Loscotoff 2022
Edgar/ Loscotoff 2022 – image taken in Muiderslot Castle, the Netherlands, 2016

Eleanor was moving into her 50’s when she met Edgar.  He was in his 20’s and she knew he was more interested in her money that he was in her, but she didn’t care.  She was lonely, and very few men looked at her after being widowed twice.  Edgar took her to dinner and showed no embarrassment at their age difference.  Edgar gambled with the possibility that he could, should he be patient, inherit everything Eleanor had to offer.  And so they married. However, in time, he not only gambled with her affection, he gambled with her money.

At first, Eleanore discovered items that seemed to be missing; jewelry and bits of cash she hid throughout the house.  Edgar questioned whether perhaps a maid was stealing, or perhaps even Eleanore was confused at where she had left her items.  When she went to the bank and realized her fortune was diminishing, when she saw that her husband’s signature marked the transactions–small amounts, again and again–she knew he would take her to poverty. 

Edgar was going out one night, he said to play cards with the fellows.  Eleanore knew what that meant now, that he would continue to gamble with her fortune.  And so, she gave him a gift of cufflinks.

Edgar’s eyes shone with a greedy desire. 

“These were my first husband’s, Stanley’s. I hope you will care for them, my dear.”

Edgar could not take his eyes from the precious treasure, and wanted to feel their weight in his hand.

“Will you wear them tonight?  For me?” Eleanore asked.

A smile spread across Edgar’s face.  He cared nothing for the coins or who the man looking up at him was, he cared only that he could gamble them away.

“Will you help me with them?” he asked.

Eleanore did.

Edgar died at the gambling table.  He had been winning, for once, and when his body was taken to the morgue, the cufflinks were still at his sleeves.  Eleanore collected the links and buried him next to her first two husbands; three men in a row. 

Three skulls in a row, from the Paris Catacombs/ Loscotoff 2016
Three men in a row/ Loscotoff 2022 – image taken in the Paris Catacombs, 2016

As Eleanore climbed the steps to her decaying home, she caught a glimpse of the face of an old man peering down at her from at upstairs window.  She stumbled, caught herself, and put her hand to her heart; the beating was frantic.  When she looked again, the face was gone.

She made her way into the morning room and collapsed into a deep chair.  She closed her eyes and imagined the face she thought she had seen, the face of her fourth husband, Nathaniel.  

“Are you okay, Lady Eleanore?”

Eleanore opened her eyes and saw Hattie in the doorway.

“I am quite tired today,” Eleanore said.

“You look pale, as if you’d seen a ghost,” the girl responded.

“Perhaps I have?” said the old woman.  “Will supper be ready soon?  I think that I would like to go to bed straight after I eat.”

“It’s early yet,” said Hattie, “but I will go ask the cook if she can be ready more quickly.”

“Thank you, dear,” said the old woman, and closed her eyes.

Hattie didn’t know how to respond.  The old woman had never called her “dear”, wasn’t sure she had ever thanked her genuinely.

Eleanore thought of Nathaniel, her fourth husband.  He had done nothing wrong.  He was simply old and he bored her.  He did not like to go out, he did not like the opera; he liked puzzles and reading before the fireplace.  And so Eleanore asked him one night if they could perhaps dress for dinner as they once had, in their finest clothes. 

Representation of protagonist's fourth husband, Nathaniel/ Loscotoff 2022
Nathaniel/ Loscotoff 2022 – photo taken in Polish Salt Mines, 2016

“Perhaps, after we eat, we could put on a record and dance in the drawing room?” Eleanore asked.

“My dear, I would love to dance with you.  There is a man of science who speaks of relativity, and how the functions of the world interact. I simply wish to be near you. It is that relativity in which he speaks.”

“I have been saving these for a special occasion,” said Eleanore, and she pulled the Roman coin cufflinks out.  

“They are beautiful,” he said, “ and perhaps even an important piece of history?”   

“Yes, I do believe they have been instrumental in the role of men,” she responded.  “Can I put them on you?”

And so they ate dinner, and that night, while they danced in the drawing room, Nathanial died in Eleanor’s arms. He went quietly, with very little fuss.  He simply said that he was tired and slumped into her arms.

“The cook says that we can start supper now, if you wish?” said Hattie, pulling Eleanore from her memories. 

“Yes, dear, please help me to the dining room.”

Eleanor sat in her accustomed place, first being served a bowl of soup.  As she sipped the broth, she felt stronger.  Until, that is, she came to the bottom of the bowl.

There, sitting in the curve beneath the broth, sat the cufflinks. Emperor Claudius seemed to be staring into her eyes. 

“Oh!” she squawked. 

“Is everything okay?” asked Hattie.

“Can you look into my bowl, and tell me if you see anything unusual?”

“Of course, Lady… oh!  I swear, Lady Eleanor, I took them up to your dressing table as you told me!  I did not do this. Please don’t fire me!”

The old woman simply nodded her head.  

“I am not going to fire you.  But I do think I am full, and wonder if you would help me to bed?”

The young girl helped Eleanore, undressing her from her day’s clothes, dressing her in her night gown.  She brushed the woman’s long grey hair and braided it, tucking it under a fine cotton nightcap.  She pulled back the blanket and helped the old woman under the covers; slowly laying the woman back into her deep pillows. 

Eleanore gave out a little cry once fully laying in bed.

“Are you alright?” asked Hattie.

“My bones are just old, that’s all.  I’m ready to sleep now.”

Hattie said goodnight and closed the door.

It had not been her bones that caused her to cry out, it had been the prick of something sharp behind her left shoulder.  She could feel it cutting into her, sharp into her skin.  It didn’t matter what she did now, her death was close at hand.

She remembered when she had had the cufflinks made for her dear Stanley.  She remembered how she had asked that one of the toggles be made hollow with a sharp point that would not be noticed when it hid between the post and under the face. 

When she had put the cuffs on Stanley, he had cried out as she scratched his skin with the sharp point, drawing blood.  She apologized and said that she would have the cufflinks checked and fixed.  But he had died, and so the cufflinks had never been returned to their maker.

Thomas had struck her with his belt the night that she helped him with his cufflinks.  He had called her stupid and clumsy when she scratched him with the sharp end, and she had agreed that it was all her fault.  It was the last time he hit her.

Edgar hadn’t really noticed the scratch as she helped him with the cufflinks.   He had sucked the blood from the wound, perhaps hastening his death. He said it was nothing, for his eyes were focused only on the uniqueness of the coins, and wondered what he could get for them.  They brought him only a hole in the ground.

Nathanial had looked at her sadly when she had scratched him.  His skin tore easily, like tissue paper, the aged bruises standing out against his wrinkled flesh.  

Eleanore remembered dipping the hollow toggle into the poison, being sure the well was filled; knowing that the scratch would allow the poison into their bloodstream.  

Now, she lay, with the hollow toggle pressed into a scratch in her shoulder.  It had been many years since she had dipped the sharp point in poison and a part of her wondered if it was enough to kill her the way she killed them.

She did not wonder long, for a tall shadow with faded blonde hair and blue eyes stepped from the corner of the room and began to walk towards the bed.  Then a thick shadow, black haired and green eyed, emerged from the wall and moved closer.  The third figure, thin and mousy, stepped from the window.  Finally, the ghost of an old man moved through the door.

They all came and stood around her bedside, looking down on their wife, looking down on their killer.  Four men, four graves laid side-by-side.  

She had nothing to say to them in death, and so died silently.

In the morning, when Hattie came to wake her, the woman was cold, a single trickle of blood dried around her mouth, a cufflink embedded in the flesh of her shoulder. 

Statue of death in Rüdesheim am Rhine, Germany/ Loscotoff 2016
She had nothing to say to them in death, and so died silently/ Loscotoff, 2022 – image taken in Rüdesheim am Rhine, 2016

Notes

I wanted to leave a certain ambiguity in this story until the end. Is Eleanore murdering her husbands? Or is there a curse on the cufflinks? Perhaps there is a curse on the Roman coins. Could Eleanore be a victim in this as well, grieving for each husband despite the fact that they were all (except one) terrible husbands? Perhaps, if I had included an old, faithful maid, the maid could have actually been the murderer and the last husband died naturally in his wife’s arms.

I chose to make the murderer Eleanore simply because the story was clear in my mind. I was stepping into the shower (where I do all my best thinking) and I saw the whole story laid out before me. However, should I ever rewrite this story (or publish it in a short story collection), perhaps I will give you a different ending. One of the above or perhaps something even further from the original truth.

I love antiquity and own two Roman coins myself (the ones you see in the title photo). There is something really special to me about artifacts, the idea of all the people who held that coin; how it was probably lost through time, buried, and rediscoverd by someone in a field with a metal detector. I think perhaps I was meant to be a archeologist or anthropologist.

I wanted the Roman coin to bear the face of Emperor Claudius, as history believes he was murdered by wife, Agrippina, on 13 October, 54. I worried that the idea of a cufflink being able to introduce enough poison into the human body may push the limits of reality, however Agrippina may have used a poisoned feather to kill Claudius. I wanted the use of Claudius to be an element of foreshadowing. If you know his story, you will suspect Eleanore in the murdering of her husbands.

Finally, all photos come from when my family and I had the opportunity to live in, and travel around, Germany for 6 months in 2016. The majority of the photos are statues carved from salt rock in the Polish salt mines of Wieliczka Salt Mine. I’ve also included photos from Castle Muiderslot in the Netherlands, the Catacombs of Paris, and one from the torture museum, Mittelalterliches Foltermuseum, in Ruedesheim am Rhein in Germany.

Thank you, dear reader, for joining me on this week’s journey. I am publishing a short story every Saturday this year in my 52 week project. If you liked this story, please share it with a friend or loved one. I send out an email every Friday with any stories or blogs I have posted during the week, please sign up for it here.

A woman and four men, salt statues in the Polish salt mines/ Loscotoff 2016
Eleanore and her husbands/ Loscotoff 2022 – image taken in Polish Salt Mines, 2016

This Week’s Prompt

Week 13 – A haunted house

Include: silver, relativity, watercolor, Copper Beech, limited, affect, broccoli, politician, arsenal, cufflink

Read Bridgette’s Week 13 Tale here.

Links

Some of these links may seem random, but they are all sites I visited this week to research various questions I had for this particular story. Some stories need no research, others find me searching every little thought. This was one of those weeks.

Wikipedia on the Roman Emperor Claudius

Julia Agrippina – the wife of Claudius and the mother of Nero – Wikipedia

The Roman Emperor – The most dangerous occupation in Ancient Rome

Poisons, Poisoning, and Poisoners in Rome

Victorian Homes – Part 1 – Rooms

Victorian Rugs, Interiors, and History

The Copper Beech Tree

History of the Nightcap- Victorian and Edwardian Hair Care

History of Record Players

The Parts of an Easel

The Parts of a Cufflink

Wieliczka Salt Minę

Castle Muiderslot

Catacombs of Paris

Mittelalterliches Foltermuseum, in Ruedesheim am Rhein

Week 14 Prompt

Something bad is about to happen but nobody believes the main character

Include: Andromeda, stop sign, dandelion, iceberg, spectacle, poet, candle lit, keyboard, bumble, robotic

My 52 Week Journey

What is the 52 Week Short Story Challenge?

Week 1 – Avalon

Week 2 – The Rifle

Week 3 – The Cardboard Prince

Week 4 – Rapture in Reverse

Week 5 – Drink the Kool-Aid

Week 6 – The Hitchhiker

Week 7 – The Flame

Week 8 – The Community

Week 9 – The Cult of Cait

Week 10 – The Tango

Week 11 – The Imperfect Self

Week 12 – A Murder of Crows