Succeeding Part 2 and Part 1.
In Gansu of the Song, in the Christian 1100, while their husbands were gone ordering the building of ships, Meizhen and Ju found each other. They met openly, in the mornings in summer, while the children were playing, and they talked of all things. Even their maids were close. Meizhen sang beautifully, but Ju was too embarrassed, though she would listen, in private, even into the late hours.
It was not long before everyone in their small circle knew. Ju's maid knew, of course, for she always cleaned after Meizhen visited, and the girl had sharp eyes and a keen mind. Because Ju's maid knew, everyone knew. And no one cared, because every lady had a comfort-friend anyway. Who else would be able to understand more closely what it was like to be you? Who else would teach you about how they had solved the same problems you were to face? Who would keep you company when your husband was away?
Everyone knew, and didn't care about knowing, but they talked about it on occasion, whenever there were no wars or marriages or new houses or children to discuss, because it passed the time to talk about who was a comfort-friend, and who had been arguing, and what one might plant in one's garden, come next summer.
Ten years later, when Meizhen's husband fell out of favor at Court, she was executed alongside him. To mock her memory, the other ladies wrote that it was because of her sinful actions. Meizhen's husband's brother, of course, had secretly sunk one of the navy's new ships to make his brother look incompetent, and so acquire more coin for his own shipbuilding business. Unfortunately, Meizhen and her husband paid the mortal price. Something had to be written down, so they blamed Meizhen for poor maneuvering, though she had run a fine household and cared nothing for the dynasty's ships. The Lady Song was more than able to comfort Ju in a proper way, afterward, though Ju never forgot those summer mornings a decade ago. Everyone knew, and no one cared, because every lady had a comfort-friend, anyway.
Long before the Song Dynasty, in a little house off the Mediterranean, Pericles sold a hundred and twenty-nine goats to Procles, at the behest of the former's father. They argued extensively about the price--so extensively, in fact, that Procles began to reconsider the morality of owning not only humans, but animals.
In the service of a point about free will, Pericles talked the other man into a demonstration of diminished reasoning capabilities, which demonstration became a lengthy relationship of years. Years, these were, dotted with memories of arguments, drinking, working, and swimming in the ocean near Procles' father's farm. They would regularly visit with Pericles' rowdy friends at the latter's house in the city. Everyone felt Procles a good addition to the circle, and everyone knew, and no one cared, and they were generally happy.
A couple thousand years later, in a middle school in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Devon was embarrassed to death when Ms. Christensen, the English teacher, caught him crying by the lockers two hours after school had ended. He begged her not to send him to the counselor, so that everyone could laugh at him for being mental, and he asked how come girls gotta be so mean--because he hadn't even gotten around to asking Samantha to the dance before her friends asked why she was talking to the faggot anyway and the high school football practice was letting out soon so shouldn't they be going over to the fields, Samantha, ANYWAY?
Ms. Christensen listened to everything, said some quote from her favorite book that he liked all right, and she promised that in ten years, Devon would be in a big city somewhere finishing college, and girls like Samantha would be fed up with potbellied ex-high-school-football players and only wishing they could meet someone sweet like Devon. It was completely mind blowing when, feeling a little better, Devon sort of mentioned that Ms. Christensen was the hottest teacher he'd ever known, or hottest grownup anywhere for that matter, even hotter than Julia Roberts, and Ms. Christensen actually let him touch those. And then, what happened afterward, well, he never forgot even a second of it, or how he'd never felt quite so good about himself. He even read that book she'd quoted from, which she said was "post-graduate" level, even though he hadn't graduated from Stony Heights Middle School yet, so maybe he was actually as smart as she said, because he was like a year or more away from being "post-graduate" and stuff.
A month later, Devon, along with a good half of the rest of the class, was crushed when a substitute showed up to English class one Monday morning, to announce that Ms. Christensen had left the profession and the city for personal reasons, but would they all please open their readers to the second act of Merchant of Venice, and resume their exciting journey through the English language.
That night, Devon's parents were watching the news about the pervert in Idaho who got arrested because some kid's younger brother found text messages on his phone between him and a teacher. Devon blew up for no apparent reason--his parents reminded themselves that kids were so emotional at his age. He was emotional just like his sister, but at least Devon's sister was dating a normal boyfriend, who wanted to drop out of school and be a professional race car driver, and why wouldn't Devon learn to be normal and have a normal relationship with someone at his school like kids were supposed to, already?
And no one ever knew except Devon and Ms. Christensen, because he knew people were stupid about that stuff, so ten years later, whenever he heard people going on about whatever crap was in the news that year, he just tried to ignore it. He didn't bother explaining to them that he wasn't a messed up victim, because they already would've known he was abused better than he did (since he couldn't possibly understand what being Devon the Human Person Meant At That Age). So many people didn't understand what it felt like to be saved, because they were either going through their second divorce, or having huge problems with their aging parents, or drinking like fucking fishes and looking for one-night stands on meetup.com anyway. But all Devon ever needed to feel real was to think about those few precious weeks in the English room after school, where he learned about living for the first time.
Grigory had such strong hands. They were kind of wrinkled, and he was dark, like all the Romani who came up north. But they were strong, still. They cared.
Grigory knew everything about horses, and could make even the jumpiest animal calm down after Ana's father had lashed it while galloping home drunk from the city. The old Romani could help them birth, and clean up the pretty little foals without getting afraid of the blood, and he could hold flasks so steady to feed them, even if their mothers had died in the birthing, and it was the sweetest thing in the world when he did that one winter night, and brought back a little baby horse that turned out to be Ana's favorite later.
Whenever Papa got mad at the downstairs maid, or if he was beating her mother for something she'd done wrong at church, Ana would go out to the stables and sit with the old groom. She'd listen to him muttering songs with words she didn't understand, and she'd beg for stories about gypsy life. And stories about horses, of course; she could never get enough of those. She'd sit on an old hay bale, or on a saddle that wasn't attached to anything, swing her feet about, and beg for stories. He'd usually tell them, if he wasn't doing something loud. And if he wouldn't tell them, she'd threaten to tell Papa, so Grigory would end up finding a story to tell anyway, as he should. He'd call Ana "lady," as he should, and come up with a memory of his past to amuse her.
Watching him braid leather for harnesses, she'd listen to those stories. The stable lanterns would glow in a way that made it seem warm even when it was freezing out. They were the best stories ever. Grigory had even seen a miracle, once. Not the fake kind of miracle, but a real one, where a dead foal had gotten back up when he'd prayed, even though it hadn't been breathing for two whole minutes. She knew it was true, because the silly gypsy cried a little when he told it. He really could save foals, Ana knew, and it was a real story, and a miracle.
When she was almost 13, Papa made her take a horrible carriage trip that lasted over a month, to go to Petersburg and meet someone important she had to marry next year. The man was ugly, Ana thought. He was smiling all the time, even when things weren't funny. And he had a strange lump that grew out of his head underneath his left ear. It was disgusting, but everyone kept pretending like it wasn't there, so Ana smiled as Mother had taught her, and pretended not to notice. The carriage ride home was terrible. Every time she looked out the window, she wondered if she would see the countryside ever again. That awful man--she shouldn't think of her betrothed that way--said cruel things about the countryside and the people in it. He wanted to be in town, by the factory, and never leave. And he wanted Ana to have five children. Five! Would they all have lumps like that under their left ears?
Would she ever get to ride in the hills again?
After the carriage ride home, she flung off her dresses and jewels, put on some pants and a cloak, and stomped out to the stables. Grigory was asleep in a hay pile, all the work done for the day, so she planted a boot on his shoulder and ordered him to rouse, to listen to her. She never wanted to think of the city again, or of the awful people there, or of five children with lumps under their left ears. She refused to explain why she was crying, told the Romani to be quiet, and burrowed into the hay next to him, deeper and deeper, trying to find a way to make that awful sick feeling go away. He had such strong hands.
The groundskeeper found them in the morning. At supper, Papa had such a cold face, though Mama seemed to be laughing at her husband with her eyes. Ana made very small motions when she ate, wishing she could disappear. Why did Mama's eyes shine like that? Why would Papa not call Ana a slut and hit her?
The next day, she heard something about "a bigger dowry," and the wedding was suddenly to be held in only two weeks. They left for the city in a whirlwind. When Ana looked back at the house and the grounds, and told Papa she never wanted to leave...that time, he did hit her. Mama showed her how to cover bruises with makeup. As a formality, Papa had Grigory killed shortly after the wedding. By the time she heard about it, Ana was well practiced at hiding her tears. The city was even colder than the countryside, though they had so many more fireplaces.
Forty years later, her husband finally had his last drink. Ana deeded the factory to all three of her sons, so that they could kill each other fighting over it. She climbed onto one of the cart-horses, telling it to ride. Used only to pulling as part of a team, it didn't want to manage with a saddle, but she stilled it the way she'd once seen someone do. She got it moving away from the city.
Someone else owned the old manor now. The new groundskeeper was decent enough to let Ana walk around to the apple trees in the west field, where the hounds and serfs were buried. She found the unmarked headstone she was sure was Grigory's, buried her fingers in the dirt, and cried until she could no longer feel her body.
Continued in Part 4.