Issue > Fiction
Ann Mallen

Ann Mallen

Ann Mallen received two first-place Royal Palm Literary Awards. One of her short stories was read on NPR's Florida Arts View. Two others were performed at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. When she's not writing, she often bakes bread or tends to the orchids and tropical fruit in her backyard.

To Sing, To Speak

To Sing

The guard pushed two small buckets through the black wrought iron bars.

"Dinner," he announced with a grin.

Upon the surface of the pea soup floated a number of small white worms.

Rose's brown hair frizzed around the edges of her cap and her shoulders ascended, gathering what little strength remained in her emaciated body to express her disgust.

Margaret warned her with a whisper, "We mustn't make him angry."

If either protested, they knew what would happen. Last week, when Rose complained about the very same thing, worms in the soup, two of the Occoquan guards tied her arms upward, extending them behind her back to a greased pole. Then they left her in view of nearly all of the women prisoners in the Workhouse. Gravity combined with the greased pole nearly forced her arms out of their sockets. Yet, Rose didn't cry. Only intermittent moans emerged from her chest, echoing in the cavernous space. The women shouted encouraging phrases, "We're with you, Rose." "God's strength is yours." They sang to her.

Hours later, when Rose finally apologized, the guards tossed her back into the cell that she shared with Margaret. Neither of the women slept. The following night, Rose cried out three times in her sleep. A week later, the pain lingered still.

Margaret reached up to tighten her cap around her now sparse, honey-colored, formerly curly, hair. A week ago, it began shedding limp strands upon her pillow every morning, more each day. Now, she lowered her head to the guard in a sign of submission and took a deep breath. Rose did the same.

The man stared. Then, he shook the buckets. More white larvae appeared from below, and they all three watched as those that had risen, the fattest ones, sunk again within the green liquid. Margaret grabbed Rose's hand and squeezed. She pushed her nails into Rose's palm, not hard enough to break the skin, but enough to communicate. Rose remained silent, and the man stepped to the next cell.

Margaret whispered directly into Rose's ear, "We'll smuggle another note with Harriet."

"It isn't fair to risk her safety," Rose whispered in return, shaking her head. Harriet was three decades older than they were and an employee of the Workhouse. "If they catch her, they'll put her in here too."

"We'll just have to pray they won't find out."

The women sat on the edge of one of the lumpy cots, skimmed the worms off with their spoons, and then tossed them into the trough along the far wall that functioned as an open toilet, sometimes flushed by the guard, more often ignored. Margaret shook the buckets, and Rose scooped and discarded the worms that came to the top. The mess would be washed away for certain in the morning after Harriet swept and right before they would be allowed out of the cell to sew the daily piece goods.

"Harriet knows we're not criminals," Rose said, her shoulders rising again. "It was a peaceful picket, simply asking President Wilson to keep his promise."

Margaret pulled a small scrap of paper, no bigger than her palm, from inside her sleeve.

"I tore this from the wrapping on the new box of thread that came in today. Tomorrow, we'll see if we can use Ruth's pen, and we'll write another letter about what's happening in here. Maybe your husband can get the information to the newspaper."

"Yes," Rose sighed. "Perhaps...but what if they won't publish it?"

"Then I will do as Alice did and stop eating," Margaret replied.

"Oh, Margaret, you mustn't. They forced food into her with a tube."

"I know, but I am not afraid. Eventually, enough people on the outside will know about us. This is what we must focus on. Harriet will help us."

The women placed their buckets on the floor and stood as the first verse, "Rise up, o daughters of courage..." sounded at the far end of the line of cells. The song grew as other sopranos and a few altos, cell by cell, joined in. "Stand tall, ye women of valor." The first syllable of valor rested on middle C. The second syllable lofted up to F sharp, climbed two notes higher. The most rigorous women held the last note an extra beat for emphasis.

The guards had tried to stop the singing for weeks. Yet, up to now, no matter what they did, the women were determined to sing. Tonight, Sunday, at the end of the nine verses, a new one would be added, most likely something about Alice's willingness to suffer for the cause. Ten verses for ten weeks.





To Speak

Cara put the transmission of her small black Japanese car into park and grabbed her large butterscotch leather bag with two short handles and a long shoulder strap that she never used. Visually, the longer strap extended the shape of the bag lower, a superfluous bit of excess, not unlike the additional silver hardware in various places. She pulled out her phone, a new upgrade and protected by a rubbery pink cover, and checked for messages.

"Tall chai latte, soy," she said to the barista who wore a circle stuck above her left breast that read: I voted.

The barista formed, in careful penmanship, a series of letters on a paper cup in black magic marker.

Cara swiped her plastic card through the slot, said thank you, and stood to wait in line at the other end of the counter. She held her pink phone sideways while she waited and typed a text to her roommate. Be home soon. Dinner?

Once the hot cup sat in her hands, Cara lowered herself to one of the upholstered chocolate-brown chairs and texted another friend, this one male, the guy with whom she had spent the day chatting on the internet at work. Guess what I want to do tonight?

She hadn't written: Guess what I want to do to you tonight? Her version could be read innocently or with a sexual intent. It was the type of message that could go either way. If all went well, he would invite her out for drinks by eight. She took a sip from the cup, then another. Her latte, a twice weekly treat — she indulged more often during a rough week - warmed and satisfied.

His answer appeared instantly. And what would that be?

Cara smiled, sipped, and decided to wait a bit before she responded. She threaded her arm through the short handles of her bag so that it hung in the perfect position from her right forearm. The long strap dangled beautifully. The phone in her left hand, she used her thumb to check the most recent posts and chirps as she made her way out the glass doors and back to her car. She sipped from the cup every few steps.

She placed the phone in her bag before she maneuvered the last four streets to her apartment to avoid the temptation of texting while driving. When she arrived, she parked at the curb. Then she carried her bag and the soy latte up the stairs to the apartment she shared with Tiffany.

"Hey," Tiffany said without glancing up from her computer. The same I voted sticker sat smack in the middle of her chest.

"Hey, yourself." Cara took her last swig and dropped her bag to the couch.

"Did you stop at the polls?"

"Ah, well, yeah, I thought about it. But then I thought about the stupid Electoral College and that newest gerrymandering. I just couldn't see the point. Do you want to catch some dinner? We could go to that new place."

"Sorry, I already ate," Tiffany said.

"No problem. Maybe tomorrow."

Cara stepped to the kitchen, opened the cabinet under the sink, and dropped the cup into the bin. Then, she turned to examine the contents of the refrigerator.

Within the cabinet, under the sink, the last drop of the chai latte dribbled out onto an empty plastic plate, the edges of Tiffany's earlier frozen dinner nuked into a hard scum. If Cara had stuck her head into the darkness of the cabinet, the letters on the cup could still be read. The barista had written: To vote is to speak.

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