What Gentle Women Dare

Liverpool, Midsummer, 1763

When Satan himself came to Lolly, she didn’t recognize him. She wasn’t on her guard—hadn’t been for years. Why should she be? Her immortal soul had long since drowned in rum and rotted under gobs of treacle toffee. If any scrap was left, it was too dry and leathery to tempt evil. But even the most pious of parsons wouldn’t have recognized the Devil in the guise of a dead woman floating face-down in the Mersey.

Lolly matched her steps with each clang reverberating from St. Nicholas’ bell tower. The morning sky was dim and lightless except for a yellow haze to the east, silhouetted by Liverpool’s cold chimneys. Over her right shoulder, the glowing lamp of the Woodside ferry skittered across the inky river. A pale streak drifted along the edge of the timber wharf.

Could’ve been a log or a scrap of sail cloth, but no, Lolly knew death when she saw it. She’d seen plenty and it always made her shiver. An icicle shoved through the living lights of her eyes couldn’t chill her more than the sight of a corpse.

Wasn’t long before the Wharfinger’s men spotted it.

“Hey ho, a floater.” George pointed with his pipe stem.

“If we’re in luck, the current will carry it out to Bootle,” said Robbie. “Then it’ll sink into the marsh and be nobody’s problem.”

They turned back to their dice game. If George and Robbie didn’t care about the corpse, Lolly shouldn’t either. Still, she stared at it until a sailor appeared at the edge of the timber wharf, stooped and weaving from a long night in a tavern. The sight of him lifted her spirits.

“Mouth tricks here,” she called out. “Soft as a tit, wet as a twat, twice as tight, and good for sucking.” She licked her gums.

The sailor grinned. He had no more teeth than she did, and the long plait hanging over his shoulder was iron gray all the way to its curly, pig-tail end. The sight of him made her glad. Sailors who lived to get old were often kindly.

“Thart thirsty, old girl?” he asked.

“Not old.” She gave him a saucy wink. “Tha might be me da, maybe. Did tha never plug a Welsh ewe?”

He laughed and hitched down his trousers. While she was working, he clutched her head hard, mashing her hat with his grimy fingers. But after, he gave her four pence and a kiss on the cheek. Generous. Lolly always thought she could be rich if only she could line men up in a row, but men, like fish, were shy and catching them took more time than eating.

When she looked for the corpse, it had beached on the mud bar at the corner of the timber wharf. Head, arms, legs, maybe eyes and a mouth under her hair. A woman, for certain. The men had finally put down their dice. George hung off the side of the wharf like a monkey, reaching for the corpse with a boat hook. He snagged it, passed the hook up to his friend, and together they hauled the sodden, streaming form on to the wharf.

George groped the corpse’s neck. He pulled off his cap and held it to his chest.

“Cold and fresh,” he said.

“Suicide.” Robbie swiped off his own cap. “Me missus won’t want it. Will yourn?”

George shook his head. “She’d bar the door. That’s nobody’s honest wife or daughter.”

Lolly crept closer. The corpse was naked but for a smock, so flimsy her mottled flesh showed through. When Lolly reached out to touch the wet cloth, George swung a fist at her.

“Get off, tha ol meff.”

“Gentle, now. Tarts take care of their own,” Robbie whispered to his friend. He swiped a calloused hand over his hair and turned to Lolly. “This here’s one of yourn. I’ll bring the parson’s man by and by, but if tha hant thruppence to pay for burial, just weigh her down and tip her into the river. I’ll turn my back if you do.”

Lolly shook her head, pretending not to understand.

“A sinking stone solves many a problem,” Robbie explained.

He pointed at the nearest pile of ballast gravel and mimed tying a knot in the girl’s shift. Lolly stalled until he slipped her a penny, then nodded agreement. Robbie scooped up his dice, and both men retreated to the far end of the timber wharf.

Lolly had a sharp eye for a chance. She wanted the smock. Once she had it in hand, she could just roll the naked corpse back in the river. If the men pulled it out again, she could say the rocks had ripped through the fabric.

Lolly was neither god-fearing nor churchgoing, but stealing from a corpse didn’t sit easy in her mind. It seemed to flaunt a rule more basic and ancient than any in the Bible. She looked the corpse over, trying to find a reason to justify taking the one thing it still possessed.

“What’s that, mammy?”

Little Meg tottered out of the timber yard, knuckling her eyes and dragging her old red blanket behind her. The wool barely had enough nap left to pick up sawdust.

Lolly knelt and pulled her daughter close.

“Good morning, my Meggie. Did tha dream all night long?”

Meg was warm and damp with sleep. Her eyes were puffy, and she still had that yeast-bread smell of a sleeping child.

Meg yawned. “What’s the lady doing?”

“Sleeping, love, just like you.” Lolly kissed Meg’s ear, and then turned her attention back to the corpse.

The woman was tall, with a breadth of shoulder a young man might be proud of. Her thighs were wide and strong. Her hair stuck to her temples in little half-crescent locks. Her teeth were so even Lolly thought they must be ivory, but no, they were set into her bloodless gums tight as fence posts. Despite the good teeth, when alive she’d been homely, with small eyes, a bulbous forehead, and flat cheeks marred by constellations of pockmarks.

Lolly turned the corpse’s hands over and squinted at her fingers and palms. Soft skin, no warts or scars, but before she could think much about what that might signify, the skin on her palms flushed pink. Lolly’s gaze darted to the woman’s face. Though deathly gray a moment before, now it was flushed. The new skin in each smallpox scar glowed red as a tart’s lips.

She was alive, and that meant Lolly had no time to spare. She hiked the smock up the woman’s torso, exposing her rapidly pinkening flesh to the rising sun. The wet cloth clung to her skin and rucked under her armpits. The woman’s arms flopped as Lolly yanked the smock over her head. She stuffed it under her arm, grabbed Meg’s hand, and ran behind the rope shed.

As Lolly peeked around the corner with one eye, the drowned woman propped herself on one elbow. She convulsed twice, retching fluid onto the warped boardwalk. She lay still for a moment, then looked both ways, sharp and quick, slithered to the edge of the wharf, and slipped back into the water.

Lolly had a habit of telling boastful stories about herself. Not lies. Lies could be found out. Stories were different—nobody could prove them untrue. She told a few on her way home that morning, clutching the wadded-up smock under her arm.

First, she told a ship’s cook she wouldn’t buy his slush because she wasn’t hungry. Truth was, both she and Meg were hollow, but those greasy leavings from the salt pork barrel turned Meg’s stomach and left her trotting for days. Slush was cheap, but her dear girl couldn’t abide it.

On Castle Street, she told a baker she would never take nothing from his basket without paying, even if nobody was watching. Just to prove it, she bought two cream buns for Meg instead of one.

Behind the Punch Bowl Tavern, she told the sleepy girl minding the dregs keg that she didn’t mind filling her flask with the drainage from last night’s tankards. Salt from a sailor’s tongue just made the liquor more tasty. When the girl caught her sipping from the spout, Lolly claimed she was just smelling the dregs and if the girl wanted an extra farthing for a whiff, she’d be happy to pay because she liked that just as well as a gulp.

Walking up the Dale Street hill, Lolly told her daughter she wasn’t tired nor limping. She could walk a lot faster if she wanted, but she liked a slow stroll of a morning.

When a pack of rough boys surrounded her in the forecourt of Cable Yard, Lolly told them she had a knife. Fact was, she’d lost it months back. A press gang crimp had heard Lolly knew mouth tricks that would turn a man cross-eyed, and when his curiosity was satisfied, he’d walked away without paying. When she’d tried to cut him, he’d knocked her down, kicked in her ribs, and left her cringing in the sawdust. If a broken rib wasn’t enough payment for trying to make a man do what he ought, the Wharfinger punished her too. So angry, he’d actually taken the time to climb down from the pilots’ office and cross the dockyards. He tracked her down, and bent back her thumb until it snapped. Took her knife away, too.

The rough boys had all the vim of youth and a good night’s sleep, while Lolly was tired and defenseless. A whore without a knife is like a cat without claws—she could hiss or she could run. But Lolly couldn’t run. At the first sign of trouble, Meg ducked under her mother’s skirt and clamped fast to her leg, gripping her knee like a foremast jack in a hurricane.

Lolly held the smock tight and swatted the boys with her other hand, taking care to protect the flask in her pocket.

“Keep dogging me and I’ll cut y’open and give your heartstrings to your mammies,” she shouted.

Lolly swung her fist at the tallest boy. He dodged easily. When he began snatching at her hat, Lolly knew it was either that or the flask. She let the hat go. The boys chased it like dogs after a rat.

When Lolly got home, her landlady was up to her elbows in suds in the narrow back yard, with three children crawling four-legged around her, and a herd of two-legged ones scurrying about. Snot ran over their lips like water through a sluicegate.

“Where’s tha hat?” asked the landlady as Lolly latched the gate.

“Blew into the river,” Lolly answered. Usually she’d tell a better story, but the brawl had left her shaking.

“Doest tha have another?”

“Seems a shame to cover my tresses.” Lolly dredged up a saucy smile. Dockside charm never worked with her landlady, but habits are hard to break. “I might go bare-headed.”

The landlady pushed her sweat-darkened hair off her brow with a wet forearm and scowled.

“If it’s a choice between a new hat and making me happy on rent day, tha knowst which to choose. If we come to blows it won’t be me worst off.”

Lolly nodded and trudged up to her room. She knew better than to cross her landlady. She could be vicious. Anyone who expects women to live together happy as Eden before the fall has a poor understanding of human nature. A woman with ten children and a husband sailing the African trade has little enough kindness to spare for her own kin, and certainly none for her tenants.

Meg ate her buns and dandled her straw doll while Lolly spread the smock over her lap for examination. The silk was so fine she couldn’t see strands in the weave. No wrinkles, no pulled threads, no seams. Soft as new skin under a blister. It didn’t seem fabric at all, more like something grown as one piece. Also, it was perfectly clean, not a scuff or stain. In fact, it didn’t seem to hold dirt. Her hands were none too clean, but the grime from her fingers dried and flaked away, leaving no mark behind on the pure white cloth.

She dragged the smock over her face. Off came all the dirt that had built up since she’d last got caught in a rainstorm: salt grime, coal dust, and the crusty flakes of sailors’ leavings all embedded in her greasy mutton-fat rouge. She pulled the fabric away and held it out with both hands like a curtain. A ghost of her own self stared back, with rosy cheeks, a red smear for a mouth, and two blank spaces for eyes.

Then the dirt flaked off, and the cloth shone white again.

Lolly slept with the smock wadded under her head like a pillow. It warmed her hands and cooled her brow, cradling her in a cloud of comfort. When she woke, she stripped and pulled it over her head.

Meg ran in from the yard. The child yanked at the smock’s edge.

“It’s too fine to keep, mammy.”

“I’ll sell it tomorrow,” Lolly said as she pulled on her skirt and belted her bodice over the smock. “When I do, I’ll buy thee a cake with sugared plums in all the colors of a rainbow.”

On her way back to the wharf, Lolly seemed to float. The fabric glissaded over her thighs. It cupped her shoulders in a cool embrace, and soothed the itch and burn of her flea bites, nicks, blisters, and scabs. From the soles of her feet all the way up to her scalp, Lolly felt fine. When she scratched herself, it was only from habit.

Lolly stopped at the Nag’s Head. She asked the landlady for a bun and a bit of bacon rind for Meg, and had her flask filled with the cheapest rum.

“Tha ent dressed for jobbing, little puss.” The old man in the chair beside the door blew smoke in her face and leered. He poked his spit-coated pipe stem into the white fabric on her chest. “How doest tha catch fish with nowt jiggling on tha hook?

She batted the pipe away.

“Don’t need it. I’m a legendary suckstress. They talk about me in foreign ports.”

He kept hounding her, but she hardly noticed. She sauced him back, automatically—men queue up to give me gravy—nobody gets more mucky than me—even backskuttle jacks shoot milt my way.

When the landlady brought her flask back, Lolly gave it a shake to make sure she hadn’t dropped in pebbles to cheat her. Then she tasted it and grimaced. The rum was so badly still-burnt it could put a wrinkle in her tongue, but it would do.

On the way down Dale Street, Lolly held tight to Meg’s hand, careful to protect the child from the carts and wagons.

“That white cloth does look strange,” Meg mumbled, her mouth full of bread.

True, the smock was too modest. Sailors liked a high pair of swollen teats. It reminded them of their long-lost mammies.

With one hand, Lolly adjusted her clothing as she dawdled along. If she pulled the cloth slowly, it stretched and stayed that way. By the time she entered narrow, dark Water Street, Lolly looked much as she always did, but stood a little taller. She had a secret next to her skin, and a good one. The smock made her feel clean. Stainless. Prideful. Not the boastful, fake pride she claimed every day, but something truer. Like a pip of gold at the core of a soft brown apple. A secret something that proved she was more than bruises and bluster.

But it also made her scared. What if, at the stroke of midnight, the corpse came back? What if it called her a thief and dragged her to the bottom of the river? Meg would be left frightened and alone with nobody to care for her. The thought was nearly enough to make her run for home.

Soft and quiet, old girl, she thought as she led her daughter through the narrow warehouse alleys crowded with pack mules and porters. Most likely the corpse had never slunk back to the water in the first place. She’d probably imagined it.

Lolly had seen impossible things before. Once, when she’d drunk dregs from a nutmeg barrel, the river had caught fire, kicking up sparks that wove patterns in the sky and set ships aflame. She ran though the dockyards and wharves, terrified, not stopping until she’d tumbled down the saltworks steps. Working mouth tricks had been a torment until her ribs healed.

If she’d imagined the corpse rolling itself back into the water, then it might have lain naked on the wharf all morning. George and Robbie would finger Lolly and call her a thief. The Wharfinger would strip her raw, take the smock, and have her hanged. What would happen to little Meg, then?

If the Wharfinger knew his duty, he’d protect Lolly. She paid him a shilling sixpence every Sunday, which bought her the right to walk back and forth along the timber wharf through wind, rain, and snow. She put coins in his pocket, but he never lifted a finger to aid her or any of the girls. If he did, people would call him a whoremaster.

Best sell the smock, and fast. Put on an innocent face and do her night’s work. But no, the smock was her own comfort and joy. She wasn’t taking it off. Not now. Maybe not ever.

“All my treasures are here with me.” Lolly hoisted her sleepy daughter in her arms and kissed the delicate curl of her ear.

She leaned against the grimy weatherboards of the coal shack at the corner of Brunswick Street, watching the traffic grind along the busy dockside parade. She sipped from her flask and gathered her thoughts.

Where to go, if not homeward? The taverns on the quay and the alleys all around were defended territory. Navy crews landed there, starved for soft company and ready to spend their pay. If Lolly walked those streets looking hopeful, she’d have a knife in her guts before midnight.

“Take me to the churchyard, mammy,” Meg said.

Lolly took a deep gulp of acrid rum. St. Nicholas’s churchyard was as good a place as any. Nobody’s stroll—or everybody’s. Not much custom, but if she stood high up on the hill she might catch the eyes of men coming up from the bridewell. She could give herself ‘til midnight, then if chances looked bad, she’d settle Meg down to sleep against the church wall and skip up Bath Street all the way to the Fort. Try her luck with the soldiers. She might even creep down Lancellot’s Hey in the deep of night and take a squat on the Wharfinger’s steps—see how he liked that sauce.

Belligerent thoughts gave her the energy to get moving. When she passed into St. Nicholas’s churchyard, Meg squealed and struggled out of her arms. It was her favorite place to play—grass and flowers, bugs and worms. Meg might trip on someone’s shinbone sticking up from the turf and if she fell wrong, she could smash her brains out on a gravestone. But a mother can’t keep her child in an apron pocket, no matter how much she might want to.

Lolly strolled uphill, weaving through the higgledy-piggledy canted gravestones until she found her favorite seat. Meg scampered about, chasing moths and pulling up harebells by the roots.

When the bells tolled midnight, Lolly was still sitting in the churchyard, and that’s where the Devil found her.

The first thing Lolly noticed were the insects. Large ones, the size of her thumb, pitching through the air on glittering, thumbnail-sized wings. At first she thought they were bats—she saw plenty of bats skittering over the river in late summer, when the tide was out and flies swarmed over the mud. These weren’t bats. Not cleggs, either—too big—and cockchafers didn’t fly in summer. Eight or more of the insects hovered overhead, just past arm’s reach. Watching her. They ignored little Meg, though, so that was all right.

Then a stranger entered the churchyard—a woman in dark clothes and a hooded cloak. The insects extended their tiny wings and flew to meet her.

Ssssst sssst,” Lolly hissed.

Meg dove under her mother’s skirt and wrapped both her arms around her mother’s thigh, little fingers digging in deep. Lolly patted her head through the fabric.

The child whispered, What is it, mammy?

“Looks like a chapel-hen,” Lolly told her daughter. “This one’s out all by herself. That’s rare. Usually they walk in twos and threes.”

She’d seen them before, good women from Liverpool’s dissenting congregations. Every so often they’d try to talk Lolly into saving her soul. Sometimes, if Lolly played along, a chapel-hen could be talked out of a few coins.

Lolly knew a prayer. She shuffled toward a gravestone and bent her head in an exaggerated pantomime of piety. When the chapel-hen was close enough to hear, Lolly began praying aloud.

“All fathers dwell in heaven, where a hollow be in tha name.”

The woman flipped down her hood, exposing a face white as a skull, with a round forehead and flat cheeks scarred as the moon.

“You took something from us,” the woman croaked. Her voice sounded more like a cart wheel on gravel than any human sound.

Get off, Meg. Run, Lolly whispered.

Meg squeezed her mother’s leg. Nay, I’m scared.

Lolly tried to flee, hobbling along with little Meg under her skirt, perching on her foot. The woman leapt over a row of close-set stones and cut Lolly off.

Nothing to do but brazen it out.

“Who said I took anything?” Lolly shook her fist while backing up slowly. “Nobody, that’s who. Don’t you tell a lie.”

“An argument is unnecessary,” the woman squawked. “The garment must be recovered. However, you may continue wearing it for the moment. No doubt it gives you comfort.”

Lolly gulped at her flask. For certain, the stranger was the very same drowned woman who had crawled naked into the river. Her voice was otherworldly—inhuman—devilish. A chill shivered over Lolly’s flesh, raising goosebumps from her scalp to her toes.

“If I have something of yourn, it’s because tha were dead when I found it,” Lolly said. “That’s salvage, not theft. Like with a shipwreck.”

“A compelling argument, well worth taking into consideration.” The woman smiled, exposing the straight teeth Lolly had plucked at that morning. “We agree. By the local custom of salvage, you may keep the garment.”

“Thart kindly.” Lolly grinned. “I get many gifts, but this is my favorite.”

“It is not a gift. Neither is it bribery, nor a commercial transaction,” the stranger croaked. “The garment was lost. You found it and claim ownership by the customs of your community. Please acknowledge those facts.”

Lolly nodded. “It were salvage, like I say.”

“Very good. You may address us as Mary Overholt.” The woman dipped her head, like one lady might to another. “We welcome your company.”

“Goodnight, miss.” Lolly shuffled away, taking care to keep Meg concealed under her skirt.

“Wait a moment,” Mary squawked. “Would you stay and talk with me, of your own free will?”

Make her pay for it, mammy.

Lolly heard some men wanted to pay for chat, though she’d never met one. If a man could do it, so could a woman.

“I might stay for a good thick coin.”

“Bribery would invalidate the results of our conversation.” The woman spread her hands. Men used that same gesture meant to show they had no money, which was almost always a lie. “Intoxication might invalidate it as well. I’m awaiting the determination.”

The stranger’s gaze rose to a point above Lolly’s head, where the insects circulated. She pursed her lips, then seemed to reach a decision.

“We’ve determined intoxication is not a barrier to any agreements reached or decisions made. Nearly everyone on this planet carries a disease or condition that impairs their perceptions, and your habits have made you somewhat inured to the effects of intoxicants.”

The words might have been in a foreign language, for all Lolly could understand. But she wasn’t about to admit ignorance.

“That’s right, I’m immured. The Lord Mayor himself gave me a medal for it.”

“Excuse me. I will attempt to limit my vocabulary to terms you understand.”

“I understand plenty.” Lolly bristled. “Like I know tha has a voice like a Bootle organ and a smile to match.”

The stranger’s pockmarked face contorted in confusion. Lolly’s courage soared.

“A Bootle organ is a frog and that were an insult. Will tha take offence now, and leave me in peace?”

“Our invitation was sincere. We would like to talk with you.”

“I don’t work my mouth for free. Give me a coin or something to eat or I’ll be gone.”

The woman looked thoughtful again. “Commensality is an important human value and doesn’t constitute a bribe. Very well.”

Mary pulled a paper bundle from her cloak pocket and placed it in Lolly’s outstretched hand.

“That’s nice.” She raised the packet to her nose and inhaled the heady aroma of treacle toffee. “My one sweet tooth likes a bit of toffee.”

Lolly shuffled backward and couched her haunches on a canted gravestone. She stuffed the greasy packet into her pocket, and took a deep swig from her flask.

Ask her who she is and what she wants. And why she speaks so strange, mammy.

“Did tha get a smack in the throat, miss? A woman doesn’t croak like that from nothing.”

“This voice is an indication of our dual nature.” The woman placed her hand on her chest. “This individual is my host. Making my own voice seem human would be deceptive. Our intent is to communicate clearly and truthfully.”

Lolly snorted. “Tha best stop talking nonsense, then.”

“I will ask my host to help us communicate.”

Lolly eyed the silky sheen of the woman’s cloak, and the slash pockets along the front seams. If she could get her hands on the cloak and move stealthy, she might find out what else the woman carried, aside from toffee. Lolly scuffed her palms up and down her arms.

“Can I borrow that cloak? It’s a bit chill.”

With no hesitation, Mary shrugged off the cloak and held it out. The silk lining glowed in the moonlight. Lolly half expected to see claws on the ends of Mary’s pale fingers, or webs between the knuckles, but her hands were human, with pearly, neat-cut fingernails showing no hint of grime, as if she’d just come soaped and scrubbed from the bath.

But she had taken a bath, just that morning. And in a very large bathtub indeed.

“How’d tha end in the river?” Lolly asked as she settled the cloak around her shoulders. “Some man object to hearing your nonsense?”

Don’t anger her, Mammy. Not while you’re getting away with something.

“Don’t mean to be uncivil,” Lolly added quickly. “If tha has a tale to tell, I’ll listen. Won’t surprise nor shock me, neither. I heard it all. When women sit together, sad stories start spilling out our holes.”

The woman winced and pressed her lips together into a thin line. When she spoke, her voice had changed.

“You make an apt observation,” she said. Her voice had turned soft and musical, like a lady who put sugar on her words to tempt others to listen.

“There now,” said Lolly. “Did tha cough the frog out?”

“No,” croaked the Bootle organ. “As I tried to explain, we are two separate individuals, autonomous but working in cooperation.”

“I am an Englishwoman,” the lady interjected. “The daughter of a Manchester gentleman. The voice you find unpleasant is not of this world.”

“That’s true enough,” said Lolly.

“To answer your other question,” the ladylike voice continued, “Early yesterday morning we attempted conversation with another of your profession. We ran afoul of her procurator. A… a… what do you call a man like that?”

“A pimp?”

“Yes, her pimp. He was in drink, and violent. Murderous.” Mary’s homely face crumpled like furled sail. “He thought I was attempting to lure the young woman off the streets.”

“Was tha?”

Mary raised her hands to cover her eyes for a moment. Lolly took the opportunity to snake her fingers into the cloak’s pockets and scoop out the contents. When Mary looked up, Lolly had her hands spread on her thighs, innocent as anything.

“No, we only wanted to talk to her, as I’m talking to you now.” Her voice was thick with grief. “I misjudged, and it nearly cost me my life.”

“That’ll happen if tha crosses the wrong pimp.”

No time to finger the treasure, but there was a handkerchief for certain. Probably silk and if so would fetch half a crown. A few other pieces—likely a penknife and a pouch of matches, maybe a little packet of needles and thread. No coins, more’s the pity. What else a lady like Mary might carry in her cloak pockets at night, Lolly couldn’t imagine. But if Lolly could get away with it, her landlady would be happy about the rent, and little Meg would have a cake.

Lolly swigged from her flask, and then offered it to Mary. She didn’t accept—Lolly would have been surprised and regretful if she had—but it was only polite to offer a drink to a mark.

Mary wiped her nose on her sleeve, cleared her throat, and squawked, “This planet—”

“—this world,” the lady’s sweet voice interrupted.

“This world,” the Bootle organ continued, “Has a long history of violent intraspecies competition and colonization. Entire populations are conquered and their lands and resources stolen. We observe this pattern in approximately five-point-five-eight percent of sentient species surveyed. Other species—the vast majority—are parasitic, like my own. Among species like yours, most individuals consider violent conflict as an inevitable mode for intra- and inter-community interaction. Would you agree?”

“Wha?” Lolly hadn’t understood one word.

“Do you believe,” Mary’s sweet voice asked, “That it’s natural for people to take the property of others with violence? To steal their homes, land, forests, farms, mines, villages, and towns?”

“Sure,” Lolly answered. “If I knew nothing else, I know that. Seen it enough.”

“So you agree,” the Bootle organ said. “Colonization backed by violence is the norm?”

“If thart asking if those stronger and meaner take what they want from the weaker and meeker, that’s a simple-minded question. They do. Here, there, and everywhere.”

Under Lolly’s skirt, Meg yawned. Her warm breath puffed across her mother’s knee.

“If we suggested that the breeding population is also considered a rightful spoil of colonialism, would you agree?”

More nonsense. Lolly gulped at her flask, ignoring the question.

“We are attempting to establish whether you agree that colonialism traditionally includes co-opting the females of the colonized population for propagation.”

The lady interjected again. “If you don’t keep it simple, she’ll never understand.” Mary sat beside Lolly on the wide gravestone. “You’ve heard of the Sabine women, have you not?”

Lolly hadn’t, but she nodded anyway.

“In old Rome,” Mary continued, “When the men didn’t have women, they stole them from their neighbors. What my friend wants to know is whether or not you think that’s natural.”

“Sure is,” Lolly said without hesitation. “Where would they put their pricks otherwise? A man sees something he likes, he’s going to skewer it. Otherwise another man will skewer them. That’s men, whether babe or bishop. Women are a little different.”

“How are women different?” asked the Bootle organ.

“Let me think.” Lolly drew the toffee packet out of her pocket and unfolded it. “A woman will kill for a loaf of bread if her children are starving. Some might kill to keep her man. A tart might kill the man who cheats her, or the woman who poaches her stroll. But women don’t kill for sport. They don’t roam in gangs looking for women to fuck dead. No woman ever set upon a neighbor’s young husband and left him bleeding in the woodpile.”

Lolly picked off a shard of toffee and slipped it between her gums. The sugar made her head spin. Its flavor was strong as the darkest rum, and just as heady. She tongued it into the pouch of her cheek.

“No woman ever chased a boy around the house, half-strangled him to death, then sent him home to the farm with a necklace of bruises and belly full of bastard. A woman will look the other way if her man does it, though, and that’s contusion.”

“Collusion.” Mary nodded.

“Some say that’s the same as if she did the deed herself,” Lolly continued. “A woman can be mean and nasty. Some have heavier hands than others, and sharper tongues. But we ent like men.”

“Why the inequity?” asked the Bootle organ.

Lolly frowned.

“Why do you think men are more violent than women?” the sweet voice explained.

The toffee dissolved, coating Lolly’s mouth in sweet syrup. She savored the flavor for a moment before answering.

“Why we chewing this over, that’s what I want to know? Spoils my appetite. If tha wants an opinion, Miss Mary, talk back and forth with tha own self.”

“Your opinion is the one we are interested in.”

“I don’t care why. Nobody does. It’s the way of the world.”

“What if it weren’t the way of the world?” The Bootle organ’s voice harshened with urgency. “What if it didn’t have to be?”

Take me home, mammy. I’m tired.

The child ought to be wrapped tight in her blanket and snugged into a timber yard alcove, not cowering under her mother’s skirt listening to a stranger talk nonsense. No sense in drawing this out. Lolly wouldn’t get anything more out of Mary.

“Good night, miss.” Lolly shrugged off the cloak.

“You may keep the garment,” croaked the Bootle organ. “It’s a local product, worthless, and doesn’t constitute a bribe. We understand it may be exchanged for currency, but your economic transactions are meaningless.”

I don’t like her.

Lolly didn’t either. Aside from the voice tricks, anyone who gave gifts easily might have a changeable mind. But perhaps Mary hadn’t been squeezed dry, not quite yet.

“Why would a fine wool cloak be worth nothing, when tha came chasing after me to find some plain white smock?” Lolly asked.

“It is not a garment, but a piece of technology.”

“Does tha have more worthless things to give?”

“Perhaps.”

Mary pulled two items from her skirt pockets—a large muslin handkerchief and a little velvet purse. Lolly eyed the purse greedily. Mary tipped the coins into her hand and pocketed them before handing over the empty purse.

Get her shoes.

Lolly laughed. “Maybe you think your boots are worthless too, miss?”

“Yes,” Mary said, “But I don’t fancy walking on stocking feet.”

“True, but does tha need stockings, though?”

Mary touched Lolly lightly on the back of her hand, just the tips of her fingers, light as a moth.

“I would strip to my skin to get you to keep you talking, Lolly. Would you require that of a lady?”

“It’s midsummer. Tha wouldn’t catch a death.” Lolly laughed again, then coughed. When she spat, she took care to aim behind the gravestones, away from Mary.

I don’t want to listen to her no more. Meg pinched the skin of her mother’s thigh between two little fingers, hard enough to make Lolly’s eyes water.

“You stated violence is the way of the world,” said the Bootle organ. “I suggest that other options exist.”

“If so, I haven’t heard them.”

Lolly shook the gritty dregs of her flask onto her palm and licked up the last of the liquor. She wiped the grains on her skirt and stood. Meg placed her feet on top of her mother’s foot and wrapped her arms around Lolly’s thigh. Lolly stumped away, but only got a few steps before Mary blocked her path.

“Just a few more questions. If violence were not the way of the world, would that be better?”

“Sure. Better for lots of people.”

“Like whom?”

Like me, mammy.

Lolly coughed again, and wiped the spittle from her lips with the back of her hand.

“Though you insist it’s not possible, having admitted it would be desirable, can you say how it might be accomplished?” Mary squawked.

“I can say a lot of things.”

“Turn your mind to this specific problem. How could your world be rid of violence?”

Kill the men.

“What’s that?” Lolly blurted.

Kill the men, mammy. Like the one who tore into you the day after your own mammy died. Like the pimp who knocked your teeth out. Like the ones who pay you with a smack and a knee to the nose. Like the Wharfinger, even, who makes you walk the soles off your shoes and doesn’t keep you safe even though you’re his girl and he’s your pimp same as any.

Lolly’s eyes began to sting.

Like the man who tossed me under that wagon.

“No, little Meggy,” she mumbled. “Don’t think about the wagon. Don’t remember it.”

I don’t, mammy. But you do. You always think about it.

Lolly nodded. Her little girl in a pool of blood, squashed so flat she could be folded in two. A tall man laughing, specks of blood in his red beard, and everyone on the street pointing at Lolly, saying a mother should keep her child safe.

Kill the men. All of them. They deserve it.

“Kill the men,” said Lolly. “All of them.”

Mary’s shoulders relaxed and she let out a long sigh.

“There,” she breathed. “That’s nine hundred women, just under the deadline.”

Mary placed her hand on Lolly’s shoulder.

“Having agreed that violence is a primary mode of social behavior on this planet, and having admitted the results are undesirable, you suggest that this situation could be ameliorated if all men on this planet were killed. Is that true?”

Yes. Tell her, mammy.

“Yes,” Lolly said. “I do. That’s exactly what I think.”

In that moment, Lolly realized who she was talking to. Mary was Satan, the Devil himself in disguise. What other creature could talk so easily about the destruction of man?

“If you knew this project were possible, that the male half of the human population would be exterminated, would you change your opinion?”

Lolly reached down to pat her daughter’s head, but Meg was gone. She’d be back, though. Meg always came back.

“No, I won’t change my mind.”

Mary grinned up at the watching insects.

“Victory,” she said in her sweet voice. And when she turned back to Lolly, her smile was so warm, so kind, so glowing with approval that Lolly barely recognized the expression.

“What kind of world will it make?” Lolly asked.

“Nobody knows.” Mary took Lolly’s hand and squeezed. “But we’ll soon find out.”

“Can’t be worse than this one. If tha wants to kill them all, best get to work. Just one thing.” Lolly leaned close and touched Mary’s shoulder with her own. “Start with the Wharfinger.”

(Editors’ Note: “What Gentle Women Dare” is read by Erika Ensign and Kelly Robson is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 22B.)

Kelly Robson

Kelly Robson’s book Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach is newly out from Tor.com Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and multiple year’s best anthologies. In 2017, she was a finalist for the 2017 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her novella “Waters of Versailles” won the 2016 Aurora Award and was a finalist for both the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. Kelly lives in Toronto with her wife, fellow SF writer A.M. Dellamonica.

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