Written for a short story contest, themed “Combating all forms of violence against women”. Didn’t win, but tried 🙂
Rosa looked in the mirror for the tenth time and sighed. She looked beautiful and that made her sad.
Yet, she couldn’t cry. She had tried the night before because she thought it would help. But her eyes had remained dry.
She hadn’t slept very well that night and she thought the lack of sleep would make her less pretty. There were indeed barely visible circles under her bright blue eyes, but they only seemed to make her beauty deeper and more dramatic. Like a sword that one wished to be killed with.
She took the lipstick, opened it and sighed again.
Her room smelled of lemons. It was from the lemon oil that she liked to put in her bath every night. It was a refreshing smell that made her smile in the morning. Only not today.
Today, she was sad.
She was sad because she was in love. And because it was so hard for her, a nineteen-year-old girl, to understand why love made her miserable. It all seemed too unfair, too illogical. Especially today.
She had met him a few months ago. He was new in the village and it wasn’t a big village so one noticed newcomers quite quickly.
His eyes were also blue but a deeper blue like the bottom of the ocean. Or at least that was how she pictured the bottom of the ocean.
He was a travelling artist. He traveled with his easel, with his watercolours and with his smallish dog of no particular breed. He told her he wanted to paint different people from different parts of the country and that was why he had decided to travel for a year in search of new inspirations.
He told her that when they first met in the coffeeshop where she was waiting for a friend. He went up to her and asked her if she wanted to be a model for one of his paintings. Then, he blushed a little and excused himself for being too straightforward.
She smiled in response with the kind of stubborn smile that won’t go away because it is meant for someone that has touched your heart.
It was a brief conversation in which she refused to be a model – it seemed too rush – but went on smiling. He was smiling back, yet trying not to as if he wanted to keep what was beginning between them secret from the world.
And it had to be a secret. When she hinted at her mother that she might be falling for the travelling artist, her mother’s face went from white to green to even whiter and she grimly said that these words were not to be repeated, especially in front of her father. A young girl, she said, was supposed to marry a stable, reliable man with enough fortune. Fortune was key because otherwise how could a man afford a wife?
Fortune was one thing her artist surely didn’t have. He lived in the village inn – he rented the cheapest room next to the kitchen – and he was dreaming of his success as a great painter.
Yet, Rosa had decided to speak with her father, to explain to him how she felt and to try and assert her right to love whomever she chose.
But before she could do that, there came the market.
It was scheduled earlier this year because the village had plans to renovate the square – a process which could take months. So the market had to take place before works began.
It was a fate she had managed to escape for a few years now.
One year she said she wasn’t ready and her parents listened, the next she went to visit an aunt at the time of the market and so on. She was avoiding the unavoidable because she wanted to believe in love. And she had found it, but the market had come yet again. And this time she had turned nineteen and her parents told her there could be no more waiting. After twenty, she would be too old to be sold.
So today she was to be taken to this year’s market for brides.
It was a fine tradition, her mother sang her words with a sweet voice that sounded to Rosa like a curse. A good tradition that the gypsies of their village had kept for centuries. Everybody gathered in the centre, music playing, the girls looking their best, the young men enthusiastic to find the best wife and the elders chatting about old times while smoking wooden pipes and negotiating prices for the brides.
And you will find a nice man there, the mother went on as she was combing Rosa’s long chestnut hair the night before the market. You will find a nice, stable man. Who will pay for you what’s right.
‘What’s right?’, Rosa thought. What is right?
Sometimes a bride could sell for a few thousand euro, and sometimes the groom’s parents also added a cow or a few hens. It was a matter of negotiations between the two families and when the price was agreed, the new couple went directly to the church to be married.
And family life began.
For the past few weeks, since she learned about the market, Rosa had almost fallen ill. She went secretly to her artist and tried to cry on his shoulder in his small hot room next to the kitchen where the air smelled of hot soup and semi-rotten vegetables.
They discussed thousands of plans. Eloping, standing up to Rosa’s parents, eloping again.
But Rosa was scared. She hadn’t left her village for more than a week her whole life and leaving seemed to her like breaking up with all she knew. With her own life.
And there was her little sister Lilly. Maybe, if it wasn’t for her, Rosa would have made the decision and gone away. But the thought of never seeing Lilly’s blonde curls again was too much.
‘Do you have any money?,’ she asked.
‘How much?’, he asked.
‘Well… Do you think I am pretty?’
A moment of silence.
‘I cannot answer that. I haven’t see anyone as beautiful as you. For me, there is no one prettier.’
‘Well… If the other men agree, the price for me could get to twenty thousand… ’
Another moment of silence.
‘No. I haven’t ever seen so much in one place.’
Then they kissed and it seemed to soften the pain for a while. Later, when she went home, that same pain came back and this time it was burning and digging into her soul.
So, the morning of the day of the market, Rosa was staring at the mirror and trying to think past this pain. They had a plan which gave her a snippet of hope.
They had decided that should anyone agree to buy Rosa, they will stand up to her parents and walk away from the market into the church where they would get married. Then, it would be too late for anyone to object. Rosa was a good Christian – in her village, most of the gypsies were – and she believed the priest would help.
In the meantime, she would try not to look her best. It was customary for would-be brides to wear bright lipstick and to paint their cheeks rosy-red but she had decided to skip that. She smelled the lipstick – it smelled of raspberries – and returned it to its case. She only barely adjusted her hair and she didn’t put almost any makeup on.
Yet, she looked beautiful. Maybe because she was in love.
She sighed again. She had a bad feeling that she couldn’t shake off. Not only because she was to be offered for sale, but also because she had heard a muffled discussion between her parents the previous night. After her mother had combed her hair and went out of her room, Rosa heard them arguing quietly. She couldn’t make out a word.
It was no good. Whenever her parents argued, something bad happened. Her mother didn’t usually dare to argue with her father so when she did, it was always for serious stuff.
A sharp knock on the door startled her.
It was time.
‘What is this?’, asked her mother. ‘Why don’t you have lipstick? You look awful!’
Rosa’s words stopped in her throat and almost suffocated her. Standing in the hallway behind her mother was Lilly.
Little twelve-year old Lilly with the golden hair. And with bright crimson lipstick on her lips and cheeks.
‘What is this?’ – Rosa’s voice was cold as ice. Her mother shuddered.
‘I… Didn’t want to… But…’
‘She is a child!’
‘She is almost thirteen! Older than I was when your father bought me.’
‘This is the way it’s always been, love. It’s tradition. We are women. We are beautiful. It is a sign of respect for your beauty when someone gives a lot of money to be your husband. Your father gave…’
‘She is a child!’ – this time, Rosa almost screamed. Her mother shushed.
‘Look… Your father is worried. Thinks we should have sold you a long time ago. You are almost twenty. What if nobody wants you? Especially if you are not wearing lipstick. At least, we could find someone for Lilly. Look… Don’t worry so much about her. Your father said that we won’t sell you both. If we find a husband for you first, we won’t sell Lilly. We will offer her only if we cannot marry you.’
Rosa closed her eyes for a second.
The artist’s hands were big and warm. When he held her face in his palms, she felt as safe as she could be. It was like nothing she had ever felt before. Like a cocoon where no one could enter but them, like a barely perceptible net of emotions entangling the two of them, keeping them from the rest of the world.
It was all an illusion. The world had no intention of keeping out.
‘Wait for me’, Rosa said with a voice so lifeless that her mother shuddered again. It was like she was speaking from another world.
‘I need a minute,’ she continued. ‘To put some lipstick on.’’