The Scent of Sandalwood
A companion piece to Green Tussore, With Roses
Sometimes, like tonight, when the heat is hanging heavy over everyone's heads like a weight pressing them down and striking like hot iron on their bowed necks, Polly goes to her treasure box, the one she keeps under her bed, and unlocks it. There's not a lot in there: her lace fichu; a sparkly bracelet, set with coloured glass brilliants; a silk parasol with a six inch fringe; a few ribbon roses and hair slides.
And the sandalwood fan. This is where she keeps her sandalwood fan.
Clara gave it to her long ago, soon after Polly first started out whoring on her own account after her Ma went away. The summer heat that afternoon was just like this, making everything languid and sluggish, and even the flies buzzed real slow and stupid, batting their heads against the cracked window glass trying to get out. The flies didn't know they were trapped and kept butting and buzzing, making the heaviness of the room feel even heavier.
Clara was going to Santa Fe with a man who wanted her to give up whoring and only open her legs for him. Polly had wondered if only having one man poking at you was better, or would it get boring after a while, too much of the same thing over and over? Clara, laughing, said that all men were boring and the trick was not to let them know. A good whore, according to Clara, is the best actress there is.
Polly had come to help her pack away her things into a small leather trunk; all the bright dresses, feathers and ribbons, lace and silks. There was even a pale green tussore parasol with pink roses looped around the brim. Polly, wearing nothing in the heat but her thin chemise and drawers and too hot even in those, peacocked around the room with it over her shoulder for a few minutes while Clara watched and laughed.
"See here." Clara opened a long thin box made from very thick, stiff blue card. The fan inside was pale honey-coloured wood, pierced with holes. A strange smell wafted up when she lifted the lid; woody and spicy and peppery, all at once. "Smell it."
Polly sniffed delicately at the fan. Clara let her spread it and wave it a little, and there was the faintest scent of the wood on the cooler air moving past her face.
"It's called sandalwood. I don't know where it's from. China maybe? Someplace far away like that, anyways."
Someplace far away. Someplace that wasn't here. Someplace far away from the dirt and the dust. Someplace far away from the men with their pawing hands and their stinks and grunts, and their way of just tumbling her onto her back to poke her without so much as a how-de-do. Someplace far away where there were tall green trees with monkeys scampering around the branches, maybe, and birds with feathers brighter than the dresses the girls wore downstairs, and big flowers with waxy white petals that filled the air with scent. Polly had read of places like that when she'd been let to go to school, before her Ma had put her to work.
Clara had her eyes closed, leaning her head against the high back of her chair, like she was dreaming. "A man said to me once that it's a-ro-mat-ic." And she made a pause between each little bit of the word. "I didn't tell him I didn't know what it meant, but I always remembered it."
Something to do with that place with birds like jewels and monkeys and big scented flowers, suggested Polly. Something that means smelling of wood and spice.
"Here." Clara sat up, real brisk. She took the fan back and folded it. "This is what you do with it on a day like this."
She had a bowl of water on the table nearby, with a cloth in it ready to run over her skin to wash off the sweat and to cool herself. She dipped the fan into the water for a moment, shook the drops off and spread it again. When she wafted it in front of Polly's face, the air was much cooler than before and the woody spicy smell was stronger. The little breeze the fan made lifted the front of her hair where it was sticky against her forehead and made her feel less like she would melt.
Polly laughed, delighted. It was bracing, like the wind that blew over the grasslands in the winter; a true breath of fresh air, scented with that strange spiciness. "That's pretty."
Clara folded the fan and put it back into the little box. "I'd like you to have it, Polly. As a keepsake." She'd been showering the girls with trinkets as she sorted through her things; ribbons and bows, mostly. This little fan was the prettiest thing she'd offered Polly, though.
"Really? Oh, Clara."
Clara smiled and picked up a yellow satin ribbon, one that was only a little grimy on the edges, and tied it around the box. She threaded a glittery shoe buckle through the ribbon before tying the bow—the other buckle of the pair was lost long ago, she said—and presented the box with a flourish. "I want you to have it, Polly. It's a nice thing to have on a day like this."
"Oh, I love it. Thank you!" Polly laughed again, and stroked the blue box and touched the yellow bow. The little buckle winked rainbows at her as she tilted it towards the sun streaming in through the window. "It's lovely."
Clara looked pleased. She took Polly over to her bed and trailed her hands over Polly's shoulders to push down the chemise straps. And if Clara wanted payment for the treat in kisses and soft strokes of her fingers against Polly's small breasts and between Polly's thighs… well, Clara smelled better and tasted sweeter than most of the men who came to the dancehall to pound Polly into the mattress in exchange for their dollar.
It was worth it to own the fan.
Tonight the house is buzzing with excitement. .
He rode into town that day, and even in the whorehouse everything went quiet, like the way birds stop singing before a storm hits. The girls crowded to the upstairs windows to watch him ride by, and coo about how handsome he is and speculate about how well he'll poke a girl if she got the chance. They know who he is. Everyone in town—every man, woman, child and whore—knows him. Even the dogs know him.
He doesn't ride into towns by chance. Trouble rides in with him, every time. He's famous for it. The girls who sat in Polly's room that morning watching the street through the lace curtain, are standing in little groups now, wondering who will die before he rides out again.
It's early yet and there aren't many customers in the parlour. The two that are there are getting short shrift, too. The girls are too busy gossiping and wondering if he'll come in and spend some time, and wondering, too, what it'll be like if they're the one he chooses. Each one of them hopes he'll choose them. It'll be something to talk about, to boast about, after. It takes Miz Ellen to appear in her office door and her deep-voiced "Ladies!" to remind them that they have work to do. Sadie and Grace flounce over to the customers on Miz Ellen's nod, the other girls smiling behind their hands, relieved not to have caught Miz Ellen's eye. Those two poor men won't get much more than a quick one tonight, Polly thinks. Sadie and Grace won't want to miss anything if he does come in.
Polly lets Hannah talk at her without paying much mind to what's been said. Somethin' about how Hannah was sure he looked up as he rode by the whorehouse, and she's certain-sure that he looked right into Hannah's eyes.
"I felt it, Polly, when he looked at me. It was like he was seeing right down inside of me. I came all over goosebumps, like lightning hit someplace close by, and I shuddered right down to my toes." And Hannah shudders right down to her toes to show Polly how it's done. She shudders pretty well. "He's quite a man. The stories I've heard! Do you know they say he's killed fifty men? I'd sure like to go with a man like him, wouldn't you?"
"Hmmn," says Polly.
But what she's thinking is that she and Hannah – and Sadie and Grace and a dozen more here in this house – whore out their bodies, just like Johnny Madrid whores out his gun.
They have a lot in common, whores and gunfighters.
Polly doesn't often bring the fan downstairs in case it gets broken, but now and again, in high summer when the heat hangs over everything like a thundercloud, she sits with a customer, flicking the fan open or closed with a swift turn of the wrist and laughing and flirting with him over the edge. They like that. Or maybe they just like the promise the flirting brings with it.
If one of them asks where she got it, she usually works it into her pretending. She doesn't talk about Clara and that hot afternoon on Clara's bed, with kisses and stroking and clever fingers. She can barely remember which town it was or which whorehouse. There's only this town and this whorehouse now. They're all the same, anyhow.
So she talks about her pretending instead.
She's always pretending. More than just the acting that Clara talked about, the whore's playacting that the man about to poke her is the one she's been waiting on all her life, making him believe he's the best she ever had. Not that sort. No. This is about changing everything about her to make-believe, because that's better than looking around her and thinking that this is all there is, and this is all there can be. If she didn't do the pretending, she'd have to do some forgetting instead; she'd be drinking a dozen glasses of real whiskey a day and not the cold tea that the bartender serves the girls.
All of her customers get a little something of this pretending, while they talk downstairs or while they dance and drink. She doesn't do it when they get past the talking and go upstairs. It's back to the whore's play-acting, up there; that's the only kind that interests a man.
Sometimes she pretends so much, she almost comes to believe it. In her make-believe, she's from someplace good; someplace where there's not so much dust and heat and where the man who first stripped her to her skin and poked into her wasn't the middle-aged miner with a scratchy beard and dirt caked under his fingernails who'd bought her from her Ma for a week. It's not the someplace far away with the birds and monkeys, of course, but still a good someplace for all that.
St Louis has a nice sound to it. Tonight, she decides, she'll be from St Louis.
All day long, whispers of news have made their way into the house. Johnny Madrid stopped off at the barber shop for a shave and a bath. He didn't get a haircut. Johnny Madrid ate in Rosina's Cantina. He had the enchiladas, or maybe it was the pozole. Johnny Madrid drank a bottle of whiskey and bucked the tiger with a game of faro in the saloon. He won.
Now Johnny Madrid is here, in the whorehouse parlour. He looks at the girls lined up for him to choose from, and smiles and crooks his finger at Polly. So she's sitting at a little table at the side of the parlour, all the other girls staring and sulking, and she's doing her pretending with Johnny Madrid. She peeks at him over the edge of her fan and smiles her best smile at him.
"My daddy was a minister, honey. We weren't real rich, but he had a good church and he wanted only the best for me. He sent me to a Ladies Seminary there. It was real elegant, that school. They taught us to be ladies." She leans forward so he can get a good look at her bosom. "You won't believe this, but my fancy sewin'… well! I could have won prizes at the county fair."
Johnny Madrid's drinking tequila, not whiskey, and she takes a sip along with him to be sociable. He smiles at the way she pouts at the taste. His voice is soft and polite. "St Louis is a long ways north of here, I reckon. What brought you this far south, cariña?"
"I fell in love." She sighs. "With Alfonso. He was Eye-tal-ian and so handsome. You have the look of him, but he didn't have blue eyes. He was our dancing master." She dabs at an eye with a finger that's careful not to smudge her makeup and tells how Alfonso betrayed her and ruined her. She sighs again. "I was just a child."
Johnny Madrid doesn't laugh, although his mouth quirks up at one side. But he doesn't offer to find Alfonso and shoot him for her either, which Polly thinks she might have liked. But she forgives him the blunder because he's a very good-looking man, as good looking as sin, and his eyes are a bright, bright blue in his tanned face.
Now, sometimes when she's telling the tale, the token Alfonso gives her of his undying, deceitful love is a parasol with a deep fringe, or the pretty bracelet she's wearing, or a square of priceless lace; but tonight she says that he gave her the sandalwood fan. She flutters it at Johnny Madrid and makes eyes at him over it.
The gunfighter listens to her story and smiles, and when she leans forward to give him a good look at her bosom in the tight, low-cut corsets, his smile widens. He isn't laughing at her, she decides, but because he likes what he sees. She doesn't draw back when he runs a finger over the swell of her breasts. His finger's slightly callused and it leaves a mark in the sheen of sweat on her skin. She'd powdered them too, before coming downstairs, but this blamed heat! When she gets upstairs with him it'll be hot and sticky grappling with him on the bed. Leastwise the maid, Melia, will have changed the sheets; that's something to be thankful for.
Miz Ellen comes to the table in a sweep of full skirts and the scent of lavender water. She's dressed real fine in lace and silk. She looks like a lady, not like one of the girls. Not like Polly.
None of the girls have tops to their dresses; just corsets with a little lace for modesty, boned to push their bosoms up to make a man notice them, and matching short satin skirts, red or blue or green, with hems that flounce around their knees. They wear thin black stockings and pretty little high-heeled shoes with crystal buckles. But they don't wear drawers. It's quicker that way, and they can work their way through more customers in a night, and that keeps Miz Ellen happy. She stands behind the bar or at her office door, and if a girl isn't pulling her weight she'll let her know, no punches pulled, and send her out again to find another nark to pay for a quick tumble in the rooms upstairs. She's hard, but fair, is Miz Ellen. She doesn't tolerate shirking.
Now she smiles. Polly knows that smile. It's the smile Miz Ellen keeps for important customers. "Is everything to your taste, Mister Madrid?"
Johnny Madrid raises the fingertip to his lips and smiles. "I guess so, Ma'am."
Miz Ellen's smile deepens. Lawks, she even has dimples! Who'd have thought that? She puts her hand on Polly's hair, real gentle, like a Ma might do if you have a Ma who wasn't like the one Polly had. "Polly's one of my best girls, Mister Madrid. I'm sure she'll please you."
Johnny Madrid smiles at Polly and when Miz Ellen names the price for the night he pays up without a murmur. It's a little more than Miz Ellen usually charges, and it makes Polly feel special, like she's really is Miz Ellen's best girl and worth more tonight.
"So," says Johnny Madrid. "Let's go see how well you can please me, Polly."
He has clever hands. They're quick and skilled and neat. She supposes that they have to be, given his trade, but at the same time she's surprised just how skilled they are as they brush over her skin as she undresses for him. He unlaces her stays for her and smoothes his hands over her breasts and sides. He squeezes her nipples, rolling them gently between fingers and thumb while she wriggles out of her stockings, until Polly is panting for breath and feeling the heat start to pool between her legs. All she's left wearing is a black ribbon around her throat with Clara's buckle threaded on it. He taps that with a finger, smiles, and leaves it there while he looks her over.
She hopes he likes her. She isn't the biggest filly in the stable, she knows that, and if he likes big-chested girls, he'd have been better going with Sadie, who has breasts like melons. She puts her shoulders back to make her bosom look more pert and slides her hands underneath to push them up. Her nipples are already pink from his fingers. He doesn't look disappointed or as though he wants bigger ones like melons, and starts unbuttoning his shirt, holding her in that bright blue gaze all the while.
"Don't touch my rig," is all he says when she moves in to help him. He unbuckles the gun belt himself and hangs it over the bedpost, where the gun will be near his hand.
But he lets her unbutton his shirt and unbuckle his pants belt, and he's tanned brown all over, and although there's a few scars here and there, he's smooth and clean and doesn't smell except of barber-shop soap, and that's so much better than most of the men she's had that she laughs, and he catches her into his arms and they tumble onto the bed and they laugh and push and roll and bite and lick and kiss and he's thrusting into her so hard, not rough but kind of determined, and the bed is creaking and bouncing and he feels so good that she's crying out and pulling him real close and then…
And then he does it all over again.
It's so hot that when he finally falls asleep, she slides out of the bed. The clean sheets that had been cool when they first rolled on them are tangled and damp now. He lies on his side, his hand outstretched to be close to his gun, with a twist of sheet around one leg. The rest him is as bare as the day he was born, his brown skin glistening with sweat in the low lamplight.
He was kind to her in their coupling. He wasn't rough on her, he didn't pinch and pull on her nipples or push up into her without getting her ready and wanting it first. She'd thought a gunfighter, a man who kills for money, wouldn't care about things like that, but he's a gentle man. She thinks he wanted her to enjoy it as much as he did. That's nice. That doesn't often happen. She's given him a real good ride, bein' grateful for him treating her so well, and she hasn't had to do much in the way of a whore's playacting.
He's a pretty man to look at, too, even sweaty and tousled. He has thick black hair, left long, and it's fallen over his eyes. It feels damp when she brushes it back, real gentle. She smiles at the sudden glint of his eyes; he's not one to sleep through even the lightest touch, then.
"Shush," she says. "Go back to sleep."
Her whole body is wet, not just between her legs. She feels sticky, and little drops of sweat are running down her chest and pooling between her breasts, and down her spine to run into the little curve above her bottom. Her hair, loosened by him running his hands through it as he kissed her, is heavy on the back of her neck; when she lifts it, the air is cool on the dampness there. She smiles when she remembers what Miz Ellen says: You do not sweat, not in this house and not even after you've entertained a gentleman. It just isn't done. You may glow, ladies, if you must. But that is all.
Jiminy, but she's glowing now. Melia, bless her, has left a pitcher of water on the table near the window and a big china bowl. She's an old whore herself, is Melia, and she knows what it's like to get up from a bed and droop with the heat. Polly twists up her hair and sticks a couple of pins in to hold it, dampens a cloth and rubs it over her skin, every inch, until she's cleaner and cooler. She slips into a lawn chemise decorated with demure cream lace. It's thin and comfortable.
It's still not fully dark outside and the air is heavy. It's like breathing molasses, thick and syrupy and somehow a dark gold. But it's not sweet. The town smells of too much heat and dust and too many people to be sweet. But when she opens the window to pour the water onto the pots of flowers she keeps on the sill, she leaves it open a crack, just in case a breeze should find its way in.
Her chair is set beside the window so that she can watch the town and listen to the townspeople moving around, in and out of the saloon across the way or the store, and she can hear the low murmur of voices. It's her favourite spot in the house, this, and she spends hours watching and listening.
She sits, pours another bowl of clean water and dips the sandalwood fan into it.
The house is well built and with the door of her room closed she can barely hear the piano from the parlour. Eliza's singing something, she knows, because she can hear the faint, sweet sound, but what it is she can't tell. There's a low rumble of laughter. Eliza's a good singer and knows a lot of bawdy songs. Carrie's in the room next door; Polly can hear the squeak and groan of the bed with every bounce, and Carrie's man is grunting on every poke.
A flick of the wrist and all the thin pierced sticks fly open.
She moves her hand slowly, back and forth and back and forth, and the fan whispers on the heavy air, sending little cooler wafts over her face and brow. She tilts her head back to let the cooler air flow over her throat. A soft, deep breath and the scent of it fills her and she thinks about the someplace far away where there are birds bright as her jewelled bracelet, and flowers scented with spice, and monkeys darting in the treetops.
"What're you doin'?"
She turns and smiles at him, wondering how long he's lain there watching her. "Getting freshened up, honey. "
He laughs and holds out a hand. "Come and get mussed up again. No." He shakes his head as she stands and starts to take off the chemise. "Leave that on, Polly. It's prettier than those stays of yours and I'll take it off myself. Come on over here."
She smiles again, and the thoughts of monkeys and birds are dropped as soon as she folds the sandalwood fan and drops it onto the tabletop. And all that's left is little Polly Watson straddling a man and swallowing him up inside her, and feeling his warm hands through the thin lawn and lace over her breast as she rises and falls and he pushes up to meet her.
Some days she fears that's all there'll ever be.
Four nights in a row, she and Johnny Madrid tumble in that bed, until she fears that the bed-ropes will snap and she'll lose her voice from the hoarse cries she gives when he pounds into her. She has Melia and the bartender come up each morning to tighten the ropes, just in case.
On the morning of the fifth day, a man comes to town. There's a sharp flurry of gunfire out in the street, and screams and shouts and feet pounding on the sidewalks.
An hour later and she stands at the window, dressed only in her chemise, and watches from behind the lace as Johnny rides out of town, job done. He lifts a hand to his hat and touches it as he passes her window, looking up and smiling. She moves the lace to one side to wave.
She sits in her chair for the rest of the day, watching as the town scurries about its business. She watches the children running to the schoolhouse and the old widow cross the street to go to the store, the wind catching at the old lady's dark cotton skirt. She watches the men gathering on street corners, their heads together and their faces solemn as they talk.
She's left her door ajar, so behind her she can hear Eliza singing something, or the girls chattering and laughing, or Melia struggling past with a basket of sheets to be laundered.
And every now and again, she dips her fan into the bowl of cold water and breathes in the scent of the someplace far away that she'll never see.