It was the twilight of the seventeenth century, and the dawn of my life—or lives.
The Story Of My First Lives, by Karin Bishop
Chapter 12: Concerning A Roguish Gentleman And A Gentlemanly Rogue
Whenever possible, Mama Nusa and I collected the herbs and items necessary for healing from the natural plants in the forest. However, there were times when it was necessary to visit the Apothecary. I had been introduced to Mr. Lazlo, a plumpish, sweaty fellow, and found him unremarkable but his eyes were alight with ambition. He would welcome Mama Nusa with effusive praise and then, I noticed, attempt to pick her brain for information about herbs and medicinals. I thought, well, he’s interested in becoming a better Apothecary.
I did not visit the Apothecary with Mama Nusa for quite some time, after that first visit, since she only went there when there was no other way to procure necessary items, and then my time in town was taken with Mrs. Müller. I assumed I was learning these skills so as to not embarrass myself should we pay a visit to heal the wealthy. There was no nobility in the area, as far as I knew, but we did have some merchants who were quite prosperous. Several of them had regularly visited our girls at the inn before its destruction.
Mrs. Müller had finished our session early one day, and wasn’t feeling well so I decided to wait outside for Mama Nusa as it was a lovely day. Looking up the street, I saw her cart in the distance; she was talking with a very tall man. I began walking towards them and could tell they obviously knew each other quite well and were on very friendly terms. I also studied the fellow; he was tall with longish black hair turning silver under a small top hat. He wore a strange combination of what looked like old court clothes and a traveler’s coat, long and sweeping, and fine brown leather boots.
Their faces turned to me with surprise and some wonder, and Mama Nusa brought me to her side and introduced me to ‘an old friend’, Mr. Edward Wick. I had never heard her use that term before, even when referring to the other elder women; she occasionally met with them and exchanged gossip and tips of the trade but had never called any of them a friend even having known them for decades. For that reason alone, my interest was piqued, but also because he was a very attractive, confident man. His German had a strange accent that I couldn’t place and after the introduction was made—I was pleased that I was introduced as ‘Juliana Grunewald, my apprentice and more than a daughter to me’—I asked Mr. Wick about his accent. His laugh was big, casual, and inviting, and he told me that he was Irish. Immediately I asked what languages he spoke, as Mama Nusa rolled her eyes. Mr. Wick, his eyes dancing with his smile, told me English, German, French, Italian, some Magyar, and Gaelic, and had to explain that term to me.
I explained to Mama Nusa that Mrs. Müller had curtailed the day’s lesson, and bid the two of them continue their conversation with no thought on my account. Oh, but would Mr. Wick do me a small kindness? Did he know the first lines of Genesis in English, and could he say them, please? This brought another twinkle to his eyes as he asked my faith. I replied that I was interested in languages and was using Bibles to teach myself other languages. As to faith, I shrugged. I had faith in Mama Nusa, I said. The reaction was unexpected. I thought he would laugh, or, if a True Believer, frown at my blasphemy. Instead, he looked at Mama Nusa with deep respect and nodded, saying, ‘As do I’. Mama Nusa actually blushed, or the closest thing to it, and I could tell she was immensely pleased.
Mr. Wick complied with my request and I listened to the first two English sentences I had ever heard spoken, drinking them in. I thanked him and asked that they continue their conversation without me. Since the day was so nice, I went to lay on the grass some distance from them. As I walked, I could feel their eyes on me and I overheard Mr. Wick say, she’s a wonder; and Mama Nusa reply, yes, she is. My heart swelled with pride and her affection for me. I lay on the grass, trying to recall the sentences I’d heard, assigning words and syllables to the Genesis words that I knew by heart. I may have dozed, for a shadow appeared and I looked up to the impossibly tall face of Mr. Wick, extending a hand. I took it, wonderfully warm and sure, and he helped me up, and apologized for taking so much of Mama Nusa’s time. I assured him it was fine and then experimentally tried the lines of English. His eyes widened and he corrected one word slightly and asked if I’d memorized the passage before today; only his uttering of it, I replied, and his eyes widened further. Mama Nusa beamed.
On the way home, Mama Nusa told me of Mr. Wick. He was a real doctor, from Trinity College in Dublin, one of the finest universities in the world. He had a medical practice in London but had run into some sort of trouble. I was unable to determine whether Mama Nusa didn’t know the nature of the trouble, or whether she knew but wanted to spare me the indelicate details. Suffice it to say, he was forced to leave his practice—flee, I wondered?—and now traveled the Continent as an itinerant healer and seller of medicinals. Unlike the many charlatans and mountebanks of that profession, Mama Nusa assured me that his merchandise was quite real and beneficial. I could tell that she quite liked him very much.
Life settled back into its comforting routine, but as we headed into autumn I began to notice Mama Nusa slowing down and getting tired easily. Her color was not as robust as it had been, and I was deeply worried—even more so when she tried to dismiss my concerns. We shared everything so intimately since that crossover ceremony in the forest, and to be shut out now was hurtful and frightening. Everything she’d taught me as a healer screamed illness, but she waved it off. One day as we walked back from gathering herbs in the forest, she had to stop to catch her breath. She usually walked the distance faster and harder than I so there was no dismissal of my concerns now. Back at our house she eased herself in her chair and steepled her fingers as if in deliberation.
Then she told me, frankly and dispassionately, that she had a cancer, an internal disease eating away at her. She suspected it was in her lungs, perhaps from all the breathing of powders and potions over the year. I sat, stunned beyond words. She calmly told me that there was nothing that could be done for a cancer; that no potions or salves or ceremonies would have any effect. There simply was no cure; hers was a death sentence. At this point she was feeling the effects of the cancer, limiting her abilities and sapping her strength, but soon the pain would begin, and it was among the most vicious of pains. She would have to begin using potions to lessen the pain but they would lessen her concentration as well. Finally, when even the potions had no effect, she would take a fatal dose from a vial she had already prepared and hidden away, and I was not to stop her.
I was beyond devastation. I cried and screamed and raged and begged and finally accepted it as inevitable, as she had. I loved this woman unreservedly and owed her my life in every way imaginable. When I had calmed down, she said that we would try to prepare our larger community for me to become their healer, although I was not an elder. She would also seek to ally me with the elder healers in other areas. In the meantime, she would tire easily but there was much to do.
Two weeks later we had need of items from the Apothecary. I told Mama Nusa that I was fifteen, more or less, and could take the cart into town on my own and she should rest. She was concerned for my safety and gave me no end of worried instructions, but finally I set off for town. I would meet with Mrs. Müller for one final time and tell her of Mama Nusa’s condition and that I would not be able to continue her wonderful lessons. I thanked for her time and talent and all that I’d learned from her.
Then I went to the Apothecary with our ingredient list; Mr. Lazlo surmised correctly we were treating a patient with extreme pain—from a wound or cancer? he asked. Reluctant to share the information, I told him Mama Nusa wanted the items on hand before we headed into winter, should we need them. That seemed to satisfy him and he said I could help prepare the ingredients, so in short order I was behind the counter working side by side with him. To this day I have no idea whether it was something I said or did, or some whim of Mr. Lazlo’s, although I suspect the latter. In any event, he asked for a pestle that was behind me. I turned to get it and Mr. Lazlo quickly stood behind me and reached around, cupping each of my breasts in his hands. I shrieked with surprise and he gave a laugh unlike any I had heard before, and then said ‘we could make arrangements’ for payment for the herbs. I told him primly that we would honor whatever payment arrangement he already had with Mama Nusa, and he replied that she had already agreed that ‘he could have me’.
Obviously, this was an outrageous lie and shocked me so much that I was unable to retort and stood, staring. He declared that ‘I knew that I wanted it’ and suddenly a hand shot out and under my skirts and slithered up my leg. He ran his hand right up my thighs and into my crotch, and froze as his hand grazed my little male appendage. I preferred keeping it tucked between my legs, secured in place by my undergarments; those that I wore that day were dainty and feminine with a lace trim that I’d done myself. Had I been a true female, I was certain Mr. Lazlo would have plunged his fingers into me, so aggressive were his hands. As it was, he was able to quite literally seize upon my maleness. I stepped back and slapped his face, and his look of shock turned to one of anger. He raged at me calling me a monster, a freak, and an abomination, and now his anger twisted into a cruel smile. Did Mama Nusa know, he demanded? Tearfully, I lied and said no. Mr. Lazlo laughed again that he’d always known she wasn’t as smart as she’d made herself out to be.
Mr. Lazlo suddenly took a step forward, seizing both of my upper arms. The terms of payment were altered, he said. Henceforth I would do his bidding or he would inform Mama Nusa as to my male status, and I would be turned out. I could continue to purchase from him, but payment would be received in his back room. He dragged me by the wrist into that room, despite my tears and pleas, and slammed his door. First things first, he declared, and ordered me to expose my chest. Hoping he would be satisfied and stop this, I slowly undid my blouse’s buttons, exposing my undershirt. Mr. Lazlo impatiently waved a hand that I was to remove that, also. I did so and stood before him clad only in my skirt and shoes, my breasts exposed.
My breasts had been my pride and joy, and I fought the urge to feel shame for them now. I took a deep, ragged breath and stood exposed to him as his eyes widened. He stepped forward and put his hands on them, then under them, and then flicked the nipples with his thumbs. I twitched, and he grinned and said there was much to ponder on, but right now I had a job to do. With that he took my wrists and pressed downwards, forcing me to my knees before him. I suddenly knew what he was demanding, and remembered the girls at the inn saying it was a method of satisfying and calming a man. I knew from experience that it had certainly performed that function with Tomas.
I set to work undoing the top of his pants and pulling them down enough to expose his shaft which was thin and smallish but quite erect. My mind considered quickly whether to compliment him or not, and I decided in favor of stroking his self-esteem even as I stroked his puny root. He obviously wanted more and I forced myself to lick the shaft and tip and put my mouth over it. Almost immediately he began spurting and I was unprepared. Distractedly, the thought went through my mind that I was grateful I’d been forced to remove my blouse as Mr. Lazlo had spurt upon my face and shoulders. When he was done, I laid the shrinking root down—it did not get a kiss!—and asked for a damp cloth. He actually complied and I washed myself, donned my clothes and summoned the same will that had kept me from crying in front of Franciska. I left him in his quarters, returned to the shop and retrieved the items I’d come for and left.
I cried in shame and red-hot humiliation on the way home and was calm when I told Mama Nusa what had happened. She had been afraid I’d been attacked on the way home but her face grew grim as the details tumbled out. She sat in silence, staring at the fire for quite some time, and then gathered me close to her. Mr. Lazlo could not be counted upon to keep his discovery a secret, she said, and he would certainly poison the community against me. She said that her hopes that I would continue living in her house after she’d died, and continue being a healer, were now shattered due to that wretched, evil man. He would be quiet for a time and try to exact payment from me each time, but she was determined of two things. First, that I would never step in that shop again; and second, that she would now give me extra protection that such an experience could never recur.
Mama Nusa told me of a procedure that she was aware of and had considered for me, but had set aside. The reasons were several; I was young and still growing, it would be painful and dangerous, the recovery time was long and arduous, and but for the groping of the horrid little Apothecary, I might have lived my entire life without the necessity of the procedure. Now, she said slowly and importantly, it would have to be performed upon me. It was a skill and technique that she’d never had cause to use, although elements of it were used in other situations. Together we would ready everything, all potions and salves and unguents mixed and prepared, all special tools cleaned and sharpened and set in order. I was instructed to make several days’ worth of food for us to live on since I would not be able to move around the kitchen for some time as I recovered. It was a deeply frightening step to consider, but I trusted Mama Nusa that it could improve and very well might even save my life.
Chapter 13: Concerning A Surgical Procedure Of Great Mystery And Pain
It was a time of dreams and agony. There are great gaps in my memory of this period. I know that Mama Nusa gave me a thick potion to drink, one that made me stupid and disconnected from my body. I first drank a great deal of water but she would not allow me to pee, and once the potion took effect and I grew insensible and could no longer stand, she inserted a thin, flexible tube into the tip of my little bit of boyhood. Gently, she twirled and pushed it into me, arriving at her destination when my urine spurted out in a yellow stream. With the relief of my bladder, I relaxed into warm, happy unconsciousness.
Mama Nusa had always instructed me in the importance of dreams, and told me that in undertaking this procedure, I would dream as never before. I was to mark them but not necessarily to heed them, induced as they were by the potions and not by sleep. Nevertheless, they were remarkable. There was plenty of floating and warm darkness, and I felt a great closeness with the universe. That is, with the strong female side of the universe. I felt a great desire to be thought pretty, and a nearly overwhelming desire to have life grow inside of me, to suckle a baby at my breast, to give comfort and joy to others. Images of people I knew floated past, wrapped in auras of color, from the sweetness tinged with deep sadness of Marta and Ilka to the black and red fear and hatred of Mr. Lazlo; there were also images of Mr. Wick, who seemed to feature prominently in my floating dream, clothed in white and standing with his hands up next to my beloved Mama Nusa. Mr. Wick seemed to have no colored aura at all but I felt a great bliss and security contemplating him. Then I was floating through meadows and slowly coming to earth, then going into the earth and feared asphyxiation and suddenly awoke, gasping and choking.
Not with dirt, though, with air. I was in my bed, a fire in the grate nearby, and Mama Nusa watching me without expression. As I realized my circumstances, I was suddenly aware of great pain in my groin and would have doubled over in pain but my hands and ankles were restrained to the bed with soft cloths. Mama Nusa explained that I would have hurt myself further and undone some of her work if I’d doubled over; hence the restraints. She mopped and dried my brow and my body; great pools of sweat had collected in my navel and under my breasts. There was nothing to be done for my soaked sheets. She looked tired but pleased with the results so far. She spoon-fed me delicious broth and bits of bread, then gave me water to drink until I could take no more—and then demanded I drink a little more.
She had cleaned things up and sat watching me when I had to pee; she said for me to go ahead, relax and pee, since that’s what she was waiting for. I felt the natural stab of shame to be urinating in front of her, but she nodded and smiled as she caught it all in a small glass vial and larger bowl. Holding up the unremarkable yellow liquid in the vial for me to see, she smiled. No blood, she announced, and then told me to rest as best I could, tied up as I was. There had to be a time for me to regain my senses without the heavy potion, she explained, and had given me a draught for pain so I should rest comfortably. She was going to take a nap now, she said, and I should get some natural sleep as well. I asked if she had been up all night; she smiled sadly and told me this was the third day since I had first drank the potion.
Eventually I drifted off and was awakened by pain. Mama Nusa was already there with the pain medication—and Mr. Wick. Mama Nusa had covered me with a quilt so modesty was preserved; I was grateful for that but also because the restraints weren’t visible. They talked in low voices, and then Mr. Wick smiled at me and told me I was a remarkable girl and to trust Mama Nusa. I thanked him and told him that I did, completely, and he nodded and they left me. Mama Nusa returned; I’d been dozing, and she had another draught of the heavy potion for me to swallow, after kissing my forehead and telling me that she loved me as a daughter. As the potion took effect, I worried that it had sounded like a goodbye. But that thought slurred into thoughts of Mr. Wick and I was so relieved that he hadn’t known I was a freak or abomination; he’d said I was a remarkable girl and that’s what I wanted to be. I also felt a powerful urge to do my hair and put on my prettiest dress for him. Bliss took me into the dark again.
The next time I awoke it was in stages, as like a feather. It does not fall straight to earth, but each light breeze carries it sideways or up until it falls gently to settle on the ground. Again there was the pain in my groin but now it was an ache, round and muffled rather than sharp and pronounced. Mama Nusa smiled and came up to hug my shoulders and cradle my head to her bosom, and then kissed the top of my head. She gently untied the restraints, telling me to be slow and deliberate in all movements, and assisted me sitting up. I was heavily wrapped in bandages from my waist to the tops of my legs, as I had expected.
Mama Nusa had told me what the procedure was, of course, before I agreed to undertake it and before we proceeded. She said there were several possibilities of results, depending on her skill, my body, and any unforeseen surprises. At the heart of the procedure was the removal of my maleness. Since urine flowed through it, it wouldn’t do to simply chop it off, tempting though that might be. Rather, the tube that carried the flow of urine had to be carefully rerouted. My testicles had not descended, but Mama Nusa was taking no chances that they might appear at some day and begin flooding me with male chemicals. She used anatomical knowledge and manipulation to locate them inside me and move them to where she could remove them, effectively gelding me. I certainly didn’t have any reservations about such a procedure.
Mama Nusa said there were basically three possible outcomes of this procedure—not counting death, of course. In all three of them I would have no tell-tale tube of maleness and could stand, legs spread, and would look from a meter away like any anatomically correct, naturally-born female. It was only on close inspection that the three possibilities were different. The first was that I would look like I’d had a birth deformity, neither male nor female in appearance. The second would be that I would look like a female but would have no vaginal opening. The third, the most hoped-for and least likely, was that she would be able to create a new vagina, the actual opening to a non-existent womb, that would fool all but the most discerning of medical practitioners. I would not have a monthly blood flow or be able to give birth, of course, but I would look unremarkably like any other female.
It was quite some time before I knew the results. I wore bandages and Mama Nusa would have me lie down as she removed the bandages and gave me sponge baths, then applied medicine and re-bandaged me. By the end of the week—that is, the first week that I was fully conscious, being in fact the third week since the surgery—I could move about the house slowly with difficulty and pain, even with her pain medication. At least I can cook and you can sleep, I told Mama Nusa, who was beginning to show the ill effects of her cancer. It caused a sad laugh for both of us, moving now slower than we ever had, but at least it was an activity we were sharing. Urination was strange; I was instructed to hold as long as I could until I got to the proper place, and only then release. Mama Nusa said I would have to get used to different muscles to pee, something that was so natural I took it for granted. I would have to tell Mama Nusa when I needed to defecate and she would assist with a round pan, then bathe me and re-do my bandages.
The bandaging was strange, as many yards were inside of me and had to be changed often. They caused a very full sensation in my groin—once the intense pain had subsided. I was later to learn that there was a kind of plug inside me, held by the bandages. In my time with Mama Nusa, I had learned some of the ways of healing wounds, and the methods we used to close the wound, flesh to flesh, as quickly and cleanly as possible. Now we were doing the exact opposite, Mama Nusa explained carefully. The removal of my maleness had left a wound but the desire was for the wound to not close; rather for the flesh surrounding it to heal. I was familiar with the female anatomy and knew that for our third possibility to be realized, the plug was necessary despite the discomfort. My main concern, besides the health of Mama Nusa, was her pronouncement of my healing. I clung to each smile and nod of hers during the changing of my bandages and inspection of my groin.
Finally came the day of revelation; nearly two months had passed since the day I’d drunk the heavy potion. As usual, I lay and was unwrapped and bathed, and then Mama Nusa nodded and said for me to look. While I had tucked away the small bit of flesh between my legs for years now, it would still dangle if left unbound. This was wholly different: I spread my legs wide and it was the most remarkable thing imaginable to look down and not see my little maleness. There was nothing there, absolutely nothing! What sparse hair I’d had was gone, shaved, but was starting to grow back in a pale downy fuzz. I could see the edge of a cleft and nothing else until Mama Nusa stood between my legs with a mirror. Stunned, I contemplated the reflection. It was a vagina. I’d certainly seen enough on the girls at the inn, and Mama Nusa’s, of course, but this was mine and as far as I could tell, it looked perfect! Meaning, of course, it looked natural. Unremarkable. Ordinary. And that was the most wonderful, remarkable, extraordinary thing!
I was encouraged to explore but must do so with absolutely clean hands and great caution. Mama Nusa wanted to be present at my first urination; I would squat, of course, but I’d been doing that for some time anyway. I was instructed to wipe from front to back and never the opposite, and then Mama Nusa smiled and held up a shiny wooden peg. She informed me that skin always wanted to bond with skin, and if left unattended, my new vagina would close up. Therefore, I was to lubricate this peg and gently insert it as far as I could, every day. I stared at her, and Mama Nusa smiled and nodded and explained that yes, she was confident that the third possibility, a normal-looking vaginal opening, had in fact been achieved. Tears burst forth and we hugged and rocked each other endlessly.
Chapter 14: Concerning A Ruse Of Mama Nusa’s And The Death Of Me
Over the next month Mama Nusa grew weaker and weaker even as I grew stronger. The sense of not having anything between my legs was still refreshingly wonderful, but every day it became more normal. Oddly enough, I felt my gait to be different, realizing that my hips were a little more forward than before, and I had developed an extra sway in my walk that reminded me of Marta in happier days. I believe it was that extra sway that brought a frown to Mama Nusa as she called me to her side. I sat dutifully, arranging my skirts.
Mama Nusa told me that she had two items to discuss with me. The first was about sex. She told me of the natural and unnatural intercourse between men and women, in far greater detail than I’d learned from Marta and Ilka, and that answered questions I hadn’t known I’d had. One question, especially, that was on my mind—I learned why I was becoming excited using the wooden peg daily. Mama Nusa grinned and told me that it was to aid in my recovery and also to prepare me for the day when I would take a man inside of me. I blushed furiously and was speechless at the implications, and regarded the wooden peg very differently the next time I applied it.
The second item of Mama Nusa’s discussion concerned my future, as she made it plain and wished that I accept the fact that she had no future left to her. It had been her dream that I should remain in her house and make it mine after her death, and continue her legacy of healing. Now, thanks to the discovery by Mr. Lazlo—and his nature to spread rumors—it would not be possible. She had hoped I would be much older before her end came, but sadly, it was not to be. A girl of sixteen would not be taken seriously as a healer no matter what her training or ability might be; perhaps if I’d been in my twenties when the cancer took Mama Nusa, it would have been possible.
Mama Nusa had concocted a complicated ruse, or series of ruses, designed to remove me from the suspicions of Mr. Lazlo, disconnect any lingering memories the community might have of Jules Schneider or Juliska the seamstress, and provide what she felt was the best immediate future for me. I was to accept her last great ruse without protest, meekly and humbly submitting to do my part, and I did so, gladly. It was her wish and I would have accepted it anyway, but even more so now that it was plain that she was dying and in ever-increasing pain, despite her medications.
The ruse could only be put in action with the arrival of Mr. Wick, and we anxiously spent days watching for his gaily-painted wagon until the day he arrived. He explained that it had taken some time to acquire ‘the appropriate object’. As I was unaware of such an object, I knew then that Mama Nusa was intentionally leaving me ignorant of certain portions of her scheme. I decided to not press for details; I loved and trusted her, and I liked Mr. Wick very much but especially valued Mama Nusa’s obvious trust in him.
Mr. Wick informed us that the outside world was changing; in this year of 1705, King Leopold I had died after nearly fifty years as our emperor. Mama Nusa shook her head at this news, declaring it hard to think of his absence. She remembered when he’d succeeded Ferdinand III. It was the only time I got an inkling how old she truly might be. She told us of the overwhelming joy and relief when Leopold had turned back the Turks from the gates of Vienna, and knew that his successor, his son Joseph I, had a mighty task set out for him. It would be a time of great turmoil and confusion, and all the better for us to execute her ruse.
The wheels were set in motion but were very complicated. Mr. Wick said it was a gavotte, a structured dance where each element must enter at a precise time. That was all very well and good, but what was heartbreaking for me—aside from the thought of Mama Nusa’s impending death—was that I would be leaving our house forever. As I looked around my home, I realized that I had spent nearly a third of my life here, was transformed here, and had fully intended to live and die here. It was with great sorrow and tears that I secured my belongings and loaded them in Mr. Wick’s wagon. Mama Nusa gave me quantities of potions and salves as well as her books and every piece of paper or parchment she possessed. She knew her days were numbered and that she would heal no more and had no use of the items. She retained a few potions for pain, and some necessary for the ruse.
My facial skin, arms and upper chest were darkened with a brown dye that washed off easily with water, yet was most effective. I was given the clothes of a Gypsy girl to wear, colorful beribboned skirt and blouse, and finally a thick, long black wig. With high-heeled boots and little black gloves, I felt so much in costume as a Gypsy that I did a little folk dance, one of the ones I remembered from the girls at the inn, to the great amusement of Mama Nusa and Mr. Wick, who immediately dubbed me Katarina. He schooled me in how to speak and act as Katarina, the Gypsy girl.
We loaded the wagon with the necessary supplies and set off for town with me driving our pony-cart behind, until we stopped in a specific place just outside of town. I climbed onto Mr. Wick’s wagon and he secured my ankle with a quite-visible cuff and chain. With a calm encouragement to ‘be bold’, we rode into town. The townspeople knew Mr. Wick’s wagon and welcomed him, many coming out to smile and wave and stare at his ‘new assistant’. Many of the men grinned and nudged each other and since Mama Nusa’s discussion of sex, I had no doubt how they regarded the nature of the relationship between Mr. Wick and Katarina the Gypsy girl.
Pulling up before the Apothecary, Mr. Wick’s manner to me was curt and dismissive. I stayed on the seat, looking sullen and holding the reins of the horse while he entered. What transpired inside was this: Mr. Lazlo’s lascivious nature battled with his desire for profit. As he filled Mr. Wick’s order for medicinals, he asked about the Gypsy girl and the chain. Mr. Wick spun a tale of acquiring her but having to resort to the chain as ‘she’—I—would run away. Mr. Lazlo asked if Mr. Wick feared that in a deserted area, she might stab him and remove the key from his person. Mr. Wick grinned and said he was not stupid; he kept the key at the back of the wagon, too far for her chain to reach. Only with Mr. Wick’s continued good health could she hope for release. Mr. Lazlo grinned wickedly and approved, and said he felt Gypsies were thieves and whores so why not make the best use of a pretty one?
Mr. Lazlo followed Mr. Wick outside, where Mr. Wick said to me in Gaelic, ‘This man is an idiot. Snarl something.’ As I’d been learning Gaelic from Mr. Wick, I complied by snarling, ‘His manhood is the size of a small boy’s.’ Mr. Lazlo, who was ignorant of the language, nearly drooled with lust and proclaimed me ‘fiery’. Mr. Wick, frown twitching with mirth, stowed his items in the back of the wagon as Mr. Lazlo continued to stare at me as I’d seen men stare at the girls at the inn. It wasn’t difficult to stare haughtily back with hatred, as he was the one who had groped me and made this ruse necessary. It was he that forced me to leave Mama Nusa and our home in the forest. Mr. Wick climbed up on the wagon and I pretended to despise him and we set out, leaving Mr. Lazlo with his sexual fantasies.
As soon as we’d cleared town, we returned with great haste to our starting point by another road. Mr. Wick had removed the chain and I climbed into the wagon, where Mama Nusa sat on cushions, telling me of her approval of the first stage of the ruse. I stripped out of the Gypsy clothes and wig as she began sponging off the dark color. I donned my regular blouse and skirt—that is, Juliana’s clothes—as we arrived at the pony, calmly munching grass next to his cart. In the sunlight, Mr. Wick studied my face critically and wiped away the last of the Gypsy dye and pronounced me acceptable. We helped Mama Nusa into the cart and the two of us set out for town. Mr. Wick, meanwhile, retraced our route out of town.
Once again we pulled up to the Apothecary. Mama Nusa had taken a large dose of a specific potion that was keeping her pain at bay and gave her the ability to walk unaided for a short time. We entered Mr. Lazlo’s shop and I hung back, praying the hatred in my eyes wasn’t too much like the Gypsy girl’s, but knowing that Mr. Lazlo would be aware of its true origin due to his fumbling between my legs. Mama Nusa had a list of items and as Mr. Lazlo filled her order, he cast glances at me that were a combination of lust and disgust, and only the two of us knew the origins. Finally he gave me the large bags with her order and when I took them outside to load on the cart, he questioned Mama Nusa as to my nature. He told her that I was a sinful degenerate, a boy masquerading as a girl and that she was not as smart or worldly as she pretended. Or perhaps Mama Nusa knew, and was using the boy-girl for her own …purposes? Mama Nusa stood quietly, absorbing his ranting, and then told him that she had no idea what he was talking about. Juliana Grunewald was a girl, she said, as she should know having seen me naked. Mr. Lazlo told her that her lies were useless; he had already informed the townspeople of the true nature of the so-called girl Juliana. Mama Nusa turned and left without another word.
I could tell that she was having trouble not screaming with anger and laughter at the same time at the pretentious hypocrisy of Mr. Lazlo. We had one more stop and she contained herself as we pulled up at the house of Mrs. Müller. We went to the door and I held a bag with the latest supply of the medicines used by Mrs. Müller. Mama Nusa had long ago told me that they were largely useless but contained a quantity of narcotic that Mrs. Müller was secretly addicted to. It was this method of payment that had allowed my lessons in courtly feminine manners.
However, courtly feminine manners were not in evidence when Mrs. Müller opened her door. She looked at me with unbridled scorn and disgust and treated Mama Nusa as an inferior for being in league with such a creature as I. Mama Nusa feigned shock and dismay at the accusations of Mrs. Müller, asking how she could have come to such a delusion that I was, in fact, a boy. Hadn’t Mrs. Müller herself spent countless days and weeks in my presence, teaching me the niceties of feminine deportment? Had I comported myself in any masculine way at any time? To what did she owe such a tale? Mrs. Müller replied haughtily that Mr. Lazlo had discerned my true nature, as he was a man of science and knowledge. He had spread the news to help protect the townspeople from whatever nefarious scheme I was concocting through my masquerade.
Mama Nusa had prepared for this event as well. She turned to me and ordered me to return the bag to the cart, while she blocked Mrs. Müller’s attempt to retrieve it. Mama Nusa apologized but caused Mrs. Müller to retreat into her house, followed by Mama Nusa and lastly, by me. Using the most courtly etiquette and language that I’d been taught, I told Mrs. Müller that I was devastated at her accusations and unable to believe that she could entertain them. Mrs. Müller demanded that Mama Nusa leave and take ‘that creature’—meaning me—with her. Mama Nusa spoke forcefully then, and I knew the tremendous strength it required in her condition. In a tone she’d never used before, she sternly ordered Mrs. Müller to sit down. Mrs. Müller did so, with a plop, her mouth open in shock.
Mama Nusa declared that Mr. Lazlo had attempted to assault me and had been rebuffed. In vengeance and fear, he had spread this malicious lie that Mrs. Müller had heard. Without a pause, Mama Nusa turned to me and shrugged sadly, saying that there was no other way; I must disprove this folly. With tears in my eyes, I removed my blouse, exposing my breasts. Mrs. Müller startled, frowned, and then said that perhaps they were the result of Mama Nusa’s potions; she’d heard of such things, she said. Mama Nusa sighed, shook her head and declared that she certainly wasn’t a witch, but the ignorance of small minds like Lazlo’s …
I could see that Mrs. Müller was already beginning to doubt Lazlo’s story; Mama Nusa ignored her, sighed again and regretfully told me that I must fully expose myself. I pretended to demur but then demurely acquiesced and removed my skirt and then, reluctantly, my undergarment. I stood fully naked in Mrs. Müller’s parlor; the only sound was the ticking of her clock and her gasp. Hand to mouth, wide-eyed, she slowly stood from the chair, taking a few steps towards me, her eyes on my groin. I gave her a defiant look and set my legs further apart. Mrs. Müller then surprised me by rushing to me and hugging me, crying, and exclaiming that she was a terrible woman to have believed that little Lazlo and not the girl that she’d tutored, or Mama Nusa, whom she’d known for years. She bent to pick up my skirt and undergarment and handed them to me, actually helping me to dress as she repeated ‘you poor, poor girl’. Mama Nusa acted with disdain as she asked me to fetch the bag from the cart. As I handed it to Mrs. Müller, Mama Nusa declared their relationship at an end and we left abruptly.
Once clear of town, we dissolved in giggles of relief, holding each other and crying with laughter. Her ruse had been to establish that there were two girls, Katarina the Gypsy who traveled with Mr. Wick, and Juliana Grunewald who lived with Mama Nusa and was absolutely female. Mrs. Müller would spread the ‘truth’ around town that would counter Mr. Lazlo’s rumor, and hopefully demean him in the process. We pulled up to where Mr. Wick’s wagon was waiting and he shared in our joy as we helped Mama Nusa back to her cushions for the return to our house.
But it wasn’t our house, of course; it was no longer mine as my few belongings were already in the back of the wagon, along with the precious books and parchments. It was now exclusively Mama Nusa’s house …where she would die. She had already told me in no uncertain terms that once we were gone she intended to take that fatal dose of potion when the pain grew too great to bear. I couldn’t comprehend a world without Mama Nusa; we had already taken a formal, long goodbye but now were forced to take our last parting. We knew that her ruse had secured both my past and my future, and I loved her more than anybody I had ever known, even more than my own mother, because while all mothers love their children by necessity, Mama Nusa had loved me by choice.
Mr. Wick gave us our privacy for our final farewell, and Mama Nusa had enough strength to walk me to his wagon. Trust in him, she said. He was a great doctor and a great man and I was safe with him. She could leave this earth knowing that I was in his capable hands, and she hoped I lived a long and happy life, full of adventures, and could find true love. I kissed the dear, sweet woman for the last time and climbed aboard the wagon. Mr. Wick came out through the front door to my surprise; he’d been in the back of the house. He and Mama Nusa embraced and he kissed her gently, telling her that everything was in order, and that he promised to care for me. Climbing aboard and taking the reins, we both smiled at the wonderful woman as the wagon pulled away.
I was to find out much later that ‘the appropriate object’ that Mr. Wick had ‘taken pains to acquire’ was the corpse of a young girl about my age who had drowned in a boating accident. I know Mr. Wick to have been the most honorable of men and that this is true and he did not induce the death of the girl. He had been carrying the preserved body in his wagon and moved her into the woods before arriving at our house.
As I said that final goodbye to Mama Nusa, he had retrieved the corpse and placed her in what had been my room. At some unknown time after we left, when her pain had finally reached an intolerable level, Mama Nusa took that fatal dose that she had been saving, and set off several pots around the house that contained flammable materials. She then climbed into her bed for the last time and quietly, peacefully exited Life as the fires took hold, completely consuming the house. Later, when the townspeople came to investigate, they found two charred skeletons, an old woman and a young girl, which accounted for both of us and had the extra benefit of fully destroying Mr. Lazlo’s credibility.
This knowledge was all divulged to me in my future. For now, it was the year 1705 and I sat beside Mr. Wick as we headed south towards Italy. My breasts jiggled with the movement of the wagon, my skirts were tucked around my legs and my long hair was loosely bound with a kerchief. We had decided upon a stratagem to explain our relationship to those we encountered; I would be his daughter. I was no longer Jules Schneider the boy or Juliska the seamstress or Juliana Grunewald the healer or even Katarina the Gypsy girl; I was Catherine Wick, and I would learn of the world and languages and see great sights and be taught about medicine and life and love.
The End of My First Lives
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