September 22, 2011
A Life

A condensation of my own novel-in-progress, Can’t Be Too Hard, based on the life of Madame Restell, Nineteenth-Century Abortionist.

The woman arrived as people then did: on a boat, with almost nothing, in search of work and wealth and a future better than her past. With change sewn into hemlines. Her daughter clutched to her chest. Her husband – them newlyweds – sick, already.

He would die within the year.

The woman found work as women then did: a seamstress, struggling. She met a man who was a rare find: in their relationship, they behaved as equals. They spent evenings with friends with big ideas, philosophical discussions, too much drink.

Together they started a business. It was small, at first, as businesses in this country once were. It involved pamphlets and advice, and in time a small store front.

The business grew. Trades were practiced, skills honed, knowledge sold: the woman sold pills and powders and euphemistic cures for the then-unspeakable. At some point, a tool kit was pieced together: a syringe, a hook, small blades, mechanical joints, an arrow-shaped spear. The woman became a physician, of a sort.

She operated under an alias, as doctors of her practice were once forced to do. This name became a trusted brand, and in time their small business built their small family a mansion on Fifth Avenue: four stories, smooth brownstone, fifty-two windows, French lace, gold statues, mahogany staircases, marble floors. There was a driver, a carriage, four horses, and a housekeeper.

There were millions, and there were lawyers.

There was a girl named Maria. She came for an operation, and died days later. These things happened, then. The woman was arrested, and this time – her fourth – she served a stay in prison. The year was not bad, as prison stays go: wardens were paid off, better meals delivered, a straw mattress replaced with a feather bed. The year was passed with some degree of loneliness, and some degree of comfort, and without much effect on the business.

Her fame rose. There were elaborate parties, weddings, divorces, three grandchildren, family feuding. The woman’s patients grew wealthier, her business simultaneously more private and more notorious. There was a wrought iron fence, a staircase below the sidewalk, an entrance off Fifth Avenue on Fifty-Second; outside, a plaque: “OFFICE,” in neat letters.

The woman honed her craft. She spent long hours in her den, manipulating tools until she could operate blindly: her fingers hooked in the claws of the forceps; her hands knew the extra care required with the worn-too-loose speculum. The syringe was smooth, cold, delicate, its base elaborate, its measurements hand-painted, dried slightly raised. She knew the each ridged grip of the hook and scalpel. She spent solitude rehearsing: pinching her thumb and hooked forefinger, flexing her wrist forward with her fingers open, withdrawing as her fingers touched. With her eyes closed, no patient before her, she imagined the satisfaction of a grasp, the adrenaline of a completed pull, an elbow drawn inward, a mass between the clamps, dropped in the steel basin seated beneath her upper arms with a soft, oddly gentle splat. The woman came to know her talent.

She practiced for many years. Her husband died; her grandson-in-law became her unwanted carteaker, as grandson-in-laws will. Estranged from her son and daughter, missing her husband to an extent beyond acknowledgment, she took solace in long carriage rides, her practice; breakfasts of hardboiled eggs, seeping yolks damming against toast, with her housekeeper.

A man with red hair and redder muttonchops became famous, like her. They were equals and opposites in influence and ideas. He came to her door, armed with deception and search warrants and, finally, an arrest.

There was a knife, in the end, found when little advice was to be had and a final prison stay all but ensured. The woman was sixty-three, prison-bound, set in her ways. On the eve or the pre-dawn hours of her trial, the abortionist found an ivory-handled carving knife from her kitchen. She draw a bath, and wondered only briefly who would find her, and if by then the waters would run clear. 

  1. onepagefiction posted this
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