A maid’s face lies stark in the glass.
She bares her teeth, her smile black as rot and dripping. The mistress has dentifrice of pale powdered coral flavoured with lilacs (she knows because she tested the granules with her tongue, once), but a maid must make do with soot. It’s both grainy and slick on the back of her incisors, and when she spits into a dish set by for the purpose, it blights the earthenware.
At least a maid’s bread is white. Chalk white. Alum white. Plaster of Paris white. The mistress sucks quail eggs and deviled kidneys for breakfast, while in the scullery a maid bites into an adulterated doorstop filled with fatty bacon trimmings and anchovy paste, and feels lucky for it.
Until later, when the chalk/alum/plaster of Paris festers in her gut and the shit drips out of her day and night like rusty tap water.
Lye to soak the monthly napkins, carbolic soap for the floors, and elbow grease for everything else. Exotic creams smooth the mistress’s hands to marble (with as much warmth or give), but a maid’s knuckles are prone to crack, to fissure, to pus, to peel. She picks at them every night, long after the mistress has fallen asleep, which blots the bed linen: more lye, more scrubbing to get it out.
Scritch, scratch. The pain stings down to her toes.
Her fingernail snags an unsightly scab and she can’t resist. She expects it to come up wet and tacky like the carapace of a beetle and angles the back of her hand to catch the blood, but there is none: the skin underneath is new and unblemished. It gleams like china, so odd that for a moment she wonders if she’s burrowed too far into her own flesh and excavated bone.
The next morning, when a maid comes bearing the ewer for the morning bath, the mistress is crying. A maid flings the curtains open for light and takes her mistress’s hand in her own for the first time. A patch of skin is missing from the back of that perfect, idle hand.
It is a wonder.
A maid grows adept at skinning coneys for the table. A twist at the foot to break the skin, a slice across the scruff and off it comes.
She finds her own skin works the same way.
A maid becomes mistress — wears her face, for a while.
The poor flayed creature she now impersonates is arranged carefully in the alley behind the house, and it’s supposed there’s a man, a Ripper, a devil about, preying on skivvies in the dead of night. A mistress receives callers in the parlour, sips tea with them and listens to their gossip, their disquiet, their sympathy. Her new maid serves them sponge fingers with crème chantilly. They don’t suspect.
The dentifrice tastes just how she imagined. She pops a quail egg into her mouth every morning at breakfast; the molten yolk bursts on her tongue. Supple kidskin gloves coat her hands like paint.
But skin sheds. It thins and tears with use, and a mistress has but one layer to spare. Her old body, a ruined body, lies in wait, keeping watch through the gaps.
A maid massages her mistress’s feet; she curls their hair, files down their nails, fills them with good food that rounds their bellies and brightens their complexion; then she shucks her skin and steps into their life. She burns through debutantes and widows, even a duchess. Everything is silk and pearl and rosehip and sweetbreads; a man’s touch is chaste, if she permits it at all.
Her peers enthuse over one new amusement or another — a bicycle ride — a picnic in the park — handicrafts — the latest novel — suffrage — and all the while their maids creep about (she observes them surreptitiously) with their palms shiny and blistered, eyes pouchy, dogged. She longs to tell them, to free them, to lift them up, yet they lower their gaze when she comes close. No matter, she thinks, seeing their knuckles all puckered and suppurating: they will find out for themselves soon enough
She can’t know how they talk about her by candlelight, the maids-of-all-work. In the darkest garrets, they pick at their own knuckles and dream of liberation (and standing by steaming coppers of laundry, revenge).
Perhaps she’d snatch a whisper if she stayed, but she (the Ripper, the devil, the butcher) leaves a trail of skinned cadavers behind wherever she goes, all reddish muscle and off-white tendon as good as an umbilical cord, or a hangman’s rope. She cannot give up what she’s had, so she cannot stay. Once her last mistress is put to bed, she catches the overnight post-chaise out of the city and tramps across the last few miles of heathland to the nearest major town. The lights from the factories and workhouses wink like stars.
Under a gibbous moon, she strips naked. A sharp, sudden twist at the wrist to lacerate, then she curls her fingertips into the slit, gathers the slack with her thumb, and pulls the skin free from her arm and across her breast in one long fluttering membranous strip. The wind snatches at it; the moonlight picks out its scars and stretchmarks.
She laughs: it hardly hurts any more. The maid is gone.