Changing The Narrative
by Lauren Evans
It’s late, and the house holds its breath.
Silence presses in, a tangible force around her eardrums. Her eyes glow faintly gold in the quiet light of the candle.
She stills, lips parting. The page held aloft by her fingertips quivers slightly.
The young woman peers silently into the shadow of the doorframe. Several moments pass, each one as unnerving as the last. After a particularly intense stretch of nothingness, she seems to decide the threat has passed, and returns softly to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
It’s her secret.
No one must know.
The young woman comes alive at night. She devours chapters and inhales their words with unequalled thirst. Not a soul is awake for acres, and the unceasing peace is well appreciated by the girl and her book. With endless dark hours ahead of her, she finally dares herself to dream.
Maria has always had a taste for classics. On any given night you might find her immersed in ‘Middlemarch’ or perhaps her most worn and yellowed copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. What she loved most was to close her eyes and recite the words in a whisper, speaking into existence the stories and characters her beloved authors created. Her solitary routine was a familiar dance that carried her sore and tired feet through the long, arduous days without her nightly sources of comfort. Hours of labour were made somewhat more bearable by the knowledge she would return to her dust-thickened covers when the moon arose to cloak her in an inky embrace. If it weren’t for her father, the shadows under her eyes might’ve been a few shades lighter.
The year was 1872, and although there were entirely agreeable educational institutions for young women near the country town outside of Sydney where she resided, Mr Nolunt thought it severely improper for his daughter to be educated. In Mr Nolunt’s mind, education was reserved for men, and factory employment was perfectly sufficient for a young girl’s abilities. He refused to encourage a woman to do anything other than they ought to; which was cooking or cleaning. After all, Mr Nolunt thought, what business could quiet Maria have learning to read?
Unbeknownst to her father, Maria Nolunt had taught herself to read at age 7. On afternoons when Maria finished her farm duties early she would run to the edge of the paddock and mount the wooden fence, flying down the gravel road to the edge of town. Here a stone church sat substituting as a school classroom, meekly surrounded by an overgrown tangle of Banksia trees. Between the yellow foliage she hid, in the branches closest to the window that didn’t shut properly, and listened intently, absorbing all she could of the last 20 minutes of a lesson she overheard before beginning the journey back home.
Maria’s brain would buzz all night, full of fervent knowledge demanding an outlet. And thus began her collection of stolen books.
If Mr Nolunt’s produce sold particularly well at the local farmers market, Mrs Nolunt and her three daughters would make the hourly trip by foot into the city to buy new garments. On these rare occasions, Maria would sneak away from her younger siblings on the premise of securing a novel under her linen dress from the bookshop.
Her undercover listening outside the church provided informal education for a few years, but she was soon obliged to work in the sewing factory with her mother, in which she spends what feels like eternity breathing congested air in semi-darkness.
Now 17, Maria’s few illegally owned books had kept her mind alive over the years. She didn’t quite know what she would do without them.
That was, of course, until late July when, miraculously, they disappeared.
The young woman’s fingernails scrape and scratch at the dirt hole under the wooden floorboard, desolately clawing the empty space where her soul was stored. Earth fills the beds of her nails. Her pupils stretch wide, swollen with the reality of the apparent void.
They are gone.
Austen, Alcott, Eliot, Bronte.
Her pages and stories, escape and power, lost.
Later, Maria would realise it could have only been her father. That winter Maria had fallen ill and stayed in bed for weeks, naturally passing the time by rereading her prized possessions. Mr Nolunt would discover her treasures early one morning when she had returned to work, her weakened hands having lacked the strength to heave the noticeably askew slat back into place.
The books were tossed into the torrent creek by their house.
Maria stands and faces the beastly grey clouds outside her open window, cheeks stained with tears. The cool wind causes her skin to prickle. Her body trembles and shakes with suppressed anger. It seems the world wants to shove her down below her deathbed; right now, existing for labour and forbidden to learn, she was barely alive. The pitiful sky continued to rumble and crackle above her.
A brilliant finger of white light snaked down from the sky. It touched and illuminated a Banksia tree, one that Maria had planted outside her window many years ago. The rapid movement jolted Maria where she stood and the thought occurred to her, an epiphany.
All her life Maria had engrossed herself in the delicate poetry of others, admiring their words, using them to enrich and romance her living. She had acquired knowledge that empowered and protected her against the insolent. Now her meanings and purpose had been ripped from her, sunken somewhere she was never to find again.
Yet something had changed.
Maria turns to face the dark shape of a desk behind her. She ignites a match and watches the reds and yellows leap hungrily onto the wick of a candle stub, casting warmth and light onto her body. She sits and eases a wooden drawer open, pulling out a white sheet to place in front of her.
Maria’s hand reaches for a quill suspended in ink.
In a world that sundered her potential from the body she came in, it was understandable that she wanted to steer clear of judgement and scorn.
But fear only hindered her potential.
The tip of the quill hovers over the blank paper.
It is one thing to appreciate the art of others; it is entirely another to have the courage to create your own.
She has nothing left to lose.
And so she wrote. For all of the girls couldn’t. In the hope that someday soon, all young women could be educated.
Because Maria knew damn well that they had stories to share.