Column: Friendships

by Amy Marie Slocum

Anne & Mary

When Mary wakes from feverish sleep, the first thing she sees is a flash of red hair. She reaches out and feels nothing but the dank air of the cell. She says Anne’s name as if to find her by evoking her through echoes, yet hears only her own voice as it is absorbed into the walls. Before she woke she had been dreaming, and when she closes her eyes again she glimpses images like shattered paintings, each scene bouncing off the other, distorted. She sees Rackham’s eyes – his eyes as she remembers them from before, and their quick fade as the full weight of his body fell upon the noose – and Anne’s broad, impenetrable face. Anne, who had been born nearly 7,000 miles from where they had ended up together, called Andy by her father, William McCormac, who left his wife for his servant, Anne’s mother, Mary Brennan.

Lying came easy for them both, but what they ended up telling one another was the truth. Their shared talent for elusion nearly prevented them from understanding one another – it wasn’t until Anne confessed her attraction to Mary that Mary revealed her identity as a woman, and not as the male pirate Anne and her lover, John “Calico Jack” Rachkam, had recruited into their ranks.

Mary is thirty-one years old, pregnant, and incarcerated. At the decline of the Golden Age of Piracy, the intersection of colonialism, trade, and labor forms a bloody, chaotic knot. Everyone, it seems, is killing or being killed. But Mary is alive and, she hopes, so is Anne. Suddenly, surprisingly, their womanhood – the fact of their bodies – is what has saved them, after a lifetime of surviving primarily through the performance of maleness.

Not so for Rackham, who was hanged in the public square, then gibbeted. To gibbet is to exhibit the hanged corpse in order to deter others from committing similar crimes. His is not the first gibbeting Mary has witnessed. She was born in England, she has been to war. Mary is thirty-one years old, and her whole life has been saturated with violence.

A man brings her water. A man brings her a heel of bread and a hunk of meat. The man doesn’t understand that the more Mary’s belly grows, the hungrier she becomes. She thinks of Anne’s body, how it looked stronger and more formidable than ever on the day of their trial, how Anne’s voice did not waver as she silenced the court with not only her declaration of pregnancy, but of Mary’s, too.

Mostly, she sleeps. When she is not asleep, when she is not thinking of Anne, she is thinking of her mother. Her mother, her first teacher in deception. Impregnated after the death of her sea captain husband, Mary’s mother gave birth secretly, later disguising her daughter as her deceased son, Mark. This is how they lived, not only in the sense of sleeping and waking and eating and bathing and walking and sitting and speaking, but in the sense of, this is how they did not die. A woman without a husband, with an illegitimate child, was a woman at risk of starvation and homelessness and destitution. And so Mary became Mark, the son who had been born before the widowing. She learned how to sleep and wake and eat and bathe and walk and sit and speak like a man, and in doing so she worked and traveled and fought and, eventually, married. When Mary’s husband died, she traded one costume for another. She took to the sea, much like the father she had never met. She was taken by pirates, and was their captive until she became a pirate herself. Her willingness to become – and become and become and become – was her protection. Never had she met another woman so dynamic and clever and chameleon as herself, until she met Anne.

When she sleeps, she dreams. She dreams of green valleys blooming with Cornish heath and dog-rose, and of the indistinguishable point at which sky and water merge on the clearest days at sea. She dreams of her dead husband, of Anne’s dead lover, of a skull and crossbones painted on woven hemp. Sometimes she wakes in a panic before being pulled under again, so deep down into the warmth of unconsciousness that she feels as though she’s retreated into her own belly and is lying side-by-side with her unborn child. But sometimes she wakes like a bell, with an alertness that hurts. Before her eyes adjust she catches rounded outlines in the dark, feels the weight of a hand on her shoulder, hears the sound of her name being spoken like the first time she showed herself to Anne, not as she needed to be seen, but as how she was.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read were female pirates of the early 18th century. Both were said to have cross-dressed their way onto corsairs, and ended up on the same vessel for about two years prior to its capture by a British Man’O’War.

Coco & Misia

It is 1920, and Coco is high. She watches her friend Misia’s thin hands as Misia handles her teacup, bringing it to her lips and placing it back down again, over and over, until there is no tea left. A cellist plays in the corner of the sitting room. The sound, Misia says, reminds her of her mother, Zofia, who died shortly after giving birth to Misia. Coco does not ask Misia how cello music can remind Misia of her mother if she had never heard her mother play; Coco understands the meaning of felt memories that collapse time and space. The scent of fresh laundry evokes moments with her own mother, Eugenie, an unwed hospital laundrywoman, dead of bronchitis at the age of thirty-two. Coco has thus far outlived her mother by five years. She wears her black hair in a short bob, parted sharply to the right. Her eyes are lined with kohl pencil, her mouth painted a deep red. It has been ten years since she founded her design atelier. In twenty years time, Coco will move into the Hotel Ritz Paris with her Nazi boyfriend, Hans Gunther von Dincklage. She will be accused of Nazi collaboration, and then absolved. She will demonstrate anti-Semitic sentiments but will be remembered for quotable statements such as, In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different, and, Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance. She will be buried with camellias, gardenias, azaleas, roses, and orchids. But for now, it is 1920, and Coco is high.

Misia adjusts her ample bosom, her auburn hair. At forty-eight years old, Misia has adapted – she is no longer resistant to that which she cannot control. As a muse, her role has always been to enjoy herself without inhibition. Now, she has learned that her role must also entail allowing others to enjoy themselves without inhibition. Misia feels glad to be near Coco, who helps her feel less nervous. This party feels underwhelming. Underwhelm leads to boredom, and boredom leads to a sort of preoccupation with that which has either already happened or that which has yet to occur. She is thinking of her husband, Jose-Maria, and their shared lover, Roussy. She is thinking of the many strange and interesting and sometimes insufferable artists crowding her home, and how the only person who seems to be completely present is her friend Coco. She places her teacup on the nearest surface and takes Coco’s hand (cold, adorned). Arthur’s death quickened their affection for one another, they’ve been almost inseparable ever since. There are certain things only the other can understand – the loss of the mother, the distance of the father, the material and emotional austerity of the Sacré-Cœur and the Congregation of the Sacred Heart. When Coco is drunk she teases Misia, calling her Maria, a derivation of Mary, by praying aloud: Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. They laugh like schoolgirls.

Misia Sert and Coco Chanel were close friends. Sert was a pianist, muse, and patron of the arts. Chanel was the iconic fashion designer. They shared tight confidences, supportive friendship, and a love of drug use and intoxication.

Elizabeth & Mary

A line of buttons runs down the center of Mary’s back, perfectly parallel to her spine. The muscles of her brief neck are relaxed, her jaw is soft, her eyes passive. Her ears rest upon the familiar reassuring sounds of Elizabeth working around her: pinning, trimming, loosening, gathering. She senses Elizabeth’s gestures in the same way one senses a drop in barometric pressure, a change in the direction of the wind.

Elizabeth as weather, as element. Mary as an immovable marble pillar. The activities and postures of their bodies do not run congruent with the contents of their respective minds. Behind her slightly furrowed brow, Mary’s brain is a pot of water about to boil over, each surface bubble a thought, idea, memory, anticipation. She is the brave bearer of abundant cognitive activity, often manifesting as wandering anxiety. Elizabeth knows this about Mary. She is privy to Mary’s most intimate joys and turmoils, as though Mary’s voice is gravitationally moored to Elizabeth’s ears.

Imagine a confluence of rivers at its most harmonious point – harmonious in the sense that all processes of existence rely on creative chaos. This is Elizabeth’s current state of mind. Sensory nerves corresponding fluently with motor nerves, and vice versa. Swift, meticulous movement of the hands, flexion and extension of joints, the bird-like flitting of her eyes. Elizabeth’s thoughts flow on, clear and smooth, one to the next, the next to the last, like pouring milk from one jug to another without spilling.

Sitting still and tall is tiring for Mary. It isn’t until after these fittings that Elizabeth feels the fatigue that has settled over her bones and muscles. She likes to take a long walk afterward, stretch her legs. Mary often comes along, she calls these their “ladies’ constitutionals.” Elizabeth knows how Mary’s mind becomes clearer the longer they walk, and she knows how crowded Mary’s mind becomes the longer she sits. But Elizabeth enjoys this momentary quiet, even as she feels the edges of Mary’s internal restlessness.

Mary looks down at her hands resting in her lap. They are pale, fleshy, small when pressed against her husband’s broad, thin hands. She is a sensual woman, interested in texture, density, weight, pleasure. Elizabeth’s hands, Mary has noticed, are beautiful. They are hands that move through the world with deliberation, purpose. Mary moves her hands for what feels like the first time in hours as she clutches a hunk of soft white fabric. Her pale hands, made paler by grief, will bury her husband.

Elizabeth is using her beautiful hands to mend Mary’s new dress. Her hands will build the Contraband Relief Association. Her hands will provide food, shelter, and clothing to recently freed slaves, of whom she is one, and to sick or wounded soldiers. Her hands will place black teachers in schools built for black children. Her hands will come to rest at the Columbian Harmony Cemetery, and then again at the National Harmony Memorial Park.

When Elizabeth is finished, Mary rises slowly from her seat. She steadies herself on her feet, smoothing the front of the carefully crafted dress. As she inhales she feels her rib cage press against the taut material, and as she exhales she feels the material releasing her body as it moves back toward its axis. Elizabeth takes the pins from her teeth and holds them lightly in her palm. She walks around Mary’s body, assessing the fruits of her labor, before coming to stand in front of Mary. The two women look at each other.

Mary Todd Lincoln was the First Lady and wife of Abraham Lincoln. Elizabeth Keckley was a freed slave and master dressmaker, who clothed elite Washington women including the wives of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Upon President Lincoln’s inauguration Keckley became Mary’s personal modiste and close friend – the friendship growing stronger following Lincoln’s assassination. In later years Keckley wrote a revealing book that was deemed controversial for the fact that a black woman was discussing details of the life of an elite white woman. Lincoln saw the book as a betrayal, even though Keckley had sought to defend Lincoln and felt she had acted within the rules of gentility.

Written by Melanie Jane Parker