The day started off beautifully. It had been weeks since we’d visited Master Anton, and I was eager to get out into his garden while he and my master caught up on the latest news. The variety of plants in Master Anton’s garden, and the beauty of their arrangement, put my own little garden to shame. Every time I had the chance to stroll its paths, it inspired me to try to emulate his horticultural genius. As soon as I unpacked Master’s clothes and toiletries, I turned to him and found him smiling, very pleased with himself because he knew exactly what I wanted.
“Go ahead, pet. You’re practically vibrating with excitement. And if you think you can sneak a bloom without incurring Anton’s wrath, bring me a rose.”
He was teasing, of course. Master Anton had given me permission, long ago, to pick whatever I wanted. He knew that I wouldn’t be greedy, and would refrain from doing anything to spoil the garden’s appearance. One of things I loved about being here was the chance to create tiny bouquets that blended flowers and herbs in a symphony of color and scent. Each bouquet was different, each one an exercise in aesthetics, an attempt to use what Master Anton had taught me. Sometimes I created one with him in mind, and sometimes it was my master I wanted to delight.
Every time we came, something new was in bloom, and the moment I stepped out onto the patio, I knew that this week-end would be no exception. As I started down the path to the rose bed, the fragrances of old-fashioned roses mingled in the air. Two curved stone benches faced each other within the circle of the rose beds, and that’s where I headed. Sometimes, especially at night, under the moon, it seemed like an enchanted place. Even now, in broad daylight, it retained some of that magic. I wanted to sit for a while and simply bask in the beauty around me before visiting the rest of the garden.
As I was about to sit down on the bench that let me look over the bed of pink and red roses, my foot brushed against something. Just underneath the bench was a book someone must have dropped or brushed off without realizing it. I bent over and was reaching for it when a shadow fell over my shoulder. I straightened and spun around, startled, wondering how I could not have heard someone come up behind me. I was usually more aware of my surroundings than that. My reaction must have surprised the man who stood in front of me now, for his eyes were wide, and he was stepping back as if he thought I might attack him. At least, that’s what his expression seemed to say. Of course, my size alone would make that quite ridiculous, since he towered over me by several inches and was quite well built. Compared to such a figure, I’m a mere wisp. But he had reacted automatically, no doubt.
He was a stranger to me, not one of Master’s friends, and he hadn’t been at Master Anton’s dinner table the night before, so he must be a late arrival. It was rare to see new people at Master Anton’s weekends, and his strange reaction to me wasn’t one I would have expected, even if he didn’t know anything about me.
“Did I frighten you, sir? I’m sorry. I should know better than to come up behind someone without warning.”
How silly of me to think that I might have frightened him. How could he have seen anything fearsome about me? And now, seeing me in full, so to speak, standing before him with my hands clasped and my eyes down, as was proper, why was he apologizing? I could only shake my head as answer to his question, and hope that he would lose interest and leave me be. If my demeanor didn’t tell him that I was merely a slave, surely my collar would, or my clothing. However well Master might dress me, and he spares no expense on my appearance, I couldn’t be mistaken for a free man. Yet he had addressed me as ‘sir.’
But he continued. “This is the first time I’ve been Anton’s guest. He’s busy at the moment, so he suggested that I wander around and become familiar with the place. I couldn’t help admiring the garden from inside, but if I’m disturbing you, I’ll leave you be and come back another time.”
I shook my head again, waved my hand to indicate that he was welcome to stay, and began my own retreat, first picking up the book to take it back to the library.
“Don’t leave, please. Surely the garden is big enough for us both to enjoy. I hate to think that I’d chased you away.”
What could I do? He thought I was also a guest. I corrected him in the only way I could, crossing my hands over my breast and bowing my head, as I backed carefully away. The light clink of the chain brought his attention to my feet and he gasped. I’ve lived hobbled for so long that I rarely give it any thought, and I seldom have to interact with people who don’t know me and my master.
The shock on his face was quite a novelty and almost enough to make me laugh. But that would have been unforgivable, even if Master never heard about it. Instead, I smiled again and waved my hands at the stranger, trying to show him that there was nothing wrong. I considered going to another part of the garden, or even to the greenhouse. But my mood had been spoiled, and there was no longer any reason to stay. Master Anton’s garden was the one place where I could wrap myself, even if only for a few minutes, in the illusion that something belonged to me—the scents, the visual feast, the sheer beauty of the whole. This man’s presence reminded me that, not only was it was just an illusion, I had no right to thoughts that betrayed my master. I owned nothing and I had no right to pretend that I did.
I turned toward the house and walked away slowly, in the graceful way that Master taught me all those years ago and that his friends and acquaintances so admire. I’ve always wondered why, if it is so attractive, none of them have ever trained their personal slaves this way. But masters have their own mysterious reasons for doing or not doing things. Our only task is to learn and obey.
The silver chain between my ankles is part of me, one of the things that makes me unique and a source of pride for my master. As I left the garden, I hoped the stranger would understand that I was not a prisoner of some kind, or being punished or restrained in any way. The man’s shock made it a certainty that he would question Master Anton, and I knew I would hear about it before the day was over. I was right, of course.
* * *
“I hear that you had an interesting encounter in the garden this morning.”
I’m dressing Master for luncheon and my hands slow as I button his vest. How was it reported? Is he displeased? But he smiles and waggles his finger at me. He’s amused, just as I expected.
“A new friend of Anton’s is here this weekend. He registered a protest on your behalf. Anton, as usual, did his best to educate the man in our ways. He has much more patience for that sort of thing than I have. But the man is a foreigner, and one must make allowances.”
I close my eyes, let them flutter open, smile, and shrug. I continue buttoning the vest, then hold Master’s coat for him. As I settle it over his shoulders, and brush it with my fingers to make sure it lies perfectly, we smile at each other. His friends are accustomed to our relationship, which is not quite typical, even for a master and slave, and they know that I’m well taken care of and content. A stranger can’t be expected to understand and, knowing Master Anton, I doubt that he went deeply into the specifics. He would let the foreigner have the pleasure—or the displeasure—of discovering those for himself.
“I hope he has the sense not to make a nuisance of himself. Though Simon and some of the others will get some entertainment out of it if he does. They’ll think it’s worth a bit of disturbance to liven things up a bit. But not at the table, I hope. Even Jacob would consider that too entirely crude. Still, Anton’s weekends have become a bit boring and routine, don’t you think?”
Of course, Master goes right on speaking. I am only his sounding board, an elegant mirror for himself.
“Maybe this young man, this . . . whatever his name is . . . will break up the monotony. In fact, I almost look forward to seeing him try to get you to respond to his chivying. For he will chivy, I’m sure. He seems like the type.”
But the guest, whose name, I finally learn, is Gregory Peterson, does nothing to disturb the tranquility of the luncheon. Maybe he’s been warned off by Master Anton. I’m aware that he looks in my direction rather too often as I serve Master, and I suspect that he’s only waiting for the right opportunity to quiz me. To opportune me? Just how much has Master Anton told him, I wonder. Undoubtedly just enough to whet the man’s appetite, just enough to allow him to stumble over his own feet and make a fool of himself. Unless they’re actually good friends, which I suppose is possible. Well, we’ll find out before the weekend’s over.
No one thinks anything of my clinging to Master’s side for the rest of the day. He knows that I’d prefer to avoid another encounter with Mr Peterson, but an hour or so before dinner, he shoos me away.
“I’m going to take a nap, and I don’t want you hovering. Go to the library and find something to read. You didn’t bring any books with you, did you?”
My negative gesture makes him frown. He’s in a bad mood, but I know that the cause is anticipation, not something that I’ve done or left undone. Unlike Master Anton, who can derive enjoyment from the least confrontation, Master has endured too many of them for my sake, and it now seems he’s changed his mind about the entertainment value of another such. He suspects that Mr Peterson lies in wait, so to speak, if Master Anton has refrained from a full explanation.
“Go. Find an interesting book and bring it back. You can read here until it’s time to wake me for dinner.”
I love Master Anton’s library, and he has always allowed me full access to his books. It isn’t something he would do for just any slave, but I’m not just any slave. He’s known me since I was a child of ten years, when Master bought me. He knows how much care Master has taken with my education, and he encourages my hunger for knowledge. Sometimes, though, I catch him regarding me with a strange look on his face. It makes me wonder if perhaps he’s bothered by the restrictions Master has placed on me. If so, it would be a betrayal of their friendship for him to say anything about it. There are many silences between my master and Master Anton, not just the comfortable silences that come with a long friendship and the understanding of each other’s moods. There’s something else, and as closely as I’ve observed them, and as much thought as I’ve given to it, it remains a mystery.
At least a small part of it must have to do with my education. Master isn’t always happy that I’m such an avid reader. More than once, he’s snatched a book away from me and forbidden me to read it any more. But it’s always my own fault for becoming so immersed in the printed words that I fail to hear his. His anger never lasts long, it’s true, but while it lasts, I’m forced to pay attention only to him, alert to his slightest need or desire. On my knees, which, if it lasts long enough, becomes another punishment, almost more painful than the loss of my book.
I wish I could share the pleasure of my reading with him, but the knowledge I gain from my reading is for myself alone; it keeps my mind alive and feeds my soul. Master wouldn’t be happy being served by an empty shell of a human, so my reading is, in a way, a service to him. Other than that, he doesn’t care about it. But how does my service feed his soul? I sometimes wish I knew, but he isn’t a man to reveal his inner life, at least not to a slave.
The library is empty, as it usually is, and I’m free to wander the shelves, in no hurry to make a choice. When I settle on a history of 17th century Andalusia, I start toward the door, only to be surprised by the entrance of—of course—Mr Peterson. He hesitates in the doorway, apparently unsettled by my presence. Is he going to speak to me again? Surely, by this time, he must know that it’s not proper to try to speak with me. But how much else does he know? I give him a well-practiced smile that reassures without extending an invitation, hoping that he won’t try to detain me. He takes a few steps into the room. I cross my hands over my breast, a bit clumsily since I’m holding the book, bow my head and move toward the door, circling around him, but not in a way that will seem rude. Not too close, for that would imply a desire for intimacy. Not too far, either, because that might seem to imply repugnance towards his presence. Proper etiquette toward strangers can be such a touchy thing. To my relief, he says nothing, and lets me go.
Master is sleeping soundly when I return to our suite. I look at the clock and see that I have at least half an hour to myself. I open the book, but instead of reading, I look at the pictures, finding myself too unsettled to concentrate on the text. I won’t be able to read very far anyway, since we’re all going home tomorrow. And I’ll undoubtedly spend the evening attending Master and listening to the conversation. He must have known, when he sent me to the library, that I’d have no time to read. So, why did he bother? But Master’s moods can shift like lightning, and even after all these years, I can’t always guess what’s in his mind.
Meeting someone new often brings up memories and questions, and my thoughts turn to the one question to which I’m unlikely ever to have an answer. I can’t ask why Master chose me or why he decided to make me the creature that I have become, and I’m sure he will never tell me. When I look in a mirror, the face and figure I see are pleasing. But that’s true for any personal slave. I try to be without fault in serving him, and to honor him as the public face of his wealth and his good taste. But beyond that? Ah. Beyond that, he is a mystery to be solved. And one of the pleasures of my life is trying to solve it.