A Woman

A songfic based on She's Always A Woman, by Billie Joel, for the Fanfiction Royale competition

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2. Chapter One || Playing House ||

 

"She can kill with a smile
She can wound with her eyes
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies."

 

"Back straight!" her grandmother snarls, barbed words ripping through the humid Sunday air and lashing against the girl's neck like a rider's whip. "What are you doing? Stretch! Keep those toes pointed!"​

The girl growls with the effort, digging small teeth into her bottom lip as she stretches out her left leg, her calves shrieking with agony, her thighs burning. Her shoes are too small, the ends pinch and bite at her toes like the vengeful terrier who lives in the house next to hers, who insisted on snapping at her heels whenever it saw her. Her shoulders are screaming, muscles burning as she continues to keep her arms outstretched. The girl drags in another breath through tight-pressed lips, picturing the clean, country air whispering soothing secrets as it trickles into her lungs like liquid silver, the oxygen winding through her veins and renewing her weary body.

"Keep your head still!" Her grandmother is small and frail, age having gouged sorrowful chasms into her skin. It is almost as if life is a panther, a furious beast that leapt forward, dragging its hungry claws through her grandmother's body. She's an old woman, one bowed beneath a snowstorm of history and a sandstorm of sorrows, her body bent into the shape of a question mark as she sits, hunched, in her chair, hellish-black eyes burning through the girl's skin and scratching against her bones. "Do not let that book fall! Any sophisticated young woman can keep her head still for however long she is required to. And you will be one of those women once I have finished with you."

Her voice isn't loud, but it filled the room just as any influential person could- they possessed a largeness that wrapped around their form like armour and tugged together the illusion that they were far stronger than they appeared to be. Her grandmother's voice is gravelly, a uneven growl that prowls along the walls of the sitting room like a caged lion before closing back on the girl again. 

The Oxford English Dictionary is balanced precariously atop the girl's head and pressing into her skull like a fist. Her head is pounding, the book too heavy for such a six-year old to carry, let alone balance on her head for over an hour. She drags her bottom lip between her teeth again, digging her incisors through the soft flesh until the tangy sting of blood fills her mouth. She doesn't even dare to wince, instead focussing on the sitting room- the late afternoon shadows that drag monstrous rips into to dandelion-stained wallpaper, the white ceiling thickly coated in an ivory paint of sunlight. The room is spacious and airy, the walls freckled with family portraits and famous paintings, the floor oak-panelled and littered with antique chairs- their legs varnished and curled with age.

"You are given eighteen seconds for a person to decide whether they like you or not," her grandmother continues. "The first eighteen seconds determine whether the people you mix with will want to continue to spend time with you, will want to discuss business with you. They with assess your posture, your expression, your clothes. Your business with them depends on first impressions. Therefore, you must impress them."

The dress the girl is dressed in is lacy and thick, the heavy material clinging to her slender frame and irritating her bae skin. She feels like she is swimming in silk- the material dragging down her weary limbs and swamping her sweaty figure.

"Gramma," she says carefully, measuring out each word before throwing them into the warm air like sacrifices to the gods, unsure whether they would be received graciously or thrown back into her face wrapped in razor wire. "Can I go now? I need to relieve myself."

"No." The words snapped against her ears like a whip before retreating again, coiling against her grandmother's him.   The girl shuddered, but the book remained steady. "Gramma, please. I need to go."

Her grandmother hauls herself from her chair, weary bones creaking as loudly as the wooden frame. She's not a tall woman, but she leers over the girl- with the dictionary cover pressing into her skull and flattening her hair- grey curls thinning and scraped back, emphasising every rigid bump and groove in her skull. Her eyes were small and birdlike, narrow and dark, glinting like obsidian and just as sharp. Cold and dangerous.

The air trembling with apprehension, the girl shudders as her grandmother raises her palm. Her fingers are narrow and gnarled, the sunlight leaking through the gaps between them. There was a snap, whip-like, the sound reverberating against the walls, as she brought her hand down, smacking against the girl's cheek.

She reels back, thick dress wrapping around her ankles as she tumbles ungainly to the floor. The dictionary's pages flutter like startled birds as it falls, the thud it makes as it hits the ground is synonymous with the sound of a coffin lid slamming.

The girl feels the threat of tears as they pool in the corners of her eyes, the icy fire spreading through her cheek, emanating from the point of impact- an ink stained smudge of rosy blush tearing along her cheekbone. She shudders before clambering to her feet again.

Her grandmother's thin lips curl in disgust, just as a dog's hackles would raise when a mongrel crosses its path. "Pick up the book," she growls, and when the girl does, it's immediately torn from her small hands and thrown back onto her grandmother's desk. There's another slap. It's sharper- like a bullet tearing through paper rather than human flesh and bone- but quieter too, a furious breeze rather than a tumbling gale.

The girl doesn't fall this time.  

She remains stock-still, small fists clenched at her sides. Her bun has loosened- strands of hair, that were previously scraped back in such a meticulous fashion now tumble free, trickling down her neck like spilt oil. And there's another slap, except this one leaves her with blood leaking through the torn skin, as if the scarlet is nothing more than a hunting hound finally released from its leash.

"After all I've done for you," her grandmother snarls, her voice shaking with loathing, her hatred for her own granddaughter bound by barely-contained rage, "you still disrespect me. I bring you into my home after my daughter and her fool of a husband destroy themselves. I raise you to be a princess, a lady worthy of my own upbringing, and you still, still, take my sacrifices for granted."  

The girl resembles a china doll- cheeks painted a rose-red and a stark contrast to the porcelain perfection of her skin, lips pursed and stained the colour of the candyfloss she always saw the other children choking down at the fairs, a blushing pink. She pauses, leaving the silence between the two trembling, carving ash-grey rift in the air before she slowly raises her hands, releasing her hair from its tie and scraping it back up again, ensuring that not a single strand hangs loose. There's a hiss as she drags a hungry lungful of air between her lips before picking up the book from the table and settling it back on her head.

"I'm sorry, Gramma," she whispers, choking on her own voice. She clears her throat politely before repeating herself. "I am most sorry. Please forgive me."

Her grandmother nods, settling back into her chair. "You are forgiven. This time, anyway. We shall continue the exercise for another hour, however. You must learn to keep your tongue, after all."

The girl forces herself to smile. "Thank you kindly, Gramma."

"You may continue now, Irene," her grandmother says, and the girl straightens her head.

For a six year old, she has remarkably good balance.    

 

"And she only reveals what she wants you to see
She hides like a child
But she's always a woman to me."
 

 

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