To Make a Bed tells the story of a maid who discovers an extramarital affair. When the husband and the wife come in to complement her on a job well done, she is polite. After the husband leaves, the wife intuits that the maid knows something.
It is written in blank verse and rhyme.
She pats the white pillows.
The bed is not her own,
as light carries through tall windows
onto the marital pattern.
From room to room, she straightens
and makes the tattling sheets.
She scrubs and cleans the wash basins;
she dusts the powder room.
Affairs between the man
and wife have gone unknown,
though Sarah sees what goes unsaid
when it comes time to clean:
the way tall waves are made in storms,
the sheets have creases,
except through men who forget,
who smooth their wives while leaving creases.
Yet Sarah almost can’t hate this man,
his lust and greed, so far apart
from how she would stand if she were in his stead.
It is as if he is oblivious as a child.
Yet hate him she can. It is not impossible.
Sometimes her hands, as if unwilled,
do rip and tear covers, hurl them quite far,
away from that bed. As if the sheets were masts
in gales at sea, they flap with her strength.
She shakes them, wanting to shake the past
affairs and sins away. One washing isn’t enough.
Through shaking, flapping, the creases go.
Action is best, to calm one’s nerves.
She thinks of him, as she replaces the soap:
out with the old, in with the new.
She scrubs at him in the shower,
with each hard swipe, a bit of grunge is gone.
The lines of black mildew erode
under her strong cleaning.
Her mistress enters, the bright woman,
with hair that rolls and curls on her shoulder
and eyes that flash like a quick bird.
“Are things well, Sarah? How is your day?”
And Sarah, quite near revealing all,
now stops and starts as he walks inside,
filling the room with a presence unwanted.
“Oh yes, Miss,” she breathes.
“Indeed. Everything is well.”
“We’re pleased with you,” Rosalyn says,
her arm snaking around her husband’s.
“You do good work in here and in the rooms.
The beds are made with tight, hard folds—
you have energy in your small bones.”
“Yes, ma’am” says Sarah. “It’s conviction
for jobs done well. One thing I know—
that clean bedrooms can make a mind the same.”
He says, “If it’s the same to you, please leave
my shelves the way they are. I like a mess.
I have my things the way I remember,
and touching them would mean losing them.”
“Yes,” Sarah says. “I understand you.”
“But you do do your job, I think, quite well,”
he continues. “The showers are clean,
the place is dusted, the rooms are neat.
Why, you could hardly tell a person lived here!
Everything dirty washed away!”
Quite cheery, he vanishes, pecking Ros’ cheek.
They wait moments.
She stares at Sarah, woman appraising woman.
Servant and mistress relations quite gone.
“What’s wrong? I see something that’s strange in you.
You know something,” says Rosalyn.
“Something that maids can learn when they do work.
What do you know? Is it about, well, him?
Don’t lie, dear Sarah, the shame is not on you.
But, I… I think I know already. It is an affair.”
She leans against the wall.
Her dress seems weak, heavy:
as if the cloth were thin armor,
as if the pearls were made of lead.
“Is it?” says Rosalyn. “Is there someone he’s known?”
“I hate to say it,” Sarah says. “No, I care little for him—
I mean I hate to hurt you, dear.” She takes Rosalyn’s hand.
Her hand is warm and weak, unlike the girl
that Sarah knows as being strong and fierce.
Every strong heart can break.
“But I don’t mind damaging him. He cares
only a small amount for you, I think.
When washing, I am scrubbing him off you.
I scrub away the day, the night, the times
when he and she make love like animals.
Not like people. Not like humans. Not like couples.
Their love is expensive—too expensive!—
because it costs another. It costs you much, I think.
I pay for it also, a price no one should pay.
Yet I pay not as much as you.”
“Oh!” says Rosalyn. “Is it—oh! No! I don’t care!”
They sit with soundlessness for a long time.
At times, silence can clean a wound, can heal a pain.
They hear him hum, a warm and wild and joyous sound.
It comes from in the hall.
Then he calls her by name, “Oh, Rosalyn! Rosalyn!
Rosalyn! Where, dear, are you?”
She does not speak.
The calling drifts away. Perhaps he went outside.
Perhaps some work is in some need of doing.
Perhaps the lawn is going to be mowed.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
All that is important is that the sound is gone.
The joyous hum is gone.
“I must not sit for long,” says Rosalyn.
“I must better him, move on now.
But I don’t know where to begin or how to start.
This dirty, filthy thing is stifling me. What can I do?”
“Here,” Sarah says, handing her a sponge. “I will help you.
First we should rearrange his shelves. We have our tidying to do;
sometimes it does good to clean and work.
Sometimes it does good to erase his memories.