Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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Col. Othniel Sweet’s Mysteries of Nature, # 110 (soiled doves)

How much of the personal blueprint that turns a woman to ply love’s arts for commerce’s sake may be attributed to circumstance, how much to native-born habit who can, with confidence, surmise? My brother Daniel was known to wonder, and now that I have set the grief behind me after his murder in a Crescent City sporting house, I have kept the candle company of a night studying on the matter.

Sixteen years have passed since I last passengered on a steam packet into New Orleans. I was there to advantage myself of both the fine library and finer zoo, which I pursued with great devotion by day, but nights aroused other curiosities and the French Quarter summoned. Then, as now, I made no progress in unbinding the hidden truths of vodoun, though I saw more than one chicken danced to death on behalf of curse and blessing. And though hardly driven by the venal, I strayed into the red lantern district called, for many reasons, Storyville, where I drank more than one punch and spoke with many residents—professors who kept the piano lively, customers, a madam or two and several of the girls often called soiled doves, those who waltzed and sang, posed and joked and sold their favors. Flat-backing was one of the more genteel phrases I heard, and always I wondered why this Sue Mae, that Albertine or Swanny or Dot had turned to this deadly profession.

One Ingenue (her born name, she swore), answered straight eyed and without fanfare, “I’m good. I’ve got a gift from heaven.” The tariff she received for less than half an hour was evidence of general consensus. All around me fine wines were quaffed and toffs strolled through, swapping insults and waving dollars. In the Grand Room of Lily Dark’s Palace, girls in scanty danced the Bunny Hug, the Grizzly Bear, Fire Wheel, Belly Rub, the memorable Slow Drag. I was fascinated but untempted, even when a mulatto called Saskia the Terrible succeeded in forcing me to a divan where she mounted my neck and shoved her public secret nearly to my lips. I will not say it was science or virtue that saved me so much as well-informed terror and full knowledge of what one might transport home from such an evening.

Should it be question enough for a man to ask why gentlemen are driven to scratch that itch, to chase the scarlet woman? So much of that answer seems coded into the enigmas of physiology, and Daniel was no stranger to outlaw urges, a single man all his days but one who loved to charm a woman. Why he was so susceptible and I immune is another mystery, but I count it much to the credit of Allie, who I found early and knew my course was set. He had no compass, Daniel, and drifted with the wind until a dagger found him.

My inquiries, those nights of vigil, turned steadily to the distaff component: why would women choose this path? Circumstance, yes. How little likely for a woman to read the law or study in a surgery, to stand at the pulpit or oversee a turpentine works, to captain a riverboat or lead an army and on and on. So yes. Where slightly talented men may run, a gifted woman must hop. Yet many elect for the domestic arts, the factories and shops, and only some small few consider their bodies’ productive parts items for barter or hire.

As is often the case, I am out of my depth, and yet one hazel-eyed pleasure worker offered me access, insight. The doxie was nobody’s fool, and late of a Wednesday, trade being scant, she sat with me on a glider and smoked her cigarette in a jade holder. Her body modestly draped, she might have been a countess or helpmate of some swaggering industrial tyrant. She had the manners of a preacher’s wife.

My dear Colonel, she said, you have heard of supply and demand, but what other than information suffers always from available source but never from want of, well . . . want? And what commodity, to put it politely, will never be misplaced nor exhausted, purloined nor made obsolete by the winds of fashion? Compact, portable, undiminishing, the philosopher’s stone, the universal solvent? You see? And good fortune often provides accessories. Have I not my these and those, my amplitudes and humidity, my flexion and shiver akin to an angel’s flight? A shame, of course, you know only some by eye and the rest on faith, while many can testify like specialists, but what I offer is prime, and I spent no effort in the refining. Let us say that such transactions were ordained by our Maker in the process of design. Scripture makes no mention of why stolid and obedient Adam was so easily won over to his curious mate’s view on the apple, but it requires little speculation to seize the conclusion. Even if her favors had previously been bestowed free of charge, she had only to close the gate, so to speak, and cozen him. Even at the beginning of the world, his impulse to enter and the allure of her dew were instilled in their being. And of course, the other necessary ingredient is that a woman’s urge for satisfaction is both more patient and more available to self-satisfaction. Therefore, need and resource, demand and supply stamped into the very nature of things. So simple, even a thoughtful man can see it. Inevitable.

Recounting her words, I understand I play them in my own home key. Her phrases were more elusive, playful, scented in metaphor, and all punctuated with streams and rings and clouds of smoke as she lit one cinnamon cigarette from another, and I do believe I was spelled by the nicotian atmosphere, as well by those eyes. And yet, I never wavered, though she coaxed and taunted, claiming my research incomplete, my labors far from over.

I drank champagne, but only in sips, and had dined on roast, sourdough and great potatoes, so I was sober as I am now sequestered in my study and penning this account.    

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