Revolution: A Short Story

 I wrote this story for Alec Frazier. He intended to do an anthology of stories about disability for his second book, but it never worked out.

Now that he's gone, I've decided to share it, dedicated to his memory. 

Abide, my friend.


.¸¸•.¸¸.•´¯`• (¯`•ღ•´¯)•´¯`•.¸¸.•.¸¸.


Revolution
by Lissa Bryan

 

Holloway Prison, 1913

 

She didn’t look up when the cell door opened.

“Miss Billinghurst?”

May did not reply. She kept her eyes on the featureless white wall in front of her and tried to steel herself for the violation that might be to come.

The man crouched down beside her. “Miss Billinghurst, I’d ask if you would speak with me.”

He was using her name, and that was unusual. She’d gotten so used to being referred to by her inmate number. She raised her eyes and looked into his face. He was a young one, his cheeks ruddy pink under a shock of ginger hair, his eyes wide and blue.

“Why would I do that?”

“I hope we might come to some…. agreement that might make your stay here more tolerable.”

Tolerable for him, or tolerable for her? Did the tortuous methods of the prison trouble his conscience? May turned back to the wall. “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary.”

She heard him take in a deep breath. “Miss, do you think we enjoy force-feeding you ladies?”

“Actually, I do.” She remembered the fierce grin of the wardress who’d sat on her legs – knowing she could not use them anyway – and the cold contempt in the eyes of the doctor who forced the rubber tube through her nose and down her throat. She’d managed not to weep in front of them, at least. She’d kept that shred of pride.

The door opened again and she saw from the corner of her eye two guards carry in a small table and chairs. A pang of longing stuck her, longing to get off this cold cement floor and sit upright once more.

“Please, won’t you join me?” He gestured to the table.

May thought for a moment, then nodded. “Will you help me?”

“Of course.” He slid an arm under her back and one under her knees to lift her. “No!” she snapped. “Let me stand.”

“But…”

“I can do it. Please, just help me keep my balance.”

He took the hands she offered and pulled, tugging her upward. For a moment, she struggled to maintain balance, her knees locked, but she finally managed to hold herself upright. Without being asked, he helped guide her through the two halting steps to the chair. He pulled it out for her, a courtesy she wasn’t expecting and it made her smile a bit as she seated herself.

He took a seat across from her. “They call you the Cripple Suffragette.”

May tilted up her chin. “I suppose I have been called worse. But you haven’t told me what you’re called.”

“My apologies. I’m Superintendent Dawson. I’ve been distressed by the reports I’m reading of your time here, and that of the other… other ladies who were arrested with you.”

“I understand. What’s happened to us should make any but the most hardened heart distressed.”

“Why were you sitting on the floor?”

“I’m told there’s a rule about not sitting on our beds during the day, but I’m in my cell all the time because they haven’t taken me to the workhouse with the other women.”

“Ah, yes. That’s because of your… your… “ Dawson paused for a moment to clear his throat. “May I ask… What happened to your legs?”

“I had polio as a child. It left me unable to use my legs to walk without braces and a crutch, but I can use my hands, my mind, and my voice. I will use every part of me that I can in furtherance of my cause. My only regret is there is not more of me to give.”

Dawson sat back, shaking his head slightly. “I admit, I do not understand why you’re doing this. Do you really believe your violence and destructive behavior will get you the vote?”

It was May’s turn to shake her head. “How long have we been writing editorials, article, and books, chanting slogans in the streets, giving lectures and distributing pamphlets, Superintendent? We’ve been asking you for decades now, but you will not listen. We want the vote. We want changes in law to grant us equality. Now people are finally hearing us.”

“Do you Suffragettes really believe it will be accomplished by violence?”

“Again, good sir, we’ve been speaking and writing peaceably for generations and it’s gotten us nowhere. Only now has real attention been brought to the matter. Perhaps the government will realize now that we mean to continue this fight to the bitter end. When men use bombs in war that lay waste to cities, it is called glorious and heroic. Why should a woman not employ same weapons as men? We have not only declared war, Superintendent Dawson. We are a revolution.”

“Revolution.” Dawson chuckled and May felt her eyes narrow. She’d never get used to being belittled no matter how many times it happened. But she took a deep breath and reminded herself that it was better to be underestimated. That way, they never saw it coming.

May shifted in her chair. “May I have back my leg braces and crutch? I fear catching a chill sitting on the floor all day.”

“You’ve used them as weapons, I’m told.”

May didn’t hold back her smile. “I have. We must all use the weapons at our disposal. “

“So you may understand why I must decline to arm you.”

“What if I gave you my word as a lady I would not employ them in that manner during my stay here?”

“Some would say you are not a lady at all, and thus your word cannot be trusted.”

May closed her eyes. She, more than anyone, knew that she and her sisters were not considered ladies by their opposition. And having that distinction stripped from them made them fair game for any sort of mistreatment. During the last protest, she had seen police officers pull up the skirts of her fellow Suffragettes and throw them into the mobs of jeering men.

“Can you tell me what this is?” He laid a picture on the table in front of May, one taken at the last rally. She picked it up, not to look at herself, but to scan the faces of the ladies with her at the rally, still smiling, still strong before everything had gone wrong.

“That’s my tricycle. It’s better for protests than a wheelchair.”

“Where did you get it?”

“I designed it and a friend helped build it. The third wheel is behind the seat so I can turn it like a rudder, and I pump the two handles above the wheel to power it forward.”

“There are reports you used it to ram into the crowd watching the protest.”

May dropped the picture on the table. “Only those who tried to grope the ladies or interfere with our progress.”

“Police officers trying to arrest them?”

May felt heat rise in her cheeks. “They weren’t simply trying to arrest them. They beat the ladies in the street like dogs. Any man who would beat a woman deserves far worse than having his shins bumped with my tricycle. What happened to me at that rally was--”

When she didn’t continue, be prodded. “What do you mean?”

May’s voice was tight. “I mean, sir, that the policemen rolled my tricycle down a side alley. They dumped me from the seat onto the ground as they let out the air from the tires and pocketed the valves. They left me for the ruffians, laughing as they went.”

For a long moment, he didn’t say anything. His eyes had widened, and she could almost see the mental gymnastics he was going through as he tried to justify the police’s actions. “What happened?”

“A group of about five men encircled me, saying vile things. All I could do was stare them in the eye and dare them to do their worst. But something in my demeanor must have shaken them because they stopped. One of them helped me into my tricycle and wheeled me back to my friends.”

“And after that you were arrested?”

May nodded. “The men in the alley said vile things, but the judge who sentenced me insulted me more greatly when he said I was not like the other women of my group, hysterical women who were associated with the movement simply because they ‘sought notoriety.’ As though any woman would seek to be despised by the majority of citizens for attention.”

“You could have paid the fine and avoided jail,” Dawson noted.

“Why should I pay a fine when I’ve done nothing wrong? Even if the fine were only half a pence, I would not pay it.”

“Just as you could avoid being force-fed if you would just eat.”

"The government authorities may further maim my body by the torture of force-feeding. They may even kill me in the process for I am not strong, but they cannot take away my freedom of spirit or my determination to fight this good fight to the end."

Sharp bangs sounded from the door before it opened. “Billinghurst, you’re free to go.” The wardress at the door wouldn’t even look at May as she said it. “Your fine was paid by an anonymous donor.”

“Well, then.” May offered her arm to Superintendent Dawson as elegantly as though they were at a ball instead of a grim prison cell. “Shall we?”

“I want to hear the rest of your story,” Dawson said, but he took her arm and helped her to her feet.

May took her first steps toward the door, toward freedom. “I dare say you’ll meet me again in similar circumstances and have a chance for further questioning. The revolution is not yet over.”


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