Once, long ago, there lived a young slave girl named Nahia. She worked for a wealthy family that had made their fortune in wine making. She did not remember her parents, so she was not sad to be alone without family. Her ancestors had long ago been forced to live
, to be packed in slave boats headed for India . Her father was white, making her skin creamier than most slaves, though her hair was just as black as her mother’s had been. She served the Belladonna family, consisting of only a father and his daughter. The father, especially loved to spoil Nahia, and greatly enjoyed looking on her lovely face. He rarely made her do the hard chores outdoors. In fact, he would always give her the easy indoor tasks to do, so that she could keep her countenance fair, and so he could look at her often. This special attention made his daughter, Stephania, very jealous of Nahia, and Stephania grew to hate her more than the dirt that got on her pretty shoes. When the father would have to leave the manor for business, which was quite often, Stephania would work Nahia to the bone. At times such as these, Nahia was lucky to get 4 hours of sleep a night, and one meal a day. Italy
Time went by, and Nahia and Stephania both grew up into young women. Nahia was beautiful in both spirit and health. She was diligent in her work, yet also yearned for something more. Stephania, was also very pretty, but only because she primped and prettified herself many hours each morning. One day on a soft winter’s night, Signor Belladonna came home from one of his long journeys, with a young man. A handsome young man by the name of Giancarlo Vittorio. He had come to meet Stephania, and if things went well, to be married to her in the coming spring. That night, as Nahia served the dinner, Signor Belladonna had his eyes on her. When Nahia was younger, he enjoyed watching her quickness and grace as she worked. Now that she was a grown, though, his mind was on other things. It was not uncommon for slave girls to be sold as prostitutes when they came of age. Why should he not keep her as his own prostitute? It would make him happy, and she could keep her home. In his eyes, it was the perfect solution.
Signor Belladonna was not the only man with his eyes on Nahia, though. Though Giancarlo was meant to be courting Stephania, he could not help but glance at Nahia every chance he got. Her movements were full of grace, as though she were dancing. As Nahia bent over to dish out his food, he longed to reach out and wrap his finger around one of her dark curls. “’Tis a shame,” he thought to himself, “that one so full of beauty and grace is condemned to the life of a slave.” He hoped that maybe he could speak to her a bit after dinner. Or perhaps he could stay in his room a bit longer the next morning, and wait for her to come and clean it. No, he would wait till he saw her in the barn, and then go ask for a horse to ride. Perhaps he could even persuade her to go riding with him. His mind turned round and round going through each possibility, so that he hardly spoke to Stephanie throughout the whole dinner.
Giancarlo’s divided attention agitated Stephania. Although she was particularly bright, she was not so dull as to not notice how Giancarlo’s gaze followed Nahia throughout the whole evening. This made her even angrier. She would talk to her father directly after dinner, and insist that he release Nahia that evening, and send her to the city. Since Nahia received so much attention from the men in this house, surely she would receive much business in the slums. The thought of this made Stephania giddy, and she did not mind so much anymore that she received no attention from the men.
The dinner finished, and the men hurried off to their rooms. Giancarlo wanted to get to his room so that he could sleep, and perhaps, if he was lucky, dream of Nahia. Signor Belladonna hurried off so that he could find Nahia. He did not want to wait any longer. Before he could catch her, though, Stephania caught up with him. She expressed her concern to her father that Giancarlo could never love her, with Nahia flitting around. At this, he laughed. “Love’s got nothing to do with it!” he told her with a smile. “Marriage is not about love. Marriage is about money, and status. My dear, if you want love, get yourself a lover. If you want a marriage, I’ll find you a rich man.” He chuckled to himself as he walked away while Stephania stomped in a rage to her room.
He had completely forgotten his plans with Nahia, until he heard her singing in the dining room. Quickly, he turned himself around, and headed down to find her.
Nahia was kneeling on the floor, polishing the silver and singing Christmas songs, when Signor Belladonna entered. He stood in the corner, behind her, watching. She did not notice him there until he was behind her, and she heard him laughing gently. She stood as quickly as she could, and glued her eyes to the floor. As he did not move or say anything, she slowly looked into his face. He looked redder than usual; he had drunk too much that night. But she was not afraid as she should have been. Instead, she asked him if she could get him anything. In answering, he grabbed her hair and viciously locked his lips to hers. Poor Nahia was in such complete shock, that she did not fight to get away. Luckily, she awakened from her shock, and was able to pull herself away before he pulled her in any closer. “Signor!” she shouted at him, “What in the- What- Why- How--“ She could not complete her thoughts. He mistakenly thought she was speechless because she was so overpowered by him, so he stepped into her again, this time grabbing her waist and kissing her neck. Furious, she wrenched herself away from his grasping hands, and ran to the other end of the room. “What do you think you’re doing?” He shouted at her, suddenly realizing she had refused him. “You will come here to me now, or you will be gone from this house forever!” Tears of fury sprang to her eyes, and she dashed out the door into the night. She had nothing to return for; she had never been paid for her services, and only owned one dress. She stood for a moment, hesitating whether or not to go take a blanket to keep warm. But she did not want to have any memoirs of the Belladonnas, and by the look of the clouds, she decided it would not rain until she could find some sort of shelter. She decided to find her way through the vineyard to the road, so it would be easier to hide, should Signor tried to find her. As she walked past all the dead looking vines, cold rain began to fall, and the winds began to blow around her. The limp vines caught up in the wind, and whipped her legs, as if trying to stop her. She only ran faster. She ran until the her ribs ached so badly that she could not breath. Then she laid down, pressing her cheek against the cold, wet ground, and letting the rain wash away her tears. She lay there, crying, till she could cry so more. Then, she got up, and walked till she found the road, and then walked along it until she was too exhausted and cold, that she could go no more. Once again, she lay down on the ground. She had no more tears to cry. She was too numb to move, and yet too full of pain to sleep. So she lay there, eyes closed, feeling the rain was away her grief. After a few hours, when the sun was dawning over the horizon, she heard a carriage coming. Nahia tried to get up to move out of the way, but found that she had no control over her limbs anymore. She could not even lift her eyes to see what direction the carriage came from “Ah well,” she thought to herself, “so I will be trampled by this carriage, and die. At least I will die free.” The idea of death was really no tragedy. In fact, death could be much better than her life had been. She found herself welcoming the horses forward. To her surprise, the horses slowed and stopped. She heard the carriage door open, and someone run toward her. Suddenly, she was lifted in up and carried to the carriage. As soon as she entered the warmth of the carriage, she fell asleep in his arms.
Nahia slowly awoke from unconsciousness more comfortably than she’d ever been in her entire life. Although she was not quite awake, she knew she was warm, she could feel many blankets and pillows surrounding her, as well as a fireplace nearby. Once or twice, she also felt a gentle finger trace the lines in her face, or brush her hair from her forehead. The third time this happened, she was awake enough to make the decision to open her eyes. Putting all her energy to work, she slowly opened her eyes to see her visitor. When she saw him, though, she nearly passed out again. Could she be seeing correctly? No. She couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. She must’ve died. Yes, that was it. There could be no other reasonable explanation as to how or why Signor Vittorio was sitting next to her, quietly playing with her hair. A soft smile washed over her face. If this was death, it was bad at all. All warm and cozy, lying next to the one man she had ever dared to admire.
Nahia took a deep breath, trying to suck in all the warmth and comfort. Her smile grew more pronounced as she did this. She felt the movement in her hair stop.
“So, you’ve finally decided to wake up, have you?” Giancarlo’s soft whisper stirred up butterflies in her stomach.
Slowly Nahia opened her eyes, dreading to find out that he was just an illusion. But, even with her eyes wide open, he was still there. Her brow furrowed, confused at what had happened, where she was, why he was here. So many questions ran through her mind, and yet she could not utter a syllable. Before she could find the words to express her questions, he arose and silently walked out the room. As if waiting for that cue, a little girl ran into the room as soon as he had left the room.
“Good morning, my lady,” she said as she curtsied.
How strange it felt to hear the exact phrase Nahia had used every morning previously, used on her!
“M-my name is Aina. I am to b-be your servant,” she stuttered as she slowly dared to glance up into my face.
I knew only too well that servants were never supposed to look their masters in the eye without permission. I pretended not to notice. Quickly, she shot her eyes down to her feet again, and continued, “If there’s anything I can get you, . . . . . . .you’re supposed to stay in bed until tomorrow, . . . .you’ve been sick. . . . . .” She looked up at me with her large dark eyes, as if expecting an answer.
“Oh, well, um, I am rather hungry.” I was just as bad at being the master as she was at being the servant.
“Oh, yes, of course, Signor has already sent for your meal. Anything else?”
“Um, well, could you just answer me some questions?”
She did not say anything, but lifted her head, staring me face to face. I took it as a yes. “How did I come to be here? Why am I here? Why is Signor Vittorio here? He’s supposed to be courting Ste--I mean, Signorina Belladonna.”
“You’re at the Vittorio castle. You’ve been asleep for at least two days. You’re not to leave bed, except to go to dinner this evening. Signor’s had some gowns made for you.”
I easily guessed that these were the exact words Giancarlo told her to tell me. I also knew that she knew much more, and would be easily persuaded to tell me all she knew.
“And what do they say in the kitchens? What do the maids gossip of?”
Her eyes sparkled as she quickly spoke “Signor Vittorio was supposed to b-be courting Signorina B-belladonna. We expected him to be g-gone for months, b-but he returned before the end of the first night, with you in his arms. He’s said nothing in explanation, only that ‘he prefered diamonds to pyrite. He did not leave you alone for more than five minutes while you slept. At dinner this evening, it is to just be you and him. And the gowns that you are to wear! They are most beautiful. And so many! I think he means for you to stay for quite a while, if not for good.”
She suddenly froze, shocked that she how much information she had just told this stranger. Her chin glued to her collar bone, determined to look straight to the ground. Nahia knew she would be severely beaten if she ever told anyone. She pitied this girl. How unfair that she would remain a slave, when she herself had become something more. Perhaps someday she would have the same good fortune that Nahia seemed to have.
Nahia warmly smiled , and assured her that no harm would come to her for speaking too much. Still nervous, Aina ran out the door, eyes still on the floor. Seconds later, a different servant brought in a tray with wonderful food. Nahia had never been allowed to eat, except for tiny pieces she had snitched in the kitchen.
Nahia slowly ate her meal. Afterwards, she was exhausted. She still hadn’t fully recovered from the previous night’s exercise, and was glad she still had some hours to rest before supper that evening. At the thought of supper alone with Giancarlo, her stomach curled, and she felt her head spinning. She laid back on her many pillows, and shut her eyes, trying to clear her mind. She was asleep when Giancarlo crept into the room, and silently, lovingly watched her sleep. By the time she awoke, he was gone.
Nahia awoke to the tiny jingle of a bell. Aina stood there, obviously still cautious. In her arms, was a beautiful periwinkle gown. Nahia tried to get out of bed, but found that after days of not walking, her legs had forgotten how. Aina helped her into a room connected to the bedroom, with a large tub filled with soap suds. Nahia could not remember the last time she had had a bath, or if she ever had. She often washed herself in the river, but that was nothing to this luxury. On a chair in the corner, lay a beautiful periwinkle gown. At any other time, she would have insisted on soaking in the tub longer, but the dress was haunting, constantly reminding her of what lay ahead. She quickly towled herself dry, and then called for Aina to help her get dressed. She would have dressed herself, but the dress looked so elaborate, she did not think she could figure out how to do all of the clasps and buttons. Nahia was furious when Aina tried to force her into a corset. Nahia refused to corrupt her body in order to look beautiful. Aina insisted that all noble women wore them. The war raged on until finally, Nahia ripped the garment from Aina’s hands, and threw it into the bathtub.
Even without the corset, the gown fit beautifully. The satin and velvet felt so good on her body, after a lifetime of wool.
As soon as she was dressed, she turned to leave for supper. Aina stopped her before she had gone two steps, and pulled her into a chair. Next to the chair, lay a dresser covered hair and make-up products. Nahia had never used any of these on herself before. She allowed Aina comb out her hair, dry it by the fireplace, but no more. She relentlessly refused to be made up into some fake ideal of beauty. Remembering what had happened to the corset, they compromised. Aina pulled up half of Nahia’s hair, to keep it out of her face, and put make up only on her eyes.
Before Nahia left for dinner, Aina led her back into the room with the tub. In the corner, was a large full-length mirror that Nahia had not noticed before. She slowly, cautiously walked over to it, afraid of what changes she would see in herself. She never expected what she saw, though.
The woman in the mirror was beautiful, there was no denying that. But it was not a beauty made by powder and gloss and pins. The beauty lay in her loose dark curls, her warm skin, flushed cheeks, dark eyes. She regretfully agreed with Aina that the make up on her eyes was wonderful.
Aina led Nahia through the large chateau. They winded through halls, up and down stairs, through tapestries, until they were faced with two large oak doors. Two men stood in front, guarding. They were obviously expecting Nahia, for as soon as she came into sight, they began pulling open the doors.