the star anise room

The manager had cheekbones so sharp it hurt to look at them. She watched them move as the warning was skillfully purred to sound like advice.

“I don’t want to know your real name, darling. Choose one you won’t forget, or I can choose one for you.”

She nodded, once. She doesn’t need to be told these things; she’s wise, and smiling, and only a little afraid.

“And don’t let the other girls know your real name. Work on the basis that no-one is on your side, and you won’t falter. It’s the best protection there is, believe me.” The laugh sounded like rusty blades clanging together, and she spoke purely to make it stop.

“I know my name.”

She didn’t quite know what she was doing down that alleyway in the darkest corner of Chinatown, where the scent of spices wafted through the bars on the window, and people wouldn’t meet her eyes on the stairs. She didn’t quite know why she’d tugged on a black dress with a sweetheart neckline that hid her tattoos, or why she’d bought a red lipstick so carnal she couldn’t meet her own eyes in the mirror. She just knew that the reasons to walk this path suddenly seemed more alluring than the reasons not to, as though she’d woken one morning and the last lingering remnant of doubt had jumped gleefully over the line, and was waiting with one wicked finger beckoning. I’ve already done worse, she told herself, and for a moment she believed it.

She didn’t know yet how to cloud her eyes or clench her fists, but she knew her name the moment she found it. On a night of wine stained books and ink smeared fingertips, she read of the Irish goddess with fire in her veins and no fear in her heart, and she knew. She held it close to her chest with a writer’s reverence for words and the spells they weave, and saying it aloud made her lips curl in a manner that even the manager noticed.

“My name is Brigit.”

And with that, it was.

And if her head tilted just a touch to the left, if her hips moved a fraction of an inch into sultry territory, and if her eyes seemed to narrow slightly, perhaps it was just the incantation working its glowing magic in that stuffy little room, where the aromas through the window couldn’t quite mask the maleness in the air.

“Have you done this before, Brigit?”

A shake of pale hair, and suddenly it didn’t matter that the answer was no. I can handle anything, whispered the spell, and it almost became true.

“Doesn’t matter, darling. The customers will be too fixated on your blonde hair and curves to ask for qualifications.” The manager smirked, but the laugh remained in her throat.

“Sometimes we do get customers who actually want a massage, or the occasional woman; lord knows what they’re thinking. It pays to have some girls who can actually massage.”

A breeze wandered through the window, bringing with it the soothing jingle of a wind chime in the alleyway and the rich scent of star anise. Brigit inhaled deeply, not knowing the job would diminish her desire for Chinese food for a long, long time.

“One last thing: if the police come, you just rent the room from me, and I don’t know what you do there. I’ll need you to sign a paper stating that. Some girls say they study here…up to you.” The words held a casualness the eyes didn’t contain, and Brigit knew the contract would be drawn up before her first shift began.

She could already see her dictionaries lined up next to the towels, and the best place for the light to spill onto her ink. “I’m a writer; I’ll say I’m working on my novel here.” The ripple of joy this gave her would be the last time she’d smile all day, and it was nearly worth it.

“I’ll get Inneke to give you a quick massage; it’s the best way to show you a few basic strokes. Get undressed and lay on the table. I’ll send her in.”

She turned at the door and threw over her shoulder “And don’t take her personally.” The clanging got softer as the door swung shut, and Brigit’s nails found their way between her sharp little teeth.

She was already face down on the table when Inneke strode in, cigarette smoke and insolence wafting behind her.

“A blonde…..just what we need” was all Brigit heard before the slosh of oil between hands.

The voice was as smoky as the scent, and she longed to turn her head and see the woman it belonged to, but pride kept her head down and her teeth clenched. “The trick is to make slow, seductive strokes. Basically, the slower you go, the quicker they get there.” And two slick hands began circling the small of her back with movements that were achingly gentle and appallingly tender, over and over again.

Brigit felt the warmth move up her straightened spine, tracing a spiral around her throat and moving ever closer to her trembling lips. It tingled as it coursed through the parts of her that hadn’t been touched for some time, and as it headed for her mouth she realized with sudden horror that if she allowed it to emerge, the sobs would rent the spicy air and drown out the wind chimes jangling in the alleyway below.

So now she’s sitting at the desk, her towel in a corner and her mask back in place. She has her contract signed and her dictionaries ready, her colleagues already knowing her vulnerability and everyone knowing her name, in the room above the Dumpling House where the scent of star anise almost makes the air bearable.

The room where Brigit was born.

© bellmusker 2009

the star anise room


Melbourne, Australia

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Artist's Description

Brigit’s come knocking again.

Bear with me while I weave her strands together.

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