Of course, it was common for women to work as whores. It was as common as finding a baker in every town, or hearing the word toro chanted at the Corrida de Toro, the bull fight. But it was not common for Francisca to find herself standing before a whoremonger, now his property. Clutching her sack containing her few remaining possessions, Francisca looked around the room on the second floor of the seaside tavern. It was sparsely furnished, walls and floors looking as if they had been made from rickety driftwood of a sunken ship, grey with age, crevices between the planks letting slats of light penetrate the room.
She bit back a sudden surge of tears, feeling the pendant in her sack given to her by her father, now late, when they had arrived in the West Indies over a year ago. The reality that her family was good and truly gone rammed her hard in the chest and she stepped back. She was the honor of her family, dead as it was. It would break her parents’ hearts to see her standing in El Barco of all places, a tavern most notorious for being the biggest brothel on this side of the island. Admitting whose daughter she was could certainly be a death warrant, considering how her family was murdered. And though now she wished more than ever that her life light would be snuffed, she was afraid of the myriad ways in which the snuffing could occur.
Still, she stepped back further when Jesus, the owner of the brothel with his oily black hair and flaxen tunic that Francisca was certain could never have been white, grabbed her upper arm with a vice of a hand. His name was wholly ironic. What woman could have been so bewitched to give his black soul such a pure name?
“No second thoughts, señorita,” he said. “You signed the contract, and you are now mine. You bunk here, you bed your men here, and if you do a good job I’ll keep you fed and clothed.”
He gave her bodice a flick as he said those last words and grabbed her sack, flinging it onto one of two pallets with a bed sheet strung down the middle to divide her from her chamber mate.
She shook her head. “No… no, señor, you promised I would serve the drinks, that I would not have to prostitute.”
He chuckled, then yanked loose the ties of her bodice, dragging down her chemise so that her breasts were all but showing from behind her corset. She grabbed her chest, gasped, but he ripped her hands away.
“Carlota, grab her hands and hold them back,” Jesus sneered, towering over her.
A much older woman appeared out of a darkened corner and Francisca soon found herself trapped as the man now pulled loose her stays like a greedy thief snatching gold.
“Nice titties,” he remarked, pinching each one as they fell into view. He bounced and squeezed them in turn. “Firm too. Which means you’ve never nursed a brat.” He exhaled and shook his head. “Usually rubbish lands on my doorstep, but you…I can’t believe my luck.”
His assessment continued, running his hands down her sides as if inspecting a bit of horseflesh at market. Tears poured down Francisca’s face. She writhed to get away and kicked out at the man, but the other woman’s hold was unyielding and Jesus hardly noticed.
“Mmm,” he concluded, lowering his face into hers so that she could smell his breath. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’ve never been bedded.”
“I have…with one boy…’Tis why my parents disowned me.”
He weighed her response and seemed to buy it. “Then let me explain things for you. You signed a contract to serve ale and spirits, and help the business wherever else needed. I need you on your back serving my customers.” He stared into her frightened eyes. “I own you, and you, my little virgin, are going to bring in a lot of money.”
He turned back to Carlota who slackened her grip on Francisca’s hands. She trembled, her legs threatening to collapse into a heap of jelly.
“Take her garments. Dirty as they are from her plight, they’re fine fabrics and will catch a fair price. And for God’s sake, burn those hose of hers. No man in his cups wants to fight his way through that barrier. When you’re done, show her the ropes.”
He left her standing in the doorway shivering as men following their bed partners walked by to find their own respective pleasures, leering at her breasts. When his head disappeared below stairs, Carlota dragged her into the room. She pushed shut the door and rounded on her.
“Rule number one. Never argue with He-soos,” the woman with fake, red hair said, exaggerating Jesus’ name.
Her locks were piled upon her head with limp tendrils hanging down her neck. Thick make-up ran at the corners of her eyes into the creases that marked her as an older woman. Carlota proceeded to walk around her, her breasts bulging grotesquely from a black and dirty pink-striped bodice.
“Rule number two. All of us work the bar and work the bed. You serve pints and service pricks. You pull your own weight and the other girls will leave you alone, even be your friend.
“Rule number three. Your pain is no greater than ours. None of us would be here if we had a choice and sob stories are a real a dozen, so don’t cry like a spoiled prima donna. If you can keep from crying, you can keep from feeling.”
With that, she ripped the rest of the laces so that Francisca’s gown fell to her feet, followed by her fine chemise with lace trim around the neck. She remembered when her mother helped her sew that very lace. Francisca swiped at her face, sniffed at the thickness in her nose and closed her eyes. She wanted to know the secret to not feeling. Because right now the agony couldn’t get any worse.
“And rule number four. Don’t confirm Jesus’ suspicions that you’re a virgin or he’ll put you up to the highest bidder, whether it be one man with a large purse or several who wish to throw in together. ’Twould be a painful way to wake up the next morning for an untried maiden.”
Carlota dug through a box at the foot of her pallet, a mattress draped in several fringed shawls and old blankets, and Francisca realized this haggard prostitute was going to be her chamber mate. She crept to her bed, holding her arms across her breasts. She was indeed a virgin, and she had indeed lied to protect herself. She resisted the urge to clutch her bag to her chest, lest Carlota realize it held anything important and demand she turn out the contents.
Carlota stood again, dragging free an old garment, a skirt by the look of it. She shook it out. It was grey and was clearly of a length that only a girl or prostitute would wear, showing the ankles and part of the calf. Then her roommate pulled free a chemise and a black corset that was once a fine brocade design. She motioned for Francisca to stand and Francisca knew she was to dress in suitable attire for her newfound profession.
“If you get knocked up with a brat,” Carlotta continued, “we’ll help to take care of it. Come the early morn you’ll hear little feet running about and crying for milk.”
Children? In such a horrid place? No doubt the young girls grew into prostitutes as well. She suddenly no longer cared about her modesty. She suddenly cared about nothing, for she may as well be dead. How on earth could a woman raise a child, children, in this place? Carlota threw her stockings in a heap, tsked at her undergarments for being prim, and helped drop the more revealing chemise over her head and arms. Once in place, the sleeves short and just barely capping her shoulders, Francisca stepped into the skirt and the corset was laced into place, giving her breasts a vulgar squeeze.
She looked down at herself. She looked just like a harlot. She reached to the pins in her dark hair to let the tendrils fall when Carlota stopped her with the first hint of pity in her eyes.
“Keep your hair up, Mi Querida. You don’t want a man to use it as reins. ’Tis not the way you want your first time to be.”
She felt fear, utter fear. Tears welled in her eyes again at Carlota’s use of the endearment her mother had used. Her throat thickened at the ways a man could use her hair as reins. She had never imagined such things were done in bed. Except then she remembered rule number three and swallowed several times to curb the flow of water.
“I’m ready,” she choked.
Carlota opened the door. The music and boisterous enjoyment of the men below, the clinking of mugs and hazy smell of roasted meat assaulted her. She walked across the creaky landing and faltered. Her feet were frozen. She bit her lip and did her best not to feel as she attempted to step into her future.
Carlota gentled and squeeze her forearm, leaning close to her ear to tell a secret.
“Your sweet face is going to be the interest of all the men below, and some men get jolly being rough. Best to be done with your virtue quickly. I’ll pick out a good one for your first.”
“You can tell if they’re good just by looking at them?”
Carlota smiled sadly and nodded. “Sweetheart, I’ve been bedding men since I was a girl. I can tell.”
It did nothing to reassure Francisca. “I…I’m frightened,” she whispered, clenching her chamber mate’s hand.
The woman was still far more foe than friend, but she was the only person Francisca had.
“Put a smile on your face, Mi Querida. And take his money up front. It gets easier with time. Soon, you’ll be quite the seductress.”
Francisca tried hard to find the comfort in these words, but search as she might, she found none. All was lost, so very lost. She may as well accept her lot for what it was.
Carlota was true to her word. She picked out a young man, a shy apprentice to a local tailor tucked into a table beneath the low rafters by the far wall. She introduced them before the interested eyes of the bustling tavern could approach the new prostitute. When the man showed his approval, allowing his gaze to fall upon her lips, then her breasts, then up to her eyes, blush raged across her face. He smiled and leaned in to whisper an invitation.
Carlota gave her a nudge to accept. She swallowed. Then, the young man led her up the stairs.