Scene in a Public Park at Dawn, 1892
“No small sensation has been made by the report of a duel between two ladies. . . . The [disagreement] was regarded as so serious that it could only be settled by blood.” —Pall Mall Gazette, August 23, 1892
We call it an emancipated duel—the duelists, seconds, and doctor, all women—but we will never be emancipated from the stupidity of men.
I am the doctor. In the carriage, I have pads of fabric prepared to staunch the bleeding, and before they fight, I insist they remove their upper garments. If a rapier pierces muscle, I won’t have dirty linen entering with it. The duelists unhook their shirtwaists, untie their under-bodices, fold their chemises over their skirts, leave their steam-molded corsets to lounge on the grass, eerie as the skeletons of whales. All that is left on their lovely ribs are red divots from the places they’ve been bound.
They breathe deep for the pleasure of it. They shake hands. They strut. They speak. It’s all bravado, a script we have read in novels and watched on stage. Isn’t this how men speak? How dare you. You presume too much. I’ll repay your insolence with blood. They are dueling over a flower arrangement, who copied whom, and it would be easy to think them ridiculous, but I don’t. As if flowers are ever only flowers, words only words. As if men duel over anything better, shooting each other over the imaginary flowers we press between our legs. The women move three paces apart. One of them looks a bit pale now that it’s beginning in truth; she looks to the side, eyes searching, as if she has expected someone to stop them. They hold their swords high. Who should be the one to say en garde?
A blade through flesh is nothing like a needle pricking a finger. When I first cut open a cadaver, I expected the incision alone to crack the chest wide, to open the dead like a cabinet. But it takes strength to crack a sternum and will to get inside.
The duel is quick. The pale woman cuts the other’s nose with a wild, panicked swipe. She’s shocked at what she’s done. The other woman grins, blood on her teeth, and dances forward, cuts a deft slash across the pale woman’s arm. First blood to one, but the better hit to the other. Both look happy when I yell that it’s done. The women touch their wounds and lick their salty fingers and one of the seconds faints, but not at the blood—though that is what the paper will say—no, she faints at the pleasure on the duelists’ faces, the flush across their upper breasts, the strength of their arms, the desire she feels to strip her own clothes off and join them.
Not to be out done, the other second fakes a swoon. But she’s felt lust before, seen blood on her menstrual rags and gushing from her sister as she died in childbirth. They had to burn the mattress, the stain was set so deep. I check her pulse as she lies in the grass and when she glances into my eyes, she looks ashamed of herself.
Honor has been satisfied, I say, and the other women nod. As I bandage an arm, tie a corset tightly back into place, I think that if I were to design a duel, I would not imitate men. What does skill with a sword or a pistol prove about truth or right? Why must half of us always lose? Place the duelers in neighboring rooms and leave them there. Let them grow bored. Give them nothing to do but embroider and nothing to drink but tea. See how long they can stand the silence. See how long it takes before they are whispering through the wall, grateful for the sound of another voice, willing to admit that they were both wrong, willing to admit anything if it will set them free.
Gwen Kirby’s work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Guernica, One Story, and elsewhere. My collection, Shit Cassandra Saw, is forthcoming from Penguin Books.
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