Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Putting the Past on a Pedestal"

This poem was written on October 25, 2012.  It is a direct sequel to "Two Sides of the Same Coin," so you should read that first if you haven't already.  It was inspired by the thoughtful comments under that poem, and in person, as folks discussed various possible ways of displaying the token, arguing the pros and cons of each.  Special thanks to siege, catsittingstill, and my_partner_doug.  The following poem has been sponsored by technoshaman.  It belongs to The Steamsmith series, which you can explore further on the Serial Poetry page.

Putting the Past on a Pedestal

Maryam carefully soldered the last piece of wire
into position on the delicate little stand
that would hold the copper token
from the British Anti-Slavery Society.
She waited for the hot metal to cool
and then carefully slipped the token into place,
standing upright on its edge.

Maryam put the mounted token
into the space she had made for it
in her small collection of artifacts
from the slavery days.

Her slim dark fingers turned the pedestal
so that the coin stood with its edge facing forward,
allowing the viewer to see both sides
by leaning one way or the other.

"That's a ruddy nuisance,"
said Jane the housemaid,
as she shifted from right to left.
"Whyn't you just set up mirrors
like the fancy shops do for jewelry?"

"That's a clever idea," Maryam said,
having seen not only the shops
but also some museum displays
with angled mirrors to show historic artifacts.

So she went back into her workshop
and carefully cut two squares of mirrored glass,
then mounted them at right angles
and set them behind the pedestal.
That way both sides of the token
could be seen simultaneously
without requiring the viewer to move.

"Now the writing's all backwards,"
Rori the charlady pointed out.
"Suppose you put the angled glass in front,
and another flat mirror behind --
then both sides would show the right way."

So Maryam took all of the pieces
into her workshop again, experimenting
with different sizes and configurations
until she found something that would work.

When she set up the new display,
her valet Ned peered at it
and said in a thoughtful tone,
"This is lovely, m'sir,
but now we're looking at an image
instead of the actual token.
Is that what it's meant to do?"

"Hm," said Maryam between her teeth.
She stared at the cunning arrangement of mirrors
and agreed that, yes, the token was
rather obscured by the glass.

Would she rather have just a part
of the token readily visible,
or go back to requiring the viewer to move,
or show it all turned backwards,
or leave the image but not the thing itself in view?

It said something,
Maryam thought to herself,
about slavery and the protest against it
and how people had risen above it,
reflected in the way she chose to display this thing.
It was important that the presentation
match the intent.

Then Maryam laughed,
a perfect solution coming to her,
born out of her own particular talents.
Without hestation she scooped up the display
one last time and retreated to her workshop.

When she came out,
the graceful wire pedestal
had been fastened to a base
that used to be part of a music box.
Now instead of a ballerina,
the top held up the coin on its stand,
rotating slowly to show both sides in turn
a phos  light glowing beneath to show the details.

Jane and Rori and Ned
all applauded Maryam's solution.

"I'm of a mind to celebrate," Maryam declared.
"Jane, pop out and buy us a roast for dinner.
You all gave me some good ideas today."
That would be enough to feed their modest household,
and leave some for sandwiches tomorrow.

"Shall I pass the word around, m'sir,
about the new display piece?" Ned asked.
"Yes, please," Maryam said.
Not all of Africa's scattered heirs
had any interest in their ancestral homeland or
the relics of slavery that had separated them from it.
For those that did, however, she would share
what pieces of the past she managed to put together.

* * *


1) A housemaid is a female servant who does pretty much all the ordinary domestic work.  In a small household, this is typically the first type of servant to be hired.

2) A charlady is female servant, often from an earthworking family, skilled in attending to alchemical devices or workshops.  Alchemists usually hire one if they can afford to do so.

3) A valet is a male servant, customarily the personal servant and companion of a gentleman.  Maryam has a valet instead of a lady's maid because she wears masculine clothing and generally plays a man's role in society.  It's a bit awkward but the best that can be managed under the circumstances.  Ned refers to Maryam as "m'sir" because she doesn't perfectly fit either "ma'am" or "sir" and it is, in fact, essentially a contraction of "ma'am -- sorry, I mean sir."  It's close enough to the French "monsieur"  that few people notice.

4) phos -- light; a molecule consisting of one atom of aer (Air) and one of pyra (Fire).  It makes excellent, expensive lamps.  Putting one in a display like this is a subtle extravagance which plays on Maryam's intelligence, her skill as an alchemist, and her station in society.

5) In most households, servants and employers maintain a strict distance.  Maryam, with her upstairs-downstairs heritage, thinks it would be ridiculous for her to eat alone and ignore everyone around her.  It's more companionable and efficient just to treat everyone under the roof as a member of the family, of varying rank.  She is also perfectly comfortable eating ordinary food; she'll eat fancy dishes when visiting but doesn't miss them at home.  So instead of spending lavish sums of money on an upper-class diet while letting her servants subsist on crud, they meet in the middle with good plain food and a luxury like meat once a week or for special occasions.  That leaves more in the budget for alchemical indulgences.  In front of outsiders, they can all fake a standard household arrangement. In this context, dinner is the main meal of the day.

Tags: cyberfunded creativity, ethnic studies, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, science fiction, writing
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