A perfect time, every time? A failed woman? Pan couldn’t think of a woman more failed than one chained, screaming to be set free. Rose Burns had hardly been having a perfect time.
Though he’d witnessed no such disturbances since, Pan couldn’t forget what he’d seen that morning, Rose being forced back onto her Shelf by soldiers. And Master Gray. And Merrick. Though Pan in no way felt him responsible for her plight, Merrick often triggered thoughts of Rose, and Rose in turn elicited Pan’s unintentional consideration of the entire situation.
Why did they capture women in time on the Shelves?
Well, Pan thought as he added the textbook he’d been consulting to the sturdy stack at the back of the room, I suppose the answer is clear enough. To survive. So their kind could persevere even as the drought of women plagued them so mercilessly.
But what about the women? The question struck Pan so hard he winced.
‘Are you all right?’ Merrick asked as they sped towards the stairs, waving goodbye to Darien and Mal over their shoulders. Pan and Merrick had an hour of Etiquette to attend, while Darien was due in Artistry and then Women’s Psychology (he hadn’t an escort assignment until Wednesday, so could afford more time in the classroom) and Mal had to meet with his master to discuss a six-day long assignment. ‘Have you a headache? After an hour with Instructor Den, I’m not surprised. Does any other instructor speak quite so loudly? Or so much? I’m amazed he has time to breathe between all his words.’
I stubbed my toe, Pan invented, wiggling all ten of them in his sandals. Merrick smiled and called him clumsy, taking a seat and opening his notebook on a page of revision questions concerning bows for different occasions. Though his own answers weren’t due until Wednesday, Pan imitated him, mind elsewhere and questions thankfully already completed – the Etiquette instructor wasn’t one to tolerate being presented with a blank page, nor to double-check whose work was due on which days.
Why did women exist?
Certainly not to love. That wasn’t allowed. If men and women were free to love it would spell the end for them, make redundant all their efforts to push on and sustain their population even as nature itself proclaimed their time had come. It would have spelt the end for them, if new laws hadn’t been passed and the Shelves created. Reproduction was the only reason for any relations between men and women, now. And from what he’d taught about relationships by his guardian, instructors, and … others (Pan rushed on in his mind and avoided the name), and from what he’d observed in the castle, men weren’t remotely interested in women, anymore. Not in that way. They were kept apart by common sense and necessity, and though Pan knew there had been terrible trouble in the beginning, men unable to bear their wives and lovers being taken away, most now sought fulfillment of desire and love from those who could feasibly accept and return it. Distracted by a momentary tangent as a flustered classmate was drilled in alternate versions of traditional dance steps at the front of the room, Pan wondered if Rose Burns had once been married.
Women weren’t to be loved. So why were they preserved so painstakingly?
Pan had already answered that many times as he’d pondered. But never bluntly. And much to his distress, he did so then.
Women were incubators. They existed only to carry and bear children. Not to mother them – Pan thought of Lilian, and found himself aching within. Not to feed, or hold, or love them – as soon as they recovered from birthing they were escorted straight back to their golden stands. Women existed to produce more sons, and if the sun shone on their wombs, a priceless daughter.
Another rare incubator.
‘You’ve gone quite pale,’ Merrick noticed, whispering so their instructor, who had just passed between their desks, couldn’t hear, ‘are you sure you’re not ill?’
I’m not ill, I’m just trying to … Pan signed, in fact trying to think of how to finish and drawing a total blank. He jumped when their instructor barked from behind, ordering him to stop jabbering and use his hands for something useful, like copying notes.
Merrick did a silent, but very accurate impression of the instructor’s heavy jowled scowl, mocking him when his back was turned. Pan could only smile thinly as he picked up his pen. His hands trembled lightly. What with, he wasn’t entirely sure.
That was all they existed to do? With no regard to their wishes? The leaders of that time who had collected the originals, the Directors – none of them had asked for their permission. Would his mother or Georgiana have chosen to go on the Shelf had they been given the choice? Would Claire? Pan didn’t think so. On the Shelf, she was unable to talk. Unable to joke or laugh. And she was alone. Such a life to Claire … even to Pan … might be unbearable if it lasted too long. And for her, it could last forever.
So was that all Claire, all any woman, was worth?
No, Pan realised, unsettled by his uncharacteristic darkness even more than his actually having the awful thought. Men were still interested in women. Why bother with Masters and escorts, otherwise?
Women existed to looked at. To be dazzled by. Played with.
They were art. And they were trifles. Trinkets.