women's poetry for a change
spring 2003, issue #58

merino wool by kathryn paulsen

“This is the way to polish your floor,” said Dona Elena. Her Spanish maid, Estrella, and Estrella’s friends circled the empty living room. The polishing cloths were on their feet - grey and brown booties made from several thicknesses of merino wool. Under their long, full skirts, against a dark ground, one could spy, growing larger and brighter, a flower or a pinwheel. As they stopped and moved to the sides to sit down while Estrella changed the record, they exposed a hard, reflective center.

“It is the only way,” said Dona Elena. She and her guest sat crowded by furniture that had been pushed against the wall - miles away, it seemed, from the floor where the maids now skated, slid, tumbled. But they, too, wore woolen booties tied with ribbons around the ankles. Their feet were gifts, thought the guest, crudely wrapped, as by a child. The music began again. The legs of one of the maids lifted in front of her, but she laughed as if she’d fallen in some snow and pushing her palms against the floor, rolled herself over backwards and jumped up only to fall down again once more. The guest saw two bright prints rise on the dull wax, of hands no bigger than a dog’s paws.

“Wouldn’t a party be even better?” he asked.

“No, because people spill things, and it wouldn’t be economical.”

“It needn’t cost any more.”

“But the sweaters do, especially these days.”

Dona Elena’s little economies amused those who didn’t know her well. She could tell them how to stuff a pincushion with animal hairs, to what use nail clippings were best put (for those who did not fear enchantment) and what could be made with sour milk. But only the finest, softest wool could be used to polish her floors; and since there was little of that around any more, especially in the United States, her husband, Juan, had to make do with second best and resign himself to the semiannual disappearance from his wardrobe of a dozen of his favorite old sweaters.

I gave them to the maid, Elena would tell him. She has a large family and several growing brothers. Luckily, Juan, a Spanish diplomat occupying his first station in the New World, had an enormous wadrobe, including garments worn in his teens, forty years before.

“Nothing else will do?” asked the priest.

Elena shook her head.

“Then I am afraid it won’t work for me."

The maids were dancing faster now, and sweating heavily; drops fell off their noses between the threads of their loosely woven blouses. Elena imagined a gathering of these few droplets on the waxen floor, their rolling together in a ball out the door through other bodies of water and water from other bodies, reaching balloon, then bathtub size, so large they could topple any person foolish enough to stand in their way. Thus the random dancing of the droplets would change to the running of the wind. And racing a freight train the big ball of water would fall on cities, on farms, and on cattle in its path to the sea. She wanted to laugh at the cartoon she saw for a second. Where did she get silly notions like that?

“You should polish your floor so well that you cannot help seeing yourself in it when you look down,” said Elena. “Then you must cover it with rugs. Even if Oriental, they must not be so thin that you can feel the floor though them.”

Her guest was charmed by Elena’s accent: it seemed different to him from other Spanish accents he had heard.

“It’s a pity our floors here aren’t better,” he said

She shrugged. “Then one must accept them.” And into the pause that followed, “Does the music disturb you? It seemed the best way to get them to come. Music and good comida. That way my Estrellita is in charge. She can tell her friends what to do because they’re her guests whereas if I had hired others… but if the music is too loud we can go to my study.”

“It doesn’t bother me. I like it actually. But perhaps we can talk more easily in your study. You seem distracted by them. Or do they require your attention?”

“No, only from time to time. They know wherever I am in the house I am watching. Estrellita.”The girl stopped dancing, walked toward them slowly and stopped at a respectful distance. Elena said something in Spanish and Estrella nodded and walked toward the kitchen behind them.

“She’s getting us some tea,” Elena said. “She’ll bring it into the study. Be careful it’s very slippery. Don’t lift your feet off the floor. Move them slowly, a few inches, like this.” But her guest had already lifted his foot off the floor to take an ordinary step, which turned out to be a step into the air. It felt nice, till his tailbone touched the ground. He tried to laugh like the maid, but groaned instead, to his own surprise. Elena bent over him, and her hand rested on his shoulder. Two of the maids gripped his elbows and pulled him to his feet. He smiled at everybody and said he was fine and bueno, bueno.

“How do they do it?” he asked, as he moved a toe length at a time down the hall.

“They’ve grown up doing it,” Elena said. “They’ve served their apprenticeships.”