The old lady swept her walk every morning in the dawn light and tended her garden at dusk. She was unknown and unnoticed in the neighborhood. Kept to herself. Smiled at small children and dogs on leashes passing by her gate but did not encourage conversation. She was unremarkable in every way, forgotten as soon as she closed her door on the world.
Very little mail was delivered to the brown house on the hill. No packages on the front steps, just the morning paper which disappeared quietly into the house each morning. No evidence of pets in the yard. No clutter. No regular visitors. The garage remained shut but for a weekly foray, presumably for groceries. The trash cans went out on schedule, but the cans were almost empty.
It was quiet in the brown house. Now and then, there would come music. Of such variety that no preference could be determined. But there were no loud conversations on cell phones. No grinding appliances or growling engines. The car was electric. She used a broom. Her lawn mower had a rotary blade. Few had even heard her speak.
She went for a walk at some point every morning. She ambled aimlessly around the block and often disappeared into the park. She carried an umbrella no matter the skies. She wore billowy, bulky clothes on her light frame even in the summer heat. She favored hats and sensible shoes. She revealed little flesh. But this is the way of old women.
The old lady had few friends. No bridge clubs or book clubs. No dinner parties or gossip over coffee. If anyone was watching, she could be seen in her window now and then hunched over her computer, typing rapidly. Sometimes she just sat, sipping her tea and frowning down at the screen, perhaps a silent observer to some digital meeting. Then, she would shut the machine with a decisive snap and vanish into the depths of the house. But nobody ever was watching. And if they saw, they soon forgot.
“The former CEO of Amazon was found dead in his Central Park West home. Authorities are investigating possible food poisoning. A large black feather, possibly of corvid origin, was found on the body…”
They appropriated an abandoned city parks garden shed. She supposed it was apt. They were gardeners of a sort. And the gardening funds were gone before she was even born. Which was emblematic of the problem in many ways.
They carried nothing that could be traced. Granny Webster didn’t even have a cell phone. It was inconvenient, but necessary. As communications director, she had to be clever. Whatever had been recorded on bits of newsprint and scraps of notebook paper she scrupulously used as kindling in the bread oven fire.
The shed was invariably cold and damp and filled with opportunities to get tetanus. They left it as they found it save that Granny put a pair of upturned plastic buckets near a rotting potting bench and laid out ragged donation blankets on a pile of pallets. It looked like a rather well-to-do camp for the homeless. She suspected it might have been used as such from time to time. That too was emblematic.
She had misgivings. Qualms even. As she typed the daily directives into her home-making blog, she had to focus on The Code not the meaning. She used to be strictly non-violent. She still was at heart. She felt that if there was a hell, she would be there. Probably with most of the targets. She didn’t believe in hell, but she believed that what goes around comes around in the end. Still, she kept with it. Because nothing else was working. Things were so desperate. And this, however bloody, saved lives. Maybe saved the world. At least it might save the part of it her kids would inhabit.
She’d had many internal arguments about ends and means before she finally stopped thinking about what they did.
They never came to the shed together. Granny would visit in the morning with her umbrella of newsprint, her Attache Case. (Granny had a warped sense of humor colored by noir mysteries and old television.) Then later in the day, as her kids played nearby, she would wander down the trail. She’d discovered the shed so many times now it came natural. “Why, what do we have here!” Test the handle, find it turns, poke a tentative head in, body follows reluctantly. The wrinkled nose and cautious steps were still genuine. She’d interrupted rat conventions more than once.
She would set about tidying up the shed. Shake out the blankets and fold them neatly. Place the buckets by the bench. Gather up any trash, much of which was from Granny’s umbrella. Then close the door with a rueful shake of the head. She dumped the real trash in the closest bin.
“The Kentucky Senator was found unconscious in his office after apparently suffering a massive stroke. It’s reported that he died in transport to the hospital. No foul play is suspected, but authorities report finding a crow feather in the Senator’s hand…”
Martha was not her name. She didn’t even like that name. But being a Martha was her true calling. Martha was a believer. She wore her hoodie and broomstick skirts with pride.
She shuffled into the public library every day and found a vacant computer cubby. Never the same library branch. Never the same machine. Never the same time. Often she would take a short nap before getting down to business. She thought it added to the role. And she usually needed the sleep anyway.
She set out her snacks — granola bars, trail mix, and pilfered chocolate — then pulled up the card catalog and grabbed the tiny pencils and paper scraps set out for note-taking. She had various research projects. Once she learned all about the care and use of foxglove. In truth, her projects were often botanical in nature, though there was also a good deal of cooking and crafting. This was only mildly suspicious for someone who didn’t have a home. Aspirations explained quite a lot.
While researching book titles, she invariably opened up the machine’s browser and pulled up Raven Maven’s website. For the uninitiated, this blog was yet another white woman’s self-important blathering about house stuff. Martha knew how to read it now. All the Marthas did. That was the chief job of a Martha. Well, that and the assassination. But it did no good to think in those terms. Better to call it cultivating. Or cleaning.
There were Marthas in every city. Probably every neighborhood. Shuffling, shiftless women. Invisible except when in a convenience store. They bathed in public restrooms and ate from Dumpsters. (Surprisingly well if one knew which bins to open.) Many of them had children they never saw, or saw but rarely. Most had jobs. Martha had a job as a cleaning woman for a rich old bat who had exacting standards about hand towels but rather lax standards on employment law. She treated Martha well enough, but payment was always in arrears and usually short. Hence the pilfered chocolate.
Marthas were often cleaning women. Access and invisibility were the chief job qualifications after all.
Martha did not know any other Marthas in her city. She thought that might be intentional. Can’t squeal on someone you’ve never met. She didn’t know Raven Maven’s true name either. Martha knew that someone named Granny Webster gave a lot of advice through the Maven filter, but she didn’t know explicitly that Granny was connected to Martha’s task. Martha had been recruited, so to speak, by an intriguing flier at the bus stop nearest her regular underpass camp. She’d visited a questionable Facebook page that afternoon and was visited by a questionable old woman from Brooklyn later that month. Martha training. Mostly about The Code.
The Code shifted. That too was part of The Code. Martha had to read the Maven blather every day or take several days trying to figure out the new key words. Martha had the feeling that the Maven liked to be difficult. Martha didn’t think she’d like the Maven. Probably would want to punch her undoubtedly adorable little white-girl button nose. But maybe that was all part of the act. Maybe the Maven was really a chain-smoking truck driver from Texas. Maybe she was a grocery store check-out dish-rag from some blighted part of Chicago. Maybe she was a billionaire’s miserable trophy wife.
What she was probably not was a he.
She believed that the Marthas and their ilk were a sisterhood. There might be the odd feminist male here and there. Maybe. Martha wasn’t sure. But on the whole she felt that men just weren’t very good at being invisible. In any case, male solidarity might have balked at many of the objectives.
“The owner of the Boston Globe and the Boston Red Sox was found dead in his home early this morning. Cause of death is believed to be accidental drug interaction, though we are told there was a crow feather stuck on his pillow…”
It’s working. I still don’t think it’s right. But it’s working. The center never can hold. One or two picked threads and it rips wide open.
I worried about power vacuums at first. But nobody seems to be plugging the holes. Maybe all the seconds really don’t want to be in charge. Maybe nobody actually believes in what they’re doing these days and are glad of the excuse to let it break apart. Maybe it was only all held together by the force of a few twisted personalities. Maybe we’re just that scary that nobody wants a crow-feathered target on their forehead. Maybe a lot of wives and mothers are stepping up. I don’t know why or how. All I know is it is working.
I have blood on these old hands now. If I were a moralizing sort, I might worry about that. But morals went out the window years ago. And they only ever raised morals when they needed subterfuge anyway. Nobody believed in those commandments. Or they didn’t follow them if they did.
But in the balance, I think it’s the only way forward. Something has to break. A runaway train only stops when it crashes into something solid. We are become the mountain.
I don’t believe this is justice. I don’t buy that vigilante nonsense. This is no eye for an eye. If there is an accounting, this is one dead man for many billions of living beings. And yet I think this is murder, pure and simple. As gentle a murder as we can contrive. Quiet. Clean. Almost as invisible as the hand that delivers it. But murder nonetheless.
Still… the account books don’t lie.
Wall Street has all but foundered. Washington is adrift. And where they go others follow. It was all so tenuous anyway. So many financial facades and empty words. China was a paper castle. India was a mire. Germany had its industry but no markets. England was nothing at all but bluster and odd hats.
And when the box stores have no convenience left to sell, people remember the harder, more durable ways. They may grumble, make plenty of mistakes. But there are co-ops forming in this very neighborhood, where once there were HOA rules about how much grass should be grown in front of your house. And nobody even blinks at my lawn mower anymore.
Most of the complaints are not about the work though. The hardest part of all this is the loss of routine, the loss of normal. In many cases, the loss of family. Can’t be a 9-to-5 wage earner in a cushy work-free job, can’t be a family separated by a continent. But we couldn’t before we gave this monster a shove off the cliff either. We just stole from other families, other normals to keep the monster fed.
I guess the Marthas, this whole ugly project, we’re just removing the feeding tube. Once or twice perhaps literally. One for the many. I hate that. But I hate what they were doing to this world even more. And it turns out that so many others feel the same. It’s like Lysistrata but not about sex. Sex is nothing. We’re taking back our lives.
My wish for the future is that when the blood is washed away there will be lives worth living again. And never again will we allow such monstrosity to feed on us.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021