Article Index

The Origamist by Gordon Snider



A storm of voices swirled around Marta, pummeling her. It was as if a great storm of words swept ashore from San Francisco Bay and saturated the air with stinging phrases and catcalls. But there were also many cheers and huzzahs, which gladdened her heart and bolstered her courage. She tried to concentrate on the calls of encouragement and ignore the men who spoke against her. It wasn’t easy to block out their hostile voices. Each one fell upon her as a blow against her rights as a woman, especially her right to vote. 

     The year was 1910, and Marta was marching up Market Street amid fluttering banners and billowing skirts towards the domed Hall of Records building on City Hall Avenue. Nothing remained of City Hall, of course. It had been destroyed four years ago by the earthquake and fire. Marta could still recall the skeletal remains of the building with its great dome seated atop the ruins. A new civic center would soon be rising from the rubble and ashes, and the California Equal Suffrage Association had agreed the symbolism was the perfect image for their cause. Fourteen years ago, the first attempt to pass a law giving women the right to vote had been defeated by special interest groups associated with the liquor industry, and one of the key counties responsible for killing the measure had been San Francisco. The suffrage movement had languished for several years after that. Now it was rising from the ashes of that setback, and Marta was doing her best to see that it wasn’t defeated again. 
     She looked at the throngs of people around her as she walked. It was a theatrical scene, one comprised of equal parts parade and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The scene would have made her smile if the moment wasn’t so important. The long line of women marching behind her was impressive enough. Many carried signs declaring their right to vote; others waved American flags. Those who could afford it wore fashionable, ankle-length dresses with matching jackets and wide-brimmed hats topped with veils of fabric. Nearly all the women wore some sort of white blouse and skirt. The effect was startling: a river of white dresses flowing past a sea of black Derby hats and grey suits worn by the men lining both sides of the street. 
     The setting was complete but for one thing. Her best friend, Lillie, was nowhere to be seen. Lillie had become Marta’s confidant when her world was falling to pieces four years ago, and they had remained fast friends. But where was she now? Marta twisted her neck and looked behind her for the umpteenth time. It was just like her, Marta knew, to be late. Since she’d known Lillie, her friend had refused to follow the social norms of San Francisco society, even though she was a member of one of the city’s wealthiest families. Marta had delighted in watching Lillie thumb her nose at the dictates of her social class, but her unpredictable behavior could be maddening at times, such as now. Marta needed her friend beside her on this momentous occasion, but she was nowhere to be found. 
     There were several reasons for Marta’s discomfort. She would have to face Herbert Cunningham on the speaker’s platform, and just the thought of him burned her skin. His short stature and bulbous nose reminded her of a weasel, but his wealth was even greater than Lillie’s, and four years ago, he’d divorced his wife, Angela, to marry a countess from Europe. The countess was nearly penniless, as were many of the titled families of Europe, and she’d gladly offered him the title of Count Cunningham in exchange for a settlement on her family’s estate rumored to be in excess of one million dollars! The arrangement was quite common at the time -- although generally it was wealthy daughters married off to aging barons, and counts -- and it raised Cunningham’s social standing among the aristocrats of New York City and in capitals around the world. Marta’s temper still flared when she thought about it, but not because of Cunningham’s silly title. He had left his ex-wife, Angela, with little money and no prospects, and she had been floundering on the point of despair when Marta threw her a lifeline by taking her into her Pacific Aid Society as an employee. The society helped the poor, an irony that was not lost on Marta, given Angela’s circumstances. Even with Marta’s help, there was nothing Angela could do to keep herself from tumbling from the very peak of San Francisco’s social ladder to the bottom rung.
     Marta turned her head again in a desperate effort to find Lillie and nearly stumbled over one of the streetcar rails grooved into the middle of the street. Walking up Market Street was hot work that day. The sun was a brilliant ball high in the sky that left no shadows or nooks where one could hide from its intensity. It was unseemly hot for early May, and that only added to Marta’s discomfort. She’d entered her second trimester of pregnancy, and her aching back, swollen legs, and sensitive breasts, which rubbed against the fabric beneath her blouse with each step, all conspired to make her march as irksome as possible. Thankfully, her nausea had subsided, but that had been replaced by a fierce hunger that made her want to devour everything in sight. When she did, heartburn set in. She needed Lillie for physical as well as moral support.