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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.

     Marta was walking only a few steps behind Mrs. Helen Sanborn and Mrs. Susan Mills, two of the most respected leaders of the suffrage movement in California. A few years ago, Marta would’ve been consigned to the river of white dresses following behind her, but when she married Byron Wagner after the earthquake and fire, her social status soared as quickly as Count Cunningham’s. Byron was still one of the wealthiest and most influential men in San Francisco, even after the conflagration that led to the destruction of his mansion and two-thirds of the city. As his wife, Marta was expected to walk at the front of the demonstration, not the back. She still had difficulty reconciling her new status with her personal views about San Francisco’s social elite. She had always considered the women of society to be peacocks, whose sole purpose in life was to dress in the latest fashions and to be seen in all the right settings, including balls, formal dinners and the race track. Marta’s views formed a mindset she shared with Lillie who, despite her wealth, had never cared for the formalities and playgrounds of the rich.
     But where was that silly woman? The march had nearly reached the speakers’ platform erected in front of the Hall of Records, and there was still no sign of her. On top of Marta’s other concerns, she’d been asked to make a brief speech, and she squirmed with discomfort at the idea. It meant she was expected to stand in front of an audience of men and urge them to give away a significant portion of their power over women. Once women had the right to vote, they would no longer be subject to men’s priorities or politics. Corruption had long been an issue in San Francisco governance, for example, and women were openly expressing their intent to vote corrupt officials out of office. Marta had never spoken before a group, and she feared she would lose her voice. To make matters worse, she knew Mrs. Sanborn and Mrs. Mills were skeptical of her. She’d been asked to speak because her last name was Wagner, not because of her oratory skills. It didn’t help to know that Herbert Cunningham would be standing less than twenty feet away on the platform and staring at her. In order for the suffrage organization to get the permit needed to hold its public demonstration, it had been necessary to allow an apposing viewpoint, and no one was more opposed than Count Cunningham. 
     Marta took a deep breath and glanced up at the speaker’s stand. It looks like a gallows, she thought with trepidation. This must be what it’s like to face a hangman’s noose! She hesitated, but the throng of women pressing against her wouldn’t let her dilly-dally. The march’s leaders had already ascended the stairs and were waiting for her. Another deep breath gave Marta courage, and she mounted the steps. No sooner had she reached the top, than a commotion broke out behind her. Voices rose; hands clapped; women cheered. Marta looked around in time to see a figure in a flowing white gown riding bareback towards the speaker’s stand on an equally white horse whose mane flowed as freely as the woman’s dress. The staccato beat of the horse’s hooves echoed among the buildings with the sharp resonance of gun shots. Some murmured their disapproval when they realized that she was riding astride the horse like a man rather than sidesaddle, but most applauded her rebellious pose. She held a raised torch in her right hand and wore a spiked headdress and mask representing the Statue of Liberty. The getup hid her identity, but Marta knew instantly who she was and joined the women cheering her. Only Lillie Collins could make such an entrance! 
     The crowd parted to allow Lillie a pathway to the speaker’s stand, where she slid easily off the horse, tied the reins to a platform support, and hurried up the stairs to Marta. 
     “Darlin’, that was the most exhilarating ride of my life,” she exclaimed as she threw off the mask and headdress and hugged Marta. “I’ve always wanted to ride a horse down Market Street. I just never expected to do so in front of an audience like this.” She waved her hand towards the crowd of women and men who filled the street in front of the platform.
     “Lillie, I’m so glad you’re here.” Marta took a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her friend’s moist brow. She inhaled Lillie’s scent, a mixture of perfume and horse’s aroma, and marveled at her friend’s panache. “I was about to die from stage fright up here.”
     “Where’s Byron?” Lillie looked around the stage for Marta‘s husband. When she spotted Herbert Cunningham, her face darkened. She leaned closer and spoke in a lowered voice. “And what’s he doing here?”
     Marta frowned. “Byron had planned on being here today but was called to an unexpected meeting at the mayor’s office. We didn’t have time to discuss it. By the time I came downstairs after breakfast, he’d taken the car and was gone.” Marta had been mystified by Byron’s sudden departure. Something had happened. Not knowing what had worried her, but she’d managed to push her concerns aside. Now that Lillie had asked, her stomach flip-flopped just as it had when she experienced morning sickness. Something was amiss, but whatever it was, she couldn’t fret about it now. She had her own concerns, such as dueling with Count Cunningham, who stood with his chest puffed out, facing the audience.
     “As for him,” Marta glanced towards her rival, “we had to agree on his presence. City politics.”
     Marta noted several local politicians standing off to one side of the crowd. Two sat on the city council and were notorious for handing out favors to financial backers, such as work contracts that had been rigged without competitive bids. All were outspoken critics of the women’s suffrage movement and were undoubtedly there to support Cunningham’s speech.
     Marta became conscious of the low, thrumming sound of voices that rose from the crowd as people jockeyed for position around the platform. The sound reminded her of a streetcar’s wheels rolling up Van Ness Avenue. Feet scuffed the pavement. People coughed and fanned themselves with leaflets while they milled restlessly about. Even Lillie’s horse neighed in expectation. There was an unmistakable energy in the crowd’s movements. Marta felt it swirling around her, and her chest tightened at the thought that she was about to address these men. She prayed that her voice wouldn’t freeze or stutter and leave her standing there looking like a fool.
     Helen Sanborn abruptly stepped forward and raised the megaphone she was carrying. “Attention everyone,” she called out in a commanding voice. Helen had managed many events like this one throughout the state and had considerable speaking experience, something Marta lacked. She admired the woman’s self-assured manner and prayed she could project a similar image. Lillie took her hand and squeezed it. The simple gesture calmed Marta’s jittery nerves and gave her confidence.

     “You all know why we’re here today. However, if we women expect the right to vote, then we must follow the democratic process. With that in mind, our first speaker will be Herbert Cunningham, who will speak against a woman’s right to vote.” Marta marveled at how smoothly Helen had turned an awkward situation around and made it sound like the suffrage movement’s idea. She was also relieved that she wouldn’t speak first. It would be easier to follow Cunningham than listen to him critique her remarks. She noted that Helen had deliberately ignored Cunningham’s title, which she thought was a good idea. His name sounded less authoritative without the title of Count. The brief scowl on his face told Marta how he felt about Helen’s slight, but he quickly covered his disappointment with a smile as he stepped forward and took the megaphone from Helen. He was met by enthusiastic applause.
     Marta looked at the crowd, startled.  She knew many men sympathized with his view point, but their response unsettled her.
     “I’m not here today to belittle the rights of women. Their role in our society is sacrosanct.” Cunningham’s voice was surprisingly deep and forceful for a man of such small physical stature. Marta heard the same confidence she’d heard in Helen’s. “The question we must answer today is just what exactly are a woman’s duties. We men know that we depend on them to rear our children and keep our homes intact. But their role is much greater than that. They are the glue that holds our nation together. They give us the courage and the warmth to carry on in life and to build this great country. 
     “You’ve just seen an impressive demonstration by women who would undermine our family values, but they only represent a narrow slice of the female population here in San Francisco. In fact, the last time women tried to wrest control of the democratic process away from men, San Francisco was one of the cities that voted it down. The true cult of womanhood is built on the pillars of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. It’s the way things have always been and the way they must continue. The alternative is anarchy.” Murmurs of agreement rumbled through the crowd of men. Marta’s facial muscles tightened. This was just what they wanted to hear, she thought. Keep a woman pregnant and she’ll be content. She touched her own belly and thanked God that Byron didn’t think that way. He wanted to see Marta and all women have a chance to succeed at something more than motherhood and “domesticity” as Cunningham put it. She suddenly missed her husband terribly and hoped that everything was all right.
     “How will giving women the right to vote change things?” Cunningham continued. “It won’t be long before they’ll leave our homes and take our jobs. Pretty soon, they’ll be just like men. Just like Lillie Collins who rode in here astride her horse . . . like a man!” He pointed in the direction of Lillie and Marta. There was a smattering of applause at his remark. “Personally, I prefer to see women riding sidesaddle” Cunningham’s voice raked the crowd with his sarcasm. A round of cheers rose from the men. “Tell me, how many of you want to be married to a man?” Many of the men chuckled or laughed outright at the idea. Others nodded in agreement. 
     Marta had expected some disparaging remarks, but this was preposterous. Equating a woman’s right to vote with manhood distorted the whole discussion. She fumed at the comparison but realized that Cunningham had put forth a clever argument. If women who wanted the vote were cast in the role of men, if they were seen as a threat to hearth and home, not to mention jobs, the whole movement would unravel. Men would never support women’s suffrage if it was seen as a direct threat to their livelihood and way of life.
     Cunningham continued to speak about a woman’s role in society and how they would be forced to choose between marriage and career, but Marta was hardly listening. Her rival had touched a nerve that could very well turn the tide against the day’s rally. If she didn’t respond to it forcefully, the idea might fester and grow. A wave of anger swept over her. Cunningham had lit a fire in her growing belly. Her little speech had suddenly become pivotal to their cause, and even though she still trembled at the idea of facing all those men, she found herself eager to take up the challenge. 
     But how? She studied the faces of the men staring up at the stage. When Cunningham joked about turning women into men, it seemed to Marta that every man in the audience agreed with him, but that wasn’t so. She realized many of the men weren’t laughing. They were listening with interest and concern, not necessarily agreement. It struck her that while most of these men were concerned about their jobs and livelihood, they were not people of the upper classes. They were working class men who didn’t share the same values as the Cunninghams of the world. For most of them, this was not some ideological argument about the role of women in the home and in society. It was a meat and potatoes issue. Marta suddenly knew what she must say, and she squirmed to get her hands on the megaphone.
     When Cunningham finished his speech, a round of cheers rumbled through the throng, led by the politicians standing in front of the stage. For a moment, self-doubt crept back into Marta’s thoughts, and she felt her world spinning away from her. How could she hope to turn these men around? When she looked at the men with a clear head, however, she saw what she’d seen before. Not all the men were expressing their support. In fact, she put the number who agreed with Cunningham at less than half. There was still an opportunity to turn the debate to the suffrage movement’s favor.

     Helen was introducing her, now, but Marta could hardly hear what she said over the din of anxieties and doubts buzzing around in her head. Her feet had suddenly become heavy weights that anchored her where she stood, but the weight fell away when she felt the pressure of Lillie’s hand on her arm. “Give ‘em hell, darlin,” Lillie whispered in her ear. Lillie’s touch and verbal support warmed her like a shot of whisky. Her feet became lighter, and the churning in her stomach subsided. As always, Lillie knew just what to do and say.
     Marta’s new found strength didn’t prevent her from trembling as she stepped forward. She couldn’t help it. All eyes had now shifted to her. Everyone, men and women, were looking at her. Some expressions reflected a defiant attitude; some were indifferent; and some were friendly. She concentrated on the friendly faces as she took her place near the front of the platform. She turned to Helen for the megaphone but realized that Cunningham had somehow taken control of it. Marta glanced towards him with an expectant look and raised her hand for it, but he stood as still as a fence post and stared at her with his bulging eyes. His lack of cooperation created an embarrassing situation. If he refused to bring the megaphone to her, she would have to go get it, and she felt certain that was what he wanted . . . to make her appear submissive to him. Marta trembled again, only this time it was with anger. Without thinking, she stormed across the platform and snatched the megaphone from his hand, then returned to her position on the podium. She was pleased to hear appreciative murmurs humming through the crowd. It seemed they liked her decisiveness.
     Marta calmed herself while she considered what she wanted to say. The sun’s mid-day glare pressed down on her until she thought the heat would scramble her words. The speech she’d intended to give no longer seemed relevant, and it was no use trying to write another one in her mind. It was best to just start talking. Let the ideas come as they may. She raised the megaphone to her mouth.
     “Those of you who know me are aware that for many years I’ve been helping the poor through my Pacific Aid Society. I mention this now, because it bears on today’s discussion.” Marta stopped and took a breath. A slight breeze brushed her cheek, but it offered little relief from the heat. “Most of the families I help have an able bodied woman in the home who could add measurably to the family’s income, but other than a few low paying jobs like sewing, house cleaning, or bank clerking, there are few opportunities for them to work or to make a decent wage.
     “Four years ago, the man who just spoke to you abandoned his first wife, Angela, in favor of a new one, and he left her with little money or prospects for a normal life.” She could feel Cunningham’s bulging eyes burning into her back, but she kept her gaze forward and ignored him. “I hired her, and she proved to be a good worker. All she needed was a chance. It’s the same for women at all levels of society, from the well-to-do to the poor. There are few jobs available to women, and those that do exist pay a miserable wage.” She moved her eyes back and forth across the silent crowd. Silence was good, she told herself. It meant they were listening. “Giving women the right to vote has nothing to do with how feminine we are. The last thing we want to do is become men. But we do want to take our place alongside our husbands as partners before the law and to take more control of our lives. None of us want to end up in Angela’s position: abandoned and unable to make an honest living.” 
     She heard footsteps and glanced behind her. Cunningham was approaching with a fist raised in angry protest. “Now see here Mrs. Wagner . . .” It was all he got to say before a chorus of boos drowned him out. “You had your chance,” a voice yelled out. “Let the woman speak,” another joined in. Cunningham hesitated and stopped. It was a heady moment for Marta. She knew she’d won the crowd to her side. Cunningham knew it, as well. Recognition of defeat was written in his flushed face and narrowed eyes. Marta glared at him, daring him to open his mouth again, but he clamped it shut, turned around, and stormed off the back of the stage.
     “Now imagine this,” Marta’s heart fluttered with excitement as she continued. “Imagine that your wife could work and bring home a decent income to help meet your family’s expenses. Imagine how much better your life could be. Many of us would gladly work to help our families. All we need is the chance, and having the right to vote is a big step in that direction. We can help shape our futures with the vote, not as opponents to men, but as partners standing side-by-side.”  She stopped to let this last point sink in.  
     “And don’t worry,” she said with a smile. “We’ll still come home at night to cook your meals and mind the children.” This elicited nervous laughter. “But let us do more than sweep floors and wash laundry. Let us help create a more productive workplace. That will bring more jobs and higher pay for everyone.”  More thoughts buzzed around inside Marta’s head, but she sensed she’d said enough. It was time to let the two women behind her take center stage. They knew better than anyone what issues were important. She only hoped she’d made a contribution that was worthwhile.

     “Thank you all for taking the time to come here today and for listening to our concerns. I’m sure I’ve missed many important issues, so I would like to turn this megaphone over to Mrs. Helen Sanborn and Mrs. Susan Mills, two of the leading ladies in our march for the right to vote!” 
     As Marta handed the megaphone to Helen, a roar went up from the crowd accompanied by hundreds of clapping hands. Marta blinked and looked back at the audience. Surely this isn’t meant for me, she thought. Helen sensed her surprise. “Good speech,” she offered with a satisfied smile.
     Lillie threw her arms around Marta. “Good. Hell, Marta, that was terrific. You had them eating out of your hand.”
     As Marta stepped back to make room for Helen, she looked  at the crowd once more. Her heart pumped with pleasure at her small triumph, and she wanted to memorize the moment. But when she scanned the audience, one face caught her eye. It belonged to an odd-looking, angular man, whose shabby hat and ill-fitted suit gave him the appearance of a clown. The face was scarred on one side. It was the kind of scar one might receive from a fire. Marta blinked in shock. Her eyes misted and blurred her vision. Memories roared through her mind, memories of a dangerous man who had twice held her in his grasp. Both times, she’d escaped, and both times she thought he’d died. The first incident occurred in Chinatown when he somehow saved himself from the flames of the fire destroying the city. The second time, she had watched him blown to pieces by an explosion. Except, she hadn’t actually seen him die. He’d disappeared behind a row of hedges moments before the explosion erupted, but everyone agreed it was impossible for anyone to have survived. Now, she feared he had. Somehow, he’d resurrected himself, she was certain of it, and the thought sent a dagger of fear slicing through her heart.
     Marta wiped the moisture from her eyes and looked again. The man was gone. The slight breeze she’d found so welcoming in the heat now chilled the back of her neck as she frantically searched the crowd near where he’d stood. There was no sign of him. Her world was suddenly spinning so fast she had to grasp Lillie’s arm to keep her balance. Had she imagined him? Surely, she had. Or seen someone who reminded her of that terrifying man.
     “Darlin’, are you okay? You’re trembling.” Lillie rubbed her arm. 
     “Get me out of here,” Marta whispered. “By the back steps. I can’t face anyone right now.”
     They hurried down the steps behind the platform. Marta glanced around her. Other than a few men wandering away from the gathering, the area was calm. Only Helen’s voice addressing the crowd broke the silence. 
     “Lillie, I have to find Byron. Please give my excuses to the ladies for leaving early. Tell them it was an emergency.” She saw the worried expression on her friend’s face and the way she looked at Marta’s stomach. “It’s not the baby.” She touched Lillie’s arm to reassure her. “It’s the man who hypnotized people before the earthquake. The man who hypnotized me. I thought I saw him in the crowd.”
     Lillie’s mouth flew open. “Here? Just now?” 
     Marta nodded and quickly looked away. She felt like a crazy woman who’d just seen a ghost, but she knew it was worse than that. If what she saw was real, she’d just looked into the face of a demon from Hell.