"Sleeping," Kathryn said defiantly, firmly closing the master bedroom door behind her.
John's tiredness was not of itself much of a surprise. Men work so hard in the night, poor dears, that they so often have to sleep through much of the day. Sometimes it's difficult to get them to eat enough to keep their strength up. We do have to look after our menfolk.
The time was seven bells: already late in the evening. The communal dinner had been cooked and served and eaten, and everything had been tidied away afterwards. The grandmothers now sat close to the fire in the communal hall, gossiping and smoking their pipes, while the younger women were gathering in groups elsewhere in the room. Mothers with younger children flitted in and out, the need to settle the infants in tension with their desire to enjoy the company of their sisters.
Selena Rosa House was now approaching that peaceful calm that overtakes it when all the children are in bed and asleep - two events not always as close together as many mothers would prefer. It was high time for bed for the adults, too. For most, bed alone to sleep after a hard day's toil. But for a minority, sleep was the furthest thing from their minds. As it was from mine, and from Kathryn's, too, I could tell.
I had expected to find John unaccompanied tonight, at this particular phase of the moon, as he had been for many a year before. As was my custom and practice, I had bathed and prepared myself. I had brushed out my hair - long, as many prefer, although worn with braids most of the time - trimmed and plucked my eyebrows, moistened my skin and shaved intimately. All this in order to present the most alluring package: after all, nobody wants to feel that their man is not really attracted to them, and is merely going through the motions.
Finally prepared, I wrapped myself in a silken robe and slipped upstairs to the spacious suite that accommodates our alpha male. I knocked diffidently on the door as custom dictates and, after a discreet pause, turned the door handle. I had barely opened the door a crack when Kathryn appeared in the opening, like a dragon guarding her den.
She narrowed her eyes when she saw who it was, realizing immediately why I was there.
"John is mine tonight," she snarled, "I was here first, and I was here last night, too."
And all day, too, I expected. Women in heat have a powerful lust, a drive that is nearly insatiable, at least for a day or so. Then it fades as suddenly as it arrives, although not always perfectly predictably. Afterwards, drained and exhausted, and usually very thoroughly satisfied, a woman takes to her own bed for half a day or so, sleeping deeply. After that, she may be pregnant, although more often than not, she returns to her everyday labors.
"But I need him tonight!" I urged, nearly frantic with my own simmering desires.
"Tonight? What's your phase?"
"Surely that phase doesn't start till tomorrow?" she said, adding scornfully, "Your calendar must be running fast. He can be yours tomorrow, maybe. Or do you want a man of your very own?"
I realized I wasn't going to get anywhere. Kathryn had never been one to share with anybody - not clothes, not secrets, and certainly not access to the man of the household. I knew some of my sisters habitually did share; they had done for years, in some cases. Whether this was something borne out of necessity - two women in the same house whose fertile period naturally overlaps - or from pleasure, I do not know; I have never tried it myself. In this house, Susan and Eva share John regularly. They are great friends - at least, most of the time - although their relationship is occasionally wracked by explosive rows which leave the children scurrying for cover. Fortunately these outbursts rarely last for long, and the girls soon kiss and make up.
After my run-in with Kathryn, I went out onto the balcony, ostensibly to check on the phase of the moon - I didn't actually need to, as a deep knowledge of the waxing and waning is wired into my genes and my hormones - but really just to take the air and clear my head. I was hot, powerfully aroused and immensely frustrated. I threw off my clothes and allowed my body to be cooled by the night breeze. I barely noticed the chill as I inspected the stars and the moon, my mind wandering.
Kathryn's remark had started me thinking: what would it be like to have a man of my very own, not one shared with my sisters? And one whose company, and whose most intimate attentions, I could enjoy every night of the month, not just a handful of evenings. Some of the most ancient of the literature and certain time-worn stories - myths, really, or at worst stories passed on in the school playground - hint at a time when men were not so rare, when men worked in the fields alongside women. Was it true? Were there once more men in the world?
It occurred to me that there might be a way of answering that question: a means that, unusually, I had unfettered access to.