The Green and White Dress
“Make me a dress for the upcoming gala.” This is Lady Mirithmae. She comes sweeping into my shop, with her gossamer train swishing behind her, her little servant in tow, her shimmering deep red clinging to a figure that's graceful and austere. A willow's grace; a half-grown sapling's, the unset lines, the swannish bend of her neck.
Me: I curtsey. Of course. I come scurrying.
“A green and white dress,” she tells me, as if she's just this minute thought of it. As if she's planning it in her head in the very moment, when I know that – of course – she's taken a day or two at least, maybe huddled with the other noble ladies and compared their colours, made sure all were different, none would clash.
And yet it's hard to imagine Lady Mirithmae huddling. It's hard to imagine that crystal lacquer all peeled away to reveal a flesh-and-blood woman at its heart. Surely she's a creature of ceramic, fired in the heat of her rigorous upbringing, polished and carved and glazed, baked again, painted and polished, set out for display.
“Certainly,” I tell her.
“I should like velvet ribbon. A patchwork of colours and fabrics, embroidery in both the colours to match. I should like the motif of birds.”
“As you will.”
She takes a handful of coins and counts them into my hand. Heavy, imperial red gold – the likes of which would rarely pass through hands like mine. Chubby, callused hands; hands aged by work and the stabbing of needles' points. I wonder if – in her mind – my hands defile her coins. There are too many, but she expects nothing back.
“When?” She asks me curtly.
“Four days from now, we can make the last adjustments.”
“That will be suitable.” If not, I would bend time, alter the universe – stay up through the days and nights, call in my friends and girls off the street: suitable is when she says it is, and mountains should be moved to see her wishes accomplished.
Four days is sufficient time. It allows me to sleep at night. I can work with just my two girls. We can take our time, we can make something splendid.
See, I take pride in my work. I'm a simple seamstress. I come from the common stock closest to the earth. No pretensions about me at all. Nothing but blood in my veins – no gold, no ancestry that rests amongst the heroes of old. My grandfather carved no empires – he carved wood, made nothing more impressive than furniture. But he fed my father, and brought him up well enough that he could feed and raise my father.
“I wish,” says one of my twins – I think it's Vashlia - “that I could have something like this. Wear it just once.”
Says the other – Ondlarim: “But you can. If you're quick. We might finish the night before.”
I rap her knuckles. “There'll be no trying on of the ladies' dresses.”
“But didn't you? Didn't you ever?”
Once or twice, but I say: “Never.”
These girls have no known father; their poor mother is sick with a cough that will only end in the grave. They have no prospects except what they make for themselves; that and my good graces. And so they subside to their work.
The day is hot. The city streets dissolve amongst the heatwaves. There is always noise, here in the working folks' part of town. You can hear the hammering of iron from the blacksmith since a little bit before dawn and frequently into the early hours of dark. You hear the dragging of stone; you hear the rolling of wheels, the sounds of human and animal alike. You smell the baker's oven.
There's a tension on the streets. That feeling just flows through everything. It sinks into the clay of the paving stones. There's been a fight, or a protest, a whipping, or an unpopular hanging.
“Can we go see?” Vashlia asks.
“You two. You have work to do.”
And it's best, always best, to stay away from the likes of that.
She waits in the shop. In the warmth beside the window. She is probably used to glass, but must do today with boiled goat's horn to filter the sun. Her little servant hovers around her – a dark girl who reminds me of a honey bee, whose hair is a crop of wild, ebony curls, barely tamed beneath the simple bonnet. Her fingers fussing over the lady's train.
Lady Mirithmae, standing as tall as ever, moving into a statue's pose. She has an aura of such haughty patience: as if she were destined to live for millennia, that our inconsequence is from more than rank, but from experience and utility – what matter anyway such a short and anonymous life? The history books will never have at me, not like they will her. I can look forward to a warm grave, within the red earth; I can look forward to peace. Lady Mirithmae will turn in a prickly grave, listening with the ears of the dead while judgements and speculations are heaped upon her memory.
She's a strange one. I send Vashlia off to fetch the dress. She's strange for even a noblewoman. He face is her great oddity – she has been disfigured like all her class, had the skin around the corners of her eyes pinched and sculptured into fashionable pleats, eyebrows shaved and repainted on in red. There is frosting on her eyelashes and her jaw has been broken and reset in a point as the nobility insist upon doing to their girls while still young. But with her it's more: it might be cruel to say she has a weasel's face, but I don't mean it with cruelty, it's just that so many angles seem to make her up, as if her cheeks have more vertices than those of other woman, her forehead has a bladed bulge, a sharp narrowing as it tapers towards her eyes, cheekbones that are so very high, giving her broken-jawed face the contours of a long triangle.
She runs the dress over her fingers, her face turned thoughtful.
“Do you like it, my lady?”
“I think... yes.” Though her mind is still fresh on the matter, unset on what she'll think in the end.
“Might I make the last alterations?”
“Yes. You might.”
It's noisy out there, even more so than usual.
She surprises me by speaking. “It's the heat you see.”
“It's the heat that brings it out in them. It make them irritable, inclined to lash out.”
And in the winter it would be the cold.
“In the winter, the snow drives them. The smaller loaves for twice the price. Their mothers run short of coin to pay for it. The cold drives sickness. There: they are animals at their heart, driven by their basest needs, by their shoulders and their stomachs.” I can tell that she thinks about another need, that she toys with voicing it out loud just to shock me, just to prove that she has the authority, and the status, to get away with it.
It's people like me she refers to. They're apprentices and labourers out there, fleet fishermen and tavern girls, market girls, wool girls, errand boys and carters. It's no surprise to any of us that she might think of us that way. She can separate her dress from the hands that made it. She stands before the mirror, turning, preening; and the small smile that appears on her strange face is certainly one of satisfaction. She's as pleased with the dress as I am. A stitching together of green and white linens, bordered with velvet, and silk thread in the same colours: white on green; green on white. An intricate weaving of birds and beaks, feet, tail feathers, impossible to say where one bird ends and another begins. A little sliver of masterpiece: if I do say so myself.
It is noisy out there. There's been a rally of some sort. There's been speeches. And there's been stone throwing. The mood is high-pressure and unpredictable. There's young men and women roaming the streets, hunting out an intensity their years are made for. Dry straw craving the right spark.
I feel I have to say so: “Will you be safe out there, my lady?”
“Of course.” And there will be no more discussion of it.
I think she doesn't realise that these people mean what they say. The gulf is just too staggering. She's too certain in her beliefs: a natural order, a way of the world; a way of the blood even: born to our station. Content in it. Destined for it. She can dismiss these dangerous days as just the heat of summer, the ordinary heat in young men's blood. Something to flare and fade, to be ignored, to be cut down if need be: because this cutting and resurging are only the tides of the world, like the mowing of meadows, the harvest and planting.
Her world will go on forever.
There are questions I wish I dared ask of Lady Mirithmae sometimes. I've heard it say that they stunt their noblewomen: not just in their ravaged faces, or in their legs that are broken to keep them shorter than their men – all except this lady, whose legs have defied that treatment and grown proud. They are stunted in their minds as well. Is it true, I would want to us ask her, is it true that in your marriage negotiations your fathers barter away your mind, agreeing on the traits that will be chained, the ones to be excised? Do they truly send their wizards into your mind to hunt out the aberrant natures, the disobedience, any wildness, any yearning for something higher and more substantial? Just as they reach into your brother's heads and cut away fear and gentleness? And your mothers, sitting silent, looking on, because their own minds were tampered with, long ago, in their youth?
How does such a world come to be? And once being, how can it ever be overcome? How can the momentum of its simple incumbency ever be halted?
Perhaps we should ask the shouting townsfolk out there.
“Satisfactory,” Lady Mirithmae informs me of the dress.
“I will take it with me.”
“As you will.”
A couple of heavy gold coins to show her largesse; then no more than a glance to me, and she glides out the door, no shield except her scampering little servant, no shield any stronger or heavier than her arrogance, than the steel of her self-faith, her noble inertia. I'm not sure if I fear for her, if I fear her, hate her, envy her or pity her. I suppose that much depends on how the world will turn tomorrow.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work