Here’s another of the stories from my past-life regression/automatic writing experiment. Like the others, it raises more questions for me than it answers.
Woman in a Red Dress II
White daisies danced in tawny grass. Grasshoppers whirred and leaped away from her feet. The sun glared down, August hot. The grass had yellowed at the tips, tawny heads on delicate stalks fast losing their verdant hearts.
The row of windows jutted out shoulder high. Peeling paint flaked white between the dusty panes. The panes were dark in the glare, the interior invisible from outside.It didn’t matter, though; she knew what was inside: a long wooden counter, silvery, splintery grey, a stained pewter sink, dusty in the sun, dust and cobwebs piled on the window sill and lacing the corners. She had stood at that sink often in the beginning, stripping leaves from florists’ iris, daffodils, and tulips, trimming lilac boughs from the trees in back, potting mums that always died. She was no gardener, but then, he really didn’t need her to be.
For now she just stood in the tall grass, her thin print dress swirling around her tight calves and molding itself to her narrow thighs. She lifted a long white hand and captured the soft, loose curls blowing around her shoulders and across her face. She shaded her eyes with her other hand, turned and squinted at the road winding through the valley. Was that flash his big-fendered black car? Was that his engine over the hill? No—the flash was water in the tiny stream running under the mossy stone bridge just where the valley was deepest.
The engine was a bi-plane cutting curves out of the sky with dipping wings. The pilot’s goggles gazed at her blankly, his sheepskin collar high, his scarf whipping behind him. The goggles turned to track her as the plane drifted by, a hand lifted, touched the top of the goggles, snapped a salute. Her lips curved up almost imperceptibly. The hand shading her eyes lifted, then dropped. She turned away before the plane could circle around again and climbed the brick steps to her front door.
The heavy, well-balanced door swung open at her touch and she stepped into the cool, shadowy interior. The house stretched still and shining around her. The hardwood floors gleamed in the hallway, and around the edges of the Aubusson carpets that nearly filled the sitting room. Brass lamps stood tall and regal by the deep tapestry sofa. An ottoman sat before it.
A huge spray of greenhouse flowers sat on the hearth before the cold, pristine fireplace, an apology for an unacknowledged wrong, a mute, false, reassurance, a floral lie.
“Yes,” the blooms said, “I still love you. All is as it was.”
But it wasn’t. The very emptiness of the house mocked her. The empty gleaming staircase rising between sitting room and dining room to the empty gallery and equally empty rooms above shouted the flowers’ falseness. She sat down on the bottom step, her dusty black slippers neat, side by side, her knees primly together, like she had been taught. She folded her hands and set them neatly on her flowered print knees. She stared at the slender white fingers with their delicate tracery of blue veins, and was a little surprised to see them trembling.
He was late; that was all. It had happened before. It had. She paced the yard, wandered the perfect, gleaming house, watched the road, listened for the engine, waited for the vibration that would tell her the powerful car had pulled into the overgrown cobblestone lane that led around behind the house to the old stables, and the shed he used for a garage.
Always, always he had come. In the beginning he had come often, laughing, clasping her tight, calling her sweet names like honey, sugar, sweetheart. In the beginning he had only become angry when she had asked the forbidden question: “Where have you been?”
She had no right; it had only taken once for her to learn that all the way to her bones. He had a large, full life, a wife, children, a career in the city—a bowler-hatted, umbrellaed, and top-coated existence. She was picnics by the river, the white linen sleeves rolled up to reveal muscular forearms, the tie askew, milk-white thighs in tender green grass. She was dessert. Does cake have rights? May it ask the diner, “Why did you linger over the soup and fish, the fowl, the fruit and cheese, the coffee?”
She stood and walked down the passageway to the antiquated kitchen. While the rest of the house gleamed and sparkled, the kitchen had resolutely remained its battered self, wooden floors worn, splintering, and uneven, pantry shelves dark and shadowy, wooden counters stained and gouged.
The round-topped white refrigerator with its long silver handle and the modern white cooker looked odd, their smooth gleaming white roundness and black-numered dials alien in the ancient room. He hated it and seldom came here. It had become her place, the cushioned rocker by the fire sat alone, a little wrought iron footstool before it.
She glanced at the rocker but did not sit. Instead, she stood at the sink, arms hugging her waist, and stared out at the side yard. Overgrown trees hung green and misty, boughs brushing the ground. The grass stood tall and sparse here. Sand showed between its stalks.
A fly bumbled in the corner of the window. She stared at it, then turned abruptly and crossed to the door, strides quick and long. It was not ladylike at all, but then, she didn’t fell very ladylike. She stopped in the doorway, shadows on her back, sun scalding her front.
She turned back into the kitchen and took the ice tea pitcher out of the refrigerator, reached a glass out of the cupboard, set it on the counter, and opened the refrigerator again, this time penetrating to the tiny, hidden sanctum of winter. Frost had covered the metal tray of ice cubes. She lifted briskly, listening to the shackled ice squeak, then snap as the cubes popped free. She lifted one out of the tray, looked at the glass, considered her parched throat, looked at the pitcher, and upended the tray over it instead. She took the lemons he had brought the last time he came—“Make me a lemon meringue pie, won’t you darling girl?” he had asked.
She had smiled gently and taken the lemons. He had taken her smiling silence for assent, like she had known he would, like he always did, like it always had been before.
But he had been late that time, too, very late, and had arrived smelling sweetly of a perfume neither hers nor his wife’s. There would be no pie, not if her life depended upon it.
She took the lemons now and hacked them quickly, recklessly, scooped the chunks up in both hands and poured them into the ice tea pitcher, then lifted it and sloshed to mix it in. She looked at the sugar crock. Should she? Sugar was dear these days, and hard to come by,and he was protective of it, as he was of all sweet things. God knew when he would get more.
She smiled the evil little smile he had loved in the beginning, and now hated, lifted the crock, and sent the white crystals sliding into the golden brown liquid and collecting in tiny icebergs on the lemon wedges and ice cubes. Enough? She considered. Maybe a little more. She poured in the rest of the sugar. The fly buzzed in the window.
She carried the pitcher outside and sat carefully on the warped wooden stoop. A splintering deck chair slumped under the trees. She had sat there in the beginning, reclining in the shade, sipping her dark, peaty, unsweetened tea, dreamimg of him, and waiting for the sound of his car.
Sometimes she had thought she heard him—heard the roar of engines, the clatter of people as if he had brought guests. She had leaped out of her chair and hurried smiling through the house, smoothing her hair and patting her dress. But each time the driveway stood empty and quiet.
She would stand in the yard feeling foolish and a little bereft, as if she had missed something wonderful—something absolutely delightful, essential and now irretrievable—by seconds. In the beginning she thought it was disappointment that he hadn’t come after all. She hardly felt it at all any more.
The fly had bumbled out of the kitchen and found the sweet, sticky pitcher. She swatted at it, actually managing to strike the pest, much to her surprise and distaste. She stood, carried the pitcher into the kitchen, washed her hand at the sink, lifted the pitcher, carried it back outside, and sat back down on the step. The fly lay broken, wings askew. One leg kicked feebly. Wincing, she kicked a little sand over it and pressed her slippered toe down, trying not to hear the crunch.
The pitcher was so cold. Her hands ached against its dewy, icy sides. She lifted it in both hands, placed her mouth on the open mouth of the pitcher, and drew its sweetness deep into herself as they had done in the beginning, open mouth to open mouth, sweetness pouring through them.
When had they last kissed like that? When had they last kissed? When had they last wanted to? Who had stopped first? Had it been he who first began the hurried, mumbled hello’s and goodbyes, the curiously distant, impersonal encounters in the shadowy afternoon bedrooms? When had making love turned into fucking, and then agony?
Had he reached for her, sought her lips, longing for the sweetness, and she turned her head, turning his kiss from life itself to the polite greeting of a stranger?
She set the pitcher on her knees, felt the chilly condensation soak through her dress, winced, lifted the pitcher, and pulled her dress up, leaving her cold knees bare to the sunshine.
She drank deeply again, then set the pitcher on the step beside her. She leaned back, propped her elbows on the next step up, spread her bare knees, and relished the heat of the sun on her inner thighs warm, seductive. Guiltily she pulled her dress a little higher, and spread her knees a little more.
The knot in her belly eased a little. Maybe he wasn’t coming after all. She was surprised to recognize a lift of hope.
And then she heard it, the sound of an engine. She jerked her knees together, jumped up, and scooped up the pitcher, all in a single movement. He could not find her like this! It was low, wanton, all the things he now professed to despise, all the things she had been before he took her in hand, and formed her into something else entirely. All the things she had been when he loved her.
She rushed into the kitchen and stared around wildly. He must not see the tea, not now, when things were so fragile even his gifts must lie for him. What had she been thinking?
The trash can was out; he would see. The refrigerator was out for the same reason. He would see, and his eyes would lift to hers, hard, hot and then, ah then, she would wish she had merely asked a forbidden question. The engine grew louder, stopped.
The stable, she thought, panicked. She flew down the steps and across the overgrown courtyard, the cobblestones round and aching under her thin slippers, under the sand. She stumbled.
“Honey?” drifted behind her. “Sweetheart, you in here?”
She raced on toward safety, the tea sloshing onto her hands, breast, belly, thighs, a veritable baptism leaving guilt, not absolution, in its wake.
The door, ah, the door. She was almost there.
She darted through the door. Not this time, please, not this time. She prayed, but she knew no god would hear her. She was a whore, an adulterous whore. He called her that, sometimes, when the afternoons in the bedroom were all too personal, too agonizingly personal. He always said he was sorry afterward, and usually sent her something lovely, and treated her gently until the gashes and bruises healed, but the words had the ring of conviction to them.
The stable was hot, sour, and musty. Sun slanted through floating dust motes. It was strange; she never came here. Why not? Her head whipped, looking for a hiding place in the unfamiliar.
Nothing. She stood in the alley between the rotting, splintered stalls, trying to control her breathing. Her eyes darted, desperate for sanctuary.
“Honey, don’t make me come get you.” She heard the black joy running under the impatience in his voice, thick and heavy as the erection she kenw was there as well.
“You better get out here, little girl.” The dark current swelled, turning his words hard and turgid.
She knew what came next, what always came next. “I fear I will die of the pain,” she whispered, and the words echoed with an old, old, ring, as if they had been said before in this musty, sunshot place.
She stared down at the pitcher, at the murky, too sweet tea with its sickly yellow lemon wedges. She thought of drinking it down in great gulps, tea cascading down her throat, swelling her belly like a guilty pregnancy. She even lifted the pitcher to her lips, took a deep gulp, and nearly gagged as his shadow darkened the doorway.
And then, incredibly, salvation. “I wonder if I might trouble you for directions to the nearest call box?”
“In the village.” His voice was cool, distant, icily courteous.
“Do you live here?”
“No one lives here.”
The words cut through her like ice.
“I thought I saw a woman.”
“Just a bit ago, out front.”
“There’s no one here.”
She clutched the pitcher. It felt slimy in her numb hands. Here was reprieve, if she only had courage to seize it.
“Oh. It must have been someone passing by.”
She could see herself running out of the stable, pitcher in her hand, running away with the aviator, flying to safety. She took a step forward. Fear seized her again. What if he caught her? What then? “I fear I will die of the pain,” came the paralyzing whisper. She stopped, panting and trembling.
“Well, thanks for the directions. I won’t keep you.” Footsteps rustled, padded, crunched away, fainter, fainter, fainter. Gone.
And then his shadow fell full force across the doorway, across the floor, across her, and at last she could see his face, hard, angry, and under it all, gleeful.
His hand moved by his side, and she saw the whip, the one he had used to reduce her from a brash, thoughtless girl into an elegant, reserved, retiring woman, someone, she realized suddenly, he now intended to reduce into something else altogether.
She squeezed her hands convulsively, and the pitcher shot free, drenching him in tea, crashing at his feet, shattering. A slice of lemon lay on one of his elegant, expensive, now tea-stained leather loafers.
They stared down at it, at its soaked, sad, elegant little tassle. A fly bumbled over and settled onto one of the muddy lemon wedges, then crawled down into the sweet, sticky muck. She stared at the fly, her hands empty.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asked quietly, reasonably.
She opened her mouth and gasped, and suddenly his face shifted and before she even saw him move she felt the whip, stinging and burning like a thousand thousand wasps. She fell, curled in on herself, buried her head under her arms, and the pain was so great she feared she would die of it. The wasps stung her body, legs, arms. And then, mercifully, nothing.
The sun slanted warm and golden the next morning. The house stood silent. No one lived there any more. In the stable, flies bumbled greedily in the chill shadows, buzzed frantically in the shafts of sunlight. The thing lay stiff beneath iridescent black swarms. Its red dress had stiffened to black.