I should never have put on the dress; that is what I have learned. We never think about how important our decisions are until after they have doomed us. That is something else I have learned.
It never did fit properly, not even on the day of the wedding. I had followed Mother’s instructions precisely and eaten only one small meal a day for three weeks, but like everything else I did to please her,it simply wasn’t enough. Even with the finest corset we could afford binding me underneath, the dress still pulled too tightly around my middle and sagged too loosely around my chest. I should have seen it as a sign.
I did not sleep the night before the wedding. I sat up straight in my over-sized bed at the Tulach Springs Hotel and stared across the room at the dress as it hung over the full-length mirror, spilling out over the floor. The single candle I had lit filled the room with shadows and changed the dress’s color from milky white to jaundiced yellow. Some people say that you can’t trust your eyes in the darkness, but I now know that the opposite is true. Daylight dazzles our senses with too much brightness, blinding us to reality. Only at night, when every light is either dim or extinguished, does the truth appear within the clarity of shadows. My wedding dress was jaundiced and sick – that was its natural state. Now it always appears as it is; now it cannot lie.
Many different kinds of truths will show their faces in the darkness, and that night I saw another from the window of my room. After eighteen years of sweltering, Kansas City summers, I had developed the habit of sleeping near an open window, and even when Father’s business with the Canadian Pacific Railway moved our family to Alberta, I continued to do so, indifferent to the fierce chill of the Rockies after sundown. The Tulach Springs Hotel had been built to resemble a Scottish castle, and on that night, as the cold winds ripped through the remote, sleeping enclave and carried the mists from the spring out over the vast, green wilderness, the architect’s goal was fully realized. I did not keep the window open that night to feel as if I were in a castle, however; I kept it open so that I could pretend to be on the outside.
First I heard the laughter, which pierced the frozen air and floated into my room like a warm breeze wafting up from the spring. I crept out of bed, extinguished the candle, and hesitantly peered outside. Two dark figures, a man and a woman, were running hand in hand below my room, toward the edge of the forest that surrounded the hotel. When they reached a nearby maple tree, the man lifted the woman’s skirt, took her by the waist, and pressed her up against its trunk. The maple was just close enough to my room for me to make out their shadowy silhouettes as they moved together, up and down in a quickening rhythm against the sturdy tree. They were also close enough for me to hear them, which is how I finally realized who they were.
Fanny was the first one to give herself away. As the pair’s movement against the tree became faster and more intense, the woman cried out loudly, as if she were in pain, and I immediately knew that it was Fanny. I had heard her cry out in such a way many times: when slipping with the bucket of coals for the fire and burning her hands as she poured them, when sticking a needle into her finger as she mended the torn seams of my clothes, or even when removing her shoes to rub her feet at the end of the day. For as long as I had known her, Fanny had expressed every feeling she ever had, usually loudly and always boisterously. She was common; it was allowed. A maid is not expected to behave like a lady.
The man, however, did not make a sound or breathe a single word – not until after they were done. Once Fanny’s cries had finally ceased, I heard him laugh and say, “Off to bed with you now,” and the two of them went their separate ways. That was how I knew it was Milton. He had said the exact same words to me only a few hours before.
We were in the Cloudburst Ballroom for the pre-wedding dinner. As the party finally began to die down, Mother announced that she and I would be retiring to our rooms. Once I reached the foot of the grand staircase, however, I suddenly froze in fear. The stairs were long and winding, each glimmering, marble step had been polished to a blinding shine, and the sleek, smooth, golden handrail offered little more security. But falling was not my greatest fear; I knew that the sooner I walked up those stairs the sooner I would be walking back down them, this time in my jaundiced dress, with Milton standing below. Perhaps he saw my hesitation as I stood there, watching as Mother climbed easily and gracefully above me, for he suddenly took my hand, patted the back of it, and smiled, saying, “Off to bed with you now, Prudence.” It was the third time he had ever spoken to me and it would also be the last.
The two previous times had also taken place at the only event in which our two very different lives overlapped – dinner parties. At the party our parents had arranged in order for us to formally meet, he said to me, “Hello. Milton Courtleigh the Third. My father is also in railroads.” I remember feeling disappointed that he never asked me my name. He already knew it of course, as I already knew his, for the two of us had long been intended for one another, but I had wanted him to ask me, just the same. The second time he spoke to me was at the party his parents had thrown in honor of our engagement. As he and his friends were leaving for town to continue celebrating on their own, he pulled me aside, kissed me, and said, “We will be well-suited for each other.” That was the essence of our relationship: “My father is in railroads, we will be well-suited, off to bed with you now.” Thinking back upon it now, I wonder if he ever knew what my voice sounded like.
I did not return to bed after the figures departed. I remained awake until morning, staring out of the window, longing for the howling winds to sweep me up and carry me out over the mountains. When Fanny arrived to prepare me for the ceremony, she cried out loud in shock, screaming that I was as cold and blue as a corpse.
I was not angry with Fanny; it simply would not have been rational. I did not love Milton and did not envy what she had done with him. Love was a ridiculous notion, even at the dawning of a new century, and in truth I was dreading the inevitability of having to do such a thing with him myself. I envied Fanny, but not for the reasons that one might naturally suspect. Although she was a servant, she possessed more freedom than I could ever dream of, a possession for which I also envied Milton, my father, my brothers, and every other man I had ever known. I did not desire the thing that Fanny had done out on the edge of the forest; I simply wanted the ability to escape and walk among the trees for myself.
Just before the ceremony, Mother arrived to assist with my final preparation. As she picked up the dress and held it before me, I stood as frozen as the angel-shaped ice-sculpture that my family had commissioned for the reception, corset-laced and barely breathing. I did not realize it at the time, but in that one moment, I could have changed everything. I could have run away, dashed out half-naked into the surrounding wilderness and taken refuge in the endless sea of fur trees. I could have pretended to lose my mind, or simply have burned the menacing dress, but I did not yet possess the perspective that I possess today. I did not realize then what the consequences would be. I did not even realize that I had a choice at all.
And so, I put on the dress. There were buttons that ran all the way up the back, reaching as high as the base of my skull, and once Mother succeeded in securing them all, I was locked in for good. The string quartet, provided by the hotel, began playing a soft, sluggish melody as I approached the top of the stairs. Candles were burning all along the banister as if it were a cool evening rather than a sweltering afternoon. The thick, oppressive fabric weighed heavily upon my body, and soon the dress began sticking uncomfortably to the wetness of my skin.
As I looked down over the long, winding steps, however, I could see, at their very base, a giant, floor-length, fully-open window. That window became my driving motivation as I began the dreaded descent. I wiped Milton, my family, and everyone else waiting in the Cloudburst Ballroom out of my mind and focused solely on the window below. I knew that once I reached it I would be able to see outside, feel the wind on my face, and at least for one last moment, imagine I was free.
Perhaps it was this eagerness, this overpowering desire for freedom that caused me to move with such haste. I don’t remember feeling pain; there wasn’t enough time. The last thing I felt was the heel of my shoe as it snagged the train of my dress. Time stood still for only a moment before the shining, marble stairs below me rose toward my face. I remember hearing a loud crack as the side of my head hit the edge of a step, and I remember seeing nothing but a spinning blur of white and gold as my body tumbled down the rest of the steep, winding staircase.
When I opened my eyes and found myself staring up at the ceiling, I realized that my body was stretched out on the floor at the base of the steps. I scrambled back onto my feet with surprising ease but, when I reached up to smooth back my hair, my hand went through my face. I tried again and then again, but it soon became apparent that my body was no longer solid. I could see my hand as I held it before my eyes, but when I tried to close it into a fist, my fingers dissolved into my palm.
Suddenly, my attention was seized by Fanny’s blood-curdling screams. I followed the sound and saw myself, covered in blood with my head hanging unnaturally to one side as Fanny held me, wailing, weeping, and rocking my limp body in her arms. Mother had apparently passed out, as Father was holding her in the same feeble, wretched way. The Cloudburst Ballroom had erupted into utter chaos; shouting, shrieking, and smashing into one another, the guests ran in every direction, frantic to escape the repulsive scene. Among them was Milton, who after a moment of initial shock, squeamishly turned his face away and bolted for the nearest door.
I shifted my gaze to the open window, the last thing I had seen through the blind, sun-struck eyes of the living. Suddenly, I could see it as I would eventually see everything, through the calm and gracious clarity of shadows. “Now I am free,” I thought as I approached the billowing curtains, “Now I am finally free!” But when I raised my foot to step out into the world, it would not budge beyond the perimeter of the hotel. My entire being was suddenly overwhelmed by a greater helplessness than it had ever known. I could not leave. I was trapped.
It was only after countless vain attempts and endless days of frustrated contemplation that I finally came to a conclusion as to what keeps me bound within these walls. It is the dress. I came to this realization once I discovered that I was able to stretch my hands and face – the only parts not concealed by the gown – out through the windows for short periods of time. The rest of me is held fast by the dress, and because of this I know that I will never leave The Tulach Springs Hotel. I will never venture out into the forest, or walk beside the simmering springs, or feel the mountain winds rushing through my hair. I had the chance once, long ago, but that choice has long been made.
And so I go on, forever wandering these stifling corridors, stopping to linger at each window I pass and stretching out my hands and face as far as they will go, hoping that maybe, this time, the dress will lose its grip and the wind will take me away, out over the trees, past the snow-capped mountains, and into the endless sky.