Dressed to Death
A short story by Stacy L. Denny
They were walking across the backyard, past the two-tread concrete step by the back door on their way to the carport at the side of the house. The child looked about eight. Her hair wasn’t combed, and it looked unkempt. Its frizzy tightly coiled curls were saharan dry and almost rust in colour, but the child did not appear unkempt otherwise. The woman who walked beside her did not converse, though she occasionally shot stern glances at the girl who seemed strangely simultaneously scared and oblivious. The girl’s brown shorts were too tight; her blue tee-shirt clingy, but they were clean. Her open-toe flip flops emphasized the smallness of her feet while somehow drawing attention to her stringy frame.
The woman looked pristine in her tailored suit and heels. Her large breasts seemed to plead for space as they attempted to peep through the six buttons which tightened the jacket closed. It was a vibrant pink skirt suit, fuchsia, it’s called, coordinated with black stilettos, pointed and enclosed across the front. Every relaxed curl was in place as part of her newly coiffed hairstyle, which featured low sides and back and perfectly placed short hot ironed curls along the top. The watch she wore appeared to be a designer brand, as did the brown leather tote bag she so expertly carried over her wrist.
The child was distracted. Her gaze fixed on something. Oblivious to the impatient woman’s calls, she appeared transfixed, suddenly transported as if by some supernatural force towards the wonderment of her gaze. By now the woman was steps ahead, hysterically screaming, spewing curses and threats, but the child did not hear them. The woman walked backwards.
“What the hell are you doing girl?” This was followed by a slap across the face, stinging the girl back into current reality.
“It’s that dress…”
“What about it, girl?” The woman smirked.
“Why is it out here, hanging on the clothesline like that?”
“Like what, silly girl? Just get into the car. NOW!”
“But it shouldn’t be there like that…it just shouldn’t be.”
“Ok, so what are you going to do about it? Take it down? Is that what you’ll do?”
The girl motions forward. There’s a swift slap across her hand.
“You touch that dress and I swear I’ll break that arm like I did the other…remember that?”
“Yes ma’am, but…but…it can’t stay there”.…She trailed off.
“It’ll be ruined or stolen”.
“Well then you go ahead. You take it down…go ahead,” she snarled.
The girl’s eyes dart from the dress to the woman and back repeatedly. She could not move.
That night she sat on the two-tread concrete step at the back door staring at the dress as it swayed in the cool breeze. As she settled a little, something, slightly at the rear of where she sat caught her attention. She was startled by the rustling of the fallen autumn leaves, though not by the shadowy figure. She was intrigued, not knowing quite what to make of it. It was dressed in a pin-striped suit, the likes of Fred Astaire, capped off with a matching homburg hat. Was it a he or she? The suit appeared very masculine in shape, but the shape softly feminine in form. The girl’s confusion was compounded by the very dark yet delicately framed aviator shades covering what she imagined to be mysterious eyes. It was obvious to the girl that this known person did not want to be recognised.
“Why do you let her treat you that way?”
“What do you mean?” It was definitely a woman’s voice and it was very kind. It drew the girl in, and she listened intently.
“Why do you let her bully and intimidate you?”
“Huh? What else can I do? It’s not like I can retaliate.”
“Can’t you run away?”
“Run away?” Her own voice sounded incredulous as though it were the first time she’d ask this question herself. But it wasn’t.
“Don’t you have a father?”
“A father? I don’t think so.”
The woman laughed lightly. “Everyone has a father. I mean…do you know him?”
“No.” The girl answered matter-of-factly.
“What about a grandma, an aunt or an uncle maybe?”
“I wouldn’t go somewhere she could find me.”
“Do you think she’d be sad if you ran away?”
“A loud burst of laughter almost escaped her, but she caught herself, well aware of the illegitimacy of this night outing.
“Angry as a charging bull perhaps, but not sad, and then it would be worse for me so I’d have to go somewhere she could never think of finding me, but I haven’t worked out where that is yet.”
“That’s something I’ve always noticed about you.”
“Noticed? You’ve known me before today?” The girl half asked.
“Yeah, I have…all your life.”
“So…what have you noticed?” She wanted to keep her talking just to hear the warmth in her voice.
“You’ve always been whip smart. Could break any problem to pieces, analyse it and put it back together more sensibly.” She looked intently at the young girl, almost pleadingly, though she knew she had her full attention. “You can get yourself out of this situation, but you need to stop letting her get in front of you.”
“I don’t understand, how can I stop…”
The woman disappeared as easily as she’d appeared, and yet the girl knew that she was as real as that dress swaying in the autumn breeze on the clothesline. Still she was convinced that she would hear that voice again. She rose a little timidly and tiptoed towards the clothesline, shifting the dress ever so slightly such that the moonlight playfully bounced off its colourful patterns. This absolutely delighted her. She then crept to the back door, gently turning the knob so as not to make her present absence noticeable, only turning ever so slightly to glance at the shifted dress and allowing a wry smile to creep across her face. Tonight would be her small taste of victory.
She could only see the darkness. The light had not yet penetrated through the morning sky. She felt herself being dragged from bed by the collar of her too flimsy nightdress. She was being dragged outside as she could feel the temperature change. The weather outside was eerily cool bordering on cold and her night dress gave little protection against the elements.
“You little bitch. Did you touch that dress?”
Her eyes barely open, she made out that she was now laying under the clothesline on the dewy grass in the backyard.
“Answer me girl,” she scowled.
“So, you’re lying to me now?” The first blow was to her tiny stomach. Oddly, the girl noticed that the woman was wearing steel toe work boots beneath her warm robe.
“I’m going to ask you again girl. Did you touch THAT dress?”
She knew what was coming if she lied again and in a barely audible voice managed to say, “yes ma’am”.
“Well touch it again,” she barked. “TOUCH IT.”
As the girl extended her hand, she felt the full force of the boot on her bony fingers. The combination of instant pain and gradual swelling was excruciating. Uncontrollably she emitted a shrill sound, something of an outer body nature.
“Shut up! Shut up! Or I’ll give you something to scream about. I swear you’re the devil. You never listen. Always testing me. Well, this is what you get when you flunk the test”. With that she coolly walked inside and locked the door.
The girl grimaced as she managed to pull herself up on to the larger of the two treads of the concrete step and balled herself into the fetal position, enough to see the wall of the neighbour’s house which separated the two properties. Just beyond the wall she saw the apple and plum trees which she had climbed many times over for fruit. Now she imagined the wall and the trees as protection and these thoughts warmed her. She definitely felt warmer, but it was not owing to her thoughts. The old man from the house beyond the wall was covering her in a blanket, tucking her in as she imagined that a real grandpa would and without a word he left. She woke only a few minutes later to the sound of the woman’s gruff voice.
“Get up and get your ass in here.” She was unlocking the door.
The girl scrambled to her feet trying to fold the blanket quickly, but her swollen fingers wouldn’t allow her. At that very moment her eyes met the old man’s, standing just beyond the wall. His heading nodding no. She understood that it was okay to just leave the blanket and so she mouthed “thank you”. She read his reply, “you’re so welcome,” and she smiled a little.
Now her fingers were being dunked in a large jug of ice cubes.
The woman gave birth and brought a baby home from the hospital, but there was no father. The girl saw the baby’s birth as a blessing; her growing up not so much. As the woman doted on the baby the less enraged she became at the girl. As long as the baby was in the woman’s arms, the girl felt somewhat safe, but then the baby started to grow…separate, but connected, outside the womb, internalizing the manipulation and the rage, and basking in it. She became a human monster who lived not under the girl’s bed but in her real life.
“I will make my mummy beat you”, baby girl said smugly. The girl had only asked to share her sweet treats.
The penalty was almost instantaneous. The girl first heard, then felt the impact, but she was confused, unsure as to whether something struck her head or her head struck something…deliberately. She just remembered the physical pain and the berating which naturally followed.
“You little fool. Why are you begging? Did I not teach you not to beg?” As easily her tone shifted, “Baby girl, did she upset mummy’s baby girl? Yes, she did, didn’t she? She’s such a bad girl, but you’re an angel.”
She swept baby girl off her feet and swung her around in a circle; baby girl howled with delight, then she turned back to the girl.
“You keep up this behaviour and one day I’ll just have to kill you. You’ll leave me with no choice girl. You’re just disgusting. Pure filth you are.”
The girl lay on the bed refusing to sob. She reasoned that her head would get better though it would be sore for a while. This was just her life. She lay there for a little while and wondered if other kids were treated this way. Other kids outside her home she meant because baby girl was never subjected to this treatment, so she spent some time that day daydreaming about kids like her and other kids too, but mostly kids like her. She must have dozed off.
“Get up girl. Do you think you are some kind of princess around here? They’re things to do. Get up.” Baby girl was in her arms giggling at the sound of her mother’s voice.
“Take baby girl outside to play. She needs some fresh air.”
“Me?” The girl was stunned.
“Do you see someone else here? Girl, don’t back-talk me or you’ll soon be sorry.”
The girl cautiously took baby girl’s fingers and gingerly led her outside. She watched as the toddler would run from one side to the other trying to catch butterflies and for a singular moment she saw a glimpse of hope and then…it happened. A piercing scream catapulted the girl to her feet. The woman had already bolted outside at the sound. She was frantic, screaming something incoherent but interpretably threatening to the girl. Baby girl lay in the grass. She had tripped and fallen. There was some blood around her mouth.
The girl was frozen with fear. She hoped baby girl would be okay as the woman scooped her in her arms. All the while she was comforting her with soothing words, but the girl stayed behind, preferring not to venture inside until there was calm. At the sound of quiet, the girl crept to the back door. She turned the knob with trepidation.
Without warning she was yanked inside, being grabbed by the throat. She tried hard to remove the woman’s hands as she desperately gasped for air. She could feel her scrawny body being lifted off the floor as she struggled, thrashing around and flailing to break free of the woman’s grip. Now there was no light around her. It was completely dark. The woman had managed to drag her on to the bed and placed a pillow over her face. She couldn’t breathe, so she found herself once again fighting for air.
“I should kill you right now. You hurt my baby you stupid ugly cow.”
The girl tried to say that it wasn’t her fault, that baby girl had accidentally fallen as she was running, but she couldn’t get the words out in her struggle for air. The woman increased the pressure on the pillow and the girl stopped fighting. Finally…it lifted. She could breathe again.
“Excuse me ma’am”. The woman was feeding baby girl her veggies when the girl interrupted. She was telling baby girl how big and strong she would become if she ate her veggies. In fact, the doctor had told her that the child was overweight, and she would need to give her better nutrition and manage her food intake. It was a struggle.
“What do you want girl?” She scowled.
“The teacher said to remind you of the parent-teacher conference tomorrow,” the girl responded.
“Remind me?” She said sarcastically. “Why? Did you tell her that I wouldn’t come?”
“No ma’am. She told the entire class, not just me.”
“Well say that you fool”.…She paused, then screamed, “WELL SAY IT.”
The girl, unprepared for what she was being asked, shook a little at first.
“The teacher asked the entire class to remind their parents and guardians about the parent-teacher conference tomorrow.”
“Good. Now get out of my sight.” She and baby girl were laughing hysterically.
That day the woman was dressed impeccably with baby girl draped on her hip like a fashion accessory bedecked in her blue satin tutu dress, with her twisted plaits adorned with blue and white satin ribbons throughout her hair. The girl wore her uniform.
“So nice to meet you.” The woman said, while extending her hand and finding her seat.
“The girl talks about you all the time. Ms Zaine this, Ms Zaine that. It’s non-stop.” She noticed a curious look on the teacher’s face. “What’s the matter?” The woman asked.
“I’m just surprised. She’s usually so withdrawn in class. I can hardly imagine her animated.”
“Withdrawn? You mean she doesn’t pay attention?”
“No. That’s not what I mean,” the teacher quickly added. She could feel that something was off. “Quite the contrary. She’s always fully focused. Whip smart this little one, but it’s very difficult to get her to talk or offer an opinion.”
“Really? The girl doesn’t stop talking. Can’t get her to shut up. Drives me crazy some days.” The teacher noticed a barely visible twinge from the girl. This picture before her eyes was not real. It did not add up.
“Well, if her academics are fine then we have nothing to worry about, now do we Ms. Zaine?” She started to rise from the chair. The girl was still busily preparing her homework for the next day in her seat next to the woman.
“Well in fact there is just one more thing.” The teacher hesitated before saying, “her hair.”
“HER H-A-I-R? The sound reverberated throughout the school hall, startling its occupants; yet, the girl never flinched.
“What about her hair miss?”
The teacher cleared her throat a little. “It’s a little unkempt, sometimes looks like it hasn’t been combed.”
“Are you trying to insult me? Take a good look at me. Look at my baby. Do I look like the kind of woman who wouldn’t comb the girl’s hair? It’s her texture. She doesn’t have good hair you know. It’s just nappy. If I comb it at 7 by 7:01 it’s walking out of the braid. She doesn’t have good hair like the baby’s. There’s nothing I can do except perhaps cut it all off and have her look like a boy.”
The girl’s head snapped up. Her eyes bewildered and pleading. The teacher caught a glimpse of the fleeting but tense exchange.
“No. Please don’t do that. If you wish you could bring her to school fifteen minutes earlier and I could...” She was cut off abruptly. The teacher stood dumbfounded.
“Could what? You ARE insulting me.” She turned her attention to the girl. “Well get up and let’s go girl”. As they approached the door of the hall the girl darted back to the teacher’s desk.
“I’m sorry I got you into trouble Ms Zaine,” the girl said as she dropped the pencil she had borrowed to do her homework on the desk.
“No Ay..”, but before she could get her name out the girl had darted for the door.
Then it clicked. She never called the girl by her name.
The girl loved spring and every chance she got she would sneak outside at night to sit on the two-tread concrete step at the back door just to breathe the fresh air and pretend to count all the stars in the night sky. This was her favorite place in the world, the concrete step which mimicked the stone wall partially hiding the neighbour’s fruit trees, set off by her small vegetable garden just below the cherry tree in her own yard and which served to provide shade for the small garden owing to its large overhanging branches.
“We haven’t talked for a while.” The woman said.
“Yeah. I know, but I always hoped that you would come back soon.”
“She’s going to kill you, you know, one way or another.”
“Yeah. I know that too, but I just have to wait for it and hope it’s doesn’t hurt too much I suppose.”
“Aren’t you scared?”
“Not really. You’re never really scared when you’re prepared.”
“Why doesn’t she ever take that dress down?”
“It’s not really a dress you know.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s a symbol.”
“Obedience, authority, submission, those sorts of things.”
The woman’s attention shifts. “What’s that?”
“Oh that. It’s the hole for the new underground water tank the landlord’s planning to install.”
“And the ropes help haul the tank down I guess.”
“Yeah. The guys said that they help hold the weight steady as the tank’s going down. They were great. Even let me dig out some of the dirt.”
“That’s another thing I noticed about you.”
“What’s that?” The girl asked.
“You’re scrawny, but you’re strong.” They both giggled.
“You turned that earth into a garden bed with not so much as a helping hand.”
“You saw that?”
“I did. I see a lot of things. You don’t have to resign yourself to dying you know. Don’t let her get in front of you. If you want to live you have to lead her, and you’re smart enough to do that. Afterwards you just have to use the physical strength you have, and you’re strong enough to do that too.”
“You really think I can do it? Survive her I mean?”
“I know you can Ayleen.”
“You know my name?” She half asked.
“You know I do.” She then did what she had never done before in their previous talks. She hugged the girl, and then as she always did, she simply disappeared.
This time the girl knew it would be a long time before she met her again.
As it customarily did, the school bus set the girl down in front of her house, but she chose to walk along the side and through the backyard so she could glimpse the trees and her garden. But today as she entered the house she was startled by the silence. The woman was standing by the stove stirring the contents of a pot.
“Good evening ma’am.” She hesitated, then asked, “Where’s baby girl?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but she’s gone to the sea-side for the weekend. A treat with some friends. They all love her you know.”
It’s now or never she thought.
“Ma’am, can I be excused from dinner tonight. I promise I’ll wash the dishes as soon as you’re done eating.”
“Girl what are you up to?” The hot metal spoon set against the girl’s face.
“Nothing, ma’am. I entered the art competition at school and I just want to start on my drawing.”
“Whatever. Just make sure this kitchen is cleaned before too late.”
“Yes ma’am. I will”. The girl became uncontrollably nervous. Her adrenaline was high. She started on her drawing, willing her palms not to sweat as she steadied the pencil on the paper. She kept hearing herself say, “it’s now or never.”
“It’s time to clean up that kitchen girl.” For the first time she looked at the woman. She was a young woman with an old face, and for the first time she felt pity for her, not hatred or love, but pity. What a strange feeling to have she was thinking when the woman snatched the pencil from her hand.
“Are you hearing me girl? What is this stupid drawing anyway?”
Without thinking, the words slipped out, “it’s not stupid…ma’am.”
“Are you back-talking me girl? I could easily kill you tonight. No witnesses. Nothing to scar poor baby girl. You hear me girl?”
“Let me see that dumb picture. What the hell is this?” She snatched it before moving to exit the bedroom door. “How is a lone clothes-peg on a clothesline supposed to win an art competition… stupid?”
“There’s nothing on the clothesline.” The girl retorted.
Very slowly and deliberately the woman started to turn, and almost whispered, had it not been obvious that she was seething, “Is this my clothesline girl?”
“So, where’s the dress girl?” Her voice building to a crescendo.
“I took it down ma’am.”
“You did WHAT? Are you trying to defy me? Are you really trying to defy me?” She manically screamed as she grabbed for the girl who expectantly jumped off the bed and escaped between her legs darting towards the back door which she had purposely left unlocked.
“Don’t let her get in front of you; lead her”. The words made her heart pound.
By now the woman was in the yard. “Girl have you gone crazy. The dress is still on the clothesline.” She said bewildered.
“Yes ma’am, but not in the drawing.”
She understood. “Would you dare touch that dress girl. Would you risk your life you little fool?”
The girl stood motionless next to the dress on the clothesline. She remembered back to a time when it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. That dress was exquisite. It had flowed to hug the woman’s body in all the right places. Its thin spaghetti like straps and silk chiffon material were dipped in every brilliant dye imaginable to create a rainbow effect, trailing off at the back like a magical tranquil flowing river. The black chiffon belt topped with miniature splintered like crystals completed the dress and the woman then, perfectly. Like the woman now it was a faded weathered mess.
The girl made a motion as if to reach for the clothes peg and the woman lunged forward. Immediately and with no warning her foot became entrapped in the partially hidden knotted rope in the grass. With that she was pulled with a tremendous force towards the gaping hole in the backyard screaming and hurling insults at the girl.
“You nasty dirty little whore. You will never amount to anything. You know you only got this far because of me. I clothed you, fed you and educated you. I don’t owe you a damn thing. You OWE me and I OWN you.”
Her final words before I buried her. I understood now that she was self-loathing, self-combative, self-belligerent. She was exhausted I suspected, so in my child’s mind I needed to silence her thoughts for her sake, and put her to rest, so with the shovel in hand I filled her in until I scraped the last piece of earth on top the mound and finally…silence…I had buried her...alive and the dress along with her.