Chuck’s challenge this week: The classic Random Title Challenge. I did this one properly, rolling the dice before I even looked at the possible titles, coming up with the bizarre title “The Dressmaker’s Last Call.” I balked at it, not knowing how I’d possibly approach it. But no, the challenge is in working outside of your comfort zone, so I set it on to percolate.
I went through a lot of different concepts and plots before ultimately arriving at this one. My Five Stories, One Title exercise has taught me that I get my best work done after I flush out the pipes a little bit first. I pushed away my initial ideas of thieving and murder in favor of something entirely different. I actually ended up liking this little story quite a lot.
Clocking in at 989 words, here it is.
The Dressmaker’s Last Call
As she stepped into the light and spun delicately on her toes, tears sprung into Tanner’s eyes. He had woven nightsilk garments before, but never one so fine as this, and he would never weave another. Myra was a miracle cloaked in the night; as she spun the candles seemed to gutter and fail, lending their light to hers. The dress pulled the luminescence in and suffused her with it; setting her aglow in the sudden dimness, radiance spilling out from her skin.
“It’s incredible,” said Myra, laying her fingers lightly on her arms as if she were afraid to touch it. In truth, she was, a little.
“Let me,” Tanner said.
He began the work of making tiny adjustments to the garment. The shimmering material flowed through his hands like water; it cascaded over his fingertips and pooled in gathering incorporeal heaps and whispered as his needle pierced it again and again. Darkly it billowed in swirling waves of deepest purple, midnight blue, and the black of the void; the fabric so light its touch on the skin was almost imperceptible, if it could be called fabric at all. Far too fine and fragile for any machine to ever touch, the nightsilk, once stitched, seemed to mold and shape itself to itself and to Myra; a seeking thing almost merging with her porcelain skin, a congealed shadow, a living darkness.
Tanner stepped back and regarded his work with a frown. It was immaculate, but his exacting eye picked out the flaws nobody else would ever see. There was nothing for it; the shadowed silk was a mystery even to him, each garment unique, each swatch of silk with a personality all its own. Even before his eyes, the dress bent and twisted with tiny imperceptible ripples, the thrashings of light and vibration that would ultimately tear the dress to pieces.
The room was alive with the flames of a hundred candles, guttering dimly, but the dress and their faces were barely visible. He clasped her by the hand. “The dress will hide you from the eyes of the living wherever you walk. You will appear as but a shadow, if they can bring themselves to look upon you at all. Even now, it turns my eyes.” It was true. The longer she stood in the tiny room, the more she seemed to fade at the edges, the more she seemed just an extension of the shadows stretching across the floor. His eyes hurt with the effort of keeping her in focus.
“But I’ll be able to see her?” Myra stared back into the old man’s eyes, brushing his cheek with her hand. The gesture seemed to calm him. “And she, me?”
His lips pressed into a thin line, and he inclined his head ever so slightly. “The dead walk in shadow. To become a shadow yourself is to become like them.” He squeezed her hand with a grimace and walked across the room. Picking up a lantern, he turned to her and scratched his head in hesitation — he could no longer see her. Myra reached out to take his hand, and he relaxed. “Keep this near you, lest the darkness take you forever.” She took the lantern and hung it in the crook of her arm. Kissing him on the cheek like a whisper of autumn air, she left without another word. He knew she was gone when the candles blazed back to life. He gave the last scrap of the nightsilk to the flames and watched as it convulsed, shriveled, and died on the floor in an ashless wisp of smoke.
The sun had set and the stars did not show their faces — their tiny pinpoints of light drunk up by the nightsilk. Myra made her way to the graveyard and hesitated; before her, in the dark, were the shuffling, aimless shapes of neighbors and friends long dead. They floated in the darkness, gossamer and grey, barely visible, gazing back at her with wonder and contempt. They spoke in words she could not hear and prodded at her with fingers she could not feel. Seeing that she was not like them, they lost interest, allowing her to pass unmolested through their ranks. There were more gravestones than living people in the town, and the yard was thick with their shadows, but they parted wordlessly before her as she pressed on toward the small, unmarked stone in a lonely corner, where a small wispy shade of a girl sat singing to herself, tunelessly, the way Myra’s husband used to do.
Myra’s voice caught in her throat. She reached for the girl but pulled her hand back, tears in a river down her cheeks. Finally, she choked, “Clara?”
The girl spun and regarded her strangely, expressionlessly, then stood and faced her. Myra felt sobs wracking her body, but made no sound. The girl’s mouth seemed to move, but Myra could not hear the words.
“I can’t hear you, darling,” Myra protested. She longed to grasp her, to squeeze her as if she could somehow share her own light with the girl, but Myra’s hand passed through her as through a fog. Myra drew her hand back in horror as the girl recoiled from her, shielding her eyes.
In an instant, Myra forgot the Weaver’s warning. The light hurt her little girl’s eyes; she must put it out. The lantern shattered, the oil taking flame in a tiny gout that sputtered and faded in the night. As the lantern’s light died, Myra felt her daughter’s tiny arms closing around her shoulders, felt the dress shifting and changing into the gossamer grey that the other dead wore. The voices of the dead became a sudden clamor in her ears; Myra fought the rising panic until she heard her daughter’s voice, tiny and sweet and real again, after so long.
“Mommy, it’s safe. You’re with me now.”