Every girl in London is wearing Red today
Mary says her dress is the color of Roses
Evelyn says her dress is the color of Hearts
Sarah says her dress is the color of Lilies
But I know that my dress is the color of Blood
As is every other dress in London today
When I awoke that morning, it was to a tugging sensation on the hem of my sleeve. It was not exactly something that I was unaccustomed to, as I share my room with several other girls, but there was something pressing about that particular gesture. My eyes slowly adjusted to reveal Evelyn’s excited face mere inches from my own.
“Em,” she gasped, “They’re givin’ away dresses on the corner.”
“Dresses?” I asked, not comprehending. Dresses are expensive. They aren’t given away.
“Red dresses,” she beamed, “of ev’ry shape n size, Mary says.”
“But why are the giving them away?”
“Because they belong’ta some rich lady, and she don't want em no more, I s’pose,” Evelyn concluded, “Now get you up afore they’re gone!”
I couldn’t argue with her. Evelyn was younger than me by a year or two, and was forbidden to walk alone any great distance.
I slipped on my most comfortable blue-cotton work dress and my leather boots, and descended the stairs that divided the living space from the purse shop on the lower level. Evelyn rushed me out the door before I had a chance to grab so much as a biscuit for breakfast, and we were off sprinting down the cobblestone street.
Ducking under workman’s loads and ladders and leaping barrels of fruits and other wares, we skidded to a halt at the very spectacle before us. There on the corner, just as described, was a hulking black carriage filled to the brim with all manner of scarlet finery. A crowd of women and girls, clustered around all sides of the ebony beast, frantically grabbed up the dresses as they were hurriedly tossed from its every door and window. Its handlers, three rather odd looking individuals who likely served the upper nobility, seemed indiscriminate in their tossing—as though their hearts were far removed from their task. Behind the carriage, a young boy stood looking on, neither sadness, nor apathy showing on his face. At his right hand, a man in black surveyed the scene. At his left, a girl choked back tears.
Evelyn did not see the boy. Evelyn did not see the man. Evelyn did not see the crying girl, or the melancholy servants. Evelyn only saw the dresses.
“Ooh!” she cooed, “I’ve never seen anyfing so lovely in my life, ave you?”
“No,” I responded, perhaps agreeing with her statement, and perhaps denying it. It was true that I had never before seen so much finery in one place, but the gushing flow of red pouring from the black beast reminded me of an ox mid-slaughter. I wondered whether the girl might be weeping for the animal, or the dresses.
I decided not to ask. Evelyn was pulling me ahead.
“That one! That one, please!” she called as an enormous behemoth of a skirt came flooding through the back window. It folded in on itself upon exit and exploded to the ground in a flurry of crinoline, shrugging off its former confinement like a bird escaped from its cage.
“Yes’m,” the servant called, tossing the skirt in her direction before diving back into the fray in search of the accompanying bodice. Evelyn was admiring her new gift, so I took it upon myself to retrieve the top. I’m sure she hadn’t even noticed its absence.
I pushed through the crowd just as a flurry of sleeves shot out of the carriage window. It was a handsome thing, with two rows of black buttons on the front, and an equally crimson complexion everywhere else. It was too mature for Evelyn, but perhaps if she could find some way to store it, it would suit her when she grew up.
The young man placed the top into my hands, along with a haphazardly folded white, button up blouse, and a soft piece of snow colored fabric that was probably intentioned to be a cravat, but would likely serve out it’s days as a handkerchief, if Evelyn ever got a hold of it.
“Will there be anything for you, miss?” he inquired, rather genuinely.
I wanted desperately to say no. Just touching Evelyn’s garments was already making my stomach feel sick, but I wasn’t at all sure why, nor did I have the presence of mind to explain my reasoning.
“Emmy!” A familiar voice called. I turned to see Sarah—rosy cheeks, flushed from the excitement—calling to me from across the crowd.
“This one! This one!” she called, “This one would suit you perfectly, Em!” You simply must take it!”
Sarah was no better off than me, but she had dreams of marrying rich and being carted off to a life of luxury. She said understanding fashion and manners was the first step to achieving her goal, and with her beautiful porcelain features and wide, youthful doll’s eyes, I believed she might just accomplish it, were the right nobleman to come along. When it came to clothing, there was no ignoring her. If Sarah said this dress would suit me, then I must take it.
I pushed my way toward her to where a female servant was patiently holding a scarlet bustle skirt and a black accented jacket in her lightly trembling hands. I could tell that she was looking at me not out of any true form of acknowledgment, but rather to avoid viewing the obscene article in her grasp. If every other dress held some significance to these people, I could tell that this one, if no more important, was, at least, fresher. The memories still lingered around the garment like flies buzzing around a carcass. It was suffocating, but I took it. I reached up and held my breath as layers of flaming fabric cascaded into my outstretched arms. I thanked the woman and turned to escape the ghastly scene, Sarah dogging at my heels and Evelyn falling into step behind us.
When we returned to the shop, Mary was waiting for us, already bedecked in an old-fashioned one-piece, with a rectangular neckline and petticoats instead of crinoline.
“Don’t I just look like a rose?” she asked, giving us a graceless twirl and grinning. “I din’t even hafta take it in, so longas I wear tha cor’sit.”
I attempted a grin, and likely managed no more than a grimace.
“It looks lovely on you,” I choked out, feeling the weight of something dark and gravid pressing on my lungs.
“I agree!” Evelyn called as she rushed up the stairs. “Emmy, bring up me top, will ye? I want’ta try it on rightaway.”
I obliged and Sarah followed suit, carefully gathering layers upon layers of ball gown into her fists, to ensure that nothing dare drag the unkempt floors.
We helped each other into our dresses—Evelyn into her massive crinoline monstrosity, and Sarah into her flowing mess of a ball gown. I laced their corsets and adjusted their folds. I buttoned Evelyn’s cuffs and tied her cravat in the vain hope that perhaps seeing it done once would remind her of its purpose in the future. I helped Sarah step into layers upon layers of petticoats. As they twirled and shifted back and forth, vying for a glimpse of themselves in the looking glass, I contemplated my own outfit.
It wouldn’t do to simply abandon it here, and it was far too late to have lost it in the street. I scolded myself for not having dropped it in some chaos, but I was reminded that there had been none to be found. Not to mention, the very thought of destroying the beautiful garb—however ethereal and menacing it may have appeared—was far worse than the notion of keeping it.
I breathed in deeply, as though drawing my last clean breath, and set about donning what I could only assume to be the very corporeal form on an anamnesis.
The dress itself flowed over my skin like wine from the bottle, hugging my wiry frame and pooling at the crevices of my elbows and hips. It cascaded down my legs and created eddies at descending points along my features. I had never felt so inhuman.
“Oh Em,” Mary whispered, rounding the corner of the stairwell, “You look like a princess.”
“If Em’s a prin’cess, then I must be a queen,” Evelyn interjected.
“What’s higher than a queen?” Sarah asked. “I might as well call myself the empress of all of Europe, the way I look. I feel like a Lily in full bloom!”
“Lilies ain’t red,” Evelyn shot.
“They is, some types,” Mary corrected.
“Lilies is still dull,” Evelyn responded, “I feel like a livin’ heart. Like Valentines day all over me body.”
“A madam,” I whispered.
“What’s that?” Mary asked.
“Not a princess… a madam,” I reiterated, almost intoxicated. The stench of death was all around me. I could feel her, rubbing at my skin—turning it raw and tender—pinching at my cheeks and seductively running her perfectly manicured nails under my chin—lifting my head from my neck and turning my face with it.
“Well, I suppose that’s fine as well,” Sarah commented nonchalantly, “You know, Em, they’re all red, but Mary say her dress is the color of Roses, Evelyn says hers is the color of Hearts, and I say mine is the color of Lilies. What color do you say your dress is?”
My gaze came to rest on the looking glass in front of me. I locked eyes with myself and stared in horror at the grotesque, tenuous creature who stood looking back at me. Her eyes and lips were a crimson battleground and she seemed to exude tragedy. I wanted to scream, to call out to her, but my mind was locked on to the repulsive color that dripped from her very center. The name of the vile substance that gushed from her core, and the answer to Sarah’s question came to me all at once.
“Blood,” I whispered, and collapsed to the ground.