Her Suffering, Pretty and Private

There were two out-of-towners gawking at Adalène’s window when she sat down alone at the table in her shop.

She’d had a pair of seamstresses to work for her, once upon a time, to do all the fussier piecing and hand-sewing. Sacred seas, she’d had customers once, too. A hundred years’ sleep had changed those things and so many more besides. She frowned down at the piecework for the simple gown she’d laid out and fitted pale-pink thread to a needle. It felt silly, some days, to set to sewing. But her feet always carried her here, to the work table.

“Can you imagine,” said the young lady whose nose smeared the middle pane of Adalène’s window. Adalène was forever wiping streaks off the glass; whenever there were foreigners in town, they stopped by to stare at her and the cobblers and milliners and candle-makers and ironworkers. But they never came inside those shops to spend their Jeaquettonne or Prié coins. “Sewing that whole thing by hand! I could have a whole set of glad rags for ten minutes’ shopping at any department store. And for a quarter the cost.”

Her companion leaned in close for a better look at Adalène. “It’s a wonder anyone bothered getting dressed at all, a hundred years ago.” He hid his smile behind his hand when Adalène glanced up. “Explains why they all fell asleep so easy, though, doesn’t it! Just think how exhausting that sort of life would be.”

“Oh, look, darling!” The girl had turned away from the window. Her hair was cropped short, all the way up to the nape of her neck. At least she wore a gown, if one could properly call it that. The hem hung so short that Adalène could see the pink dimples behind her knees. “The milk carriage is being drawn by horses. What a thing! Let’s ankle it, so we can get up close and see while they’re stopped over there. Oh! You don’t suppose they’ll smell too awfully, do you?”

Their voices faded as they hurried away, leaving Adalène alone with the soft zip of linen thread through wool.

By midday, the sun beat down hard through the window-glass. In Jeaquetton and Prielle, she had heard, they had magic boxes to cool the air inside their houses and places of work. Well–not magic, really. Like tiny factories that fit inside a window, manufacturing a chill from thin air, rather than spools of thread or pre-sewn shirts.

Adalène stood up to stretch her aching neck and to set about the pretense of putting together her dinner. Her pantry had been full, months ago, of the inexpensive tinned foods manufactured in the Prié towns just over the border. Just two copper shingles for a jar of damson jam, or a can of potted meat! Only now she hadn’t even two shingles to spend on such things. She certainly didn’t have the five shingles a loaf of fresh bread would have cost, or fifteen for a cut of meat from the butcher. A hundred-year rest hadn’t made the beef more tender in any case.

She had just turned up a last slice of currant bread from the back of the pantry when an engine’s faint hum buzzed up through the floorboards. Still a new enough sound that she hadn’t grown used to it; she rather hoped she never would. She hurried down the stairs and out onto the street to see what was happening.

She locked the shop door behind her out of habit more than anything–there was nothing of value to steal anymore but the pair of begowned mannequins in the front window and a few bolts of silk. And who’d go to the trouble, now? When Adalène shouldered her way out to join the building crowd in the street, half the women around her wore the awful shapeless shifts shipped in from the city’s neighbors. A girl of perhaps nine or ten years stood nearby, dressed in a real gown of red and brown flowers. Was that Adalène’s handiwork? Hard to tell: it hung on the child as if she were a coatrack, and a grimy film made it hard to guess the fabric’s true colors. Beneath the hem, the girl’s feet were bare. As if she felt Adalène’s scrutiny, her eyes darted up, and she sidled away in the crowd.

Before Adalène could raise her voice or a hand to stop her, the crockery-seller from two doors down jostled her elbow. “What’s going on here, then?”

“I haven’t any idea.” But even as Adalène said so, her head turned in the direction of the engine noise, which had changed in pitch and volume. A pair of brown-painted trucks had turned around the corner onto Market Street. Side by side, they occupied most of the street’s width, and the onlookers crowded back against the shops on either side. Behind the paired trucks, a smaller motorcar came, flanked by a line of guardsmen on either side.

The guardsmen still wore the same light plate armor that they’d worn a hundred years ago, with sapphire-blue wool coats beneath. And the couple who sat in the raised seat at the back of the motorcar dressed similarly: the king in silver-and-blue brocade, the queen in a rust-red striped gown sewn with lace at the wrists and low neckline. Machine-made lace, if Adalène was any judge, though surely the gown had been made by the palace tailors.

The king stood and raised his hand. The crowd’s murmuring stilled. “Friends,” he said. Friends. Adalène’s mouth flattened. He’d sentenced his city to a hundred years’ sleep to save his only child. How many of their sons and daughters had starved since the awakening? “We bring what we can to ease your situation. Please accept our offering.” He took the hat off his head and ran one hand through his silver hair. “And our sincere hopes that your fortunes soon turn, and for the better.”

Your fortunes. Not ours. Adalène nudged into the lines that formed alongside the trucks with her neighbors. Well, if the republicanists had their way, they would put the lie to that particular omission. Though she was not especially sanguine about the agitators’ odds, especially not with the king and queen’s latest imports. She eyed the heavy rifles strapped to the backs of the royal guard: the dull gunmetal not quite a proper match for the sheen of their armor.

She shuffled along with the line, acknowledged herself as the head of household to the guard standing by the truck’s bumper, and received a small package wrapped in brown paper. A heavy one–her fingers found the hard ridges of tin cans beneath the wrappings. She thought about dropping it on the guard’s boots. But her hands tightened around the wretched thing when he swung his clipboard at her and barked, “Move along!”

Back in the little rooms above the shop, she filed cans into cupboards as if there were any order or meaning to the organization. She made herself go slowly as she peeled back the brown paper and drew out the contents. She was careful not to look at the labels, lest the currant bread beg for company in her belly: peas or potatoes or the odd bits of chicken no one in Jeaquetton had wanted.

Afterward, she returned to the shop, to the pretense of work. At least she could get some sewing done, now that the gawkers had gone on their way. It kept her hands busy, and that was an end in itself. Simply to make the thread sing through the cloth, even if the needle had no real purpose to point toward: who could afford a new gown or shirt, these days? She peered out the window one last time before settling at her sewing table. The barefoot girl was nowhere to be seen. Adalène hoped she had someplace to go for the night, and a head of household to see that she got her share of tinned peas.

Thread darted in and out, in and out through the rose-colored wool. She wondered what spread would be laid out on the high table at the palace tonight. She wondered on what foreign concoctions the princess and her new husband would dine. Whatever it was, perhaps the princess would choke on it.

A vicious thought. The king and queen hadn’t asked to have their only daughter cursed. Nor had the young woman herself done anything to deserve such a fate. But then, the city certainly hadn’t asked to be dragged down into a hundred years of slumber along with the royal family.

No prince from any distant land would be coming to save Adalène from her fate. Her suffering was neither as private nor as pretty as the princess’s. And so there would be no well-meaning fairy to swoop in and smooth the whole thing over; no rich young gentleman would arrive to whisk her away from it to a better, brighter life.

But perhaps the princess’s new world wasn’t so much better than her old one. Perhaps she was unhappy, rubbing the prince’s smelly feet at night and subjecting herself to his joyless, sweating ministrations. That thought locked Adalène’s face into a hard, heartless smile, and so it remained until her mind quieted under the easy rhythm of sewing.

On the morrow, a tapping at the door roused Adalène from her piecework. When she opened it, a young man stood on the other side and blinked at her from behind his spectacles. “Good morning!” he said. He wore one of those odd flat caps, tilted at a jaunty angle. She would never get used to seeing these young gentlefolk attired in the headgear of a swineherd, their trousers falling all the way to their boot-heels instead of showing off a pair of neatly stockinged calves. “Would you mind awfully if I come into your shop for a spell, er, mistress?”

Mistress? “You can call me Madame Adalène.” She stepped aside and swept her skirts out of his way to allow him entry. “What are you looking for today? A pair of handmade gloves for the young lady in your life? A fine coat for yourself, or your young gentleman?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, you misunderstand me.” Without her invitation, he settled onto the empty bench beside the window. From under his arm he produced a large tablet of paper and rested it upon his lap. “I was thinking I’d like to sketch you at your business, if it’s not any trouble to you. I’ll be out of the way, I promise, I won’t futz around with anything of yours or get underfoot.”

Adalène stood silent by the door for a moment more, then looked out into the empty street. No one out there to save her: not from the embarrassment of serving as the pinned bug under this stranger’s lens and not from the unladylike assertion which she would have to summon in order to rescind her invitation. She shut the door and sat down at her sewing table, with her back to him. The thread hissed through the cloth, and the artist’s charcoals murmured their responses.

She would have been content to work in this near silence. But the young man said, as he drew, “Do you by any chance remember a young lady named Thèressey Dieste? She grew up here.”

The name rang unfamiliar in Adalène’s ears. Was Dieste another artist? Did she own one of the famous salons on the city’s high streets? “I’m sorry, no. I don’t know anyone by that name.”

“Oh. That’s a shame.” The noise of the pencil on paper paused, and Adalène peered over her shoulder. The young man smiled at her, though his eyes stared through her. “That was my great-grandmother. I would’ve liked to meet someone who knew her when she was young.”

The needle jabbed Adalène’s finger–foolishness. That was very nearly how this whole mess had started in the first place, wasn’t it? She stuck the finger in her mouth and sucked the blood away before it could spoil the fabric. “I see.” She took out a handkerchief and wicked away the last scarlet drops. Would it have been better to know the woman’s name? If she had known this Thèressey, it would have meant a bridge to another, a different life, one that Adalène had failed to cross in time. But then someone who had made it out in time would have remembered Adalène. Remembered her as a living, breathing person, and not an artifact of days past and things lost.

Thread in, thread out. Once upon a time she had silently recited prayers as she sewed, but these days the sacred words turned to dust in her mouth. Instead, she counted stitches, and the steady building numbers comfortably crowded other thoughts out of her head and lifted her away from the dull ache of her fingers.

The next time she looked up, the young artist was gone. Without a word, she thought–but perhaps she’d simply lost that in her reverie. She stood, stretched, sighed. She would have liked to see the finished portrait. Better yet, she would have liked to know if he planned to sell it, and to ask him for a share of the proceeds.

Why did she stay in this wretched place? Adalène’s back creaked and the stairs did too, under every footfall. She had foregone her midday meal out of habit as much as anything, but the relief package in her upstairs rooms need not lie idle any longer. She let her fingers linger on a few cans toward the front: one marked as Milk, and another as Oranges. Oranges? In a tin can?

She opened the can of milk first and found only powder inside. Milk dust? When she turned the can she found instructions to convert the contents to liquid. She stirred three spoonfuls of the stuff into a cup of water, and drank. Only a sip–her throat slammed shut against the chalky texture, and she set the cup down hard on the counter. It was food, she tried to remind herself, but could not convince her body of that fact.

No reason to let it go to waste, though. She poured it into a flat dish and carried it down the stairs and outside her back door, in the alley where the garbage collected. At least the city’s cats might make a meal of it that way.

The oranges, fortunately, still retained their sweetness and life. They tasted of sunshine on foreign shores: better than any she’d ever been able to buy at the market, in fact, and she found she’d eaten the entire can altogether too quickly. Of course it wouldn’t have kept, not without ice for the icebox. But she still felt a twinge of guilt. She must make these supplies last, at least until she managed to make money start flowing into her shop again. Because she couldn’t leave, not really. She’d only be a traveling-museum piece wherever she went, no matter what modern slang or customs she learned to ape.

And leaving this place now would be like giving it to the thorns all over again.

There was nothing for it but to stay, and to bring in foreign money where she could. Though how she would convince those shift-wearing girls and jacketless boys that they needed a full gown or an embroidered vest was beyond her imagination.

A noise in the alley pulled her attention away from the dry bottom of the can. Not a cat, though: the girl, the self-same creature in the flowered dress, tilted the dish of not-quite-milk up to her mouth. Adalène looked down at the top of her head as she gulped it all down. When the dish was empty the girl settled it back beside the door. She looked around, but did not catch Adalène’s second-story gaze, and darted away again.

Adalène took two more cans out of the cupboard and retrieved the can opener from its place on the shelf. Beef, for the grease that would keep a stomach feeling full a long time, and pears in sugar syrup, for the sweetness that might tempt a child’s palate. “Girl,” she called, into the gathering shadows. “Girl, come here!”

No answer. Adalène set the open cans down on the street, next to the empty milk dish. She swept her skirts forward and settled down in her own doorway. “I do hope you will not make me spend the whole night waiting here for you to come and eat,” she announced to the empty alley. Down the way, a window slammed shut. “I am not as young as I used to be, and I find it very disagreeable to sit on these hard dirty stones.”

Wielding the guilt that had brought her down to the alley as a mirror did not work as she had hoped. Sleep came to her before the child did. But when she awoke, back stiff as old boards and a hundred-year ache in her bones, she found two empty cans on the street in front of her. And under one elbow, with a brown smear of grease still on her upper lip, there nestled the girl.

The girl woke when Adalène tried, without success, to carry her into the house. She did not scurry away, though, but gave her name as Celisse and clung to Adalène’s skirts when Adalène ushered her inside. “Where are your parents?” Adalène asked, as she wrapped Celisse’s fingers around a cup of hot tea. She was getting down to the last of the tea-leaves, or nearly so, but no matter. People had gone without tea before. Why, Adalène herself had done without it for a full century, hadn’t she?

Celisse stared down into the curling steam in the cup and said one word. “Yellowglow.” Adalène needed no more explanation than that. Another Prié import, that one, and those who could not afford their own food often contrived to scrape together the shingles to pay for an ounce of yellowglow. The fairies who had instigated this mess had faded away like a bad dream over the century of sleep, driven out of this world by the clack of factories and the iron rails that bound up the land. But as it happened, a magic spell wasn’t required for the kiss of oblivion: a pinch of powder would do just fine.

By the time Celisse had emptied the teacup, the morning sun had curled up on the carpets of the little flat like an unwelcome cat. But at Adalène’s insistence, the girl curled up in bed anyway. Adalène tucked the heavy counterpane in around her, and watched the lump in the bed rise and fall with Celisse’s breath. If she closed her eyes or looked away, she feared that lump might collapse flat, that the girl would prove to be only the mirage of herself. She shut the door behind her and moved down the stairs on silent stocking feet.

Her shoes lay at the bottom of the stairs where she’d left them, and she slid her feet inside with a grimace before bending to lace them up. The girl would need shoes too; she could hardly go barefoot during a winter here. Perhaps she could wrap her feet in rags for a while, until Adalène could figure out a way to get the money. Factory shoes from Prié, Adalène thought guiltily, would be easier to afford. But the child needed to eat, far sooner than she needed to be shod.

The broom waited for her beside the shop’s door. Its handle was as riddled with knots as Adalène’s hands felt after a night out in the cool air. She grasped it firmly and opened the door–very nearly into a gaggle of Jeaquettonne women in those flat-fronted dresses they were so taken with.

“Oh!” squeaked one. Her fingers, gloved in white kid leather, shot to her mouth. They came away with a smear of crimson staining the tips; Adalène cringed, but the woman didn’t seem to notice. “Aren’t you open? It’s just that it’s awful late in the morning and we really wanted to see the seamstress who made her royal highness’s christening gown when she was just a baby.” She paused for breath and peered at Adalène. “That was you, wasn’t it?”

Adalène stood mutely aside as the young women filed into her shop. Two of them went straight to the mannequins: one fingered the engageantes on the sleeves while the other stooped low for a better view of the petticoat peeping out through the gown’s open front. The rest congregated around Adalène’s workspace. Shy fingers darted out to brush the pieced fabric, while the woman who’d spoken to Adalène lifted the threaded needle to the light. “Can you imagine!” she laughed. “I don’t even mend my own seams!”

They exclaimed over her needle case, the lacework of the dress’s collar, the weight of the fabric. Adalène stood with her hands idle and itching, unsure where she fit in the museum of her life now.

A soft noise on the stair lifted her head. Celisse stood there, barefoot and hair mussed. The voices must have roused her. “Oh, my stars!” one of the young women exclaimed, and the rest turned to gawk at Celisse as well. “If she isn’t the very picture of an urchin!”

Celisse stared at Adalène, whose hands twisted into her skirts. She hadn’t intended to bring the child into her home only to turn her into a spectacle for these foreigners’ shock and delight. But intentions mattered for very little. Adalène could not live in this city and fail to understand that. She had nothing to offer a hungry child, who could not eat unsold petticoats and lace. And she had nothing to sell the Jeaquettonne women, who would offer no coin for Adalène’s fine handiwork. Nor could she ask them for a handout. She had no misery to display that was as grand and elegant as a fated curse, nor anything so desperate and immediate as a beggar starving on the street. Her suffering was small, petty, bourgeois. Not the sort of thing that bought rescue, only mawkish fascination. And it wasn’t as if Adalène could–

–sell the experience of her life.

“I’ll show you how to sew in the old style,” Adalène croaked. Five pairs of eyes, painted in all manner of strange colors, fixed her like a butterfly in a collection. Celisse stared at the floor. “Like your great-grandmothers would have done it.” She marshaled her forces and brought her voice back into its proper businesslike cadence. “Only ten shingles apiece. Or five Jeaquettonne livres for the lot of you.” Her hands folded together in front of her. “For the fabric costs, you see.”

The next two hours smeared together like a fever dream. Purses opened, fabric bunched and gathered. Needles did not fly, but they crawled painstakingly under and over crooked seams. Celisse, unprompted, fetched a pot of tea when the ladies professed their thirst, and they fussed over her again before Adalène dismissed her to flee back upstairs.

At last the young ladies had had their fill of play-acting at dressmaking and withdrew from Adalène’s shop boasting of their pricked fingers and stiff necks. “Tell your friends to visit!” Adalène called after them. “I am always glad of a bit of company.” So long as that company came bearing coin. She turned back to the shop and shook her head at the wreckage of fabric on the desks. They’d made a hash of it, but she’d given them little more than scraps to play with. Five entire livres would more than pay for the wastage. She patted the heavy weight of coins where her purse rested against her thigh and called up to Celisse. “I mean to buy a chicken for our supper tonight. Do you want to come with me?”

The girl’s bare feet reappeared at the top of the stair.

By midsummer the entire neighborhood had been converted into an enchanted garden of history for the benefit of outside visitors. “Travel Back In Time!” proclaimed the signs erected by the Ministry of the Exchequer. “Come See the City That Time Forgot!” A pretty way of putting it, to Adalène’s eyes. Time forgot nothing: it was the king and queen who’d left a certain fairy off their lists. Who’d absent-mindedly consigned an entire city to the rag-pile of history. When they quietly abdicated the throne, Adalène wrapped herself in republicanist green and marched arm in arm with the rest of the city to what would now be called the Palace of the Republic. She did not know the words of the songs they sang, but the melody lifted her heart and her feet.

Business slowed a bit after that. Less of a draw, perhaps, to visit the brand-new Republic than the long-ago Kingdom. But there was still business. And in the deep breaths between visitors to the shop, change trickled in slowly, down along back alleys and after sunset. The same places as the yellowglow chasers lingered. Some things changed, but not that.

Adalène’s daily life looked much the same as ever: dressing in a good working gown, coming down the stairs to greet visitors and give them the briefest impression of her life–or rather, of what they thought her life must be. They could pay extra to sit down and try their hand at sewing and cutting fabric–Adalène ordered inexpensive factory-made cloth for these projects instead of the heavy weaves she’d once used. It wasn’t as if Prié eyes could spy the difference. They did brisker custom when Celisse was there to help, and better yet if she was barefoot–though Adalène insisted she wear stockings and shoes when the weather began to turn cool.

When evening drew in and the shop doors closed for the night, they shed the trappings of their meager existence and retreated up the stairs to the flat. Celisse exchanged her flowered gown (which Adalène had let out twice now; she would need a new one soon but how to give it the appearance of long wear? Ah, well, she would think of something) for a pair of trousers and a green sweater while Adalène favored loose, comfortable house-dresses. Of machine-made fabric, Adalène hated to admit; strange how soft cloth could be without the touch of human hands in its making.

They ate their suppers by the radio, and read by electric light, by dint of the wiring that had been quietly run up behind the back of the shop. The electric bulbs glared far brighter than any candle would have done, but Celisse said she liked them, and Adalène agreed that in any case it was better to push back the darkness for a while each evening than to let it wash over them unresisted.

When the autumn came, Adalène received a message from the princess.

Still a princess, even though her parents were no longer king and queen, for she’d married into a country that still resisted the beat of the republicanist drum. Her husband’s family would be hosting a summit for dignitaries from dozens of nations, and would Adalène consent to make a special gown for the occasion? A smartly-dressed courier in Prié gold and blue awaited Adalène’s response as she searched for a yes or a no inside herself. She did not want to owe anything to the princess whose family had caused all this trouble. But did they not owe her something for those hundred lost years? Finally she sent the courier back with her acceptance. Her mercenary heart winning out, she told herself, and sent Celisse to the shops for refreshments fit to serve a princess.

The princess arrived two weeks later, upon her next visit to the city. A pair of guards stood at the shop’s door and kept away the gaggle of fascinated onlookers while Adalène measured, made notes, and offered sketches of her designs. The gawkers, and the whispers they spread, would help with business in the coming weeks. “Something more modern than what I have been accustomed to making for you,” she told the princess, whose fingers lingered on the silver-blue lines Adalène’s pencil had left on one particular paper. “In the past.”

The princess did not look at her. Adalène wished she would–so she could search those fine features for answers, for meaning. For a reason that the city’s disappearance had been worthwhile to someone, in some small way. There could be no such reason, but Adalène’s belly burned over the fact that the princess had not offered her one anyway. She added: “But also, a gown that does not forget where you came from.”

“It’s very nice.” A trained bird could have answered as ably, and with as much emotion. The princess looked up, not at Adalène’s face but at the wall just behind her shoulder. She was only a few years older than Celisse; seventeen this coming winter, if Adalène counted back to the christening right. Prettier, too, though likely she had the fairies to thank for that. She had always been a beauty, even as a child, silken-haired and fine-boned. “And it will be ready by midwinter?”

“Of course.” Adalène hesitated as the princess drew a small purse from her reticule. She accepted the payment, though it weighed heavy in her hands. “I had hoped,” she began, and the princess’s pale eyes found hers. “I had hoped to find some peace, by seeing you again.”

“Oh.” The princess’s lips pulled into a frown, though her brow did not furrow. “I’m sorry.”

No, no, you needn’t be, Adalène thought, but the words did not emerge when she opened her mouth. “Are you happy, princess?” she said.

“Me?” The princess’s lowered lashes cast shadows over the bright blue of her eyes. “I am very content in Prielle. The prince is a good man, and his mother and father are kind to me.” She took her fingers away from the sketch-paper and clasped her hands in front of her. “I think a lot of the old fairy that cursed me,” she said. “I don’t know why. I wonder why she would do such a thing.”

“I wonder the same,” said Adalène, “of your mother and father.” The princess nodded as if she understood, though Adalène very much doubted it; she did not understand herself. But Celisse emerged from the upstairs, fully stockinged and shod this time, and offered the princess hot tea and cider cakes. The princess made her selections, of cakes as well as colors and fabrics and styles, and when she left, Celisse carried the dishes upstairs while Adalène sat down at her sewing desk. She scrubbed a few tiny tears from the corners of her eyes before she could begin measuring and cutting; and she slid to one side the Prié sewing machine that helped her aching fingers work through long seams. A hundred years’ sleep could change so many things, and she could never begin to tot up whether the balance lay to the better or the worse. All she could do was to make of the scraps what she could. To piece together some kind of contentment where the seams had been torn.

Celisse said something, beside Adalène’s elbow, about taking the cakes down to the alley for the strays. Adalène nodded, already lost in the solitary world of her work: the sweep of fabric, the sharp line of the measuring-tape, the familiar slash of scissors.


Copyright 2023 Aimee Odgen

About the Author

Aimee Ogden

Aimee Ogden is an American werewolf in the Netherlands. Her debut novella, Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters, was a Nebula Award Finalist, and her third novella, Emergent Properties, is forthcoming in July 2023. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Analog, and she co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge.

Find more by Aimee Ogden

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