'experimental gender bias'
Some Things Are Better Left Broken
Shards of a statue are strewn across the burnished tiles of the manor. I’m cleaning them up, one by one, dusting them into the pan held gingerly in my left hand. I can almost hear her reprimanding me from the landing up behind my bowed head; a crystal clear voice calling down, asking how I could ever be so clumsy.
You are such a silly little thing, I imagine her saying. I’ll have to keep you out of the hall for a while, my dear.
“Yes,” I murmur to myself, smiling slightly. “Sorry, my Lady.” As I collect the pieces into a corner of cloth, I’m thinking only of the sweetly scornful words I’m sure to hear as I step down into the basement.
It is early spring or late summer when she drives me up that twisting lane to the manor house laying lonely on the hill. The grass is in that funny stage where it looks freshly grown and wilting at the same time – that is why, I suppose, that I can’t place the date. But I can, perhaps mournfully, place the way she regards me as I step from the carriage, smoothing caught dust from my skirt and then rushing, almost haphazardly, to catch the handbag she drops into my arms.
“My, my,” she says, that curious half-smile of hers curling at her lips. Long lashes graze her cheeks as she tilts her chin to the side, looking back at me from over the upturn of her collar. “You’re new to this, aren’t you?”
I laugh myself into the role with practised ease, reaching to catch the arm offered to me, teasingly, as we sway into the reception room. “Not at all, miss,” I reply, glancing over the chandelier, the Victorian loveseat, the tiny cakes arranged in tiny jars laying, untouched, on the mantle. “I’ve been involved in servanthood for a while.” Her eyes flutter to mine, and I see her glow with a pride that reminds me of a beautifully bestowed bird perched in its ornamental cage.
“Why, I’ve chosen just the girl then, haven’t I?” I am expectant of her movements as she waltzes me around the manor rooms, pointing out this and that, where she desires her meals to be placed, how the candles should be lit as night falls. “She’s a smart little pup, isn’t she?” Oh, and how glamourous her laugh is – bouncing, twinkling down the waterfall that cascades into the fountain in the centre of the hall. Statues of beautiful women garnish each corner of her manor – her ladies-in-waiting, splaying fingers across pearly chins and gazing with doe eyes across to their company. I fancy my silly thought that she has them to replace the guests she cannot retain after dusk sneaks its slim fingers beneath her doorways, though I know that the idea of that is just a way for me to amuse myself. The Lady had never been the type to have any sort of overnight guests.
I am given a further list of obligations. The one she emphasizes, with softer tone in her voice, is the powder. “Morning, afternoon, dusk, and suppertime. Every inch of my beautiful visage.” She clasps my hands between her velvet gloves, tilts her head so that her earrings jostle and sparkle. Her eyes survey me with a mischievous, yet solemn, gaze. “You may get to see more than me than my guests ever will, however…” Her bare shoulder glistens in the gleam of the chandelier. “It is much more enjoyable, for me, when they think that we are somewhat of the same cut, so to speak. People do not much care for embarrassing themselves in front of someone clearly more… refined.”
Despite all of her worldly knowledge, it is these moments that astound me, these slowly-spoken comments on the curiosity of human nature that she dictates, quite charmingly, as she douses me with cool touches that leave flushes across my warming cheeks. She is wrong. Completely and utterly incorrect. There is no man on this earth that isn’t aware of their own insignificance in the cold gaze of the Lady. But her certainty is so endearing that I do not dare to tell her otherwise.
And, so, I powder. I powder her each day in the bathroom, after breakfast, before dessert. Her cheeks against the pit-pat of my cloth pad are smooth and cold, sliding against my fingers. “A little more, there,” she murmurs, voice simmering as she turns her face this way and that. “Mm.”
Once we are done, she lifts her glassy arms to the ceiling and flourishes them, her hands gliding through the air. “Oh, my girl,” she croons, “Gorgeous, darling. Gorgeous.”
My enamour for her burns as she sidles into the dress left for her on the table. I am the only one she allows to watch as she pulls the taut fabric over herself, as she slides velvet across her long, loitering limbs. I know that she watches me out of the corner of her eye, but she still grants me the pleasure of voyeurism, pretends not to see me as I stand there, waiting, tracking her lazy movements with an ashamed interest.
As a pair, we do too much watching, far too much. I know how she follows me as I dust her spotless picture frames, performing a charade which I suspect is purely for her own amusement. She knows that I look a tad longer than I should at the curve of her spine as I tie her corsets, mapping its path up into her spindled neck. And we watch, too closely, at each other once she has been powdered and dressed, as she cups my face in icy velvet and leans in, almost daring, but never going far enough.
Because she dislikes how I can look straight through her and see her every fault and worry etched lyrically into the lapsing furrows of her brow, the tiny jut of her hips, the miniscule twitch of her lead-painted lips in her little face. And she hates that she cannot do the same to me, that she has to settle with my warm body’s obfuscation, glaringly obscure, offering no answers to her needling questions. So I am kept as an object of awe. I am happy enough with that.
Still, however, she finds ways to fix those obtuse issues with myself that she tosses and turns about alone in her queen-sized bed. One day it is my posture, the next the way I organise her porcelain in its display. Behind these pea-sized problems she sneaks in comments about how I show too much (yet still too little). “You are so dreadfully human,” she announces. “You show emotion far too easily and far too quickly. However, that cat-like grin of yours hides only your disappointment at having to clean the lounge again, no? I am correct, yes?” When I shake my head she shrieks in mock frustration, throwing her shoulders out behind her.
In comparison, she goes to any lengths possible to hide her feelings. But she’s so transparent, ridiculously so, that for eagle-eyed me her hastily strained smile is as easy to see through as the freshly scrubbed windows I plague over every Sunday. “It is impossible,” she says, multiple times a week, “to sneak anything past you, my dear.”
It is. But she allows it, lets me watch her forever, spends eternity in my half-lidded eyes as I bathe her, drawling tipsy fingers across her clear as water skin. She refuses to face me when the powder has been taken off, so instead I fall first for her silhouette in a darkened bathroom without the futility of eye contact. All of our qualms are forgotten when we don’t have to hide from each other.
“I want to fix you,” she says, when we stare at each other on either side of the kissing-seat, the wall of its lilting arm between us creating a barrier neither of us can cross. “I want to have you show yourself so I can show myself back to you.”
I smile courteously. I want this to stay just as we are.
In a way, however, I want to fix her too. In a similar fashion, perhaps. But she has to be the one who first lays herself out, properly, to me – because however else am I meant to show myself to her? Surely it’d shatter her, break her weightless, fairy-light heart.
This is when I realise that I am cruelly, dreadfully, painfully in love. I am softly enamoured with her and her corkscrew curls, her sweetly carved wrists and her glancing little smiles. She is gainfully taken with me, as a pup’s owner would be as it bounds around their feet, so much so that she provides room, board, all manner of expenses on which to delight myself. But she is the source of my delight, her slow-dances across the manor’s hall with an invisible partner, floating through the swirling world. But it isn’t important, my mournful love, for there is no breaching that space that keeps her from kissing me, from devouring me whole.
The Lady holds parties. Great, gorgeous, eclectic parties, filled with people who would be, in any other setting, just as beautiful as the spinning lights and shimmering decorations emblazoned about the manor. But she is there, and like an earthquake’s epicentre, she is the one from which all activity seems to stem, the one which each and every conversation leads back to. She stands, surveys it all, from her little platform above the waterfall. And she takes out her eyeglass, and smiles, quietly, as she watches the world move around her, for her, because of her. All of their boundless emotion is too much, and how terribly fragile she is for it.
The party ends all at once, and all at once she sinks to the floor in my arms, shivering like a lilting branch in summer breeze. “Fetch me,” she heaves, “my powder.” But I hear the twinkle of her glass-blown bones and, this time, I cradle her instead, cupping her head to the crook of my neck.
“It’s okay,” I say, looking outside to where the carriages scuttle down through the glossy gates of the driveway, “for you to be vulnerable around me.”
She laughs, brittle, noses into me, cool skin against my collarbone. “I know, darling, but I’d truly rather not let you see me like this.”
I begin to stroke her hair, still gazing away through the wavering glass as her alighting guests swarm the gardens. “I won’t look, if you’d prefer me not to.”
She murmurs something into my skin, and I feel her lips curve in what I can only hope is one of her charming little smiles. Silence falls on our lonely hill like the velvet that cocoons her weak body as I carry her up to her bedroom. I’m touching her too much, especially after the celebrations, but I can’t hold it in any longer. The pain that curdles in my chest is too much for me to hide.
“I love you,” I whisper, as I tuck her shaking body like a precious trinket into silk bedsheets.
“You do not love me,” she replies, in the same tone. She moves my languid hand from her neck, clasps it between her own. “You are simply in wonder.” I am heartbroken at my own failings, and she is heartbroken that I still have things I am hiding.
I cannot tell her. She is much too fragile for trivial matters of the human heart. But still, I cannot keep myself from leaning closer, angling her dreary face so that it almost brushes mine. Her smile is aching, her eyes asking for me.
“My Lady,” I murmur.
“Your Lady,” and she kisses me, my Lady, lets her icy breath seep down my throat and freeze my weeping, tearful heart. Our eyes are closed. There is no more watching for us to do.
I find her the next morning in the hall, shattered shards of aquamarine glass splayed like fireworks across the marble floor. I gather them one by one, take them down into the basement where they glance and glitter in the sway of the bare lightbulb barely grasping the ceiling. I powder them, soften them, fashion them again into her likeness, a pretty statue to place amongst the others. I fancy I’ll have this one by the waterfall – this existence of my Lady did so much like the waterfall.
Grains of blue sand lay waiting in a pail beside the fire. I spend the rest of the day and most of the night blowing softly against them as I turn them in the jittering flames. Once she is done, I grasp her cooling body in a soft wreath of cloth and carry her back up to the hall, where the sun from the skylight perfectly illuminates each crevice of her sunken bones and organs beating, slowly, to life.
Her heart, this time, is perhaps a little stronger. Maybe. I am never too sure at the start. The childlike wonder I once had at my skilled fingers faded long ago, and I am left profoundly empty as I watch her chest relax in slow intakes of breath.
This is not the sadness of starstruck lovers thrown painfully away from their partners by the gusts of fate, but the sadness of a girl who cannot bring herself to let go. I cannot be who she wants me to be, and neither can she be who I wish for. I know this. Yet I continue this childish love story, selfishly indulge, think of all the ways I could nudge her fragile heart into being able to love, to accept my love, for who she is.
Yet I am loving a shell of her, a shell that can return my gasping, beating, weeping emotions, so human and so haphazard. And she is loving a possibility, an unfurling story, with things to tell her that I will never tell.
I have a memory of the second version of her pressing a finger to my lips as I am dying to tell her that the night before I had built her out of sand again with shaking hands, crying because once I had kissed her I had felt her fall apart in my hands. In this memory, she is holding me as I sob, and there is a pleading look in her eyes that betrays that she knows something, but not enough. On reflection, I think that she was begging, like a sickly dog, for me to let her die.
“Some things,” she had whispered, “are better left unsaid, darling. Some things are better left broken.”