Lace Ruff - 1575
July and warmer than I liked, crouched in the curling ferns at the side of the road. Mud pressed beneath me, but not even it was cool; it tugged at the knees of my trousers as with a warm mouth. Across the road under the emerald canopy my Rupert grinned crooked, teeth bright above the once-white ruff at his bearded chin, then tipped his head toward the approaching coach.
The coach of white and gilt rattled over our ill-placed stones in the road and the horse panicked. With a scream of horse, driver, and passenger alike, the entire vehicle tipped over, into the thick bracken. Rupert leapt.
He reached the driver first and I scrambled my way up the belly of the coach, grabbing for door handle and knife, though before I could claim the former, a swift hand emerged from the window to grasp my arm and haul me inside. I fit perfectly well through the window. Unemployment, homelessness, and slow starvation will do that to a fellow. Rupert had not sold a painting in months.
Inside all was dark, the inside of an egg, perfectly sealed. The woman held me firm, by arm and throat both, and while I glimpsed her eyes in the darkness—crimson the way a summer berry may be—it was the froth of fabric around her throat which took my breath and rendered me unable to struggle.
The figure-eight folds of lace were flawlessly white; no dye, no colored starch. At each crest, a ruby gleamed. In each valley, seed pearls pooled. The pearls seemed to hover above her still chest, while the rubies drew in just enough of the day’s light to illuminate her jaw with a faint blush her own body would never manufacture.
When I met her eyes again, they were terribly close and I saw the flash of her sharp mouth before it latched onto my filthy throat. Pain like no other cut through me and then ebbed, replaced with the soft embrace of a stifling darkness. I could not breathe. I could not move.
There was a pinprick of bright blood on her ruff when next I looked. I blinked, as if to clear it from my sight, but the lace remained marred. I didn’t know until we reached her home if it was her blood or mine.
We crawled out of the carriage only when the sun had set. I blinked at the sky above us which seemed to yawn with an impossible depth. I would have stared all night had she not led me across the stones and into her home. Only there did I turn and reach for Rupert who was not there. I stared instead at the driver, whose mouth was stained crimson, and licked my own lips, feeling a hunger I could not explain. The lady tugged me up stairs, into a candle-strewn room, where she pulled me into her lap and the lace of her ruff brushed my mouth.
The blood on the lace was her own. Sweet.
• • •
Shoe Roses - 1650
Despite the late hour, Mr. Odigaunt’s Haberdashery is a mad cacophony of servants and sound. Everyone has need of something different and of course they require it immediately, as their master or mistress has waited until the last moment to tell them. My errand is no less dear, but I am content to peruse the bins of buttons, loose spools of threads, and needles. Anything to delay looking through the spools of satin and lace.
Taken as they are with their own needs, no one truly notices me. It is often the case and how we are so often able to prey on people in public. As one might gather the pleats in a skirt, one might also gather shadows into a corner, so that a neck can be exposed.
My fingers hovered over the displayed needles, finding them less sharp than my own teeth. Mr. Odigaunt took to keeping a display of bone needles, each decorated with miniature oil paintings. Down the length of one needle, a dozen ladies danced, where upon another a man turned his slender ankle out as he made a leg.
He is as his name presumes: tall, thin, pale. His hair is silvered, his cheeks drawn hollow. His collar is, naturally, without flaw. He appears as though he suffered a difficult youth, ill and indoors most of the time, given to exploring his mother’s things, hence his haberdashery. As my fingers sift through the buttons, I wonder how many adorned her own clothing.
“The greens, if you would,” I say and he bows, turning to the ribbon display behind him.
His ribbons are kept pristine in custom-made cases so that smoke, dirt, and sunlight cannot touch them. I sometimes feel as though I am in such a case myself. Mister Odigaunt opens one case, sweeps aside the protective black curtain within, and a host of green ribbons are exposed. The small spools are skewered upon long bobbins, easily removed; Mister Odigaunt removes two bobbins and sets them upright in notches on the long gleaming counter. This allows me to study the ribbon at leisure, remembering only Rupert’s eyes for the longest time.
“Shoe roses,” I murmur to Odigaunt when he doesn’t move to help another customer.
He clicks his tongue. “Ah. The pattern?”
“A heeled boot with, if you can believe it, both pomegranates and artichokes.”
Odigaunt’s brows lift. Both were usually unheard of in the same fabric, but Gabriel Varcoe rarely cared what others would think. The idea that I was to add shoe roses to the heeled boots pooled between Odigaunt and myself a long time, until the haberdasher could no longer bear it.
I inclined my head. “I must.”
His lips press into a thin line. “If I may make a suggestion,” he began and when I nodded, his needle-like fingers sought the ribbon he would suggest. “As plain as you may go, Mr. Digby.”
Even so the ribbon is splendid, the length of silk the color of new artichokes (ah, Rupert’s eyes, still), finished with a simple gold stitch which encloses the raw silk edge. There is a similar ribbon, however, with edging the color of pomegranates. As though it were made for the very boots I intend to decorate. My fingers alight there. Odigaunt’s lips press thinner.
Later, in the alley behind haberdashery, where the air is thick with rotting refuse, I press Mr. Odigaunt into the shadows and expose his length of neck (his collar is sheer linen and here he smells of smoky tobacco). He tastes the way you might envision that ribbon does: smooth with a hint of unexpected color. He is subtle, unlike Gabriel’s heeled boots.
• • •
Patches - 1743
“What of her?”
From the shadows, my eyes narrow on the woman young George Newton indicates. She is draped in aquamarine satin, yards and yards of it which blossom around her small waist like rioting petals. Her décolletage swells from this uprising, buoyed by boned and pearl-crusted round-topped stomachers which circle her torso like ocean waves. Fairy and mermaid both, like the Covenant Garden theater around us she glows with something I cannot define. She should be overdone, but she is not. Until I reach her face. Oh, misfortune.
He somehow hisses my name, though it has not a single S in it.
“Not her,” is all I say.
Her face itself is well made, a careful hand at work when it comes to her bone structure and the way her gilded hair curls upward into frothing foam drenched with more pearls. It is the patch in the center of her forehead which causes offense.
From this distance, I presume the fabric is black velvet; it is cut into the shape of a star. When she turns her head, I see another perched atop her cheek (a heart), and yet another (an errant moon) clinging to the side of her chin—though its glue has loosened and it seems likely to drop into her décolletage.
Somehow, though I am still at a loss to explain it, these small patches are presumed to tell the world of a woman’s disposition before one has spoken a single word. The patch on her forehead claims she is dignified, but from there the theory dissolves, for how can one be dignified with a black velvet star pasted to one’s forehead?
I fear this evening will not end any time soon. Eventually, the music will begin and the theater will further darken, but now, we watch the people mingle, and my lord, he looks for a suitable lady to court, to silence his parents. I stand in the shadows; I should not be here, but Newton values my opinions, especially when it comes to ladies and fashion.
This second woman is no better than the first. She is dressed in brown, which turns her skin to ash. Her split sleeves spill a waterfall of magnificent lace, but she wears a red heart-shaped patch against her right cheek. “Presumed to be married,” I murmur and Newton laughs.
“That would be part of the fun, no?”
“If it is a bride you genuinely seek and a long life with her, then no, my lord.”
He grunts, eyes continuing to survey the crowd. He murmurs to those he knows as they pass, and inclines his head to those he does not. He makes no forward move toward any of the women, his eyes trespassing back to me time and time again.
Later, after Handel’s song has been sung and the theater emptied, we linger in Newton’s box. I admire the tangle of cutwork lace against his throat and the way he exhales when he leans into me. He is slender and tall. I stroke my fingers down his throat and the theater darkens yet again.
His coat is silk lampas, ivory flowers blooming across moss green. As I buttoned it earlier this evening, so I unbutton it now. I look up and Newton looks down, sherry eyes gleaming. The line of his nose echoes Rupert’s.
• • •
Top Hat - 1841
“I simply refused.”
“As one must.”
Lamp light warms William Odigaunt’s front room, glossing over the fabrics and laces with which we worked. Little had changed in this room over the centuries; cases and drawers stretched behind the counter, grooves worn into handles. The ribbons linger in their special cases and those painted bone needles stand as they ever have, awaiting a buyer. We perch on either side of the wood counter, fingers busily stitching. I had this evening free of my normal duties and came to Odigaunt’s as I so often do.
He tosses aside the bonnet with a scowl. “This is dreadful.” His thin hands curl into the mass of scarlet ribbon before him, then begin winding it back onto the spool. “I shall refuse this as well. It is my position and expertise, surely she will appreciate that I refuse to let her fly blind into questionable fashion decisions.”
“Sometimes they do like to soar,” I mutter. At one time, fashion had seemed simple. Now, it was a confusion of indoor bonnets, V-necklines, and the horror of spaniel curls. The ever-increasing height of top hats had me wondering if the entire city was making up for attributes they otherwise lacked.
Odigaunt’s fingers work steadily with the ribbon. I watch him in the lamp light, finding a strange comfort there. He was my only friend, or shall I say the only friend who weathered the years as I did. His silvered head lifts when the bells at the door chime. The door groans and I follow his gaze.
The gentleman framed in the doorway nearly has to duck because of his hat. I wondered who had fashioned the awful accessory, but didn’t dare ask, lest he think I was interested in such. This might well lead to the acquisition of one such hat for myself. His brunet hair curled against his long sideburns, moustache rioting over his lip. I wondered how he kept the blood from it, for as he came closer it was plain he was of the same cut as Odigaunt and myself. He felt as dead as roses in winter.
“Gentlemen,” he said and inclined his head toward us. His gaze lingered on Odigaunt, as if trying to place him.
Most didn’t look twice at Odigaunt, for all his curious features. Most were too wrapped in their own concerns (the gold or the plain?) and needs (oh, only three buttons, I saved the fourth, such thrift!). If anyone did query, for there had been times when a wrinkled woman would recall a tall thin man very like him in this shop from her youth, Odigaunt explained that the business, like the genes, ran strong and true in his family. They had always held this business, and always would, much as he held his father’s face, and his grandfather’s. Most seemed content, for Odigaunt was but a haberdasher (let us claim our notions and go).
“How may we be of assistance this evening?” Odigaunt asked him. I stayed busy with the indoor bonnet in my hands, meant to be a gift for young Mister Wells’s mother. It was Odigaunt’s theory that if I made the repulsive item myself, I might have a better appreciation for the fashion in the end. I remained doubtful, for even Odigaunt had discarded his in-progress bonnet.
“I am looking to acquire—”
And there he paused, as if he had come for something illicit indeed. His eyes are on me. Hooded by hat and hair, I cannot say what color they are, nor what expression pools within.
He lifted a hand then to the counter and from it spilled three rubies and countless seed pearls.
I sat upright as though I had been pricked in a tender spot with a needle. I felt the weight of Odigaunt’s eyes on me, but he soon turned back to his customer. It seemed my own face should be flushed with color, but I knew it was only pale. Pale and growing colder for those rubies and pearls drew me backward in time, as though the carriage accident had happened but that morning.
“Attending a masquerade?” Odigaunt asks him and turns to the case of laces he kept for ruffs.
The vampire offered nothing more. He looks at me, though, as if trying to gauge my reaction. My reaction was to drop the mess of bonnet on the counter and lunge for him, overcome by an impulse I could not explain. I knocked the absurdly tall top hat from his head and was satisfied when he stepped on it in his haste to back away from me.
His eyes, once out of shadow of hat and hair, were black. They were not the green I expected to find and my heart, if I still had such a thing, felt lodged in my throat.
Odigaunt’s hands tightened on my arms, drawing me back. I let him push me back onto the counter stool, let him mutter apologies to the gentleman as he retrieved the squashed hat. I stared at the gems in the lamp light and felt an ache inside me, one I believed long dead. Some things, I supposed, never really died, even when mortal flesh did.
They conducted their business, the vampire oddly not put off by remaining here. I said nothing, did nothing, only stared at the rubies and the light that bled through them. Later, there would be blood spilled. So much blood, Odigaunt would curse me as he tried to wash it from my linen shirt.
• • •
Cravat - 1902
“And the bat pin.”
“Of course, sir.”
I drew the watered evergreen silk around Paul Nesbit’s neck, letting it hang somewhat longer on his right hand side. Crossing the wide panels, I could not help but admire the way his unfolded collar stood against his throat. It might have hidden his pulse from a normal man, but not from me. I could hear it as surely as I could a clock counting the seconds.
I steadily worked on Nesbit’s cravat, but it was the rubies I thought of, concealed in my pocket. They had arrived at unsteady intervals, always sent to Odigaunt’s shop, always addressed to me. When a year passed without one—as often did happen—I was astonished by the melancholy that would overcome me. As though I had lost everything all over again.
When one did arrive, it was a similar sense of astonishment; a curious stuttering of happiness in my chest. Happiness at the disruption of the normal routine, happiness that one could still feel surprise after three hundred and twenty-seven years. Was Joan playing a game? Was Rupert? So far as I knew, neither yet lived, but the rubies and pearls made me wonder, for the jewels had been her own, and Rupert the only other one there that day.
Nesbit’s hands upon my own coupled with his strangled voice made me realize I had unintentionally ruched his cravat.
“Apologies,” I murmured, and set to working at the fabric yet again, admiring the way the light caught the deep color.
Sixteen rubies, which meant there were another sixteen to come, for thirty-six of them had adorned her ruff. After the tumble into her dirt-dark bed, I had counted, secretly, as she slept the day through. I had not counted the seed pearls, for they seemed too many. I was content to smooth my fingers over their cool hides and imagine the waters that had once held them. Whenever Odigaunt used pearls, he asked me of their quality; I had an opinion or two, always.
I eased the flap of silk through the loop I had made and carefully smoothed it over Nesbit’s chest. I plucked the tie pin from the nearby by tray, a small bat that was fashioned of mother-of-pearl and I skewered the fabric, smoothing it flat once more. Nesbit claimed his own jacket and was gone before I could do anything else for him. I blew an unnecessary breath through my nose.
The day seemed unbearably long and when I finally left, the next day being my day of rest, it was Odigaunt’s I fled to, asking a silent question as I came into the room. His bony fingers slid an envelope across the counter to me.
A year had passed since the last ruby. It wasn’t the longest wait I had endured, but long enough. I moved toward the counter as one in a trance, noting the handwriting upon the envelope. It was the same as it had ever been, though whose it was I could not say. I had never seen Joan write and Rupert had been as illiterate as I.
The envelope smelled like tobacco, this new and strange. I looked up at Odigaunt and he laughed without me having to ask. He must have wondered it all day.
“But who brought it?” I asked.
His answer was ever the same. “A young boy, indescribable from any young boy you would see on the streets. He could be anyone, though this boy was different.” And here, Odigaunt’s mouth pressed thin. “When I asked who sent him, he opened his mouth to show me that his tongue had been removed.”
I pressed the envelope to the counter, not needing to open it to know it contained a ruby, the round lump of gem pressed against the paper.
“Surely only a coincidence?” I asked. The rubies had hardly been hostile in their arrival. Despite that long-ago vampire delivering the first trio, there had been no threat, and that which came with him may well have been imagined. Had he been amused by it all? I had never seen him again.
We looked for the boy, of course we did. But if anyone knew of a tongueless young man, they said nothing. Irony?
I did then what I always did, slipping into the back room at Odigaunt’s, spilling the rubies from my pocket onto the polished counter and adding the newest to it. In a cup nearby there pooled countless seed pearls. Odigaunt collected them for me, so that when the time came, I could remake Joan’s ruff.
• • •
Ermine-Trimmed Cape - 1975
“It’s not as if glam means to repulse people.”
“You can almost forgive it for that, but punk… Well.”
Odigaunt and I sat behind his counter, each of us working on projects we never would have imagined a hundred years before. A length of red velvet pooled in my lap, a smaller stretch of ermine pinned against its edge as I stitched it into place. Odigaunt attempted keep a straight face while he sewed golden and red flames up the leg and across the crotch of a polyester jumpsuit. Odigaunt’s tongue peeked from between his lips, a sincere effort.
“This is absurd,” he finally murmured, but his fingers never slowed in their task. He made blind-stitch after blind-stitch and though his work humiliated him, it was decidedly beautiful in its own way. The trail of flames ran like a river across the blue polyester.
“How far we have fallen, Digby. It’s not bad enough that people wander about the streets in their small clothes, but now we have performers upon the very stage in this”—and here, he shook the garment before returning to his stitching—“this…” He shuddered, seeming incapable of finding a word for what he created.
“Art,” I offered. Odigaunt’s head came up sharply and he just looked at me. I shrugged and insisted, “It is.” I leaned over the red velvet cape, to stroke fingers across the satin flames. “Look at the way you cut this, so that one flame mirrors another and runs like liquid up the body.” I pictured the performer in question, whip-slim and angled, and I exhaled. Oh, me. “It’s perfect.”
Odigaunt’s thin lips quirked upward, then settled once more into their thin line. No tongue this time, but a crease between his eyes as he continued to stitch.
When he asked, I looked to the ermine and velvet. “It’s dreadfully long,” I said. I worried that it would be stepped on, crushed, and yet, perhaps that was part of the idea. That one might trample the symbol of king and kingdom. Or queen, as the case may be. The satin lining, the careful trim… he would step on it, it would tear.
“Can you imagine,” Odigaunt said, “if we paired them?” He flung the flaming polyester over the red velvet. The world seemed to stop—was it blood rushing into my ears after all these centuries? I stared, horrified. Then, eventually, I became aware of Mott the Hoople blaring as a car passed.
“Pomegranates and artichokes,” I whispered.
Odigaunt laughed and drew his flames back into his own lap. “How some things never change.”
At that, my eyes fell upon the nearest glass case; Odigaunt had pushed back the interior curtain some weeks ago, to expose the contents. Many customers asked about it. Not spooled ribbons this time, but a near-complete ruff, lacking only one ruby. The whole of a man’s life could shift, but some things remained ever true.
My room upstairs held the evidence of that, ribbon-tied envelopes that once held rubies. Odigaunt was, indeed, a victim of his past as well, haunted by all the things we spent our days amid. Buttons, thread, and those painted needles. Those bone needles, as it happens, belonged to his dear mother; Odigaunt painted them himself during a long and rainy winter.
While people asked after the ruff, we made clear it was not for sale, as it was incomplete. Not that I would have let it go had that final ruby been in place. How strange, that a man’s life may pause for a single gemstone, and yet, it wasn’t the ruby I sought, was it?
It was only after I stopped looking that things began to fall into my lap. The December night was chilled and bit into my cheeks as Odigaunt and I bundled into his Corvair and made our way to the concert hall. Costumes nearly overflowed the car and we were lucky to arrive with only a wrinkle or two.
I noticed it when I was dressing him, as my fingers smoothed the cape into place and I set to stitching an errant length of ermine that seemed determined to come off. My eyes wandered to the mirror and I was drawn nearly through its surface, backward in time to that tumbled carriage and the set of a driver’s bloody mouth. (Rupert’s blood.) It was the same mouth I saw now, the same eyes which looked upon me.
My mouth parted in silent wonder. He shook his head.
“I could not have asked for a better cape,” is what he said, but that isn’t what I heard. In my mind, I saw the cape as Rupert—in his mind, I saw the sweet memory:
A leaping young man with eyes bright as the forest canopy; the scent of mud coupled with the meat pie we had eaten only a short time before. (You would think this memory would ease over time, but I can still remember the melted cheese and the luck of having carrots as well.) Firm hands, so strong and yet impossibly fragile when it came down to it, clinging to immortal arms. Rupert’s fingers, Rupert’s throat, his pulse bright beyond the curl of his filthy ruff. The shock of that mortal blood, bright like poppies under a summer sun, and then—
The ruby pressed hard into my palm.
He said nothing, only moved away under the guidance of his handlers, toward the crowd who clamored for him, for his music. I enclosed the gem within my shaking hand and was never so close to him as I was then, for fame would take him to places I could not reach. Not after tonight, not after they saw him in that ermine-trimmed cape.
• • •
Bone Keys and Needles - 2011
I drew her ebony hair up along the crown of her head and ringlets cascaded down.
Queen Elizabeth had worn her hair like this long ago, I knew. I could remember every pin and every tuck, even though my own hands had not made them. Now, for this Elisabeth, I did, each pin as black as her eyes, each tipped with a small pearl that glistened. When Odigaunt drew a black satin ruff around her throat, she sucked in another breath.
“But it hides the key,” she murmured.
“To be discovered only by those who should,” Odigaunt said, and gently tied the ruff closed at her nape.
Her fingers slipped under the ruff, to likely press against the bone. She seemed enthralled by this idea, her pink mouth tipping upward. “Oh.”
She seemed from an earlier time, one of mourning fashions; a time when the world did not run on technology, nor electricity, nor caffeine. In this age, one supposed I could flit to the glowing computer screen, summon a search engine, and input that which I sought. Despite the wonders of the Internet (and let us be fair, the horrors), it had not been able to conjure the thing I had lost.
Nor had Joan’s ruff, now whole behind its glass case, made her emerge from London’s streets. Some part of me had believed that once the item was complete, there she would be, called by the power of those gems, ready for me to tie the ruffle around her neck. We would laugh at the idea of her driver on stage, then raise a glass to him in fond memory now. We would murmur too of Rupert. Where was he? Oh, lost to the ages, she would say, and we would bow our heads together, only to find him running toward us when we looked up again. His feet would pound the cobblestones and behind him, moonlight would gleam as new London faded to old once more and a rising soundtrack encompassed us and pulled us into the black of end credits. Tidy.
Life was not like this. Part of me wished it were so, while the other part knew not to wish. Our days were spent with fabrics and laces, with ribbons and buttons. Odigaunt had lost his fair share yet never once did I hear him groan to have it back. Perhaps he was relieved at all that had fallen away, light now and unburdened. Whereas I still felt the hole of the thing taken.
Joan and Rupert were surely not the only people I had lost through the years. I thought of Gabriel Varcoe and was still pained—though did have to wonder if it was the memory of him, or the memory of his shoes which had become part of the historical collection at the Museum of London. Anyone might see those shoes! I had taken Odigaunt only the previous spring, and oh the dismay remained fresh. Yet, Joan and Rupert were kept closest to my heart because—
Well, one does not need to itemize the facts when one knows them so well.
“Thank you, Digby.”
Elisabeth’s lips against my cheek are startlingly warm. She fusses over us, tells us that we shouldn’t keep the building so chilled, for our cheeks are always like ice. She gives my cheek a pat now, and then slips an envelope into my hand. I stare at it a long while; it is flat, no tell-tale bump of a ruby. Then, I look into her black eyes.
“Someone asked that you receive that.”
I wait until she goes, until Odigaunt has closed the groaning door after her and looks at me as if he is about to burst. He gives me such a look at my delay, I find myself amused, drawn back to the memory of him in the alley, all unexpected color against my tongue.
I carefully open the envelope with only my fingers, not wanting to waste time in finding an opener. The envelope is also the letter, so old fashioned in the way it is folded that it makes my heart leap. No wax seal or ribbon, but these things don’t matter. There were countless lines upon the small page, written to and fro and back again, a palimpsest in my shaking hands and it’s one line that leaps out at me, “I, cumber’d with good manners, answer do, but know not how, for still I think of you.”
Though I have never seen Rupert’s handwriting, I know it to belong to him. The way I would know the turn of a collar or a heel. The way I had known the color of his eyes in the curl of a ribbon, or the lift of his mouth in the rise of a hat. The words are not his own, but they are old indeed, a cycle of sonnets beloved of Joan.
The bells on the door chime, then, and the door makes its customary protest as it swings inward. The man who enters is impossibly young and Odigaunt and I both stare. Something has changed in those well-remembered eyes—untidy—but I would wish for nothing else, for oh the stories he must have to tell. I am already counting the evenings and it takes more than both hands.
“I have come to see a man about a ruff,” Rupert says, and his smile is that of the devil, crooked.
Ever my downfall.
© 2020 E. Catherine Tobler, all rights reserved