I’ve been out of society for some time now and I usually don’t answer the door unless I’m expecting a delivery or the help, but it was a bright morning and I had gotten up quite early to dig a flower bed at the back of the house where I planned to plant some flower bulbs for next spring. So I had just come in when the knocker sounded, and before I knew it a young woman was standing in front of me holding a dress bag on a hanger and carrying a shoebox.
“Good morning,” I said, trying to be as polite as I could.
“I have the dress and shoes your wife wanted — a Mrs. James Alstead,” the woman answered.
“Well, I am James Alstead and there must be some error,” I said, “My wife did not order any clothing.”
“Not that she ordered, sir. It’s that she wanted.”
I didn’t care much for such a smart answer from someone half my age because my wife kept to her room those days, she only wore a dress and shoes on her birthday when I told her that her father was coming. I’d pretend he’d been delayed and after she’d had her cake and tea she would go back to her room and lie down — I would tell her that he’d be along later. She’d sleep, and after sundown I’d change her into nightclothes. I used to give her a birthday every week but it got to be too much trouble.
“My wife doesn’t want whatever you’ve got there,” I told the woman at the door. “She can’t have what she wants and she has given up on everything else, so please us in peace.” I started to close the door when I heard Laurel’s voice calling from the bedroom.
“Has father come?” she asked — her voice whiny with longing.
“No, Laurel, it’s not your birthday today.” I was afraid she would start one of her crying spells, so I added, “It’s tomorrow, dear.”
I hated the weeping days. Sometimes if I read poetry to her she would come out of it; other times I would give up and play the radio so I couldn’t hear her. After the twins and her father died, she never recovered. I was gone when the twins died and her father brought them here to be buried at his old place in the country. Laurel never left. It’s very isolated, and when he died there was no one to keep her company. Some folks did come, but Laurel talked about nothing but the boys and her father — how they were all working or playing in the orchard, or gone down to the barn, or out hunting quail, or fishing. Everyone knew they were up at the cemetery and so the townspeople just quit trying. The place was a mess when I finally arrived, so I resigned my commission and scoured the countryside for help. After a number of tries, I found a widow woman who came faithfully once a week. That’s been years ago now.
When I looked out of the door again I saw that the woman holding the dry goods was extraordinarily beautiful and she that looked a good deal like my wife had before the war.
“You must look at the dress, Mr. Alstead.” With that the woman pushed into the room, stood beside me and unzipped the dress bag. Forgive me, but I hardly saw what she was holding at the moment because I could not stop looking at her. I noticed the large wooden bracelets on her wrists, wide bands carved in twining stems and sequenced leaves. And she wore a long patterned dress, very unusual for a delivery job, and it too had a series of branches with leaves almost sculpted into the fabric. As I looked, the leaves seemed to rustle about in the sunlight — I had never seen anything quite like it. And when I looked straight into her eyes they were bright blue, and then I saw how her golden hair flowed across her shoulders in waves. She pressed the dress hanger into my hands, dropped the shoebox on the floor and swept past me to the door.
“It’s what she wants, Mr. Alstead, she must wear it seven days and you must wash it each night that she does in cool water. It will be dry in the mornings, and you will know when it is time for her to wear it again. I’ll return to check on her soon.”
The dress was white and gauzy with lace and such. The hanger must have weighed more than the dress, and although the woman had been strange enough, I thought I would play along. I kicked the unopened shoe box into the coat closet and went into the bedroom. “Laurel dear,” I said, “It’s your birthday after all.” And later after I had gathered up her lunch tray — she hardly ate anything these days — I slipped her nightgown off and slid the dress over her head. I gave her a mirror so she could see the lacy collar softening her thin face as I buttoned about a thousand tiny white buttons. The dress had a long, full skirt and puffy sleeves. I didn’t think of it then, but it looked something like the christening gowns we used for the boys. The gowns were heirlooms — even her father and his twin had worn them. For all of that, the dress could have been a wedding dress — you know the type. It took a long time to dress her, but when she was ready I defrosted a couple of cupcakes and we had tea. As we ate, it seemed to me that the late afternoon light had dimmed to a shadow, and when I looked at my wife her cheeks were smooth and glowing. I felt like the leaf lady had brought us some kind of relief. I wondered who she was and when she would return.
That night I washed the dress in cool water and hung it up to dry like I was supposed to.
It seemed like a year went by after the “seven days” began, but in reality only a week had passed. The dress must have been developed using some new technology, because it changed after each washing. Initially the fabric thickened and the lace seemed to melt away. Seams in the bodice multiplied into an unevenly smocked pattern somewhat like tree branches appear when viewed from the ground. Beads shaped like blossoms flowered on the collar and cuffs as the sleeves lengthened. Later the collar disappeared entirely and the neckline widened, first to a sweetheart shape, and then it deepened into an attractive V, revealing a goodly portion of my wife’s décolletage. The color shifted as well, first a lightly mottled sandy tone and then a creamy vanilla emerged. My wife grew more active, washing herself and helping me dress her. Sometimes she even touched up her lips and cheeks to a blush color. I thought of John Lyle’s poem about the nymph, “On Daphne’s Cheeke grow Rose and Cherry, / On Daphne’s Lip a sweeter Berry.” Her hair softened and began to shine again when the sun was full out. I had no way of accounting for these changes, but all in all she looked a good deal younger. We had six “birthdays,” the dress growing more fetching and shimmery for each one. Later that day would have been the seventh celebration, but then the knocker on the door sounded. I hated to answer, but I did.
With fall setting in, most of the leaves had fallen from the trees east of the drive, so the morning sun had sharpened. When I opened the door, my eyes were struck with light so brilliant it blackened what I could see of the outer shape of our visitor. High to his right, he held up an old-fashioned musical instrument, something like a small harp.
I forgot my manners and called immediately to Laurel, “It’s Lord Byron and he’s brought Apollo’s lyre to play for your birthday!” I was thinking of the lines, “I wish to tune my quivering lyre, / To deeds of fame, and notes of fire.”
I started to repeat them for her, when the man stepped forward. He began to strum the harp with a small pick and as soon as the music reached my ears I felt curiously acquiescent, ushering him quickly into the house and calling Laurel again. When she came from the bedroom, I saw that her dress had returned to its frothy white appearance. He beckoned for us to follow him and we did, as if he were a piper who had rights to our very beings. We plunged into the woods and were soon sitting beside a small stream.
I don’t know how long we were there, but it seemed as if I awoke much later and realized that the music had stopped. When we looked around, the man was gone and I wondered then what he had wanted. I’m glad now that I didn’t know. Laurel and I felt totally elated by the musical interlude, and when we returned to the house we spent the last few hours of the day absorbed in a renewed interest in each other — so there was no time for cake and tea.
I barely remembered to wash the dress that evening. I’ve often wondered if I used too much soap, or if the water was too hot. The next morning the dress had streaks of brown and green as if it had meadow soil rubbed in. Laurel cried out at the sight of it, ran back into the bedroom and stayed there.
I hung the dress outdoors on the clothesline hoping the sun would restore the fabric. I knew I couldn’t wash it until evening, so I busied myself to finish the bulb planting. I dug the ground in a half circle at the foot of the laurel tree. You may be more familiar with the term “bay,” as we call the leaves dried for use as a spice. I thought the showy accents of tulips would adorn the trunk of the evergreen with a hopeful promise-of-summer look next spring, something like a colorful necklace. I thought sadly of how Laurel had seemed to come around with the dress and all, but I couldn’t imagine what would happen next — if she would recover, if the dress would. Then I saw the woman standing beside the tree. She was the same woman who had brought the dress, but she seemed older, and her hair was a dull blonde shade. Her clothes were darker — grungy field boots, brown pants and a limp green blouse. I gestured toward the dress.
“I’ll need to wash it in the stream,” was all she said. She took hold of the dress and walked to the woods. She seemed to grow taller and indistinct in the distance and I saw her looking back once, but she didn’t speak.
The next morning I found the dress hanging from the bay tree. It was greatly changed, a brown homespun fabric with embroidered wreaths of leaves around the neck and sleeves. I was afraid Laurel would never wear it, but she didn’t seem to notice the transformation. I asked her if today was her birthday and she just looked at me, so I went out back and started to burn some dry leaves.
Day Thirty Nine
A month has passed without incident and Laurel hasn’t spoken much at all, but at least there doesn’t seem to be a pall of sorrow hanging over her. She wears the dress from morning until night, spending her days sitting in the rocker on the front porch and knitting a white afghan. I asked her who it was for and she said, “He’ll come again and I’ll be ready this time.”
When I remembered the shoebox and opened it — it was empty.
[Maggie Koger is a Media Specialist with a writing habit. She lives and works in Boise (pronounced boysee) and celebrates Le Bois — the trees the city is named for. She has published poetry in Poet Lore, Avocet, Mused, WestWard Quarterly, Montucky, and Eternal Haunted Summer.]