I gaze at the water around me. For some reason, I can stand up in the pool of water as opposed to the air. The weight is distributed differently and it is like a soothing balm for my muscles. I sigh and lean against the steps, shaking out water in my hair. It has been hours since I first stepped in and Edite is long gone, bored of answering my simple questions. I’d been asking her about colors when she finally sighed and stood, probably realizing that she could be stuck there for hours longer answering my crazy inquiries.
Despite the simplicity of the answers, they really do help. I have died and come back in another body, knowing, yet not knowing the way everything works in the world. Red is blood, blue is water, green is tree, brown is dirt, black is night. Birds chirp in trees, canines bark, felines prowl, flowers sprout and then wilt. I smile and dip my now wrinkled ugly hands into the water to drip it over my head as puzzles are beginning to connect into a whole picture.
Whatever 'oils' Edite added into the water help too. I feel more human, and just a little more...petite. I doubt I can ever feel beautiful again in this state, but to pretend I'm beautiful is wholly different. I can convince others and even deceive myself that my body is absolutely normal. What is not seen is not there!
There are still large tangles in my hair, but I don't feel any foreign substance unwelcome there.
I remember stepping into the water and scrubbing myself with the bar of slippery substance. When I first dunked my hair into the water and rinsed out the stinging bubbles, I saw the water turn cloudy. And for a few minutes that was the last sign of the prison on me.
Now I laugh loudly, without smiling and without humor; it sounds like a cackle, and I realize that I am already fooling myself. I may be able to get rid of the garment and scrub off the blood and grime, but I will always have scars. I ignore my hands since I have already extensively memorized them and search my body for other scars. I touch my stomach one, not recalling the operation, but remembering the Dolor stitching my skin together again. I wonder at the purpose because I was fragile for some time after that. I seemed to have lost weight and then I had the worst type of dreams. A person was screaming, never ceasing its wail and I couldn't find the source. I tried to beg them to stop, tried to comfort next and then I started to scream when that didn't work. It was horrific.
Then I reach down to my thighs, feeling the marks all along the skin. I shudder and remember the knife that broke the skin apart. It was a jagged knife with teeth that was covered in rust.
I remember when the wound got infected and it became red and angry. The Dolor was almost frantic as he injected multiple solutions into me. I must have been close to delirium and I felt sick at some point. The Dolor had been yelling into my face for me to wake up in a fearful manner when I broke from that veiled sleep. I had suddenly felt cold and wet. The Dolor sighed heavily when he saw me and I wonder what consequences would have been placed on his head had I died.
I pass by the shuddering memory and drift the slippery, soft substance across my back, even though it is hard to reach. That wide expanse has many marks...but the injury I can distinctly recall is my internal one.. The snap was so loud and clear I knew what had happened when I heard it. The Dolor's face turned a little white at the sound but he still recorded my reaction. Then, I was put into a large cell similar to the Blood Room. The Dolor didn’t torture me until I could move again. The pain was always there, unrelenting, so he gave me the solution whenever I was in the most agony. Sometimes, I can still feel a strain on me when I move sharply.
I move to my shoulder, moving over the brand and squeezing my eyes shut. Dolor had to strap me down to stop me from writhing in opposition and agony to mark me with those. I wanted to grasp at the pulsing skin and cradle it, but the heat from the brand seemed to spread throughout my skin, making me scream and scream. Before I could lose consciousness, I looked back at the Dolor to see his eyes lit in excitement. That is when I heaved everything within me.
I squeeze my eyes shut in old pain and grip the bubbly object in my hands so hard it slips out of my grip and plops into the water. I stare into the murky water, wondering if I should go in after it, but something tells me to stop, that it is dangerous. Perhaps when Edite empties the bath, it will still be down there. I wade heavily through the water to the shallow steps, and sit, breathing heavily. The chair is a ways away, and I don’t want to shout for Edite. What if she isn’t in any of the rooms?
Then, I see the same ringing object that I shook when I woke up. Edite must have left it on the ground for me when she left. I pick it up and shake it, the clanging of the metal inside making loud, resounding noises in the open room. For a long time I hear it clang as I shiver on the side of the pool.
“Senhora, I apologize...I was making sure your luncheon was prepared.”
The thought almost makes me smile. Food, not the liquid that we all swore tasted like the potion disguised with broth. “Is it good food?”
“Of course, senhora! Nothing but the best for you.” She takes a white cloth and wraps it around me, taking another and wrapping it around my hair. “Though, Mestre requests that he take the meal with you, to answer any questions you have.”
I hesitate, wishing I could be alone for a little longer, but I turn back to the pool and see the sky through the transparent curtains, realizing the sun has moved considerably in the sky since I got in. I’ve been alone for hours, I’ve been alone for years. I nod my head to the request and sigh.
“I guess it is time I become human again, Edite.” I glance back at her as she takes an object to my hair. Some of it straightens but she has to work at each knot for awhile. She looks a little shocked at my comment but doesn’t say anything.
“He will take it in your dressing room after you’ve changed. He doesn’t want to overwhelm you by showing you the rest of the house today.”
“Is it a house? It seems larger than any other structure in the city.”
“Well, senhora. About ten years ago, this place was actually the palace, the home to the late king and queen.”
“King and queen? Who were they?”
“They were the last of the monarchy to rule here. King Quirinus and his....wife.” Edite says the despicable title with hate which I am bewildered by.
“Laima. She was a prostituta, a fora!” I blink to hide my shock at the hatred and disgust in her words. Edite blushes and tries to recover from her anger. She hangs her head.
“Excuse my language, senhora, I just...she was responsible for my enslavement here.”
I turn quickly, ceasing the process of going through my hair. “What do you mean? Are you forced to stay here?”
“Of course not, that would be against my rights!” Edite exclaimed proudly. “I was a captive little girl sent here from my homeland after King Quirinus took over our province in Portraia. They separated me from my parents and I worked here for that...that-”
“It’s alright, Edite,” I interrupt quietly, wishing to avoid another outburst, “The queen. You worked for Queen Laima by…?”
“I mostly served her in her suite, and then, she liked me so much that she used me as a messenger to send notes to her lovers.”
Edite took a breath to control herself and continued. I tried to follow along as best as I could, but when her emotions got the better of her, the accent became hard to comprehend. “She would stuff herself with food and then have me throw it away if she wasted it! I tried one day to bring some to my room and eat it there, but the king’s dogs smelled the meat on me and attacked me. Then, I starved in the palace prison for a week before they let me out and sent me to the kitchens where the cook kicked me like an animal. If I tried to leave, they would beat me. Some indentured servants even died if they caused too much trouble.”
“How awful! What happened?”
“The revolução happened.” Her eyes brighten considerably. I recognize the tone from her praises of Maestro Frigidianus. “When the rebel forces took over the palace, they set everyone free and imprisoned the king and his queen in the same prison as they had sent me. Mestre let me stay here; I wouldn’t know where else to go. My family is lost to me and I can get good pay here.”
“What happened to King Quirinus and Queen Laima?” I ask, already anticipating the answer.
Edite smugly grins and replies, “They died. The king from sickness in the prison, but the Blind Ones put her to death. I was there when they swung the axe that chopped off her head,” she chuckles bitterly. “In her language, Laima means ‘luck.’ And perhaps she was lucky to get such a profitable marriage to a king who did not care about her betrayal and exploits. We are all lucky now to be rid of that foreign suíno. So I took a lock of hair from her severed head and it is now my good luck charm." I shudder involuntarily. The gruesome story and the wind pooling onto my wet body chills me to the bone.
“Can you wheel me somewhere warmer? I need to change into some clothes.”
"Of course senhora. I have the dress picked out already."
"Thank you, Edite." She picks me up again and carries me to the chair. From there, she wheels me to the room full of cloth and shoes. On another comfortable chair lays my assumed dress. It is much different from what I woke up in.
Edite lifts up a plain white, long sleeved dress and says, "This, senhora, is called a kirtle."
I nod, appreciative of her providing me with knowledge. She takes the long end and drapes it over my head, pulling the fabric down, guiding my arms into the sleeves. She picks up another dress and informs, "This is your chemise. They will be able to see this underneath." It is black and cuts straight across my chest, but it only reaches my shoulders. The fabric slopes past my feet, covering every blemish on my legs. I lean on Edite's shoulder as I stand for the last piece of my ensemble.
It is the most elaborate fabric, full of dark red designs. It cuts deep, and reminds me of an upside down tree. From the space in between, I can see the black chemise at my chest. The sleeves are oddly separated from the dress, but she ties them to the dress at my shoulder. I gasp slightly at how tightly she ties them, but she takes another sleeve and ties it at my elbow again.
"This is called 'slashing,' senhora. Now that the ties are tight and secure, I am going to take the kirtle's sleeves and pull out on them."
I look down and see the desired effect and raise my eyebrows. "How interesting!"
"Now we will choose your headdress." She beckons to a series of ridiculous looking hats. I glance back at Edite, hoping she isn't serious.
"Is there anything a bit more...conservative?" Edite laughs and beckons to a sheer fabric and raises her eyebrow. I shrug and she laughs again.
"I will put this in your hair, but first we must cut the dead hair off of your head."
"Good." She lays out my hair on my back, and it slightly pools on the seat. I know that my hair must be down to my legs, but I wonder how much Edite will have to cut.
I hear a 'snip' and the noises continue. On the white, stone floor, I see locks of ratty hair fall to the floor. They are nearly the length of my hand, even with its elongated fingers. She tips my head different angles sometimes and then pushes my back absolutely straight.
I am mostly silent during this whole process as she takes off more and more of my hair. I sit stiffly, not able to be totally comfortable with sharp and pointy things next to my body, so I keep my eyes open and keep the setting vivid and clear in my head. I am not in the Blood Room. I am not being tortured. I am not going to drink any potion. I won't forget anything after this. I look down at my deformed hands, and they remind me...there is nothing else to forget.
Edite pulls me out of my thoughts, "There, senhora. I am finished. Would you like to see?"
I nod and she pulls out a round object. I peer at the reflection with curiosity. Is that me? Oh did the Dolor make me forget what I look like too? I look at Edite through the object and it is an exact image of her. She smiles sadly.
"It is a mirror, senhora. That is you."
I nod again and watch myself, the way my eyes widen when I discover something, the way my mouth moves when I speak. My eyes are not blue, but more dull and quiet. The Dolor's eyes are the last ones I properly examined and mine are different. Mine have a spark in them...a spark that indicates life. My lips twitch for a moment. I really am alive. I made it through hell. I am alive.
She, Amalia, might have died . She had a man who was going to marry her. She had some type of importance in the world (otherwise she wouldn't have been put in a prison to forget everything). She might have even had a future. But it isn't my responsibility to follow that path anymore. I, Prisoner 164, am alive!
"Do you like it, senhor?"
I jump at Edite's voice and realize I am supposed to be inspecting her job on cutting my hair. I really look at it now. It is still long in my opinion, going past my elbows and ending about my waist. I finger the ends and enjoy the feeling. The cut makes the ends turn up a little and they look and feel fresh, almost revived, instead of the dirty, frayed edges.
"Good work, Edite. But give me your opinion. What is the color of my hair?"
"I couldn't say, senhora... It isn't quite blonde. It isn't quite brown. If you don't mind me saying, your hair, once we've taken good care of it, reminds me of the fields my family used to plant in Portraia. The plant, when it was ripe to harvest, is just a shade lighter than your color."
"Thank you, Edite. I just don't know what to compare myself to."
"I understand, senhora." I look up at Edite through the mirror and she smiles even though it radiates sadness. I feel she does understand in some way, even if it is such a small connection.
Edite ends her smile and runs her deft fingers through my silky hair with a skilled hand. "I'll start your hair now, senhora." She takes a few strands and lifts it to my scalp. She wraps the hair into a oval ball and clips it to my head. I feel a heavier weight with the mass at my head while the rest of my hair she weaves together or leaves straight. After a very long time weaving the clear fabric into my hair, she sighs and heaves, "You're ready to meet with him, senhora. I will tell mestre you’re ready. Traditionally, senhora, the hostess is expected to serve and dish their guests’ food. But I will stay and do that for you. Mestre will not expect you to raise a finger yet.”
“Will we take it in here, Edite?”
“Sim, only female guests take meals in your bedroom.”
“And why is that?”
“Because it is your bedroom, senhora,” she informs passionately, her accent so strong I can hardly understand her.
“Oh,” I agree, but still confused. Customs and traditions are so useless and strange. Trivialities don’t matter to someone who is familiar with what I’ve gone through, though I doubt anyone has experienced or even imagined all that I’ve seen and felt, so it makes sense that all that foolish nonsense matters to them. In some little way, I envy Edite for her focus on those base trifles. She doesn’t have to worry over anything but small matters, only focusing on how it is shaping her day and current lifestyle. Those affairs don’t affect the rest of her life. For some reason, mine always do.
Someone coughing echoes in an empty room. I jerk back to the world and look around. Edite has been absent long enough to fetch Frigidianus, Amalia’s former fidanzato. I wring my hands together nervously, and abruptly realize if he comes in, he will see them. “Edite?’ I call out, hoping that it is her, not him.
“I apologize, Amalia. Edite is bringing our meal. She will be here shortly.” It is Frigidianus and I scowl.
“Oh. Well, I cannot see you until I have her with me.” No other person can be allowed to see my demented state. And with all the empathy I have towards Amalia, I cannot let Frigidianus see her body like this. He cannot know what she-what I...we...what we went through.
“I,” his voice quiets through the curtain separating us and then starts over again, “No one is going to hurt you. I won’t let them.”
“I know,” I lie...because I know it is impossible. It’s impossible to not be hurt. Otherwise I’m not human. “But it isn’t that. I’m not proper enough to see you.”
“Oh,” he sounds sheepish and I can imagine his cheeks turning pink, ”Edite said you were ready for me. I apologize-”
“I am, she just forgot something. And I...I-”
“It’s alright, Amalia. I’m not going to force myself into your dressing room, “ I hear him chuckle against the curtain. I don’t know why that’s so funny. What would I do if he did throw back the curtain? With me invalided in a chair that only rolls around with assistance? It is silent, and I imagine he goes back to sit on one of my chairs.
I wait uncomfortably, until I hear a door slam and Edite’s surprised exclamation, “Mestre!”
From then on, I hear Frigidianus explaining what happened, but I don’t listen. I don’t register it at all. I wonder if it is my lack of concentration on a single person, a person I am not familiar with. I scorn at the thought. was I familiar with the Dolor?
“Senhora?” Edite is in front of me, bending over me, watching me with concern.
“I’m sorry. I just...I realized that I...my hands.” I raise them up and she hangs her head.
“Of course, senhora. I forgot your gloves. I will fetch them quickly and then you can dine with the mestre.”
“Good,” I nod and watch her fiddle around the drawers that are part of a big, wooden piece of furniture.
She pulls out two long black pieces of fabric and brings them to me.
“I am sure they will fit, but I will get your measurements and order more for you to wear every day.”
“Thank you,” I raise my eyebrows, truly sincere. This is surely the kindest act of service someone has directed towards me since my rescuer took me from the prison. She helps me tug them on, since they are incapable of the slightest and simplest of actions.
Then I hold them out in front of me. My hands and forearms are black. They are sleek and smooth. Softer than any skin. I run my hands down my arms, feeling human and alive and clever. I can deceive anyone. From the outside, I have no mark. Everything is hidden beneath layers and layers of clothing.I nod at Edite. Frigidianus can come in. Anyone could come in and see me as someone wholly different than the way I view myself. And it’s better if they don’t know.