by Keelan LaForge
The dress tightened around her like taut chains. The servant stood behind her with a button hooker, buttoning her up one hundred times. Eden felt her ribs retract and her breathing shorten. She stood tall and straight, the way she did every day in that house: upholding the sham of marital bliss. Only God knew where her husband was; she hadn’t seen him in days. Being the lady of the house meant just that; she belonged to the house more than she did to him. They were like two dispersed buttons in an empty jar; he had his side of the house and she had hers.
“That’s you done up, Madam,” said her servant. Eden looked at her with envy; at least at the end of the work day, her time was her own. She got to play a role for a few hours and then be herself again.
“Thank you, Harriet,” she said, discharging her with a nod. Eden felt like falling into her, resting her head on the breast of her blouse, admitting she couldn’t live this life. The servant gave her a look, like she knew what she was thinking but that the words could never be said aloud. Self-restraint was what marked a woman as acceptable. If you lost that, who knew what might be unleashed.
Eden sat at her dressing table, brushing her hair, pulling it back into a tight bun. She slid a butterfly slide into it. She prepared herself to walk down the corridor; there were too many employees, too many observers to face. She walked along it, looking at the paintings that lined it. There was one of a lady in the lake. She looked serene, freed by nature. That was the answer to Eden’s problems too: nature. One benefit of living at a manor house was the size of the grounds that surrounded it. The company of the lime trees and the worker bees gave Eden relief. That, and Ben, the gardener. She knew nothing about him outside of his gardening work. He was always tending the flower beds, making her life beautiful in little ways. That was how they’d connected: she admired the flowers he’d put there for her enjoyment. She walked towards the lake, wanting to sit on her shaded bench and soak in the greenery around her. She knew that Ben would be there, waiting for her. It was their agreed meeting place; somewhere their lives intersected at 2pm each day.
Eden sat down on the bench. She heard his breath behind her, the clink of his rake hitting the ground. He sat down next to her and pulled off his gardening gloves.
“I cut these for you,” he said, handing her a bunch of lilacs.
“They’re beautiful,” she said, smelling their perfume. “How are you?”
“A little bored. The plants are pleasing, but not great conversationalists.”
He gave her a cheeky smile. He was the one person who smiled at her without restraint.
“Have you had a pleasant morning?”
“Dull. The same as always. Dreaded routine. This is the only thing that gives me the motivation to get through the day. I’m fed up with this place and with wearing dresses with hundreds of buttons.”
He regarded her like he was admiring a painting. “You always look well. I imagine it's uncomfortable though.”
“There’s a painting I was looking at in the house -
Ben sat back into the bench, listening. He’d never seen the interior of the house before. His job wasn’t one that allowed him access to it. She lived in another world to him. He was curious about every detail of hers, whilst knowing she was a caged animal and that he was lucky to be wild and feral.
“Looking at it cheers me a little. The lady in it is submerged in water, surrounded by lily pads. It’s unclear why she’s there. Perhaps she’s drowning, but she’s the picture of freedom. I’d love to have my body immersed in water, with nature surrounding me. A bowl and jug of water to bath in doesn’t have the same effect.”
“Well, what’s preventing you?”
“Preventing me from what?”
“Going for a swim in the lake.”
“In the lake? In this dress?” She laughed.
“Can’t you take it off?”
“Not without my maid. Have you seen the number of the buttons it takes to secure it?”
“I’ll help you. I can imagine you swimming freely in the lake. It would be beautiful.”
She turned her back to him, offering her buttons to him to unfasten. His fingers worked methodically, carefully unhooking each one. There must have been a hundred of them, he thought. It felt like he was freeing an animal trapped in a snare.
Eden’s muscles slackened, her ribcage expanded and her breathing relaxed. Ben lifted her dress over her head, like he was lifting a domed birdcage, freeing its feathered inhabitant. Eden took off the hoop that held her dress’s structure and her legs walked free. She climbed into the cool water and lay out flat on her back, her arms out to her sides. Ben stood on the bank of the lake, watching her and smiling. She invited him in, but he was busy watching her from afar: a crippled bird taking its first flight. Eden swayed her arms back and forth below the water’s surface. None of the wildlife around her bothered her: nature restored her, it was society that did her harm.
“Madam,” Ben hissed. Eden wondered why he addressed her by a title rather than her Christian name. Eden felt too much in her natural state, too free to reign herself in, to react appropriately. Her husband was standing on the path beside the lake, but Eden was too far away to notice, and much less to let it concern her. She felt the greyness inside her floating away with the scent of lilacs and the sight of pink-flowered lily pads. and smiled.