With an indescribable ache in my bones, I notice that my mother has unexpectedly set a new dress and a ribbon on my dresser. Last night she insisted I bathe, even though Sundays are reserved for proper bathing. A hot bath means two unnecessary trips to the well, plus all the boiling and excessive soap usage. I stare at the dress from the only mirror in the house, wondering who it belongs to. Usually dresses this well-made are sold.
All week, noisy neighbors have been trotting in and out, inquiring over ordering a gown. They chatter mindlessly about the embargo and how we might face yet another famine. If Micha were here, he would call for action, spreading his pamphlets at every door, demanding that all of us in Madera unite with the neighboring islands of Odessa, Phillma, Cortos, and Waria for equal rights against the mainland of Perla Del Mar.
But Micha is not here. He’s in Odessa with his bride, planning to work for his uncle’s printshop. The short note he left has already been torn into bits and used as kindling.
I can feel the wind pick up through the broken glass in my window. The Prince’s proclamation, nailed to the gates, rattles mercilessly. Some say it is what stands between my people and certain death from Untouchables. A sworn promise of protection by the gracious, most sovereign Prince Philippe. But the faded cut on my arm says it’s merely wasted ink.
It is the last day of the pagan Untouchable matching ceremony, during which an Untouchable male may choose whomever he desires. This means a half-day at the prison we use as a school, so we are all dressed a bit nicer than usual. The ceremony comes from an asinine legend where the groom rides on his horse through villages and selects a bride simply by tossing her on his back and stealing away into the night to do whatever he pleases.
Swallowing, I run my fingers down my dress. It’s not new; it’s someone’s hand-me-down, like everything else in my closet. I lift the soft blue fabric and admire the flawless stitching, the way my mother has sewn it to fit my small waist perfectly.
Tracing over the ribbon, the silky texture beneath my fingertips feels like rose petals. I know it was made with love. Or, I should say, the only way my mother knows how to show love. Now it is the only love I’ll ever know. The season is officially over, making me the oldest unmarried girl in our village. The only one left without anyone choosing to claim her.
Absentmindedly, I reach under my pillow, only to find my dagger still missing. The day after the attack, I heard those boys were seen by Dr. Wenloe, the traveling doctor who makes regular rounds of all the towns and villages and sees us Outcasts if time permits. Both had black eyes and cut lips. The shorter one with the missing ear was walking with a limp, and the other had a dislocated shoulder and five cracked ribs. I couldn’t help but feel a perverse sense of justification tickle down my spine thinking that their parents had had the last word, beating them senseless for ruining their clothes.
A gentle tap on the door interrupts my daydreaming. I slip the dress over my head and, avoiding the mirror, turn to the doorway.
My mother fusses like a mother cat over her kittens. “Your eyes will look blue today. Like your dress.”
I sit down under the pretense of doing my stockings. I have no interest in my eyes or any other feature, but she persists. She reaches for my hair, thick with curls and the only similarity we share. “Let me do your hair,” she says. “It’s so pretty.”
The memory of Nillia adorned in scarlet with proud fathers and uncles and male cousins parading the chosen on chairs toward the quarter square, sends a fresh wave of nausea.
There will never be anyone singing for me.
So, I close my eyes and accept the scraps of my mother’s pity, all the while biting back the sarcastic remark threatening to deflate her. Not today. Let her pretend that someone might be interested if I wear her silly dress and have nice hair.
Since I am now seventeen, a trade will be selected for me in the few remaining days of school. It will probably be something I detest, like cleaning or cooking for a rich, Untouchable family who won’t even bother to feed me properly. Then, as the days grow colder and if there remains an odd-numbered Outcast boy from a neighboring village, he will reluctantly accept me rather than have no one.
Just dwelling on the unfortunate Outcast boy who will lower his standards to bond with a girl known as ‘Neliem’ makes me almost pity the poor sap and wonder if perhaps my escape skills will not be entirely wasted.
I laugh hollowly, and my mother momentarily stops braiding my hair. Avoiding the mirror, I follow her orange-brown eyes to the small altar erected at the far corner of my room. She has collected coins since my first blood to set aside for my wedding chest. Nothing too fancy, just the necessities: a veil, clean stockings without holes, and one pair of spotlessly white shoes.
Now the chest lies closed, a layer of dust covering the lid. I can think of a dozen better uses for the money. Perhaps a goat, one that’s been fattened.
Before I can protest, she reads my thoughts, patiently tying the last ribbon. “No, Oriana, those are for you,” my mother insists. She gets up and takes the items out as if they were woven with golden thread, gently placing them on my bed for me to admire.
I ignore them, choosing to stare outside while she does my stockings. I wonder who would choose me instead of a goat that can be milked and provide delicious, fresh cheese every evening.
I tell the truth. “I would take the goat.”