Adam loved Justine’s yellow dress. One afternoon, after kissing Justine passionately and touching her face as he did so, he had gathered the skirt of the dress in his needy hands and placed his head in its soft folds. He felt foolish after but Justine had allowed it because Adam was sweet and she enjoyed seeing him lament over her. She knew it was the type of dress that reminded men of bread baking and fresh air and home and salvation from desperation and love and everything that goes with it, so she wore it as often as she could without appearing too obvious. Even Blake appreciated the dress as a critic of art and fashion might, it was lovely on her, he would say. It accented her small waist and was smooth over her ample chest without being tawdry. Whenever she wore it, he mentioned how much he liked it to her, running his strong well-formed hands over the material and pulling her waist forward to embrace her tightly and swiftly. His cool and calculated critique would please her much more than Adam’s soft, almost mournful worship. Poor Adam.
Justine wanted Adam to see Anna in the dress. She wanted him to feel all twisted and bunched up inside. She wanted him to be confused and worried about her motives, and eventually the dress was going to be a sort of relay torch to pass Adam off from her own lap into Anna’s seamlessly and without too much in that might resemble dramatics. She was generally kind and thoughtful person, but was paradoxically spiteful and self-serving , so she knew that her offer of outfitting and coiffing Anna would appear selfless, when in reality it was very selfish. Justine wanted to look beguiling, to appear as some sort of benevelent young matron of the mine. Like a duchess. Like a kind princess. Sad people do this. They try hide their broken hearts, filling up their lives with strange little games that never have a good outcome.
The idea had come to Justine when had Anna had told her that she didn’t have anything to wear to the dance. They were visiting after the school day was done and Justine had come up to chat with Anna as was now their custom at 3:00. There was still almost three hours before Blake came home from the caves, and Adam only stayed until one. That left just two hours alone, which was Justine’s time to hike or pick berries or clean or read or paint. But the two hours before she had to start cooking Blake’s dinner was an odd time for her, her mind wandered in dangerous directions. So she had begun walking up the flight of stairs in the commissary that led to the schoolroom to visit Anna, to help her clean the room or bring her tea or usually just to visit with her. When she mentioned the dance to Anna, Anna appeared excited but terribly nervous and quite a little bit seasick. One tiny hand smothered the other tiny hand as she wrung them frantically and complained to Justine that all of her clothes were too plain for a dance, so she would be too timid to go. Justine had smiled at her and said,
“Oh, you silly thing…I’ll lend you something of mine! I brought up two trunks of clothes that I never, ever get to wear up in this muck. I might as well share it with someone seeing as I won’t be able to wear most of it up here. What about the yellow? It would look lovely with your fair hair and skin. I’ll do your hair and makeup, too, as I assume you didn’t bring many cosmetics with you either?” Justine appeared to Anna as some sort of strikingly beautiful fairy godmother, and Anna wanted to look just as pretty as Justine, even just for a night. Even if it would be under Justine’s charming thumb.
Anna kind of half-smiled and said, “Ohhhh. I would feel awful going in something I brought, I’ve only brought four dresses and have worn them all already. Maybe something you don’t care too much about. One of your simpler day dresses. I won’t feel right in something too togged up. I’m just the schoolteacher.”
“Just the schoolteacher? You’re more than that up here, truly. You’re like fresh flowers and snowmelt to this cold place. You’re new. Which means that you fascinate the men, you excite them in a way that breaks into their dangerous and mundane days. You’re not just the schoolteacher, Anna, you’re pretty and you’re you and you’re lovely. Like sunshine before it starts to be too hot at noon. Like ten o’clock sunshine. You should wear my yellow dress, I think. Sunshine for the ray of sunshine that you are.” Justine felt wrong speaking with such sentimental sap. But it was needed with Anna; she was so very young and impressionable. She needed friendliness and kind words and impassioned affirmations.
Anna twisted her little chapped lips and bit at a flap of dry skin on the lower one. Her eyes flickered back and forth, looking everywhere but at Justine’s cornflower gaze. “I’ll borrow it, and thank you… But you’re much more um…you have more…” She avoided Justine’s eyes even more, looking to the sky, to the planks on the floor, anywhere but where she was referring to.
Justine was used to attention regarding her figure. The attention was either low whistled (whether audible or implied) admiration from men or thinly veiled disapproval from mostly older women. She laughed and her eyes crinkled up in genuine sweetness. “Oh, you mean my chest is bigger than yours? Yes, but that’s just because I’m older. When I was nineteen I was flat as a board. Don’t worry, I have a white sash we can use. We’ll take in the dress a bit and wrap the sash around your little waist. It will be sweet and will look almost like a different dress, it won’t even look borrowed!”
Anna let out a funny, barking little laugh and allowed her embarrassment to go back down to her shoes. She would wear the dress. She would let Justine paint her face a little and dot perfume on her wrists. It would mean at least be an hour of feeling Justine’s cool hands touching her. She always felt as though Justine was leading her somewhere, and lately she wanted to follow Justine everywhere she might take her. Anna was aware of how doggishly pitiful she must seem, how naive, how lonely, how childish. But Justine was obviously lonely and lovely, so Anna decided to lavish her with whatever brand of companionship and attention she might have to offer. Justine was so pretty, and so sweet, and she seemed to love listening to Anna talk about all of the places she had lived. And to Justine Anna was like the girls in the slim little novels she had read as a teenager, before the Irishman and her lost twins had aged her heart. They were such bright and fresh little books, filled with innocent kisses and girls with smart retorts to every insult. Girls who boys had crushes on and who carried little white purses with gold compacts and fountain pens and pads of paper tucked inside. Smart girls. Girls with promise.
Justine is jealous of Anna’s promise, her unmarked face and of the slim unblemished body that will wear the yellow dress. She wants to make Adam feel desire towards Anna, but she also wants him to miss her own breasts and hips and waist. She wants him to remember what she looked like in the dress, remember how wet he made the skirt with his tears that fell from him when she told him that she could never love him the way she loved Blake. She also is aware that Anna is fascinated with her, and when a creature of need finds out that they might just be needed by someone, they are entranced. So Anna would be a gift to Adam, as well as a possible pet for Justine.
Please don’t think her cruel. She did cruel things, yes. But she was so sad, so lonely, and so filled to the brim with love that her emotions seemed to misfire everywhere. A woman’s power is in her ability to love with every fiber of her being, but when a woman is sad, that love can explode to disastrous proportions, scaring villagers and alienating the ones she loves the most of all.