martes, 1 de noviembre de 2016


"All right, let us begin! And, when our story has come to an end, we shall know so much more than we already know!"


The mansion was furnished in the new, angular style; it felt cold and oppressive compared to the soft lines and pastel colors of home. Instead of windows, the walls were covered in curtain-framed paintings of geometric suns and stark landscapes. The butler took her through a series of smaller rooms seemingly designed for a lady: a library with overstuffed chairs, a music room with a piano, and a fully equipped sewing room. In every single room sat a gramophone. Finally she was shown into a dimly lit room with a huge mahogany bed.
Hedvig grabbed the butler’s arm. “Will he come for me?”
Up close, the butler’s skin looked smooth and hard, like Bakelite; his eyes glittered like glass. He gave off a vague chemical smell. Hedvig realized that his mouth and eyebrows were painted on. He gently pried her hand off his arm with jointed fingers, bowed again, and left.

Quiet footsteps approached; the mattress dipped as someone sat down on the edge of the bed.
My name is Lord Ruben,” said a young baritone. “You may call me ‘my lord.’ ”
“The lord of what?” Hedvig said.
“The underground,” he replied. “This is my domain.”
“Will you rape me now?” Hedvig said into the darkness.
“Of course not,” Ruben said. “But I need your help. An evil countess put a curse on me so that I may never show my face to you. But if you will be faithful to me without ever seeing my face, then one day I will be free. If you break your promise, I will be in her power completely and forced to marry her.”

Lord Ruben’s breaths had evened out. 
In the faint yellow light, he was young and frail-looking: very pale, with dark eyebrows and hair, a long nose, and carefully carved lips, like a painting.
Ruben’s blind eyes filled with tears. “I am hers. She let me have the nights to myself, but only if no living being saw my face. It was going so well. I had a mansion. I had you, and a son. Now look at us. Look at what you did.” He pulled away and sobbed into his hands.
The air was very cold. Ruben lay in front of her, shaking, not at all the commanding man she had come to imagine.
Lord Ruben let out a long, trembling sigh. “Vega, my sister. She might at least take our son in until we find somewhere to stay.”
They walked out of the culvert and into the wintry streets of Stockholm.
 Lady Vega lived in Old Town, on a street winding away from the German church.
Lord Ruben pushed Hedvig toward the front door. “You can’t let her see me. The countess will know. She’ll take me then, for sure.
Hedvig climbed the stairs to Lady Vega’s apartment. The woman who opened the door was short and fine-featured, much like a female version of Ruben, with crinkles at the corners of her eyes. 
“I know that face,” she said. “That’s Ruben’s, isn’t it? Who are you?”
“I’m his wife, milady,” Hedvig said. “We need your help. Lord Ruben and I are out on the street.”
Vega squinted at her. “Since when is he a lord?”
Hedvig faltered.
“Where have you been living with him, exactly?” Vega asked.
“In his palace,” Hedvig said slowly. “Except it’s not there anymore, because I broke the spell. He’s waiting downstairs, but you can’t see him, because then the countess will—”
Vega uncrossed her arms. “This is absurd. Excuse me.” She ran downstairs.
Vega shouting at Ruben.
“You’re not even man enough to show your face,” Vega shouted, shaking his arm. “You send your wife! Or whatever she is. . . . What have you told her? She calls you Lord Ruben!”
“You don’t understand,” Lord Ruben said, ducking out of her reach.
An engine roared behind them.
The enormous car that came charging down the street was black and shiny, with darkened windows. It stopped with a screech of tortured brakes. The passenger door opened. A shadow curled around Ruben’s arms and legs and pulled him inside. The door slammed shut. The car took off again, leaving the stench of exhaust and burning rubber. The two women stared down the street after it.
“I thought he was free,” Vega said numbly.
Hedvig clutched her son, who had gone very quiet. “What just happened?”
“The countess took him back.”
“Who took him back? Who is the countess?”
“The Countess de la Montagne. She is very dangerous,” Vega replied. “He got involved with her when he was very young. I thought ‘out on the streets’ meant he was finally free.”
“All this, and you want to go save him,” Vega said. “You’re insane.”
“I don’t expect you to understand,” Hedvig replied. “Will you help me or not?”
Vega shook her head. “He had it coming. And I’m not going up against the countess. But if you’re so set on it, you could maybe talk to old Natalia.”
“Who is she?”
“She’s a dealer, of sorts. You’ll find her in Hornstull.”
Hedvig shifted her son on her hip.
“I’ll take the boy,” Vega said. “He deserves better. And stop calling my brother ‘lord.’ We’re middle-class.”

It was only half an hour’s walk from Old Town to Hornstull, on the western tip of the southern island. Old Natalia opened the door dressed in a turban and a silk robe. She was very thin and looked very old. The hallway beyond her smelled of cigar smoke and heavy perfume.
“What do you want?” Her voice was unexpectedly soft.
“Madam, I’m sorry to disturb you,” Hedvig said. “I’m looking to save my husband, and I’m told you might be able to help me.”
Natalia tilted her head. “Save him from what?”
“The Countess de la Montagne.”
The old woman let out a bright laugh. “Come in, you poor fool,” she said.
She made Hedvig tea and smoked a fat cigar while listening to Hedvig’s story about her capture and Ruben’s. When Hedvig was done talking, Natalia sat in silence for a long moment.
“You want to rescue him from the countess,” Natalia finally said.
“I don’t expect you to understand,” Hedvig said. “But I can’t rest until I do.”
“You know that no one picks a fight with her, don’t you?”
“I know nothing about her,” Hedvig replied. “My only concern is to save him.”
“For some reason,” Natalia said, then sighed. “Well. You’re polite and you have guts, and for that I’ll help you.” She went over to a cabinet. “What skills do you have, then?”
Hedvig was quiet for a moment, then said, “I can make dresses.”
“Excellent,” Natalia said, and rummaged around in the cabinet.
She brought out a slender roll of fabric and a purse, then pushed a large suitcase toward Hedvig with her foot. Inside sat a portable sewing machine.
Natalia patted the roll. “This will give you all the fabric you need. The sewing machine will make you all the dresses you need. And the purse will give you whatever else you require. It’ll never run out.”
“That’s a very small roll of fabric,” Hedvig said.
Natalia grinned. “So it would appear,” she replied. “Don’t worry. Now. The countess is very fond of fashion and fine food, so make that for her.”
“And what do you want in exchange?” Hedvig said. “Nothing is for free. I have learned that much.”
“The satisfaction of seeing that bitch taken down is good enough for me,” said Natalia. “I tried in my time. It’s your turn now.”
Hedvig stood up.
Hedvig rented a little room at the back of an old lady’s apartment. She spent day and night sewing more of her dresses. The roll did in fact not run out but produced velvet and silks finer than she had ever seen. The sewing machine seemed to produce thread all by itself and made seams straight and fine, and it never pulled at the fabric. The dresses Hedvig made didn’t look like the pictures in the magazines, not at all, but she thought they had their own beauty. When she had made nine dresses, she went to find the countess.
The Countess de la Montagne lived in a lavish apartment that covered an entire floor of a building in the most expensive part of Östermalm. A butler opened the door, and Hedvig recoiled; it was the same butler who had served in the underground mansion. He looked at her, bowed, and left the door ajar. A while later he came back with his mistress in tow. She was tall and coolly blonde, with square features. She looked at Hedvig like a hawk looks at a mouse.
“I have a lovely set of gowns I’d like to sell you,” Hedvig said. “They’re like nothing you have ever seen.”
“You dragged me to the front door for this?” the countess said to the butler.
Hedvig quickly opened her suitcase and held up a green bias-cut gown of her own design. The countess’s mouth dropped slightly open.
“Do you have more like that?”
“Nine of them, my lady,” Hedvig replied.
“Give her the small drawing room,” she told the butler, then pointed at Hedvig. “I’ll view them this afternoon.”
The butler guided Hedvig through a warren of rooms that were eerily reminiscent of the underground mansion: angular lines, dark woodwindows covered by heavy drapes. Here and there, Bakelite footmen and maids were busy with some task or other. There was no sign of human life. The butler showed her into a small drawing room and left.
When the countess arrived, Hedvig had turned the little drawing room into a showroom, fabric and sewing machine ready for alterations. The countess handled each of the dresses where they hung, rubbing the soft fabrics between her fingers.
“I’ve never seen anything like them,” she said. “These aren’t like the Parisian fashions. These are bizarre, they’re too . . . Where did you learn to do this?”
“I designed them myself, my lady,” Hedvig replied.
“Brilliant,” the countess said. “I’ll try them all. Bring out the dressing screen.”
The dresses, which Hedvig feared might be too small, settled almost perfectly over the countess’s forms.
“I’ll take all of them,” the countess said. “And anything else you make. My butler will settle the bill.”
“I don’t want money,” Hedvig said. “All the money in the world couldn’t pay for them.”
The countess blinked. “Then what do you want?”
“I only want one thing,” Hedvig replied. “I’ve heard about a gentleman who lives here. Ruben. I would like to spend three nights with him.”
The countess’s eyes narrowed. “I see. And what do you want with him?”
Hedvig shrugged. “I don’t need money. I’ve heard of his beauty. I’d like to see it firsthand. You can have all of these dresses, if I can have three nights.”
“Very well,” the countess said. “If you want a blind junkie, then that’s what you’ll have. Come back tonight.”

The room was almost dark. Ruben lay on an enormous platform bed, fast asleep. He looked very small. A bottle of laudanum stood on the nightstand, together with an empty glass. Hedvig sat down on the side of the bed. The butler positioned himself by the door and closed his glass eyes.
“I came for you,” she said to Ruben. “I came to free you. After everything you did, I came for you.”
Hedvig lay down next to him and looked at him as he slept. He wasn’t the man who had held her captive now. He was a helpless little thing. She told him about everything she had gone through to come here. He made no sign that he had heard her.
She woke up when the butler touched her shoulder the next morning. When the countess arrived for the fitting, she replied to Hedvig’s complaint with a shrug.
“I told you, he’s a junkie. You asked to spend three nights with him. You didn’t say what state he should be in.”
The second night went by much like the first. Hedvig talked to Ruben where he lay; she told him about their son, her sorrow, her work to free him. Ruben didn’t move. Like the first night, she fell asleep, and woke up only when the butler gently roused her. She didn’t complain to the countess when she fitted the last two gowns for her.
On the third night, no one came to show Hedvig inside, so she found her own way to Ruben’s room. Just as she was about to open the door, the butler stepped outside, the laudanum bottle in his hand. He bowed and held the door open for Hedvig. She couldn’t interpret the gleam in his eyes.
Ruben sat on the edge of the bed, holding on to the frame. His clothes were rumpled, his face grayish and sweaty. He looked up with milky white eyes as Hedvig stepped inside.
“Who’s there?”
“It’s me,” Hedvig replied.
“You,” he said. “You came.”
He held out a hand. Hedvig sat down next to him.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“I came to free you.”
“She’s planning to marry me,” Ruben said miserably. “I’ll be hers forever.”
“We’ll think of something,” Hedvig said.

The countess asked Hedvig for a wedding dress. She made it in black stiff velvet with a bell skirt; the sewing machine stitched embroidered vines and flowers in glass and metal through the bodice. On the day of the wedding, the countess called Hedvig into her boudoir for the final adjustments. She stood in front of her enormous mirror, resplendent in the bell skirt gown. Ruben sat on a chaise longue in a corner of the room, dapper and miserable in his tailcoat.
“I made a matching scarf, my lady,” Hedvig said.
The countess inspected the glass-beaded scarf and nodded. “Good.” She flung the ends around her neck and turned back to the mirror. She grinned to herself.
Hedvig caught the ends and pulled the scarf very tight.
It seemed an eternity before the countess stopped fighting. When the last twitch finally left her body, Hedvig’s shins were battered and her dress was torn, but she had held fast. As the countess dropped to the floor, Ruben gasped. His eyes were clear and very green, and focused on Hedvig.
“You saved me,” he said.
Hedvig let go of the scarf and gazed down at the countess’s purple face, then at Ruben where he sat on the divan. He looked like a little boy. He wasn’t the ravaged young man who had been the countess’s thrall. He was back to square one, just like her. She was done. She had a world of choices.
“I saved myself, I think,” Hedvig said. “Good-bye.”
“Where are you going?”
Hedvig was silent for a moment. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “But I’ll be free to choose.”
“Then take me with you,” Ruben said.
The plea made Hedvig laugh.
“What am I supposed to do?” Ruben asked plaintively.
“Do better.”
Hedvig left him next to the dead countess. She walked down to the harbor and followed the shore into Old Town, where Ruben’s sister waited with her son. A cool wind blew in from the sea. Ferries howled at one another across the water. Winter was giving way.

Why is it all right for him to keep her captive underground, but not for another woman to do the same to him? What started out as playing around with a folktale became a reckoning with my own social programming.

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