The Lady in Red
CW: sexual violence
I first saw the Lady in Red on a sunny Wednesday morning in July, and after that, it seemed as if she had always been there. Day after day, night after night, I would come into the diner and order my usual and she would be there, sitting in the corner, not doing anything in particular.
Without fail, each time I saw her she was dressed entirely in that boldest of hues, a rich scarlet that seemed to warp the space around her. She did not look like she was part of this world. She looked as though she came from somewhere far away, where colors were richer and lights more illuminating. Those garish clothes never looked ostentatious, either. Not like those poor dull souls who take to wearing outlandish outfits out of some misguided desire to be important. No, she always simply looked as though red was what she happened to wear that day, and every day, through no contrivance of her own.
I had never made a habit of staring at women who expressed no desire to be stared at, but I broke my rule for her. Mostly because there was something in the way she sat, always sprawled luxuriously, her neck tilted to catch the light at its most syrupy gold, that begged to be looked at. She never made eye contact. Never seemed to notice anyone else in the restaurant. It felt almost as if there was a television screen between us and the rest of us were simply viewers. And so I watched her.
The day I went over to her table sticks in my memory as one of the hottest, wildest nights of any summer I’ve known. The sky was dark with bright things in it. A sharp strand of electricity crackled through the air. It was not yet a storm, but the night bloomed with possibility.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” I asked, suddenly shy. “I don’t want to be rude, but I always see you by yourself and there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.”
She smiled, the most lovely, heartbreaking smile there ever was, and looked at me with eyes that shone like glass. “Please, sit down,” she said, “It’s been so long since I’ve had company.” Her voice was mellow and thrilling.
“Do you always wear red?” It wasn’t what I had meant to ask, but the words were out of my mouth before I’d even finished sitting. “I mean, do you ever change it up? Wear green or blue or something?”
She looked thoughtful. “I used to wear white, quite often. Sometimes gray. But it seems red is what I always come back to. Do you always wear black?”
“No,” I stammered, although truthfully I did wear black an awful lot. “I wear other colors too.”
“Of course you do,” she smiled.
I was entranced. “What are you doing here? In this diner, I mean, in this town? You can’t be from around here.”
Her eyes glimmered mischievously, and I realized with a start that they were a queer dark yellow. “I’m waiting for my prince. Although I’m starting to think he got lost along the way. Maybe he found another princess. Maybe he was never coming at all.”
“Oh, I’m sure that’s not — “
“And you’re right, of course, I’m not from here,” she laughed charmingly. “I’m from here, and there, and everywhere really. But mostly from very, very far away.”
By this point I was so intoxicated by her every move that I hardly noticed the pattering of hot rain on the roof, or the roaring whistle of a wind gathering outside. All there seemed to be was her, infinite and majestic in a way I have never seen before or since.
“I used to be married, you know,” she whispered conspiratorially, her face dipped close to mine and her eyes bright. “He was chosen for me, and I was made for him. He was a gardener and a shepherd out on the steppes and he got tired of goats so he sent for me. I loved him for so long, but I loved to run free in the plains even more. So he cursed me. Said he would take a new wife, one who was his own flesh and blood and subservient to him.”
I realized that the diner was empty, and the only other sounds in the room was the buzz of electric lights and the roaring storm outside.
“He took our daughter,” she said in a whisper, her lips pursed, “and cast me out.”
“I was blown from place to place for a long time, until I met my second husband. He was a king. This time I swore to be a good wife and to do what was proper for a woman. I obeyed my husband and followed his gods and carried out his sacrifices, but when they came for our kingdom he saved his own skin and let them have me. Oh yes, I knew what was coming that day. I made myself so beautiful that it would kill them to see me die, and then the dogs tore me apart in the streets.” She paused. “Would you like to hear another story?”
By then I was captivated. Yes, I nodded, yes, I would. She smiled.
“I had a brother next, a strong man. From when we were children, he wanted me. I never wanted him. When I found a poor little dying bird in a thunderstorm, I mourned for it and brought it close to my breast, and it became him and he raped me. Our wedding was grand. It lasted for three hundred years and caused a hundred thousand deaths and the whole time I wept bitterly at what I had to do to hide my shame. Each day I lived I hated him, and he wouldn’t even offer the dignity of loving me. He had any other woman who caught his eye, and everyone knew it. I tried to rebel, once. I drugged him and tied him up but he escaped and hanged me with gold ropes while I cried. Since then I have obeyed him.”
“How did you escape?” I asked.
“I didn’t, dearest,” she said. “I’m with him still.” She sniffled. “And now, I wait for my prince to come and take me away from all these troubles. We shall live in a castle of ivory and mother-of-pearl and I shall wash with rose-scented soap and be beautiful again. Every day I cry for him, my beloved, as I waste away in this prison.”
She looked so sad and lovely sitting in the cold bright lights, her eyes red-rimmed and yellow-gold, that the violence of what she was saying did not affect me. Like her, it seemed distant and unreal. I wanted to see her beautiful face bright with laughter. I didn’t notice the harsh rolls of thunder in the night sky until much later.
Suddenly she turned her bright streetlamp eyes on me, so full of light and violence, and smiled that gentle smile. “Are you my prince?”
Without thinking I leapt up and shouted, “Yes! Yes!”
“Will you rescue me, protect me, and worship my every move?”
“Yes! Yes!” I cried.
She clapped her hands. “How delicious! Will you dress me in white silks and pink roses and call me sweetness and darling heart and slaughter any man who looks at me?”
“Will you nurture me, take care of me, command me, possess me?”
“Yes! I will! I’ll do all of it!” I cried.
Every window in that little roadside diner shattered and the night flew in. I threw my hands up against the barrage of broken glass, but it seemed to be coming from all directions at once. It cut into my skin, knocking my breath out the same way jumping into ice water did. The next instant seemed very quiet, very still, without the sound of breaking glass. Rain pattered on the tile floors. Some boundary had been broken, and now the universe had come to us.
I became aware of a peculiar sensation in my chest. I looked down and saw that a long sliver of glass had run me straight through, and there was blood blooming around it like a rose from a transparent stem. There was no pain. I felt only shock.
The Lady in Red looked down at me with something like pity in her eyes. “Of course you will,” she said,. And then she was gone.
I never saw the Lady in Red again. My wound healed, miraculously, I was told, leaving behind a smooth arc of scar. The diner was rebuilt, but by then I had moved on. I never forgot the pain I had felt, but it was her pain that stuck more fully as I wandered through small, dusty towns and huge glittering ones, searching, searching for something I could not explain. Perhaps I wanted another glimpse of her. Perhaps she had given me something, some small portion of her grief and sorrow, and as she wandered the earth doing her penance I wandered the earth doing mine. Sometimes I almost think I’ve found her, on street corners and in the backs of movie theaters, begging coins and pouting on crumbling posters. But mostly I think she doesn’t want to be found.