Silence is a Dress
By Clara van Wel
What the judges said about 'Silence is a Dress':
"This story is a finely voiced piece that explores the intricate conflicts of a marriage through moment-by-moment interiority. A wife’s private thoughts are both fresh and recognisable, and her world, including a dress, is conveyed through rich sensory detail."
The secret comes first, and then the silence, which is harder to hide. Secrets press themselves into the body, you see, as small and hard as a crumpled piece of paper. They lodge themselves in the throat, or behind the eyes, or in between the delicate bones of the wrist. Silences, though: they take time, and they take shape.

Some silences exist inside a closed fist, compressed but by no means contained. Some silences swell in the old grandfather clock, muddying its cogs so that time moves just a little slower than it should. Some silences are vast plains, where voices are neither muffled, nor echoed, but hang in the air like dust.

This silence is a dress. It is so big, and so loud, that she is certain there is no room left for her. It is a nice dress. She is, at least, able to acknowledge that. He has gone to a minimum of three troubles to give it to her: choosing the dress, finding her measurements, and, crucially, paying for it. All of this amounts to some thoughtfulness. Really, when you weigh that against the purely cosmetic fact of the colour, which is pink, which she hates, which he surely knows, it can still be considered a thoughtful gesture.

The secret, which had been content to burrow itself into her spine, just out of reach of the contraction of her shoulder blades, is inflamed by the colour. It shifts and smoulders, and fleetingly she hopes that her husband will smell something burning and discover it. If he is the first to say it, to recognise the change, then she can turn it on him, and she won’t have to explain that the why was not an affair, nor any kind of neglect on his part, but the fact that the dress was pink.

She knows, of course, that the dress is more canary than gaseous coal mine. But it offers the closest she has seen to a flaw in him, his other downfalls being that he never strayed, or failed to be home at the appointed time, or so much as spoke a sharp word to her, giving her profound and irreversible loss of affection no foothold.

On the pain of unrequited love, there have been endless musings. It is terribly easy to pine. But in the study of love’s decay—of the hollow guilt that comes of waking up to find that your lover’s face is, in fact, just a face, and your heart little more than a warm, shuddering hunk of meat, willing to ferry the right amount of blood to the right regions in the service of desire, but otherwise possessing little more than a biological interest—on this subject you would be pressed to compile a pamphlet, let alone an anthology.

She has told many lies in her time, and several of them more egregious than this, but the act of telling her husband thank you, she loves it, and seeing him smile his boyish smile in full belief of her, seems the most significant betrayal of her life. As it leaves her mouth, it takes with it a layer of her skin.

She tries, briefly, to douse herself in resentment—not only has he bought her a dress in a colour she detests, but his understanding of her is so lacking that he swallows her false gratitude as if it were honey. But although she scrabbles after it, resentment finds as little purchase as affection. Whatever part of her opened herself to him has been worn by the stroke of his hand, so that all feeling slides off it like water off freshly oiled wood.

He traces his fingers down her spine and she turns, afraid he will feel the balled-up lump of her secret. She feels the accusation of the dress behind her, and she longs to fill the silence before it can fill her, too, but instead runs her tongue over the brocade ridges mapping the roof of her mouth.

Saving her, he smiles again—he smiles so easily, everything is so easy for him, his motions slow and liquid as the day she met him. By contrast, her joints are choked with sand, her face a machine with so many disparate parts that she has forgotten which lever operates which.

He tells her she could wear it to dinner and she nods, furious at him for that word, could, a choice instead of an order. He gives her nothing to rail against, and her fury isn’t fury, really, but something like dread, oily and squirming through her organs as though searching for weak points.

Yes, she says, and at this he finally observes her discomfort, his palm cupping the side of her neck, neither hot nor cold, damp nor dry, and still she wants to jerk away because letting him touch her feels like deception.

They needn’t stay long.

He has misread her again, and the silence flares her into panic.

I love you, she spills out, hoping that will make it true.

Then he is gone, and it is her, and the dress, and the silence. It hangs on the inside of the wardrobe door, over the mirror so that she catches her reflection over its shoulder, her pale cheek without even the decency to betray itself with blushing.

In the bath, she is sure the level of water rises a little more than usual, and wonders if the silence has followed her. She splashes more than usual to dispel it. She knows what the silence is suggesting, the confessions it is tucking into the spaces between her teeth. But silences do not get married, and do not know that, after a certain number of years, two people are not bound together, but woven, and it is much easier to untie a knot than unweave a tapestry. Love binds, but the warp and weft of a marriage is felted by years and years of walking grooves in each other’s lives: learning that liking the same things is less important than hating the same relatives; remembering which friends have which nut allergies; knowing when an embrace is an answer and when it is a question; knowing whose job it is to insist people come to stay next summer and whose job it is to ensure they never do. Darning the edges are a thousand other things like forgetting to worry what your mouth tastes like, and passing the milk, and tying his tie because he never learned and now he has you to do it for him, anyway.

She finds comfort in the fact that he needs her in ways she can quantify, ways she can meet with competence rather than affection. The slap of water against porcelain momentarily cows the silence as she steps out of the bath. She will wear the dress for him, and tie his tie for him, and do his accounts for him; live with him, at least in her own mind, in a purely administrative capacity. She layers herself into the garments that make her the right shape, binding them tightly so that the silence cannot slip in.

The silence lining the dress makes it harder to put on. When she looks in the mirror, the empty coat-hanger crowns her reflection like a dunce’s hat. Her fingers lose purchase an inch from the top of the zip, and the cool metal rests between her shoulder blades, warming against the hot nub of her secret.

Let me.

His hands gently lower her arms and his fingers brush her back.

She prays for the zipper to catch her skin, but of course it does not. He slides his arms around her waist and leans his head over her shoulder, his cheek against her temple. The top of the mirror cuts off his eyes, so her gaze drifts to his collar. Around his neck, his tie brags a perfect half-Windsor. She watches herself reach for it and he straightens away, his smile spreading then vanishing as the mirror loses him.

The doorbell rings, and he kisses the top of her head. Her cold feet are slippery in their stockings, suddenly too small for her shoes, and she leans on his arm. He opens the door and the end of the day streams in. She is complimented on her dress, Lavender, very chic. When she smoothes down the skirt she sees that, in the daylight, it is not pink at all.

C.F. van Wel is a writer and musician based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. They recently completed an MA in creative writing at Te Herenga Waka. Their latest project, The Shadow Leads the Way, is an autobiographical song cycle exploring the intersections of illness and identity.

Read the other prize-winning stories:

FIRST PLACE: "Perfect Modesty" by Anne Moir (Otago)

SECOND PLACE: "Two Beautiful Fish" by Shelley Burne-Field (Hawkes Bay)

THIRD PLACE: "A Lavender Fascination" by AJ Fitzwater (Canterbury)