Featured Story • July 2015
The Sound of Blue
Sara M. Harvey
Sometimes when the needle dives through the layers of fabric, it bites into my skin as if it too was thirsty for blood. It reminds me that I am not, in fact, infallible. This is a good thing, living as I do among the cooler-than-thou hipsters and college students in one of Nashville’s trendiest neighborhoods. Were I left to my own devices, I think I might have chosen Berry Hill or East Nashville over Hillsboro Village, but people who want quaint and quirky couture just flock to places with the word “village” in their names.
When the needle bit me, I put down my sewing. I was at the end of my thread anyway and it made for a good stopping point. I was hungry and the late-night crowd was just beginning to fill up Fido, the coffee shop across the street. I figured I’d pop in for a snack along with a little requisite people-watching and navel-gazing while I pondered through my next design. I grabbed my purse and sketchbook, locked up my shop, Rojavabûnê, which means “sunset,” and headed over.
Coffee shops were my favorite sources of inspiration; they had the right combination of scent and sound to trigger, but not overload, my specific and peculiar set of senses. I hear colors, I smell textures. And it was why I had been, as they say, escorted into the night. Otherwise, I’d have died a forgotten exile in Istanbul a century ago.
I was working through my Macchiato line, a fitting transition from the Latte collection I had just premiered for the spring Naked Without Us show in January. Macchiato was planned for fall, with deeper browns and more rustic textiles than the airy, creamy silks I had for Latte. The smell of espresso felt like linen and, depending on the roast, also somewhat like raw silk. Steamed milk was all satin in its myriad forms: crepe-back, shantung, antique, charmeuse. The screech of the espresso machine threw a vivid lime-green across my vision and with eyes still closed, I grabbed the chartreuse watercolor pencil and highlighted the jacket I was sketching. I added the traditional fern-shaped swirl of milk crawling up from the cuffs in that color. They’d be done in embroidery at the very least, if not beadwork. It was a trademark of mine— something I considered a cop-out, personally— keeping the clothing simple but layering on the details. It was what made me happiest, plying my needle through and through again, as if catching stars and wedding them to fabric. Even when the needle bit me, there was nothing more relaxing than handwork.
Elizabeth brought my order, her brown curls piled up in a careless, sexy manner that she never would believe was attractive. Her fingers, like mine, were calloused and scarred, but hers from steam burns and, as much as I hate to admit it, from me. Fingertips are quite vascular, you know.
Taking her hand as she turned to leave, I caught her eyes. It’s taken me a good, long time to find that fine line between predatory and simply enthralling, catching my intended meal’s rapt attention without utterly traumatizing them. Humans are not well adapted to being prey. I knew Elizabeth, had known her for a couple of years now, so it was easier. I could feign looking at her manicure—a playful, spangly red this week, quite pretty—while continuing to keep her in my gaze. Then a quick nip, suck, lick of her fingers. I could do it fast enough that no one noticed, not really. Perhaps they might have thought I was kissing her hand which, while may have appeared odd, certainly didn’t set off anyone’s sense of danger.
“What are you working on, Dilruba?” she asked me when I released her.
I smiled and turned the sketchbook towards her.
“Nice,” she said. “I hear that’s a big color combo coming up for next year, that brown and green thing. What else do you plan on adding to it?”
“Not sure yet.” I listened for another color. A cell phone rang, its tone clear and resoundingly blue. No, I thought reflexively, not blue. Blue is forbidden.
Orange came in next, strong and sultry like a sunset with another phone call. I liked that mix, the yellow-green contrasted with rust. I penciled it onto the skirt and using my finger, smudged it into a smooth application that might be nice in a sheer rayon crepe. Maybe a print, something subtle, geometric….
I looked up and Elizabeth was gone, back behind the counter taking orders. I’d lost track of time again, my coffee was now merely warmish. That’s okay; I wasn’t going to be drinking much of it anyhow. Non-blood consumption was a useful thing to cultivate and I’d worked hard to tolerate coffee, but I didn’t like to overdo it. I sipped at it, missing my mother’s coffee, proper stuff made on the stovetop and served in delicate demitasse cups and topped with a fine froth.
You’ll never be married if you can’t make good coffee. His mother will have the final determination of your worth based on how well you make coffee, she used to tell me. That was a Turkish tradition, rather than a Kurdish or Yazidi one, but still it had seeped into the family, along with a lot of other Turkish and Muslim things as we lived on in the shadow of the great city, far from our home.
I made horrible coffee, for the record. Even now with an automatic drip it’s terrible. My mother despaired over my becoming a spinster, so she taught me to sew, hoping my someday-future mother-in-law would overlook my questionable skills as a barista. But she needn’t have worried. When Marie took me from my family and introduced me to her world, she might as well have married me. And these days, I was married to my job. Which was all right with me; it has treated me better than any husband likely would have.
I slipped a couple of dollars beneath the saucer and gathered my things. I had some good ideas and the noise level was rising past the point where I could be choosy about what I heard— conversations, cell phones, coffee being made, cars outside, the college radio station playing some indie band in the background— it blended into a muddle of kaleidoscope colors and shapes. Someday, I’m sure it’ll come in handy for design purposes, but that day was not today.
Back out on 21st Avenue, the cold March night was beginning to edge the windows with a faint hint of frost. I wove through the slow-moving Saturday-night traffic and dug my keys out of my pocket.
I stopped when I saw the lights on in my shop.
I knew I had turned them off before I left. I always turn them off…
The man standing in the middle of the sales floor turned at my approach and smiled at me. Had my heart still beat, it would have been pounding. I yanked on the door, indignant accusations springing to my lips, but it was still locked.
I ought not have been surprised, really. The man was wearing a blue suit.
Blue was the color of the most holy, reserved for those closest to God. I may have come a long way into modernity, but I still never wore blue. This man did. And the way he wore it, I knew he meant it.
He smiled serenely as I furiously jammed the key into the lock and wrenched it open. His hair was black as oil but his eyes were blue-green like the sea. He chuckled to himself, showing me his absolutely perfect white teeth, such a contrast to his dark skin. I got the door open and confronted him, even though he stood easily a foot taller and was double my weight. He looked Persian with that rich complexion and those sculpted cheekbones.
“Dilruba Ubeydullah. It has been quite some time.” He placed his hands behind his back, clasping one wrist in long, elegant fingers while he strolled away from me between the circular rack and the front table, looking at the art on the walls. It was mostly my own work. After all, it was my shop and I wasn’t about to pay for decorations. He gazed at a series of six framed sketches, the last remnant of my time working as a design assistant at Givenchy when Alexander McQueen had been their head designer. “You do such good work.”
The display beneath those images featured evening gowns from Latte, as well as a few offerings from some local designers. Ignoring the others, he touched one of my dresses with gentle fingertips, a 1920s-style sheath made from crepe-back satin and silk chiffon with golden pearls and peach rhinestones sewn between the layers.
“What was this? A sound or a scent?” He glanced back at me, over the rich tone-on-tone stripe of his jacket. “Both, wasn’t it? Let me see…” He let the edge of the chiffon, purposely left raw and ragged, slide through his fingers. “Vanilla latte, infused with orange, cointreau unless I miss my guess, with the sound of birdsong.” His grin widened, “Tennessee mockingbird.”
“Who are you?”
Ignoring my question, he moved on to the next one which had a halter-style bodice of sheer mauve lace with a pleated lightweight silk satin skirt coming off the dropped waist. The bodice glimmered with the shimmer of clear glass beads. “Very forward-looking, my dear. You won’t see this in department stores until 2016 or later.” He ran his hand along its length. “Caramel and cream, with notes of windchimes. Exquisite. Your time with Bob Mackie has served you well, houri; I see you parlayed that into work for the inestimable Manuel here in town. It shows.”
I was more stunned by the word he used, houri, than by his extensive knowledge of my career or even his ability to somehow read my quirky, fractured mind and guess each design’s inspiration.
Houri. Said to me. It seemed almost blasphemous.
My strange customer turned to face me, that charming and ever-serene smile lighting up his face. “Should I not call you that, Dilruba? I know what you are; I have always known. You are enough like them, those celestial beings. You are pure, virtuous, and lovely. And you are not as others are, those who walk this earth to draw breath and die. You have passed through that mortal seeming and stand before me now as the angels and jinn do: eternally young, eternally beautiful, unchanging, free of any corruption or pollution now and always. That is one of the many reasons I have sought you out, again and again. The immortal should clothe the immortal, don’t you think?”
His voice looked so familiar, the cadences and resonances, even those were blue with soaring sky-colored heights and rich, endless sapphire depths. I could only stand there, mute and stunned.
“You started with Chanel, if I remember correctly. Marie Balsan got you that job. But you were happier with Elsa Schiaparelli, weren’t you? Chanel’s mode was too restrictive and plain for your inventive styling. Elsa understood you, your vision, literally your vision. They say she had it, too, the sight that comes with music.”
“It wasn’t like that with her,” I told him. “She was different. No doubt she was special, but she couldn’t do what I did, not exactly.” I shook my head, kicking the memories back into their cupboards. “What, exactly, can I help you with, Mister—?”
His smile became a sad one. “I’m hurt, houri. I have followed you diligently from couturier to couturier for the better part of a century and you have never noticed?”
“You look familiar, yes.”
“Perhaps if I explain what I want, that might jog your memory?”
I picked up my sketchbook, trying not to let my hands shake. I realized that I was holding it between me and him, almost like a shield. Taking a breath, I lowered it into a more casual position, and as I wrote the date in the top left corner, the step back into something routine, something familiar, calmed my nerves significantly. “Are you requesting a custom order?”
“Yes, I am. Can it be ready by the beginning of April?”
“I have a lot of orders for the Kurdish New Year already,” I cautioned him.
“Please? I can pay you, and well.”
“It’s not the money, I have other promises already made.”
“Of course it isn’t. Promises matter to you, they matter quite a bit.” His smile widened. “It shouldn’t be too much trouble; I only need a waistcoat. I already have the suit.”
“Oh? I think I can manage that.” I jotted the note down at the top of the page. “What sort of waistcoat?”
“Something simple, but exciting. Slim lapels if you feel it needs them, and welt pockets up front, for my pocketwatch. I’ll be wearing a McQueen suit with it, one of the slim-looking ones from his Milan showing. Not the stripes. Or the plaid. Blue-gray silk, with one of the long overcoats.”
“And you didn’t buy a vest with it?”
“No,” he said, simply. “I wanted one of yours.”
The pencil hovered above the paper where I’d reminded myself to look at the McQueen website to refresh my memory. “You wanted one of mine?”
“Of course. Only yours. And if you’d branch out into menswear, I’d wear nothing but.”
I opened my mouth and closed it again. “Who are you?”
“A demiurge, like yourself.”
“I don’t create universes,” I protested.
“Don’t you?” He trailed his fingers lovingly, almost reverently, across the dresses hung against the wall, eliciting a series of soft golden waves from the sighing of the silk. “There are whole worlds here, Dilruba, each and every piece a universe in and of itself, whole and entire. You make certain of it. Every designer wishes to do such a thing, only the great ones succeed. Your vision sets you apart most dramatically. You see that, don’t you? The way your raw materials merge with the style lines and work with the body rather than against it? The way you take that delightful ability of yours from a mere curiosity and transform it into the most singularly original and nuanced work I have ever seen?”
“I guess so,” I mumbled, unused to such praise. I worked in the background stitching, beading, dyeing, planning. It had always been so, ever since I was a child. Latte had been the very first showing of my own line. Had I advertised it better, I would have really made a splash. As it was, it had been well received, which seriously surprised the hell out of me. While I could promote everyone else’s work, taking my own to the next level was new territory for me. Frightening territory.
“You are ready, Dilruba,” he spoke to the unsaid thoughts racing through my mind. “I have watched you grow, year by year, decade by decade. Had you been mortal, you might not have grown into the fullness of your talents. But your mistress chose wisely and well, and given your circumstances, I have the pleasure of indulging in your rare accomplishments.” He unbuttoned his exquisite double-breasted jacket and draped it carefully over the arm of the nearest mannequin. “Could you please take my measurements now?”
The measuring tape was in my pocket. “Sure.”
He had a great physique, I had to admit. Broad-shouldered without being bulky, willowy through the hips without looking feminine. And his scent: vetiver and sandalwood with a trace of citrus and myrrh. I breathed deeply.
“What do you feel in my scent?”
“Ice,” I said. “Smooth like glass, but wet.” I breathed it in again. Inspiration, literally. “And tiles, like mosaics, small bits together with smooth surfaces and gritty grout between.”
“I like that. I smell like a work of art. And the sound? What color do I sound like?”
I didn’t even have to hesitate. “Blue. Everything about you is blue. The color of the sacred.”
“Are you going to ask me again who I am?”
“It’s because you have guessed at last, isn’t it?”
“Not exactly.” I averted my gaze, unwilling to see that I might be mistaken. “You come from Heaven,” I said. “You’re an angel.”
There was more to it than that, more to him, I knew it, could feel it in every part of me, but that was as far as I was willing to venture. I had been raised with a reverence for the Holy, however the mere thought of an angel, the radiance of God embodied, struck primal fear into my vampire heart.
He reached out and touched my shoulder, drawing my eyes back towards his face. His grin dazzled me. “I’ll be along a week from Tuesday for my waistcoat.”
And suddenly, my little boutique was empty once more.
* * *
The last few nights in March flew by as I finished up my standing orders for festival dresses and cut out the waistcoat for my mysterious client. Just a waistcoat, an absurdly basic garment, but the centerpiece of the suit. There was agony in choosing the textiles, but in the end I opted for a satin jacquard figured with an understated floral motif. I stumbled upon about a third of a yard of velveteen that nearly matched it and decided to use it for lapels and welt pockets. I even had enough to cover the four buttons. I liked the plush texture with the jacquard; it gave me a fabric approximation of tile and grout, not truly equivalent but it pleased me.
Next I went to the beading cabinet. The large, wooden workbench had to have been eight feet tall by nearly six feet wide with scores of tiny drawers and a wide countertop. Each little drawer had a space for a card to be slid into it, identifying its contents. Every last one of my drawers was labeled with care, denoting the size, shape, composition, and origin of the embellishment that lived within. It was my compulsion.
I pulled out every drawer marked clear or blue and set to work poring over them, arranging and sorting and poking and changing my mind a hundred times. I pulled out my laptop and stared at Fashion Snoops for half the night, debating which direction to take as I paged through dozens of embellished looks for men. I went back to the drawers and pulled out silvertone and a few other choices. I was already playing a hunch, and I thought, why the hell not just go all the way? I pulled out a multitude of peacock colors.
The finished product exhausted me.
I did not, could not stop to eat. And if the needle bit me once, it bit me a hundred times. I took the waistcoat back with me to my apartment, which I never did. And two days running, I stayed up for twenty-four hours stitching on it. The blood spots staining the stabilizer looked like the night sky in reverse, so many dark stars on a pure white sky.
My eyes bled. I didn’t even know they could do that. It likely would have freaked me out once, but I was too far into the zone to care much.
As the sun set on Tuesday, the first Tuesday in April, I got paranoid. He wouldn’t come. He wouldn’t like it. He wouldn’t pay for it. He wouldn’t come back.
Or he would come, he would like it and it would be the end for me. I would succumb to exhaustion and pure joy and die right there on the spot. Or his radiance, the very light of God, might overcome me in my weakened state. I was so fatigued, so hungry.
I cried, hunched up into a tiny ball in the back stairwell of my building, hiding myself between the abandoned treadmill and the bicycle owned by the guy next door.
From somewhere I caught a faint whiff of vetiver, sandalwood, citrus, and myrrh. Unbidden, my brain called up the sensation of the vest in my hands—smooth satin, nubby velvet, and cold, slick beads. I sighed. It was perfect, of course, else my mind would not have accepted it as a worthy substitute for ice and for mosaic tiles with grout. I knew where I’d find him: waiting in the locked shop.
And I knew I had a promise to keep. He knew it, too.
I gathered myself up off the floor and went to wash my face. I held the tissue-wrapped parcel to my chest as if it was sacred. Which I guess it was.
The handful of blocks between Fairfax Avenue and my shop were some of the longest I have ever walked.
But he was there, of course he was. This time, he waited outside on the little wrought-iron bench out front, idly flipping through The City Paper as if the Predators’ latest playoff run actually interested him. And it might have, I don’t know.
“Your daytime assistant is still inside,” he said without looking up.
I glanced though the window and sure enough, Panya was sweeping up. She nearly dropped the broom when I entered. “You look like shit.”
“I’ll finish up.”
“Like hell you will. Go on and take your client to the back and I’ll make sure to lock up before I leave. Unless you need me to stay.” She narrowed her gaze at the man on the bench outside, her pale, freckled nose wrinkling.
“I appreciate that, but it’s not necessary.” I could have tried to compel her to leave right then, but it would not have been much use. Half the time, my attempts didn’t work anyway.
I called towards the front door, “I’m ready for you.”
“Oh, really?” He laughed as he came in, a luxe garment bag over his arm bearing the McQueen logo: a large white Q with a smaller white M and C within. “Are you certain?”
I ignored his insinuation and steered the conversation to steadier ground as we headed to the private fitting room in back.
Nodding at the garment bag, I said, “I looked through their site, trying to find your suit, but they aren’t doing blue this year.”
He smiled. “You know as well as I do that folk of a certain background are highly likely to get exactly what they want. All they need do is ask.”
“Like you asked me?”
“And you’re sure I’m going to deliver?” I patted the parcel, my nerves flaring again. I wanted blood, blood and coffee.
“Absolutely. Shall I get changed?”
This was the moment every designer hates, the big reveal. It was just a stupid vest, something this man likely had dozens of, if not more. But somewhere between my lowly waistcoat completing a three-piece couture suit and the nature of my secretive client, I thought for sure my knees were going to give out from shaking.
He came out in a white shirt and the suit pants. They were stunning, a crisp crease down the front and an exaggerated break at the ankle. Slender piping graced the curved front pockets and the sides of each belt loop, subtle and masterful. I whistled, unladylike, through my teeth when I saw the fine detailing.
“I knew you’d love it. Sarah isn’t quite the madman Alexander was, but she does know how to please an old friend.” He smoothed his hands appreciatively over the pants. “I have followed her career closely, as well.”
“I am pleased to be in such fine company.”
“As well you should be. You know, you could have been—”
I interrupted him with a wave of my hand. I had heard all that before. “Listen,” I said, leveling my gaze at him. “I happen to like Nashville. Nowhere else can you find a thriving boutique culture, a history of fine embroidery and beadwork, enough celebrities and millionaires to keep an atelier busy for decades at a time, and the largest Kurdish population in the United States. It’s my paradise.”
“Paradise,” he echoed.
He took the wrapped vest from my hands, his fingertips brushing mine gently, and stepped back into the curtained dressing area.
When he returned, he took my breath away.
He grinned from ear to ear, his cerulean eyes glinting with joy. The suit, of course, was meticulously tailored and fit him like the divine being he was. But my vest, my vest made it perfect. The richness of the satin and velvet combination balanced the beading that covered nearly the whole thing and gave it the glint of icy crystal. Creeping up from the hem were lovingly stitched peacock feathers, looking so three dimensional that even I thought they moved in time with his breathing. In the eye of each feather I had placed a single, perfect pearl.
The whole package was a marvel.
“I am well pleased,” he said, turning this way and that in the full-length mirror.
What he saw there, I don’t know, because to me, instead of his reflection, there was only a vaguely man-shaped illumination. The very light of God.
I don’t remember kneeling and only realized I had done so when he told me to get up.
“Rise, little houri, you have done splendid work,” he said. He ran his fingers delicately over the beaded peacock feathers. “So, you did guess my identity, after all! Do you remember me as well, now?”
He reached out his hand to help me to my feet and I saw him, in hundreds of tiny memories like snapshots. Fashion shows, red carpet events, galas, photoshoots, he was there. He had always been there.
The brilliance of daylight around me gave me pause, but it didn’t hurt. Just the opposite, in fact. I felt renewed, invigorated. I felt alive.
And I realized that I wasn’t hungry anymore.
“Yes,” I whispered, finding my voice. I smiled at him, a little shy all of a sudden. “I do know you, my Lord. You walk the earth, tomorrow, on the first Wednesday of April, in honor of the new year. It has been the greatest honor in my very long life to prepare this vest for you.”
He grinned and set an intricately detailed egg into my hands, closing my fingers over it. “Next year,” he whispered, “I’ll be here for my suit.
After all these years, this was just the beginning, I realized.
And then my brain began to turn over ideas for menswear. Cortado: cashmere, corduroy, hemp, tweed, some Merino wool….
“Yes,” I said to him again.
He turned back to the mirror, adjusting his sleeves—as if they needed it—smoothing his lapels—as if they needed it—and tugging on the bottom of the vest—as if it needed it.
“Go on,” I said, “You look fine.”
He winked at me.
And with that, Tawûsê Melek, the Peacock Angel, the greatest of all angels and representative of God on earth, stepped out of my shop into the cool, spring night to walk among the faithful. And he walked among them in a Dilruba Ubeydullah original.
Damn the coffee. My mother would have been proud.
Sara M. Harvey lives and writes fantasy and horror in (and sometimes about) Nashville, TN. She is also a costume historian, theatrical costume designer, and art history teacher. She has three spoiled-rotten dogs and one awesome daughter; her husband falls somewhere in between. She tweets @saraphina_marie, wastes too much time on facebook.com/saramharvey, and needs to update her website saramharvey.com.
She tells us that “The Sound of Blue” is “one of my most favorite short stories. I’m very proud to have it appear here. This story was conceived of for an anthology, but ended up not making the final cut. It ties together so many things that I love, things that are quite disparate but really came together in a beautiful way.
“It certainly wasn’t the direction I thought I’d go when writing about vampires (and fashion design!) but it celebrates the love I have for them, as well as clothing and the design process, and Nashville, and coffee, and neurodiversity, and the traditions of the Yadizis.”
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