First, there were the laces- those damned laces, deceptively pretty in their pale pink satin sheen. Pulled tightly, until the fibres threatened their very breaking point, they held the bodice together. Then the laces would appear as only soft, feminine vines swirling out of their shiny brass grommets. A tantalizing swell of rosy flesh sporadically visible…the rigidly curving whalebone stays…the unyielding curves around hips and bust…
She pulls thin cotton gloves on after the corset. They are not Sarima's good evening gloves but rather gloves to shield sharply pointed fingernails from the fine silk stockings (imported from Gillikin, where all high-quality lady's things began existence.) She tugs the stockings on gently, then smoothing out lacy rumples with a careful cotton-covered hand. And now she stands with only an artificial hourglass waist and napkin-coloured legs, in front of the mirror.
"You look like a frothy teacup about to spill over," pronounces the Witch helpfully from her stony perch by the castle window seat. "I do think white may not be your colour. Are you holding your breath?"
"It gets better as the day goes on," admits Sarima. "Have you never worn a corset?"
The Witch laughs throatily, tossing back her knotted charcoal hair. "Air, being a priority of great consequence to me, tends to render the possibility unlikely. Although I wouldn't be surprised to learn that these fair Kumbrician ladies learn to live without."
Sarima sighs. "Vanity. I always had more of it than my sisters-"
"I have noticed, my dear," interrupted the Witch.
"-though that may have played some role in my marrying so well and them being deemed to the unsatisfying roles of maids-in-honour for the rest of their pitiable lives."
"You pity them," says the Witch, "but it is you who sucks in your breath all day for the benefit of who? Your virtuous little daughter? That your sons may take note and say Let me find myself a wife that will not even notice the pain of childbirth-"
"And who are you to know the pain of childbirth?" accuses Sarima sharply. "You, as thin and bony as a ten-year-old boy."
The Witch is silent at this sudden jab. Noticing the colourful one- in complexion and in speech- rest her tongue, Sarima takes this as a cue to continue her daily dressing ritual. The petticoat, flax-coloured and stiff, is removed from a pompous armchair sitting by Sarima's tall, chestnut armoire. And the petticoat is unfolded, creases smoothed out. She steps into it, letting the delicate curvature of her thighs, the roundness of her calves, disappear into plain fabric.
The Witch mutters, "I don't see why the stockings must be so prettied up when they are hidden from the world."
"Prying eyes will always pry," Sarima answers without looking. The candles burn in their fancy little plates, reflecting flickering light into Sarima's eyes. "Do my buttons, please."
"I'm not very nimble at all," confesses the Witch, but she stumbles forward to do up Sarima's backside anyways. With green fingers and pinkish-olive nails, she buttons up Sarima's petticoat. "I think you've gained weight, my dear."
Sarima scoffs, "And that's always the first place it goes. I wouldn't mind a little more to fill out the bodice, but the Unnamed God has reasons for everything, I'm sure. Now you've slipped the skirt to the left- pull it back to the center."
The Witch fixes her petticoat. "I knew a girl more vain than you," she tells. "We were room mates in university- now this must have been seven years ago, at least- but I remember quite clearly. Beautiful and frilly as ball gown, certainly, but she had little substance."
"You despised her," Sarima assumes. She leans over and opens up a paper-covered box; inside are two perfect leather boots with more torturous laces and tiny wire hooks.
"Not entirely," the Witch replies airily. "I had a soft spot for Galinda- that was her name. Strange isn't it?"
"We all have our fancies," offers Sarima. "I once had a rather fetish for bespectacled men."
"I meant the name. Obviously after St. Glinda, but with an extra a. Her parents were the kind to do that sort of thing, though," says the Witch thoughtfully. "I heard it was a fashion for the Upperlands aristocracy around the time."
Sarima gently places her stockinged feet into the boots one at a time; they pinch her toes and chafe her heels, but Sarima finds them slimming- tiny feet being the fashionable norm for Ozian wives. The laces are pulled and twisted, woven through grommets, drawn tightly and tied with gusto. White lace bows flop down against the delicate bulge of her ankle.
"Those are rather impractical," the Witch observes. She glances down at her own feet; the boots, clunky and dark, with a slight crust of mud clinging coating the soles.
"I'd say rather practical for a useless character like myself," retorts Sarima. "I don't need practicality- I find it mundane and bourgeois. And what need have I for sensibility? My children are well looked after by their aunts. There's a Cook and several maids and lord knows, enough assets in gold should the money ever run out. And it won't."
"Sarima," reprimands the Witch, "I thought you had a tad greater profundity than that."
"No, no," confides Sarima, "I'm afraid I haven't got any brains at all, to tell you the truth. I'm lucky to be a woman of such privilege; otherwise, I might not be able to hole up in this ridiculously oversized castle with whomever I want." She gives her petticoat a final pat down in front of the mirror and then saunters on over to the armoire. The Witch's eyes follow her in her state of undress. There Sarima is opening the creaky doors; inside there is a pretty array of velveteen day frocks, woollen bodices as stiff as boards and satin evening gowns idling in the darkest corners like lazy debutantes. Sarima tugs out the former; a moss green jacket with ratty, yellowing trim. The skirt matches the bodice in utter decay.
"It was my mother's," says Sarima blushingly to the Witch. "I had promised myself I would never wear it, but then the babies came along. My figure hasn't ever gone back to what it was, and I've tried all the remedies available- milkweed, strange roots brewed in stranger cocktails, every Fliaanese fruit imaginable scorched at the full moon- and all to no avail."
The Witch grimaces with disdain, her dark features scrunching up, mouth pinned into a frown.
After a cloud of bluish Wend Fallows cologne settles onto her hostess's plump, creamy arms, Sarima buttons up the unsightly jacket. It does give her a fuller bust (hardly a surprising fact, given that Sarima's mother had suckled eleven children, several dead, and most living in the castle with Sarima and the Witch.) Then the skirt- pulled up over the petticoat, crinkles and all. She fixes it about her waist, twists her arms around back to do up the hooks and then smoothes the whole affair down.
Sarima gives herself a final glance in the looking glass and then turns to the Witch, still sulking on the stone seat.
"I don't see why you don't ever pretty yourself up," she pronounces to the Witch.
"Why Sarima, despite your shortcomings, I did still think you capable of the power of observation. Here I am, unripe and green as grass and you think frosting the crust will conceal the cake. Putting on a bit of powder and lace seems an exercise in futility."
"And Elphaba, despite your marvellous verdigris and attendant pessimism, I thought you still capable of mustering up a bit of care into your appearance. You have lovely eyes, you know, and an enviable waist."
With usual sarcasm, the Witch mutters "I was hardly born to play the part of seductress."
"But you have your better parts- well, we all do," argues Sarima. She picks up a pewter-backed hairbrush from the dresser and runs it violently through her tangled brown locks. "You seem to enjoy thinking yourself much more formidably hateful than you are. You love your mystery, but beneath that black cloak I hardly expect anything other than…another black cloak." Another yank- an angry knot comes out. Sarima lets out a squeak of pain.
"My dear," contradicts the Witch, "I don't strive to be pretentious. If you're wondering what is inside this rancid black dress- there is nothing. Nothing on the outside either, I might say. After the tragic death of my sister, I found myself disappointed but thoroughly incapable of mustering any sadness. Perhaps it's the act of crying- I don't care for it, and yet, I don't even despise it. I hardly feel anything anymore."
"You're lying," says Sarima. "Lying and fragile. I know you, Elphaba. "You're just as real as you are unpleasant."
"Surely real and most certainly unpleasant, but other than that, the list runs short. Give me that brush- I'll finish your hair. You work on a single knot for as long as it takes to grow a single child in the womb."
The Witch rises from her perch silently; Sarima gladly hands her the brush. She combs with unexpected gentleness.
Softly, Sarima says "You strive for utter neutrality and quite nearly succeed. And yet- you're still very much a woman. I see it- you show traces of humanity. You haven't much to lose, Elphaba, but you haven't lost all."
The Witch clears her throat significantly. Perhaps she is momentarily touched. On the whole, it is much more likely that she aims to clear her throat of excess phlegm. She continues brushing Sarima's hair.
"And what have you ever lost? You, the best sister? You, of the winning Arjiki tribe?
"My husband," murmurs Sarima. "Although we were never properly attached- him, always away on business and interesting adventures. To be honest, we never lay together much either. It's a miracle he fathered three children at all."
The Witch shows delicate restraint at the mention of Fiyero. "The Unnamed God works in peculiar ways. And at least you have your children."
"Yes," Sarima answers. And then she adds wistfully, "I did love- well enjoy him, though. But to be quite honest- and I haven't confessed this to many people - I think he might have been seeing some one else. Or perhaps many women. He was a handsome man, you know. I'm almost sure he was carrying on an affair."
"Really," said the Witch dryly. "An affair. How odd- I never thought him the type. But men will be men."
"Yes," laughs Sarima. Her hair is parted by the Witch, smoothed out with care. Final tangles are unsnarled by the brush. The Witch braids her hair- a style Sarima is unused to. She twists Sarima's shiny tresses around each other tightly. The braid snakes down her back, slight frizz emanating from each plait. And then the loose end is circled over itself and pulled down, into a decided knot. The Witch surveys her work with satisfaction.
"Thank you," gushes Sarima. "I'm terrible at my own toilet- surely a product of my ridiculous upbringing. We were wealthier when I was a child- this being before the Wizard's government taxed the privileged so highly. I had two chamber maids just to myself- and so I never learned to do my own hair."
"The results show," confesses the Witch. But she fingers the dainty braid with uncharacteristic tenderness- she, the Witch, still being very much a woman.