The lights dim to near darkness and everyone applauds. The sense of anticipation is palpable. On my right, an exquisitely styled woman fidgets with the metallic leather clutch on her lap. Without realizing it, I have been doing the same with mine, to the extent that the stitching in one corner has become loose. My heart thrums in my chest and I keep catching myself holding my breath. Normally, I’m only this excited before a big interview, but this is Mr. Velveilleux we’re talking about. His shows are the stuff of legend.
A soft, ethereal glow descends upon the runway and a sumptuous classical melody fills the room at the same time a sensuous, coppery-skinned, androgynous-looking woman emerges from the back of the stage and glides down the narrow walkway.
I gasp as the dazzling figure steps in front of me. If I had to describe the gown she’s wearing, I would say someone tore a piece out of a star-strewn night and used it to fashion an item of clothing. It is darkly radiant, coldly beautiful, wondrous, and vast. No words can do it justice. For a moment, I’m convinced I have driven far, far away from the city lights, out into a remote landscape uncluttered by civilization, and am now gaping up at the heavens themselves.
The tail of the dress is as supple as water. It lingers in the model’s wake, enveloping the whole room and turning it into a sultry summer night alive with the chirping of crickets and katydids. The sweet, cloying scent of blooming jasmine chokes the still air. My toes curl over a patch of slightly parched pasture, and I immediately look down. I don’t recall taking my heels off, but there they are: my bare feet.
Fingertips brush mine. I’m lying next to a girl, spread-eagled on the thirsty grass. She points to the Big Dipper and I chuckle at the idea of a giant ladle pouring spoonfuls of hot, comforting soup into the pitch-black frigidity of the stars.
I move closer to the girl with dark hair and long lashes, praying that I don’t slice her waiting lips with my jagged braces. At last, we make contact. My pulse flutters at the taste of her, savoring the peppermint candy mixed into her personal bouquet. The kiss stretches on, warm and sweet, and for that moment the rest of the world is gone from my mind.
* * *
“Mr. Velveilleux will be with you shortly, Mademoiselle Collins,” states the tall butler with the curly mustache and old-fashioned hair parting.
He places a shiny tray with coffee, creamer, and pastries on the coffee table and leaves. The studio is generously proportioned and filled with baroque paintings, several erudite-looking busts, and bookshelves that stretch all the way to the ceiling. The French doors at the far end are open and lead onto a wide balcony, beyond which the mansion grounds extend as far as my sight.
This is the first time in over a decade that Mr. Velveilleux has agreed to an interview. It has taken me five years and countless requests that eventually bordered on harassment to get one; and they say that persistence doesn’t pay. I already have a few high-profile interviews under my belt, but none come close to this. Da Vinci, Gaudi, Picasso, Velveilleux. I can hardly believe I’m about to meet one of them.
While I wait, I wonder what made him change his mind about speaking to me. I would like to think it is my talent and rising reputation in the field, but perhaps he is simply weary of my continuous requests. Grudgingly, I must admit is probably the latter.
The carved mahogany doors of the adjacent room open, and an old man wearing an unadorned crimson silk dressing gown over an equally understated set of pajamas steps out, a peculiar choice of attire for an interview in the middle of the day, but not entirely surprising considering who I’m interviewing. He is at least half a foot shorter than I expected.
“Bonjour, Miss Collins,” the man says with a warm, pleasant voice.
“Mr. Velveilleux. It’s an honor to—”
I start to get up, but he immediately gestures for me to sit back down. I obey, relieved he has decided to skip any physical form of greeting. I could probably rehydrate raisins with the amount of sweat coming out of me.
Mr. Velveilleux eases himself into the leather armchair across from me, and I catch the gleam of a pair of silver scissors in his dressing gown’s breast pocket. His hands, fine-fingered and supple for a man of his years, draw patterns in the armrests of his chair.
“I am curious to know what you think of my home.”
I weigh up possible answers, but in the end decide to be truthful. Something tells me he’s suspicious of flattery.
“If I may be completely honest, it’s a bit… extravagant for my taste.”
“Ostentatious is probably the word you are looking for.” He gazes around the room. “In retrospect, I should perhaps have been more involved in the design of my own home. But at the time, my traveling commitments made it almost impossible. Oh well, ç’est la vie.”
His gentle manner is beginning to put me at ease, enough that I now notice his clear, gray eyes. They are bright and boyish, as though they have forgotten to age along with the rest of his face. He gives me an enigmatic smile.
“You must be wondering why—your admirable perseverance notwithstanding—I finally agreed to this interview.”
“Yes,” I say, my pulse rising again. Can he sense how nervous I am?
“The truth is I am currently working on my last piece. La grande finale, if you will.”
I try not to let the shock register too loudly on my face.
“Your last piece?”
“Oui. As you have no doubt noticed by now, Miss Collins, I am not getting any younger. I think it is time for me to hang up the gloves.”
He pauses, allowing me a few seconds to digest the news. I have to ask. “Why me?”
“I find your style… refreshing. I feel you have the right sensitivity to help me write my last chapter.”
For a moment I’m dumbfounded. “Mr. Velveilleux… I’m honored.”
“Oh, there’s no need for that,” he answers. “But there is something else I would like to share with you.” He shifts in his chair, almost imperceptibly angling himself closer to me. “It is time for me to reveal what makes my dresses… special. I understand that some people”—he catches my eye—“have wanted to know for a long time.”
This is even more of a shock. In addition to an exclusive on his final work, I’m about to receive the insight I have desired for so long: the secret behind his wondrous tailoring. I came here prepared to press him on the subject, but even then, I wasn’t expecting to get an answer.
“Well,” he says, “let us not keep the world waiting any longer. Shall we?”
I nod eagerly and take my notepad and voice recorder out of my bag, waiting for him to get up and lead me to the place where the magic is sketched, sewed, and hemmed. But he doesn’t move. I remain seated as well, not sure what we’re waiting for.
Mr. Velveilleux smiles and raises his right hand to his ear. Making an arrowhead out of his index finger and thumb, he reaches inside it and starts to pull at something. My jaw drops as a continuous, shiny strand of fabric slowly materializes out of his head. Once it has reached approximately a foot in length, he snips it off using the scissors in his breast pocket.
“Wh-what is that?” I stutter.
Mr. Velveilleux’s smile broadens.
“When I was in my early youth, I was diagnosed with a rare condition. It turned out that part of my brain was not comprised of your typical stuff: gray and white matter, neural cells, blood vessels, and such like. The doctors could not say what it was, only that there was nothing they could do about it. They wanted to continue studying me, of course, like a lab rat, but my mother put her foot down. She refused to let me take part in anything that could contribute to the perception I was anything other than a perfectly normal boy.”
He holds up the thread for me to see. The thin fabric ripples in a kaleidoscope of hues as he runs it between his fingers.
“What you are seeing, Miss Collins, is what that part of my brain is made of. The part where my most precious memories live. This is where the power of my dresses comes from.”
This is unreal. I knew there was magic in Velveilleux’s work, but not real magic. I think back to his show, the one I attended five years ago, and the way it transported me to that humid summer night next to the girl with the dark hair and the long lashes.
My eyebrows rise. That dress. It was made of memories. His memories.
“I should add, for the sake of completeness, that the dresses are mostly manufactured from my own recollections,” Mr. Velveilleux continues. “Memories and dreams are sometimes known to overlap, which I am sure one year resulted in a few of my pieces being referred to as my ‘Psychedelic Phase’.”
I remember reading about it. That show was described by the press as a hallucinatory drug trip, during which many attendees claimed to experience intense bliss, fits of giggles, and even the temporary ability to smell colors.
Mr. Velveilleux’s smile fades and his eyes drift to somewhere beyond the manicured emerald lawns, his mood noticeably clouded over.
“When I was a young man, all I wanted was to be successful. You can imagine my joy when I realized the potential of my gift. I knew then that people would never look at a piece of clothing the same way again.” He sighs. “But the price I paid was high. Success rarely comes without it. As my fame grew, my memories began to fade. They were in the dresses now and had ceased to be mine. I knew then that I should stop, but the pressure to continue producing, to continue surpassing my previous efforts again and again, to show that I was not only relevant, but still the best, drove me to keep working. And now, after all these years, I have finally run out of memories, except for one. The last one. It is so deeply rooted inside me, not even I can discern what it is.”
Mr. Velveilleux licks his dry lips. For the first time since we met, his watery eyes betray his age. Now he is just an old man with a tired face.
“Do you remember what your mother used to smell like, Miss Collins? The breeze in your face the first time you rode a bicycle? Your first kiss? I do not. I dare say many would claim it is a fair price for everything I have been able to accomplish, but I am not so sure.” He smiles, then gives the armrest of his chair a determined pat. “That said, it is too late to stop now. I have one memory left, and tomorrow you shall see what I make with it. My chef-d’oeuvre.”
* * *
The next day, as Mr. Velveilleux requested, I arrive at the mansion grounds shortly before noon. After using the intercom and enjoying the sight of his elaborate wrought-iron gates opening for me, I drive up the hill along the winding road flanked by cone-laden blue spruce trees, until I reach the circular driveway in front of the house.
The butler is already waiting for me in front of the main entrance. I go over and greet him.
“Is Mr. Velveilleux ready for me?”
His eyes are downcast.
“I am afraid that Mr. Velveilleux passed away in the early hours of the morning.” Before the obvious question can leave my lips, he adds, “Natural causes.”
For the second time in as many days, the world feels unreal. True, Mr. Velveilleux seemed tired toward the end of our conversation yesterday, but not in any way unwell. Before I can wonder further, the butler continues speaking.
“He left me with specific instructions for you, Mademoiselle. As promised, you will be the first to witness his final piece, so that you may write about it before it is revealed to the public at large. This way, please.”
In silence, I follow him inside the entrance hall. My mind keeps going back to what Mr. Velveilleux said about the price he had paid for his success.
Natural Causes. I frown.
The butler leads me back to Mr. Velveilleux’s studio. This time, though, we go all the way past the sculptures and paintings and rows of books, on through the carved mahogany doors.
This room is even larger than the one in which we sat yesterday and is filled with a glorious array of colorful textiles. Unabashedly bare mannequins wait in corners to be dressed, and measuring tapes, scissors, thimbles, small mountains of pins, and several ancient-looking sewing machines cover the two large square worktables in the center. I take a few steps across the delicately embroidered floral carpet to a huge wicker basket filled with lustrous, seductive rolls of silk, chiffon, and satin.
“I shall be waiting outside, Mademoiselle,” the butler says. “Take all the time you need.” He closes the doors behind him, leaving me alone in Mr. Velveilleux’s working space. His presence still lingers in the air.
I look around for a breathtaking dress, one that would be worthy of his last memory, but the room yields nothing obvious. Questioning whether I’m in the right place, I begin another round of searching. This time, I catch sight of a simple, elegant dress box lying on one of the tables. On top of it lies a sealed envelope. I moisten my lips and step over to it.
My name is written on the envelope in elegant cursive letters. Inside, I find a simple card with five words written on it:
Hope it keeps you warm.
Heart thumping, I put the card down and carefully remove the lid of the box. To my surprise, there is no otherworldly garment inside, just a plain blanket, neatly folded inside some sheets of tissue paper. My eyes and fingers comb the box in search of what I’m surely overlooking, but soon I must accept there’s nothing left to be discovered. I’m more confused than disappointed.
For one thing, nothing happened when I laid eyes on the blanket. Did the magic run out when he died?
I begin to fold the tissue back over the gift, and my fingers brush the surface of the blanket. Everything goes dark.
Where am I?
Who am I?
All I’m aware of is gentle rocking.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
The swaying, pendular motion is soothing and a sweet melody, little more than a whisper, tickles my ear.
I yawn, and as my eyelids close, impossibly heavy, I’m certain of only three things.
I am originally from Venezuela and came to the U.S. to pursue a graduate degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. In my free time, I enjoy watching sports and reading fantasy, horror and science fiction stories. I like writing fantasy, in particular stories that fall roughly under the wide umbrella of Magical Realism. “The Wondrous Couturier” constitutes my second published piece of creative writing.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Wondrous Couturier”:
Many of the Magical Realism pieces we have received, while good, don’t seem to be the right fit for our magazine. We were pleased to find this one. Author P. A. Mendez gave us a delightfully different and warm story of exactly the kind we want.