Ascendance of a Bookworm Chapter 54
Finishing My Dress and Hairpins
After two days, my fever broke.
Getting my new dress altered might be very risky. If things keep going like this, I’m going to get sick again before we can actually finish fitting it. Contemplating this, I get out of bed, and go looking for my mother.
The kitchen table has been pulled close to the stove, and sitting at it are my mother and Tuuli, diligently working on their handiwork. It seems that since they couldn’t work on my dress while I was sick, they’ve instead been working hard on these instead.
“Oh, Maïne,” says my mother. “Are you feeling better?”
“Yeah,” I reply.
“So, how about we get back to working on your dress?”
She tidies up her handiwork, looking just a little regretful, and starts bringing out the dress.
“Where’s Daddy? Morning watch?”
“He’s on the day watch, but since it’s snowing so hard he left already.”
Soldiers are used to shovel the main roads. While they are given extra money as special compensation for their work, my father constantly grumbles (when he’s drinking) about how the pay doesn’t come close to covering the back-breaking manual labor.
“Now then, Maïne,” she says, unfolding my dress and holding it out for me. “Put this on, please.”
I look at it, with its short sleeves and thin fabric, and my face twitches. If I do as she says, then even if I’m standing right in front of the stove I’m going to catch another fever.
“Mommy, could I keep a long-sleeve shirt on? Just one’s okay.”
“Your dress isn’t going to fit perfectly, you know?”
“That’s okay. I’ll get bigger by summertime.”
My mother puts a hand to her face as she tilts her head to the side, an extremely dubious expression on her face. She looks me over, as if considering her options, then lets out a sigh.
“…That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
At least say something like “I know you will,” Mother!
I, not wanting my fever to come back again, put on a long-sleeved shirt, then put my dress on over that, before surrendering myself to the alterations process.
“So,” I say, “the biggest size difference is in the shoulders. How about this?”
Just like my mother said, when I put on Tuuli’s dress the shoulders are so loose that it’s unsightly. So, I’ve tightly gathered up the extra width, draping it around my shoulders and making it into an off-the-shoulder dress.
“It’ll fall off your shoulders like that, you know?”
“Yeah, so we should add shoulder straps near my neck, made out of some kind of cloth or cord. If there’s leftover cloth from when this dress was made, then that would be great. If not, maybe some blue cloth? Something that would match the sash or the embroidery.”
“We have some scraps left. It should be enough for shoulder straps, if that’s all we need.”
My mother rummages about in her cloth bin, then brings back some scraps. She rolls them up into cords, then sews them on as straps. With that, a dress that was so loose that it might fall off my shoulders has turned into an off-the-shoulder dress, designed with straps like a camisole.
“Ahh, it won’t fall off like this.”
My mother gives a satisfied nod. Then, she scowls, pointing at my side.
“Maïne, no matter how I look at it, that’s unsightly. What should we do?”
With the cloth drawn tight around my shoulders, all the loose material has gathered under my armpits. I pinch at it, my head tilted to the side.
“Well, since I’m going to be wearing a wide sash on my waist, it’s not a problem to have a little bit of extra material on the side, is it?”
“It is. It’s unsightly!”
“Oh, is it? Then, how about we sew some proper pleats into it? It would take some time, but it would make it cute, right?”
I tuck the so-called unsightly cloth away into neat folds, demonstrating how to pull it back from my chest and towards my sides in three tacks. This kind of delicate sewing is very tedious, but it would get rid of the extra fabric and add decoration around my chest.
My mother hums thoughtfully to herself. “…You’re right. That sounds good, then.” She sticks out her hand. “I won’t be able to sew that if you don’t take it off first, though.”
I take off my dress and hand it to my mother. I immediately put on as many layers as I can, before breathing a sigh of relief. That was really cold. I think I’ll have another fever by the time we’re finished.
“You’re lucky, Maïne,” says Tuuli, as she watches my mother sewing tacks into the dress. “That’s going to be such a gorgeous dress.” She sighs enviously.
Sure, the dress is going to have a lot of loose fluttery bits and is going to look kind of extravagant, but that’s only due to the difference between our physiques. For the average younger sister, this kind of heavy alteration that takes up a ton of her mother’s time isn’t needed.
“…It’s because our sizes are so different,” I say. “But starting from scratch is even more work, so this kind of alteration is all we can do. This dress was originally made for you, you know? You get all the new clothes. All I get are your hand-me-downs, you know?”
It is the fate of those poor children born later than their siblings to never wear new clothing. (Even Tuuli, though, gets a lot of her clothes from the neighbors, so she doesn’t get to wear brand-new things very often, but still.)
“While Mommy’s sewing, I guess I should work on my hairpin, too.”
Since it’ll be some time before my mother is done sewing in the tacks, I get to work on sewing my own hairpin. Since I’m finally starting work on it after all this time, I want to make something a little different than the ones we’re making to sell.
“Mommy, since I’m making a hairpin for myself, can I use our thread?”
“Since we don’t have to make you a new dress, you can use enough for a hairpin, sure.”
Last year, nobody really knew what I was talking about when I wanted to make hairpins, so getting thread was a difficult process, but this year they know what I actually want to do, so I was able to get my hands on some without a fight. Filled with a fresh appreciation of the importance of mutual understanding, I pick up some un-dyed thread.
“I think it went like… this…”
I pick up my needles and, digging through my memories, start knitting a round flower, like a lily-of-the-valley. Tuuli, having finished up a hairpin of her own, comes to check out what I’m working on.
“Maïne, what’s that? That’s kinda different from the flowers we did for Freida or for our handiwork, isn’t it?”
“This is going to be the hairpin that I’ll wear for my baptism,” I reply.
“You’re finally getting to work on your own hairpin, don’t you want it to look like Freida’s? Those were so wonderful, too…”
Tuuli, who had been quite taken with the roses we made for Freida, rolls the lily-of-the-valley between her fingertips, lips tapered in a frown.
“I’m using a different quality of thread, so I don’t think it would turn out the same.”
I remember the intricate, glossy red roses we made for Freida, then sigh lightly. Even if I were to use the same pattern, they wouldn’t turn out the same in the end.
As I ponder this, Tuuli grips her needles firmly. “If it’s okay that they’re not the same, then I’ll make them! You made a hairpin for me, so I want to make a hairpin for you too.”
“Thanks, Tuuli. So, could you please make a flower like one of the big ones we made for Freida, except could you use this thread and make it a bit bigger?”
Tuuli is delighted when I ask her to make the rose part of the hairpin. Since that rose is the largest, most eye-catching part, leaving it to Tuuli, who is more skilled than I, would make a much prettier result.
“Tuuli, do you remember how to make it?”
“I don’t have a problem with remembering things. Leave it to me!”
…I’m sorry you have such a forgetful little sister.
Having left Tuuli to work on the rose, I start diligently working on the smaller flowers. No matter how hard I’m working, though, my rate of output isn’t very quick, so by the time I’ve finished my third flower my mother has finished sewing in the tacks.
“Maïne, come try this on.”
I strip back down to one layer, then pull the dress on. It’s turned into an off-the-shoulder, pleated, one-piece dress. Because of the pleats, it seems to naturally flutter as it hangs.
“Mommy, could you get the sash? I want to try it on.”
“Good idea,” she replies.
I tighten the wide sash around my waist, causing the skirt to gently flare out, almost like a balloon.
“I wasn’t too sure about this while I was still sewing, but now that I can see it on you, it’s really cute.”
“Because I’m cute, right?”
“Because I’m good.”
Our eyes meet, and we burst into snickers.
She grabs me by the shoulders and spins me around. “Next is the hem. It’s still cute as it is, but it’s much too long.”
The dress, knee-length on Tuuli, comes down to my ankles. I have no idea who decided this, but around here girls under ten years of age wear knee-length skirts. Incidentally, there don’t seem to be any miniskirts here, although if I had to say, since one- and two-year-olds have such short legs, knee-length on them is kind of like a mini-skirt.
Also, and this is really bothersome, not only is it a problem if the skirt is too short, it’s bad for it to be too long, too. Shin-length dresses are worn between ages ten and fifteen. When a woman grows up, it seems like it’s most desirable for a woman to wear dresses so long you can’t even see her ankles. The only women who can get away with wearing floor-length skirts like that, though, are ones who don’t have to work. The dresses worn by working women, such as my mother, come down to the ankles.
“How might we go about pinning this up like we did the shoulders, I wonder?” ponders my mother.
“Maybe take it up twice in the back and twice in the front, I think… but, Mommy, what do you think?”
“Hmm, that actually sounds perfect.”
If we bring it up to knee-length in four places, we can make it look like a balloon curtain.
After we sew everything into place, we use miniature flowers like the ones on my new hairpin to conceal the extra stitching. Then, after arranging the folds of the skirt so that the embroidery on the hem is visible, my new dress is complete.
“That looks like a rich girl’s dress.”
The dress has been pleated, given loose, fluttery sleeves, and puffed out like a balloon. This dress, which uses plenty of cloth for purely decorative purpose, is clearly not a poor girl’s dress, no matter how you look at it. All we wanted to do was take the unfashionably loose bits and hide them away with some clever sewing, but instead we wound up with a design that would be rare even in upper-class households. This is a dress that it quite clearly beyond our family’s station.
“…Maybe we should have just remade it?”
“If I had the time to do that, then I really would like to, but… this is, hm, really conspicuous, you know?”
Tuuli, having overheard us, shrugs lightly, pointing at the half-finished hairpin she was working on.
“It’s too late for that, right? Just the hairpin alone is really conspicuous already, so it’s not like it can get worse.”
Amongst all the other girls, who merely had things woven into their hair, Tuuli and her hairpin had stood out from the crowd enough to catch Freida’s eyes. Since I’ve already decided that I’m going to be wearing a brand new hairpin, I’m going to be extremely conspicuous anyway, so wearing a showy dress isn’t going to get me any more attention than I already will.
Freida had even said that drawing attention to myself would turn me into a walking advertisement for my hairpins. So, I stiffen my resolve even more.
“We worked so hard already, and it’s cute, and I don’t care if I stand out. I’m going like this!”
My very health was the sacrifice necessary to create this dress. Plus, unlike the miniskirt-length maid dress I was forced to wear at my high-school cultural festival1, this is a very reserved sort of design, so since it’s only knee-length there’s no need for me to be embarrassed by it at all.
“Well, Maïne, if you say so, then that’s fine with me. Now, what are you doing for your hairpin?”
“Since Tuuli’s working on this big flower for me, I’m making at least ten more little flowers like these.”
“I’ll help you, too. It’s your celebratory gift, after all.”
Chuckling to herself, my mother takes out her crocheting needles from her sewing box.
“Thanks, Mommy. So, if it’s a gift, then can we use the blue and the light blue thread too? Enough for three flowers each.”
“Well, now, if you insist.”
We all get to our tiny, detailed task of making the hairpin. The three of us make short work of it. We end up with three large, white roses, three small blue flowers, three small light-blue flowers, and fifteen small white flowers. In the span of a single day, we’ve finished all of the parts.
“How are you going to decorate this?” asks my mother.
“Aren’t there too many small flowers?” asks Tuuli.
“You’ll see in a bit!” I say, with a grin. “I’m going to make this part myself. Don’t look!”
Even though I said that, though, there isn’t a single place in this house that I can actually work without being seen. The two of them pretend not to look, but I’m fully aware that they keep surreptitiously glancing over at me, full of curious questions but, since they are of course not looking at me, keeping their mouths shut. It’s actually kind of funny.
“I’m home!” says my father as he walks through the door. “Ahh, I’m exhausted again. All I got to do today was shovel snow and babysit drunk people.”
It seems like he’d tried to brush the snow off of himself before coming in, but he still tracked a bit of it on. While Tuuli and I quickly work to sweep it up, I glance up at my father.
“Daddy, did you finish the hairpin for my baptismal ceremony?”
“Sure, wait just a bit!”
My father smiles proudly as he brings out from the storeroom out a long pin that has been carefully carved straight and polished. When I realize just how much effort it must have taken to smooth this down so perfectly, my jaw drops.
“What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful. It moves so smoothly through my hair, and doesn’t get caught in anything at all. Daddy, thank you!”
I take the small scrap of cloth that I’ve attached the three large white flowers to and sew it through the hole at the end of the pin. Then, I run my needle through that cloth, and start threading the small flowers onto it in clusters with small gaps between each flower, so that they can hang down, swaying freely, like a spray of wisteria.
From the roses, the closest of the small flowers are the three blue ones, then the three light blue ones, and then five of the white ones. To add gradation, I add the remaining seven flowers in two more strands, giving it three in total. I’d made this based on the image of a pin that I’d worn with my yukata back in my Urano days, but this has turned out even better than I’d expected. This is definitely a pin to wear on an excellent day.
“Whoa, that’s so cute, the way it sways like that!” enthuses Tuuli. “Try it on, Maïne!”
“After all that work, you should wear it with your dress, too,” says my father. “Your daddy’s the only one who hasn’t seen it yet!”
“That’s right,” adds my mother. “I’d like to see you in it too, and not over a long-sleeved shirt like before. Let’s see you wear it properly.”
Pressured by my family, I change into my new dress. Then, I slide my new hairpin into my hair, next to the chopstick I’m still wearing.
“Whoa, Maïne,” says my father. “This is amazing! Everyone’s going to think you’re some kind of princess. The way you look right now is way more elaborate and way cuter than you looked when you were wearing Freida’s outfit. You’d never be able to tell just by looking at you that this was Tuuli’s dress, just modified to fit you. Now that’s my Eva!”
My father praises me while also extolling the virtues of his wife’s superior sewing skills, looking very moved. My mother smiles wryly at him, though, and finds a way to object.
“It’s not fair for you to compare it to Freida’s dress. The quality is so different! But, compared to just normal alterations, this has turned into something quite extravagantly cute, hasn’t it! Working with so much extra cloth is really a whole different world of sewing.”
“If the quality were the same, though, then I’d really be able to say that your work is the best!”
“Oh my, Gunther!”
The two of them are lost entirely in their own world, now. Watching the two of them banter back and forth, flirting, is actually kind of painful to watch. I never actually had much of this kind of social interaction in my Urano days, so watching it unfold before my eyes is something I definitely want to not have to do.
I want to escape, but how?
As I start drifting away into feelings that I’ve been completely left behind, Tuuli, who had been standing behind me and looking closely at my hairpin, steps back into my field of view, snapping me out of it.
“Yep, cute! It’s really cute, Maïne! Your dress is showy and cute, but this hairpin is really good! The slow swaying of the flowers draws the eye, and since your hair is such a dark, night-sky blue, the white flowers really stand out!”
Perfect, Tuuli. You’re my angel.
Latching onto her life-saving voice, I turn around so that I don’t have to see my parents. Once their flirty expressions have disappeared from my field of view, I let out a little sigh of relief.
“When we were working I was thinking to myself, 'wow, isn’t this going to be too big?’, but now that you’re wearing it, it’s no problem at all.”
“Your hair is really puffy and wavy, but mine is really straight and doesn’t have any volume, so if I didn’t make a big, showy hairpin, it wouldn’t look great if you compared it to my dress.”
“Oh, yeah, I see…”
We’ve only been talking for a few minutes, but already my thin summer dress is doing nothing to stop me from shivering in the winter’s fierce cold. Goosebumps stand up along my entire body, and an unpleasant chill starts racing down my spine.
Startled by my sneeze, my mother pushes my father aside and comes over to me.
“Maïne, we’ve seen enough of your dress already, go get changed and get to bed at once. You’ll get feverish again!”
“Ah… achoo! Mommy, I think you were a little late. My spine feels all cold and shivery, and my neck is starting to feel a little warm…”
I am very quickly changed into my pajamas and hustled towards bed, but I’m already certain that my fever’s begun to rise again. I crawl into my prickly straw bed, then let out a long sigh.
Well, I guess I was already sure that I’d get another fever, so it’s not like this is something dramatically unexpected. I wonder, though, is my body ever going to get any stronger?
Translator’s notes for this chapter:
1. Japanese schools put on yearly cultural festivals called bunkasai, in which students show off their creative and artistic achievements. These displays can include concerts, art galleries, or even maid cafes such as what is being alluded to here.