We stood outside Anne's study door, staring silently as it closed firmly behind us. I had just witnessed ten minutes of what I guessed to be an infamous, and highly common, Willow lecture. Amazingly, Willow had managed to stay silent throughout, only nodding occasionally and randomly defending herself when Anne had accused her of ‘probably dressing atrociously and wearing mismatching socks'. I didn't know which surprised me more, the fact that Willow often dressed as a man and traveled that way, or the idea that Anne would criticize the fashion in which she had dressed. It was comical and bizarre.
Willow shook her head in disbelief and then smiled smugly, turning to address me. "Did you see how upset she was Tara? I think that I really got her angry this time!"
"You do this regularly? Dressing as a man?" I asked in amazement.
Willow smiled like it was the most natural thing in the world. "Oh yes, for a long while now. I used to travel with my father and brother dressed as a boy. I've just never gone as far as Boston before. Have you ever read ‘Twelfth Night' by Shakespeare? Oh I'm sure you have, being so educated. When I first read that as a child I always thought it would be grand to dress in men's clothes as Oliva did and blend into society as an equal. Haven't you ever wondered what that would be like Tara? To be equal?"
Then, through the wall, I heard Anne yell. "For heaven's sake Willow, stop going on about romantic plays and take the poor woman to her room."
We both giggled like school children and moved away from the door towards the staircase we had come up. As we walked, I thought about what Willow had said. I had never thought of myself as being unequal. I certainly knew that my position in life compared to a man was drastically different, but I didn't feel oppressed. I wasn't chained or beaten. I was free, wasn't I? As we slowly ascended the staircase to the fifth floor, Willow spoke as if reading my mind.
"It's subtle Tara, the slavery of a woman. America's slavery of the African is not subtle and is therefore easy to distinguish. But there are so many forms of it. When I go out into society as a white man, my reach is unlimited. I answer to no-one but myself. I am my own person. You're tasting that in a way; being here."
She was solemn as she regarded me, waiting for a reaction. My first thought was that she was being dramatic and radical, embellishing the situation and being too open minded. But she had some wonderful points which I felt could not be ignored. Thinking of myself as a slave disturbed me and was uncomfortable. However, I couldn't deny the legal and social limitations that bound my gender.
We had arrived on the fifth floor now and moved to the third door on the left. Willow stopped here and pushed the door open lightly, not stepping in but peering through the gap to see what was beyond.
"I'm sorry if I've offended you Tara, sometimes I say too much." She looked truly worried, almost anxious, most likely at the thought of offending me. However, I doubted that she was sorry for saying too much. Willow didn't seem like one who entertained regret.
"You haven't offended me, honestly. There is just so much to take in here. And you, Willow, are an incredibly remarkable creature." I paused as she beamed at me; delight flowing off of her and into me. "And I can't believe you dressed up as a man!" I tapped her arm lightly.
She took my hand that I had tapped her with lightly in hers, and as I watched her swing it lightly a few times between us in a playful way, she leaned over and kissed my knuckles. Heat rushed to my cheeks, neck and chest. Was that embarrassment? I couldn't pinpoint it, but Willow touching me was uncomfortable and pleasurable at the same time. My skin tingled and my hand was hyper sensitive in hers. I briefly wondered what those same lips would feel like on mine and flushed even more, my mouth opening slightly in surprise.
She straightened and regarded me intently, still holding my hand. I could not pull away. "Perhaps we could go into town together sometime Tara, with me dressed as William. It's an event not to be missed."
I felt a half grin over-take my face before I could stop it and then laughed, covering my mouth with my free hand. It was absurd and I was thrilled by it!
"Ah, I see that you like that idea Tara!" She then let go, beginning to fidget with her hands, first moving them behind her back, then in front of her fingering her shirt tails. I wanted her hand back, holding mine, but I didn't know what to do with that desire and I certainly didn't know how to ask for it. Willow would just take it. That was how she was. I smiled again, and looked towards the room.
"So is this my room then Willow?"
"Yes, I'm sorry Tara; you probably want to unpack your bags and rest. Let me show you a few things."
She walked into the room. It was large from my experience, and had an oversized square window facing the back gardens of the Institute. The fog was still thick, even now that it was late day, so I had no view of what the gardens looked like. None the less, I gazed out the window while holding the drapes back slightly. The room itself held a large, plush bed. It was bigger than any bed I had slept in before and could easily fit several people.
There was also a cabinet at the foot of the bed for storage, and a tall armoire opposite the bed. In one corner, a screen had been set up, presumably with toiletries and a chamber pot behind it. On each wall there were oil lanterns. I watched the light flicker on the dark wood on the walls of the room as Willow moved my bags to the armoire.
When she finished moving my bags she stood up and walked to one of the lanterns, looking over my shoulder as she spoke.
"The lanterns are all on a pulley system Tara. You don't have to reach in and light it yourself. Simply turn this knob here, a flint will light the wick, and you can adjust the flame by turning in more. Turn it back to where you started to shut it off."
I moved closer behind Willow to inspect the remarkable contraption, my head over her shoulder. I was very close to her now, my dress brushing against her and my breath tickling her neck. I watched her shiver, swallow and quickly turn her head all the way forward so that she wasn't looking at me any longer. I wondered - had I caused that reaction? Did my nearness make her feel the same way as it did me?
"That is simply amazing Willow" I spoke softly near her ear "Who in the world thought of that?"
She swallowed a few times convulsively. I could see her wetting her lips to speak, struggling with what to say.
"I-I did Tara. It's... It's really not that hard to design..."
Her sentence trailed off as I reached around her with my left hand, covering her fingers with mine and turning the lantern all the way off, then turning it on again and watching the flint light the wick, throwing light on Willow's face and hair. Amazing, I thought. She is amazing.
Suddenly, a voice spoke from the door.
"Tara." Willow and I jumped apart as if burned and both quickly turned towards the door, seeing Anne standing there. She gave Willow an odd look, as if asking a silent question to which she already knew the answer. Then she looked at me and held out a small piece of paper.
"This telegram came for you just minutes ago. I believe it's from your brother. If you'd like to respond, there are five telegram stations in the Institute. Willow can show you were they are."
She paused as I took the paper and read it. She looked around the room and then nodded in satisfaction. Willow was rearranging the drape nearest her as if there was something wrong with it, but kept throwing glances my way, probably curious about my telegram. I tucked it into my dress and looked up at Anne.
"Thank you Mrs. Rosenberg, I think a response can wait until tomorrow some time."
"Do you need anything else Tara? Is the room to your liking?" Anne asked.
"It's perfect. I've never slept in a bed this big!"
"And they're bouncy too!" Willow piped up from the corner where she was still fussing with the drapes.
Anne scowled at Willow and motioned for her to leave the room. "Let's go Willow; Tara will want to relax a bit before supper."
Anne then took a small key out of her pocket and passed it to me. "This is for the trunk at the foot of your bed. We believe in some amount of privacy here. You can place anything you feel the need to in there. I have the only other key. For the next few days, meals will be brought to you in your room - we don't have enough staff to set the dining hall just yet."
Anne motioned towards Willow again, who reluctantly stepped behind her into the hall. Willow peaked over Anne's shoulder as she kept talking to me.
"There will be fresh water brought in with breakfast each day for you to wash. You can let the maid know then when she can clean your room. Expect her at about seven o'clock. There is a timepiece there by bed on the night stand." She pointed for me and I turned to look, though I had seen it before.
"Willow will give you a more complete tour tomorrow and go over your work as well. We weren't expecting you yet and I need her for the rest of the day. Willow is in the room next to you and I am two doors east on the opposite side of the hall. Please let us know if you need anything else. We'll be in my study until supper." With that she stepped out of the room and nodded towards me.
I curtsied automatically. Her demeanor, through friendly, was in such stark contrast to Willow's that I felt like a ball being bounced between the two of them. Anne nodded again and left down the hall, back towards the staircase. Willow followed her slowly down the hall. I leaned my head out of the bedroom, watching Willow leave. She turned and waved at me before hurrying to catch up with Anne's long, confident strides.
I walked back into the room, closed the door behind me, and collapsed onto the bed. Almost instantly, I fell into an exhausted and deep sleep. And then, I dreamed.