The Iron Maiden

by Veronica Anne Engler
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It is cold inside the armor; heavy cold, like always. She suppresses a shiver (for Real Women do not shiver) and attempts to flex her face beneath the Mask, but it has been securely attached, allowing only minimal room for breathing, much like the iron Ribs reducing her waist to a desirable size.

She raises the china cup delicately, having learned to handle fragile things at the very beginning of her training, back when she first began practice with the iron Gloves; gloves that fought her every movement, gloves that creaked with the slightest bending of a joint. But that was years ago, and now she can handle herself just as elegantly, just as feminine as any Woman.

The other girls twitter as she makes a pretense of sipping the sweet-smelling tea (for Real Women have the self-control to stave off such primitive drives as hunger and thirst). There are four other girls, all situated around a prim little table on which sits beautiful china they can barely touch, holding tea they cannot drink and cakes they cannot eat. There is considerable space between them, for each is wearing a full Gown — ruffles, petticoats and all — and it is difficult to sit close without the chain-links and iron scales causing a minor uproar. But she does not mind the distance, for these other girls, as pleasant as their company may be, are her rivals, and she must not forget. They do not forget, and they take every chance to set her back a step.

“Helena,” says the girl across the table, her Mask painted with pastel butterflies and marigolds. She is considered the prettiest of the girls and top student at the Academy. Helena peers at her through the narrow eyes slits, but she cannot see the other girl’s eyes. She cannot see anyone’s eyes. “I heard you and Damien went for a walk in the Gardens yesterday afternoon … do you think he might be interested? If he is, you should snatch him up, before someone else gets him. He pursued me all last summer, you know, but I need a man with more … mystery. You must admit Damien has no mystery about him at all. But he is very sweet; you two would make a cute couple.”

The remark sounds as thought it is meant to sting, but Helena knows Madison is simply asserting dominance over the one topic more important than Gowns or Gloves or Masks: Men. Here at the Academy, young Women are instructed in all subjects related to Men: how to entice Men … how to keep Men … how to manipulate Men. When Helena was younger, she did not understand the difference between herself and the boys her age; they both climbed trees and splashed in mud and screamed bloody murder. But as she grew up, Helena learned she and they were very different … for they were not simply boys, but Boys, who would grow up to become Men, and one day one would ask her to become his Wife.

This was especially important, Helena learned. Because what a Woman wanted most in this world was to have a Man and a Family. When she was younger, Helena did not understand this, and thought she might want to do other things, and be other things. But growing older, Helena saw that a Woman did and was these things first and foremost, and so she shrugged her shoulders and played along, thinking that one day, after she had her Man and her Family, she would pursue other interests.

Thus began her training and her endless cycle of frustration. Helena was harsh and cynical and intrigued and demanded freedom of movement. A Real Woman giggled and reassured and was always optimistic. A Real Woman never lost focus of her objectives by wandering off on some useless tangent. A Real Woman felt empowered by the iron Corsets and intricately painted iron Gowns she could not remove by herself.

So Helena submitted herself to the Academy’s molding, day after day, in order to become a Real Woman. After all, every Man was searching for a Real Woman. And day after day, it grew a little easier, a little less uncomfortable, and now she sits with her peers, trilling over a new Mask, playing pretend like when she was younger, until the day all this ridiculousness is over and she can move on to more important things.

“Charlotte, are you done with your tea?”

“Oh, yes,” says the smallest girl, her Mask decorated with hummingbirds. Her Gown is specially made to give the illusion that she is more endowed than she is, as Men look for well-endowed Women.

The Academy makes girls into Real Women in every way.

“Well, if everyone’s done,” says Madison, turning to their chaperone sitting nearby. “Will it be alright if we take a walk in the Gardens?”

“Of course,” says Mistress Miriam. She is the oldest of the Mistresses and the most successful; she runs the school, has three grown children, and has been married to her current husband for nineteen years. “Come along, girls.”

Off they start like a gaggle of ducklings, Helena at the rear. They troop through the rose bushes and pause to smell them, laughing and bantering. Helena studies a deeply crimsoned rose, almost unnaturally so, and takes a long, wary look at the protruding thorns. She remembers a dash of poetry she once read, a line about the price of picking a rose. The metaphor reverberates in the very marrow of her bones, but she does not share this with the others (a Real Woman does not lose herself in melancholy ponderings, but strives onward with sanguinity).

She feels, very urgently, very suddenly, an unnerving sense of betrayal.

It passes.

Soon, Mistress Miriam and her five chickadees arrive at the Pond, a lush area with adorable ducks, a beautiful bridge, and comfortable benches. Mistress Miriam taps her skirt, her Glove ringing against her Gown.

“Gather round, everyone,” she says. “I have an announcement to make.”

They gather, quivering with excitement.

“It is my pleasure to announce,” she says. “That one of you girls will soon graduate from the Academy.”

They gasp, Helena with them, and chitter amongst themselves. Mistress Miriam clears her throat.

“Yes,” she continues, a hint of pride in her voice. “One of you has grown to become a Real Woman … a Real Woman who has achieved every aspect of female prowess, and makes all of us at the Academy very proud to call her one of our pupils.”

The girls have already begun to congratulate Madison. Her expression is a mystery, but she glows from the inside out, and Helena nods with satisfaction. Madison is a Real Woman and deserves to graduate.

“Yes,” says Mistress Miriam. “I’m sure you will meet with much success in the outside world, Helena.”

The collective gasp is so loud the ducks take flight, filling the air with their honking. Everyone turns to stare at Helena, shocked, but not nearly so shocked as Helena herself. Relief floods through her so thick she wants to lie down and cry, but she knows she must do something, so she squeals and laughs and the girls surround her with awkward hugs and surprised congratulations. Madison still stares at her, unable to register Mistress Miriam’s words.

In the midst of this, Mistress Miriam nods her approval and remarks, “Yes. Just one last procedure, and our little Helena will leave us to pursue a life in the great, big world.”

Part of the happiness leaks away. Helena asks through the knot of girls, “One last procedure?”

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about, darling,” says Mistress Miriam, her voice gentle. “Just a little operation to make this permanent, that’s all.”

“Per-permanent?”

“Yes,” says Mistress Miriam, a little quizzical. “Just a little stitch here and a little welding there and you’ll be wearing the Gown and Mask permanently. You’ll be a Real Woman.”

Panic washes through Helena, filling every cell, every pore, streaming in with every breath. Wear the Gown and Mask permanently? That means she will never feel the dust beneath her feet as she races down a sun-drenched path; she will never twirl in a thunderstorm as raindrops run down her cheek like tears; she will never taste the sticky red sweetness of taffy as she watches the full glory of the setting sun. She will never hold another’s hand, or feel his touch on her skin or his heartbeat next to hers. She struggles to breathe as she breaks away from the other girls.

“No. No, I don’t want this to be permanent.”

Mistress Miriam peers at her, then laughs, and Helena knows she is smiling.

“Oh, don’t be silly, dear. Of course you do.”

“No. No, I don’t.” She backs away, away away away.

“Yes, you do,” says Mistress Miriam, more forcefully. “Of course you do; every Woman does.”

“No … no, I don’t. I don’t want . . .” She cannot breath for the corset and she feels dizzy dizzy dizzy. “I have to leave. I won’t. I can’t do that . . .”

She turns back to the Academy, but a hand grabs her wrist. It is Madison, her fingers transformed into claws by her fury.

“You’re going through with the procedure,” she says maliciously. “What’d you mean ‘you don’t want it’? Don’t be stupid. This is what you want. This is what we all want — ”

“No it’s NOT!” Helena cries, jerking her hand free. “This isn’t what I want! I’m not going through with the operation and none of you can make me!”

She runs, but the skirts are so heavy and her shoes so unforgiving she falls with an anguished cry. She hits the ground solid, air driven from her lungs, and she gasps, fighting to stand. But the Gown is a hindrance (a Real Woman is surrounded by friends and family to help her rise, and she has no need to do so by herself) and she can do no more than shout and struggle. Iron hands materialize, attempting to haul her to her feet. Her fingers plunge into the ground in response, the iron sinking desperately deep as they tug and pry at her.

“Come now, Helena! Such behavior is not fit for a Real Woman!”

“Yes, don’t make such a fuss! You should be happy . . .”

“Oh, don’t kick me, Helena! Really, you’re just being a silly silly silly little girl . . .”

They jerk her upright, the Masked tears falling as Helena screams and fights, her limbs tiring quickly. This is not what she wanted. This is not what she wanted, what she bargained for at all. She just wanted out, just wanted to play along until she could get out and be … and be . . .

With one last desperate effort Helena wrenches away from her captors, making a mad, difficult dash for the bridge.

“Helena! Helena, no! Stop! Helena, what are you doing?

Only a second of hesitation, and she is over and down, cool breeze metamorphosing into chilled water as her iron-clad body plummets. She looks up, catching a glimpse of the Women on the bridge, screeching and frantic, as her armor pulls her deeper. But she feels none of their panic. Quiet, final peace radiates through her and she smiles. Closing her eyes, she tilts back her head and breathes deeply, thinking of how, once, she wanted to be anything, anything . . .

. . . anything but one of them.

One Response to “The Iron Maiden”

  1. Aubrie says:

    Very creative! I like how you juxtapose the delicate china with the iron dresses. It’s also interesting how the ideals are from the past, but the machinery of the dresses is obviously from some futuristic society.
    Well written.

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