When ordinary shoppers stumble into the little dress shop, they usually leave without buying anything. Nothing seems to fit or suit them very well. The music clouds their chatter and the shimmering silk walls hurt their eyes. After a few minutes they stumble out onto the street again, muttering to their friends about fashion and wondering why they ever bothered to step inside in the first place. But when a different kind of shopper discovers the shop, they find that opening its little blue door is the very best decision they’ve ever made. These are the women who aren’t really looking for the perfect cocktail dress, the jeans that’ll lengthen their legs or the skirt that will slim their silhouette. No, these women are looking for much more than that; they are looking for a lost piece of themselves. Which is exactly what Etta Sparks can give them.
When such a woman absently ruffles through the racks of expectant dresses, casting furtive glances toward the counter, Etta sits pretending not to notice, until the time is right. Although she isn’t actually psychic (being able to see only what the dresses show her) Etta has many gifts, and one of them is knowing when someone is ripe. She can see when a shy woman is on the edge of feeling brave. And then she steps forward.
“That would look beautiful on you,” she’ll suggest gently. “Why don’t you try it on?”
They always shake their heads at first, of course. But Etta can see the desire in their fingertips, the tiny flicker of hope in their eyes. So she chats about anything: the weather, the music, the sweetness of strawberries, the latest film, a particular book, the sensuality of silk . . . Then, when the woman is ready, Etta picks out a dress—in their favorite color, one that will make their eyes sparkle, their hair shine and their skin glow. And, now that she knows their greatest wish, Etta makes them a promise. A promise she knows to be true.
“Wear this dress and you’ll find what you’re missing: confidence, courage, power, love, beauty, magnificence . . .” Etta says, while they regard her rather skeptically. “You will. I promise. Wear this dress and it will transform your life.”
Etta doesn’t mention that it might be a bit of a bumpy ride, at least at first. When a woman needs courage, for example, life might throw a few things at her to draw it out. When a woman needs to love herself, she might be lonely while life leaves her without external hearts to hide in. Other things are simpler, like beauty and magnificence, since as soon as a woman slips the dress over her head and stares into the mirror, she instantly feels more beautiful and magnificent than she’s ever felt in her life.
Fortunately there is nothing that, with a little nip, tuck and the stitching of a special little star, Etta’s dresses can’t provide. For these are dresses that unlock the wisdom and wishes of women’s hearts, dresses that help them to heal themselves and, eventually, attain their deepest desires.
Etta loves to watch when these women step out of the changing room, their faces lit with delight and disbelief.
“My goodness,” they say. “But it’s so . . . I look so, so . . .”
“Beautiful.” Etta nods. “Yes, you do.” And she watches them, swallowing a happy sigh and everything else she wants to say but really shouldn’t.
“You just need a nip here,” she says, taking a threaded needle from her pocket and making six quick stitches in the shape of a star, “a tiny tuck here. And voilà!” Etta steps back, a knowing smile on her lips and a sparkle in her eye. “You are perfect.”
It happens the same way every time. The woman usually stands in front of the mirror for a while, turning this way and that, checking to be certain it isn’t an illusion. And, when she is at last sure it’s real, a blissful smile spreads into her cheeks and flushes through her whole body. In the mirror she sees herself as she truly is: beautiful, powerful, able to do anything. And she sees that the thing she wants most of all, the thing that seemed so impossible when she first stepped into the little dress shop, is really so possible, so close, that she could reach out and touch it.
“Yes,” Etta says then, “as easy as pie. Speaking of which, the bookshop on the corner does the most delicious cherry pie. You really should try some.”
The woman nods then, still slightly stunned, and agrees, saying that pie sounds like a perfect idea. So she stumbles out of the shop in a daze, new dress tucked tightly in her arms, and wanders down All Saints’ Passage to the bookshop. There, she has the best piece of cherry pie she’s ever eaten and leaves with a stack of books that will make the transformation complete.
Cora blinks. She yawns and stretches, then rubs her eyes and gazes up at the ceiling. 564 fleurs-de-lis gaze back down at her. As her body wakes, she could swear faint echoes of jazz drift away and fireworks still sound in the distance. It’s that dream again. The one so vivid it feels more real to her than reality. The one she’s been having nearly every night of her life. The only one she remembers every morning when she wakes up.
In her dream Cora is standing at her bedroom window, tiny hands splayed on either side of her freckled nose against the glass, watching fireworks explode, scattering light like fistfuls of stars. Down in the garden a hundred lanterns hang above a hundred heads, luminous rainbows of silk bobbing along to the jazz. Champagne corks and trumpets blow into the air amid claps and cheers. A beautiful black woman sings on stage, her voice as bright as the feathers in her hair.
Cora sees her parents standing close to the singer, sharing a glass of bubbling, sparkling water. They sway together, her father’s arm around her mother’s waist, her beautiful head tucked against his chest. Cora wants to join them. She wants to sing, dance, clap and cheer. She wants to freeze-frame the fireworks and count each burst of light. She wants to open her mouth and swallow the sparks and stars as they fall from the sky. But Cora is too young for the party. She was sent to bed hours ago and really should be asleep. Instead she watches the celebrations, listening to the laughter and the jazz tapping on her window, until the last firework explodes and the moon fades away in the milky dawn.
Cora would swear it was a memory, but she understands it can’t be. Her parents died twenty years ago today, on her fifth birthday, and she only knows their matching black hair and green eyes, their tall gangly figures and faraway stares, from photographs. There was never a party, and certainly not such an extravagant affair, of this Cora is certain. Her parents were prominent academics at New College, Oxford, who never frequented frivolous events. Maggie and Robert Carraway spent most of their days, and many of their nights, in the biochemistry department. When they weren’t cross-pollinating plants, discovering new species or generally trying to save the planet, Cora’s parents were teaching her the basics of complex tissues, encouraging her to experiment on sunflowers or taking her on tours of English woodlands, European mountains and African deserts. They usually forgot birthdays, anniversaries and the like. They would have forgotten Christmas, too, if the luminous trees and light displays throughout the city hadn’t reminded them. Not that they were neglectful, far from it. They simply lived in their own world—a world of cells and organisms, of ecosystems and genetics, of research and theories, but a world in which their daughter was at the very center. The Carraways took Cora everywhere. They kept a cot in the biochemistry lab for when they worked late. She took trips to European conferences. She ate all her meals in the university canteen. She played with papers, pencils and chemical equations. A year before they died they published a letter in The Times calling for the government to fund research into sustainable foods capable of growing in barren climates to feed and sustain starving communities. The letter hinted that they were focused on creating such foods, but since all their papers burned in the fire that killed them, Cora never knew for certain.
All of this early history has been recounted to Cora by her grandmother, since Cora doesn’t remember a day of it, having suppressed the memory of her life with her parents along with their deaths. As a child Cora asked questions about them all the time and Etta gave her carefully selected stories in return. Nowadays Cora tries not to ask too often, not to focus on impossible fantasy and lost hope, though of course she can’t stop the dreams. But the one thing she holds true to is that letter (Etta’s copy, framed on Cora’s bedroom wall) for it reminds her of why she does what she does, spending every day in the lab trying to fulfill her parents’ legacy, to do a great thing that would make them proud.
Cora slides out of bed and crosses her room, counting the floorboards as she steps across her tiny flat on Silver Street, provided virtually rent-free by the university in return for her devotion to their biology department. And so, for forty hours in the lab and twenty hours teaching each week, Cora has fifty-three square meters in the center of Cambridge in which to sleep and eat. Not that she does much of either there. The flat is simple and sparse. The floors are wooden, the walls white. She owns no TV, no stereo, no ornaments. She never buys flowers or bowls of fruit. If Cora ever had visitors, they’d think she had only just moved in. If there was a fire the first, and only, thing she’d bother saving is her laptop. No paintings or photographs adorn the walls, no books are on the shelves. Everything she needs for work she has at her rooms in Trinity College. She survives on sandwiches and snacks from coffee shops at lunchtime and vending machines late into the night while she’s scouring over plant plasma and peptides.
The only bright and beautiful thing in Cora’s flat are her pajamas: Indian shot silk, the color of a sunset, sprinkled with 34 pink peonies and 69 blue morpho butterflies. She trundles into the kitchen now, opens the fridge and pulls out a bag of coffee beans. She weighs the bag in her hand—1,233 beans, approximately. These, along with a week-old loaf of bread, are the only edibles in her flat.
Cora switches on the kettle, marking the seconds until it boils. Whenever Cora is worried—about life, science, loneliness—counting soothes her. She’s always had an extraordinary ability to count, to just know facts and figures at a glance. Of course, to her it’s perfectly ordinary, since she’s always been able to do it. But she understands that other people can’t and that those same people might find her strange, so she tries to do it only in private. While sixty-seven seconds tick by, Cora imagines her day. In an hour she’ll be at the lab. Three hours and fifty-five minutes after that she’ll eat lunch. Or, more likely, forget to eat lunch. Six hours and twenty minutes after that she’ll nod at her colleagues when they leave for the day. Three hours and forty-seven minutes later she’ll leave. Then she’ll come home and go to bed. Three days a week she adjusts the schedule for an evening visit to a bookshop. Within that she fits in her teaching commitments and visits to Etta. Otherwise, her days all follow the same pattern, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Then, as she pours the hot water into the French press, Cora remembers the date. March 14. Which means that today is a bit different; today she’s having dinner with her grandmother. Today is her birthday.