Deep in the woods, past
the thorny briars and through the alder thickets, there was a house
of spectacular beauty that mortal eyes rarely beheld. There were
rumours of it in the nearer villages, but no-one truly knew it's
fatal aesthetic except for the lost souls who died within its walls.
A glimpse would seal the fate of the viewer, for curiosity would
overcome the fear born in youth, gleaned from the hushed voices of
parents in the night.
The house itself was a
spectacular sight. The stories tell of a place gaudily decorated in
candy canes and fudge, licorice laces and jelly beans. Tiles of bread
sat atop mallow beams were a crude depiction of the actual scene.
Coloured plates of melted and reformed sugar, much like stained
glass, made up the walls of the place. Layer upon layer of ethereal
coloured sheets provided the structural strength that the fantasies
ignored. Interspersed were pillars of stronger, swirled sugar anise,
marking the regular, semi-opaque intervals that acted as windows onto
the world. These portals were too far from the ground to allow any
onlooker on view the inside of the domicile. When the sunlight
broached the horizon it hit the panes, leaving a glistening trail of
light across the surrounding foliage, illuminating every blossom and
drop of morning dew.
Inside the house there
was but one resident, who had lived there all of her natural life and
more. No one knew how old the woman was, and her appearance would not
betray her secret: she looked not a day over two dozen years. The
only aspect that hinted at her unnatural life was her copious
snow-white hair, sleek and seemingly without flaw or end, extenuating
her already spindly body. Her skin was flawless, ivory and clean. Her
eyes were a sharp grey that demanded the attention of anyone who
looked too closely, trapping them in her deadly fate. She was a
She had lived alone
for decades; her visitors crossed the threshold only once. Most days
she sat alone in a delicate pretzel-wicker chair at the clearest pane
of the single room on the first floor of her home. It was different
than those of the lower story: wide and round, giving a clear view of
the grounds about the place. Here she would brush her endless locks
for hours on end, blankly looking out upon the tangled roots that
encircled her realm. She waited.
In the middle of the
driest summer in decades, when the crops were failing all across the
lands, the woman stirred in her seat. A passage began to form through
the deepest section of brambles, revealing a lush green path that
shined temptingly in the harsh summer light. She would not leave this
place, but she knew that someone would soon arrive. Someone tall and
strong and full of the vital life she saw infrequently and craved
with an intense hunger. A smile swept through her features
unnaturally, stirring the muscles into unfamiliar action. Raising
from her seat, it was time to ready the house.
Two days passed and
there was only silence still. The house itself stood strong in the
unreal heat, an eternal palace of shimmering fantasy. The heat was
growing each day, and though the trees were parched, the material of
the house did not fail. The woman herself began to sweat though the
rooms were cool; her eyes gained a hungry look, but all else was
unchanged about her guise; her beauty was unchallenged though it
gained a ravenous quality.
Early on the third day
a voice broke through the clearing, happening in its course upon the
ears of the solitary occupant. A sigh escaped her lips and her
slender limbs relaxed once more, while her mind buzzed with
excitement. Moving to the hearth, she set a light in the oven.
Methodically she began to set the table for one, precisely laying the
freshly cleaned plates and cutlery, glancing fondly at these rarely
Laughter broke this
calm, the knife hit the table with a clank and lay disparate,
disturbed on the table. Another peal rang out, and a thud. There was
a tearing noise somewhere outside, and she shrieked. A scratch ran
down her arm, searing angry and red over her ivory flesh. Her eyes
flashed bright, and in an instant she was at the door, hair whirling
in a mad rage. As she gripped the handle she took a breath, eased
herself, and slowly entered the world outside.
At the top of the
garden path, left of the door, were two scrawny beings tearing at the
coloured candy plates of the building. Their stubby, boney appendages
were digging into the very seams of her crystalline palace, trying to
tear away pieces to fill their greedy, open mouths. She had expected
a handsome young creature plump with possibility, brimming with
exuberance and passion; someone she could charm and devour. Instead,
her gaze met with a pair of children no more than ten years each.
They were thin and ungainly, their youth held no future promise:
their emaciated bodies belied lives of poverty and neglect.
The children were
called Hansel and Gretel, and they had been abandoned in the woods by
their parents who feared a slow death by starvation. They told the
witch of the declining village they had been forced to leave, and how
all the young people had left in search of food and fortune. None had
returned, and the elders had begun to die. Some had gone missing, but
none wanted to question how or where they had ended up.
Unmoved by this story,
the witch began to ponder her own plight. She was to receive no meal
of health and boundless spirit; she would have to make-do with what
she had been given. She led the children to her kitchen, and pulled
from the air a magnificent spread of meat, fish, bread, cheese,
fruit, and cake. Boundless quantities seemed to fill the table, and
the youngsters began to eat with feverish hunger. Even as they
scooped handfuls off the plates, the quantity never seemed to
decrease, and their hunger only seemed to increase. Glasses of fruit
wine appeared and were gulped down between bites. Hours passed and
the children became visibly plumper and revived. Throughout the witch
merely stood by and watched the feast, preparing her own dinner for
children fell asleep under the table. In the morning they rose
frantically to continue their meal, but the table was bare. They
shrieked and begged their host for some breakfast, their eyes and
hair wild with the flavours they had almost forgotten over the last
few long months at home. The woman could not give them anything, she
said, unless one of them could help her start the fire. It had gone
out in the night, and it would be much quicker if they could help
her. Of course, they yelled, anything for her. She led them over to
the hearth, cold and empty, which appeared to fill an entire wall.
She pointed inside, saying that the wood was already prepared, but
needed lighting. One of them would have to climb inside.
The witch's eyes were
shining, her mouth watering with the energy the children were
exuding. She could not wait to taste their tender flesh, the elixir
which would ensure her continued life. She was excited, and while the
young boy was charmed by her manner, Gretel began to question her
surroundings. Was this the place her elders had warned her about?
Could this beautiful woman really be a witch? The hearth-fire was not
lit last night when the bountiful supper had been prepared for them.
As the realisation of
their danger slowly dawned upon the girl, and the spell started to
loosen its grasp of her, Hansel only became more enamoured with the
woman. He would do anything for her and her sumptuous food. He had
been handed a matchbox and had started to climb into the oven when
his sister started to wail. Suddenly there was smoke pouring from the
gaping mouth of the range, Hansel's legs still protruding and
wiggling about. The witch was captivated by her cooking that she had
momentarily forgotten Gretel, who was to be her second course.
Suddenly, though, she felt searing agony. She whipped around to see
that the girl-child had ripped apart a sturdy bread chair, and was
holding a leg up in the air. This limb was hurled across the room,
followed by another and another. Gretel held the remaining carcass of
the chair up and ran towards her captor. In her shock the witch did
not move, she was not used to her meals fighting back.
In an instant she was
knocked backward into the opening of the oven, just after Hansel
managed to flail his way out. The girl found strength enough to push
the door shut after the dainty creature. Moments later, the entire
house began to shake angrily, and the children barely had time to
rush to the door before the whole place was aflame. The sugar-panes
melted into pools of searing hot caramel, before burning completely
and making the air smell sickly sweet.
The children fled from
the place, resting only to tend to the burns which covered most of
Hansel's arms. He had lost most of his hair too, but seemed to be fine
otherwise. Gretel was in shock, and apart from several scratches down
her arms was unscathed. They were alive. They would have to eat again sooner or later,
haunted by the day she became captain. Every night since then she’d been having
inescapable dreams, dreams where she was able to stop the incident. Hundreds of
different scenarios had played out in her head but when she awoke, truth
smacked her hopes down with a hard dose of reality. Today was no different.
Rory used the bed sheets to wipe the nervous sweat from her forehead; she felt tension
jumbling through her body and the freakish adrenaline of her nightmare still
pumping in her bloodstream. As she twisted toward the sickly yellow light of
the control panel beside her bed, flashes of memory still plagued her: electric
fires, the vast atrium of the ship filling with billowing smoke and seas of
civilians scrambling in panic, all penetrated by piercingly shrill sirens. She
switched off her alarm. Taking large gulps of water to wash down the bile and
guilt, Rory prepared for the day ahead.
It had been almost three months since the incident. Today was the day
of the inquest. Officials were being sent by the Courts of the Imperial Senate
to collect final reports on events, conduct interviews with the survivors,
assess the extent of the damage and assess Rory’s performance as Captain. Rory
had been Kingsly’s second in command, stood at his side when they’d greeted the
Necromblian Ambassador onto the ship and stepped up as Captain the minute
Kingsly had been gunned down by the Necromblian guards in their attack on the
greeting party. Although no news had come explaining the motivation for the
attack, whispers were whirling through the engine rooms and galleys, the
medical decks and rec rooms, hydroponic labs and kitchens. Whispers were
weaselling their way up through the ranks. They blamed her. They blamed her for
the death of a man who had been everyone’s father, son, brother and the lover
of quite a few. Kingsly had refused her advances, said they should keep things
platonic. They’d exchanged pet names though, but in the mouths of the
rumour-mongers they became mocking. “Princess” they’d snigger behind hands,
behind closed doors. It didn’t make her resolve falter; her grief was invisible
in her demeanor. She became as stone and iron, hard and unrelenting.
The day had not gone well. Her reign over the ship had been fruitful,
repairs were almost complete and endeavours into new security were well
underway, but her disfavour among the crew and passengers had been noticed. She
had been warned that unless the situation vastly improved, she would be removed
onto another ship. But this was her home; she was not going to give up so
easily. In the mess hall she was given a wide berth. Her face of thunder was
enough to warn away any curiosity.
As she stepped into her quarters, the on board computer greeted her.
She still hadn’t changed the voice settings, so the feminine starlet’s giggle
crooned its welcomes from the speaker system. Somehow it was comforting to hear
the voice Kingsly had chosen. Ironic that FAIRY (Framework of Artificial
Intelligence for the Righteous Yeoman) should sound exactly like its namesake.
There was a FAIRY aboard every ship in the Yeoman Fleet that served under the
Imperial Senate, but to the best of her knowledge, The Needle’s was the only one
that spoke like a girlish nymphomaniac. Kingsly’s sense of humour had been somewhat
“How’d it go
only call me that in public FAIRY. And not good.”
“What can I
do to help? Run you a bath? Pour you a drink? Order some of those lovely men
from Lab 205 to come and help relieve the tension?” She giggled and despite the
plush carpeting and soft furnishings, it seemed to echo in the cabin.
“None of the
above. I want a quick shower and then I want to read, in bed.” There was another
giggle. “By myself. Alone.”
The next morning the mess hall was almost empty, and quiet. It was not
the mournful hush of mornings past, but an eerie silence, pregnant with
expectation and foreboding. It put Rory on edge. The adrenaline of her
nightmares began to nervously seep into her veins again, and her eyes flickered
back and forth across the nameless faces of crew she had not yet formally met.
Spoons scraped against emptying bowls and scratched at her nerves, fraying
them. She ran from the room. Something was wrong. The corridors were lined with
the pinched and suspicious faces of those she had known once, before the
incident. Some she might have even called friends. She stopped by a control
panel on corridor thirteen. She was due to conduct an inspection of the medical
wing, but the arranged cohort of men that should be accompanying her had yet to
arrive outside the entrance.
bustle of the ship was subdued; the oppressive silence of the mess room had
spread. However, as she inspected the screen, noting the surprisingly high rate
of recent medical admissions, she felt a shadow loom over her shoulder.
it lisped into her ear. It was not a mocking jibe; it was far, far more
sinister. It was a threat.Whirling
around, she saw that recognisable and nameless faces alike were screwed into
inhuman exaggerations of rage. The hatred fumed off them in waves, it was
somehow palpable. This was unreal, this wasn’t possible. Nothing she could have
done, even if she’d been guilty of that which she’d been accused of, could
possibly deserve this amount of ill-feeling. She
could feel their hatred morphing into something else, into blood lust. They
wanted her dead.
She used that adrenaline now. In the narrow corridor she escaped,
banking on their raw emotion to make them clumsy and inept. It worked. Running
pell-mell, blinded by their hate, they didn’t notice when she slipped through a
fire hatch into the crawl space reserved for maintenance. She gasped for air,
the confined space only allowed for shallow breaths and her taut muscles were
already beginning to cramp. It was then that FAIRY decided to make her presence
known through the earpiece all crew were obliged to wear.
are you okay?”
look like I’m okay? No! I’m freaking out! What the hell is going on FAIRY?!”
well, your vital signs have gone a bit haywire. Sorry about that. I should have
told you when I first spotted something suspicious”
you knew about this?! Why the hell didn’t you say something earlier?”
it might’ve just been a blip.” There was that irritating giggle again. “You
know, from the way you went on I thought it was just your typical case of
paranoia. But then a couple of days ago I was flicking though the medical
records and I noticed that admissions had spiked. I was thinking it was a fluke
or something, but then I noticed when it started.”
space was getting hotter. Rory was glistening with sweat now, but the noise of
the mob had faded significantly. “When
FAIRY, when did it start?”
“Take a wild
guess...Three months ago. The day of that nasty business with the Necromblian
waited two days to tell me?! What were you thinking?”
“No need to
get testy little miss, you wouldn’t want me to just leave you in this pickle
all by yourself now would you?”
you know what it is that’s affecting the crew?”
just the crew, it’s the passengers as well. To the best of my knowledge it’s
some sort of pathogen. The Necromblian guards leaked it into the ship’s
“And why has
it taken you so long to detect it?”
know, they must’ve messed about with my lovely wiring or something. It’s
awfully rude you know. Imagine how I felt when those nasty Officials came
prodding and poking about in my innards yesterday, so uncouth!”
mother, they’re in on it too!”
suppose so. In any case they certainly know what’s going on, which means no
help from the Imperial Senate and bye bye rescue.” She started humming to
herself, the kind of absent-minded crooning a mother does when they’re
preparing a meal or doing laundry. You wouldn’t have thought such a complex
collection of electronics could be absent-minded, but FAIRY was certainly not
your average on-board computer.
there any way of stopping this pathogen from spreading and curing those
“Yes. But it
would involve killing 70% of onboard inhabitants outright and suffocating the
rest while I replace the air supply.”
a viable option then. What are the other choices?”
pathogen have at it and hope it doesn’t kill those affected.”
not watching them trying to kill me? I don’t think that one’s going to work
“If you can
make it to the freezer in the medical wing, I can put you in stasis. And then I
can slowly clean the air supply without the ship’s occupants asphyxiating. It
will take time. But it should work. And if not, I’ll freeze the whole ship and
wait till someone come to rescue us.”
one is doable.”
From the crawl space where she currently resided, Rory knew she could
make it to the freezer through the vent system. It was two floors down, and along
corridor 17a. With grunts and wheezes, she evaded the clawing grasps of the mobs,
easing her tired muscles and aching frame through hundreds of metres of titanium
vents. Eventually she reached the compression chamber outside the freezer.
Stepping inside and sealing the door, she let the cold wash over her. It felt
like relief. Relief from the threat of harm, but also from the pressure of
responsibility. Inside the freezer was dark, aside from the faint blue light
inside the cryogenics pods. They were laid out like glass-lid coffins, heavy
metal tubing pumping ice into each individual bed, preserving all the
unfortunate in a state of living death. Not alive, but not yet truly dead. They
glowed blue with the promise of restoration. She knew where she was going:
fourth row on the left, second pod in. Through the lid she could see his lips
stained red from the blast impact high on his barrel chest. But despite this,
Kingsly still looked as if he slept. Black ropes of hair splayed across his
shoulders, and his arms lay limp at either side. With a silent tear and one
last whimper, Rory opened the pod. The cold that spilled forth soothed and she
needed no encouragement to clamber inside. With the last few moments of
movement the ice allowed, she pressed a loving kiss on his forehead, his
mouth, curled her form against his side and snuggled her head in the crook of
his neck. She had been wrong. This was her home.
Her memory drifts and piles over the frozen living room. Her chair is buried; the photographs on the mantelpiece are hidden.
Her memory is in seven small boys, each different but each just like her.
Patrick who closes his eyes and says he's too sick for school.
Lewis with that irritating tick of a laugh that I will never learn to accommodate.
Fergus who is so unrelentingly eager to please.
Mark with teeth too big for his mouth.
And I love them as I loved her; painfully, awkwardly.
Jamie who spends all day looking in the mirror.
Her memory is not a memory until she is gone. She lies there, undecided. We visit once a week, walking into the ward in single file, and lining up shortest to tallest without knowing it.
Andrew who talks as if he were king.
When we leave we each kiss her once on the forehead. Me last. She doesn't know it, of course.
Calum who was always her favourite. I love him the least.
The boys march up the stairs in single file, to play computer games and swear at each other. I wonder if they know how little they have. A memory made of water and cold that shifts and drifts and has no substance of its own. Not really a memory at all.
The boys are growing taller. Fergus is almost a man. I dread the day he outgrows me. I think about spring.
When the buds grow fat and hungry, I wonder will I tell them? I wonder if they think that they ever really had a mother? I turn away.
Perhaps one day the words will come. Your mother was a myth. Their mother. A photograph buried under snow.
The words will bounce back and echo in my face like a reflection in a mirror. I will tell them so that I will know. And maybe then I will brush the snow away.
The Sea Cows' Love-Song
We breathe underwater. Silkily we suck. We huddle and squabble and rise up, shimmering, our song a bubbled breath.
No one above knows our colour, our shape. It’s easy to miss our faces from above. The surface light distorts us and, confused and thirsty, sailors think us beautiful sometimes.
We could be mermaids. We roll in mud and our full-body-mask peels back to reveal fresh, clean skin. Seaweed surrounds us like long, toothpaste-green, fairytale locks.
We breathe where we’re not supposed to breath, mammals under the sea-skin, rebels of the undercurrent. We breathe, slowly, deeply, daring to be desired, sucking in fumes from the tankers and the mainland, living for the high. We swim like dancers, defiant in our ugliness, our sweet rolls of blubber secret under murky water-mist.
We’re down here for you if you want us. Down, a lifetime down. Come for a visit. Stay a while.
We’re down here, down on the seabed. We’re down with the slick wood of shipwrecks. Don’t fear our seaweed tendrils; we could be mermaids. We could hold you down here, deep in our ugly embrace, until the sea holds you too and the holding is all there is.
Our slow embrace. A lifetime of slow, that grasps your mind and body as the gentle water softly skins you and picks your bones to clean.
was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. I’d managed to escape my father’s
drunken pawing and I was sitting in my favourite place. It’s so peaceful by the
lake, the moonlight rippling towards my bare toes. He made me jump but when I
turned and saw his face I was unafraid. I felt safe.
asked my name. I was ashamed to tell him. He understood. He said that angels
don’t have names. I said he can’t have one either then. His laugh was husky and
his eyes deep and shimmering. They just seem watery and weak now.
thought he’d come to rescue me; to take me away from my father, from the
louse-ridden bed, from the fear of being mauled again. From my bed I could see
the sky through my small window. I could imagine flying away, up to the
heavens, while my father sweated over me and the stench of ale wafted from his
did save me, but where I am now is dark, and cold. The stone bites like ice. There
are no windows. It wasn’t always that way. When I first came to live in the
mansion in the valley, I slept on silken sheets and looked out on my lake through
bay windows taller than myself. He was kind, and gentle, at first.
was patient with me, with my rough manners. He taught me to hold cutlery
correctly, to speak correctly. He taught me to read. Whole worlds opened in his
library, taking me beyond the edges of my small experience, and he guided me
called him Teacher. Sensei. Master. I never saw anyone else.
day I was at a loss for something to do. I’d seen little more than our suite of
rooms, and my Master was out on business. I wandered for hours: I saw the
ballrooms, the dining halls, even the kitchens. They were all empty. I was
alone in this great house.
I made my way to the West Wing. Most of the rooms were empty, except for one.
It was a long hall lined with portraits. All the faces I saw were beautiful.
Men and women looked down with shining eyes and red lipped smiles, although
they were somewhat tight smiles. The eyes were a little too bright.
the end of the room was a door. I tugged at it but it would not budge: the
first locked door I’d encountered. I put my ear to the door and I thought I
heard something. A faint noise, like crying. Like a scream.
the warm evening sunshine flooding through the windows, I felt cold. I hurried
away, back towards the safe eastern end of the house. I had barely left the
Portrait Room when I heard his voice calling me. I ran along the corridor and
he was there. I smiled in relief but he did not return my warmth. His bright
eyes were angry.
been prying.” It wasn’t a question. I shrunk back, suddenly afraid, away from
his accusing eyes. He advanced and raised his hand.
night he came to me. The bruises were tender. He slipped between the sheets and
pulled me close. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, and kissed my face. It didn’t stop
was less patient after that. Every little mistake irked him. He beat me, he
took me against my will; all the gentleness of before was gone. I quaked every
time I heard his voice, his footstep. Yet I could not leave. He had me trapped
in his house, a gilded cage for his angel.
night, the wine flowed freely. He seemed relaxed and more talkative than usual.
Eventually he dozed in his chair. I grabbed the wine bottle and broke it on his
brow. He bled and I ran, blindly. I didn’t know where to go. My footfalls
echoed in the empty house like cruel laughter. The house mocked me further. I
swear its walls moved. Despite my attempts to run northwards, towards the front
door, I found myself in the Portrait Room. I turned to run but he was there in
the doorway. He loomed, blood dripping from his forehead, his face demonic with
rage. I had no choice. I ran to the locked door, desperate, and to my delight
it opened at my touch. He raced after me, silent, as if on wings, and I looked
into the darkness beyond the door. The scream was louder now, and there were
more; a host of tortured cries crept out with an icy cold that tried to suck me
in, to swallow me. I turned and he was behind me now, still beautiful,
terrible. I could not move.
grabbed me, clasped my arms, his fingers biting my flesh. His eyes bore into
me, and I knew I was doomed. He forced me back, into the dark, down into
now I am here. He dragged me past what looked like torture chambers, with men
and women in shackles, but their screams seemed breathier, the groans were
groans of pleasure.
cell is small. There are no windows down here. When he comes to me he treats me
kindly. I cannot hate him. I love him. When I’m alone I hear the pleasured pain
of his other lovers and I echo their cries. Waves of bliss wash over me. I
shudder to think of him.
I cannot forget. When I am quiet the stories of the library come back to me. I remember
the tales of Nature’s beauty, of kind lovers, of sweet caresses that don’t
leave bruises. I remember my lake. I miss the sunshine.
house hears my thoughts. I’m sure of it. Sometimes my cell door opens of its
own accord, when the others are silent, daring me to leave, but I cannot. He
needs me. He loves me.
am growing weaker. He hates my lank hair, my bony frame. I hate that I am
shrivelling. I cannot please him like this. I must wash myself.
door is open. A flicker of torchlight hurts my eyes. Perhaps I can make it to the
lake. I need to be clean.
feel dizzy but I can stand. My fingernails are bloody. I am stumbling forward,
towards the light. I can smell freshness. The corridor seems shorter than
before. The house is listening. There are no stairs, just a gentle slope to an
Portrait Room is streaked with moonlight. The windows are open. I can reach the
ground outside. The grass is dew-laden. I wander towards the lake. I can wash.
I can be beautiful for him again.
water is warm. I walk in and it soothes my sores. The lake’s bed is soft as
sand. The moonlight shimmers about me, in my hair. I remember the night he came
for me. I remember his eyes. They seemed so bright. How they’ve changed.
I am swimming. Do I need to go back to the house? He will join me, like he did
reached the other side. I hesitate. The water is so warm. I could just sink...
pushes me on. I climb upwards, onto the shore. I look back. The house seems so
small from here.
sun is coming up, to my left. Its warm rays are drying my clothes. I stare at
there, at the door. My heart stutters. I love him. My beautiful monster.
turn. I am walking towards the hills. Maybe he’ll find me there. I hope he
does. I’ll be beautiful there.
She was a mere bud when her mother began to wither. The child was summoned to the lady's room each evening at dusk. On the days when the sickness was not all that occupied her mind Lyall would try to impart a short lifetime's worth of experience upon the girl. Ysabella was told that she must always be dutiful and obedient and kind, an oath she swore the night her mother coughed the last of a life from her body.
The child's earliest memories were of her father's tears and her mother's ghost.
Still, in a short time her father learnt to replenish himself with ale and her mother died yet another little death; Ysabella watched helplessly as time stole the lady's face from the child's memory. Only the words remained. Ysabella swore to remember her promise to her mother, though she could remember little else of her.
She was fifteen when her father told her that she needed a mother. Ysabella protested that she already had one. The next day her father went away on business and she spent the time he was gone scrubbing and cleaning their home, wanting to show him that they were not left wanting. She worked until her fingernails were charcoal and her face ash, and she was in this state when her father returned with a woman and two children by his side.
The lady commented that Ysabella was filthy, eyes boring into her dark complexion beneath the soot. She took a hand of each of her children and dragged them up the stairs, leaving Ysabella alone with her questions and her father.
Briskly, he spoke. “That is my new wife, the Lady Greer. You must teach yourself to love her because I have asked it of you.” Ysabella shuddered by her father's side for both the lady and her daughters had looked cold and severe, but she remembered her promise to be dutiful, and asked:
“How am I to love them, father? I love only you, that has always been enough.”
Her father bent beside her, warming his hands by the coals. “You must learn to love them piece by piece,” he said. “That is the only way to love.” He explained that his new wife had loved first his purse, then his title and that the rest had followed. At his words Ysabella tried to learn to love her new family bit by bit.
She loved her stepmother and the eldest daughter, Alyth, for their absence. The week of their arrival they had been an unavoidable force as a parade of dressers, silks, brocades and jewels moved into Ysabella's home, working their way into long empty corners and long forgotten nooks; however, the storm of them gradually diminished. Soon they were out most nights, attending endless parties throughout the kingdom. Her stepmother had explained that Alyth was to become a woman of society and that it was important for her to be seen with the right people in the right places, and Ysabella dared question her no further in case she brought about the end of these cherished reprieves.
That left the youngest, Mysie. Ysabella would study her during long periods of silence, time they would spend reading in one another's company, sometimes by the fire, sometimes in their sprawling garden. At first Ysabella mistook the quiet of her stepsister for coldness, believing the girl would not deign to engage with her, but once she took her father's advice and started to look not at the complete puzzle but at the pieces she began to understand.
They were forced to share a bedroom. Ysabella's father had built a property under the belief that the size of a room was a true indication of wealth, not the number of them a house held. Alyth insisted that she should have her own space, being seventeen and on the cusp of something or other; Ysabella often tuned out the specifics for the sake of her sanity. Mysie and Ysabella spent their first nights in silence and as such Ysabella did not notice Mysie's noiseless tears for many weeks. Moonlight betrayed Mysie in the end.
“Sister, why do you cry?” Ysabella asked the first night she saw the water leak upon a plump pillow. Mysie had no words; she turned to face the far wall and they both quickly gave themselves to sleep.
Ysabella asked her question each night for a fortnight and each night she was met with silence, until finally:
“Sister, why do you cry?”
“This bed is too big,” Mysie said. “This city is far too big.” And in a moment Ysabella realised that she had considered nothing but her own feelings since her new family had moved into her home. They had merely been not there and then there; she had never considered the there they had left behind.
Then Ysabella loved Mysie for her stillness, a quiet that was so different to the shattering racket that accompanied Alyth everywhere, different further still from the excluding silence that Ysabella's stepmother used as a weapon. Mysie's quietude was calculated, considered; she spoke only when she felt she had something worth saying, unlike her sister who tried to fill all silences to the very brim with any word she could grasp between her slender fingers. Alyth spoke to speak; Mysie spoke to be heard.
Then she loved the shape of her. The others were all corners and sharp angles but Mysie was made of pillows. She was rounder than any of them, her stomach curved and protruding, but she carried herself in a way that made it seem as though she took up less room than anything in the house, commanding spaces to fit comfortably around her. She made her own girth convention so that it was those around her who were lacking, not she who had overindulged. Ysabella grew to love her scent, the lingering aroma of fresh bread that hung to her every fold. She loved her hair, so red that flames shied away from the light of it. She loved the dexterity of her hands and the artwork she made with them. She loved her candour. As Ysabella's father had instructed, she learnt to love her bit by bit.
“You have charcoal on your nose,” Ysabella laughed once, one twilight, and she pounced before Mysie could stop her, rubbing the evidence of her art from the bridge.
Mysie chastised her, “Still Ella, still,” though there was no real vexation there.
Ysabella lay by the burning furnace as her stepsister became lost in concentration, sketching Ysabella a smudged brow. The stone floor scratched at Ysabella's back but she tried to mimic Mysie's natural serenity as the girl drew. Wildfire danced across Mysie's face.
“When you came here, I thought you were cold,” she told Mysie. They were sixteen now, left to grow together by a father who chose to drink ale and a mother and sister who chose to suckle the teat of commerce. Bit by bit, piece by piece. Ysabella cherished these moments where they were free of the interlopers who disguised themselves as family. The house warmed.
“And now?” Mysie said, her focus shifting from parchment to model.
“Now you're fire,” Ysabella said.
Mysie's eyes smiled behind half moon frames.
In that moment, at last, Ysabella grew to love those tawny eyes that were a perfect mirror of her own. She thought, this is it. This is the final piece.
That night as they went to rest Ysabella found herself overcome by a sadness she could not name. She did not have Mysie's quietness so she tried to muffle her gasps against the pillows; not even the layers of cushion could disguise the sound. She could not remember crying before. Each time she had felt the inclination in the past she had leaked words instead of tears, a torrent of words. Now there was only water.
“Sister?” Mysie's voice crept along wooden boards.
Ysabella bit down on her tongue so hard she feared she may bleed.
“Why do you cry?” Ysabella felt Mysie's weight press against the bed, against her quilted thigh. Her hands petted Ysabella's pitch black hair, whispering soothing platitudes with her fingertips. Ysabella allowed those hands to guide her onto her back, was forced to confront the kind face she had grown to know every line of. She clasped a hand to her chest, nails working into the skin of her left breast. “It is too big,” she managed to say between mewls. “It is far too big.”
Mysie laid her hand against Ysabella's, holding it reassuringly with her own. Ysabella's heart beat against their interlocking fingers. Without making a sound Mysie told her that she understood, and then she taught Ysabella the secret of her silence. She pressed her claret lips first against the forehead, then the bridge, then the cheek, and on. With each touch Ysabella's tears quietened. Mysie stole the noisy sadness from her with muted caresses.
Ysabella in turn welcomed the young woman's touch. She allowed herself to feel the warmth she had shied away from, opening herself to the licks of Mysie's flames. She drew Mysie beneath the sheets so that the velvet tipped, hugging their bodies. The bed that had often felt too big at once seemed to fit them like a custom-crafted slipper.
Soon Ysabella found there were still hidden parts of Mysie left to love.
They had happily thought themselves abandoned, not knowing that the Lady Greer's nature gifted her with an ability to see around corners and behind closed doors. She had a suspicious quality to her, one that fed her gaze and allowed her to see not only what was but what could be. This distrust of all she met enabled her to note the change that had come over her youngest daughter since they had moved, allowed her to lock away each secret look and each cautious smile. The closeness of the girls was a constant source of irritation to the woman, though the strain of it wormed itself so deep within her that it could not be read upon the shadow of her face.
She despised her stepdaughter for the shame of their association, the whispers that followed her at balls. She heard what they called her, that slur: mother of the cinder child. The words echoed against the skull with every step she took, cinder, cinder, and she hated the cinder child, despised her husband for keeping the truth of it from her. That he had brought his wife back from his travels overseas, that she had bore him a cinder child of her own likeness, that had held no significance to him. That careless lush, Greer thought, resentment dribbling through her, too drunk to hear the whispers, too blinded by ale to recognise that his child was unnatural, a child of the ashes. But Greer saw. She knew that the child's darkness would muddy her own if she was not careful, so she watched. She listened.
And then one day, she saw.
She was not surprised when she found them sharing one bed, her daughter's arm resting upon the night child's unblemished skin. What did disconcert was how fiercely she felt the rage swell within her, crashing against her ribcage. It was so loud that it woke the sleeping girls, though Greer had not made a sound. Her stepdaughter bolted up, springing to life in an instant. Her movement caused her nightshirt to slip and reveal a shameless breast; it mocked Greer with its pertness, the near untouched blush of it. She began to tell tales of being cold in the night but Mysie's silence told her mother all that she had already known. Her daughter had not yet learnt to keep her thoughts from her face. No mind, Greer thought, it shall come with time.
She held a hand to hush her stepdaughter and said:
“Your father is dead.”
She turned to the door and was set to leave but the compulsion to look back at the girls once more overwhelmed her. Ysabella's mouth was agape. Mysie had not moved.
“We are ruined.” Greer spat her parting shot. Then she walked away and left the girls to their silence.
They were left enough money to maintain the estate and their current lifestyle, though they all knew this would not last further than the year end. A lot of their money had been spent on her father's daily dose of poison and for the first time Ysabella resented her father for his affliction, his demons, his cowardice. She knew now that he had died with her mother, that she had raised herself alone.
She wanted to rage against her stepmother, to rain down the anger she felt towards her father for leaving her under the woman's control, but she remembered her promise to her mother:
So she tried. She tried when Alyth began to call her Cinder Ella to her face, muddying Mysie's pet name for her with slurs Ysabella had often heard cast at the local shoemaker and his son. Never before had she made the association, never had she realised that people were using the term as a knife. Inside she rallied against the poison of it, for Tom the shoemaker and Wilhelm his son, for her dead mother, for herself.
But the words, the words: dutiful, obedient, kind, dutiful, obedient...
And so she tried. She tried when her stepmother took away her fine clothes, her few precious stones, needing to sell them for the good of the family without Alyth or Mysie having to pay a similar penance. She tried when Alyth and her mother found themselves in the house more and more often, eyes following Ysabella through every room, into every private place. She tried when the Lady Greer piled throws and rags beside the fire in their kitchen, when she promised that Ysabella would never find herself cold in the night again. At first Mysie protested, offered to sleep there instead, argued that it had been Ysabella's bedroom first and that it should be her room to the end, but in time she was worn, beaten, tired. Her mother broke her with a quiet violence, using the girl's own stillness against her. Soon Mysie gave herself to laconic despair.
Ysabella wavered then, her resolve shaken by her companion's reticence. The girl no longer shared with her, not her words or her quiet. She crawled within herself and Ysabella recognised it, had seen the same thing happen to her father when he had lost his love. Her fire waned. The worst of it came when she became cold, treating Ysabella as though she were a stranger to her. That was harder than Alyth openly scorning her or than her stepmother treating her as though she were a maid. It was Mysie's quiet, the first thing she had loved of her, that truly injured Ysabella in the end.
The girl gave herself to cinders and ash, but that is a story you are likely to have heard before.
There was to be a ball. There was to be a prince. Alyth and Mysie were to be paraded, sold. Ysabella's invite was lost to the hearth. They were taken and she was left with rodents, birds, frogs and toads, her only company. For months she had laboured, she had fallen, she had remained obedient, the word rattling inside her mind, never relenting. She escaped to the garden, the one place her stepmother and sister never found her because they were afraid of the nature of it, the very life it held. Ysabella wanted to weep but she could not find the tears. She wanted to cry out but she could not find the words. She managed a weak moan.
“Hush, child,” the voice came, deep and firm.
Ysabella spun, trying to ascertain the source of the words. She was alone but for the plants and her animals. The blackbird she had come to know as Branwenn circled just above her, near invisible against the dark sky. It landed on the soil before her and its shadow grew, twisting and changing into that of a slender woman, the shape of her dancing on the moonlit stones.
The bird woman began to speak of godmothers and wishes and promises and curses and the words washed over Ysabella like silk. A pumpkin turned into a carriage, frogs and toads turned into footmen and drivers, mice transformed, birds turning into distortions of their former selves. It is a magic that is well-known. Branwenn's final words, “Fly, little bird,” chased Ysabella along clouds.
A ball. A prince. A young girl walking on glass.
“Dance with me?”
“Yes, my prince,” she said with a smile, allowing him to guide her alongside the music. He spent each dance of the evening pressed against her, much to the dismay of his advisers. All eyes followed them as they waltzed between guests but there was only one gaze that Ysabella thought of, her own eyes searching out those that were a mirror of her own. She could not find her, though she did meet Alyth at one point. The girl recognised her, of course she recognised her, but the brazenness of Ysabella's act overrode Alyth's good sense. It could not be her, the cinder child, this gilded beauty who had captured the attention of the prince. Denial is magic of a sort. It could not be, her head told her, so it wasn't. Her face was contorted, hateful. It was the first time Ysabella had seen her stepsister look truly ugly.
He loved her immediately, or so the prince cooed, dragging her from the lights and noise of the party to the suffocating solitude of the balcony. A name, a name, his sweet needed a name.
“Cinderella,” Ysabella said without thought, wearing her scars as armour.
The scent of pumpkin clung to her clothes.
“Sweet Cinderella,” the prince smiled, and it was not an unpleasant smile, though a trifle foolish.
Ysabella remembered her promise to her mother: always be kind. She entertained him. She told him stories, obscure little stories, and on occasion he laughed in the right places. She charmed him with little lies, fantasies about the riches and happiness she had left behind. She played the game and for a while it was effortless.
But as ever, all that is pretend must come to an end.
“Why do you love me?” she asked with lowered brows.
“Because you are beautiful,” came the reply, and it was the one that she had expected.
“But what of me is beautiful?” she tried. She wanted to know the bits and pieces of it all. The prince faltered, he would not, could not answer. She was no different to the paintings in his great hall: beautiful, untouchable, to be gazed at, enjoyed, but not engaged with. Not known. It was not his fault, she knew. It was just not the way she had been taught to love.
The clock struck and the game was at an end.
She fled for the sake of them both, leaving behind only one slipper, a token, an apology. She fled to her garden, to her haven. She heard her family return home a little after two, heard her stepmother lost to her own suspicions as she stalked to her bedroom, heard Alyth whining about a stranger who had monopolised the prince. She felt Mysie before she heard her, felt the eyes she had sought out all evening as they took in her now tattered dress, her bare feet.
“Did you enjoy yourself tonight?” Ysabella asked once the silence became too thick, finding shelter under the great tree. There was an edge to her voice, one she had not anticipated, but Mysie's response when it came was playful.
“Not as much as you did, your highness.”
Ysabella allowed herself to turn then, to look upon the face she had missed so. There you are, she thought, exalted. There you are.
“Do not tease,” Ysabella teased. “I would make a wonderful queen. Did you not see how expertly I managed the chain dance? My blood runs blue. Bluer than my frock,” she finished, forgetting her gown had muddied at midnight.
Mysie, no longer lost within herself, no longer wilting, opened like a flower. “You daft arse,” she laughed. “You could never be one of them. You are too uncouth. Your mouse is more refined,” she said, and at the words the littlest of the lot looked up from the smashed pumpkin it had been gnawing on, allowing an offended squeak.
“My servants will have your head,” Ysabella said, and then because she could not help herself, “What has brought about this change in you? I thought I had lost you.”
“I was lost.” Mysie looked wounded then, abashed, ashamed. “I thought that they would feel less threatened if I were to distance myself from you. I thought that they would relent, treat you better. I was foolish.” Mysie came closer, stood in the path of moonlight that fell on branches and stone. “I thought I could pretend.”
“And I,” Ysabella said, eyes dancing. “Tonight. I thought I could play a princess but I couldn't. Nobody can walk on glass forever.” Then, with a smile, she glanced at her own nude feet. “I could not even do it for one night.”
She laughed then, a laugh that promised both joy and tears. Mysie joined her against the tree and together they revelled in the nakedness of the moment.
The prince found her within two days. He scoured the kingdom and the citizens pointed him towards the Lady Greer, towards her two haughty daughters and the girl they had covered in ashes. Despite the protestations of the youngest sister, despite the mother's glares, he found the girl in their garden and he forced a glass slipper upon her foot. It seemed to him that it joined her perfectly, though she claimed it hurt, that it was not the right fit.
The modesty of her. He knew he had found his queen.
The mother made no comment. The eldest daughter moaned, it could not be, it could not be, why her and not me, why her? The youngest became positively wild and had to be restrained by the prince's loyal footman. She threw curses at him like they were spears and the prince pitied his love, was enraged on her behalf as he eyed her oppressors. He thanked his gods that he had found her, that he had saved her from these monsters.
Still his love, ever dutiful, ever obedient, ever kind, still she approached the wild girl with the hair of fire and rested her hand upon a bare arm, whispered secret words into her ear. The prince could not hear any of it but his sweet queen's promises tamed the beast; the queen's stepsister fell silent, her eyes resigned. My selfless girl, the prince thought to himself, even now she pities those who have belittled her, those who forced her into rags and grime.
Then, without another word, the girl followed him to his castle.
She blamed herself. She had let the prince fall in love with her lies and now she was to be punished. She allowed herself one small mercy; now she could support her family, the lot of them. Though they had treated her poorly Greer and Alyth were still of Mysie's blood and she would treat them accordingly. Her new position opened her to wealth, to some power, and she would not waste it. These were the condolences Ysabella allowed herself during that first week leading to the wedding and the coronation, a week that was a whirling mess of ribbons, gowns and gifts.
It was at the ceremony following the wedding that the prince made his greatest gift known to her.
“My love,” he began, “You are dutiful and you are obedient and you are kind, and as such you have pleaded for the life of your family, though they have derided and demeaned you. Their life I have granted them because it is what you desired. But you are new to the ways of the court, you are pure and good and you do not understand that kindness is not always repaid in kind. This lesson is my gift to you.”
The footman approached with a box, a green velvet box. Guests chattered amongst themselves.
“Your stepmother and sisters have been banished from the kingdom, given a home in the borders,” the prince continued as Ysabella fingered the clasp. She did not want to open it, her intuition screaming, but she knew she must. “They will live in peace because it is what you have asked of me. But first, my queen, they were sentenced to the birds.”
Ysabella opened the box. She closed her eyes when she saw theirs looking back at her accusingly.
“Two from your stepmother, who by rights should be dead, and one from both sisters, plucked from each ugly head,” the footman waxed, then he giggled at his own rhyme. The prince was proud.
“You will come to love the law of the land because I have asked it of you,” he said, and Ysabella found herself smiling back at him, unable to stop herself. Relief flooded through her and she could not stop the grin that took command of her face, could not deny the joy that threatened to reveal her secret.
Four eyes in a box and not one of them resembled her own.
Ysabella knew she should pity her unseeing stepmother, her sightless stepsister, but too much lingered; she suspected that Alyth had been blind long before Branwenn plucked out both of her eyes. A final gift. The prince only saw wholes, not the bits and pieces of people, so he did not recognise that the eyes before him were all made of teal. There was not a fleck of chestnut amongst them. Ysabella saw and she could only smile. She is safe, she is safe, the new mantra replaced the old, her mother's words at last following her face to a place beyond memory, beyond significance.
She is safe.
There were many rumours following the wedding: tales of girls chopping off toes and heels, stories of midnight curfews and ugly stepsisters, of glass slippers and a girl rising from the ashes. Ysabella, the Bird Queen, the Phoenix. Queen Ysabella, the bird on fire, a fire that cast warmth and light across the entire kingdom throughout her reign. Ysabella ignited.
And now, reader, you know the source of her flames.
Gold was the colour of my true love’s hair. She wore it loose. Her skin was pale and bruised. She tore her rich dresses in the branches of trees. Her finger nails were filled with earth. She smelled of grass and leaves. She was a little thing but her laugh was as large as a man. Her mother begged her. Her father beat her. There was no taming such a wild princess.
My hair is black and coarse. My skin is much the same. My darkling, she would whisper in my ear. I am not beautiful. Though she said so. When we were girls and played at dressing up. When we were women and shared a bed. She would tear at my clothes with her royal paws. Playing the princess when she wanted. Thank the gods I loved her. It is likely I would have had no choice. She would tell me all her secrets. Dress me in her jewels. No one cared when no one knew. Then she would no longer hide me. She would sit me on her lap by the fireplace for all the servants to see. She would stroke my hair and laugh. She would laugh so sweetly at their hate.
I am a healer. I am not beautiful but I know things. So I am a witch. In whispers throughout the castle that is what they call me. They sought me when they hurt and shunned me when well. My princess did not care what others thought. Or perhaps she did and loved to defy them. When we were only little she saw the outcast girl that picked herbs in the forest and made her a friend. She had the power to make it so. I was lonely no longer. In payment I took away the scars on her back from her father’s wrath. We witches have our ways.
It was when they brought her suitors. Brutish boys as tall as men but with faces like children. They smiled at her as though she must have been born to love them. Each one she met and hated and fled. Once she even spat in a prince’s face. The guards spent hours searching for her. I found her in a tree. She heaved me up and cried against me and kissed my face and my mouth and my neck. Her strong little paws. She wanted me, she said. Not these men, these boys. These monsters. They would strut and brag and speak to her father of her as though she could not hear them. Or joke about her with the guards as though she were a whore. They spent a few weeks killing things in the woods and laughing with the other men and looking at my love. And smiling at my love. And talking at my love. I never heard them ask her a single question. It made her love me. I was her’s entirely. My loyalty to crown and country had long since collapsed into my love for her. She was my princess, my queen, my all. She loved me for my love.
It was not long after that she would insist I be the one to brush her hair. The hair that should have been bound in pins and intricate knots but fell free to her ankles. I must be the one to bring her food, to dress her, to bathe her. No other servant would do, not the ones who had spent their lives doing these tasks. It was to be the dark witch girl. She would make the rest leave. She would brush my hair and cover me in jewels and silks no matter how I argued. My darkling, do not make me issue a royal command, she would laugh and force me to the chair. Or pull me into her bed. For a time my life was all expensive sheets, golden hair, laughing eyes and pleasure. Her parents heard rumours. Such nasty rumours. Bewitched. The savage princess must be bewitched by that ugly, dark girl. Corrupting. Perverting. Such sweet perversion is love.
At last her father commanded that I be sent out to one of the villages. They have more need of a healer than a castle with its many physicians. He was reasonable. Forceful. I did not argue. As though I could and keep my life. My love was less demure. She screamed and raged in ways I never knew. I left. A kitchen girl told me how for weeks the princess would tear rooms apart, she would rip her clothes, smash her plates of food. They brought a prince to sedate her. She ripped open his face. Her parents were afraid of their savage daughter. Even her father quaked. They brought me back. The middle of the night the guards came. The air was dark blue and the candles of the castle burnt gold. I was a surprise it seems. My scowling princess raged into the room asking why she should take commands. The scowl fell beneath her running feet and she grabbed at me and wept. My darling little lion. Gold and cruel and mine.
We knew it would not last. Her parents did not want this tyrant for a daughter. The same kitchen girl, who did not hate me when I cured her baby’s cough, told us how they planned to tame her. Another prince. A grown man, scarred by war, solid and strong and willing to take my love however he had to for the generous dowry. We ran. We dressed in rough servants’ clothes and hid in the those woods we loved. We moved deeper and deeper and found the crumbling tower of an old castle. Our home together. We allowed no door, only one wide window at the very top which we could climb to by a rope ladder I made. Two years almost. Two years a home to my love and I. She was no longer a princess. She had no silks or jewels to crush me with and no one to defy. Yet we were happy. Her laugh was even stronger. We drank the rain and dressed in woodland and had each other. I would hunt through the woods for herbs and rabbits and apples. I did not tell my love that one cannot get fruit all year round. She was too rich to know and I had my ways. Witches often do. So we feasted happily. I would climb our ladder and halfway up the tower I would be greeted by her loose golden hair that grew and grew so well since I began brushing it. I would tug it gently when I climbed and she would laugh and greet me with her mouth.
I was picking blackberries, my arms full of thorns. He climbed up the tower. She did not know. She must have hung down her hair. I found what he ripped out of her at the foot of our home. She must have greeted him with her claws. There is blood beneath her fingernails. Our mirror is in red pieces like jewels. Our sheets are torn. At the foot of our bed is the rest of her golden hair tainted with blood. Her pale bruised skin. Her hair is as soft as it ever was. My princess was a savage one. I can be more cruel. I will find the monster that took her. We witches have our ways. They may have whispered their hate before. I will make them scream it aloud for all the gods to hear. They will know how I loved her. They will know in flames of gold.