Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Animal Kingdom, Part One

Just for fun, I'm going to serialize a story on the blog ... kind of an adult fairy tale with a talking dog (who doesn't have much to say, except about getting scratched behind the ears and rolling in dead stuff). I'll put up a section every week until it's done.

Princess Katerina’s life was as perfectly arranged as her father’s gardens. In the formal plantings cut by gravel walks, each season had an array of flowers that came into bloom in stately waves of color as the seasons changed. It was a visual symphony that the King orchestrated himself, every day all year round, on his hands and knees in the dirt, meticulously pruning and weeding the shrubs and flowers. He had gardeners of course, but he didn’t let them into his private garden. He said it was because he didn’t trust them, but the truth was he didn’t want to share the fun. There wasn’t much fun in his life since his wife had died; he tended to hoard the little that was left.

He had groomed and tended his daughter in much the same way. She was educated in all the arts and sciences; she had been taught to ride and to hunt, to cook and to sew, to play chess and work the abacus. At twenty, she was a gracious hostess, an excellent cook and a deadly warrior with a bow or a sword. An impeccable marriage had been arranged with a Prince from an adjoining barony. His name was Torvald. He was handsome and charming and solicitous. The marriage was set for the first day of June.

Katerina had every reason to be happy. But she wasn’t.

In fact she had been growing more and more miserable over the last months. She had lost interest in her studies, she scarcely ate any more, and the only time she went outside was just before dawn, when she would visit the stables to curry her favorite horse, Lochinvar. Some days she would take long rides on the big roan stallion with the flash of white on his forehead, disappearing for hours at a time into the woods beyond the town at the foot of the castle. The only other creature whose company she could bear was a hunting dog named Wilf. He was a mutt who had come to the door of the servant’s quarters the previous year. Katerina’s personal maid had taken him in. She and Katerina had fed him and nursed him and saved his life.

Now the dog ran beside Lochinvar tirelessly on those long morning excursions. Dogs and horses generally didn’t get along, but these two had become fast friends instantly.

The only person who didn’t question Katerina’s darkening state of mind was Anders, the stable master. He didn’t ask how she was feeling or suggest remedies for her sorrow. He didn’t badger her to smile as her father did. He didn’t taunt her for her unwillingness to go out in society as Torvald did. He didn’t object to her preference for torn pantaloons and men’s blouses over the brocade dresses and gowns that were made especially for her by the royal seamstresses. He simply bridled her horse and called Wilf from the recesses of the barn. He would hand her Lochinvar’s reins with a shy smile and help her up into the saddle though they both knew she didn’t require the assistance. He spoke so little, many people thought he was mute. They found his open-eyed stare unnerving (some suspected he was simple; others claimed he was a warlock), but Katerina liked it. No one else except her father was willing to look directly into her eyes. Not even Torvald.

Anders had helped her once. She suffered from tightness of breath. There were some terrible hours when she felt as if she could hardly breathe at all, as if she were drowning in the sunshine. The court doctors prescribed various potions, leeches had been applied to her bosom, but none of it helped. When the attacks came she could only sit up in bed and haul the air into her lungs with all her might, as she would pull on a rope attached to a boulder, dragging it across a muddy field. It was exhausting.

One day, her lungs closed while she was riding Lochinvar. The big horse sensed there was trouble and galloped as fast as he could back to the castle. Katerina barely had to touch his flanks with her heel. She released the reins, hugged his neck and leaned forward, resting her head on him, letting the world rumble through her as she fought for breath.

She didn’t know how bad it was until she saw Anders’ face at the stable. He was wide-eyed with shock and fear. He made her sit down, held out a hand as if to say “Wait here” and vanished. When he returned five minutes later, he had some yellow berries in his hand.

“Crush these between your fingers and inhale the vapor,” he said.
She looked at them dubiously.

“Please,” he said. “They will help you,” He held out the berries again. Katerina was impressed. This was the most Anders had ever said to her. She took the berries and squeezed them between her thumb and forefinger. Blood-red juice spurted out with a sickly smell of rotting fruit and mildew. She grimaced. Anders shook his head. Lochinvar and Wilf had joined her now, the big horse gently nudging her head with his, the brown and white dog lying down with his spotted muzzle in her lap. She felt loved and safe, surrounded by friends. Best of all her lungs opened up and she could breathe again.

She stood up. She hugged Anders. Anders flinched: this was an unthinkable breach of protocol. He could be executed like a common criminal if anyone saw them. But Katerina didn’t care. They were alone in the stable. No one ever came down here, except on hunt days.

“It worked,” she said into his ear. “I can breathe again. Thank you so much.”

“I was glad to be of service, Princess,” he said.

She kissed his cheek. “How did you do it?” she asked him. “How did you know about those berries?”

“My father taught me. He was a great healer. He knew hundreds of herbs and salves. He spent his life studying them.”

“What happened to him?”

“He saved the life of the King of France. And he was guillotined for witchcraft.”

She pulled away a little. “I’m so sorry.”

“I had to run away. They wanted to kill me, too. I took his notes and formulas and I’ve kept them. But they have to stay secret. People can’t accept such things. People are afraid.”

He gave her the berries whenever she needed them after that and her difficulties with breathing ended and the court doctors called it a miracle.
“In other words,” Anders said ruefully, “They can’t take the credit but there’s no one to blame.”
And that was all he said.

As time went on and the date of the Princess’ nuptials approached, she sank deeper and deeper into the sadness that no one could explain. Little noises alarmed her, the prospect of a simple family dinner filled her with dread and loathing.
She wanted to tell her father to cancel the wedding; she wanted to tell Torvald that their engagement was broken. But she couldn’t. Instead she kept more and more to herself riding Lochinvar and tending to the horses in the stable. Anders was glad for the help and he never questioned the eccentricity of the Princess’ behavior – after all, everyone knew that her father poked around in the dirt working his garden, with thorn cuts on his wrists and blossoms in his hair. They were an odd family, and that was that. One didn’t question the idiosyncrasies of the nobility, just as you tried your best to conceal your own. The world was not so tolerant of ordinary people, as Anders’ father had discovered.

As it turned out, he was able to help the Princess again, a few weeks later. It was the middle of June and the household was like an occupied country. The servants scuttled from room to room quietly; no one wanted to be noticed. The King would pillory a maid who smiled at him, have a master at hounds whipped for not smiling, banish a chef for no reason at all. He was at war with his daughter and anyone might be a casualty at any time.

Katerina had simply not appeared at her own wedding, humiliating the groom and her father in front of hundreds of guests and townspeople. Worse than that, she refused to either apologize or explain. To Torvald she just said, “I cannot see you any more.” When her father confronted her in a rage she said nothing until he had talked himself out, then asked quietly, “May I go now?”

He let her go, but followed her to the stables and watched her gallop off on Lochinvar. That decided him: her obsession with that horse was the root of the problem. The King didn’t brood over problems, he solved them. And the obvious solution to this problem was to get rid of the horse. He had gotten rid of several unacceptable human suitors in the last few years, sending them off to distant wars being fought over various indeterminate slights by his allies to the North and East.
This equine interloper would be even easier to deal with. His stable was the envy of his vassals and any of them would be honored by the gift. It was only a question of which one of them to choose.

The King made the announcement the next night at dinner. “I’m giving the horse Lochinvar away to the Baron of Vilny,” he said. “His stable has been depleted by injury and Lochinvar is an irksome animal anyway. Very moody and difficult. Apparently he kicked one of the stable boys last month.”

“He’s not difficult if you know how to treat him,” Katerina replied. “You just have to spend time with him.”

It was the wrong thing to say.

“Well, it seems to me that you’ve been spending far too much time with that horse, young lady. It’s not healthy. You’ve been neglecting your responsibilities and the people around you. Everyone is upset. I’m worried about you. And Torvald is heartbroken.”

A torrent of answers cascaded through her mind – that Torvald’s heart was like his nose: broken many times, with little effect except to made him more attractive to certain kinds of women, one of whom he was seeing already. That Lochinvar had ten times Torvald’s character, and was much better company as well. That if anyone was worried or upset, this was the first she had heard about it. In fact, everyone had been avoiding her as if she had some contagious disease. Some physical ailment would have been an improvement. The fact that the illness was in her mind appalled and disgusted everyone. She could see it in their faces. She could hear it in the exaggerated courtesy with which they treated her, as if one wrong word might send her over the edge.

She wanted to say everything -- shout it in her father’s face. But she couldn’t. She didn’t have the strength, it wouldn’t do any good and besides, she knew the moment she started to speak she’d start crying.

Instead, she excused herself from the table.

“I know where you’re going,” her father called after her. “Say your goodbyes while you can! The horse is leaving for Vilny at first light tomorrow.”

Katerina ran to the stables. She had never been so unhappy. It was as if she had been trapped in a dark room for weeks, comforting herself that at least there was space around her; but now she had reached out her arms and touched the walls. She was in a tiny, airless room – a cell, a closet. And still no one would hear her when she screamed, no one would come to let her out.

It was a clear night, warm and calm with a bright crust of stars above her. She ran all the way to the stables and when she got there she was alone. Anders had dismissed the stable boys and gone to bed early. Well, of course, that made sense. He had a big day tomorrow. No doubt a trip to Vilny was an exciting prospect, what with the crowds, and the shops and the beautiful women. It would have to be a country boy’s dream come true.

She hated Anders at that moment. She hated her father and his cronies. She hated her mother for dying. She hated the tiptoeing servants and tutors who whispered around her as if she were insane. She hated everyone and everything.

Except Lochinvar; and Wilf.

The shaggy, sweet-tempered dog had fallen into step beside her. Normally she brought biscuits from the kitchen for him, but she had forgotten tonight.

“No Biscuits?”

She stopped running and looked around. She was out of breath and the courtyard was silent under the stars.

“Who said that?,” she called. Her own voice alarmed her. It sounded like someone else’s. No one answered. She looked around. No scuttling furtive figures, no heads disappearing around corners. She looked down at Wilf. His head was cocked inquiringly. His tail was tapping steadily on the stone work of the enclosure.

Their eyes met.

“No biscuits?,” he said again.

Katerina put her hand to her mouth and stepped back. The dog had spoken to her.
Everyone was right – she was insane. She had finally unhooked the last cables of her rational mind and floated away.

But she found herself talking to the dog, anyway. There didn’t seem to be any reason not to.

“I forgot them,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I love you. Pet me.”

She scratched behind Wilf’s ear and they walked together to the stables.

In the sweet, hay-smelling shadows, Lochinvar spoke to her also. “I missed you,” he said.

She hugged his neck. “I missed you, too.”

If this was madness, madness might not be such a bad thing after all.

It was long after dark when they returned from their ride. Katerina was currying the big horse with Wilf at her feet. It was a favorite ritual for both of them (She knew for certain now what she had always presumed), but she was distracted tonight. She knew she would be losing him in the morning. She finished finally, and kissed the white flash between his eyes. She didn’t have the heart to say goodbye.

Lochinvar pushed at her head with his own. It something he did often.

“What does it mean when you do that?,” she asked him.

He looked down. “It means … be happy.”

“I can’t tonight,” she said.

She hugged him once more and left the stable.

No comments: