Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Animal Kingdom, Part Three

Over the next few days the power of the leaves faded gradually, and Katerina learned that she needed to swallow their juice roughly once every seventy-two hours. Within a fortnight, she had taken her last dose and the world started to darken and to bulk above her again. Each movement out of the corner of her eye was frightening; every shadow had some evil intent. The walls were closing in.
With the despair chewing away the edges of her mind, her life at home was turning into torture. The brief lightening of her mood had only served to harden her father’s resolve that she marry Torvald. Much was at stake in that union – the combining of the two families’ land and resources and vassals; a military treaty; a powerful new alliance. Her “feelings” – whatever they might be – mattered about as much as her knowledge of Latin vocabulary. Her father made this clear to her in a series of conversations that ended with him shouting himself hoarse and her leaving the room in tears.
The only solace in those days were her long rides on Lochinvar. Her father made no effort to stop her anymore. Short of actually confining her to her room there was no way to keep her away from the stables and he realized that she would always find a new horse to ride, unless he got rid of them all. He actually contemplated that course of action during one of his rages. There were times when he would have gladly torched the stable, slaughtered the animals, smashed and annihilated everything in Katerina’s world that turned her from his will, reduced his kingdom to dust and ashes just to see her on her knees.
But sanity prevailed. It was easier to give her this one freedom. Besides, the long rides seemed to calm her down and they certainly kept her occupied.
The one place she would never ride any more was the forest. The massive trees and their shadows frightened her.
“There is nothing to fear,” Lochinvar told her. He missed galloping in the woods.
“We’ll get lost. We’ll never get out again,” she replied.
“I never get lost,” Lochinvar said proudly. “I always know the way back. I remember every root that ever tripped me and where the good grass for grazing grows. Horses are smarter than people think. Much smarter than dogs.”
But the princess still refused.
One day, it a perfect mild blue day in the middle of July, Lochinvar decided to take matters onto his own hoofs. He raced into the woods with the Princess screaming at him to stop. He could feel her shaking on him, the light touch of her weight on his back trembling as she did in the winter sometimes, when they had run too far and too long through the fresh snow. He knew he should turn back but he wanted to help the princess and he didn’t know any other way to do it.
There was a clearing deep in the forest that would be lush with wild blackberries by now. Deer cropped the grass and a clear drinking stream gurgled over smooth rocks at the edge of the glade. It was one of Katerina’s favorite places, but her fear of the woods had exiled her from it this summer. Lochinvar knew she would be glad to see that enclosed little meadow again, to pick berries and sit by the stream with her feet dangling in the cool water. It was just a matter of getting through the dark tangle of trees, negotiating the twisting paths through the underbrush, that was all. Lochinvar had no gift for abstract thought, but the plan resonated with him, it connected somehow with the larger landscape of her personal difficulties as his own hoof beats matched his heartbeat.
He didn’t quite know why this adventure would help her.
But he knew that it would.
At first, when they entered the forest the Princess shut her eyes. But she looked up finally, and watched the trees flickering past in the dim light. She felt perfectly safe on Lochinvar, surrounded by the thunder of his hooves. For the moment, she actually enjoyed the helplessness, the sweet release of her will.
Lochinvar would take care of her. The forest was no threat while she was on his back.
After a few minutes, they burst into the clearing. Katerina had actually forgotten about it in her gloom. And all she had been able to think about during the wild ride was staying on Lochinvar’s back. After the shadows below the canopy of leaves the clearing was an explosion of light. It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust but soon she saw that it was more beautiful than ever. Between the grass, the dense leaves shifting softly in the breeze and the rustling rose hip bushes, it seemed like every shade of green in the world had joined together there in the soft July sunlight, a million tiny shields rallied to protect her in the bright heraldry of high summer.
The little stream was swollen from the recent rains, running fast and smooth and solid over the polished rocks, speaking in a rushing murmur that rhymed with the wind.
Katerina pulled off her shoes and walked across the carpet of grass to the bank of the little brook. She sat down and dangled her feet in the icy water just as she used to do, and the magic of the place began to affect her. Really, it was impossible to maintain a bad mood here. Every detail of the natural world conspired against you. She smiled to herself, giving in to the sudden ease in her heart and she had given in to Lochinvar’s power a few minutes before.
The horse had walked up behind her and was drinking from the little pool, a cup hollowed out of the rock, just downstream from her. He looked up and whinnied.
“What is it, boy?,” she asked. She stood up and stroked his neck. He just whinnied again. He wouldn’t –- or couldn’t –- speak to her now. She didn’t know what was wrong but she wanted to let him know it didn’t matter. Could he understand her words at this moment? Well, that didn’t really matter, either. They had always been able to communicate the essentials.
“It’s all right,” she cooed to him. He rubbed his head against hers. ”It’s all right.”

When they left the glade, a few minutes later, Katerina could feel her buoyant mood fading. It was nearly dusk and the shadows were growing in the forest. The old sense of menace was stealing back also. These woods were ancient, inhabited by primordial mysteries, forces coiled in the green depths since before there were people in the world. Who knew what quiet evil things shifted and slithered between the trees, once night had fallen? The place seemed to have a malignant intelligence of its own: she was being watched, studied with lip smacking anticipation by something old and foul and patient; it was in the smell of the rotting leaves and the sumac, the clittering rasp of the branches.
They had been riding for more than hour when Lochinvar turned left where he should have turned right and she realized they were lost.
She didn’t know what to do; all the clarity of mind she had felt in the clearing was gone. She just let Lochinvar crash through the underbrush with no guidance, her eyes closed, her fingers tangled in the coarse comfort of his mane.
When he finally stopped to look around him and sniff the air, she realized that she had been crying. She held her breath and listened: the wind, pushing through the high branches, Lochinvar’s breathing, the pattering of small steps nearby and, farther away, the sound of something bigger crashing through the woods. A wild boar, perhaps, or even a bear. She had heard stories of bears attacking the villagers – they ventured out of the forest sometimes in the spring, if they were hungry enough.
Katerina was scared. She was hungry. The warmth and light of the castle seemed to be part of a different world, as if oceans and mountain ranges lay between them, not just a few miles of forest and fields.
“It’s all right, Princess,” Lochinvar said softly.
She could understand him again! She wanted to speak but her voice was caught in her throat.
“I know the way now,” he said softly. “I remember it. I know this place. Just hold on tight and I’ll get us home.”
And he did. Moving at a gentle canter, he took her out of the timberland and across the plowed fields. His hoofs made a solemn drum beat against the paved streets of the town and soon they were through the gates of the castle and Lochinvar was walking into the musty, sweet-smelling darkness of the stable.

Katerina went to bed after waving away a flurry of concerned servants and reassuring her father that she had come to no harm. But she couldn’t sleep. She lay in her bed shaking, the despair crawling over her like insects. She was exiled from the clearing, now; she knew she wouldn’t be able to brave the dark woods again. She would throw herself off Lochinvar rather than face that ordeal.
Her only hope was that the herbalist Anders had mentioned would reach the castle soon. He was supposed to be on his way. If he was familiar with the gryphillaria, he must also know its urgency. Perhaps he was hurrying toward her at his very moment, pockets stuffed with the green speckled leaves.
She got her wish two days later, but it was -- as the man himself might have reminded her –- another one of God’s little pranks. He had nothing on his person, not even a few coins or a crucifix. And he was grievously injured. Highwaymen had attacked him as they had tried to attack Anders. But the herbalist had been on foot and unarmed –- easy pickings. Though they had left him for dead, he had managed somehow to make his way to the castle. He identified himself and asked for Anders. The two men spoke briefly; Anders made him up a pallet in the stable. Anders did what he could, but the man was beyond help and by the morning he was gone.
Anders knew he would have to tell the princess. He was hoping to delay the moment, he had no idea how to say what needed to be said, but she came to the stable early in the morning to see Lochinvar, with Wilf frolicking around her heels. And the words came easily as it turned out -- urgency composed them for him, as they had organized his hands and feet when a friend had led him onto the slope of a nearby quarry the previous spring. Anders had realized at a certain point that they would have to climb the vertical rock face; they had gone too far -- the slope was too high and steep to descend. But after a moment of panic, his hands and feet had taken over. They had reached the top of the cliff quickly. It was only afterward that the shaking began. It was the same now, with the words.
“I have bad news, princess,” he said quietly as she began currying Lochinvar. She wasn’t surprised; in her current state of mind she expected bad news. She almost relished it. The world would feel whole and complete if every optimistic thought could be torn out by the roots. They were like weeds, growing between the flagstones of the castle courtyard. A world of stone –- there was something strangely comforting in that image. So she actually had a small smile on her face when she turned to face Anders. Unlike her father and her fiancĂ©e, he understood that smile all too well. It daunted him and he almost left her.
But the words had to be spoken.
“The herbalist came here last night. He was badly hurt and … And he died a few hours ago. There was nothing he could explain to me about the gryphillaria. There’s no trick to identifying it, at least none that he could pass on to me. So … “
“So we’ll never be able to find it.”
Wilf whimpered and pawed at her leg. Lochinvar butted her head gently with his own. She knew that gesture and he knew her response; it was a catechism between them:
“Be happy.”
“I can’t.”
Nothing was spoken. She just stroked his withers and leaned back against him.
“I’m sorry, Princess,” Anders said finally. But his voice sounded puny, as if he was calling out to her from a distant hillside.
She thought things couldn’t get any worse, but as often happens when one is arrogant enough to think such thoughts, they did indeed get worse, almost immediately.
The next morning, Wilf was gone. At first Katerina thought he had just been chasing rabbits, or perhaps had followed one of the other horses in the stable when they were being exercised on the trails north of the town. But the horses all came back and Wilf didn’t. Katerina was sure he would turn up for his dinner – he had never missed a meal since she had adopted him. But that evening he was nowhere to be found.
Katerina spent hours walking the courtyard of the castle and then down into the town and the fields beyond, calling for him. By the time the full moon had risen, all the denizens of the castle and everyone in the village had heard her calling out to the dog, in an ever sadder and smaller voice. Most people recognized her, and many of them knew Wilf but there was nothing they could do to help. No one had seen the dog.
It was late at night when she finally returned to her chambers. She didn’t sleep until dawn and couldn’t be roused for her lessons. Prince Torvald, who was often at the castle consulting on matters relating to the upcoming nuptials with the King, listened with great interest as these difficulties were described to Katerina’s father by two distraught chamber maids and a Latin instructor.
Torvald had actually heard the Princess the night before, crying out to the dog, though he had felt no particular urge to join her. Dogs – domestic beasts in general – meant little to Torvald. They were meant only to be broken, harnessed and beaten until they were of no further use. After that, you ate their flesh, used their pelts for warmth and extracted their fat for heating oil. You wasted no part of them but it was foolish to waste your affections on them. They were insensate animal machinery, nothing more.
“Someone should talk to that girl,” he said when they were alone again.
“Excellent idea!,” the King roared. “This is your opportunity! Talk some sense to her! Be a man – take charge and show her what you’re made of. I’d talk to her myself but she needs a husband right now, not a father.”
“I’m not her husband, sire.”
“And you never will be if you don’t take some action! Now go. Be the thing you strive to become! Or you’ll never be anything but what you are.”
“And what is wrong with that?” Torvald was beginning to feel insulted. He was a proud young man.
The King patted his shoulder gently.
“We could all use some improvement,” he said.
Torvald found Katerina in her rooms a few minutes later. A distraught maid let him in, and stayed near the door to eavesdrop. She didn’t think any good could come of this meeting and she didn’t want to miss a single word. Gossip was currency in her world. She could barter a detailed recounting of this conversation for anything from new buttons for her dress to fresh lamb shanks for her dinner.
The Princess was staring out the window and she didn’t turn to greet him.
“Katerina,” he said. “This has to stop.”
She didn’t respond. Out in the fields beyond the town farmers were gathering the hay from the fields.
“People are talking about you. I hear the servants whispering. They say you’ve gone mad. They say you care more for some useless mongrel dog than you do for your husband to be.”
“They are correct,” she said quietly.
“Well the dog is surely dead by now, eaten by wolves.”
She turned. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears.
“Don’t say that!”
“It’s true. The filthy mutt will never lie on your bed again – if the rumors are true that you allow such outrages.”
The Princess stared at him, tilting her head up a little to look him in the eye. She spoke slowly and clearly as she would speak to Rollo, the retarded boy who cleaned out the cisterns. “I would rather have that mutt beside me in bed than you – dirty paws and all. He has a bigger heart and a sweeter disposition. And he is far more pleasant to look at.”
“Was, Katerina. Was. I don’t expect you’d much enjoy looking at whatever the wolves have left of him now.”
That was when she slapped him. The twist of her hips and the whole weight of her body were behind the blow and the flat smack of flesh on flesh resounded like a plate, shattering against flagstones. The maid on the other side of the door flinched back in shock and surprise. She fled in the nick of time -- Katerina was backing the startled Torvald out of the room with an upraised arm. He stumbled away from her like a frightened child.
“And for your information,” she said as she drove him across the floor. “I have never struck any animal and I never will. I have too much respect for the nobility of their souls.”
When he was gone she slammed the door behind him and let the leaping sobs crash through her, like deer through a hedge. She never even made it to the bed, she just collapsed to the densely patterned carpet and let the spasms trample her.

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