Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Animal Kingdom, Part Two

Katerina heard at breakfast the next morning that Anders had left for Vilny.

“Now perhaps there will be some regularity in this household,” said the King.

And indeed Katerina picked up the routines of her life again, studying mathematics and languages and history with her tutors, reading the Bible, playing hostess to her father’s guests. But her manner was more and more remote, her smile increasingly frozen in place. She made foreign dignitaries nervous. She frightened children, and children had always adored her in the past.

For herself, these social situations seemed louder, more threatening and most of all, faster paced than ever before. Things seemed to go by her in a whirl of sound and color. She often had no idea where she was in a conversation or what was expected of her from moment to moment.

Lochinvar’s departure was a blow she couldn’t seem to recover from. She was helplessly angry with her father but had given up trying to talk to him. She spent a lot of time in her chambers crying and took long walks with Wilf. But his conversation was limited. He was a dog, after all. She had always thought that a talking animal would sound like a human being, only cuter. But Wilf’s concerns remained stubbornly canine.

“Running feels good,” he would offer. Or, “Throw stick for me.”

He missed Lochinvar, too. But it didn’t affect him in the same way. He was sort of impervious to things.

“I hope Lochinvar is happy, I hope he likes his new people,” Katerina would say.

Wilf would focus for a moment. “Me, too,” he’d say. Then, “Bird to chase!” or “There’s some dead stuff to roll in.” and he’d sprint away.

She envied the way his mind was rooted in whatever was going on at any exact moment. It was hard for him to think about the past and to say he had no worries about the future missed the point. He didn’t even understand what the future was, unless it could be summarized by some general concept like, “more of the same”. He liked that idea. More of the same was fine with him.

She couldn’t bear to go near the stables and so she didn’t find out for several days that Anders had returned. It was eight o’clock on Sunday evening when he came to her chamber door. Normally, the servants who worked outside the castle proper were not allowed even into the anterooms of the royal residence, much less the Princess’ suite. But Anders had friends among the palace staff and he was allowed to come and go as he pleased, a privilege he had maintained by not abusing it. In fact, he rarely asked a favor from anyone.

But this night was special.

He knocked on Katerina’s door just as the church bells were tolling the hour. It was only a few days until the summer solstice and the light was still strong outside. Though many in the castle were asleep behind heavy curtains by now, Anders knew Katerina would be awake. She loved the long summer days just as she loathed the cold dark afternoons of the German winter; she had told him so. And she rarely slept more than a few hours a night anymore. She had confessed that, too.

He knocked softly on her chamber door. When she opened it, he stepped back, stunned for a moment by the sheer force of her effortless physical beauty. She had just come from the bath and her personal maid, Lisa, had been brushing her long blond hair, It was usually pulled back into a severe bun or braid – Anders had never seen it loose, framing her face like a waterfall of golden light. And she was wearing some sort of nightgown with a pattern of tiny violets. It was ankle length and demure, but still so intimate that he had to look away.

He was blushing. And it made her smile. Lisa would have been pleased to see that smile – it was the first one that had crossed Katerina’s face for days.

She touched his shoulder.“Anders?,” she said. “What are you doing here? When did you get back?”

He looked up, then away again. He knew his stare was a kind of trespass, for both them. She would see too much if he let her look into his eyes.

“I have something to show you,” he told her. “Come with me to the stables, Princess. Please. It’s important.”

“Now?”

He nodded, memorizing the hallway flagstones, terrified by his own impertinence.

But she said, “Just give me a moment to get dressed.”

The door closed and when it opened again she was wearing her rough riding clothes. To Anders she always looked far more beautiful this way than when arrayed in her finery. Elaborate gowns and evening dresses made her look like anyone else, like all the other noble girls who crowded into the castle for the annual balls and celebrations with their intricately piled coiffures and their painted faces. They were invisible behind those masks; they almost clanked in their feminine armor. And from what Anders had heard about their undergarments, the wired brassieres and the metal chastity belts, the image was not so far-fetched as it might seem.

He loved to see Katerina with her face smudged with dirt and lashed with twigs and leaves after one of her wild rides – that was the best make-up of all. He knew she hadn’t been riding since his departure. But that that was about to change.
They walked to the stables in silence. After a few steps, Wilf joined them, but she scarcely seemed to notice the dog’s presence. Anders could feel her sadness, like a terrible heat. She was a girl with a fever, so warm to the touch; and inside, she was shivering with the cold. Anders knew better than to bother the princess with chitchat, or to try and “cheer her up”. Only the boldest of actions could have any effect on such distress.

So he had acted, in the only way that he was able to, in the only arena where he was free.

He opened the stable door for her and Wilf and followed them into the shadows. An unmistakable voice called out, “Princess? Is that you?”

Katerina grabbed Anders’ arm so hard he cried out in surprise.

“Anders!”

He nodded.

“But how -- ?”

“Go to him. I’ll explain later.”

Katerina ran. She stumbled once, with Wilf tangled in her feet, and cracked her shin on a feed bin. When she found the stall she fumbled with the latch. For a long moment she thought she wouldn’t be able to open it, that her hands had failed her as her mother’s hands had failed, flailing with palsy.

The big horse came to the door just as she managed to release the hasp and slide back the bolt.“I missed you,” he said, rubbing his head against hers “Why didn’t you come?”

She slipped into the stall and hugged his neck.

“I … I didn’t know – I thought – “

“I meant to tell you he was here,” said Wilf. “But I just forgot. I’d see you and get all excited and all the food smells in the castle and … It’s hard for me to remember things sometimes.” He lowered his head, and she rubbed him behind his ears.

“It’s all right, Wilf. You’re a good dog.”

Anders was beside her then. He said, “It’s still light outside. Lead him into the yard. I want you to see something. Then I’ll explain.”

He spoke as an equal and it seemed perfectly natural to all of them. Here among the horses, he was her equal.

In the evening light, Katerina could see that the white flash on Lochinvar’s forehead was gone. If you looked closely you could see that colors didn’t quite match up; his brow was mottled.

“The work I did on Samson was much better. His white flash looks perfect.”

Katerina laughed “Samson? You gave them Samson? He’s the slowest horse in the stable!”

“And the most ill-tempered. We’re well rid of him.”

Lochinvar put his muzzle to her ear. “He was dumb, too, princess. And a bully.”

“But he stood seventeen and a half hands,” said Anders. “Just like Lochinvar here. And that was all that mattered.”

Katerina reached out to touch his arm. “But what if someone finds out?,” she asked. “Won’t you get in trouble?”

“Those people don’t know horses. But even if they did somehow figure it out, what would they do? Accuse the King of cheating them? That’s the quickest route I can think of to the hangman’s noose.”

“The second quickest,” she said softly. “If you’d been caught doing this, you’d have found that out for yourself.”

Anders looked down.

A horse – it sounded like the mare Brianna – whinnied from the back of the stable. Territorial dogs barked back and forth. The wind had picked up a little out of the east. It wheezed along the eaves of the old building.

Katerina stared at Anders for a long moment in the densely peopled silence of the yard.

“Thank you,” she said, finally. And she touched his arm again. They were standing out in the open now, on the flagstones in front of the stables –- if anyone witnessed such a gesture … But fear was the least of what he felt.

He mastered himself. “There is something else,” he told her. “At the inn where I was staying I fell into conversation with an old herbalist. It turns out he had known my father briefly when they were young. We talked through the night for several nights running and eventually I wound up mentioning your … condition. I didn’t disclose your name and I spoke only in the most general terms. But he had a small quantity of a medicinal leaf, from the gryphillaria plant, which he gave me for you. He will be travelling over the next few months and he has promised to visit me here. If the gryphillaria helps you, he can find more. He says it grows copiously here.”

“If it works -- couldn’t we find more ourselves?”

“Unfortunately … no, princess. It is virtually identical to plant called pormelusia, which is deadly. Its juices kill very slowly, but once started the process cannot be reversed. There’s no cure and the pain is unendurable. It’s used as a particularly cruel method of execution in certain … Eastern countries. Or so the herbalist told me. Anyway – it takes a lifetime of study for the eye to distinguish any difference between the two plants. And one wouldn’t want to make a mistake.”

“No.”

“He gave me some gryphillaria for you to try, though. If it eases your sadness at all, there would be cause for hope.”

He pulled a folded tissue out of his pocket. When he opened it there were four small leaves, green and spotted with a darker green, inside. Wilf padded over to smell them. His nose wrinkled and his head flinched away from Anders’ palm. Katerina had never seen that reaction before. Wilf had a lively interest in the world of odor. No smell had ever troubled him like that. She glanced nervously at Anders.

“Do I eat them?,” she asked him.

“You chew them and swallow the juice. It will be bitter, the herbalist told me. He said he found that ‘charming.’ It’s one of God’s little ironies, that medicine so often tastes so terrible, as if it might actually hurt you. Whereas the things that taste best really do hurt us. Or so he says. He thinks God is a perverse sort of fellow, a prankster if you will, and the best way to secure a place in heaven is to let him know you get his jokes.”

“That sort of a God would make me nervous,” Katerina said. “I think I prefer the stern but fair old man with the white beard.”

“Maybe. But I think if you’re trying to hold a whole universe together every day, and answering all these crazy prayers and sorting out all that divine retribution, a sense of humor would come in handy. You’d lose your mind otherwise. Just deciding on the weather every day, and doling out the luck and the diseases, who gets rain and who gets rich and who gets the plague. It’s a big job.”

The princess smiled. He liked the smile so much he decided to go on. He knew it was a kind of sacrilege, but even God would be pleased to see this young woman happy for a moment.

“Sometimes I think he’s in over his head. He’s overwhelmed. How else do you explain ingrown toe-nails and tooth decay and body odor? I’m not saying it’s his fault we smell so bad when we sweat. It just slipped past him, that’s all. He’s overworked. He had more important things to deal with on that day. Commandments to write. Angels to banish. I don’t know. It wasn’t a race – maybe he should have taken an extra day or two.”

She laughed and held out her hand with a mock imperious flourish. He went down on one knee.

“Here, my Lady,” he said, and handed her gryphillaria leaves.

She tasted them gingerly. He was right. The acrid flavor constricted her tongue and dried out her mouth. Her features bunched together comically as she tried to swallow; Anders fought back an unseemly smile. His face was serene and serious when he nodded encouragement into her questioning glance. She stared back at him for a long moment. Then she tore off half of one leaf and bit down hard.
“This better work,” she croaked.

At first the herb seemed to have no effect except to make her dizzy. She held onto Anders to steady herself. She closed her eyes and focussed all her attention inside, hoping to feel the shift. But it was like listening for some impossibly faint sound, every ounce of her clenched into a self-defeating effort. Will became confusion -- the distant cry of greeting was only her own breath; the longed for rain just a rustle of wind in the trees.

She needed distraction. “Talk to me,” she said. “Tell me about your trip.”

“All right,” Anders replied. He thought a moment. Then he brightened. “We were set upon by highwaymen,” he said. “But Lochinvar outran them! And he forced Samson to keep up. Sam wasn’t happy. He tried to kick me when I put him in his stall that night. And there was a carnival. With jugglers. And beggars everywhere. Vilny is a very busy place, Princess. It was market day when I arrived and everything was for sale in the streets. Every kind of food, fruits and vegetables, sides of meat, smoked fowl, wines and liquors, clothing and toys, pots and pans, even … “

“Even what?”

“Even women, princess. Beautiful women, offering their bodies to anyone with a few ducats.”

“It sounds quite overwhelming.”

“It was, princess.”

“Did you buy anything, Anders?”

There was a tiny squint of pleasure in her eyes; the innuendo of a smile. She was teasing him. It took him a moment to realize what was happening. She had never done such a thing before.

Perhaps he was mistaken; he answered her seriously. “No, princess,” he said. “I had only enough money for food and lodging.”

“Probably just as well.”

There was that little squint again. She really was teasing him.

That was the beginning. He could hear it in the tone of her voice. For the Princess it was different. The change for her was physical. It was as if she had lost weight. Her body felt lighter; at the same time the world seemed to settle back into its old dimensions. Everything had loomed so large to her for so long, hills and buildings and trees and people; and she had seemed to be shrinking – withering into a shrill, frightened speck. Now things looked normal again. The barn wasn’t some evil citadel. It didn’t dwarf her, it didn’t drown her in its deep shadow. It was just the barn, low and thatch-roofed and tilting slightly to the southwest, with its crumbling mortar and its sweet reek of hay.

She pulled Anders back inside where they couldn’t be seen and embraced him. He was in the middle of a sentence, something about how someone at the castle in Vilny had spilled a bottle of wine and ruined a damask tablecloth. But the hug squeezed the words out of him. He couldn’t speak and he had no idea what he’d been saying. Katerina was holding him tight.

“It’s working,” she said.

He whispered into her neck: “I’m glad.”

They embraced for a few seconds longer. Then she pulled away. Lochinvar was in the first stall now. He whinnied at her and she stroked his neck. “You’re a good boy,” she said. He whinnied again. It had been a long time since she had heard that sound. But for some reason he wasn’t speaking to her this evening.

“Is he all right?,” Anders asked. “He sounds strange.”

“He’s fine.” She turned away from the horse. “I have to go back. People will start to wonder what I’m doing out here.”

He nodded and pressed the leaves into her hand. “Take these with you. But use them sparingly. We won’t be able to get any more until I see the old man again. He told me he was traveling this way, but he’s on foot so it could take a month or more. And I have no idea how long the effects last.”

“Perhaps I’m cured already,” she said.

“That would be wonderful,” Anders said.

But they both knew it wasn’t true.

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