Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Animal Kingdom, Part Four

That was the incident that made the King decide to speed up the wedding plans. Torvald would never have full control of Katerina until they were married. That was obvious now.
The next day he called her into his chambers after breakfast (She attended the meal as always; but as usual, now, she ate nothing).
“I have something to show you,” he said.
“Can it be quick, father? I’m tired.”
“It’s ten O’clock in the morning! How can you be tired?”
“I didn’t sleep last night.”
“When you are married you’ll sleep well.”
She looked down.
The King pulled a teak wood case with leather straps from a high shelf. The key was on a chain around his neck. He pulled it over his head and unlocked the small chest. Then, with a flourish, he opened the lid. Katerina gasped. It was full of gem stones, gold bracelets and rings, hammered silver set with rubies. Some of the finer pieces she recognized. They had belonged to her mother. She lifted out one pair of emerald earrings, two tiny gems, each set simply in a slender ring of gold. These had been her mother’s favorites, austere and beautiful, just as she was. Katerina put them on, glancing at her father nervously. But he smiled at her.
“They’re yours,” he said. “They are your dowry.”
She reached into the pile of dense cool jagged metal and smooth stones. There were no portraits of Katerina’s mother in the house; the furnishings she loved had all been recovered or removed to the royal storehouses. The King had burnt her clothes, even the wedding dress that she had always wanted Katerina to wear at her own nuptials. The Queen’s favorite china was gone, also; some said that the King had smashed it all in a seizure of grief soon after her death. One of the servants had actually seen him that night, lumpy and pathetic, sitting on the flagstones under the full moon, sobbing in a sea of shards.
It was all cleaned up by the next morning. Of course it didn’t help him forget. The new plates and cups just reminded him of his futile tantrum and the loss that had ignited his temper.
Katerina picked up a filigreed bracelet. This was all that was left of her mother – a few baubles locked away in a leather-strapped chest.
“Torvald’s family is very pleased.” her father continued. She looked up at him.
“Then the transaction is complete.”
The King shook his head. “So hard. So cold.”
“You barter my body and my mother’s private treasures for land and soldiers. But I’m hard and cold.”
“The marriage will be good for you also, Katerina.”
“But I don’t understand. There is such immense wealth in that box. Why not just buy the land? Why not just hire the soldiers? Why do you need me at all?”
He shook his head. “You have much to learn. Treasure does not secure loyalty. Money doesn’t bring dynasties together. Only the ties of family can do that.”
She stared at him. “I will never be a part of Torvald’s family. Despite whatever words I am forced to mouth.”
“But your son will.”
“And if I have a daughter?”
“Then you will give her a brother.”
She was almost enjoying herself now. It was easy to be defiant when you didn’t care. “Some women give birth only to girls.”
“You will not be one of them.”
She laughed. “So. The King has spoken.”
“I don’t like your tone.”
“Well, I don’t think God likes yours very much, either. Telling him what the sex the babies have to be. He banished his favorite angel to Hell for the sin of pride. I can’t imagine what he’d do to a mere King.”
“I was not presuming upon the dominion of the Lord. I was merely expressing my faith in him.”
“I will never bear Torvald’s children, Father.”
“You will.”
“Then he will have to take me by force. And I can fight, you know that. You taught me. He might lose his manhood before he can impose it on me.”
“This is idle talk. It wearies me. The wedding is set for two weeks from today. The exact nature of your wedding night is between the two of you. Arrange a fitting with the dressmakers. I want you looking your best for the occasion.”
“Father – “
“Don’t mistake your position. You have privilege and luxury. You bathe in warm water and eat plentiful food. You have rank and nobility. You have power. What you do not have and will never have is freedom. We are both prisoners here, Katerina. We are chained by our duties and obligations, as much as any of the peasants who toil in the fields. I had to learn that fact at an early age. Perhaps you will finally learn it on your wedding day.”
“But, father – “
“Go. You have many arrangements to organize. Your mother isn’t here to take care of the details, so you will have to manage by yourself. Five hundred people will be in attendance and there will be no embarrassments this time. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, father.”
“Yes, father, yes you understand me, I know that cunning trick! Will you obey me? That’s the real question.”
“I will do my duty, father.”
He stared at her for a long moment, not quite ready to trust her unexpected surrender. She was looking down at the floor. When she glanced up he saw there was no trace of humor or revolt in her eyes.
She was beaten; he had broken her to his will.
The only lingering question was -- why did that long-awaited victory give him so little satisfaction?
Katerina went to the stables that night, partly to check the bowl of food she always left for Wilf, but mostly to see Lochinvar. Her father had understood her perfectly, had actually watched as the last struts of her will collapsed under the pressure of his quiet rage. She was just rubble, now. There was no point to fighting the marriage, as there was no point to marrying the loutish Torvald. Nothing mattered and everything was the same. But the thought of summoning the will and the strength to perform the obligations her acquiescence demanded made her weep with fatigue. It was like having to knot the noose and build the scaffold for your own hanging.
She told all this to Lochinvar as he stood in his stall, gently pushing at her head with his own. She knew what he wanted but it was impossible.
“I don’t even remember being happy,” she said. “It’s just something I’ve heard about, like falling in love or having children. You hear them gush about it and you just feel excluded, like you’re not even completely human – no offence.”
“None taken, Princess. I don’t want to be human. None of the animals do. It seems like … too much trouble. Too much thinking and not enough running. No, I’m one hundred percent horse and I like it that way.”
“It’s true. You’re all horse, Lochinvar. You’re a good boy.” She stroked his neck. “Sometimes I wish I could just … stop all this, stop being me, stop being human. Be like Wilf, be happy. Be part of the animal kingdom.”
“That’s a strange term. Kingdom. We have no King.”
“What about the lion?”
“I’ve never seen a lion. What is it?”
Katerina shrugged. “Well … I’ve never really seen one, either. But they’re supposed to be – big cats. Very fierce hunters. All the other animals are afraid of them.”
“And that makes them King? It makes sense – that’s how things work in the human kingdom. Power is all that matters.”
“Not to me.”
He rubbed against her head again. “I know that Princess. I think you were born into the wrong world. You and Anders, both. He would be a good dog. He is a dog, in some ways. Wilf feels it. He is happy and loyal and full of energy. Wilf said to me once, ‘I would be proud to have him as a dog. He’s like … an honorary dog.’”
“What about me?”
“You? You’re are a horse, Princess. Strong and cunning and brave.”
“I don’t feel any of those things.”
“You’ve lost yourself in your grief. I can feel your sorrow, I can taste it in the air around you. It has cut you off from the rest of your people. But it allows you to talk to us.”
“Is that what’s happening?”
“I think so.”
“So, if I’m ever happy again … ?”
“We won’t be able to speak this way. But we won’t need to.”
“I’ll miss you.”
“You’ll still have me. I’ll always be your horse. That’s how things work in the Animal Kingdom. No feeling ever goes away. Nothing real is ever forgotten. Just the same way I know all the paths and rabbit holes all over the forest and the village. The way I can always find my way back to the clearing. Humans get lost so easily. They forget the important things, or perhaps they never learned them in the first place.”
“What things?”
“Well … “ He swished his tail as if scattering flies, and lifted his head a little then ducked it down. From now on, she would always know he was thinking when he did this. At last he blew out a shuddery breath. “The sum of your life is the people in it, the people you love, the people who love you. Nothing else matters. What you do doesn’t matter. What matters is … who you do it with. Humans are too busy building things and making things and tearing them down again to remember that. But I think you know what I mean.”
“Sometimes. Not often enough. I forget, too.”
“This time will help you to remember.”
“I hope so.”
Lochinvar said nothing more and they stood in silence for a long time. That was how Anders found them when he arrived in the stables. He touched her shoulder lightly and she turned, startled.
“Hello, Princess,” he said softly. He tilted his head toward Lochinvar. “Do you want to take him out for a ride?”
“No, thank you, I’m too tired, I just wanted … I wanted to be with him for a while.”
Anders smiled. “I know. He’s good company.”
The light caught the emerald earrings she had forgotten to remove in her father’s chambers. “I saw your mother once before she died,” he said. “She was giving out small Easter gifts to all the servants. She was wearing those earrings.”
The Princess reached up and touched them absently.
“She wore them on her wedding day,” she said.
“Is it true, Princess? That the marriage is on again? The servants are talking about nothing else.”
She sighed. “Sometimes I think the whole point of my existence is to give everyone around me something to talk about. Aren’t any of them getting married?”
“Several of them are talking about it. But none of them is a Princess. Besides, if you marry Prince Torvald you will go away and the thought of that makes them sad.”
Of course it was true. It was so obvious it had never even been discussed. Still, the reality of it struck her now for the first time. The phrase was exact: it was like a blow to that vulnerable spot just above her stomach, doubling her over and knocking the breath out of her lungs. All Anders saw was the expression on her face but for him it was as if she had been hit, also. He reached for her shoulders.
“I’m a fool.”
“I can’t do this.”
“Then don’t. All you need to do is say no.”
“Just one word. But I would have to say it to my father.”
“You’re strong enough for that.”
“Not anymore.”
He squeezed her shoulders and squinted at her in the shadows of the barn. “I know you can do this. I’ll help you.”
She shrugged away from his touch. “How?”
Just one word. So -- she could still deliver a single syllable like a slap, if not to her father, at least to him. Anders had no response. By loving you, he might have said. But his love had no practical application. What could he do for her? Kill Torvald? Marry her himself? But these were impossible daydreams. It would insult both of them to speak such things aloud.
“Saddle me up and ride me,” Lochinvar said. “We’ll ride far from here, we’ll run and run and run.”
She turned to him. “And where will we go?”
Lochinvar dug a hoof into the straw. He had no solution to that one. Running was enough for him.
“Princess -- ?”
Anders thought she had been talking to him. She had no strength to explain her new communion with the animals. He would probably just think she was insane anyway. It was all too much trouble.
“I have to go,” she said. “This is just making things worse.”
She walked out of the barn into the amber late afternoon sunlight and Anders watched her go. There was no point in following her. There was nothing to be done. She would be married, and she would be gone. Regardless of how either of them felt about it. He would never see her again, except when he caught sight of her at ceremonial occasions. He would just be another face in the crowd, observing the royal procession.
The barn door swung closed, and he was left standing among the restless animals, alone and silent in the dark.

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