Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Animal Kingdom, Part Six

The guests had started arriving for Princess Katerina’s wedding at dusk the day before. Some had to travel more than two hundred miles, including the two dozen members of Torvald’s family and their entourage. Katerina had to greet them all with the proper formalities. Everyone agreed she looked very beautiful though very pale. The headstrong and arrogant girl they were expecting was nowhere in evidence. Just the opposite. This girl was demure and quiet. Everyone was much impressed.
Only the King had any inkling of the utter misery and despair which had quelled her tongue.
She dreamed that night that she was rescued, that she simply disappeared, that everyone went home, baffled, muttering about murdering, witchcraft and miracles. But in the event there was no murder and no witchcraft.
Most of all, there were no miracles.
Katerina walked up the aisle of the chapel as if in a dream, wearing a newly made wedding dress and the emerald earrings her mother had worn on this day twenty-six years before. Somehow Queen Adriana had managed, and with such grace and dignity. But she had loved her husband. And her mind was clear. She didn’t live in the shadows, she was a happy person.
Sometimes this killing sadness seemed to Katerina like wearing heavy winter coats and long underwear in the summer. But she couldn’t take them off. They were another skin, they were part of her. She was meant to sweat and suffocate while everyone else ran through the dappled tree shadows in light cotton and silk, the mild wind kissing their skin. Odd she should think of tree shadows. Even they scared her now, as if they were deep crevasses … or tentacles. She shuddered.
The sound of birds beyond the stained glass was driving her mad, pricking her brain like little needles. The red of the stained glass itself was like blood, the glass was bleeding, she could almost smell the coppery stench of it in her nostrils. She was sure she was going to faint. But someone was talking to her.
It was the priest.
“Do you take this man…”
It was really happening, she was about to say, “I do.” She was about to lay her life down before this brutish oaf from the mountains. And she had no strength to stop it. The Priest was asking if there was anyone who knew some reason why these two could not be wed. Would Anders speak up? That was madness, of course he wouldn’t. They would execute him on the spot. And her father had already made his own position clear.
There was no one else to speak for her; not in this kingdom, at least. She thought of Lochinvar in his stall and Wilf … she had no idea where. She closed her eyes. How strange -- she was more alone than she had ever been at this precise moment, as she performed the sacred ceremony by which she was joining her life forever with another’s.
The bitter irony actually made her smile, and everyone who saw that smile thought she was happy. That was the moment where the old ladies who cried at weddings started crying. Torvald smiled back at her, showing his mouth full of horribly decayed teeth.
Then the droning voice was saying “You may kiss the bride,” and he was kissing her and the horror was complete.
But it wasn’t over; in fact it was just beginning. After the reception, where Torvald got violently drunk and threw her about the dance floor, his hands groping her where she had never been touched before, he took her upstairs and the abomination of her wedding night began. It was far worse than rape since she could not even claim to be the victim. And Torvald was no crude pillaging soldier. He had studied the ways of the bedroom and he took her in every way and in every position he had learned in a decade of debauchery. He forced her to perform acts she had only heard of in the foul whispers of servants gossiping at a turn in the stairs. He forced her to perform acts she had never heard of anywhere, until she was slimy with his sweat, saturated and soiled with the feel and taste and smell of him, until he was under her skin and in her blood and in her brain and she was utterly possessed by him and poisoned by his touch. She had breathed him in like smoke and the thick, stinging vapor was killing her.
In the morning the bed was stained red. The sheets were her favorites, combed cotton she had slept on for years. They would have to be thrown away, now. Trying to clean them was pointless. The amount of bleach it would take to remove her blood would destroy the sheets themselves.
They were ruined, just as she was.
But there was a solution. She saw it clearly. She had always been able to think best early in the morning, before the day settled on her and the accumulating hours weighed her down. It was so simple she couldn’t believe it had never occurred to her before. The bedroom window was forty feet above the flagstones. All she would have to do was open it and jump. In a few seconds this whole harrowing ordeal would be over. Supposedly, committing suicide would condemn her to Hell. She wasn’t sure she believed God could be that cruel. Besides, it was hard to imagine Hell could be much worse than this life she was living. At least it would be a change.
And there was one more fact to consider: nobody, not even the priests, could be absolutely sure about the after life. But Katerina was certain about this life: it was nothing but relentless degradation, and it was only going to get worse. Tomorrow she would be leaving here and she’d never see her home again.
At least with suicide, there was some possibility of improving things.
It seemed the only practical solution.
For Princess Katerina, decision and action were one and the same. Even as she was choosing death she was pulling the covers back and tip-toeing towards the window. Torvald, sated on food and liquor and physical pleasure, was still asleep and snoring. It was difficult to unlatch the window and it creaked on its hinges when she pushed it open. She looked back at Torvald. He hadn’t moved. She leaned over and looked down to the courtyard below. It was a good drop; it would do the job. Using a stone ridge above the top of the window she climbed onto the sill. She had to duck down a little to get her head outside, but soon she was leaning out over the gulf of air. She could feel it pulling at her. She lingered a moment, looking beyond the castle walls to the cluttered roofs of the town and the fields and forest beyond. A thin ground mist was starting to burn off in the first light of dawn. It was beautiful. It was the last thing she was ever going to see and she wanted to memorize the pastel colors and the rainy sunlight so she could take the image with her wherever she was going.
That was her mistake. In the few seconds as she paused, Torvald came awake, saw her at the window and lunged out of bed. She had already let go when he reached the window and he wound up catching her under her arms. His knees were locked against the wall beneath the sill and his feet started to skid backward with the sudden jolt of her weight. For a teetering breathless slice of time he thought he would be pulled out of the window with her. But he got his feet under him again and yanked her back inside. He held her at arm’s length.
”Katerina!,” he shouted.
She didn’t answer. She was dazed. He slapped her hard.
“What are you doing!” he said. She just stared at him. He slapped her again, backhanding her cheek this time, drawing blood from her lip. “Answer me.”
“I want to die,” she said.
And then she fainted.

All that morning and afternoon the servants were dismantling her room and packing her things away for the journey. She couldn’t stand to watch them work and she had nothing else to do.
“I’m going to take a ride,” she told Torvald.
“Enjoy your horses of yours – you’ll never ride any of them again.”
“But – I thought – Father said …”
“Your father has nothing to say anymore. You’re my wife now. You’ll be living in my home and I have a full stable already.”
She turned away.
“Be back in time for dinner! It’s an important night for both of us. I want you by my side an on your best behavior when your father turns over the dowry.”
She paused, turned back to him and nodded. Then she continued out the door.
She walked to the stables and saddled Lochinvar with no help from the stable-hands. She scarcely spoke to Anders but he sensed that something was wrong.
“Princess?,” he said as she was leading Lochinvar out of the barn. “Where will you be riding today?,” He asked it more as an excuse to hear her voice and gauge her state of mind than out of any real curiosity. It was a foolish question anyway -- she rarely rode out with any set destination and he knew it.
“I have no idea. Do I need to supply an itinerary now?
He bowed. “Of course not, Princess. Please pardon my presumption.”
She swung up onto the saddle with her old effortless grace and trotted away. Anders watched her go and he felt ill inside. Something was horribly wrong. It was the way she looked him and spoke to him, the tense lift of her shoulders. The castle gate shut behind her. This was bad. He couldn’t explain the feeling but he didn’t need to – all he needed to do was trust it. He sprinted back into the barn, took the fastest stallion out of his stall and threw a saddle on his back. Young William, brightest of the stable boys, came in to ask what was going on.
“You’re in charge until I get back,” he said. “Make sure all the mucking out is done before lunch. And clean the drinking tubs. Daisy and Bartholomew need currying. Keep everyone busy. I’m relying on you.”
William grinned and bowed. “Yes, sir!”
Anders finished adjusting the bridle, lifted himself into the saddle and tightened the reins. The Princess had a good head-start but he had a very good guess about where she was going, and there were many short-cuts along the way. He lifted a hand to William and galloped off toward the castle gates.
He was right about the Princess. She was heading for the forest, for the section east of town where the plants that might be gryphillaria and might me pormelusia grew in such profusion.
He suspected that she didn’t much care any more which leaf she ate.
He rode hard for two hours, he used every trick he knew, and in the end he was just behind her. He had been right. She was on her knees amid the dense shrubs, tearing at the leaves with both hands. He brought the stallion to a jarring halt and leapt off his back. The Princess was gaping at him angrily.
“What are you doing here?”
“Princess – ”
“Leave me alone.”
“Do you remember, I told you – the death from the pormelusia is long and painful.”
“At least no one calls it living.”
“Don’t do this.”
“Give me one reason not to.”
He saw then that nothing he said could stop her. He had no arguments to marshal in favor of a life with the grotesque Torvald. And he could see no way out of it. Words failed, as they did so often. Action had always served him better. And in thinking that he was inspired. He dropped to his knees and tore out a handful of leaves.
The Princess was confused.
“What are you doing?”
“You know very well. If you eat them so will I.”
“You wouldn’t. You’re bluffing.”
“You know me better than that.”
“You would die if I died?”
“I would follow you anywhere.”
There was an electric pause – they could both feel the charge of it running down their spines and through their arms to their fingers. Neither of them noticed the soft, stalking crunch of an approaching animal’s steps in the bushes. Katerina put the leaves to her mouth and Anders did the same. He knew he was telling her the truth, he was drunk with it. He knew she could feel it.
“I forbid you to do this,” she told him.
He smiled. “Under threat of death?”
“Under threat of damnation.”
“I think I’m damned already, Princess.”
“Suicide is a mortal sin. You’ll go to Hell.”
“Then we’ll be there together.”
She was crying, he saw the tears bright in her eyes before they spilled down her cheek. “Please,” she begged him, “Please leave me alone, just go away and leave me here an d let me do this.”
He shook his head slowly, never taking his eyes from hers.
“I can’t.”
She saw that it was true and in the finality of her despair, which she knew no one, could ever fully understand, she dropped the leaves. She was defeated.
In two steps he was by her side. He held her but she tensed against him, her arms hanging straight down, palms at her sides.
It was at that moment that he finally noticed the animal footfalls behind him. He was unarmed and it was too late to turn and defend himself anyway. Katerina heard it too, but her eyes were closed and she saw nothing. Before she could react, the creature had come around beside her and pushed its cold nose into her hand, just as he had done a thousand times before.
The word came out as a sob.
“OhmyGod, Wilf, Wilf, where were you, you sweet boy, are you hurt?”
She sat down hard in the shrubbery and let Wilf bound onto her chest and knock her down, licking her face, his tail slashing the air. “Good boy, good boy,” she said, stroking the length of him, feeling his ribs.
“I can help, Princess. I can help, I can help.” The words stumbled out of him as he panted and licked.
She took his head in her hands. “How?”
“I know the difference between the leaves! I can smell it. Dogs have a good sense of smell.”
Lochinvar had walked over. He nuzzled Wilf too hard and the little dog rolled over. He bounded to his feet and took some time licking Lochinvar thoroughly. Anders stood back, stunned, just watching. For half an hour Wilf told his story about his mission and the bad man who had caught him and his escape. He told about the boy Tomas who had helped him and brought him to the healer woman, how the boy had hidden him from his parents and fed him in secret and changed his dressings as the woman instructed him to do. Finally, when he could put weight on the injured paw again, the boy gave him a haunch of mutton and sent him on his way. He had run non-stop and he had found the two of them here, just in time.
Then Wilf went to work, sniffing through the plants that carpeted the forest floor, quartering the area around the Princess, pulling up a stem and then another, depositing them in her lap.
“You were holding the poison, Princess,” he told her.
“What’s going on?,” Anders asked.
“Wilf can find the gryphillaria. Isn’t it wonderful? He knows the smell. He’s picking it for me now.”
“But – “ Anders stopped himself. Rational arguments were pointless here. Something more important was going on. A dog was picking herbs for a Princess. The proper thing to do was stand back, keep a respectful silence and watch.
When her lap was full of the red-speckled leaves, Wilf backed off a few steps and sat down to watch. Katerina patted him, and stroked Lochinvar’s muzzle. She held her hand out to Anders. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said. He squeezed his hand once and then put the first of the bitter medicine into her mouth. It was just as she remembered her cheeks and tongue contracting against the acrid juice. It seemed to dry out her sinuses. And just as before, within a few minutes, she could feel the shadows lifting, the world shrinking back to comfortable proportions. It was like a long awaited reunion with her twin sister, a sister who was really just herself. She laughed as the phrase occurred to her, and she said it out loud: “It’s good to have me back.”
No one had heard her laugh in many weeks. To Anders it was one of the great sounds of his life, like boots on new snow or the creak of a bridle, like pennywhistle music carried on the wind from a distant carnival, or rain on the barn roof. It left the past behind, like the ashes of a cook fire. It made the present an oasis and the future an adventure. It was the voice of every optimistic thought; it was the music of hope.
He helped her to her feet and hugged her.
She hugged him back, his arms so strong and gentle and impossible; holding Anders she thought of the rough, loveless embrace of Torvald. And she knew precisely what she had to do. Once her head was clear the thoughts came so easily. She couldn’t involve Anders, she couldn’t put him at risk. It would just be her and Wilf and Lochinvar. She knew instinctively that she couldn’t speak to them directly any more, but it was all right. She was part of the animal kingdom now, and no part of her own.
The group made their way back to the castle, keeping up a good pace. Wilf was sore and he rode on Lochinvar, behind the princess, his head resting on her shoulder. Katerina didn’t want to be late. Total compliance to the will of her husband was essential, at least for tonight.
Then it would be over.

Twenty-one Dollars

I’m fifty four years old. I’ve been a painting contractor for more than twenty years. I put my 23 year old daughter through college. I’m putting my son through college now.
And I have twenty one dollars in the bank.
This prompts an obvious question: what am I doing wrong?
There are many ways to dodge the question: the most obvious is that I have almost eight thousand dollars coming to me this month. This type of work is prone to financial peaks and valleys. But you’re supposed to have something in the bank to insulate you from the worst of it. And I have nothing. No savings, no insurance, no retirement. Just twenty-one dollars and some promises.
How did this happen?
I think … I’m not a drunk or a drug addict. I’m not a gambler.
But then I think: yes I am. That’s exactly what I am. I gambled everything on the idea that I could make a living from my writing. And that gamble has relentlessly failed to pay off, year after year, decade after decade. Oh sure – I made some money, I got in the Writer’s Guild; I got just enough encouragement to keep me going, to make sure I squandered everything to keep the dream alive. It looks foolish now, because I failed. If I had succeeded it would look like a classic American Dream narrative. “It took him twenty years to become an overnight success.” But that didn’t happen. It may never happen. And yet, I still think it might. I keep gambling. The only other choice is to give up. I have an agent now. I have a book almost ready to submit for publication. I have to believe in this last flicker of possibility because I have nothing else. In two years I may have an MFA; without a published book that won’t mean much. Right now I have a packet of graduate work due in two weeks, a bunch of unfinished revisions on my desk; and twenty one dollars in the bank.
The mind roams and paces on these short winter afternoons, walking through the regrets and recriminations
I should have gone to film school.
I should have gotten this MFA twenty years ago.
I should have gotten a teaching certificate fifteen years ago
I should have gotten a real estate license ten years ago.
I should have saved my money against a rainy day. Instead I’m soaked to the skin, it’s monsoon season, and I’m dying from an optimism every bit as toxic as despair.
Yet I remain optimistic. It’s my personal fatalism.
It’s fate.
I’m actually committed to this life. By doing nothing else, by sneering at real estate and spurning film school, by refusing to teach, by not moving out to Los Angeles, by choosing to raise my kids on this tiny island, by shying away from building a real crew out of cheap foreign labor and courting the big contractors, by plugging along, losing customers to immigrant labor, cutting my prices to the bone to compete with people who pay no taxes or insurance, I created this bleak untenable humiliating idiotic circumstance: fifty four years old, twenty one dollars in the bank.
So what am I going to do?
What I always do, what I have to do, what I’ve always done: keep writing.
And hope for the best.