Princess (Opus no. 3)
The Flour Woman's Daughter and The Demon of Renshire
Long Night Gone
~ . ~ . ~
Princess (Opus no. 3)
Every day is the same. She awakens when the light shining through the window reaches her bed. She washes her body and hair, combs it out to its full length. Then she goes to each window and scans the horizon. She can see very well from this tower, and in all directions. If she sees something of interest, she turns her telescope toward it and looks more closely. Sometimes only out of curiosity. Occasionally tinged with hope. Her day is planned so that she can repeat this ritual every few hours. After lunch, she will read a book or take a nap. She might lie down to remember her past or her future. She has dinner in the evening. She goes to bed not long after nightfall. Every day is the same, although the order of events may vary.
She dreams. Her father sits upon the throne. The people look happy, as always. She sees her mother looking on. The talk is mundane -- royal banter. At some point, she realizes that it is no longer her father upon the throne. It is another man. Everyone treats him as the king. Her mother's demeanor changes. She seems barely capable of containing herself. Her anger is directed toward the man upon the throne. The mood has changed. Darkness and shadows envelop the scene as she realizes that she is the new king.
She had moved into the tower when her mother arranged for her to marry the prince of a neighboring kingdom. He was a handsome prince, known throughout the kingdoms for his bravery and prowess in battle. Her mother had wanted the union to secure their home against invasion, kingless kingdoms being so attractive when one is considering conquest. But the Princess had refused and locked herself in the tower. Each day her mother would send an emissary, requesting that she end her self-imposed exile. Each day the Princess, afraid of offending her mother, would send the emissary back with the same message: "I am too distraught to discuss anything. Please ask again tomorrow."
The people loved the king. Not from obligation but genuinely. He was often away -- vanquishing enemies, making pilgrimages, crusading against infidels -- but when he returned to court, he would hold celebrations in honor of the people. He could generate excitement in anyone; all he had to do was look at them and laugh or smile, and they would be thrilled. The Princess barely remembers. He's been gone so long. She does remember he would reach down from atop his horse, scooping her into his arms to ride with him and accept the accolades and cheers that came up from the people. The mount would stride through the crowd. She would wave. Her father would laugh. She remembers feeling proud. She wanted to be just like him.
She dreams. She awakens in her tower. Someone is at the door. They pound loudly. She is frightened. She doesn't want to open. She hopes they go away. This isn't her room. It's the hallway outside. This is her door, but from the other side. How did she abandon her watch, her duty? She cannot open the door. Her heart flutters. She fears the creature behind the door. Can she move? Does her body still work? Will it let her open the door? Finally her arm begins to move toward the bar securing the door. She slides it aside. The door bursts open. She screams.
"Please ask again tomorrow," she says. She lays herself upon the bed. A bird lands on the windowsill. She watches. It stretches its wings, caws. She closes her eyes. When she opens them, her father sits upon the sill. He looks the same. The glow of his splendor hurts her eyes. She runs to him. He surrounds her with his arms. She looks up at him. He leans forward, kisses her roughly. Frightened, she tries to pull away, but he only holds her more tightly. He fills her. She thrashes. She can barely breathe. He dissolves into her and is gone.
"Your father is a dangerous man," your mother tells you. "He nearly lost the kingdom and his people, myself included, and you." You stress the people's love for him, but not strongly. "The people don't know him," she whispers. "He may return someday to ruin us all, you know. He may yet be our death. And don't think you'll be spared his wrath, my dear." You tell her that he loves you. "True. That's why you should be afraid."
Her mother at a workbench; she watching nearby. Babies crawl along the floor. Mother reaches down, picks one up. She kneads its face, the skin yielding like clay. She molds and re-molds it, searching for the right grotesquerie, an artist of deformation. She sets it down, selects another, slams its head flat against the bench. From another she removes the genitalia. "What are you doing?" asks the Princess. She tosses the unwanted parts away, saying "How could you let this happen?"
She stands at her window. A bird lands upon the sill. It glide-hops to her bed. She watches the horizon. She turns inward. Upon her bed sits her father. He looks different. She runs and jumps on him. He collapses beneath her weight. She claws at his clothing, rips his tights. She raises her skirt to reveal her flesh. She pushes it inside of him, an inch at a time. She thrusts her hips forward harder. She takes him without knowing what taking means. She screams as her motions grow more frenetic. She awakens in her bed alone, blood upon her skirt.
Every day is the same. She awakens each morning when the dawn light reaches her bed. She washes and brushes her hair out to its full length. She watches the horizon through her telescope. Usually with curiosity. Occasionally with hope. She dreams of her future, of her past. Every day is like every other. Only the order varies.
(Andru Matthews lives in Brooklyn.)
~ . ~
The Flour Woman's Daughter and The Demon of Renshire
The writer has the title, 'The Flour Woman's Daughter and the Demon of Renshire.' Writing is tedious and solitary, so sometimes she pretends to be reading to an eager child who begs, "I want to hear that one again, 'The Flour Woman's Daughter and the Demon of Renshire'." She prefers first-person accounts.
When we were little girls, Mama used to tell us that life would demand sacrifice, and indeed, it has come to pass exactly as she said. Mama was always old, her hair was always gray, and she was always corpulent. None of her daughters resemble another in look or temperament. People in the village said we all came from different fathers, but Mama insists that she did not give birth to us, rather, she found us in the hen house under the fattest red hen, sleeping in the eggs, one daughter every spring. Mama says, "How else can it be? You know I have never married."
I was Juliette Sweeper, the flour woman's youngest daughter. My father could have been any man who'd braved Mama's mounds of flesh in her dirty bloomers. He could've been Louis IX, the sainted French king, or the mule of the same name that pulled our cart, for all I knew.
Day in, day out, Louis IX dutifully pulled us through town after town, then back to the flour mill. Even in my dress made out of flour sacks, a size too small and covered in road dust, I was a pretty child. As I began to fill my sack, Mama started worrying some men would follow us and take me into the woods where they would do unspeakable things.
"You watch television, kid. You know what I mean."
"Why do you say 'unspeakable things'?"
"So I don't have to speak them. If you want, I can stop now and you can contemplate the unspeakable things bad men do to children in the woods before you try to sleep."
"I don't think so."
"So, where was I?"
I was perhaps twelve years old when my mother sold me to Brathwaite. A servant of that house was in town to purchase several items, including flour and a serving girl. He bought three sacks of flour and me.
"Get to the demon. I want to hear about the demon."
"Ah, the Demon of Renshire. I was just getting to that."
"No you weren't. You were on your way to Bath Water."
"Brathwaite. Which is in Renfield. Please don't interrupt."
Panspermia. In an unnamed crater in Terra Sabaea near the Martian Equator during a planetary nebula, the star known as NGC 6751 died, spreading its microatomical spores into Earth's prebiotic soup. Now mutation was in the equation: such as hemophilia and albinoism. The genome for blood drinking entered the phylogeny of certain arthropods: mosquitoes and ticks, for example. Among us hominids, the thirst for blood lay in thermodynamic entropy for thousands of years, until hunger woke him.
His young mother, accused of witchcraft, was ugly and surly, pregnant by her own father who beat her; you could say she slept with Lucifer himself. The child clawed its way out of her womb, scratching and biting. She tried to smother its head with a pillow, but the creature hissed at her, leapt up on two feet, and walked out the door.
That woman was Elizabeth Reeds of Renshire. Her younger sister Charlotte married Eliot Brathwaite, who was the great-grandfather of Geoffrey Brathwaite, who ordered the building of the mansion, which was soon to house our heroine, Juliette Sweeper.
I was the most licentious of the flour woman's seven daughters, and I refused many proposals of marriage. As of yet, I had met with no dire consequences. I was beloved of Venus, who visited me often in the form of the dim-witted, well-muscled stable boy. When old Harold Brathwaite called me into his library, I did not shrink before the great man in rich red robes.
"I demand an explanation, Miss Sweeper," said Mr. Brathwaite. "Tell me what you were doing in the lawns riding my best stallion bareback and naked?" Somewhere outside the door, a serving girl with a glass to her ear giggled.
I answered, "My mama told me, as her mother told her, that her great-uncle once held in his hand parchment that told of foreign lands where a tribe of women with no breasts rode horses and handled weapons." (Somewhere, not so far away, the ancient priest who had burned the document of which the girl spoke, leaned more heavily on his cane.) "I was on my way to the well to fetch water, and I took a shortcut past the plum tree where I woke a sleeping fairy. She asked what I was dreaming of that made me so distracted and clumsy, and I told her I was dreaming of adventure. In a bit of pixie mischief, she took me to fairyland, where changeling boys stripped me down. Then I was bathed and perfumed by three voluptuous nymphs. I was given a sword and a horse, told where to go, and sent on my way. I did not know that there was a prophecy about an adventure at sea, then a trial by fire, ending with me slaying the dragon and saving the kingdom. One day, as I was resting with a belly full of mead and meat from a fairy feast, your horse came and nuzzled my hand, waving his tail and shaking his splendid mane. I climbed on top of him, and suddenly I found myself once again in your garden, entire months amounting to what, I soon realized, was but an afternoon."
Braithwaite, that idle idol, gracefully sprawled in his plushest chair, his silver hair falling rakishly over one ear, his mouth forming an indulgent smile. What if, instead of lowering my head and pouting, I had grabbed the ornamental silver battle axe hanging over the fireplace and chopped off old Brathwaite's arrogant skull, as guiltlessly as I had not long ago lopped off the head of the dragon?
"I'm rather upset, really," I told Brathwaite, "because before the world dissolved, I was handed a crystal that has been passed down from High Priestess to High Priestess. I guess I was supposed to be their next Fairy Queen. But suddenly I was in the woods behind your estate, and your stable men had found me. Anyway, I keep the crystal." And I opened my palm to reveal its sparkling smooth edges.
Old Brathwaite clutched his heart. "Are you a shadow? A sorceress? Suddenly I seem to have known you before, and thought for a minute that this life was nothing but a dream."
I realize I'm saying this less to you than to myself when I ask: who am I to think that the world of fairy tales and mythology is real, containing all that humans fail to be or strive to be or were meant to be or which deep down inside, we are.
Blessed be for any insight you can give me.
Ah, the child sleeps!
Anyway, through a skillfully woven sequence of coincidences it is discovered that Juliette Sweeper is actually the long-lost great-granddaughter of old Harold Brathwaite, and thus, she inherits Brathwaite's riches and marries the dim-witted, but well-muscled stable boy. The Demon, by the way, is also a Brathwaite, so there is some symmetry in their meeting, which happens after intermission.
(Sarah Goodwin is a writer and literary scout living in NYC, with poetry and fiction in the current issues of Long Shot and Melic Review. Other recent publications include Fuel, George & Mertie's Place, The Absinthe Literary Review, Independent Publisher, 2River View, and Poetry Superhighway. She was a 2000 recipient of an Amy Award for writers under thirty. Personal page: http://www.suite101.com/myhome.cfm/sarahscribbles.)
~ . ~
Long Night Gone
It is not frequent that the world is illustrated in black and white alone. Today is one of those austere portraits of life. A lot like minimalist art. And I find it astonishing that I vividly recall my first encounter with the world presented in these tones. It was the occasion of my first overnight in the Louisiana bayou.
I remember that as dusk came I was both thrilled and afraid. My surroundings were presented in black and white because the moon was full. And it was huge. Each time I looked up at the moon I was awestruck from its size and pure white color. Then the Blue Geese came. They came in squadrons of hundreds, and I could only see them as they passed in front of the white light of the moon. Their honking was part of the bayou composite I so loved.
Pearl River was north and east of Lake Pontchartrain, the area where my family lived. The river ran all the way to Lake Borgne, which opened to the Gulf of Mexico. This swampy area was full of Cajuns, and I loved it. In the bayou, land seemed to congeal into ground that is neither liquid nor solid, but some sort of compromise. So when I came to ground I knew to be fairly solid, I stopped. I pulled off my pack and set it up against a large Cypress stump. I pulled the little pup tent out and found some small pieces of wood that would serve a stakes once I sharpened the ends.
I had two small blankets in the pack and folded one for a bed, the other for cover. To me, the little tent with the blankets inside looked a lot better than a Holiday Inn. I pulled a tin can and a fat little candle out, lit the candle and dripped wax into the can to hold the candle upright.
Suddenly the immediate area was drenched in yellow light. I was surprised the little candle put out so much light. But it was the contrast between the black and white, and the yellow that made it stark. I thought about building a fire, but the night was warm enough, and I was getting sleepy. I pulled off my clothes and crawled into the tent, blew out the candle, then turned around for a last look. The effect was immediate.
The insects, owls, and sounds I couldn't identify were concertizing. I looked one last time at the white moon. Stars so bright I was tempted to try and touch them with my fingertip now surrounded it. I smiled and got under the blanket.
But I didn't forget for a minute there had been a Big Foot sighting in the Honey Island Swamp near the Pearl River.
* * *
The sun was barely up when the birds began their wake-up calls. I stayed under the blankets for a few minutes enjoying the sounds. When I finally pulled myself out, I saw I was on a narrow strip of solid earth. Not twenty feet from me was a swampy area with stubby cypress knees and a thick covering of duckweed. Behind me was a fog-shrouded swamp where trees were heavy with gray/green Spanish moss. The water was so still the trees and moss were eerily mirrored. Then I heard splashing, and saw ripples beside a log, but didn't see what caused it. Could have been a 'gator, or possibly a big catfish exercising his authority in the morning calm.
I carefully built a fire to boil water. At twelve years old, I had been drinking chicory coffee with milk for three or four years. We called it au lait. When the water boiled, I put in a handful of the coffee, waited a few minutes, and then put some eggshell I carried in a small waxed paper box I had made from a milk carton to settle the grounds. I dipped a metal camp mug into the hot liquid and added milk from a half-pint container. It never--and I mean never--tasted better than now.
I sat back against the big cypress and opened an egg salad sandwich mother had sent with me. It was a lot easier than cooking. I was grateful to find a couple of strips of bacon on it. I was a little on the skinny side and mother often put butter, bacon, or something extra fattening on my sandwiches. I ate it quickly, and then dipped another mug of au lait.
It wasn't long before the Louisiana heat kicked in. And as always, the humidity grew oppressive as the temperature climbed. I heard that big splash again, turned quickly, and saw nothing. I could tell it was early because of the smell. The heat changed the scent of the swamp as the day evolved into a rich fragrance of hot wood, damp weeds, and various flowers like honeysuckle.
My mother had told me to come home sometime in mid-morning. It should be all over with by then, she said. My stepfather was getting out of jail in Slidell last night, and he always took his anger out on us. Mainly mother. But he had hurt me a couple of times, and mother wanted me away for the night. I started home.
* * *
I recall that as I took the first few steps home, I could felt that old tightness in the stomach. Afraid what would happen to me when I got home, but more afraid of what happened to Mama. A white egret flew up suddenly and startled me. It helped me focus on something other than my fear. And the steps came quicker.
After a while I stopped for a drink of water from my canteen. When I did, I heard two or three heavy steps off to my right that stopped suddenly. I held my breath for as long as I could so I could hear the slightest sound. My friend Bobby and I had heard sounds like this frequently when we played in the bayou together. Probably a buck. I hoped it was a buck. I exhaled loudly, took a deep breath, and took the next step.
After a while, I smelled the neighborhood. Food cooking, mainly. In those days, the air seemed full of spices most people haven't even heard of today. And human scent is so distinguishable from the deep bayou. I accelerated and broke through the edge of the woods like a spat watermelon seed. When I got to the front door my heart was pounding and I had trouble getting enough air.
As I reached for the door my hand was slick from sweat and shaking so hard it slipped off at the first try to turn the knob. Then I opened it. There was no sound, and it seemed darker than usual. Then I noticed that the old, worn out, roll-down window coverings were closed, keeping out the light.
"Mom, are you home?"
I walked towards her bedroom. The door was closed. I put my hand on the doorknob. My hand was still shaking, but I turned it as quietly as possible. I expected my stepfather to jerk it open and grab me any second. I heard a sound and froze. My stomach was a Sears washing machine. I waited several seconds.
"Mom, you OK?"
There was that sound again. It sounded like moaning. And it was high-pitched. My whole body was shaking, and only the need to find my mother was driving me. I was barely able to open the door, but stepping inside was an almost unmanageable feat. Then I heard the guttural sound again. I moved inside.
Nothing. No one. I heard the guttural sound again. This time it seemed to be coming in through the window. I turned and quickly went to the kitchen and out the back door. I couldn't see anything but the bushes. Then I heard something that scared the living hell out of me. I cannot describe how it sounded. Not even so many years later. A keening, possibly.
I ran over to the bushes behind Mother's bedroom window. There was Mother's head and part of her right arm sticking up from the ground. Her face was contorted into a nightmarish mask. In less than a second, my mind registered that her hair was matted with dried blood, her hand had several deep gashes on it, and her lips were moving--trying to tell me something.
I fell in a panic to the ground digging hard with my little boy's hands to free Mother from the ground. As her arm came free, she grabbed me hard, and I was crying so hard I had trouble thinking. Mother was loudly gasping for breath. She pulled me hard to her face, but I was so terrified I didn't know what she was doing. She had me by my hair with one hand; the other arm seemed unable to move.
"Did he...find you?" She said in a hissing, breathy voice.
"Who, Mama? Who? I mean what!"
"Listen to...me!" She screamed, never looking at me. Her eyes kept rolling upwards, and she struggled hard to remain conscious.
"Call the police. Then call your daddy. Tell them Morgan hurt me. Tell them he's crazy. Run if...if..you..." Her voice trailed off.
She stiffened, and then relaxed. A watery sound came from her lungs. Then her hand fell from my head, her eyes looked at something in another world, and she didn't breathe any more. I felt as if I were disintegrating.
"Mama, Mama!" I screamed loudly as I started wildly digging her out.
"What the hell is going on out there?" a neighbor lady called through her kitchen window.
"Call the police! Hurry! My mama's been hurt badly. Hurry!"
I sat back on my haunches, quaking, freezing cold, unable to focus on my surroundings. I was later told that I raised my face and began shrieking. My memory is not clear after speaking to the neighbor.
* * *
I remember that when the world began to make sense again, I was in the little Pearl River Clinic. I was wrapped in blankets and had a tube in the back of each hand, while a large nurse in white stood watching me.
"Hey, honey, how you doin'? Me, can I get you somethin'?" she asked in that distinct Cajun phraseology, as she put her hand on my face. I did not answer. I was not sure what had happened, and I was terrified. I started shaking, but not as violently as before. The nurse tucked the blankets in tight, leaned over me and held me.
"Mama. Mama where?" Pictures began painting themselves on my memory. I started crying.
"Shhhhh. Me, I'll be right back. I'm just going to fetch the doctor."
A couple of seconds later the nurse and doctor drew back the little curtain around my bed. The doctor put something into one of my tubes with a needle, and it was only a moment or two before I drifted into sleep. No words were spoken. Everything was white as I lost consciousness.
Several days passed, and I was discharged into the care of my father. Neither he nor I was happy about it. My father was a small town Baptist preacher, and never forgave my mother for wandering into the arms of another man. He resented me because I was a reminder of it. I hadn't heard from him in at least two years.
We drove in silence to his house on the other side of town. It was just off the highway leading to Slidell and then on to New Orleans. When we arrived, his new wife, Susan, was on the front porch. I got out and walked up to the house where she took my hand and led me into the living room.
I remember that Susan tried to be attentive. Dad had nothing to say. His hateful eyes said it all. I had already been told what had happened. That Morgan, my stepfather, had beaten my mother. When she tried to defend herself with a small paring knife, he took it and slashed her with it. He then buried her in a too-shallow grave behind the house. Alive. They had not found him yet.
* * *
The next morning I awoke just as the sun was showing yellow through the space between the almost closed curtains. I put on my clothes and quietly left the house. As I walked, I did not look back. I barely felt my feet impact the street.
I had no plan. I was a twelve-year-old boy walking towards his mother's home. With each step, my anguish evolved into rage. As I neared our neighborhood, I breathed deeply, and could feel that my face had tightened, and my skin was hard from its grimace.
I leaned under the yellow tape around the house and went inside. Now I saw the bathroom. Bloody palm prints on the wall. Everything was surreal. My face was twitching. There was blood everywhere. I walked into the kitchen, and there was blood on the drawer that housed the kitchen knives.
I opened the drawer and saw two little knives. The smallest seemed to gravitate into my hand. I tried at first to throw the knife down, but my hand would not follow my instructions. I squeezed the handle so hard my knuckles turned white and my hand seemed to burn.
I remember making small noises, and not knowing why. Gall, vengeance, recognition that my mother will never hold me again, all acted in concert. I do not recall leaving the house.
They had not yet found Morgan, but I knew some of the places the police would never look. It only took about thirty minutes for me to walk over to Sheldon's piers. Backwoods Cajuns have moored their shrimp boats here since long before the new docks were built. But I knew one or two of them were not used as boats, but a place where moonshine and beer was served up cheap.
I carefully left the trees and walked down to the "Coonass Heaven," an old wooden boat. I knew this boat had not put a shrimp net in the water for at least as long as I had lived at the time. 'Coonass' is the term Cajuns used when referring to themselves. The reference is to the incredible number of raccoons around southern Louisiana, and what you usually see sticking up out of garbage cans late in the evening.
I heard laughter, so I crept up to the boat, climbed on board and was careful not to make it rock in the water. I went around to the port side and peeked in the small, round window. I could see a man sitting at a table that I thought was Morgan. I went cold. The rage came, and the man laughed again and then pulled on his beer. It wasn't Morgan. There were three or four places left to look. As soon as I got to a pay phone I was going to call the police and tell them how to find Morgan.
I walked over to the river and past the little bait shop where he and his friends drank and fought. I remember that I heard something that made my blood turn frigid. It was Morgan's laugh. I was not aware of the decision to go in there alone. Nor was I aware of the knife still in my hand. I was soaked in sweat by the time I reached the wooden shed that was built on a rickety pier out over the chocolate brown water of the tributary. The humidity matched the high temperature.
My hand was still numb from holding the knife so tight as I entered the main room of the bait shop, and moved to my left to hide in the shadow. I saw Morgan at the bar with his back to me. Two stools down on his right was another man, and the owner was opening another beer for Morgan, and I could see him over Morgan's shoulder. I turned into a combustible sphere of rage. I saw my mother's battered face, and I exploded towards Morgan, my face in a rictus, howling like a wild animal, spittle flying wildly from my mouth.
When I was within two or three feet of Morgan I leapt into the air and landed on his back. Just as I became airborne, I could see the owner's eye's grow large with surprise. I landed on Morgan with a fury. With my left hand I hung on to his neck with an unbreakable force. My right hand stabbed him everywhere within reach and as often as my muscle control would respond. I felt the initial resistance of the blade point, but each time the knife slipped in all the way to the end of the blade, to the wooden handle where my hand was, it was answered with an internal, Yes, yes. And all the while, I was howling. I was thundering with torment, atonement, and hysteria. I don't know exactly how long I was on him, but shortly everything went black.
When I came to, I was told that the owner of the bait shop had hit me hard on the side of my face, knocking me out. A police officer was wrapping me in a blanket, and I saw his reaction when he looked at my face. A child. Perhaps a monster, or a twelve-year-old devil, is what was reflected in his eyes. To this day, I don't know. And to this day, I don't care to know.
* * *
I was taken back to the clinic. The nurse who was there before was waiting for me. She was a large, heavyset woman, and I recall that she forcibly took me from the officer and carried me to the same little bed I was in before. As she leaned down to my ear, I could feel the warm drops of tears hit my damaged face.
"You, you comin' home with me now."
(David Ritchie is the Northwest Regional Vice President of the Washington Poets Association. His poetry and fiction have been widely published in the U.S. and abroad, including in The Animist, The Paumanok Review, Red River Review, Clay Palm, Parnassus Literary Review, ComradesUK, and Short Stories Magazine. He lives in the San Juan Islands.)
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