Sep 012009
 

The stone man stands in the center of a broad fountain, caught with hands upraised, lips bowed in the semblance of speech. He stares at me with blind stone eyes; wherever I go in the garden, they catch and follow me. It seems at any moment he should spring to life, catch my shoulders with his broad stone hands and tell me what he wants. In my dreams he’s made of flesh, and when I dream of him I wake cold and gasping. I shudder and pull my shawl more tightly around my shoulders. “Aedan!” I call to the child playing in his shadow. “Aedan!”

My darling looks at me with wide blue eyes, innocent as a lamb. How like his father he looks! He crouches in the dirt, his golden hair mussed. “I’m digging for worms, Mama.” He’s coated to the elbows in a patina of dust.

“There’s no water there, my love, and no worms. The fountain is dry.”

“Where has it gone?” My cherub’s face is wreathed in storms.

“I don’t know. It’s a mystery,” I say, though I do know. There hasn’t been water since the statue was installed. The water ran from him as truth from lies.

My child comes to where I sit and wraps his arms around my knees. “I wanted to fish,” he grouses, and when he lifts his face away I’ve the damp imprint of his lips on my dress. “I wanted to catch a magic fish and have him tell me secrets.”

I run my fingers through his curls, fine as cobwebs. “There haven’t been magic fish for ages,” I tell him. I don’t tell him that the last one caught was a monstrous thing, with too many fins and a single milky eye that bulged wetly in its socket. It would trouble him to know.

My child leaves me and runs a circuit around the walled garden. I watch him gallop through leaves and grass gone crisp with cold. The ground crunches beneath his feet. It is winter now and the vine-hung trellises are brown with death or sleep, though I remember how this garden looks rioting in roses. I remember the day of my wedding, a day of perfume and petals. A day of blood and thorns.

“Mama, who is that?” my lamb asks me, his insistent hand pulling me back to the present. I follow his finger to the man of stone, frozen with a question caught between his teeth. I meet his stone eyes. They demand bravery of me.

“That’s a story, my darling.”

He crawls into my lap, a comforting boy-weight. I tuck my arms around him and lean my cheek against his hair. “Once upon a time,” I begin. “Once upon a time.”

The old king was ill, and had been ill for some time; a wasting sickness that clogged his chest and made what breath he got sour and stale. The king’s limbs were sticks and his sallow skin clung to his bones like dampened parchment. “I must be on my deathbed,” the king said to himself. To his servants he said, “Bring my faithful John to me.”

When John came, the old king grabbed him with one fever-hot hand, and pointed. “Death has come for me, Faithful John.” John could see the black-robed specter standing to one side. Death saw John watching and nodded; candlelight winked off the dome of his skull. The king gave a ghastly grin. “I’ll look like that when the worms have been at me.” You look like that now, John thought, but did not say.

“I’m dying, and it troubles me. I’m not worried about myself, Faithful John. I’ve had a long life, a long reign, and many wriggling girls to warm my bed as I grew old. No, I worry for my son, who’s young and doesn’t know how to guide himself, let alone the kingdom. Will you promise to teach him, and be his foster father? If you don’t say yes, I won’t be able to close my eyes in peace.” Here John raised his eyes and met the cold black eye-sockets of Death’s skull. Whatever he saw in them, he agreed to be the young prince’s foster-father.

“When I am dead, you must show my son his castle – from top to bottom, all the halls and vaults, and all the treasure therein. Every room but one. John, there’s a picture in the last chamber off the gallery. The maiden in the picture, the princess in the golden palace, he must never see her. If he lays eyes on that portrait, he will come to grief. Promise me, Faithful John, you will protect him. For what love you bear me, promise.” John agreed. Appeased, the king let out his breath. He never drew it in again.

“And what happened then?” asks my darling. He plays with my necklace, contented as a lamb. I expose his white throat and plant a kiss there.

“Of course, Faithful John did as was asked. He showed the young king his castle; all of the outs and ins, the vaults and rich apartments, and the secret passageways were revealed. Except for the one chamber at the end of the gallery, whose door always remained closed.”

I dandle my son on my knee. “The young king wanted to know what was behind the door, and John would not show him. The young king was eaten up with curiosity. John told him no, told him of the promise he’d made to the father never to show him what lay behind the locked door. The young king cried, and pounded his hands against the door, but it and John were unyielding. It wasn’t until he threatened to do harm to himself in service to his curiosity that John broke, and brought out the key.”

I close my eyes. “John opened the door and went in first, thinking that if he stood in front of the young king, he could hide the portrait with his body. But the young king stood on his tip-toes. When he saw the portrait of the maiden, the princess in the golden palace, its magnificence struck him dumb and he fell into a swoon.”

“Was she very pretty?” My precious boy asks.

“She used to be,” is my answer.

Faithful John carried the young king up to his bed and revived him with wine. He held the goblet to the young king’s lips, and did he imagine the ruby liquid was blood? Did he see his doom in the dregs? The first words the young king spoke were, “Who is she? I’m struck with a love so great that if all the waves on the shore were tongues, they could not sing of my love for her.”

“The princess in the golden palace,” John answered, and how heavy his heart must have been. The young king desired her as his bride. He swore he’d trade his life for her hand. His blood was hot with reckless youth, and he demanded that John must help him.

“The things I do for love,” John said heavily, but agreed. He bent his mind to the task and thought all through one black night, and all through one grey dawn, until in the last golden light of an afternoon he had it. “The castle’s treasury has five raw tons of gold. Let one of the goldsmiths fashion them into all manner of fantastic creatures and intricate vessels to tempt her.”

This the young king did, forcing his smiths to work through weeks untold, until their shaking hands were stained with gold and their eyes red-rimmed with lack of sleep. Finally, all the wonders of their creation were ready, and stored in the belly of a ship. Faithful John and the young king put on the clothes of merchants and set sail for the country of the golden palace.

When they arrived, John bade the king to wait in the ship, and he went forth to the golden palace himself. He came to the courtyard and found a girl there, who drew buckets of shining water from a golden well.

“Was she the princess?” my little one asks.

“No, she was just a maid. She delighted in the treasures Faithful John showed her, and said her mistress would be glad to buy all that he had. She took him up the stairs of the tower to the princess’s room, and when he saw her he realized the portrait was a poor likeness. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.”

“Did she like the presents?” My precious boy loves presents, and I am not surprised he seizes on this.

I think about that moment, when Faithful John’s hands opened on the most fantastic treasures the world had ever seen – tiny golden animals that pawed the air and roared, pretty golden milkmaids who tossed their skirts and sang, and all manner of things more wondrous than those – and for a moment my tongue is stilled. On that moment so much that came later was hinged. And she loved the wrong things.

“Mama? Did she?” I feel his hands on my face, and I kiss his fingertips.

“She did. She loved the presents, and wanted to see more.”

Faithful John took the princess to the boat, where his master waited with the ache of love in his bones. When the young king saw her face, he fell to his knees and cried out that his heart would burst in two with loving her. The princess took a fright and tried to flee – this was no merchant to sell her more golden wonders – but Faithful John took out his sword and cut the mooring line. “Set sail,” he said, exultant as a conqueror, “make this ship fly like the very birds!”

The princess screamed and made to leap from the deck to the water, but John held her fast. “You’ll drown in your heavy skirts,” he said, practically. “Stay, my heart, and listen.”

The king took her hand and begged her to be his wife. “If all the clouds in the sky were lips, they could not sing of my love for you.” He told her of his father’s death, and the locked door; how he had swooned at her portrait and beggared his treasury to tempt her. She calmed herself and listened as he spent the coin of his love in her ear. After a time she consented to be his wife.

While this went on, Faithful John sat on the bow playing his pipe. The music was so fine it drew an audience of three ravens, who fluttered from the heavens to listen. At the end of his song John put up his instrument, and the first raven spoke. Did it startle him, I wonder? Ravens are ill-omened birds. The first raven spoke: “The king carries home his prize, the princess of the golden palace.” The second replied, “Oh yes, but he sails into trouble and doesn’t know it. He’ll never possess her.” The third raven said, “But she’s right there next to him, the girl with tear-stained cheeks, don’t you see?”

John leaned out over the water and listened. The first raven said, “And what good does her nearness do him? They’ll arrive at land and he’ll see a water-demon wearing the skin of a horse. The desire to ride it will possess him utterly.” And the second cawed, “And if he does it will devour him, skin and bones! Is there no escape?” The first replied, “If someone is to mount the horse for him, and shoot it dead, he will be saved. But who knows that? And in the knowing lies doom, for whosoever tells it to the young king will be turned to stone from toe to knee.”

Here John shuddered, imagining stone wedded to his flesh, the warmth of bone, vein and nerve ending in dumb and lifeless rock. “The things I do for love,” he said, but worse news was coming. The second raven preened, “I know more than that, brothers. Even if the horse is killed, he’ll never possess her. He will go with her to the castle, and a beautiful bridal garment will be waiting for him there. It will look as if it is woven from gold and silver, but in truth it is nothing but sulfur and pitch. He’ll put it on and be burned, to the very bone and marrow.” Asked the first raven, “Is there no escape?” The second picked lice from its wing and replied, “If a brave one dons gloves and throws the shirt into the fire, the young king will escape his roasting. But who knows that? And in the knowing lies doom, for whosoever tells it to the young king will be turned to stone from knee to heart.”

Perhaps this did not seem such a tragedy to Faithful John, for it seems not so to me. A stone heart is useful in times such as these. The third raven delivered the worst news of all. “I know more than the both of you together. Even if the horse is killed and the bridal shirt burnt, he’ll never possess her. After the wedding the queen will be dancing, and she’ll fall down as if dead. If someone does not pierce her breast and draw three drops of blood with his mouth, then spit them out again, she will die. But who knows that? And in the knowing lies doom, for whosoever tells it to the young king will be turned to stone from crown to sole.”

John shuddered at the thought of his mouth on the breast of his queen, and bent his head in despair. He set himself to save his king, even to the price of his own life. For the rest of the voyage he was silent as the grave, keeping the secrets of the ravens in his heart.

“Did he turn to stone, Mama?”

“Hush, my heart, and listen.”

It all came to pass as the ravens said. They came to shore and a magnificent horse, a chestnut bay, sprang forward. The tossing head, the prancing hooves, the proud neck; he was a horse to be ridden by kings. “That one is mine!” said the young king. He was about to mount it when Faithful John leapt before him. He jumped on the back of the chestnut bay, drew his pistol, and shot the horse through the back of the head. The king’s attendants muttered amongst themselves – they were not fond of Faithful John, and jealousy sharpened their tongues. But the king bid them all to hold their peace. He knew Faithful John, and trusted in him.

So they all made their way to the palace.

“You’re hurting me, Mama, you’re holding too tight.” My lovely boy starts to twist in my arms.

“Hush, my heart, and listen.”

At the palace there was a plate, and on the plate the most beautiful shirt in all the world, crusted with jewels and seemingly spun of gold and silver. The king rejoiced in its beauty and reached out his hands for it, grabbing as a child might, with no thought for that which might harm him. Faithful John knocked his hands away, seized the shirt with his riding gloves on, and burnt it up in the fire. The shirt went up quickly and smelt strongly of sulfur, but all the attendants muttered against John. “How could you burn something so beautiful?” they asked, and their hearts were poisoned against him. The young king pushed them all aside. He knew Faithful John, and trusted in him.

So they all made their way to the wedding.

“Mama…” My darling’s voice grows faint.

“Hush, my heart, and listen.”

And after the wedding came dancing; the dancing was boisterous, and the new queen took part. She danced and she whirled, like a bright evening star, and all who looked upon her were awed. Faithful John watched, and caught her eyes from across the ballroom. She stopped, and a shudder went through her. She turned pale and fell to the ground as if dead. He sprang to his feet and ran hastily to her, and gathered her in his arms like a bridegroom. “The things I do for love,” he said. Tenderly he carried her to the king’s chamber and laid her down on the bridal bed. Tracing her heartbeat with his mouth, he sucked three drops of blood from her right breast, then spat them out onto the floor. Immediately she came again to life.

The young king saw, and this was the limit of his patience with Faithful John. “I saw your mouth where only mine should be,” he said, and with jealousy a goad to his vengeance he cast John in the dungeon. The next morning he was to be condemned. They beat him in prison, my darling. They beat him and tore his clothes, and cut his skin so his life’s blood flowed. The next morning he was led to the gallows, stumbling under the weight of his wounds. They stood him on the gallows, and the king’s attendants covered him in rotten food and every foulness. He held his head high, my darling, and asked the right to make one last speech.

“I am unjustly condemned,” he said, and related the whole story of the ravens on the sea, and his obligation to do all those things – killing the horse, burning the shirt, bleeding the queen – to save his master. The king cried out for his foolishness, and begged Faithful John be brought down from the gallows…but it was too late. What the ravens had spoken had come to pass, and Faithful John was stone.

The king and queen were in anguish. The stone figure was carried to the garden, and every day they prayed over it for the gods to make him whole again. Time passed as time does, and the queen bore the king a son. Their happiness had no fullness to it; it was a shallow and anemic thing, without their loving and faithful John.

“Then one night, the queen dreamt,” I say, holding my silent son to my breast. His lips are faintly blue, also the tender skin below his eyes.

I kiss his cheek and whisper, “Faithful John came to her and asked, ‘What would you do for love? Would you give me the heart of the thing you love best?'”

I rock him slowly. “Then I knew. I knew, my darling, how to bring him again to life.”

It’s strange the memories that burden the heart across years. I remember youth’s clumsy hands against my body; hot breath, sticky protestations of love. I do not desire my inconvenient husband and yet my mind is full of our fumblings. Of the lover for whom I burned, for whom I opened like a rosebud in the sun, I am left with no memories. The traps I laid for the callow youth, each dismantled by my earnest lover, I laid with my heart’s own longing. Each trap was sidestepped but the one that caught me tight.

There is but one thing left to do, and I have come to the end of my tale.

“Fear not, my precious.” I say, as I stroke his hair. My fingers curl around the hilt of the knife. I close my eyes. The things I do for love.

 


 

Brittany Warren is a 26 year old Army Captain, who writes to keep herself sane.  She loves fairy tales, folktales, myths, and things that go bump in the night.


Image: Woman with a dagger (study for the picture Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom), Ilya Yefimovich Repin, ca. 1870.

 Posted by at 10:24 pm

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