Much later, when she is a queen, she will remember it this way, and regret:
It begins with a breeze lifting tendrils of her hair as Eleanor straightens in her saddle, but she does not brush them away from her eyes. She must be a statue, immobile and perfect, before Catriona, the new handmaid. Catriona, who is not really a handmaid at all but a trumped-up goose-girl, the only servant the castle can spare to go with the princess on her journey to the prince’s kingdom. This chit of a girl is to be Eleanor’s companion, and not Nurse, who has raised Eleanor, who still guards her fierce as a mother bear. The princess is given no choice in the matter. So Eleanor, from her height in the saddle, looks down and hates the handmaid, hates the wild-haired, sun-browned creature slumping in her saddle, hates her with the force of a flood, a gale, a wildfire.
So Eleanor throws her shoulders back in the way her mother has taught her, but a tremble remains in her chin and she blinks suspiciously little. For courage she must snake one hand to her bodice, where she has nestled the handkerchief that is her mother’s parting-gift, white silk marked with three perfect circles of her mother’s blood. The ritual is only folk-magic, and the princess is not sure she trusts it. But when her soft fingertips brush the still-crimson stains, she rises taller in her saddle, astride her white mare. She imagines she hears the fabric rustling, whispering to her, as the horse’s hooves thud down the ill-paved path. Oh, if your mother only knew. Eleanor closes her eyes and imagines her nurse at her side.
The roughness of Catriona’s voice after the princess issues her first command is enough to jar her from her reverie. She has never heard it before.
Fetch the water yourself, if you’ve a thirst, Catriona says, and Eleanor, startled, does. She dismounts, bends forward, hair unbound, locks trailing in the stream, laps creek-water in a motion both graceful and awkward.
As she straightens, water dripping down her chin, thinking of her mother — Oh, if your mother only knew — she meets the handmaid’s eyes and for a moment, she knows. It is finished, then. In Catriona’s eyes Eleanor can see her own story reflected, her own anger. This goose-girl asked to become a handmaid no more than Eleanor had asked it, and Eleanor is contrite. But there is something else, too, in the sharpness of Catriona’s features. Eleanor wonders why she thought the handmaid plain, when her eyes are that bold, brilliant blue. Bluer than the eyes she has imagined the prince might have.
We’re the same, you and I, Catriona says in that same rough voice, and it is true, suddenly, Eleanor believes. With a swallow she remembers to breathe.
Take off those clothes, you won’t be needing them, Catriona begins, but Eleanor’s hands are already fumbling at her stiff beaded sleeves, her eggshell-blue bodice. Catriona’s disrobing is easier. Underneath, Eleanor discovers, the handmaid is not freckled but marble-white, with glimpses of blue veins at her wrists, the tops of her thighs. Her hair falls around her like a bird’s nest strewn to the wind. She stands, and her blue-moon eyes do not look away.
Eleanor’s hands tremble so that she can barely undo her laces. She shivers, though it is the height of summer, and then Catriona’s warm, calloused hands are at her waist. Eleanor tenses at the unexpected contact, then wills herself to relax, release the taut muscles around her navel. The handmaid’s fingers are deft and practiced on the laces of Eleanor’s bodice, as if she has done this before. Eleanor does not notice when her mother’s handkerchief slips out from between her breasts as the bodice parts, for then Catriona’s hands are on Eleanor’s quick-flushing cheeks, drawing her gaze up, and she sees Catriona’s tongue dart over her chapped lips so they glisten. Eleanor can no longer tether herself, and she catches Catriona’s sunburnt lips with her own soft ones, still wet from her drink at the stream.
Both girls now are gasping for air as if they have just escaped from drowning. Fabric rustles, hands tremble, as they shed their last garments, their trappings of rank. Both girls are the same now, as Catriona said, both smooth and milky with flashes of pink at their fingertips, their lips, their breasts, like ripening berries. Later on, when they have finished, they will don each other’s clothing, and they will not be able to distinguish princess from handmaid, but for now, they draw to each other, thrill to each other. Eleanor feels the sweat beading at the small of her back.
A breeze passes by, but they do not notice, their limbs entwined. It catches up the forgotten handkerchief, the drops of blood still crimson-fresh. It rises in the air, begins a lazy descent into the stream where Eleanor knelt to drink. But Eleanor does not see it. Her eyes are closed. Her mouth is agape. She does not hear the handkerchief’s refrain as it sinks under the surface of the water, as the current bears it away.
Oh, if your mother only knew…
BIO: Michelle is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington and a current M.A. student in Emerson College’s Publishing and Writing program. Her publication history includes short fiction in Renard’s Menagerie, The Written Word, and Reflection’s Edge.
IMAGE: Le Sommeil Detail, Gustave Courbet, 1866