Friday, April 29

She didn't mind, really.

It was difficult to say how long the room had been empty--had it been five years or ten?--but the years had been suitably long enough to have lost that smell particular to sickrooms. The housekeeper, as I've said before, was very adamant about the upkeep of vacant rooms, and this one was no exception. Far enough out of the way of major hallways, personal apartments, and meeting halls, it still stood with a threatening air of readiness at the end of a long passageway, where the windows looked out to the sea.

The bed had been dressed with stiff white sheets and given a light woven coverlet; the room would not get cold enough in the late spring weather to require any more blankets, and besides, the large fireplace had been built up and was hissing and crackling merrily to ward off any presumptuous drafts. Many extra pillows had been added to the bed by attentive ladies of the court, many of whom tended to embroider pillows as a natural extension of their limbs and found invalids very useful for disposing of the fruits of their labors.

The present occupant was feeling nauseous and ill inclined to be thankful for the scented, beaded, and beribboned trinkets. Being left alone with nothing to do so that she could convalesce was not her idea of resting. After her morning toilette was completed and she had been abed for an hour watching the rain outside, the only really sensible thing to do seemed to be to pick at the fringes on the more lumpy, uglier pillows, and so she tore apart several before being discovered and scolded.

Finally, luncheon hour came and a few visitors arrived. It wasn't likely that there would be any evening visitors. Another feast, another round of speeches, and another dance or concert or story, and everyone would be exhausted. She would have to connive and scheme to get one of her visitors to bring a book or some embroidery. No, no embroidery, she thought, looking in disgust at the overwhelming sea of cushions before her. Maybe some more handkerchiefs, though.

The door creaked and opened just enough for a small, mouse-like woman to step through and smile apologetically.

"I do hope--I mean, that is, I hope you won't think I'm intruding--and I don't want to intrude, really--but I wanted to ask, if you've got the energy, you understand, and just stopping by to see maybe, if--well, how are you feeling?"

She stayed for a half of an hour and talked at length about her daughter's illness last autumn while nervously rearranging the countless pillows by size and intricacy. The invalid nodded sympathetically and blew her nose only twice during the conversation, desperately searching for a clue as to who her visitor could be.

There was no time for a favor to be asked of her; she left quickly at the sudden entrance of three young women who laughed and wore ribbons in their hair. They gossiped and warmed themselves by the fire before flitting off to see if the cook had any oranges, which they felt would do any sick person no end of good.

The most surprising visitor was a young maiden in a long green gown, whose solemn face it was very difficult to meet when one had itchy, puffy eyes and a very sore, red nose. She tried very hard not to laugh.

"My name is 'Melia. May I please brush your hair?" The request was made with an air of decorum that could not be easily gainsaid.

"Of gourd," she acquiesced, humbly. It was meant to be "Of course" but at the moment her nose was not cooperating with any effort to articulate coherent speech.

The green-gowned Amelia must have bewitched the creaky door, because when she awoke in the late afternoon, her hair was brushed to a silky shine and there was no sign of the girl. The rain pattered on the window and the hills and the sea outside, making the coals in the fireplace hiss and sputter every now and again. Sighing, the invalid began to pick apart the tassels of a pillow case whose fabric dye had been a serious mistake.

Wednesday, April 27

She went back to her own rooms.

As soon as the sound of his footsteps died away into the blue darkness of the upper story, she began to walk more slowly, trailing a finger along the wainscot. The candles had not yet been lit, and all the doorways were dark. The window at the end of the passageway was a grey shape of moonlight.

Two more doors down, a touch on the doorknob, and the hall was flooded momentarily with a golden light. There was action within the room; oh yes, Fiona. Fiona was cross with her for being one of the last ones in; her touch was not gentle or kind as she put away shoes (clucking at the blisters on her lady's feet), removed the fancy dress, and excused herself from the room. She'd left a bath of warm water near the fireplace and laid out some plain nightclothes on the bed.

The curtains were drawn and the bed clothes turned down, but by the time the exhausted young woman had made herself ready to sleep she found herself restless and wakeful. She put on a robe and blew out the lights before stepping back out into the hallway, carefully and quietly shutting the door behind her.

"I was just coming to see how you were." She turned quickly in her surprise.


Tuesday, April 26

A rather long piece, I'm afraid.

When they got to the road, there were only two carriages left waiting to carry the stragglers back to the lodge. The first carriage, with its hood down, was led by young horses, and took off quickly due to the lenience of the driver to the cries of the adolescents inside.

It left the last carriage standing alone on the grass, an old and boxy thing with heavily varnished doors and moth-eaten cushions. It had apparently been brought for a few of the older courtiers, but the soft breeze and the warmth of the evening had persuaded even the most prudent among them to engage one of the open carriages.

The footman and driver both considered the solitary couple in the closed carriage out of the range of prudence and so discreetly opened the back window. The young lady's companion handed her into the carriage and climbed in after her, noted the expressions of the two men, and laughed to himself.

"No--I'm sorry, midear, I can't kiss you on the way back! They might throw me from the coach!" He said it loudly enough to be heard by both men, whose frowns became tangible, but drew a reproachful glance from his friend, who had taken off her shoes once more and was massaging her feet. The carriage took off and jostled its way onto the road.

As soon as they were on the smooth lane, she drew her knees up to her chin and gazed out the window at the trees that lined parts of the road. All but the latest had stopped flowering, and the breeze carried in the scent of sun-warmed leaves. He'd taken up his habitual sprawl on the opposite bench and was tapping his foot on the floor to a beat quite unrelated to the clip-clop of the horses.

When they drew up beside the lodge, he silently exited the cabin and handed her down from the carriage. She sighed, straightening her skirts, and looked up to thank the servants. They'd already withdrawn to the other side of the courtyard, leaving only a faint echo of the horses' slow gait as they made their way to the stables.

"Can you walk alright?" he asked when she had turned to face the long flight of steps to the front door.

"I'm sorry to be such a nuisance. If you'd just lend me your arm for this last flight of stairs, I'll leave you alone for a week." She looked miserable.

"I could carry you up to your room," he volunteered, laughing. "Oh, here, let me help you, you'll sprain something trying to make it by yourself." He offered his arm.

"Don't talk about it in jest. I'm sorry to be annoying about that, but I don't want to turn that into some kind of joke between us." Her voice was quiet and strained. What! Here was something she was not willing to treat as a jest. He wondered if this was a warning.

"Are you alright? Not going soft on me, I hope." He held his breath and hoped to heaven she wouldn't blush and become coy and shy. She kept her eyes on her feet and the steps ahead of her.

"Never mind. I've been listening to Fiona talk and now I'm a bit touchy about the subject of marriage." Ah, good, her voice was steady and sounded merely exhausted.

"What does Fiona say? What's so taboo about marriage?" He was curious, now--Fiona at least had always seemed rather practical.

"She just gossips; I'm just hypersensitive." They were almost to the top of the stairs.

"Well, I was only joking. You know that."

"I know. I wish you'd forget I said anything about it." They reached the landing and a guard opened the door.

"That's alright. I should have thought about what I said. I'm tired. You're tired. Go to sleep. Where's your room, anyway? Not upstairs, I hope." They stepped into the front hall and faced the large sweeping staircase with its carved balustrade. It seemed as if the entire building was empty beyond the door guards. People were probably having their meals in their rooms; tomorrow was a long day of a full court session with everyone in attendance.

"I'll make it from here. Thank you for your help." She curtseyed, and added: "And for the dance."

"The honor was mine. Good night." He bowed and stifled a yawn. Stupid formalities. She bid him a good night and they parted. His room was at the top of the long staircase, and he turned and took the stairs two at a time.

Sunday, April 24

They regretted the dance.

"You are too tall," she declared, easing her feet out of obligatorily fashionable shoes.

"I couldn't slouch any lower! You are too short." He found it impossible to sprawl in the flimsy chairs, and so remained disgruntled and precariously upright . "And those shoes are too pointy. You nearly took half my foot off."

"It isn't as if I get to choose what I wear at these occasions. Somebody's invalid mother worked a lifetime to sew the beads onto these things and I will be put out of both Mother's and Fiona's good graces if I don't wear them 'in appreciation' now and then."

"I had no idea," he mused, spooning an unholy amount of sugar into a cut-glass goblet of lemonade, "that princesses led such a difficult and demanding life for their adoring subjects."

She rested her elbows on the table and scanned the hedges for fireflies."I shall skip my birthday entirely next year to avoid receiving any more gifts of a similar sort."

"What about Christmas?"

"And Christmas. Any and all holidays resulting in footwear shall be wiped from the calendar."

The last orange streak of sunlight disappeared, and for a few minutes a chorus of crickets intervened and reminded everybody that they were in no danger of Christmas any time in the near future. Fireflies took the dance floor, and a few stars appeared to dress the sky. A breeze rippled the leaves of the trees and began to cool off what had been a warm summer day.

Ladies with less stunning jewelry were led by their partners to a pavilion at the edge of the field, talking quietly of things they would soon forget. Most of what would stay in their memories was the majestic and darkening sky stretching over a green lawn, buttressed by the elms and high old oaks that surrounded the grounds.

The sound of a horse's whinny heralded the arrival of the carriages which would return everyone to their apartments around the royal lodge.

"They're here," he commented needlessly, and contemplated another spoonful of sugar.

"Must they come so early? Have they no consideration for my aching feet?" She grumbled in her habitual but good-natured fashion and rose from her chair, wincing.

"Take your shoes off and carry them." He marveled at the impractical nature of female dress and downed the rest of the lemonade.

"I have stockings on."

"Take them off, too. Can't you hide your feet in all that fabric?"

"Oh, but--"

"--Fiona would have your head? Your maid . . . ! I know, I know, somebody's aunt, someone's cousin, and in consequence--and quite inexplicably--your birthday gifts."

She laughed, winced, and looked at the offending articles doubtfully. The crickets were remonstrative.

"I've just thought of something," he said, rising to his feet; "Why don't I act like a gentleman and you can lean on my arm?"

"I can take my stockings off, it's really alright. I just don't like to make trouble for her." She made to sit down again. "Your carriage is leaving; you'd better go now or you'll miss it. I'll be right behind you."

"Don't be ridiculous. Here is my arm. Take it, or I will pretend to be very insulted and," he paused for dramatic effect, "I will tell Fiona."

"Not fair!" She stood up again. "Ouch. Alright, you win." She took his arm and they made their way slowly across the lawn to the waiting carriages. It took an effort for him to make his steps smaller to match her limping stride.

"You are still too tall."

Thursday, April 21

Of the reading of many books, there is no end.

"Books, books, books," he said, placing three books on the table as punctuation; "These books don't pertain to your studies. Will your father consult you on military strategy during counsel? No. Can you duel? No . . . These don't really make sense, you know." He moved the remaining books from the chair to a corner table, then sprawled in the empty chair.

The room was relatively silent for a moment but for a thoughtful mumble of embers in the grate and an impudent wind whistling through a crack in the windowpane. She set down the volume she'd been reading when he entered, took up another, and crossed over to the centre of the room, where there were large maps laid out on a table.

"If it weren't for these books, I'd hardly know my father. They're practically the only things we have in common."

"He talks to you about them?" A maid appeared with an extra mug for tea; he took it and thanked her, looking about the room for the teapot.

"In the evenings, when we haven't visitors, he likes to teach us and talk to us about different things. I'm afraid he isn't very much interested in embroidery or dancing or the metrics of poetry, but he does appreciate strategy and somehow, I think he knows it takes effort for us to learn things that are very important to him, and it gives him a bit of hope that we won't be left dull and spiritless if we ever have to sit through days at court like Mother does."

She continued to pore over a map in the centre of the table, moving small lead figurines about on the surface of it and checking a large volume for the correct movements.

"He expects you to marry princes?"

"No. He hopes, you know, but there are only so many princes and most of them are intolerably dull and have no sense."

"Thank you."

"You aren't a prince yet, and you know what I mean. Anyway, it isn't really important to him."

"When I first met him, I never thought of him as a father, you know? He's very much a battle-worn man, and very good in the thick of things. Sharp, really sharp, and keen-eyed." He waved his half empty mug about as he spoke and sloshed tea into the grate. The fire hissed and sent up a puff of smoke in protest.

"He doesn't love the battle for the fight; he only does it because he must protect what he loves."

"That is definitely something to admire."

"It is. These books are the least I can do to show him how much I admire and love him for that. I will never duel skillfully or plan battles or have to feed an army for three years on foreign soil, but he will or does or has. I don't want him to have to shelter me any more than he must. It is rather trying, sometimes, to not be a son for my father."

Wednesday, April 20

Familiar unfamiliarity: traveling.

The surface of her mind was calm as she went through the motions of travel. The weight of her rucksack was still comfortable on her shoulders, and the light of the airport was not yet glaring to her eyes.

The small inconveniences and situational luxuries seemed to be appreciated vicariously, somehow; her mind was preoccupied with something she couldn't quite get at and had moped in the taxi on the way to the airport when she attempted to make herself aware of first the tree lined avenues and then the bright, dirty downtown areas of the city.

Monday, April 18

Fiona is a bit childish, I'm afraid.

"You sent for me?" He made a point to shut the door quietly and then bowed formally to the seemingly empty room. The room was cold and brightly lit by a tall window with a light curtain; in the center of the room on a threadbare carpet there was a table, and only one chair, which was empty. A rustling came from behind the curtain.

"Who is it?" It was a cranky voice. "Oh." Still cranky, but it had lost its snappy edge; apparently she wasn't expecting him. "Did Fiona tell you to come?" More rustling, and then she appeared from behind the curtain in a rumpled dress with her messy hair pinned up above her neck. He answered in the affirmative as she retrieved a large pile of books from the window-seat and piled them on the table.

She seemed to be thinking of something to say but too confused--or angry?--to voice whatever it was, so he poked at the silence with a cough and tried to be polite. "Umm, Fiona said you wanted a companion to walk with you and that your usual guard had been given some other duty to prepare for the counsel."

She sighed and composed a smile of cordiality. "Ah, yes. Thank you for coming; shall we walk?" He raised an eyebrow at the obvious composition of her smile. How odd. Well, he wasn't going to be formal; it was too much mental effort and he distrusted the startling likeness of court manners to dance steps. "Good. I am supposed to be at an unimportant counsel, and a lady's request will certainly excuse me."

"A 'lady'!" She seemed relieved that he had been caught escaping rather than interrupted from work, but still annoyed. "That is just what Fiona and I were discussing. She was lecturing me on sociability and I said I was going out to take a walk in a bit, and she said that was exactly what she meant, and went off before I had a chance say anything. I'm glad she didn't disturb you, though. Do you really want to walk?"

"I'm game if you are." The curtain blew open and a breeze blew through it, smelling of wood-smoke and that scent particular to autumn afternoons.

"Let me get my cloak; I don't know where Fiona put it."

Friday, April 15

A thoughtful silence, perhaps.

He was one of those sorts of people whose conversations left food for thought during his absences, debated highly, and then rarely revisited when he returned because nobody wanted to hear that he had no remembrance of such a conversation--and could you tell him your name again? What was the argument?

Nobody was quite sure whether he was merely a quiet person or whether he was uncomfortable in a crowd or was keenly observing everything to write to his father; he seemed to shun company, though if the stars in some far galaxy were aligned, he could tell a tale that everybody stayed to hear. One of the young visitors to the court likened his temperament to a forest animal that would reveal itself if one were quiet and still enough, and most everybody had agreed wryly before the young one could receive a disapproving frown from an elder relative.

What was it about his silence that unsettled everyone? Was he moody? No, there was no anger to his silence--maybe it was that he often laughed to himself for reasons that were never decided. His fellow students proclaimed him lively enough in scholarly debates and matters of philosophy but could say nothing as to why he lapsed into an echo when the kingdom or the existence of faeries was not at stake.

Never did anyone say he was really disagreeable; the king and his poet would riddle with the young prince late into otherwise dreary afternoons, the warden of the infirmary delighted in his knowledge of herbs and of healing, the younger noblemen settled debates on his opinion of a good horse or sword-stroke, and on the hope of a story sleepy children would sit quietly through a tiresome adult dinner.

The problem was that he was just too quiet.

Thursday, April 14

how ridiculous.

He had a sudden urge to touch her face and feel the smoothness of her skin. For a split second the recognition of what it was he was thinking (or not thinking) caught him up short in his stride. He looked at her again, puzzled and stunned. The bones in her arms were more delicate than his. The way her hips made her dress flow down to her ankles was suddenly graceful in a way he'd never noticed before.

He laughed. How utterly ridiculous. To be caught unawares by the beauty of a woman was not something that commonly occurred to him. Usually his mind was so occupied with a goal or activity as to prevent the spontaneity of such distracting features of the imagination. He wondered what it would be like to make the beauty of a woman one of those subjects with which he was always so occupied and was reminded of an illustration in a book of plays he'd studied once.

A further thought worried him; he hoped very much that he wasn't falling in love. That particular malady seemed to be common among his peers and seemed also to involve a lot of focus on soft skin and sweet-smelling hair, rosy lips, and all that sort of thing. Did she have rosy lips? He'd no idea. He glanced at her. He couldn't see her mouth.

He doubled the efforts of all of his thoughts on the question of whether he was falling in love, tripped on the train of her skirt, and stood in amazement as she made a very graceful arc and stumbled into a thornless rose bush.


roughly a conversation.

"What are you doing down here this late?"

"I was reading and then I sent Fiona away before I realised what I really want is a cup of tea. What are you doing here? I thought you had a drawing room in your quarters."

"I do. Well, in a manner of speaking. The lord who has the room next to mine brought his young nephew with him and didn't tell anybody, so the nephew is camping on my drawing room couch. And he snores. And I can't sleep."

"You should have told the manservant on the hall! We have other rooms, you know."

"I know; it's just too late at night to deal with moving the poor boy. I don't mind it here, either. My slippers have disappeared and the fire went out in my room."

"What happened to your manservant? It sounds like you haven't been taken care of at all."

"Oh, don't go and speak to him about it, I know what you're thinking. Well, I sent him away as soon as the nephew was settled with extra bedding. Do they ever talk to you--the servants, I mean?"

"Of course. Fiona and I often have our tea together, and I lend her books for her days off when she wants them. And Cook talks to me when I go down to the kitchen, and the laundresses have veritable rapier wits if I spill anything seriously on my clothes. I don't drink red wine any more. But I think you are a little intimidating to them. You're very quiet, you know."

"Am I? I don't mean to be."

"It isn't bad. They'll get used to it. Fiona says you are one of the only guests with common sense because you don't waste words."

"I like Fiona, she's obviously an intelligent woman. My family isn't as affectionate as yours. Well, we are in our own way. We aren't as . . . oh I'm tired."

Tuesday, April 12


And I didn't even rig the quiz! But I don't drink that much!

Your Inner European is Irish!

Sprited and boisterous!

You drink everyone under the table.

Friday, April 8

an experiment in dialogue

"You can't be perpetually desensitized. You can't fight like that--it just doesn't work that way," he said.

"But don't you, I mean--do you ever see red, like the stories? Don't you go into a rage or think you're in heaven or something? Like the stories?" she asked.

"No. You kind of block the emotions. I've never seen red or gone angry or lost my mind, if that's what you mean. You just fight because you have to. It is something you've promised to do, or have to do."

"But princes don't have to fight; you could have been a priest or a scholar or something without going into battle every time there's a border skirmish."

"I don't go to every border skirmish. Keep a rein on your tongue when you talk about battles, little thing."

"Alright, you win. You know I don't mean any harm; I just want to know. But then why do the stories say what they do about fighting?"

"I don't know. I meant to ask our bard before I left. Does your father's poet know the same stories?"

"I think so; we can ask him anyway. His new apprentice likes to sing fast and low and it makes us all laugh."

"And while we talk, maybe we can have something to eat. That bread we had at the morning meal is sitting in my stomach like a stone."

"I made it."

"It was delicious."

The broad steps to the large front door were often swept in the springtime because of the perpetual dust from the orchards nearby, though to the despair of apprentice gardeners there were white petals beginning to fall in carpeting sheets on the staircase. The maid slipped on them once on her way up as she attempted to walk upright and lift her skirts so as not to touch the ground, while still keeping pace with her absentminded friend.

"The pudding," she cried in vindictive joy, "is guilty!"

Somehow, she had the knack of finding connections between separate events—a system of worlds ran in her head that allowed for every book she read to fit curiously into a single cosmic volume and every season of the earth to fit into a grave observation of death and rebirth.

For this reason, she often cooked without the aide of written instructions but took a few well-known practices and manipulated taste and ingredients to finish with a usually delicious and dangerously creative meal. It annoyed the assistant cooks terribly (and highly amused the scullery maids). They much preferred the time when she had been first introduced to the kitchens; a timid maiden in an overlarge, second-hand smock—and quite unused to having her wispy hair pulled back—would enter the kitchen with her instructor (everyone took turns) and with solemn countenance learn to make salads for luncheon.

Her current state of dashing about the kitchen looking for ingredients that she insisted she would "recognize" when they caught her eye was not at all one conducive to the goodwill of assistant cooks. Neither was her practice of giving the head cook exotic spices for Christmas.

Nowadays, with the strange Christmas presents, it became a game of discovering where within the Christmas evening meal the cook had used one of the ingredients.

"It is the pudding! The pudding," she cried, with her tiny dessert fork uplifted, "is guilty!"

And one of the footman or the maids, invariably in on the joke, would fetch the cook, who would be lavished with compliments and hugs and sent back to the kitchen, invariably toting a plate of food or a bottle of wine, and her favourite dessert (on which she had already nibbled while in the kitchen).

Thursday, April 7

Do you mind?

The sick room was built for the comfort and utility of an ageless, bedridden female relative who enjoyed sewing children's clothes of imminent practicality--play clothes, school smocks, and costumes of delightfully ambiguous theme--but was easily exhaustible in the company of visitors. Sometime in the last decade she had accepted the invitation to stay at a boarding school with an infinite amount of mending and a small theatre to sew for. Not only was it a pleasant change from the confined space of the room in which she had lived for several years, but the country air suited her much better than that of the sea and the mountains and she could hear the voices and footsteps of children without having to be perpetually among them.

Her former room was kept tidy and clean but rarely used: the infirmary was a better place for seasonal complaints and riding accidents, and people generally kept to their rooms with their pneumonia and occasional bouts of rheumatism. The slightly oversized bed was bare of linens, and the small bookshelf beside it held a half-dozen second and third volumes of three-volume novels, all with broken spines and grubby pages. Every month, the room was given a thorough cleaning, on the housekeeper's orders. "Just in case," she reminded everyone in foreboding tones that spoke of an invalid doom to the younger maids.

Well, I actually started out with a scene rather than this setting, but oh well. Another time will do for writing up that. It needs to brew a while, anyway, I guess.

Monday, April 4

Another imagist freewriting activity.

It is difficult for a student to judge what is imagist poetry precisely because the definition of an imagist, though unchanging over time, caters to an era-specific audience and sometimes contradicts itself in its very congregation of principles. “The language of common speech” (guideline no. 1) is one that changes with every cohort group that develops its own common language, not to mention the changing technology.

To create a “new” rhythm (no. 2) there must be an old one, and when I first read H.D.’s poetry, I saw no “newness” in her rhythm at all; that is because free verse is something we are all very used to, if not comfortable with, in the sphere of contemporary poetry.

Absolute freedom of choice and subject, the third guideline, is a relief to see as one of the imagists’ principles, because it is free throughout time. Whew!

The fourth guideline, about presenting an image, is one that doesn’t entirely impress upon me any meaning. A clear image? Out of facts? If we wanted to see clear images of things whilst dwelling on facts, our conversations would be much less euphemistic and our culture very blunt. Then that would mean our “language of common speech” would be “out of order” so one defeats the other. Besides, if what is real is always seen, then why hope?

Oh, shut up, you say, boo her offstage. No. This is my essay and I’m staying.

The fifth guideline is about creating “poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred or indefinite.” And I think all poetry should be this way, except the Oulipo school, and except those who mean to be vague, and also the ones that want to be ambiguous for the sake of conscious multiple interpretations of a single work. And excepting the ones who want to be ironic. Or maybe the imagists are ironic, in a tragic sort of way.

Sixth: “concentration is the very essence of poetry.” Yes, well. It is supposed to be. Concentration . . . ? Concentration of meaning? Is that what they mean? Then ars gratia artis is out of luck, and the poetess has to have a purpose behind her panderings.

Yes, there was sexual innuendo there. Have you ever read her biography? For crying out loud!