Speechless Beauty / Emma Cairns Watson
CONTENT WARNING: references to domestic abuse.
I am the fourth one at the christening, and the third to bless. I am the one they did not want in the first place. Beauty is very well, and cleverness, although I suppose he thought she had them both already; most fathers do. Perhaps she was born a monster; how much magic would it take? I wonder. But I didn’t get a look at her until after they were through, those two, and by then she was a handsome little thing and no mistake.
The third was to give her grace, at least, I think; it’s how these things are done. I’m almost sorry I interrupted; she could have used it, later. That mountain of chipped teacups, that broken toe, those dancing lessons wasted, good southern silver tossed away like drainwater, her father’s mumbled good griefs rising into a waterfall roar – well. All that is on my head.
My dancing lessons did me no good either. Nor did embroidery, harpsichordery, philosophy or flattery – but sorcery – ah, sorcery I learned swift. I too was a ball of princess in a cradle once.
The throne room floor was amethyst where I cracked it with a step. The royal hall remembered well what hell I once wrought in it. I did not know the black new walls, black jewels for windows now, and men had patched my ruby rents, recovering the sky. The horde, black too, a black snake. Around it coiled on me, and you could hear the whispers rippling, rising, to a low low-slung jaw hiss. But the stings it lashed against me I reversed with witchcraft rare – you do know, as well as grace and beauty, they gave me cleverness? The serpent should remember, it was there and kissed me there. I too was a blessèd child, I too had a christening once.
The king stood by, the king stood dumb, black in robe and wrath he stood, where I stopped him and his black old tongue, and listened to his old throat whistle the boiling of his blood.
But I forgot him, lovely ones, when I saw the child there – her cradle a shrine – that gold gleam in her hair – ! She was mine. You know what I mean. She was mine. I cannot tell it, I only looked. I looked and the serpent sank. There was silence in my own heart’s hall, while my own heart lay asleep.
You have come from the dark to the serpent’s hall, and threaten the serpent’s throne. You have come like a lark to live bright in the dark where the serpent lives alone.
Your Grace, you’ll call her, spat the woman in blue, my father’s latest bride. The mother of my own heart’s girl, all flaunt and nerves and pride. I pitied her in her crinoline, my father’s favorite blue – and the blue on her wrists, too, too bruise-kissed, those were my father’s, too.
She has grace enough. I told them so. I know what girls need in a serpent hall. They have no use for beauty or grace, but a listener when they call. Blue Formalities won’t come, she’ll turn away, I know it – I have seen your last Queen do it; I have seen the lords approve it, I have seen the whole world silent when I cried out, when I was it, when I too was your darling daughter once upon a dreadful time.
Snake-scales glittered in the dark. She’s grace enough. Here’s this instead. (If I lose control, the serpent slips.) A charm upon her dreaming head, upon her sighing lips: When all the world falls into dust and briars snare up wild between your two embittered hearts, then will I take your child. In your daughter’s blackest hour, at desperate demand, I will rise up in her tower and offer her my hand.
And I was gone then; had no wish to stay to see the girl I loved borne up away to some gold-coated nursery in her candy-colored clothes, to learn the lute and spinning wheel and how to wear a rose. I desired flight and so became a flock of deadly birds and forgot to hear the final fairy and her deadly final words. But I read the legends later when my love was decades dead, and of what passed when I should have stayed but proudly, blindly fled.
The rooted years wrapped round and round up to my hips, my body whole – they ate and grayed me to the bone and still I listened for the call. I listened long and avidly and told myself I would not pray to hear her misery, to hear her beg someone take me away.
I thought a thousand things: I thought my father must have died. I saw a child in my mind that loved a serpent’s lair. I dreamed a girl who had no fear, who was a match for kings. I thought she might have perished young, before she learned to speak – or that I’d misjudged the cool blue queen who’d flashed poor claws at me.
And it was I who weakened, in the end, and crossed the redly simmering swamps. And rose above the ice blue heights on fleet and fleeting wings: the ones that once had won me freedom from the serpent’s den, and now served but to bring me down and bring me back again.
To find my father’s palace had sunk under the sea of silencings. Steeped itself in potent soundlessness like cinnamon black tea, and seen the end of landscaping. Mosses there washed to and fro forward and swayed back, swirl by grim curl in the dim court. Pocking the walls, the hollows where our father set his diamonds, there the spiders that live in old throats and eat silence lived sated.
Gone the diamonds. Gone, silver gone to dancing lessons, gone, the black snake lay scale-scattered, slain. What strange power entered here? The Lord of Time has dragged his legs through the arches of my childhood, sloughing damp skin. Gone the harpsichords and crinoline, gone to dust, stroked to dust. Time has one dry hand that takes and where it had not finished taking, there I found her in the tower.
My golden child gone all white to see me standing there – my golden child lost for time, for words, for golden hair – she was near sleeping. Even I with raging eyes could see, could quiet to see her lying there, so near to sleeping free of that dark tower. How many locks did I undo to come to where she lay near sleeping? They rusted under sorceress eyes, and fell to flake under my fingertips; I barely felt it. No wonder my sister looks so strange at me, the crone-faced stranger come to her so near the hour of sleep.
You never called, my darling – how have you lived so long and well? You must be stronger than I, my love; I thought this place a waking hell! You never called – so I stayed – so far – that’s not sorrow on your brow? Don’t you know my face, dear heart of mine? Do you know your sister now?
And she said nothing. Still I approached her, stroked her, spoke her fair – between my gray and quaking hands, her white and breaking hair – her hands the size or mine or more now; her mirror eyes so brown and bare.
I moved around her, disbelieving, like a dream. I sat and touched her, kissed her, growing almost wary of the way her pale lips parted, and I looked where I, unstrung, saw sick to rage the way that mad cruel clever cursed last fairy plucked away my sister’s tongue.
It was a moment’s work to do it, and undo it, vicious spell, and I could have undone it then before she could cry out and find it silenced once back when, before she learned there was no point in crying in the world of men. And I asked my foolish long-late question a second time and once again –
You could not call – so I stayed – so far – and that’s sorrow on your brow. Don’t you know my face, dear heart of mine? Do you know your sister now?
So she spoke the words like sunlight breathing o’er the Eastern Deep: You are the Queen of all my dreams, who soothes me when I sleep. She died then, stranger than strange. Soft and helpless as she lived. And I unmade the world of men – pried sinew from red bone, alit their harvests; stripped their halls stone by cursèd stone. And ashes followed where I went – and widows, wails, and briars, and good men pled my mercy, and I fed them to my fires. And when there was no more to burn for all was windswept wild, I went out into my wasteland with the body of my child. You think me evil. I am not. But only gifted strong. If each grieving woman could hurl worlds down, the worlds would not stand long.
I know that you will rise once more for true love and my sake – sleep for a thousand years, or more. I’ll wait for you to wake. My grief is spent all in destruction but this doubt not – in you, I broke the silence men had made, and I will break God’s, too. And now I am a force of flame, and curses I undo – and for every girl who isn’t heard, I spend my wrath for you.
Emma Cairns Watson is a recent graduate of Smith College, where she studied English literature and neuroscience. She now lives on the opposite coast, coordinating university conferences on Egyptology by day and attempting to write while balancing the notebook on top of a very persistent lapdog at night. A poetry editor at honey & lime, her own work is forthcoming in RHINO, Pithead Chapel, and Ninth Letter. You can find her on Twitter @ecairnswatson.