Spiders’ webs stitch shut her lips. Dirt weights her eyelids. Her hair has long turned to mold and leaves. The forest shifts around her, cycling through the seasons. She thaws. She freezes.
Her roots tangle with those of the trees.
One spring, her toe pokes its way out of the leaf mold, like another of the pale mushrooms that grow around her body. The next spring, her finger, wearing a ring of tarnished gold.
One year, her whole body appears, surfacing from the spring thaw, dark with dirt, pregnant with worms. She is a living fossil—exposed, shoved back down, exposed—each time she surfaces, worn a little further away.
Her thigh, a rotting log. Two iridescent beetles, her eyes.
Is that mushroom still her toe?
Once there was a casket, buried eight feet underground. Once there was a palace made of stone. A gown of shining gold. All are now dust. All except for her.
A Bride, Dressed by her Mother-in-Law
She kneels on soft, richly patterned carpet. Her mother-in-law stands behind her, rubbing jasmine-scented oil into her new daughter’s pale hair. She remembers an echoing vaulted ceiling, the perfume of roses, silk bed-curtains that dance in the breeze from the open window.
There is a full-length mirror also, reflecting a dark and cloudy version of her mother-in-law’s lined face, now looming close, now smiling, now in ripples and about to disappear.
“I barely slept the whole three weeks it took for you to travel here,” her mother-in-law laughs, but it is a brittle laugh, a nervous laugh, “so fraught with worry and anticipation was I. What would you be like, I wondered, the girl who would marry my son?” She talks with her long hands. They flutter like trapped birds. “What girl could be good enough for him?”
The new daughter rises, spreads her arms to be helped into her gold silk wedding gown. It is not so very far away, her parents’ kingdom, she thinks. Three weeks is not such a very long time. She could have done it in two, if she could fly like the cuckoo. If horses could walk as tirelessly as the migrating red deer.
“Not that I mean to worry you, of course.” Her mother-in-law helps her step into her gown. The silk pools on the carpet. She remembers the fabric shining, the way the occasional gleam of sunlight now pierces the tangle of forest to shine in her mind’s eye. The warmth of it. She stares at herself in the cloudy mirror.
She is a golden statue—a thing—a pretty bride for a prince, and that is all. She can feel the bald fact of it, lacing her up tight like the bodice of her wedding gown. They would have done better to have made a golem girl from the forest’s dirt, she thinks, to have given her the gown instead.
“When you are a mother, you will understand.” Her mother-in-law draws the laces tighter.
The Story Told to Her by Her Parents’ Wise Woman, in Secret
Imagine this: The mother, her face red and white, her hair drenched. The bloody sheets. The scent of sweat. The father, pacing, like they all do, useless things, the vast bedchamber, the screaming babe. The babe, held in the wise woman’s hands. Her hands, already knotted, tremble a bit.
It was not a particularly difficult birth. They are all like this.
The cord has been cut and the afterbirth burned. The young midwife—or at least she looks young, to the wise woman—hovers, blood down the front of her smock.
The wise woman murmurs over the child, her voice a low croon. It is her place to give the usual gifts, the ones that mark a princess out from the rest, that set her apart, like a precious thing on a shelf. But this wise woman has the sight, and what she sees during the blessings shakes her.
The traditional gifts are ridiculous things. Pale blonde hair like spun flax—so domestic, that hair—lips like the first blush of sunrise, flawless white skin.
When the bloat first sets in, the princess will glow in the dark with the mushrooms of her forest home. The wise woman sees this.
Small feet. Teeth like pearls.
These will still gleam, centuries later, as they cling to her rotting skull.
Something must show on the wise woman’s face.
“What is it?” the mother asks, her voice shrill. She struggles to sit up, her face white, the hollows of her eyes dark.
The wise woman peers into the baby’s unfocused eyes – green as a new leaf – her hands cupping its round head, still sticky with blood and mucus. “Oh, she will marry a prince!” Something good, for the parents, then. “And—” She stumbles backwards in horror, into the younger arms of the midwife. The mother reaches for her child, clutching it to her swollen breasts.
“Her mother-in-law will kill her.” Her voice is hushed. The room goes still.
“No,” the mother says, shaking her head. “No, no.” She tries to stand, as if she will hide her baby away immediately, perhaps within her gold-and-pearl inlay marriage chest, which stands in one corner of the bedchamber, perhaps under the enormous red-draped marriage bed.
Her husband, the king, puts his strong hands on her shoulders, holding her down. In the end, she is too weak to resist.
“There must be something you can do,” the king commands.
“We cannot change the future.” The wise woman wrings her hands.
“Only work with it,” the midwife pipes up. The mother looks at her in horror, then.
“She means,” the wise woman hastily amends—they were both young, truly, now the midwife thinks on it— “There are ways to save her without changing the events.”
She did not know, then, how easily blessings can turn into a curse.
“This, then,” the wise woman says, “can be my last gift. You may raise her as normally as you see fit. You may even marry her off, and retain the benefit to your kingdom.”
The mother stares at her blankly and tightens her arms around her child.
“Her future mother-in-law may think she has killed her, but she will not have. The princess will sleep, through the seasons, through the years, until someone comes who will steal her heart and take her unto themselves, and then she will wake, and she will live.”
In the forest, she sprouts. She flowers. In the summers, she puts out fruit. In her sleep, she breathes out seeds.
Her children visit her. Sometimes they bring her news.
The birds—starlings, ravens, and cuckoos—snap up the seeds, peck fastidiously at a crop of sweet berries which was once her cheek.
“There are houses where the palace once stood,” they tell her. “They creep into the forest, eating it away. There are shops, and cats that sleep on the roofs.”
“Eat, eat,” she murmurs with the voice of the forest. “You are eating of your own.”
The deer chew thoughtfully on her green leaves, rip gently at the mound of moss between her legs.
“There is a highway put in around the forest,” they tell her, “a glistening dark road, and things that run upon it like a roaring wind.”
“Eat, eat.” She calms them with the calm of the forest. “You are eating of your own.”
Summer thunderstorms roll in, and she is scattered by the wind. She travels in the stomachs of her descendants. All that happens in the forest and the world outside reaches her in whispers, in tremors running through the ground, in birdsong and the slow thoughts of trees.
Do you find this strange?
This is how she remembers the prince. A falcon sits on his shoulder all the time, hooded. Tiny bells jingle as he walks. He is handsome, dark where she is pale, and if he is aloof, it does not mean he is unkind.
Each day, she walks with him through vast stone hallways, their footsteps muffled on carpet, to the study where he meets with his mentors and advisors. She imagines it full of books and strange instruments and the meaningless arguments of men.
She has never been in.
Each day, he kisses her on the forehead and closes the study’s oak door.
She is not used to being left alone to her own devices. This is how she excuses herself.
She wanders the palace, peeking in on the stables (rows of curved ears twitching toward her voice), the library (the silence so oppressive she quickly ducks away), the secret underground kitchens (the dark, the heat, the noise).
The kitchens, and the cook she remembers better than the prince.
Long, delicate hands. A stained apron, and the way he reaches behind to take it off. A voice hoarse from shouting over the noise.
She spends much more time with her mother-in-law than she does with the prince, exchanging small talk and sewing in her chambers. It feels like waiting. Like she sleeps, like it isn’t real.
“What do you do with your days?” her mother-in-law asks. She sits primly, the silver of her needle flashing in and out of the cloth stretched over her embroidery hoop, and her daughter tries to copy her motions but fails, everything as tangled as the branches that now lace above her body. “You have enough amusements to occupy you, I hope?”
The Stories the Animals Bring Her as She Sleeps
In the city that has sprung up where the palace once stood, there lives a girl who gives birth to eggs like a bird. She carries them with her in her purse, warm, wrapped up with an old scarf and bits of cotton batting. When they hatch into baby cuckoos, she will raise them with an eyedropper, will catch them bugs. When they are grown, she will take them into the forest on the edge of the city, and the forest will care for them as if for its own.
“Eat, eat,” she’ll tell them when she leaves them. “You are eating of your own.”
In a suburban town not far, there is a boy born with antlers and hooves. His parents make him special shoes, file the antlers down with an industrial sander. He hates that bone-jarring “brrr, brrr.” One day soon, he will run away to the woods.
“Eat, eat,” she will tell him when he finds her. “You are eating of your own.”
In a stretch of woods by the highway, a baby crawls on all fours behind a mother deer and its fawn. They pick leaves like the deer and put them in their mouth.
“Eat, eat,” she tells them. “You are eating of your own.”
One day soon, headlights will mark this descendant as someone passes, and they will be picked up by horrified adults, who will call for a policeman. They will grow up in foster homes in the city, will marry and have children and those children will have children and one of them will be a doe.
Does this surprise you?
Do you find it strange?
A Mother and Her Children
There are two of them, twins. A boy, a girl. A princess and a prince. Blonde. Chubby. Pale. They dash through the lush grass of the palace gardens, stumbling over the hems of their skirts and their own unsteady feet. When they fall, their mother’s arms are waiting to catch them. They laugh, throwing handfuls of dirt and leaves.
“Are you picking flowers again? Is that a worm in your fist?”
“One of each! How perfect, how sweet!” Her mother-in-law lives in rapture now. The children fill their days, no more waiting, no more sleep. “Are there twins in your family, dear?”
She tells her mother-in-law that there are, and she pulls her children into her arms and kisses their cheeks.
The cook has a twin. The twin is too often drunk—it cannot be hidden, though the cook tries—and he has not risen nearly so high in the palace hierarchy as his brother. The cook sneaks him bottles from the kitchen. She has seen him do it, his finger to his strong mouth, a grin, a swift wink.
She has been surprised by the twin, once or twice, come upon him laying fires in soot-blackened clothing, pushing a broom through the halls at a lean.
“Dearest, what are you doing? What’s happened?” She has run to him, panicked, her whispers carrying too far. “Are you all right?” Sometimes, now, a child rides on each hip.
“Mommy, who is that?”
She has little time for tumbles in the kitchens, now.
He has looked at her through bleary eyes, and she has stumbled backward, realizing her mistake.
Once, long after she has stopped counting the seasons and the years, but before the palace falls, someone comes. To steal her heart? To take her unto themselves? She has a much better idea, now, what this might mean.
She can feel him creeping closer, crushing mushrooms, turning aside the dry branches, picking his way through the fallen leaves. Has he heard stories of a girl who sleeps in the forest?
Or does he merely hear her breathe?
He stops. She tosses and turns, beetles scurrying away, as if she is caught in a bad dream. Does she want to be woken? Who is he?
Is he watching her?
He’s gagging. She can hear him in her sleep. He turns and runs, twigs snapping under his feet. The autumn wind chases him, flinging acorns and leaves.
That’s right, she thinks. Her heart still beats, but he did not want that. Her body was all he could see.
Her fingers spread into roots, they toss the ground under his feet. He stumbles, panting in fear.
Good luck, she thinks, finding an opening in this body of mushrooms and leaves!
There is a day her mother-in-law invites her to her rooms, but tells her to leave the children behind.
“How often in three years,” her mother-in-law asks her when she arrives, “have you had a rest? You are too thin, too pale. Look,” she says, “I’ve had the cook prepare you a feast.” The daughter freezes in the doorway, her stomach turned by the smell of charred meat.
“Come, come!” Her mother-in-law hurries over, guiding her into the room. “Look what I have done for you!”
A circular table has been set in her mother-in-law’s parlor, filling the small space. It groans with carafes of red wine and platters of unidentifiable meat. Her mother-in-law pulls out a cushioned chair for her—the same she used to sit in to practice her embroidery—and helps her into her seat.
“Just sit back and relax, dear.” Her mother-in-law sits across from her and pours her a drink. “Being a mother can be exhausting.” She carves her a slice of each of the two hunks of meat, one large, one very, very small. “Trust me, I know.” She smiles, a tight smile.
Her daughter’s heart races like a trapped bird, like a deer about to flee. The room is too warm. She sips at the wine. Something is wrong.
“Succulent young venison,” her mother-in-law smiles, gesturing towards the larger piece of meat. “And a rare treat, a young cuckoo, trapped just for you!” She later supposes that, to her mother-in-law, this passes for a joke.
She takes a bite of each piece of meat. She can taste nothing but char, the burnt bits sticking to her teeth.
“I have never seen the cook be so careless with the meat!” she exclaims. She feels strange, her chest tight, her heart racing faster. She can barely breathe. She gulps her wine.
“Eat, eat!” her mother-in-law urges, as black spots swarm her vision like flies. She is floating in her seat.
She understands, she wants to cry out—she is a mother, now, after all, and she knows this story, it was foretold—but her throat is closed.
Does she truly understand, or does that only come later? This part is muddled still.
She chokes. Her mother-in-law smiles. “You are eating of your own.”
She falls to the floor, but no matter what her mother-in-law thinks, she is not dead. She sleeps.
Overheard in Sleep
Voices, muffled as if by distance, or through a door.
“Let me pass! I will see my wife!”
“You cannot. The contagion—”
“My children, then. My children—”
The breeze from an open window.
The slow creep of sunlight across stone floors.
Can one hear sunlight?
Her mother-in-law’s voice is pitched low, and broken as if by grief. There are sobs between the prince’s words. For the first time she feels an overwhelming gnawing of guilt.
She tries to open her eyes, and finds that she cannot, despite the fact that she is aware of all that happens around her. Her limbs are impossibly heavy, as if her bones have turned to stone. This, then, must be the sleep.
Her mother-in-law speaks again, words to comfort and protect her son. “You must think of your kingdom. What would happen, if you became sick? If you died, even, like them? Come with me to the chapel, where we can grieve.
“I, you know,” her mother-in-law says, “I loved them deeply too.”
“What a display,” a voice remarks, close to her ear. “Anyone could see you’re not dead at all, no matter you do not wake.” And then, “The window was open, so I flew in. Do you mind?”
It is the falcon’s voice. The prince’s falcon. How does she know that? She has never heard a falcon speak before. Does she dream?
“Does a talking falcon surprise you?” There is a hint of amusement in its voice. “Do you find this strange?”
She does, but no matter. All is strange, now. She wonders if he is hooded, and feels a sudden rush of pity. All is noise and sensation. All is dark.
“A pretty casket they’ve put you in,” he remarks. She can feel the crushed velvet cushion beneath her neck, can smell the polished oak wood.
“She washed your hair, too, herself. She cried while she did it. You would have laughed, had you seen that. You’re in your gold wedding gown.” She can feel it, the silk skimming her bare legs. So he is not blind, then. Only she is.
“They’re going to bury you in some lonely bit of forest, far away. I heard her talking about it. The contagion.” If a falcon could smirk, this one would.
Bury her? No! She’d toss and turn, if she already knew the way. The world is dark now, but that—
“Yes,” the falcon sounds thoughtful. “Horrible, isn’t it? I imagine you’ll spend many years that way.”
The wise woman had tried to prepare her, when she was a child, but she realizes now that there was really no way. How could she be ready for this much dark? For the weight?
“You brought it on yourself, you know,” the falcon says, a bit testily, she thinks.
Did she? Or was it fate?
“But I’m only a bird,” the falcon reminds her. “What do I know about free will? About fate?”
Then why is he here? Did he come only to mock? She’d scream if she could, but she has not yet learned to talk in her sleep.
She has not yet learned the patience that will come with centuries of waiting.
“I was hunting outside of the kitchens today.” Her breath stops in her throat. “Just a few moments before I flew in. I caught a mouse running out of those stone vaults, and he had a most fascinating story to bargain with. That’s why I’m really here. Not to waste time philosophizing on fate.”
“Would you like to hear? It concerns,” the falcon says, “your children.”
Go on, if only she could move, if only she could scream, go on.
The Story a Mouse Offers a Falcon
Weeping, in the kitchens. Weeping, and the pulling of hair, and the tramping of heavy-booted feet.
“Shut him up!” A voice like a bark, like the queen’s hunting dogs. “Don’t try to lie now! She knows; it’s too late for that! She knows the children are yours. Yours!” Disbelief. Spit hitting the floor. Shuffling feet.
“Oh, you just want to see them? She’s going to send them down now. She has in mind”—a pregnant pause—“a feast.”
“All of you.” An imperious finger sweeps the room. Everyone – the cook’s girls and boys and the choppers and the dicers and the dough kneaders and the sauce stirrers and the butchers and all the rest—cowers against the walls, away from the cook, who is crouching in the middle of the stone room, his chest heaving, his long hands curling and uncurling, away from the guards who surround him, their feet planted, their hands on the hilts of their swords, afraid to pick sides, afraid to associate with anyone.
She suspects the falcon is embroidering details, now.
“No heroics. Your master has brought this on himself. And we are watching you.”
“His brother! His twin!” This time her agony is so great that she manages to say it, despite her sleep. “He told!”
“Tut,” the falcon says. “Stupid, biased child. Did you not know that your mother-in-law is a wise woman? Do you not think that she could intuit such a thing herself? Do not speak. I have not finished yet.”
The upstairs mice pass the news downstairs. The queen visits the nursery, and where two children once stood, there is now a young cuckoo and a red fawn instead. A guard carries them downstairs.
The guards are weaker than they try to seem. They bring the children into the room and cast them at their father’s feet. But they do not want to watch the deed.
It is just a bird and a fawn, they tell themselves, but they do not believe.
They back from the room. They shut the doors. They guard every known entrance and exit, but they put their hands over their ears to muffle the sobs and screams.
In a dark corner of the kitchen, the cook’s twin sleeps off a bottle or three. Mice run over his feet.
When a guard next judges it safe enough to stick his head through the door and check on the cook’s progress, the cook is roaring drunk, the children unidentifiable flaming hunks of meat. The guard decides it not worthy to report. The poor man.
The guard is a father.
He would have had to do the same.
“As you know,” the falcon points out, “the underground kitchens are a warren of secret places.”
The guards know of many entrances and exits. The mice and the cook know of more. The cook is running down one of those stone tunnels now, a fawn tucked under his elbow, a cuckoo held in his fist. The other end of the tunnel comes out into the forest.
That is too far for the mice. There are owls there.
An acorn buried in snow, where her heart once lay.
A scrubby strip of woods, beside the highway.
A red deer comes upon the acorn of her after a dangerous dash across the wide dark asphalt. He’s panting, his breath fogging in the silver light of the moon. His eyes are dark, still twin pools. He tugs his rack of antlers through the bare branches of the trees.
At first, she thinks he is her son, but that was—oh—eons ago.
He could be a descendant though, one of hers. Or he could not. It hardly matters now.
He noses through the snow, white flakes sticking to the dark velvet of his nose, and laps up the acorn, crunches it between his flat teeth. He walks away, into the cold night.
He will sleep.
As he sleeps, will strange thoughts of individuality, will memories not his own, begin to take shape? A golden gown, and a palace made of stone. Stolen pockets of time in a noisy kitchen. Two young children, twins. A body, a feast.
Will he wake one day from a deep sleep, with a pale body, with flaxen blond hair?
Would this surprise you?
Would you find that strange?
Jordan Taylor’s short fiction has recently appeared in Uncanny and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Though she’s lived in cities across the US, she’s finally settled in North Carolina in a little cottage full of books. You can follow her online at JordanRTaylor.com, or on Twitter @JordanRTaylor13.