On her ninth birthday, immediately after blowing out the candles on her cake, the girl who would become queen fell into Wonderhaven. Right under the noses of her mother, her father and her cousin Laurie, she crawled under the table while the lights were off and fell into this world without so much as a yelp, for she, besides being pure-hearted, was also self-composed.
Self-composed is the queen,
as a folding fan that reveals its colors
only when it slides silently open.
Pure-hearted is the queen,
as the still-green bud of a tulip.
In this world there was a palace encased in ice, a forest and the villagers in the forest, and the shadows that bedeviled them. To make a very long story short, because she was pure of heart, because she was self-composed, she smote the shadows and saved everyone here. The ice that coated the palace walls melted, and the forest became bright and hot, and the villagers rejoiced. And so, with great pageantry, she was crowned the queen.
Three crowns she wore: a crown of flowers, a crown of gold, a crown of stars. A cape woven of morning dew she trailed after her as she approached the throne; each drop shone blinding like a little sun. Her subjects knelt like a sea of wheat bending to a gentle wind as she walked to the throne. And when she took the throne she raised her hand and said, “I will be a good queen.” And her subjects roared with joy, knowing she would keep her promise.
They came to visit the queen, always by themselves, never with each other. She found them simply standing in her chambers: her mother and Laurie. They flickered like light on one’s napping eyelids – and then they were solid and whole.
The first time the queen’s mother visited, she was still wearing her apron and her fingers were sticky with yellow frosting. For that fateful birthday the queen’s mother had baked a lemon cake. The frosting turned out to be salty and it was better that no one had eaten it after all, she said. It had all worked out rather well after all, she said, when the queen crawled under the table and vanished.
The queen’s mother, rushing from one end of the room to the other, flailing her hands:
– I must have fallen asleep and when I opened my eyes I was here. Isn’t that something! Maybe I’m meant to stay here with you, do you think? Maybe I’m like you. I always did feel like I belonged somewhere else.
But after a sunset and a sunrise, she vanished. All that remained: a smudge of yellow on the edge of the table, a loosed thread of hair on the floor.
Laurie sat immediately down on the plain wooden chair by the queen’s bed, her hands tightly gripping the edges.
– It can’t be real, can it? It must be a dream. Wake up, Laurie!
The queen had before only known Laurie as a satellite member of the family, a tertiary moon far-flung on the edges of orbit: the only child of Uncle Neil, a jazz musician and scholar. Once every few years Laurie was thrust into their care, to grasp the opportunity to “see her relatives.” Her father never accompanied her during these visits. The cult of the family rests upon myth. Despite Laurie’s chill, her teenage habitual scowl, the queen came to like her during her visits. She came to love her, even. Cousin Laurie with her wide brown eyes and her hair cut neatly and sharply like the black curtains of a gothic stage around her round face; the philosopher Laurie. She smoked hand-rolled cigarettes in the backyard. She listened to music that sounded like radio static. She would always be older and wiser. The queen before she was queen wanted her to lead her. She rolled over when she spoke to her, pup-like.
Laurie had to stay a whole day and a whole night. They did not leave the chamber but looked out the window at the forest, commenting on how damp the air was, how thick and what an impossible shade of jade the forest was. The queen laughed senselessly. I have Laurie all to myself, she thought. We are alone together and she must talk to me. She cannot ignore me anymore.
At one point malachite cups of steaming tea appeared on the little table by the bed. Laurie refused to drink, even when the queen waxed poetic.
– It tastes like roses. It tastes like lavender. It tastes like soccer field grass. It tastes like sugar cookies.
– It could be amber poison. Have you learned about the Greeks yet? They were always poisoning each other. Who do you think is giving us the tea? You’re going to trust someone you can’t even see?
The queen’s father only visited twice. Groggily he crawled into her bed and slept the whole time. Snail-tracks of spittle gleamed in his beard. The queen loomed over him, inspecting the hard angles of his head. She pulled at his wavy locks. She wanted to sleep in her bed.
– Bye, Dad. Bye, Daddy, the queen would sing when he disappeared.
The queen’s servant, transparent to the marrow, fed her roast duck slathered in elderberry sauce, herby asparagus, dinner rolls golden and hot, pies of every filling – orange meringue, cinnamon pear, chocolate truffle. At night it tucked her into the big feathery bed. When she shivered it creaked open the wardrobe, revealing to her gowns lined with ermine, cloaks of thick ruched velvet, adorable boots of pale pink leather.
The queen’s servant, soundless as an autumn evening, observed the queen and noted all her perfections. On a scroll, in swirling calligraphy, seized by the glorious presence of the queen, the queen’s servant recorded the endless merits of the queen. Like the largest gleaming jewel in the heart of a diadem is the queen. Like the scent of mountain air swept in from heavenly peaks is the queen.
This was only the queen’s just reward for saving everyone. At first oppressed by her servant’s sensitivity to her every desire, the queen became accustomed to its clairvoyant attentions. The queen allowed herself to be woken to the morning by fragrant showers of petals, to be fed before she grew hungry, to be gifted with dolls and swords and mechanical horses. One morning the queen rode through her forest on the back of her metal steed and thought, If only I had a softer saddle. Shortly thereafter she glanced down to find an embroidered cushion between herself and the horse’s back.
The queen washed in a bath tiled with lapis lazuli, filled with daffodil-scented water drawn steaming by her servant. Then she dried herself in a robe soft and pale as dandelion down. At last, she retired to her bedchamber and allowed herself to be lulled to sleep by music played by her private orchestra: a flock of jeweled mechanical birds perched on the canopy of her bed, whose voices sounded like the notes of a grand piano. Their notes told tales of love and danger. In their songs the queen rode across spills of unending meadow. She fought hundred-necked beasts in their airy kingdoms. She returned, triumphant, to her old father, who rose from his sickbed and wept with joy.
Stirring a crystal goblet of hot chocolate and licking the spoon clean of whipped cream, the queen’s mother filled the dining hall with her lilting giggles. She pushed a mandarin tart into her mouth. In the early days in Wonderhaven the queen’s mother enjoyed puddings thick and fragrant as butter. She had entire glazed hams to herself. In Wonderhaven her hips widened and her skin gleamed. She could glean happiness from her daughter’s fortune.
– Oh, you’ve hit it big, the queen’s mother said. I wish I could have it so good.
And her face tightened and her cold glance took in the dining hall.
– I hope it stays, she said.
– Why wouldn’t it? the queen said.
The queen’s mother shook her head and carved out another slice of rum raisin cake.
The queen and her mother spent their days together picnicking in the garden and napping in the great hall. The queen’s mother told the queen the plots of movies she had seen. She told her jokes she heard from morning radio shows. What do you call cheese that isn’t yours? Nacho cheese. The queen listened and laughed, and the queen’s mother laughed at her laughter. Before they went to bed the queen’s mother took up the opal brush at the queen’s vanity, marveling at its shifting colors. She brushed the queen’s hair with reverent strokes and told her the story of her birth, the great happy fact of it. The queen listened and in her mind came pictures: tiny fingers, exactly ten of them; a fat arm begging for bites; a wrinkled apricot face. You were perfect. You were just right. I never wanted to take my eyes off you.
– You’re in Hell, was Laurie’s opinion. Have you learned about Hell? Sometimes it’s a lot like Heaven. It seems like you get everything you want but then you find out you’re missing something extremely important, like your soul.
At age thirteen Laurie was reading Kierkegaard. She was starting in on Spinoza and had already finished Sartre, Heidegger and Hegel. By her own wits, using her oft-absent father’s cast-off instruments, Laurie learned how to play the guitar, then the piano, and finally the mandolin. She easily grasped mathematics but, since the simplicity of what they taught at school bored her, she did not get high grades, like many brilliant people in their impatient youth. She was an avid chess player, though like with most things she did this alone, playing against the computer and then more and more often against herself as the computer lacked, she explained, the human element.
The queen would ask her, What is the human element? And she would say, Think about it.
Her thoughts even as a teenager were as arrows; no one could keep up with her, she called people idiots to their faces out of her frustration, and so they merely ignored her, called her – not even a troublemaker – a nuisance.
In that other world the queen had been in third grade; she could only recall making a diorama of the solar system using Styrofoam balls whose surfaces the queen painted with tempera, whose surfaces cracked as the paint dried, to her distress, as she watched the land and oceans riven by the shrinking of their skins. The longer the queen stayed in Wonderhaven the more she forgot the details of her own education. She could not remember what caused snow, or how many planets there were in the solar system, much less in what order they spanned from the sun to the outer edge. At first it unmoored her, this rapid expulsion of knowledge like so much steam from a kettle; but she quickly became accustomed to it. As the years passed it became less likely she would ever return to that world; what, then, was the use of knowing anything about it?
– It could be this is Hell, she continued as the queen waited. Yes, Laurie said, warming up to the idea, This is Hell, and you have died, and I can visit you here because I’m a sinner. When I get back I will go to confession, and I will make a habit of it so I don’t have to come here anymore.
Yet she did return, and when she did, characteristically, she did not let go of the Hell idea but traveled down its twisting paths until they were paths no more but mere lines in the dirt. She spoke profusely with her lisp. Always she would retain that struggle to form words with the clumsy apparatus of her tongue and lips. They came out painfully, like rocks she must spit out.
– We are in Hell right now. But what kind of Hell? Likely not Catholic. Nothing out of the Greco-Roman tradition either. I thought it might be one of the levels of the Buddhist concept of Hell, but no, surprisingly those correlate closely with Dante’s Inferno, they are shockingly physical, all about fleshly punishment. But this has nothing to do with fleshly punishment. It is another punishment altogether. It could be we are not in a Hell proper but a sort of ante-Hell or a post-Hell, a Purgatory if you might. My instinct tells me that one of us is unreal, a projection of the other’s repressed guilt. Once the one who is real recognizes what the nature of that guilt is, she will become free. She will no longer have to be in this horrible place.
She said all this, shaking her head, waving away with her hand the plate of vanilla-honey macarons the queen thrust in her direction. It occurred to the queen to say, Why can’t you just take it? But Laurie could never just take something. She could never just accept it. That was the problem, the queen surmised, with genius.
The queen’s pure heart is spun like silk.
It is a cavern of crystal, incomparable in its beau
If a scholar were to make a study of her heart, he would map it as one does the gentle undulations of a lake.
Clear is her heart, and beyond that, radiant.
A cloud of deep-sea jellyfish is the queen’s heart, more durable than flame, never losing its glow.
They were foxes, mice, bears. Woodland animals. They were tigers, elephants, gorillas. Jungle creatures. Together, they lived in egg houses by a river called the Wide. There was a mill, where they used to make grain. There was a big strangler fig with a cave beneath, their theater, for above all they loved plays. There was a field near the mill where they were born – they had no mothers but broke forth from the soil full-formed. Every day was a festival day for them. They feasted on root soups and dark bread, played music upon flutes and fiddles and danced beneath the glaring stars. They had no memory. They could remember the day’s events, and each others’ names, and how to do certain things like bake bread or play a tune, but beyond that nothing sank in. The queen told them more than once about her mother and Laurie; the next day, they would always forget about them. The queen told them choice recollections of her life in that other world; they would marvel, and then forget.
In the dim light their houses resembled the chocolate eggs the queen recalled so vividly giving way against her warm tongue and palate. She asked her servant for them but her powers of description were so weak, it gave her dove’s eggs and peacock’s eggs and griffin’s eggs that had deep green, impossibly bitter yolks. She asked her mother and Laurie to bring her some next time they visited, but they could never bring anything, they could only take, or choose not to take. In any case the queen’s desires were the last thing they thought about when they visited.
Yes, the queen sometimes thought, there is a festival day in that other world, isn’t there, heavy with rabbits, eggs, soft melting colors. Easter. Those houses looked shellacked in candy, those marshmallow colors so gentle and yielding, begging to be cracked.
The queen feasted with the villagers and attended their birthdays. The queen brushed their foreheads in the ten-fold gesture of blessing. The queen cradled their young in her arms when they cried, and in her embrace their toddlers laughed. When they passed away, the queen sprinkled soil upon them with her own hand, and bade them farewell, see you later.
The villagers called the queen Witness. For after festivals there came a time called Witnessing, when in a long line the villagers waited to approach the seated queen, who received in her cupped ear their whispers. It was then they spilled what their short memories could hold.
I saw a blue bird flying from one branch to another.
The bread was difficult to chew, but the soup was easy to swallow.
My feet are cold.
And she would say:
– How very interesting!
After Witnessing she returned to the palace and thought on the secrets of the villagers. It was her task, she understood, to think on each one, no matter how small. She handled each with careful fingers. Every one of them was as a precious stone to be admired. Each one of them was as a delicate cake to be savored.
According to Laurie:
– Wonderhaven governs itself. Its rhythms, patterns and habits have long before been set in motion and now run like clockwork. Your role is that of a figurehead, a mannequin to fill the throne. Your subjects and the very realm’s rhythms, patterns and habits are what govern Wonderhaven. You are merely a caricature of a ruler here, an essential image. Which is nothing to be ashamed of, since it is after all an essential role, if it is also essentially hollow. In other words, empty of essence, or in other words, empty of being.
– If you ever dare attempt to be the queen of Wonderhaven, Laurie continued, you will be met with bafflement which will, I guarantee you, turn into disapproval, which will turn into some manner of violence directed towards none other than your self. Because an image that dares to attempt to be a self will only ever provoke misunderstanding, disgust, rage.
Laurie was in her last year of high school then, a place the queen could hardly imagine, so dense her head was with television scenes grown vague in the distance of time. “High school” was a place where important things happened, where everything changed for a person, was it not? Again and again she asked Laurie, What is “high school” like? To which Laurie would not respond.
She often skipped class. She claimed her visits to Wonderhaven robbed her of real rest, making it impossible for her to devote any energy to schoolwork or a social life. The problem of Wonderhaven occupied her, she claimed; if she could figure it out, she would break free from it, she claimed, and she would at last situate herself fully in that other world – she would stop thinking about it like the queen did, as “that other world.” Having fallen out of love with religion, Laurie now saw Wonderhaven as a dream, her own dream, a recurring dream that would stop recurring if she could understand its implications about her psyche.
– The animals clearly represent key human qualities, she said. The squirrels correlate with aggression, the birds mental agility, the bears the most basic of human desires: food, sleep. Perhaps there’s a maternal aspect to them as well, but as I have never seen them myself I can’t be sure. A common mistake is to confuse such qualities as “maternal,” “paternal,” “womanly,” “manly,” “girlish,” “boyish” with gender. Such qualities have nothing to do with biology. It is interesting to consider the sexlessness of the animals. In a world where even animals don’t screw, in fact cannot screw, have you ever considered the magnitude of the fact that you are a Queen? Does that fact not unnerve you?
– Why would it unnerve me, the queen said.
– Think about it, Laurie said, her hands gripping the edges of her chair, her eyes lucid; she was never more a Cassandra. You are a Queen; at any moment you may be attacked. In fact, it is guaranteed. How will you defend yourself against an invader, with those animals, your little villagers? You are a Queen, and inevitably a Queen will be forced to yield to a King. You are a Queen, wide open.
The queen’s mother was forever excited, forever looking forward. She wanted to see the villagers, but they learned that she could not set foot outside of the palace without vanishing. At last she was present when a meeting at the palace was called; they could not see her, yet she could see them. The queen thought this would unsettle her, but she seemed not to notice the implications.
– Oh how cute they are! she said later in the dining room, after the meeting. They’re adorable, just like big stuffed animals, and they can talk!
This was after the queen’s father had left for good and the queen’s mother had become engaged to another man, a doctor. An anesthesiologist, she said, but the queen did not know what that meant and her idea of hospitals had become murky. An anesthesiologist, the queen’s mother said, is someone who puts you under so you do not feel any pain.
Judging from her looks he could do nothing for her pain. She had become much thinner, almost skeletal, her once generous flesh reduced to skin that sagged a little on her frame, a tent staked improperly. Her face, though always carefully painted, had none of its old translucent quality. Her cheeks used to be like rose quartz. Now they were a matte peach color shocking against the false ivory of powder.
They were walking through the palace gardens one day when the queen asked her if everything was all right.
The queen’s mother crumpled against the trunk of a cedar.
– When is anything ever all right? she said. Nothing is ever all right, nothing ever gets better. You lose one bastard and you get another. You want another child to love but your body is ruined. Life is not a rose garden, I understand that, but how terrible can it keep getting?
– What do you mean another child? the queen said. I am still your child.
– Oh, sweetie, you’re not of this world. I mean that world. You’ll never grow up, you know? It’s not like having a real – well.
– A real?
– Never mind, the queen’s mother said, straightening and wiping her face with both sleeves, like a cat. I’m just being silly. I’m a silly old woman.
Though the queen’s mother was far from old. When the queen thought about it, especially comparing it to her own, her mother’s life was an eventful one. At moments such as this, when her mask crumbled into so much useless ash and they stood looking at one another bare and embarrassed, the queen’s mother would share with the queen an abundance of information, which the queen would receive with bafflement and fear.
At age fourteen the queen’s mother ran away from her uncle, who had been her guardian since her parents vanished. After her escape, she lived on her charm, beguiling one after another man, woman or family into letting her in, feeding her, clothing her, holding her at night and calming her tears. She tried working but bosses, coworkers, customers, deliverymen would always fall in love with her, making the workplace uncomfortable and inappropriate. From all this, she concluded that her fate was to be someone’s beloved. She was best at being loved. I’m no good at anything else. Though she was easily loved, it was difficult, nearly impossible, for her to love someone. There was a part of her mind, she confided, that was cold as machinery, that added and subtracted people as if they were numbers; there was a part of her that only saw how much she could make them love her, and every detail they were composed of revolved around this potential. Thus, though she had countless offers and opportunities, she delayed marriage until she met the queen’s father, who was the first man she had felt anything for. She could see it would be a tragedy from the start – her intuition told her this man’s potential for loving her was unusually low, indeed his potential for loving anyone was perhaps nonexistent, yet she could not ignore the feeling he provoked in her. He would have married anyone at that stage in his life, she confided, and if she had refused him he would have gone quickly to another woman. So she married him and tried for years to be his beloved, but it was strange and frightening: it seemed since she married him she had begun to lose that quality of hers, that charm. Perhaps it was only a consequence of growing old, but now fewer people loved her, indeed some people, she suspected, looked upon her with pity, almost disgust. It was how much she cared for one man, she concluded, the immensity of her sacrifice of her self for one man, that provoked such pity and disgust. It was better when people simply ignored her now. Yes, being ignored is useful, I wish I could be ignored more.
All this the queen recalled as they walked back to the palace at sunset. When the queen first learned this information, she only had one thought: If she is incapable of loving anyone but my father, does that mean she does not love me? And indeed what happened today confirmed this suspicion. She wanted another child to replace her, the queen; she was not a real child, she was now part of her past. The man had left her, so she, the queen’s mother, had to discard the child conceived in that relationship. She wanted to forget her, she reminded her too much of her failure. So what torture it must be to have to visit her so often, to fall asleep and wake up to her face and her kingdom, to be forced to stay one sunrise and one sunset walking with her, eating with her, talking with her.
The queen’s body is, as they say, lithe and hard.
Her skin is amber, her eyes dark and slick as volcanic glass
Her ears are small and neatly round.
Her hair is straight, not given to tangling.
Not given to tangling is the queen! Neat and slick and dark is the queen!
If the queen had not had such a body,
such a heart, she would not have killed the shadows.
Oh, how fortunate the queen had such a body! How fortunate the queen had such a heart!
Laurie and the queen’s mother visited often. Rarely was there a day they did not pop into the scenery, smiling or scowling. The queen came to see the squirrels as aggression, the birds as mental agility, the bears as maternal figures, though this did not make much sense.
– Do I have to spell it out for you! Laurie said. You are this world’s prostitute, this world’s whore. The entire axis around which this dream revolves – all right, let’s call it a kingdom, you don’t need to look so put out – around which this kingdom revolves is the tension between the poles of male and female. The dream will end once the tension is consummated. In other words, when you will be taken, in other words raped, by the King.
Laurie had given up school and was now staying at her father’s house, reading all day and trying to write. Her father rarely came home, he was often busy traveling or giving lectures or going to friends’ performances and events. He had a vast web of friends around the world who were his “true family.” Though his house was in California he deemed Chicago his “true home.”
Whenever Laurie, as a child, had asked him about her mother, he would say, – She was a loon. Years later it occurred to Laurie that perhaps he did not mean she was insane, but instead was describing her in terms of the bird “loon,” a bird that has an uncommonly haunting call that resembles the wail of a deep-voiced woman, which would explain the tone her father used when saying – She was a loon, which was one of amused, distracted nostalgia and not anger or resentment. She listened to recordings of loon calls and created the first and last piece of music she would show her father, a piece constructed of interlaced recordings of loon calls and the sounds of children laughing in a playground. Her father nodded as he listened to it, and when it was finished offered some criticism she could not remember. She could only remember nodding and then going into the bathroom and using many, many sheets of toilet paper to wipe her eyes and nose, all the while being very quiet and trying to smile into the mirror.
– When you are inevitably raped by the King, Laurie said, when you realize and accept that you are this world’s whore, that your role in this world is that of a hole waiting to be filled, the dream’s tension will collapse and there will be nothing left but a happily ever after, which is an ending, which is a death of the dream and, at last, the beginning of my freedom. The only remaining question is this: Why am I represented by you? Why don’t I dream in the first-person? Why must my subconscious replace me with my little cousin, someone I barely know and scarcely think about? Why this distancing? Is it because I fear being the female? Is it because I fear the rape, or, even more, the very idea that I am merely a hole waiting to be filled, just like all the others?
The queen helped herself to a salad of honeyed mango and nasturtiums.
– A hole waiting to be filled, even needing to be filled. Do you know, I only ever read male thinkers. I’ve tried, desperately I’ve tried, to read female ones, but Sontag is boring, Arendt is so limited, and I can only think of Beauvoir as Sartre’s girlfriend. I say this yet I myself am trying to write. How can I expect to write anything if I don’t believe in myself to write anything worth reading? Perhaps if I accept that I am not meant to put forth but merely to receive, to be a hole, that acceptance itself would be the rape, and if I submit myself to it I will be free. So I accept it. I accept it.
She remained sitting in the wooden chair, her hands on her lap, closing and opening her eyes.
– I suppose the dream has to go its course, she said. The rape must occur in the context it was introduced. You must be raped. But I am ready now. I am ready.
The queen’s mother had a black eye. It was obvious under her foundation. From the beginning of her appearance the queen had been trying to think if she should mention it, or if this were something to be kept in false privacy. It had to be the anesthesiologist, her fiance, who else would hit her? It stunned the queen that this anesthesiologist would hit her in the face. At times the queen’s father too would grab the queen’s mother, pinch her a bit, in his meaner moments he would burn her a little with the tip of a cigarette, but only ever on the arms and legs, and only on the skin that would be covered by sleeves or skirts. If this anesthesiologist was willing to hit her in the face, the queen thought, he must fear no one.
– I’ve been very. Here the queen’s mother faltered. I’ve been very busy, she finished.
The queen kept quiet; this merited no reply. She would disgust herself if she were to reply to her. Her attempt at appearing to conceal the violence done to her repulsed the queen. It was clear to both of them that the queen noticed, that the queen knew. What was she trying to pull, she asked herself, and right away she knew what she was trying to pull. No longer able to claim “beloved” as her role in the world, the queen’s mother could now only claim “victim,” no, not even “victim” but “martyr.” She was martyring herself in the name of – what? Love? Wifehood? It was unclear, and this was what made the idea of martyrdom ridiculous. If one wants to be a martyr, the queen thought, one has to be very clear about what one is martyring oneself for. Otherwise it is simply manipulation, and the martyrdom becomes not about any ideal but about the martyr herself, which is senseless; it collapses the entire idea of martyrdom. She was manipulating her – attempting to, at least – into feeling for her. She required strong feelings from people, and now that she could no longer elicit passion or tenderness or even camaraderie, all she could try for was pity. Not even sympathy – no, she had to set herself apart from others, she had to be special in some way, she could not let others perceive her as on equal ground with them. The queen hated above all else to have her emotions pulled at, as her mother attempted to pull at them.
– Will there be a meeting with the animals soon? the queen’s mother said, looking at her hands on the table.
– No, the queen said.
– This meringue is divine.
– You have a black eye.
At this the queen’s mother worked her closed mouth a little, soundlessly.
– It’s raspberry meringue, she said. She pulled a piece off but did not put it in her mouth. She began to explain.
Really, the queen’s mother could understand. The anesthesiologist was tired and strung out after long days. The queen’s mother went through a lot of money. She would go out and spend all day at the shopping mall, not even a nice shopping mall but the one nearest their house, whose proudest feature was a twelve-screen cinema. The queen’s mother would browse the stores and purchase some things, usually cheap in quality and middling in price, for example a crystal floral bib necklace or a chiffon skirt from JC Penney. Then she would go to the cinema and watch one movie, sometimes two. Sometimes she would re-watch a movie upwards of a dozen times. The anesthesiologist made enough money, but it unnerved him to see it being spent in ways he thought of as tasteless and without purpose. He told her more than once to join a gym with his money, or eat at some good restaurants with his money, or get a manicure and a pedicure and a spa treatment with his money. But the queen’s mother protested that these things cost too much money, she would rather enjoy herself with pretty things and some entertainment. At which point he grabbed the bib necklace around her neck and pulled it, so that it cut into her skin until it snapped, and said:
– Pretty things! Pretty things! You’re wearing trash. But you can’t help it, can you, because you’re trash. You were born trash. You disgust me. I pity you, that’s why I’m going to marry you, but you disgust me more.
The queen’s mother had wept and apologized as she was beaten.
The queen listened to all this and could not think of what to say.
The villagers made offerings to the queen. They wove wreaths of orchids and left them at her feet. They carved dolls in her image from fragrant pieces of sandalwood, strung them on twine so they could keep her close to their bosoms. They made songs for her; they sang them in the morning to wake the sleepy up, they sang them in the night to calm the sleepless down.
The villagers ate candied plums and basil soups but they never shat or urinated. They spoke to each other in rhyme. When the queen touched them she discovered their flesh gave little resistance; they were very light. She would not be surprised to discover they had no bones. Motherless, fatherless, exempt from the humiliation of refuse, they nevertheless laughed and sang and embraced each other like living beings. They acted out plays for each other and told jokes the queen did not comprehend the humor of. They are like puppets, she thought, they cannot be anything more than puppets. They never remember anything I tell them, they would never understand the world I come from. I saved them from the shadows, I have become their queen, their Witness, but what do they know about me? I am actually nothing to them.
Yet this is ungenerous, she thought. If I am nothing to them, so be it. Why do they have to understand me? I stopped being me when I became their queen. The idea of me is a thing of the past. The world I came from I now think of as “that other world.” I can barely remember it, I would have forgotten it years ago, if not for my mother and Laurie. I would have become wholly their queen, I would have stopped being this wretched half-queen, if it weren’t for my mother and Laurie.
Yet that too was a wrong thing to think, and so the queen stopped thinking it.
The queen stopped thinking it but it persisted in her mind. It grew there, extending roots into the soil of her unthinking self. It enveloped the grains of her heart. It began to swallow her from the inside, as certain fungi do the brains of their insect victims. The wretched half-queen! The poor half-queen! Whose kingdom was only half hers, because of that terrible other world.
– I have spied his vultures in the sky, a fox said.
– I have heard the howling of his many-headed dogs, a monkey said.
– I have smelled the silver of his jewels, a badger said, a smell like blood that grows stronger with each day.
– King Al-Qaum is coming! The dread King is coming!
In Laurie’s vision the queen’s body fattened. Her chest and buttocks grew padded. Her womb expelled blood. Her womb contracted, a pulsing engine. Her fingers ached as if their tips were held to a fire. The blood slid out and kept sliding out of her aching hole, soiling her gowns and her cotton sheets.
– It’s about time you got it, Laurie said. How old are you? If you don’t get it now you never will. If you fail to get it there is something severely wrong. If you fail to get it you are essentially dead. You would be a creature no other creature could burst from. Then what would you be? The death of all potential, a hole that only takes but does not give, an absolute zero, worse than a zero.
With gentle hands, the queen crushed yellow ochre into powder.
– Menstruation, Laurie said, that is, our particular kind of menstruation, is nature’s way of telling a woman she is unnatural. Did you know that very few animals menstruate? Only we and a handful of other animals do, and ours is the most painful, most violent form of menstruation. That blood being pushed out of you is no ordinary blood; it is a nutrient-rich lining in your womb that is, theoretically, meant to nourish a fetus. It is also, however, a death-trap. If a man’s sperm wants to impregnate your egg, it must fight through its impossibly tough layers. Only the strongest, the most aggressive, the most vicious seed can finally burrow its way into your egg.
With steady hands, the queen squeezed drops of safflower oil into the ochre.
– Why all this trouble? Laurie said. Because pregnancy can kill you. One would think it was designed to kill you. Life-threatening. Nearly a year of your life spent becoming progressively more helpless as the child grows inside you, and then at the end you might die. To give life one must be ready to sacrifice one’s own life.
– I told you it’s not from me, the queen said. It’s not my stain. I would never leave a stain like that.
The queen’s mother apologized when she saw another stain she had left on the queen’s chair.
– Oh how embarrassing, this is unforgivable….
The nature of the queen’s mother was an overripe cherry whose skin was tearing around the formlessness of her substance. The whole of her body was a mass of blood waiting to spill. She would tip over at any moment and ruin the silken walls of the queen’s chamber, which was lined with tapestries and needlework of a thousand different colors composed in perfect equilibrium with each other and must not suffer any stains lest that equilibrium be thrown. The smell of the queen’s mother came in wafts. It was an odor like damp metal.
– I’m just so sorry. Give me some lemon juice and I’ll rub it right out.
I must wear a veil now, the queen thought, to protect my nose from this smell.
– It means you’re ready to have babies, the queen’s mother said. You’re a bit of a late bloomer. Maybe you never will because you live here, but. It happens to every woman, don’t worry.
The queen’s mother sat with her hands on her lap, the picture of careful restraint, continuing to sit in the chair she was staining.
– In the real world – I mean that other world – you have what’s called tampons. You put them inside you to soak up all the mess. But there’s nothing here, is there? Anyway, you haven’t grown that much, so maybe you’ll never have it. I guess you’ll always be a bitty thing. Believe me, it’s for the best. It’s a horrible nuisance.
The queen’s mother picked up a half-peeled satsuma and set it down. Her thoughts trickled out of her mouth, piece-meal.
If she was so fragrantly fertile, she pondered, why could she not conceive? Red oceans spilled out of her every month; perfectly formed eggs dropped wasted into the pale field of her panties. Certainly some fault must lie in the anesthesiologist’s apparatus. His semen was runny, like thin snot, not viscous and healthy like sugar cookie icing, like the fluid that had engendered the queen. It’s really ill-looking stuff. This, and not the beatings, was what gave rise to the idea of leaving him. Surely it was within her rights as a woman to desire children, and if a man could not give her a child, it was within her rights to leave him, no matter how much she loved him. She would be perfectly justified in calling off the engagement, as an engagement was purely an informal verbal agreement with no concrete contractual obligations. The tricky thing would be to navigate his love for her, which was as convoluted and beast-filled as the Amazon river. Will he try to kill me? That was the question.