Sunday, July 4, 2010

An Old Short Story: Bittersweet Tapestry by Brandy Purdy

This is a short story, a fairytale of sorts, I wrote a few years ago, I just found it again going through some old discs and thought I would share it.

Bittersweet Tapestry by Brandy Purdy

A long time ago, in a castle of golden stone perched high upon the cliffs above a tempestuous turquoise sea, lived a Princess named Charlotte. She was a quiet, timid girl who, because of her shyness, many mistakenly thought haughty and aloof. Charlotte was the chatelaine of the castle, and while her father tended to the business of the kingdom her quiet footsteps echoed softly upon the stairs and flagstone floors as she went about her duties, supervising the cooks and laundresses, the buttery and larder, hiring and attending to the petty squabbles of the servants, and checking the accounts.

Charlotte’s mother had died long ago, and when she paused to stare up at the portrait of that strong-willed but physically frail woman whose neck appeared too weak to support the weight of her golden crown, Charlotte often felt as if she were staring at a stranger. It was with sadness, and a mighty surge of guilt, that she realized that she could no longer remember her mother’s voice, and, without that portrait to remind her, her memory of her face would be blurred almost to blindness.
When she was not occupied with the running of the castle and attending balls and banquets as every princess must, Charlotte could inevitably be found sitting on the window-seat in her bedchamber with her head bent over her tapestry frame. From time to time she would pause to caress or playfully dangle a string for her cat and smile at the way the black and gray stripes upon that happy, contented feline’s brow resembled lines of worry. More often than not, Charlotte would find herself rubbing her own face in the exact same spot as her cat’s was marked—her forehead, just above the bridge of her nose—and everyday she expected her mirror to show her that indelible lines had indeed become etched in the porcelain-pale skin.

Charlotte was long past the age when a girl, especially a princess, should be married, and though he was reluctant to let his chatelaine go, which would necessitate all the bother and expense of engaging a housekeeper, and mayhap trying out several before a worthy candidate was found, her father the King had at long last arranged a betrothal with Prince Colin, the second son of the ruler of the kingdom beyond the forest. But Charlotte did not want to marry Colin. His portrait, unveiled before her with a flourish by an effusive mustachioed ambassador, sparked no fire in her heart or sensual stirrings in her secret parts. Instead, when she thought of marrying anyone or gazed at the solid and dependable Prince’s likeness she felt overwhelmed by uncertainty and fear as if she had been cast out into the wild blue-green sea outside and was drowning.

Though she told no one—it would not be proper and if known it would be the scandal of the kingdom—Charlotte’s heart belonged to Duncan, the surly-tempered, smoldering-eyed, dark-haired stable-hand who curry-combed, saddled, and exercised her father’s splendid stallions from faraway, exotic Araby. When she rode he sometimes attended her, stooping to cup his hands around her dainty foot and boost her into the saddle, and lifting her down again after her ride, his strong, work-roughened hands clasping her waist. And as he lowered her, her body would brush against his, so close she could smell the beer upon his breath and see the faint sparse hairs that joined his dark brows across the bridge of his nose, her nipples would harden as they grazed his leather jerkin, and her pulses would race, and when her feet touched the ground she would stagger a bit as if she were about to swoon and he would catch hold of her arm and ask if she were unwell. Blushing furiously, she would always claim to be overcome by exertion and the heat and would hurriedly excuse herself, to go to her room and lie down.

Leaning from a window overlooking the courtyard one day as she paused for a breath of fresh, salty sea air during her daily rounds, she had seen him oh so gently caress with his big, strong, work-calloused, sun-browned hand, the cheek of a milkmaid. That feather-light touch, vicariously witnessed and envied, sent shivers tingling up and down Charlotte’s spine. And what grief she felt when the tomb-cold truth sank in! Duncan, though he was as far below her in rank as the highest castle turret towering above the waves, he—and the thrill of his touch—was beyond her reach! She could have jewels and silken gowns, books meticulous crafted, illuminated and embellished, by the finest artisans, exotic songbirds with gaudy rainbow plumage, and a pond stocked with rare, shimmering-scaled fish of silver and gold, and if she were so minded she could ride out reclining upon a velvet cushioned litter carried by four strong, handsome footman in peacock blue velvet livery, or side-saddle upon one of her father’s rare hot-blooded, stamping-hoofed horses from distant Araby, but the one thing she could never have was the only thing she really wanted—Duncan. And when she watched the servant girls flirting freely with him, coyly batting their eyes and swishing their skirts to show a bit of ankle, she felt such rage and jealousy she wanted to wring their necks like the kitchen boy did the chickens before they were plucked and roasted for the royal table. No one would ever know how much she wanted to be that girl, that most fortunate of milkmaids, even with the skin of her neck chafed raw and red, and her shoulders brawny as a man’s, from carrying the yoke with the full pails of milk, and her back that ached like a screaming banshee every night. Never would that girl know, and if she did she would not understand, that a princess envied her, and in a space shorter than the time it takes a heart to beat would gladly have switched places with her and exchanged her silken slippers for the milkmaid’s clunky wooden sabots.

Since she was a little girl poised on the brink of womanhood, Charlotte had been laboring upon a grand project. As was the custom with every highborn maiden in the land, she must work until the very eve of her wedding upon a large tapestry that would grace the wall of the banquet hall of the castle where she would live with her husband, which, if she married Prince Colin, would be this very castle. Being a second son—and not heir to his own kingdom unless some tragedy befell his older brother before he sired a male heir—Prince Colin would take up residence here and become King when Charlotte’s father exchanged his mortal kingdom for a heavenly one or lost the wit to govern wisely. The fact that Charlotte need never leave her childhood home was the most comforting thing about this marriage, though it was not enough to quench the flames in her heart that still burned for Duncan.

The tapestry itself presented a quandary. Though the background was all but complete, hundreds of exquisite millefleurs—a large cascading garden of flowers, songbirds, frolicking bunnies, little white lambs, and sly bushy-tailed orange foxes against a field of deep emerald green—Charlotte had no idea what to put in the foreground. The question haunted her night and day. It must be something large and impressive. Time was fleeing fast, the marriage day loomed, and though her hands were skilled and nimble with the needle, the void she must fill was vast and her nerves were becoming frayed with the knowledge that whatever design she chose to weave would forever after be on public display.

Meanwhile, Prince Colin did not neglect the gallant traditions of courtship. He visited her often, and though he was very kind and earnest in his desire to please her, Charlotte’s heart stubbornly refused to thaw for her intended bridegroom. He was not handsome like Duncan, true, but his heart was good, warm, loyal, and kind. He tried to engage her in conversation about the books she read, and he expressed genuine interest in her thoughts and preferences. He would sit on a tiny stool at her feet with her sewing basket on his lap and hand her the brightly colored embroidery silks or else regard her with unabashedly adoring eyes that made Charlotte’s heart race with trepidation that more than once caused her to prick her finger with the sharp silver needle. And each time Prince Colin would leap up and bind her injured finger in a fine snow-white handkerchief, then he would tilt her quivering chin up so she would look at him and smile tenderly and say, “Do you not yet know, Charlotte, that you have nothing to fear from me? Never would I hurt one hair upon your dear head.” But in reply Charlotte would only nod mutely and her tear-brimming eyes would dart away and look to the side or past this steadfast, dependable prince.

One day while Charlotte was walking in the castle gardens she heard lascivious squeals and laughter issuing from the dense and daunting hedge maze. A moment later a red-faced disheveled servant girl ran out. Seeing Charlotte with a straw basket filled with roses draped over her arm, the girl paused and dropped a quick, clumsy curtsy as she ran past her. A merry tune, whistled expertly, distant at first, but all the time drawing nearer, reached Charlotte’s ears. Moments later Duncan sauntered jauntily from the hedge maze, looking very pleased with himself, like Charlotte’s cat always did after it had caught a lizard or a mouse. He doffed his old cracked leather cap and swept Charlotte a deep bow as he had seen the court dandies do and then he turned and snapped a yellow rose, so sunny and vibrant, from its stem and offered it to her, and before the timid Princess could stammer her thanks, he was gone. Charlotte stood there, not daring to turn around, listening with straining ears to his whistling, growing fainter as the distance increased between them.
After the groom had returned to the stables, the Princess, reverently clutching her treasure to her heart, though taking great care not to crush its petals, returned to her palace.

There were so many women in his life, every week there seemed to be a different girl, but Charlotte was certain that was because he had yet to meet the right one, and, she was equally certain, that if she had the chance she would be the right one, the one whose devotion would never waver and from whom his attention would never wander. No one would ever love him as much as she did, if only he knew it! But she was a princess and dared not profess her love to a groom in her father’s stables. How the world would laugh! Perhaps even Duncan himself would laugh!

As she sat on her window-seat working on her tapestry, and occasionally lifting her head to gaze and sigh wistfully at the beautiful yellow rose in its slim fluted golden vase, Charlotte felt her cat brush against her full sky blue and pale rose silk skirts and heard its deep-throated, rumbling purr. As she reached down to stroke its back, arching high to meet her palm, Charlotte decided to make her beloved pet part of her tapestry. But it would not do for the centerpiece, something greater and grander than a cat was required for that, still, she would honor her cat with a prominent place.
It took many days for Charlotte to stitch the cat to her satisfaction. Twice she unpicked it, and nearly wept in frustration because her fingers could not seem to achieve the image she had in her mind. Many times she would call her cat to sit beside her and hold the colored threads up against its fur to match the hues of cream, white, black, grey, orange, and brown. And she studied it intently to copy the pattern of its markings exactly.

At last, with a great sigh of relief, Charlotte stood and stretched. The tapestry cat was complete. She looked round for her pet. How odd that the cat was not right there at her side, and she did not come racing, tail held high, when Charlotte called her. In a panic, Charlotte summoned her maid. No, she had not seen Milady’s cat. Soon a dozen servants were scouring the castle and gardens searching for Charlotte’s cat whilst she, weeping tears enough to fill a barrel, fruitlessly searched over and over again all the places she had searched before, beneath her bed, under her dressing table, behind the tall, silver mirror, but the cat was nowhere to be found. Days passed, and though hope continued to live in Charlotte’s heart, steadily it dwindled, and soon she must accept that her pet was never coming back. The old King, hating to see his daughter sunk so deep in grief, offered to buy her a new cat—After all, surely one cat was just as good as another!—and Prince Colin rode over from his father’s castle with four lively kittens in his saddlebags and implored her to pick one or take them all, whatever her dear heart desired. But Charlotte only shook her head as more tears welled up and flowed down her cheeks and turned away. And in her bed every night she cried herself to sleep.

To try to distract herself from grieving, Charlotte returned to her tapestry frame. After all, time would not stand still just because her cat had disappeared, and every day the wedding date drew nearer. But sometimes, when the need for the solace and silent devotion of an animal companion grew unbearable, she would walk down to the gardens where an ancient tortoise lived. No one knew quite how old it was; her father claimed it had been old even when he was a boy. Charlotte would sit on the grass beside it and feed it greens from the vegetable garden outside the palace kitchen. Ponderous and slow, but with an innate air of wisdom, it regarded her with knowing eyes as it chewed. Charlotte stroked the hard, age-scarred shell, and shed fresh tears over the memory of her cat’s soft fur. But she admired the tortoise, and so decided to include it in her tapestry to symbolize wisdom.

Again she took great pains to get every detail right. And again, as soon as she was done, and the last stitch had been sewn, the living subject vanished as if into thin air. No one could account for the tortoise’s disappearance; it had been there for so very long, indeed, no one in the castle or thereabouts could remember a time when it had not been there, making its home beside the stone wall that, though crumbling, was younger than the missing creature.

That night as she lay tossing and turning in her bed, Charlotte’s troubled mind made the connection between her tapestry and the disappearances. Surely it was just some strange coincidence, some silly, deluded fancy! Such notions were the work of superstitious minds, the kind that believed in witches, ghosts, and magic! But what if…She resolved to make a test the next day, it was the only way to prove herself wrong and quiet her nerves.

The yellow rose Duncan had given her was by now wilting badly, already she had issued a harsh reprimand—a rarity for shy, soft-spoken Charlotte—when she caught her maid on the verge of throwing it out and replacing it with a rose new and fresh in its full glory. Three petals, their edges brittle, curled, and brown, had already fallen onto the table, and when Charlotte risked a gentle caress to the remaining petals another fell to join them. Already, an idea was forming in Charlotte’s mind, it was ludicrous, but if it should be true…here was the means of preserving this sweet memory in all its beauty and mayhap of escaping the fate that others had ordained for her. And so she wove the yellow rose, not as it now was, but as it had been the day Duncan gave it to her, positioning it in such a way that it might either be part of the millefleurs or held in an invisible hand. If I dare, Charlotte thought, if I dare…

Before she made the last stitch Charlotte glanced over at the table to assure herself the rose was still there. Indeed, another petal had just drifted down to join the others. Satisfied, Charlotte bent her head over the tapestry frame to make the final stitch, and when she looked up again the rose was gone. The little gold vase was empty and the brittle petals had vanished too. She picked up the vase and peered inside and brushed her hand across the table’s smooth surface. Nothing! It was as if the rose had never been there. And when she questioned her maid the girl swore she had not touched it since Milady had forbidden her to.

Prince Colin came to visit the next day. He admired her tapestry and the way she had chosen to pay tribute to the beloved pets she had lost. What would he say if I were to tell him the truth? Charlotte wondered. Would he think me mad or a witch? He spoke of the future, the great things he had planned, his genuine love for the people who would someday be his subjects, and the reforms he had planned that would benefit them, and the laws he would make, that would make justice a thing for everyone, and not a commodity to be bought and sold. Justice should be blind and impartial, and not just for those who could afford to pay the judges rich bribes. And were not the modes of punishment overly harsh? Why must bodies be broken upon the rack or limbs torn asunder by wild horses? And, he spoke of their future, their life together as man and wife. He raised her hand to his lips and said he had not a doubt but that she would be the perfect wife and mother, and the most beloved and compassionate of queens.

At that moment, Duncan crossed the courtyard, and the beating of Charlotte’s heart drowned out Prince Colin’s words. He approached a servant girl and, propping an arm against the wall over her shoulder, he leaned forward, his body shielding hers, and whispered in her ear, and then…he kissed her.
Charlotte felt her heart squeeze tight within her chest and she gasped aloud and clutched her breast at the sharpness of the pain.

All concern, Prince Colin turned to her, but she brushed aside his hands and ran back inside the castle. At that moment she would have sold her soul to the Devil to be that servant girl, eternal damnation seemed a small price to pay to spend her mortal life with Duncan. To freely taste his lips, and enjoy his embrace.

The next morning she began working at a feverish pace, as long as the daylight endured, and even at night by candlelight until her eyes watered, reddened, and blurred with the strain, then she would fall into bed and sleep until the morning light came pouring in through the windows, then she would rise and resume her work again. Slowly the outline of a woman appeared, sitting upon the grass, her full skirts cushioning her like a cloud. Then the gown—a splendid gown—of dusky rose and mint green—it would have been Charlotte’s wedding gown had it not disappeared from the clothespress the instant the last stitch was made. Next came the lady herself—with her hair artfully arranged in a rose-festooned golden pompadour with a single long ringlet cascading over her left shoulder, large luminous sea green eyes with their fringe of dark lashes, porcelain skin with a delicate rosy blush to the cheeks, and pink lips. Then the choker and matching bracelets of pearls, each centered with a pink cameo. Her left hand lay in her lap while the right was upraised and bent, delicately clutching the stem of a single yellow rose. The night before her wedding day, all that was needed was one little finger, then all would be complete, and Charlotte would join her cat and the tortoise in the tapestry.

As she leaned from her window, watching Prince Colin ride away, she whispered into the night. “You have a good heart, someday you will find someone worthy to share it with.” And down below in the stables the faint orange glow of a lantern told Charlotte that Duncan was within. She watched until the girl left, her hands brushing the straw from her skirt and hair, and tugging at her bodice, pulling it up to more modestly cover her breasts. A few moments later Duncan strolled out and, whistling and pacing around the courtyard, enjoyed a pipe before retiring for the night. When the lantern’s light went out and all was plunged into darkness, Charlotte closed the shutters and returned to her tapestry frame.

“I’ll be happier here,” she said as she made the final stitch.

No one ever knew what happened to Princess Charlotte. She vanished without a trace the night before her wedding day along with her wedding gown. They searched high and low, near and far, they poked and prodded the forest and scanned the shore and sea, not a stone was left unturned, but not a trace of Charlotte was ever found. The ambassadors even made inquiries abroad and a reward was offered for any information about her fate or whereabouts. Over the years there were rumors that her unhappy ghost haunted the castle corridors or wept and wailed in the forest’s dark heart or forlornly strolled the sands and stared morosely out to sea. Rumors of rape, murder, and kidnapping were rife, and nary a man who had known her escaped suspicion. Everyone had a theory that they were happy to tell over a tankard of ale by a warm fire in the local tavern. It was too much for the old King to take and he soon died of a broken heart. Since Charlotte was his only child and he had no heir, Prince Colin inherited the kingdom. And a year after Charlotte disappeared he married Princess Catherine, a dark-haired demure beauty fresh from a convent in her native Spain.

Charlotte’s tapestry was hung upon the wall in the corridor outside the banquet hall, as a tribute to her, while Queen Catherine’s tapestry, a splendid bestiary of curious and mythical beasts with a unicorn at the center, was given pride of place behind the royal table in the banquet hall. Many years passed, and, unbeknownst to them all, Charlotte watched them from her tapestry. She watched King Colin and Queen Catherine change from cordial partners in an arranged marriage to lovers dedicated and true. The Queen was devoted to her children, three beautiful dark-haired daughters, and four hale and hearty sons, broad-shouldered and sandy-haired like their father. Everyone loved her, though she ran the castle with a firm hand, she always had a smile and a kind word for everyone from the lowliest kitchen boy who wrung the chickens’ necks to the pastry chef from Paris who, with spun sugar and marzipan, was a true artiste. All her subjects loved her and for her charitable acts she was renowned. From time to time, Charlotte felt a twinge of bitterness and regret. “This could have been my life,” she would resentfully grumble to the tortoise and her cat.
“And this could have been my life too,” she would sigh as she watched the toll the years took on Duncan. Too much wine, made his belly sag and bulge and broadened his waist with great rolls of fat, there were bristles of gray in his increasingly unkempt beard, and it seemed the more time that passed the less he could be bothered with keeping it and his hair neatly trimmed. He stank of horses and his own sweat, and rarely bathed or bothered to change his shirt. Charlotte watched his women too. Over time the seemingly endless procession slowed to a trickle, and he spent more nights alone than he did with a warm wench in his bed. From the tapestry Charlotte learned why there had always been so many. She saw the trail of broken hearts he left behind him—though as his dark good looks faded these grew fewer—crushed like eggshells beneath a shoe. Then one day he was caught, like a rabbit in a snare. Joanna was her name, and her belly grew big and round with his child. He told her to be rid of it, and gave her the name of an old woman who lived in the woods, but she would not and instead sought the counsel of the castle chaplain. No other bridegroom in the history of marriage frowned so deeply or scowled so darkly as Duncan did when he spoke his vows. And it was all for naught, for in a few months Joanna’s womb bled out. But for the rest of her life Duncan would make her pay. Charlotte quickly lost count of all the black eyes and bruises, and every time Joanna opened her mouth, her lips more often than not split and swollen, she seemed to have less teeth.

“This too could have been my life, if God had seen fit to answer my prayers,” Charlotte said now with gratitude and remorse that she had loved and chosen so unwisely. Though she had her cat and the tortoise and loved them dearly, it was not enough. But, she could not bring herself to hate Queen Catherine. And, in time, she came to look upon herself as a sort of godmother to the royal children, watching them grow up and wishing she could soothe their woes and heartaches with kind words, hugs, and kisses. The daughters married away to other kingdoms. One son died of smallpox, another chose the priesthood, the other two remained, not rivals but the best of friends, within the kingdom, and when King Colin died peacefully in his sleep his eldest son Stephen became king and his brother Andrew his most trusted and able advisor. Queen Catherine retreated in her widow’s weeds to a nunnery and before she died took the veil. But long before that Duncan beat Joanna one time too many and she lay down with a fiercely aching head and never woke up. Duncan went out to the tavern that night to celebrate his liberation from the chains of matrimony, but he never came back. Servants passing in the corridor gossiped of a brawl—some said it was over cheating at cards others claimed it was about a whore—either way a knife was drawn and Duncan never came home.

Decades passed, then centuries. Negligent servants left the windows open wide at the brightest part of the day and the deep rose of Charlotte’s gown faded to delicate pink, the gilt of her hair turned to silver, and Duncan’s rich, sunny yellow rose lost its vibrant hue and faded first to butter and finally to cream. The fires of Revolution swept the land. An angry mob bearing torches stormed the castle, wreaking havoc everywhere they went, and raiding the larders and wine cellar before they left taking the royal family with them, shackled with heavy chains and stark naked with their heads shaved to humiliate them. The throne toppled, there would be no more kings and queens, princes or princesses, and except for occasional looters and vagabond beggars the castle was abandoned and left to crumble. Bats, owls, rats, roaches, and black beetles, now made it their home. And in the darkness, growing ever more filthy, faded, and frayed from exposure to the elements, Charlotte waited, frozen in time, trapped in the tapestry she had chosen over real life and all its experiences both ordinary and extraordinary, terrible, humdrum, ecstatic, and pleasant. Never would she know the pleasing caress of a man’s hand or the weight of his body moving in sensual rhythm over hers. Nor would she know the agony of childbirth, so fast forgotten when the newborn baby was placed in its mothers arms to suckle at her breast, or the partnership of husband and wife, king and queen, working in tandem to try to forge a better world. Only as a flat picture formed of colored threads could she watch the children—another woman’s children that might have been hers—grow from infants to adults and marry and make offspring of their own. Nor would she know the grief of a beloved husband’s death, the black veils of widow’s weeds, and the silent, living tomb of a nunnery where a grieving wife and erstwhile queen waited to rejoin her beloved in the kingdom of Heaven. All of these things Charlotte could only experience vicariously.

Charlotte lost count of the years, then grubby, greedy hands snatched her from the wall. The tapestry was bunched up and shoved into a saddle bag. For a time it was used as a blanket under which a family of shivering peasants huddled for warmth. Charlotte’s faded form rippled with the motions of their bodies as they coupled nosily, humping and grunting and groaning beneath her, but mercifully behind her back. Blood, urine, and sperm joined the stains she already bore. Later the tapestry was draped over a table and several spots singed with circles when pots snatched from the fire were set upon it. Then a man came, the agent of a museum, looking for historical curiosities. He fell in love with Charlotte and took her away with him. With loving care, the craftsmen cleaned and patched her, devoting many years to restoring the tapestry to its former glory.

Charlotte now hangs on the wall of a small but prestigious museum in coastal France. She is one of its most cherished treasures. The guides never tire of telling her story, or as much of it as is known to them—the mysterious disappearance of Princess Charlotte and her wedding gown, and the subsequent fate of the kingdom and the tapestry, the abuse it endured, before it came into the hands of those who could appreciate its true beauty and worth. Everyday hundreds of people file past her, and Charlotte has a whole new succession of children and lovers to watch. Some only come once, others come again and again and she watches them mature from just out of the cradle to the edge of the grave. She watches them fall in love, fall apart, sometimes reunite, or forever go their separate ways. Some of them bring their children to visit her. But all of them have one thing in common, they all stop to linger before the Charlotte Tapestry to stand and stare, entranced, at the lady with the sad, wistful eyes and the bittersweet smile, and wonder what they would learn if she could only speak or if they could read her mind.

1 comment:

librarypat said...

Lovely. It may be a short story, but there is much wisdom there. Thank you for sharing.