by Camille Alexa
adrigaard is closest to my heart. I hold her to my breast, croon to
her. I stroke the sparse hairs on her misshapen head, soft like
crow feathers but fine and ill-rooted.
her. I stroke the sparse hairs on her misshapen head, soft like
crow feathers but fine and ill-rooted.
“Fly, pretty monkey,” I tell her. I lean far out the open window of my turret. Wind whips against my cheeks and neck, tugs cruelly at my hair, rakes my clothing from my body until it billows out in webby tatters like a banner of my imperfections, announcing that the Wicked Witch is home.
I kiss Madrigaard’s warty head once more and toss her into the whipping wind.
Her tiny stick arms flail helpless at the air. She tumbles like a small black stone.
Fly, I silently urge, not shutting my one good eye against the sight of her plummeting body, out of respect. Fly, pretty monkey.
I expect to hear the wet smack of her small body against the stones far below, but her tiny wings like scraps of rotten leather unfurl from against her shivering body. They flap feebly. For a moment, I’m certain she’ll not make it. The rocks beneath my tower are littered with the tiny skulls of her siblings, her cousins, her foremothers—generations of their bones lying stark and naked and lovely, picked clean by keening birds swirling the cliffs near the waterside not far from these bony spires of my keep thrusting upward between sky and landlocked inland sea.
But her flapping strengthens. At the last instant before death on the rib- and femur-covered rocks, her bat-scrap wings slow her descent. She clutches at the nothing of wind and space, her tiny newborn body shriveled and fragile. She flaps and flaps and flaps, slowly rising on one of the bitter currents gusting from the inland sea. When she finally draws up level with me, I smile. In my hopes for her, I’ve bitten clean through the thin skin of my lip, and ichor trickles down my chin, wending toward the tattered open neck of my rotted black lace gown.
Flapping, hovering, she dips her tiny monkey paw into what my blood has become. She holds it to my mouth, as though I must kiss my own hurt better, and when I croon, “What a pretty girl, a clever girl,” she wraps her stick arms around my neck and sighs her tiny monkey sigh into my ear.
My sister’s murderer has been sighted in the poppy fields on the other side of that Green Monstrosity that Oz calls home.
I know those poppy fields well. In his younger days, Oz would meet me there on lazy, sunlit afternoons. He had a fascination for the flowers, a weakness, a longing for their sharp juice and numbing powers. Poppy juice turned out to be more addictive for him, in the end, even than his love for me. We always love most that which has the greatest power to destroy us.
I was beautiful then, and young. We both were: me, and that strange bright-eyed boy from somewhere over the boundless oceans of desert. We would lie under the large drooping heads of flowers at the edge of the field. A game, he called it: to see how long we could resist sleep, lying on our backs side by side with our long hair mingling, and our breaths. We’d laugh as we drifted in and out of consciousness, our minds floating, daring each other to see how long we could last before the poppies claimed us both too completely for one to drag the other to safety. It was always he who succumbed first. I’d watch the tinted shadows of poppy-reflected light play across his sleeping features, and I’d trace his lips with my finger. I’ve always been stronger than I looked, and when he became well and truly senseless from poppy fumes, I’d lift him gently and carry him well past the flowers’ influence. I’d lie down beside him and wait for him to wake, and when he did, he would always kiss me.
Don’t ever leave me, my beautiful young Oz would say in a poppy-drowse murmur; or I’ll send people to find you, and tell them to kill you.
Even now a smile brushes across my lips at the memory of him. My smiles are rare these days, most of them spent on my dear pretty monkeys. Especially the babies, with their delicate skulls and unformed features and mewling cries. I always did love the babies.
A slight scratching comes at my door and Madrigaard’s sharp little fingers stab into my neck at the sound. I stroke her with one hand.
“Come,” I say.
Baarg opens the door and enters, tray balanced in one hand, the other dragging the floor like a cane or a third leg as he hobbles into the room. His ancient ruined wings lie in tatters more ragged than my gown. If he didn’t hold my special favor, the other winged monkeys, warriors all, would have killed him long ago. Resources are scarce around here: food and space and love. Monkeys are not quite as jealous as other people, but they come close.
Baarg slides his dented silver tray onto a nearby table and sidles under my free hand where it dangles off the arm of my chair. I absently pat his wisp-covered skull, feeling without intending to the fragility of the bone beneath my fingers. I’m keenly aware that I could crush his brain between my fingers if I chose to. As he sighs and leans into my touch, I wonder if the same awareness runs through his monkey mind as well. We always love most that which has the greatest power to destroy us.
I give Baarg a last stroke and turn my attention to the silver tray. He has, as always, collected everything just so, arranged it with inhuman precision on the tray in the same order: the candle, the strap, the spoon, the needle. A small dribble of wax rolls down the side of the taper, and when I touch it with my finger it burns, though not enough. I move my hand into the flame, and though my skin reddens and the air fills with the scent of burnt lace, it’s still not enough.
I lean forward even more, causing Madrigaard to whimper and grasp more tightly at my neck. When I pick up the spoon and needle, she buries her face in my high lace collar and tucks her wings tight against her bone-ridged back.
The bowl of the spoon has just a few drops of water reflecting from its bottom, a deadly mirror. With the powerful sight in my one good eye, every detail of the room is reflected in that small curved pool: the dark stones arching heavily across the ceiling, dry-rotted, crumbling; the beady glow of Baarg’s eyes as he watches my slow movements with worry, with eagerness, with love; the tattered black muslin billowing at the ogee windows, breezes of this high turret bringing salt from far below, stripped of moisture. All the moisture I can physically withstand is in this one little spoon.
I pass it across the candle’s flame a few times, warming it to room temperature, but not above. I want the burn to come from water, not the heat of a mere candle. When I draw the water into the syringe, letting Baarg tie the strap around my arm, I can think of nothing but the sinuous way the poison slips up the needle: secretive, seductive, almost alive.
When it enters under my skin, I slump in my chair. Madrigaard looses her grip on my throat and tumbles to the floor but I barely notice. Baarg is untying the strap, blowing out the candle, picking up the empty syringe where it has rolled from my slack fingers to clatter onto cold flagstones beneath my chair.
But all I can think about is the fire roiling in my veins; the few drops of that poison, water, cooking me with a slow acidic burn from the inside out.
We always love most that which has the greatest power to destroy us.
The assassin and her metal paramour have murdered my wolves. All forty of them, with their handsome long legs and eyes like diamonds and teeth like polished ivory. I called them to service with my silver whistle, and because of this they’ve died. The land is a far poorer place for their loss.
I know the murderess still comes for me; there’s nothing in her shallow heart that isn’t selfish or cruel. She killed my sister Sally, and when Oz heard of the death he couldn’t help sending her against me as well. My Winkie spies in the Green Monstrosity have confirmed as much.
I weep for them now, the gorgeous wolves, the ichor of my tears stinging rivulets down my cheeks, tainted with the poisonous clean water of yesterday’s indulgence. It’s all I can do not to call for Baarg and his tray here and now.
The silver whistle around my neck is suddenly a heavy thing, burdensome and cold. Grasping it with both fists, I tug, silver links snapping across the back of my neck, showering to flagstones in a glittering rain. I heave the whistle out past the curtains into thin air, where it arcs away from my turret spire. I imagine it falling to the rocks below, picture it mingling with the broken bones of a thousand newborn monkeys not strong enough to survive life among their own.
But a small black streak shoots out the glassless window after it.
“Madrigaard!” I cry, running to the sill to lean out far above the water of the brine sea lapping at the base of my aerie, my prison, my home.
The small ball of wadded leather unfurls, becomes my darling baby monkeychild. She plucks the silver whistle from the air and flaps, flaps, flaps her small sad scraps of wings, and when she reaches my outstretched arms she lets me clasp her to my chest. Her heartbeat and mine clamor against each other, separated by our ribs, our sheaths of skin, my tattered lace and her sparse wisps of monkeyfur. When she squeals for breath I let her go, and she shoves the silver whistle between my lips.
For a brief instant, I imagine the whistle is covered with sea spray. I imagine natural water burning my lips, my teeth, my tongue—burning all the way down into my heart.
But no. It’s merely cold from the high altitude, from the air, from the hard winter sun that offers no warmth. I glance at the hourglass, but the sands are against me; I can’t endure another shot until the top is emptied of its burden of time. Here is the image hovering always near the surface of my consciousness thoughts: a large amount of water, not a mere spoonful, but an entire bucketful, with the most glorious burning imaginable . . . just one brief flare of agony, and then no more pain forever.
Madrigaard chirps in query and taps the whistle between my lips. I’ve cried out all the lingering traces of water from yesterday. Through my ichor tears I nod at the small monkey and blow the whistle twice, and immediately the sky begins to darken with wild black feathered birdwings, as though with clouds bringing poison rain.
They are all murderers. The grass man callously stood without expression or regret, killing one by one every wild crow he saw. With my good eye I see them lying broken in a heap at his feet where he tossed them after twisting their necks.
Poor, lovely wild crows.
The hours haven’t filed from my glass yet, but I ring the bell for Baarg, regardless. While I wait for him to bring his tray, I blow the silver whistle three times.
The buzzing starts small at first, but quickly swells to a crescendo. The gorgeous black swarm roils just outside my window, thousands upon thousands of bodies rubbing together in a dark chitinous whirr. I lean out across the stones, the air, too far perhaps for good balance, and thrust my arms toward the sky. The bees land on my hands, my face, the places on my throat and arms where the black fabric of a gown I’ve not removed for longer than I care to remember has rotted and fallen away.
This gown was meant to be my wedding dress once, though it turned from white to black with the unhinged magic of my grief when Oz left me waiting for him at the place and time of our arranging. His poppy-scented dreams had replaced my love in his heart, and when he came to his senses from his trance and found my door closed against him and guarded by winged monkeys, he holed up in his Green Monstrosity with its gaudy glitter and its artifice, and I in my tower. He lives a life of brittle lies, while I embrace the brittle truth. Both are sharp as razors.
Bees buzzing in my ears, my open mouth, the corners of my eyes, I shout into the roiling cloud about the murderess and her paramours, who crushed my defenseless sister, who show such careless disregard for the magnificent wild creatures of this land as they cut their swath across it, killing and looting on their journey to assassinate me in my own home. When I’m through, the swarmcloud wheels upward and away, surging over the landlocked sea toward Lake Quad and the forest of the Fighting Trees. As always, I’m grateful that my bad eye blocks from my long distance sight the toxic blighting glow of the Green Monstrosity where it mars the land.