The Lady of Situations
"Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out into fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still."
-- T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Once when I was a little girl my mother took me to the best place I have ever been. It was on a summer evening and I had on a new yellow dress that she had sewn for me and that matched one she had made for herself. I woke up the morning of that day and went into her workroom and saw it there hanging up, newly done; she had promised me it would be ready and it was, and it was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen.
And that summer evening in the flower-laden air we walked down the dusty path from our doorstep past the farthest spot I'd ever been before, which was the village church, and it seemed to me as we went that we were making up the world as we went along, or at least that she was; that past the church, which I knew was real, every bush, every squawking mockingbird, every leaf stirring in every breeze was a moment's imagining for her, and that what she was showing me, what she was teaching me, was how to build a magic world and people it.
And so when I think of that place -- Summer, The Past, Araby, Oz, Xanadu -- and the festival we went to that night, where the ice cream truck's tinny music mingled with the haunting silver notes of flutes, and youths and maidens in bright colors danced all night long, and where my best friend found us and grabbed my hands and kissed my lips; that place -- I think of it as my mother's invention, the sign of her consummate artistry.
It was the last time as a child I felt her power so palpable, the last time I felt myself protected, initiated by the magic of her company. It was not so much that I felt her power weaken and die as that I slowly discovered the power did not exist, and never had. After my father's death, or in the year or two right before it, when I had to watch her smoke straight through a pack of Viceroys every afternoon, leafing through magazines since her soaps had gone off the air, until she'd dulled her senses or sharpened her desperation to the point where she could bear to do what she had to do, which was to stay alive a little longer -- then I thought the cruel thing. Not, how art the mighty fallen; nothing so kind as that. But rather, how could I have ever so mistaken who she was.
Now I know better than that disenchanted child-self. Now once again I believe in magic. Sitting here in the afternoons, when I have tired of working at my loom, as I look at the green flag flying from the tower across the courtyard, I think of her and how, were she still alive, she'd fly through this window and carry me away, carry me away from all this.
Every night I climb into the bath whose water I have scented with the spices that remind me of her and I emerge recreated from those waters. When I dream at night I am back in her arms.
It pleases me sometimes to be thought, to act the part of femme fatale. It is so far from what I actually am that the imposture makes me feel safe, perfectly disguised. I watch myself smile, walk, flirt with infinitesimal motions of eyelash and fingertip (so subtly accomplished am I), and I wonder: Where did I learn this? how did I become so skilled? I think I must be a natural actress, or at least have found a perfect part to play.
But I am also capable of judging my behavior. What a bitch, I think sometimes. I am a bitch, for instance, to my lover's former concubine. But I don't know how else to express my desire for her. For isn't the jealousy I show her a form of flattery? And flattery a form of flirtation? She is a shell-pink creature, and the sweat-damp, dark gold curls that cling to the back of her neck in the heat of the day move me unspeakably. But she will never see me; when her glance hits my body it cuts through me -- the shape I have for her is that of the woman who stole her lover, and who now gives her orders besides. But if I didn't have this power over her, to so command her distress, I'd be nothing to her.
I desire her for her innocence. It pleases me at times to fantasize about corrupting her innocence; at other times, to fantasize being redeemed by it. Pleasant reveries, an afternoon's pastime, such rumination.
My lover visits me every night, except when I tell him not to come. When I have lived the long weary afternoon through, and made my state appearance in the banquet hall on my husband's arm, I retire once again to this chamber and wait, but in the evenings there's a direction, a focus to my waiting. Inside my clothes my body feels different to me then, exotic and exciting, as if the imminent prospect of its being seized by other hands has somehow estranged me from it, made me able to desire myself. And I do. I look at myself in the mirror, lips parted, eyes wide, my dark hair loose around my pale face, while at my back I hear my lover's spurs jangling on the stone as he mounts the stairs, and I reach the pinnacle of ecstasy. I feel as if I am about to ravish myself. Then there is the denouement of his entrance, the entanglements of clothing -- which once I enjoyed so much, the abrasion of wool and hard buttons on my skin (and I remember the time he fucked me with his boots and spurs still on, the pleasure and the danger of it) -- but which repetition has dulled the piquancy of. No, it is the intervals in our affair that now most arouse me, the fact of it and not the acts -- I have a lover, I am someone's mistress! And I delight in it.
But sometimes that delight seems so strange, so odd to me. Because I am a Queen, because all eyes are trained on me, everything I do has a consequence, a political significance; in short, it matters. And if what I did didn't matter, would I want to do anything at all? Isn't my desire for my lover, my joy in being his mistress, in part the result of this sense of our being watched? And if that is so, can it be that these things I call "feelings," that I think of as part of me, don't come from inside me at all but from outside me, are scripted somehow by the expectations of others? And yet they feel like they come from inside me.
I don't like to think very long along these lines. It's funny -- in college I could go on for hours, spinning theories and discussing them. That seems so fruitless to me now.
I grieve my husband. His grief began before I cuckolded him; he married me so that I should grieve him, I think. If I didn't understand this at the very outset, it wasn't long before I did -- no later than our honeymoon trip, certainly. He had left the planning of that to me, giving me carte blanche to choose where we would go. I wanted the Cape, though ours was a late-winter wedding and the marshlands would be soggy with snow, the shops and pleasure-places boarded up. But I had gone there on holiday once before, as a child with my mother -- it was after my father's troubles began, in fact they were why my mother took me there, to protect me from full knowledge of them -- and it was a happy month I had spent there, dutifully ignorant. The idea of going there again seemed exotic to me as a new bride -- the ferries of course have long since ceased to run and we had to get a special dispensation to drive on the scarred and pitted highway, but I thrilled at my husband's power to command such privilege. I didn't want a police escort and so we were on our own, like any young married couple from a fairy-tale past, setting out for a seaside pleasure jaunt with a map and a picnic basket. But it took us over an hour to even find the bridge across the river -- a mountain of crumbled cement had fallen over the exit ramp -- and the ruined roads depressed me, with their decade-old litter of broken bottles and hubcaps and cigarette butts, paper bags and cups emblazoned with the logos of defunct fast-food restaurant chains. And the motel we stayed at, the only one we found between the bridge and the outermost Cape, was a cheap cinderblock kept in business by teen-agers and extramarital affairs, for of course there were rarely any tourists anymore. We must have been the first any of the residents had seen in years. And though some of them must have seen us on television -- they still ran occasional news programs at that time, seven years ago now -- or at least our pictures in the papers, you wouldn't have known they knew who we were from how they treated us, with a kind of brusque indifference. In the morning after our first night there I took my husband to the beach and even the ocean looked different from what I remembered, lapping at the shore in scant ripples like thin-lipped smiles.
My husband knew by that morning what I had known sooner, that I felt no desire for him. But he was kind to me. After the beach we sat at the motel's outdoor cafe, by the empty swimming pool, in the pale February light, and we ordered drinks and my husband read me poetry. "Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee/With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,/And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,/And drank coffee, and talked for an hour."
I knew the poem, had heard it read aloud once before. I'd had a professor in college who'd read it to me, along with many other poems. My mother was dead by then, had been for some years. I'd been adopted by a kind older childless couple, my guardians -- they'd been colleagues of my father's before his fall but had survived the political vagaries of ensuing years and were doing well, and could afford to give me the best of everything. They told me I had a fine mind, and should have an education; I could be whatever I wanted, they said, but I knew they wanted me to be a theorist. So when they sent me to college I studied theory. First one kind, then another, each terribly important to me at the time. And then in my senior year I found my professor, whether by accident or as part of some design, I don't know. In the beginning of the fall semester I was browsing through the course catalog when I saw a listing that intrigued me: "Readings in Counter-indicated Complexity," it was called. The professor's name was not one I had heard before: some junior person, with no reputation yet, it seemed. But I had taken all the recommended seminars taught by well-known faculty already, so I went to the first class meeting.
He was young then, just barely into his thirties. But even then he had the solemnity of a cleric about him. When all the students had entered the room and taken seats, he closed the door, opened a book, and began to read poems to us. It had been years since I, or any of the others in that room I would warrant, had heard a word of poetry. We students sat there transfixed, and I remember the way the late afternoon fall sunlight slanted through the windows into the room, made and held a kind of space for the syllables to unfold in time like music. We were waiting, of course: waiting for the poetry to end and for him to begin to theorize about it, for surely that was the point of it all, that was what we were there for, but while we were waiting we held our breath, and tears formed in the corners of our eyes. And that expected theorizing never happened. From that first day until the end of the semester, all he ever did was read aloud to us, poem after poem, sonnet and free verse and narrative epic. He never asked us to write for him, never even learned our names, but sometimes he would gaze at one or another of us as he read certain lines, as if he were speaking them to us individually, and whenever he looked at me I felt he was looking into my soul. "Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,/The lady of situations," he read once, from a poem called The Waste Land, and he looked at me as he read it.
It made me shiver to hear my husband read the same poem to me, on our honeymoon, as we sat on the concrete terrace with our drinks tasting like rust in our mouths, tasting like metal and blood and vitamins. (As I write this I am looking out my window at the tower across the courtyard, and the green flag flying from it. It means the Minister is in his study there, or so I've been told.) I felt a sense of threat and excitement both, the way I feel when there's going to be a thunderstorm. It seemed to me my vision of things changed then, or completed an act of change that had begun that semester in college. The barren landscape all at once ceased to depress me -- looking past the chainlink fence, I saw the sparkle of broken glass in the tough tall marsh-grass and thought it pretty, and I saw the brown water lying in the lowlands and thought it scary and interesting. And far away, over the edge of the horizon, I half-expected to see a horseman come riding toward us bearing portentous news. There was a kind of shouting inside my head, a shouting that was like a silence too, and I knew myself a part of this place, its beauty and its danger.
Across from me at the table my husband went on reading, his voice dry and sad. He looked small to me, smaller than he had been before. As if he could feel my gaze on him he broke off reading and looked up, and our two glances met, and I knew he knew what I knew too: that the sad parentless maiden he had married to share his mournfulness was no longer me. That I would not make my home in loss, or if I did I would call it by another name and so transform it. And that in living thus I would bring him pain after pain, and that it would be this pain that would keep him alive. So we forged our contract.
When I was a girl and my husband the crown Prince, I was in love with him, as young girls often were. But I didn't actually meet him until I was grown and had graduated college. I had returned from the university only weeks previously, and was living with my guardians, trying to decide what I should do next. My guardians, though kind as ever, were growing a little impatient with me, with my persistent ennui and sudden irritable bursts, which I sometimes directed at them; impatient and a little worried -- they thought I had suffered a disappointment in love while I was away, and they tried to get me to talk to them about it. But I couldn't explain what had happened to me. It didn't occur to me that the kinds of things I was feeling could have names put to them and be translated into an awareness, an understanding in someone else's mind. What would I have said? That I had sat in a room and a man had read poems aloud to me, and that because of that experience nothing else, not my degree in theory, not my promising future, seemed to matter anymore?
Still, it mattered to me more than I realized not to disappoint this kind couple, and so when my guardians made requests of me I complied when I had spirit at all to do so. It was at their request that I accompanied them to the debutante party of the daughter of friends of theirs, a great decadent display of fabric and food and furniture such as was popular at that time, in the first flush of the Restoration. I accompanied them, but in my sullen pride I wouldn't dress for the occasion -- I wore instead my college uniform, the plain blue smock that was the habit of my order, and I didn't dress my hair or put makeup on. But because it was a party for the very best people, no one raised an eyebrow at my austerity; the men all kissed my hand and the women my cheek with perfect aplomb, and I felt foolish, childish in my petulant withholding from pleasure.
It was the feeling foolish, I think, that made me want to behave really badly. I had drunk too much wine too quickly besides, and felt overheated in the crowd. Someone, a youngish man, a graduate of my own university who had a Cabinet post, was saying something about a new post that was soon to be created, a Ministry of Culture, and in a voice that sounded thin and reedy to my own ears I heard myself say, "My father wanted to establish such a post fifteen years ago, and they destroyed him for it." There was a pause after I spoke for just a heartbeat's length before the smooth momentum of the conversation around me resumed, and in my memory it seemed that that pause in time opened up a physical space too -- the crowd around me parted for a moment and through the gap I looked down the room and saw the King nearby, in just the next knot of people, saw him hear my words and turn to see who'd spoken them, saw something register in his eyes when he saw me. I felt a moment's shock as I recognized him -- I hadn't known it would be quite so grand a party -- but I was compelled by some other directive to look past him, further down the length of the room, to the great gilt mirror that hung on the far wall, and in that distant glass I thought (and even now I am not sure) I saw my professor, he who had read me poems, his face half-turned from me.
When I turned around the wall of people behind me had closed again, and someone was calling us to dinner. And at dinner there was no sign of my professor, if indeed he had ever been there. But the King was there.
What did my husband think of me that night, at his first sight of me? What was it in me that drew him to me? Curiosity, a kind of prurient interest, because of my being my father's daughter? Perhaps that was part of it, but it couldn't have been all -- there were other victims of the purge, after all, and many of them had daughters. I try to see myself through his eyes, as I must have appeared then: a pale, eager creature, awkward in her schoolgirl disguise, thinking she was burning with strength and arrogance when all she was showing was a shame and fear and rage so deep it was like a request to be preyed on. Did he want to prey on it? Or did he want to protect me from being preyed on by others? Or some combination of the two?
But no, this is just me speculating -- it is what I now think of my younger self, what I wish someone had been able to think about me then. Who knows what my husband thought, strange man?
The next day my guardian brought up to me in my room the fateful calling card as heavy (or as light) as beaten gold, with the famous monogram scrawled across it in fountain ink, and that series of interviews began, in the private sitting-room at the palace where the spaniels lay on the rug and the timed intrusions of tea and sandwiches or scotch and sodas punctuated the formal courtesies of our exchanges. And though I delayed and hesitated and even feigned illness or hysteria at points in that chess-game courtship, it seems to me now that nothing was ever in any real doubt: there was never any question that I would marry him, for the plot had been set in motion, and I'm a sucker for a plot: on and on it draws me, eager as I am to discover what's going to happen next.
Before the purges began, before the civil war, before the restoration and the truce -- for so people of my age count time -- but after my father had begun to be unfaithful to my mother, for so my own sense of history dates it -- there was a story that came on television in the afternoons that my mother and I watched everyday. All my friends at school watched the program too, and we talked about it at recess, and acted out our favorite parts and made up new scenes, but there was something about the show that was intensely private to me all the same -- it was like it was my secret dream, this television show, despite its widespread broadcast. It was about a fairy-princess whose name was Laura. Her face was like a painting, quiet the way the faces in paintings are. I remember I didn't think her pretty, the first time I saw her, because I didn't think she was fancy enough. Then after a week or so I understood how beautiful she was, and it was as if my eyes had grown new wisdom. She had wavy hair that was the color of wheat with the sun in it, and eyes like the ocean, sometimes green, sometimes gray, sometimes blue. She was ageless and young at the same time. The story she was in had many sub-plots and many characters, but the single central strand was the mystery surrounding Laura and her great, secret lost love. Every episode ended with a vision of her face at a window, gazing out, speaking in voice-over to someone in low, intimate tones: "And so another day ends, my love. Another day without you near me..."
I remember how I used to sometimes whisper those words to myself as I lay in bed at night, and try to imagine who that person could be, the person to whom those words were addressed. Thinking about that story now, about its sweet continuance, I know that it wasn't the promise of revelation that kept me enthralled with it day by day, but the certainty that there was always something that would never be revealed.
The story was on for years before it was finally cancelled, one of the last of the television shows to go off the air. After the first year or so, the actress who played Laura didn't want to be in the story anymore, and so they replaced her with a different actress. I remember the harsh jarring sensation, the outraged betrayal, I felt the first time I watched the story with the new Laura. But after a few weeks I got used to her, and a few weeks after that I stopped thinking about the previous Laura. Sometimes, I remember, I felt a vague kind of loss, a longing for something out of reach, that now I associate with loyalty to the first Laura -- but then again, wasn't the loss and longing there even when the first Laura was in the story? They had five or six Lauras over the span of time the story was on, I think.
As I sit here in my tower room, working my tapestry, I get a feeling that takes me back to that time, that quiet afternoon time when my mother and I curled up together and lost ourselves in that story, each losing our separate selves but staying connected by the contact of our physical bodies, each to each. It is a feeling of quivering expectation that fills me now, a thing I almost want to call joy -- it makes me want to run down these stairs and out onto the green and up the bell-tower, and set all the bells a-swinging.
But at that thought I always stop, and my joy is strangled in my throat. For the Minister's study is in the bell-tower, and the green flag flying tells me he is there.
It is time to speak of him. I have put it off long enough. I have tried to wade in slowly, referring to him here and there, trying to prepare. But I can't. He's a jarring note, someone I can't make sense of. Someone I can't work into the tapestry without tearing the thread, warping the woof. But I can't ignore him either. (Write it, Terah, I tell myself, and even as I do so I hear the echo of a poem, read by his voice.)
I will, I will write it. I will tell you.
He first came, oh when was it? Six years ago? Though I knew before then that he was coming. When was it I knew for sure that it was he who would come? Coming to know that I knew was gradual, the way getting to know you're in love can be gradual, the recognition of one's state trailing so far behind the important event that the event itself -- the moment of falling, the Great Moment -- is located in an unlocatable past (does the theoretician in me show?).
There was talk even before my marriage about the new Minister of Culture, how the King had surprised everyone by choosing someone young and unknown, and surely I must have at least suspected then? (For I thought I had seen his face in the mirror, the night I met my husband.) (But why does it seem important to try to puzzle this out? Because somehow I think of my knowledge as guilt, and my ignorance as innocence. Was I ever ignorant? Was I ever innocent?)
Certainly by the day of the culture festival, held to honor his arrival in the capital city, I had long since known that the new Minister was my professor. I knew too, by then, that his wife came to the city with him, for she had been appointed Priestess of the Chapel. (It shocked me to hear that archaic title brought forth again after so long, and it frightened many people. Not all the old traditions are best reinstated, some said.)
On the festival day my husband had the avenue that led from the palace to the tower strewn with flowers, and musicians, jugglers, actors, painters thronged the square, plying their trades. Makeshift bookstalls displayed dusty volumes for sale, dug out of obscure storage in recent months. And I was there, on my husband's arm, dressed in my regal robes, in my powdered hair. I was there when the closed litter (for as of times of old her face was never to be seen) carrying the Priestess went in procession down the avenue, and I saw the Minister riding behind her on his white horse.
He had changed. Once, in that distant classroom, he read to us as Satan, speaking to the sun, and he had said: "Me miserable! which way shall I fly/Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?/Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;/And in the lowest deep a lower deep/Still threat'ning to devour me opens wide,/To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav'n." And I thought how like a fallen angel indeed he looked as he read those lines, his florid face twisted into passion and his short yellow hair standing on end, and the sensuality of the mouth with the clarity of the gray-blue eyes ...
But he had changed. His face was a stately mask that festival day, immovable, it seemed.
It made me want to make it move.
Write it, Terah. Say: it was all my own doing. He never once gave me any sign, of recognition or of interest. Unmoved mover, he greeted me in the formal manner on state occasions, making me the low bow, kissing my brow with cold lips. But a fire had flared into being somehow (As kingfishers catch fire, so dragonflies draw flame -- ). It raged in my blood and would not let me sleep, let me eat, or let me work at my loom. (What I do is me; for that I came.)
And so one night, I followed him after vespers. It was still and dark on the stairs to the tower. He preceded me, seemingly unaware of my presence, his robes a faint glow up ahead. But when he reached that round chamber at the top of the stairs, he turned and stretched out his hand to me. There was a brightness there. I moved toward it. When I reached him he was naked. It was his skin that was glowing. His naked sex, erect, curved, pure white. My own skin, when I removed my robe, looked gray next to the whiteness of his. His hands on my shoulders, I went on my knees, the bones of my knees on the cold flagstone, and then his cold sex in my mouth. How could it have been cold? There must have been some heat there. And then the sudden force of his ejaculation, the jolt of that.
With that unholy milk still on my lips he lifted me up, led me to a curtain at the back of the chamber, swept it aside, and there she was, as if entombed. The Priestess. I had never seen her face before that I could remember, and yet she looked familiar to me. She was younger than I had thought, but her face was like a death-mask, white and still. There was a blue cloth covering her, but there was a rent in that fabric over the rent in her, her vagina open like a sea creature lifting itself to the air, a pink stain like spring blossoms in bare woods. His hand on my hair, he put my mouth to her bleeding gash, and his milk on my lips staining her was like the breeding of maggots in her flesh, and I gagged and struggled free and fled. Out into the night. To the Knight, who became my lover.
For the Knight, my lover, was encamped on the green between the tower and the palace, sleeping his troops there for the night, just returned as they were from the northern regions where they had put down the recent rebellion. One of his guards seized me as I fled the tower, naked as I still was, and bound me and brought me to him. I saw from his shocked eyes that he knew who I was, had seen my photograph, or me myself in some state procession.
And he was kind to me. He said, Bring her a cloak, it is a holy madness that is upon her, for such things afflict royal folk sometimes, 'tis said. I grasped those words and held them, hold them still. Perhaps they are true.
His simple lust restored me. His concubine, the pink and gold girl, lying next to him on her divan as he received me from the night, I thought not of then. Later though, after I had crept to him from the separate bed where he had couched me (for he thought not to return me to my husband that night,) I heard her weeping. But I did not stop. I needed him, needed his clumsy surprised passion. Afterwards I slept, as I had thought I never would again. I found refuge in the passion and the pain of this simple couple, from the unholy holiness of that other pair.
Who yet are always with me, even as I write this, breathing on my shoulder, the troubling sun and moon of my nights and days.
Madeline Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. She is at work on a series of interrelated fictions, of which "The Lady of Situations" is one.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Madeline Brown.