"Time is so old, and love so brief. / Love is pure gold, and time a thief." —Ogden Nash
This is a simple tale, and quickly told. In a land we all know so well I won't bother to name it was a high hill, and perched atop that hill, a tall castle that proudly oversaw the surrounding countryside. Today the pennants on its slender towers crack smartly in a gentle breeze, and any ivy scaling the walls only adds prestige to their refurbished stone. Now that leisured travel is the fashion, the town at the foot of the hill is an obligatory stop for burghers and their ample families in splendid coaches, entertaining their children and cultivating their daughters for marriage. The castle is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and visitors, having climbed the spiral steps in the north keep, may pause to catch their breath before the crib, the spindle, and the virginal bedroom, from which they are kept by a velvet rope. For quite some time ago now, as you know—when your grandmother's mother was still too young to play in the dusty courtyard for fear she'd fall into the well—the castle was obscured by a brittle and malevolent thicket of briars. From their ebony barbs fluttered scraps of silk and velvet in the royal colors of neighboring lands, torn from the raiments of enterprising princes as with sword and buckler they braved the wicked branches.
It was one such prince, in fact, drowning his failure in a stein more froth than ale—for princes are spoiled boys and cannot hold their beer—who first gave the hatchet-faced thief the idea.
It was only our second date when, returning from dessert, she laid her head on my shoulder and dozed off. The subway late that night was a picture book of slumber: laborers with open mouths and heads thrown back, smearing windows; waiters with unknotted ties, nodding into collars; and, slumped against a glass partition, queers of velour sportcoat and positively Seussian pompadour, like courtiers from some lavender castle. Sometime in my twenties I had lost the knack of sleeping in public; those golden student afternoons, dissolving in a blissful nap beside an unnamed fountain in some quaint forgotten square, were gone, along with a certain trust of my surroundings, and I associated this loss with increased canniness. The warm weight of her head on my shoulder made me feel at once vulnerable and watchful. Her pure, unburdened brow in sleep seemed to invite threat, but the arm I might have raised in defense her two entwined and pinned between us. I never closed my eyes.
There is the city with an unfamiliar woman on your arm. Everywhere, it seems—down a block, around a corner—on the verge of coming true. At the foot of her building, you look up to seek a window from a life that intimacy more imminent than daydreamed has brought closer, as fruit bows the limb of a tree. Her front door opened on a dim hall crossed at its far end by a lozenge of moonlight. At the flick of a switch, a lamp in a sconce fizzled and went out. I hesitated; what I remember then was proceeding almost unwilled at a stately, inevitable pace, as though my feet were inches from the floor, past the bathroom and the bicycle against the wall. The restaurant, the theatre, the café—all the evening's rooms—seemed physically continuous, an elaborate and narrowing succession disclosing at its end this tiny corridor. When we speak of life being like a fairy tale, we mean, I think, not elves, or children's stories, or even wondrous and patent impossibility, but a series of self-accomplishing events, fated and ordained, in which our trancelike presence seems to play no part. We ride the golden ploughwheel between the walls of flame, and no sooner does the sword fall into our hands, than the dragon's fate is sealed. On the threshold of her bedroom she turned with a smile, sat down on her fourposter, and to my chagrin, fell asleep.
The thief was sitting in the far back corner of the tavern, his hood still shadowing his eyes, and watched as the red-ringleted wench all but pressed the prince's face into her bosom. Rain from his hood dripped into his twopenny bock, for the weather outside was miserable, but not as miserable as the drunken prince's caterwauling. He turned his sharp face in the prince's direction and listened.
It sounded too good to be true, but to the thief's surprise, the castle was almost exactly as the princeling had described between sobs: guardsmen with still-helmeted heads pillowed on the ramparts while their armor rusted at the joints, and inside, ladies-in-waiting collapsed on the steps in an enchanted faint. In the great hall, lords and ladies snoozed face-down in platters of food long since rotted, but the rats that might have stripped the suckling pig bare were snoring fast away on flagstones. The thief counted toppled chalices, medallions heavy round the necks of slumped courtiers, rings and scepters and decanters, and decided that he'd need to come back with a bigger bag. It was better than a burgher's house left unlocked while the family summered by the sea.
Was I insulted? At the very least, nonplussed. I am a great lover—of women's apartments. I slip from a stranger's sheets, it seems, and through a tear in the very fabric of existence to some secret, closely guarded part of their lives. The city is a vast gathering of rooms, like a gallery or palace. In each of these we curate, on shelves and windowsills, the exhibits of our lives, while around us brick and cinderblock wrap themselves in bastions, keeps, apartment buildings, walling out the stranger who, with a last wistful glance, lowers his head and hurries on his lonely way. There is in every bachelor, I think, something of this stranger, who arrives in a city with the sum of his earthly things in a tattered suitcase. Evening is falling on the avenues, the parks and the restaurants, and who are those people in the warm amber light with the wine and the bread and their faces full of laughter?
The city hides its lives from us, which we seduce into divulgence. I was enchanted to learn the single life consisted largely of moving through these moonlit showrooms of dormant furniture. Doesn't the path of every man lead him through a labyrinth of offices, garages, lobbies and suites, cafés and showers and living rooms, each step taking him further inside, until he is enfolded in the life he'll call his own? We all know the dream of doors, paneled in rich leather and studded with brass tacks, opening one after the next until... In her bedroom, blue and muted bulbs dangled from the curtain rod, their soft glow catching in the sheer weave of a veil that cascaded from the canopy like a sunlit fall of dust made fabric. On the nightstand, a pink tassel trailed from an ornate leather diary beside a brass spyglass, but neither there or on the dresser did I spy a clock.
During this time, a mysterious procurer gained fame among the sellers of secondhand jewelry in nearby kingdoms. You have seen these suspect merchants before, out of the corner of your eye, scuttling from shadow to shadow over the cobblestones: small men, all bald, whether shriveled or portly, keeping cramped shop at the ends of the twistiest lanes. These men do business in goods of dubious origin, acquired from procurers more mysterious still. The one I've mentioned was known variably as Uncle Jake, Delaunay, Rattapallats, Göttinger, Fabrizio—a list of names as long or longer than the list of sellers he supplied. He was short, he was tall, he was slender, he was stout; he had a gold tooth or a wooden leg, his hair was thinning or a youthful straw-blond mop; he had an earring, a missing finger, a mole above his lip sprouting a single hair, a burn like a map on the back of his hand; he clomped about on a boot with a thick heel or else the sprightly bounce in his step was unmistakable. One and all, these sellers trembled with greed at the thought of someday getting their hands on the vast storehouse of treasures it seemed the procurer must, somewhere in the world, have hidden away. For object after object he brought them was of uncommon splendor and luxury. Filigreed timepieces, silver gravy boats, pendants heavy with enormous gems, cut-crystal candlesticks, brocaded chasubles: all these passed from his hands, through the sellers', into those of distant barons, rajahs, and caliphs. And in the tavern under the sign of the surprised pig (hoisted aloft at its midriff by a black chain), the red-haired serving wench, alone in her garret, took from hiding every night a ring with a garnet the size of an infant's heart and admired it on a hand chapped from scrubbing dishes.
I crossed the doorway of moonlight fallen on the floor. The scene seemed familiar, if only from commercials and romances: that room where the breeze from the starry night, stirring the gauze curtains, seems both to carry and embody a longing voice from the gramophone. In fact one such gramophone, with its gilded lily of an amplifier, perched on an antique cabinet in a corner of the living room. Trailing my finger through the dust on the record to the cabinet-top revealed a stripe of marquetry. By the foam green sofa squatted a globe of sea glass bound in wire, which a cord snaking into the dark gave away as a lamp. Flaking paint lent relief to the petals of the dahlias on a decorative box.
Call it stalling. Call it dawdling. I was doing here what I did in life. I knew a girl who loved me, but I was dating others. I had an apartment waiting, but I preferred to prowl a stranger's. What was I holding out for? What did I hope to find? More urgently, how long could I make it last?
The same blue desuetude suffused the kitchen. Now and then, a breeze entered from the living room and, without so much as turning a page of the cookbook open on the counter, left by the open window. A potted creeper on the bookcase cast trailing vines in a proprietary embrace. I peered at the spines through this delicate curtain of vegetable neglect.
Her belongings—quaint, curious, each with its distinct and dated personality—were an eclectic set of refugees; in this shelter from disaster they paid their owner silent tribute. The relics, the antiques, the trinkets—there was an artlessness, even naiveté, to her choice of decoration, as if arrested in some earlier era of hope. Time spent waiting for some wish to be fulfilled seemed to account for the sense of a life in abeyance.
The blond man was rangy, with a hatchet face, as quick to smile as he was to narrow his eyes. He was neither handsome nor sweet-natured, but he always had a gift for the red-haired wench when he passed through, for he claimed she was the source of his good fortune. He wasn't the only one to give her gifts—she was a simple creature with a great deal of sympathy, and many men found her a welcome shoulder for their woes—but the blond man's ring, which had surprised her, was her favorite. She knew better than to believe it a pledge from someone she saw so rarely and knew so little about. But there are faces that we come to love for want of seeing them, and one day we are surprised, humming some common, maudlin song of love, to have them come suddenly to mind.
This very thing, it seemed, had befallen the thief, who in his patient explorations of the castle had come across the blue room in the north keep. There, beside a spindle glinting in the moonlight, a princess slept. She wasn't the ugliest princess the thief had ever seen, but she was far from the fairest. He couldn't see what all the fuss was about. He could well imagine some vain prince who'd hacked his way in past briar and serpent to balk at the final moment, bending over her face. Someday her prince would come, but meanwhile, her looks weren't doing her half the favors her legend was. He moved about the room, opening drawers, rifling chests, plucking treasures from a high shelf like fruit from a tree. He paid her no more mind than he did the red-haired tavern wench with the beseeching smile on whom he carelessly bestowed this or that worthless trinket.
Soon the princess' jewelry box stood empty and her coffers bare, and though there was nothing left to steal in the palace, the thief returned through the thorns and brambles, past the dragon that did not deign to notice him, simply to stand in the blue room and gaze upon the princess. That tragedies befall the beautiful exalts our sense of rightness, of how the world and stories work. It seemed almost unfair she should be plain and suffer so, as though a fate reserved for someone else had befallen her, as though a chambermaid had pricked her finger on the spindle meant for her mistress. One night when the red-haired serving wench, sitting on the thief's knee and mussing his blonde hair, tried to kiss him on the mouth, he turned away. That night, he refused her nothing but his lips. He was gone the next morning before daybreak, and the serving wench woke and wept, for she knew she would not see him again.
Love loves sleeping things: whose heart doesn't go out to cats curled up in the sun? Who hasn't, for a moment, been Psyche admiring Cupid in the dark? You can watch someone sleep the way you possess a photo, among the most intimate and yet solitary of acts: rapaciously, invasively, completely. I'm never more in love than when, waking drowsy in the night from warmth and perfume, it seems I've somehow, for a spellbound moment, become a part of someone else's life, privy to her every hidden yearning and sorrow. I see these in the shaped soap on the bathroom sill, the earrings in the saucer on the dresser, and I am always flooded with relief that when the sun comes up they won't be mine. For once a part of something, we no longer have the satisfaction of watching ourselves in it. I can live whole lives in a single night. I can believe in anything, as long as it's not real.
For the second time that night, I stood at the threshold to her bedroom. The gauzy curtain in the blue glow seemed a fairy scrim reducing her to rumor, an already bleary memory from a faintly unlikely night. I moved to kiss her—on the forehead—but I couldn't. Still, I wanted something to remember her by. On my way out, I plucked a slim, familiar volume from the kitchen shelf—a childhood favorite—and slipped it into my pocket. Not all of us are meant for princesses, but stories are for everyone.
At this point, the tale becomes muddled. From rumor and hearsay we can, with perseverance and no little patience, reconstruct three separate accounts of what might have happened to the thief, each in its own way plausible, each giving the lie to all the others, but the true thread is lost, and no official version exists.
As you know, the palace woke to a prince's kiss. The evil sorceress lay slain at the gates, his sword through her heart, and the wall of briars vanished as if it had never been. Jubilation ensued, and pomp on such an order as only royalty can muster. In the immediate festivities for the wedding, an aging footman was surprised in the princess' chambers with his hand in the jewelry box. Nothing was found to be missing there, nor from the rest of the room; it was assumed the theft had been prevented in the nick of time. The footman claimed, preposterously, to be putting jewels back. The case was brought before the new king, who was inclined not only to be clement, but to grant his bride's every wish. When asked why she interceded on the thief's behalf, his bride said: I have seen him before, in a dream. The court laughed politely—surely the dreams of their queen-to-be had been many and various—while the servants were flattered that she thought of them in her sleep. The footman was dismissed, but suffered no greater punishment. Only later, when the dust of celebration of settled, did an inventory reveal other missing items: filigreed timepieces, silver gravy boats, pendants heavy with enormous gems, cut-crystal candlesticks, brocaded chasubles. Still, these were as single coins in the castle's inexhaustible hoard. No one gave them much thought but the court clerks, who could no more reconcile the ledgers than locate a record of employment for the footman, and as he stepped from the pages of their books so he now steps from ours.
There were those who didn't welcome the return of order to the realm. In the absence of a king there had been strife, petty clashes, and penury; counties quarreled and the roads between them through the stands of dark wood grew unsafe at night. But this lawless place was ideally suited to a clever man with a quick hand and a cold heart. Those who had lived free withdrew to the great woods, where they might continue their thieving ways and protest what they considered tyranny's yoke. One such was a mysterious highwayman known as Göttinger. He was broad as an oak with a fearsome patch over his left eye, and the years that had greyed his blond beard only made him cannier and more cutthroat an opponent. Though he swore bitter enmity to the throne, the bandit proved a greater tyrant to the people of the forest, whom he ruled by fear. And so the ballad lives on of how the bandit king waylaid a royal convoy one dark evening in the woods. Guardsmen lay slain with arrows in their chests, or stood terrified with knives at their throats. The plunder was swift and thorough—the trunks lay gaping and the saddlebags ransacked—but when Göttinger's lieutenant barked for the passengers to descend from the carriage, the queen emerged onto the muddy road. It was as if he'd seen her somewhere before, the lieutenant later said, but had never expected to meet her again, least of all in the forest he called home. The lieutenant had never thought to find a weakness in the man he'd loved, hated, fought, and slept beside for twelve years, but he knew when Göttinger commanded them to free the queen unharmed that the bandit king had gone soft at last. His reign was over, and if his lieutenant didn't kill him that very night some upstart would within a month, making for himself a name he'd never earned. So it was the highwayman was found the next morning with a dagger in his chest, and few mourned his passing.
But what of the red-haired serving wench? She of all creatures on earth deserves a happy ending, or as close to it as we are likely to get, and when we see her next, it is by the sea, beside a mansion on a verdant hill. In the backyard, she is hanging the washing out to dry—how white it is, in the sunlight! how it billows with the sea breeze as she lifts it from her basket—in a mobcap and a frilly apron while about her four children laugh and tumble in the grass: two tow-headed boys and two strawberry blonde girls, all her own. A woman hurries to her from the terrace door, asks a question, bows, and scurries back, and as we realize this woman is a maid, well might we wonder: why is a woman now the mistress of a household hanging her own laundry? Old habits die hard, or perhaps she simply likes the feel of freshly washed fabric in her hands. From the upstairs window a portly man, pipe in hand, smiles with satisfaction at this scene. We hear he is a rich and much admired trader, a pillar of the local community, known for his fairness and wisdom in matters of business. The town by the sea is proud to have him as a citizen, and there is talk next year, which he affably discourages, of nominating him for mayor. His sons' sons, when they are grown and have inherited the trade, will take their families on holiday to visit castles in foreign lands and listen to fanciful tales of chivalry and magic, while from a frame at the top of the stairs, his portrait watches with dignity over the empty house. His thinning hair doesn't bother his loving wife in the least—it leaves her more of his head to dote on. When a sudden gust sends a sheet waving like a flag, their gazes meet across the lawn and she blows him a kiss.
You know how this story ends. Not long after, I was married. A girl from work, whom I had known for years. A country wedding, on a comely lawn. Hats were pinned to perfect buns, ties straightened over freshly pressed shirts; a light breeze, at its fiercest, toyed with the tassels of the priest's stole. Noon shot through the silken tent, radiant in the trembling fabric as the ardent benison in faces turned toward the bride. In this veiled light—almost violet, like daytime behind eyes shut against the sun—I watched my wife-to-be draw closer on her father's arm.
The reception found the guests scattered, buzzing between tables where the luncheon lay ignored. Men fanned themselves with programs, jackets open; women checked their makeup. A cake decked in candied pansies, ordered by the mother of the bride, lay with its serving trowel in a slight defeat, worn down as much by celebration as the humid afternoon. Fathers with rolled sleeves whirl their toddlers. Turning to the tables laden with gifts, I had a vision of a bed with perfect coverlet where silverware and candlesticks suddenly came crashing down in a hail of worldly weight.
A few days after returning from our honeymoon, my wife and I were kneeling in the new apartment, unwrapping wedding presents and jotting notes for thank-you cards. A gravy boat, a serving dish, a parliament of cutlery... She took a stack of perfectly matched plates of regal bearing and passed them to me, beaming. Without thinking, I reached out for them—and suddenly drew back, as if afraid of breaking some remembered spell.
H.V. Chao's fiction has appeared in Epiphany, Diet Soap, and Le Visage Vert, and is forthcoming in The Coachella Review, The Nashwaak Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Strange Tales IV, and Brèves. Currently located in California—information that will keep you from ascertaining his momentum—he is at work on his first collection of stories, Guises.
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