I’ve given them food without the drugs. Nothing changed; nor have I ever been murderously attacked. That was a lie or a mistake.
The patients do get agitated sometimes but only for a short time and everything’s forgotten. I only have to distract them and all is well.
The problem is me. I have too much power, can do anything I want to them: anything. Nothing would happen to me.
When accommodation is free I send Ant to the harbour with a message. A new patient arrives in a week or two and that’s it. They are forgotten by whoever sent them and no one cares what I do.
Except I can’t let them out: they are silent.
This old fort was used as a place to house the duke’s embarrassments, pregnant maids or ladies-in-waiting and may explain why it’s mostly young women from noble families sent here.
Myself, Ant and a couple of others have never caught the silence which strikes at random and lasts, it appears, for ever or takes people, mercifully, in their sleep.
I’m lonely, a bastard princeling, guardian of this tiny island. I’m just another outcome of a previous duke’s shame and thus kept away from the city and court. The only ways out of this are my death or that the present duke achieves no male heir – in which case I’ll be made legitimate.
In case of this unlikely disaster I am to be educated with few books and no tutor, train in courtly etiquette, with no company, and become proficient in martial combat but without horse or weapons.
Everything is pointless. The old fort crumbles and leaks. I’ve had to move my quarters again. Supplies are dumped in barrels to be pulled in. No sailor wants to come too near a hospitallier island. The dock workers don’t like me close so I can’t help them. No one likes me close; either they think I carry the silence or I am too regal.
Loneliness, that’s an aching void. In a normal world it is only a prompt to meet up with people and make friends. Here there is no one: etiquette excludes me to the degree of an outcast. All my efforts to change this have failed. There are too few people here, and no one to give me any guidance on life. I have to steal it by observation.
Ant: there’s something about him I really admire. He barely talks and then only to answer questions. I can’t ever remember a conversation between us. There’s a strength about him, like you could never get him to do something he thought wrong. He’ll never abandon his post, as some have, or deviate from the daily routine of cleaning, making sure candles are replaced, taking out the patients’ waste and so on. I’m sure I don’t see a fraction of what he actually does each day. Yes, there’s something strong and gentle and always there and you can count on him and … the sort of person I’d choose to be the father I never had. He’d care and be around: you’d be safe, guided: people would be safe around you.
I try to skim a stone on the lake but it’s hit by a ripple, wobbles, and slips under the surface.
This is my reflection beach, a place I can sometimes get right into myself and tell my crazy thoughts what to do, instead of them constantly bullying me.
Sometimes there are waterspouts here. When I was told the air in their centre was still and calm, I decided that was me – my safe me, as if still in the womb and still ignorant of everything I’ve been told since I could understand words. That essential me was, maybe still is, conscious of nothing but sensations, warmth, a heartbeat, movement which all seem one thing and just me.
I can look at myself then and say that bit is fine, perfect.
Beyond the centre, a spout is surrounded by whirling air, water, seaweed, fish and whatever else. I see that as all I’ve ever been taught, been told to become, what is important, not important, right, wrong: it’s all a bloody contradictory and conflicting mess. The problem is the truth of me can only access this world by fighting through that whirling storm and arriving battered, utterly confused and with my head full of battles.
I think everyone is like this. Our pure centre says something like let’s play! but after it’s travelled through the chaos of all we’ve been told, it comes out as absolutely anything – and the next minute people are hurting each other.
Back to being lonely, there’s Morag, she’s maid and cleaner of all things, her short wide form always half-hidden with folded sheets and clothing or baskets of laundry. I’ve told her repeatedly to stop putting everything down and curtseying when she sees me but she never listens.
There’s an old and blind dockworker-sailor who sometimes speaks but not to me. He talks even if no one is there. Sitting on a barrel, he’ll be silent for hours and then lecture on how to splice rope so it never slips, gnarled hands doing the motions. He’s the one from whom I learned about waterspouts and how he was blinded by the fury of one.
There are a couple of other servants I see from time to time, and there may be more because things get done and fixed, except crumbling masonry and damp areas making great puddles around ancient furniture.
No, I have no problems with people and things being done or not done. Here, right in the pure centre of myself, I know my problems lie in the surrounding chaos sculpted by culture and education. I can’t seem to control it very well without an unending series of struggles.
Loneliness gnaws, it bites, it drives me mad. Let me think about the silent patients. The old ones aren’t a problem. I go and sit with them and read aloud, check they have all they want, and ensure their dignity is as good as can be. The silent grow absent-minded and can fail to dress correctly.
The younger ones though… Anyae may be around twenty five. She smiles a lot of the time and her only contact … communication … is to stroke the inside of my left wrist. I don’t know why she does it and let’s me do it to her but shows no reaction, resistance or any indication she is aware.
I enjoy her touch but feel I shouldn’t as I find it arousing. I could do what I wanted with her and nothing would happen. That’s the problem. I can do anything. Even in the eyes of servants I am the law and can do no wrong. Anyae is graceful when she moves but, of course, never speaks or looks at anything of me but my wrist. It’s like the rest doesn’t exist.
Chikka is the opposite and I am strongly drawn to her: gods, how my heart pumps faster, my lungs fill more. She’s a huge battle. Fun though, despite refusing to wear any clothes at all. She climbs everywhere and can jump from one piece of furniture to the next, over the great four-poster bed, out the window and race along battlements, leaping from one crenelation to the next even in high winds. I gasp at her audacity, sure-footedness and stunning gymnastics. She can land on her hands and then her feet, and hands again, on and on, over the battlements faster than I could run alongside.
She’s often hidden in her quarters when I arrive to see how she is. The next thing a balled-up pillowcase or something smacks me right in the head – her accuracy is astounding – and she’s off scaling walls and tapestries. Chikka does make eye-contact and smile, but that’s all. She’s a bit thin, but everyone on this rock is slightly undernourished, including me. There’s never too much of anything delivered.
Trying to look only at her face is so hard. I know no harm would be done if I looked at any part of her I wanted … or would it? I think the harm would be done to me. That’s what the unmessed up part of me thinks anyway. So I control myself, even when she’s exhausted and sleeping, well, almost all of the time. Once I stroked her arm, she woke up and I think I could have taken her there and then. I had to leave quickly, hating myself.
The next quarters are where Isolde lives. She’s really thin and stands looking out to sea for hours and hours. Once, when I asked the servants to move her from a distant wing to be nearer the others, they left her by a window. For some reason her arm had been raised. It was still in the same position later that day. Only her chest and pulse show signs of life sometimes.
She has the loveliest straight hair which the servants comb. I long to touch it, and sometimes stand with her, not too close, but hoping a breeze will brush a strand over my neck or cheek. The calm inside my storm thinks that’s acceptable.
Of these three women, all of whom I wish were well so I could marry one … or all of them … I visit Isolde last. Radiating peace and serenity, she’s like the inner me and I always calm down when standing with her.
Marry all three? I don’t think that’s humanly possible and wouldn’t be fair on any of us. I think marry one so you can both be yourselves yet grow towards what each other need.
Except, of course, I’m not allowed to marry, unless I’m suddenly needed as heir. Then I’ll be paired off with some female of breeding age in a way which makes political blood-bonds with a neighbouring country.
Casting a last stone, I straighten up. Back to work and my afternoon round I suppose. If I stay here too long my mind goes into mystical places which seem more real than the world. Like now: I wonder if the people I know and the whole world are as I’ve been told to see them. But maybe I’ll stay: I enjoy my weird fantasies.
“I like the bastard’s idea of a waterspout,” says Isolde. “It’s poetic.” She’s not in this world but watching a spring dawn warming meadow flowers. Light throws shifting shadows among grass stalks trembled by a breeze. Daisies begin to open and life stirs. Her dress hems hiss on stems as she walks.
Ant’s robes whisper too, but on the stone of a lofty white temple balcony overlooking dusty plains. “I like it too, Isolde. He’s found the soul of himself. Things may develop quickly but he has a long way to go yet.” He pauses, savouring wind scented with rosemary blown from sun-baked mountainsides. “At least that’s what I imagine. Morag, what do you suppose?”
Morag sits cosy in a thatched cott. Stone walls and shuttered windows repel the raging blizzard outside. The only wind invading comes down the chimney in bursts. Each time hearth flames shudder puffs of smoke roll up the mantelpiece. “Aye,” she says, “it’ll be a while yet before he sees what we really are. Like any human he believes those around him are human too. But look at how he’s using the illusion. He’s realised that it’s not him that’s a mess, nor the world – just the way he’s been taught to look at both. What is your opinion, Anyae?”
“I’m asleep, floating on a lovely cloud. Leave me alone. Oh, alright … he’s recognised my stroking him is both seductive and affectionate. He’s choosing, beginning to choose, only the affectionate side to avoid abusing me. He’s getting there and it’s doing me the world of good. I’m becoming happier and feel respected. Anyway, it’s a lovely compliment and gives him great dignity. He should be proud. Now give me some peace but tell me if I snore.”
Morag’s voice comes with choking and spluttering; her room has filled with smoke and spinning ash from a huge storm gust. “Chikka, where are you and have you any comments on the young man?”
“I’m in a rainforest having harpsichord lessons with an omelette: what do you expect? Our human? he’s fine. Too bloody nice if you ask me, but the last thing he wants after he dies is to be surrounded by a bunch of angry vengeful spirits. You’re all going to be sweet to him then, no doubt. I’m going to give him some serious attention. He’ll think the afterlife is an eternal orgasm.”
Yes, I love my daydreams. The more I have the weaker the storm of doctrines and beliefs around me becomes, while these people grow more important.
Life gets simpler.
©Gary Bonn, 2021