The closer you get to the city, the less you see it. From far away, approaching from ten miles down the dusty road, the white-brick windmills gather breezes with their turning metal blades at the edge of the walled arena. The highest nobles’ houses preen around the perimeter of Royal Square. Smoke and an eerie red light waft from the great bonfire. The top of the palace’s tallest turrets shine tipped in gild.
Up close, the trees seem to grab with their dried-out branches, dead for twenty years at least, since well before the time I left the city. Grasses sway by the roadside, thick enough to hide people like me: escapees from the throne. Arena fighters roar. A child cries from inside one of the huts outside the gates. It seems like a contradiction, that you should see less from this distance, but it’s just the law of perspective.
When I lived under the same roof as my father, the king, I believed his excuses for why the storytellers called him Philip the Malignant: evil makes for better villains. When I moved away, I realized that they had every right to call him that. His actions, after the death of my mother, had ruined the kingdom and hurt his people in every way imaginable.
I stopped before the gate and its protectors, two burly knights, and breathed in the air of home: cold but fresh, filled with the odor of sweat and blood and shit and my own nostalgic pain. I saluted the knights as they crossed their spears over the entrance.
“Who are you?” one said through her visor. Not one of my old friends, then, or had I changed more than I thought? The other remained silent and stared at the road ahead.
I let my hand fall back to my side. “You know me as the Lady Magritte. If you know me at all, that is.”
“Magritte!” the silent knight exclaimed, her helmed head creaking to face me. “The Lady of Cards! You’ve rounded out since you left us.”
I squinted at her hidden eyes. “Who is trapped beneath all that metal?”
The friendly knight straightened again and focused her gaze back on the road. “It is Samira, my Lady,” she said.
“Sir Samira.” I nodded my respect. “You have grown too. When I last saw you, you were but a child sneaking her way into our games.”
“I must send word to the king,” the other said. She reached up and pulled a rope that dangled from the top of the gate; a bell rang in the distance. Another knight appeared on the other side of the wrought iron bars. “Please alert the king at once! His daughter has returned.”
The king sent his personal guard to fetch me. They gave me a horse to ride. I was grateful after the long journey by foot. The king’s men led me around the maze of circular walls the king had ordered erected around his palace when I was a little girl.
“Do you know why the king takes men for his guard but leaves women at the gates?” I asked as my body swayed to the horse’s rhythms.
“He does not trust women with his deepest secrets,” the knight who rode beside me said. “I do not fault the king this.”
“Well, you wouldn’t say if you did, would you?” I adjusted myself on the saddle. “Because if you did, he’d cut your head off. But no. That is not the reason. Well, it is and it isn’t. Would you like to hear the true reason?”
The knight sighed. “I imagine, my lady, that you are going to tell me anyway.”
“He does not trust anyone, my father. But he has less of a problem with severing the heads of men than of women, so when you knights of his guard do break his trust, he can enact his full revenge. The women he sends away, into the woods. He’s a chivalrous, man, my father.”
“He is,” the knight said. “The king is gentle to his core.”
“A joke!” I said, though the knight did not laugh; of course he didn’t. “I didn’t realize my father paid you to be amusing.” I laughed to myself, the noise bouncing off the maze walls, until all around us resonated a mad cacophony. The knights did not react; they were used to misplaced laughter, to madness in its most frightening of forms.
We daughters of angry kings tell ourselves terrible stories. We do this to convince ourselves that what we went through, what we witnessed, could have been worse.
Take the king who lived three kingdoms away. When the local fortuneteller informed that king that his daughter would marry a common soldier, the king panicked. A marriage of no benefit was a waste of everything he wished for his daughter, whose beauty, of course, rivaled the sun. He locked her up in a tower where the sun could not reach her, but he also installed a peephole in the door. Through this peephole traveling princes would peek, admiring the pristine, chaste lady within. The king, after all, knew the value of a well-stoked mystery, of an untouchable thing. He received many offers. He held out for something better.
Then came a soldier who longed for riches and a wife. On his way home from one of the king’s distant wars, this soldier met a witch in the woods who taught him her magic, spells of transformation, for the price of a kiss upon her long-ignored lips. The soldier made his way to the castle, turned himself into a dog with eyes the size of dinner plates, and snuck through the gates. The lady’s handmaidens cooed to find such a sweet animal in their halls. They let the dog into the lady’s locked room, where the soldier gazed long upon her sleeping face.
In the end the soldier performed for the lady his impressive transformation and promised her an elsewhere life. With his puppy eyes, he won her heart, along with three wishes from the witch’s magic matchbox, a prize the witch traded him for a job in the castle. The soldier used these wishes this matchbox to pay the king riches beyond imagining, though of course the king had so many riches already he barely noticed the extra gold in his stacks. The lady married the soldier and moved into a new tower and birthed her own children, and the cycle continued happily forever after.
They called me the Lady of Cards not because of my skill at games or divination but because of my ability to flatten myself like a card against the walls of the palace maze. Over and over again during my childhood I escaped using this trick of my body.
It was the only spell I remembered from my schooling with the tutor the king tried to force upon me, a fake of a man who only taught me the spell because I would not stop begging until he did so. He preferred to train his ladies in the feminine arts, as he put it: how to make table conversation, how to remain beautiful while sleeping, how to speak riddling nonsense when a prince comes to court you. I retained no magic but that.
After arriving again at the palace, after the king’s guard led me to the king’s throne room of stone walls and echoes, I stood before my father and wished that I could flatten myself from his view. He sat with his knotted white fingers twisted tight over the ends of his throne, which was no more than a fancy chair embellished with gold. His long silver hair was draped over one shoulder, covering half his blue velvet robes. His thin mouth twisted before he spoke.
“Magritte, why have you returned?”
I bowed low, a façade to earn his favor. I pulled the wrapped bundle from the end of my stick.
“What is this?” he asked, but his lips trembled with fear. He stood from his throne and pointed one long finger at me. I unwrapped the cloth. Out drifted an amber haze. The cloud surged forward, toward the mouth that opened to unleash his command: “Seize her—”
As two of his men lunged toward me, my father doubled over, a cough wracking his body with a furious shaking. I bolted toward the cold comfort of the wall. I made myself so thin that even the strongest of knights could not peel me from it. They did not try. Instead they rushed to save their king from what they must have been sure was an attempt at patricide and not, as I intended, a saving of my father’s life.
There are other stories whispered by the daughters of angry kings. Take the king whose daughter fell prey to a sleeping curse despite the warnings of the local prophets, who could not bear the uselessness of a daughter who could not marry. He moved her sleeping body to the middle of his country and hid her in a tall tower and built a maze around her. In his own palace, he removed every memory that would prove she had once lived and breathed and ran vibrant through his courtyard playing games he did not teach her. In her new home, he left the door unlocked.
Take the second king who found her and claimed her for his own.
It was not until I lived outside the castle walls that I learned the truth of my father’s condition: his ghost no longer dwelled within his body. My mother died when I was a child, and though I remembered a time when the three of us picked moonflowers in the castle gardens and gifted those flowers to the children who ran through our courtyards, I thought my mother’s kindness had merely masked my father’s meanness. I believed that cruelty must be part of his nature, and as a result, it must be part of mine too. I worried that one day I would feel my father’s murderous rage, perhaps toward the knights who managed to catch me in my adolescence those failed times I tried to flee from the front gate into the whispering night. Contrary to my fears, I joked with them as they led me back to my chambers. I made friends with those most willing to bend from out of their servitude.
My father existed as a temper taken form. Our dinners in the banquet room were filled with his outbursts over any number of slights I made, translated into mistakes my tutors and guardians had made in their training and caring for me.
One evening I ate too quickly. My father sliced off the tip of the cook’s tongue for adding too much syrup to the marinade of the boar meat. He threatened that for each of these mistakes, he would slice another piece until the cook could not speak at all for the nub in his mouth. Another evening I did not wipe the sauce from my chin; my father ordered the cook to make a whole pot of the stuff and poured the near-boiling red over my tutor’s head. I did not answer his grating questions about my whereabouts in the afternoon; I had been calming Samira, not then a knight, not then a woman at all but a girl who needed me from time to time to explain the aches and pains presenting themselves to her like so many unruly suitors. He locked the knight who was supposed to supervise me into the dungeon, despite my too-late begging cries, where he forgot him until the man starved alone in his solitude.
As I aged I learned not to step out of the lines my father stretched across my life; I learned to spare the lives of those who worked around my periphery. But he found anger in everything: in my very face, influenced by my mother’s olive skin, her narrow nose, her thick mouth, her pronounced cheekbones. If I ate too much. If I ate too little. If I weighed too much. If I weighed too little. Until I moved through my young years as in an indecisive fog, never sure which action might lead to outburst and which, if any, would garner his favor. I did not realize at the time how frightful each day had become, how laborious each breath.
Until the day my half-hatched escape plan worked. I did nothing different, but when I broke from the inner city’s front gates and took off running, no knights followed me into the dark. I kept running only because I did not know what else to do, the fear of being on my own not yet seizing me. That would happen later, once I reached a safe place in the woods far from the road, where I made myself a camp beneath a giant fallen sheet of tree bark on a bed of moldering leaves.
Later still, once I had sneaked then talked my way into a derelict chapel run by a devout young man in long black robes, worlds different from my father, I finally wondered at why this attempt above all others had succeeded. Perhaps the knights had let me go; many of them would be punished, but many fewer than would face punishment if I stayed within the castle walls incurring my father’s daily wrath.
In the chapel, I helped to rebuild what had been lost. I had not been raised religious, and the young man called Milo who lived there did not talk of giving my life to any particular deity. Instead he focused on creating a space for any who needed comfort, rebuilding brick by brick the building where he would offer salvation in its many forms. I feared him, at first. In the closet he gave me to use as a chamber, I nailed a long board each night across the door so that, should he try to enter while I slept, I would hear him.
Instead of anger, he showed me kindness and taught me how to bestow kindness upon others. We often brought apples from the chapel’s orchard to each door in the village or gathered the children for ball games so that their parents would be able spend a few moments dining alone or making love. I knew nothing of love, only that, had I stayed in the castle, I would have been expected one day to marry someone my father chose for me and that I had no interest in the carnal aspects of such an arrangement, though some nights I had dreamt of a partner who would take me away. That I had taken myself away seemed to alleviate any need. The kindnesses I was able to offer through my work at the chapel were enough to light a small flame in my chest that warmed me from the inside out.
I struggled with the thought that one day my anger would emerge. Perhaps my father had been sweet as a boy and even as a young man; perhaps his true temperament had arrived with the first pains to plague his back or his first gray hair or the placement of a crown upon his head. I dreamt myself a monster, half bear with long claws, half serpent with two poisonous fangs behind my lips. As my distance in time from my father and the cold comfort I had known in the city and the palace grew, I slept less and less for fear that I would wake and the nightmares would have transferred themselves into the waking world. It was Milo who sat me down in the kitchens where he baked sweet bread for us and for the village’s holiday festivities and gave me two wet tea bags.
“For beneath your eyes,” he said. “The shade beneath them has almost swallowed your whole face.”
I took the bags and thanked him.
“What are the nightmares that plague you?”
“What nightmares?” I squeezed the bags until they dripped what water they had left onto the dirt floor.
“At night you scream. I hear you all through the chapel.”
I started to lie, then remembered the cook and his tongue and all the punishments I had incurred for lies. “I dream of monsters,” I said.
“Of monsters? But surely those are the fears of children.”
“I dream myself a monster.” I bowed my head, sure he would see it now I had spoken it aloud.
“You fear you have a monster inside you,” he said. “I fear the same for myself. I understand this fear.”
I looked up at him, at his earnest face, his kind eyes. “The place I came from. My father was a terrible man.”
Milo nodded. “Some men are.”
“My father—” But if I told him that I was a lady, he might be forced to send me back. “I fear I might have his anger in me. It scares me so much I can’t sleep. I wish I could stay and help you forever and live in kindness as you do, but I cannot sleep in a fantasy.”
“Wherever you need to go,” he said. “Whatever you need to do.”
“I will let you know,” I said, “when I know myself.”
Take the princess, the friend of a friend of mine, whose father held a contest to marry off his daughter to the first suitor to find a way to kill the black crow that followed her everywhere she went and sent her into daily fits of despair. The crow, now that a member of the royal family was afflicted with it, proved an embarrassment to the throne, the source of whispers and budding disloyalty.
The princess sent her own best friend, her knight, to find a weapon capable of piercing the crow’s feathers. The knight brought back bad news from the witch who lived in the woods: there was no such thing, but if the knight lured the creature away from the princess, if the knight took on the burden herself and lived deep in the woods, the princess would remain safe and unhaunted.
The princess lived the rest of her days nursing her anger toward those who had abandoned her: a dead mother, a distant and cruel father, a loving best friend. Finally she stole the throne for herself, murdered the husband who had helped her secure her reign, and demanded more of her city’s people than they had to give: their money; their loyalty; the very blood from their fingers, a poor substitute for love.
During one of Milo’s kindnesses, bringing food to the vagrants who lived in the trees, I came upon a cave with an upturned palm carved into the rock beside its entrance. I traced this symbol, the same symbol of the oracles who had served my father. I descended into the cave’s cold damp dark. Water trickled in the distance as I led myself along a narrow ledge, one palm pressed against the wall. With nostalgic delight, I pressed my body flat. Though the sensation reminded me of home, the glee of accomplishment after being so long out of practice made me cry out. My cry, too, echoed.
Deeper in, the woman found me. She grabbed my flattened wrist and pulled me back to form.
“I sensed your magic from miles away,” she said, her voice trapped between a growl and an echo from deep within her throat and not the cave. I was overcome by the smell of decay.
She pulled me away from the wall. My foot slipped on the edge and then we were falling, air whipping across my ears. When finally we landed at the cave’s bottom, guided by whatever magic she had unleashed, I finally saw who had captured me in the light of a dozen candles situated in carved holders in the walls. The woman’s sea-green knots pulled back from her cave-pale face, her cat-like yellow eyes glowing in the dark; how had I not seen her coming? She wore a skirt of dried leaves on strings, and dead earthworms wrapped in spirals around her nipples.
I rushed to the nearest wall and tried to flatten myself, but with a wave of her hand she wiped away my magic.
“Are you one of them?” I said. “A teller of fortunes?”
“Why are you creeping around my cave?” She bent to a pack on the floor and rummaged inside, pulling out a round glassy piece of candy that she popped in her mouth. As she came closer, I jumped at her advance. “I won’t hurt you.” She held out her palm, a second candy nestled within. “For you.”
I took it. It felt like glass. “What is it?”
“I will tell the truth if you will,” she said.
I ran the sphere in my palm. It wasn’t candy at all but a stone of some sort.
“Truth stone,” she said. “Give it a taste.”
I pursed my lips.
“You came here because you seek knowledge? You came here for truth,” she said.
I popped it into my mouth and held it against my cheek; it tasted like the honeysuckle that clung to the fence at the chapel’s north-facing side.
“It’s good,” I said.
“Yes, well, don’t swallow,” she said. “Unless you want to be bound to truth for all eternity. Now why are you snooping around my cave?”
I moved away from the wall. “I reside in the village.”
“You were born in the village then?” The woman sat down cross-legged upon the floor.
“I am originally from a city.”
“And what made you leave this city?”
“My father.” I sat down in front of her, my legs weakening at his mention.
“I had no father,” the woman said. “I was born of magic, a consequence to a spell performed by two kind but greedy fools. They were given what wealth they entreated, but it came with a burden: me. Whoever sent me seemed to count on the fools’ kindness forcing them to keep me. They did, keep me, but we lived a spare life, hoarding our gold. I practiced spells to bring some color into my world. When they died I kept to a spare life but continued the magic that brought me so much joy.”
“Are you worried about your own consequences?”
“Yes,” she said. “Now tell me your story. I cannot help you if I know nothing about you.”
I thought about spitting the stone out, about forsaking this chance to unload the burdens haunting me, this chance to know the truth of myself. But her face was kind. She had lived a difficult life too, one of the women from our stories come to life. “I’m the daughter of an evil king,” I said. “He hurt people in my name. I don’t know if I really wanted to leave, but I tried and finally it worked. I’ve been living in the chapel in the village, as I said, with a kind man. I am unhappy there, but I’m grateful for the time to heal a little. But the nightmares. I dream bad things. I dream myself a monster.”
“What sort of monster?” The woman leaned in closer.
“A monster inside me, trying to get out,” I said. “She is terrible. She is my true self.”
The woman shook her head. “Monsters are made, not born. Your father was kind once. You have forgotten, but it is true. Once you loved him. He left something for you, inside you, but you have blocked yourself against recognizing it, against remembering its presence.”
Metal clinked as the woman rummaged through the unknowable dark. She emerged with a pair of pincers she’d salvaged from some animal of the sea, red and horrible as she snapped them open and shut.
“What are those?” I said, which was the wrong question.
She knelt before me. I moved my head back and away from her, preparing myself to stand, to run, though there was nowhere to go in that closed-off den.
“I promise this won’t hurt,” she said. I let her grab hold of my cheek and bend back my head, opened my mouth when she asked me to open it, let her reach her hand with the pincers inside across my tongue and down my throat as far as her hand and the tool would reach. They smelled like rotting fish and I nearly gagged, but then she pulled them out, slowly and steadily, and along with them came a silver shape that struggled and pulled and scratched against the sides of my throat then my mouth then formed a ghostly copy of my father’s form in the space between us, the pincers attached to the top of his head. I shrank away from him, from it, as I spat several globs of blood onto the ground.
I tried again to press myself flat, but it seemed whatever protective spells the woman enabled were still present.
“Why would you do that?” I said. The specter hovered in the same spot, his silver smoke twisting with the air. He searched frantic about the cave, but he did not settle his eyes on me or on the woman and he did not move in any direction. “And it did hurt, by the way.”
She pulled her truth stone from a pocket sewn into her skirt; I had not seen her spit it out in the dim light.
My throat stung, and my belly felt light, as though I had not eaten all day. Which was mostly true; I had eaten little when I usually ate much more from the chapel kitchens, with my appetite returned now that I no longer lived under my father’s terrible eye. This woman had brought him back.
“Let me go. Make him go away.”
“No, this is your father.” She gestured to the ghost. “That other man? He is but a shell.”
“This is my father?” I stood and circled the ghost, who stopped and moved in a circle with me. “The other one is false?”
“Not false. But not real.” The woman reached again for my hand. Into it she placed the stick handle of a bundle. “Wrap your father in the cloth. Take him to the chapel. Live there in peace, for as many days as you have left with him. The memories of this father may return to you. Know the father you never knew before.”
“Thank you,” I said, unsure what else there was to say. I untied the cloth bundle from the handle and stretched it across my father. He shrunk into the shape. I tied it closed, leaving a hole for air, though the woman told me I did not need to take that measure. I hung the bundle from the stick and faced her.
“You must leave now.” She gestured to the back of her den. “I have carved stairs into the cave walls back there. Follow those up, then follow the only ledge out. You are not far from the entrance. You will see your way.”
I slung the stick over my shoulder. I removed the stone from my mouth and slipped it into my pocket. “I hope to meet you again someday.”
She smiled. “You never will.”
Take the woman, my mother’s mother, whose king brother loved her more than any brother should love his sister. When their daughter, my mother, came into this world, my grandfather told his kingdom that my mother was born from the leaf of a rose. As she grew, the kingdom compared my mother’s beauty to a rose; she collected roses in her garden, wondering always which one of them was her father, as the king would never lie. He was beloved by all who served him, even the woman who sat each night silent by his side and watched the little girl as a hawk might watch the mouse it both envies and adores and loathes in the same death-swoop of its wings. My mother bloomed like an overnight rose, and when she went to dinner, her true father was so taken with her, he abandoned his place beside the woman who thought she loved him, having known no other love but his for the whole of her life.
“She is a treacherous witch,” my grandmother whispered to her brother in his sleep, to see how it sounded across her tongue. But it hurt her to say so, and she snuck into her daughter’s room and leaned over my mother’s bed and cried across her sleeping form. The next day the king sent my mother into the woods, despite her mother his sister my grandmother’s protestations, despite her insistence that the girl was theirs, not born from the leaf of a rose but born from her own body, even if they convinced themselves there was truth to their lies.
The kingdom loved their king, but they loved the magic little girl more. They rioted outside my grandfather’s castle.
“My sister has cursed me,” he said, throwing my grandmother against the rails of his balcony. He ordered her put to death.
When my mother returned, he married her off to a prince in a faraway land and lived the rest of his days alone and chaste and haunted to his core.
My mother kept a drawing she’d made of her wedding day pinned inside her dress. When I was a little girl, not born from a rose but born from a mother and father who loved one another first as an escape from their childhood cages and then as water loves the body it wraps itself fully around, my parents used to show this drawing to me. I traced their shapes and envied the solitude they shared before I came along; I wanted to have been part of their lives since the beginning.
As I exited the cave with my father’s ghost wrapped in its pack, I remembered this warm envy, and the memory stopped me, for a time, in my tracks.
Once I had regained my ability to carry on, I did not go back to the chapel. I did not want to experience the painful goodbye that would accompany that journey. Instead I walked north along the main road, toward the kingdom where I was born.
The summer heat had stopped the bulk of the fruit trees from producing, but a little ways from the road there would be the occasional leftover apple, mealy on its limb, and wild onions and wild asparagus along the rivers whose paths danced along my own. I stopped at the local market to gather additional provisions: bread, boiled eggs, jerky, and dried fruit. I put the food on Milo’s bill, certain he would not mind, as the very existence of the bill was mere courtesy; Milo paid for nothing in that town.
As I stood at the edge of the village, I looked back over the rooftops with the sun glancing off of them, the soothing bird songs of the forest, the warm smells of bread and meat and spice. I shifted the weight of my father’s ghost onto my other shoulder and walked on.
Day faded to night. The closer we came to my father’s kingdom, the heavier the pack became. I panted, unused to such long walks even if the muscles of my arms and legs had strengthened from rebuilding the chapel, but each breath seemed less labored than it once had been. For a while no more memories came to me. Once the pack was heavy as stone, I heard the first noise rise through the blanket: a low wail, like the wind through trees. No wind blew on my skin.
I stopped and placed the pack on the ground. I lay on the ground and placed my ear to it; the wail came from within. I shivered but hefted it once more and walked a few more miles. The wailing increased, louder and louder the further north I traveled. Sweat broke out on my forehead and soaked me under my arms. I stopped again. I could not go on like this; the wailing would drive me mad and the heaviness would drive me to an exhaustion I could not overcome even with my lighter breath.
I untied the cloth. My father’s ghost burst from it and into the air. He hovered above me. He stared down at me, the lost look gone from his ghostly face.
He opened his mouth. “My daughter,” he said, his voice strong despite the spectral body from which it erupted. I jumped.
I reached toward the ghost, but my hand went through him. “Father.”
“My daughter,” he repeated.
I tried to get him to say more, but he would not or could not, and after a little while I grew tired and marched away in frustration. He followed.
“My daughter,” he said.
“Say something else!” I cried, my old anger at him returned, now mixed with a hazy warmth. “Anything else!”
“Daughter,” he said. “My.”
I continued down the road toward the city, each step hard upon the packed earth. My confused anger boiled in my belly, so much so that I did not long for food until the sun had set in its entirety, washing the road and the woods in pure dark, the moon’s light held back by a cloud-filled night. I spread the cloth that had once held his specter upon the forest floor a little ways from the road and settled face-down on the ground for what I knew would be a restless night of sleep. I shivered against the cool of the wind.
I dreamt another memory: my father tucking me into bed one night, singing a lullaby, as my mother stood behind him.
In the morning I woke to a brilliant sunrise’s warmth in my chest, as cozy as an embrace. My father’s fog spread over me, hovering above my body shaped like a blanket that trapped what heat there was to trap. I rolled out, suddenly wanting the touch of the fog gone. As I pulled back on my boots, my father twisted into his own shape.
“My daughter,” he said. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” I said as my heart hammered in my chest.
“Did you sleep well? You were shivering so badly I thought you would catch ill.”
I could not help it: I smiled to hear such kind attention in my father’s voice. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”
I pulled a stick of jerky from my pocket and tore off a piece with my teeth.
“You are taking me to reunite with my body?” he said.
I nodded. “I am.”
He pursed his ghost lips. “I will allow this. It is time.”
The meat burned my throat with its spice. My eyes watered. “How did you get separated from it?”
My father’s ghost turned from me and moved back and forth through the air. When he turned back, the blue of the sky filtered through him, an eerie hint that what he meant to say next might wound me.
“I did it to myself,” he said.
“To yourself?” My stomach sunk. “You hid yourself from me on purpose?”
“I hid myself from you. On purpose. It was not my intention. But after your mother died—I could not go on. I needed escape, needed to leave that place with all its memories. But a king cannot abandon his kingdom.”
“You left because of my mother?” I stood and paced until the ground showed both the path I’d taken and would take again and again, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. “What about me? I needed escape. I needed you.”
He turned. “I needed escape.”
“You said that already.” I bent and picked up a rock and lobbed it toward him; it went through him. He winced. I threw another one. “You’re a terrible father. You’re a terrible king.”
“I needed escape,” he said again, his specter falling to the ground, where he melted like dew on the leaves. “Put me back in the cloth. Put me back and take me to the cave again.”
I grabbed up the cloth and threw it over him. “No. I don’t need you anymore, but your kingdom does. You’re going back there. I’m taking you.” I folded him up and hoisted his heaviness back over my shoulder. I would ache all over by the time we arrived at the palace gates, but it would be the final price to pay.
Take the story about the princesses who only wanted to dance each evening and were instead sold to the bravest bidder. Take the story about the princess who just wanted to sleep a full night’s rest without the vegetable smell emanating from beneath her mattress. Take the daughter who wanted a childhood, who wanted to run and play and remembered a time when her father played with her in the palace courtyard until she blocked out such happy memories. The princess who grieved at a young age two parents: one whose grave she could visit and the other who still moved through the palace and walked and talked like her father but who wasn’t him where it mattered: in his missing smile, in his words, in his missing laughter. Take that little girl. Take her away from there, someone, anyone. Take her and hold her in warm arms. It’s all she ever needed.
Before you think me cruel: I stopped when I first came in sight of the palace gates. I opened the pack once more. I had calmed; my father’s ghost had calmed.
I forced myself to face the ghost. “You said, at first, that you wouldn’t mind being returned. Is that so? Or do you want me to release you?”
“Would you release me?” he said. “If I asked you to?”
I pursed my lips, unsure. Then I nodded, recalling the drawing, the lullaby, the moonflowers’ too-sweet scent. “If you want me to let you go, I promise I will let you go.”
He shook his head. “No, it’s time. Take me to the palace. Give me back to my body.”
“Good,” I said. “I’m not quite sure if I was telling the truth about being willing to let you go.”
After I released my father’s ghost in the throne room, after it climbed down his throat, I snuck into the room where the guards had sequestered him. They ordered several doctors, who examined the body and found it healthy enough but struggling against some foreign invader. I watched, flattened in the shadows as medics came and went all with similar diagnoses: they had no way to help him but to recommend rest and nourishment. Thus the kitchen was ordered to boil as much stock as they could manage, which the palace nurse poured down his throat. He did not speak and he did not seem to sleep, his dead eyes open to the ceiling.
When finally, for the briefest of moments, he was left alone, I emerged from the shadows and approached the bed. I lay my hand against his. Still he did not stir.
“Are you in there?” I said. “Please, Father, tell me you’re still in there.”
From his belly I heard a small wail, like the one that had plagued me on the journey. I squeezed his hand as the door creaked open once more. I fled back to the wall.
For three days I watched them try to heal him. For three days I watched him writhe on his bed at night when I most longed to rest. My eyes grew heavy, but I didn’t dare move from that spot, not even when my feet throbbed so badly I feared they may require amputation. Not even when I forgot, in my delirium, how to make myself full again and worried I might be stuck as wall and shadow forever.
Finally, on the fourth day, he writhed one final time, and from his mouth the ghost broke free with a rattle fit for death. The ghost shook as my father’s body coughed, mucus spilling out of his mouth. The body rolled to its side then bolted upright. The ghost’s edges faded into the air, but I could still see my father’s once-kind smile in the specter.
“Father,” I cried out, undoing my spell and rushing to the bedside despite the presence of a guard at the inner door. The guard rushed forward, spear outstretched. I dodged a jab, then another, crawling over the foot of the bed. “Father, make him stop.”
My father’s body held up its hand. “This is my daughter.”
“And that?” The guard pointed at the disappearing ghost.
“That is no threat any longer,” my father’s body said. “Merely an illness, which I thankfully expelled.”
I grasped at the ghost but could not catch hold. “Why are you dying?”
“There is no place for that abomination in this world anymore,” the King of Anger, King of Fury, Philip the Malignant, my father, said.
The ghost reached one hand down to me, but the hand was barely distinguishable from air, from a sorry cloud in a soon-to-rain sky. The fog was lifting to the ceiling, dispersing even as my father spoke.
“You killed your own ghost,” I said.
“I did nothing so dramatic. I only rejected the poison my own daughter tried to feed me.” My father held his head in his hands. “I am still weak, but that doesn’t mean your plot against me won’t go unpunished. Guard.” He gestured toward the guard, who lunged once more in my direction. Before he could catch me, I pushed myself against the wall, as thin as a card, as thin as a fog that pushed against the ceiling of a place it didn’t belong.
Take the story we royal children told one another most often. Children with whom I used to play when they would come to visit with their king fathers and their prince brothers. The stories where, in the secret rooms where the kings conducted their businesses, we pretended they sat around in circles and, as we cried to one another about the ways our parents did not love us enough to fix themselves, they cried to one another about the ways they wished they could be more than they were. They wished they could change. They patted one another on the back. “There, there,” they said, the same way the little girl whose father eventually waged war against our kingdom said to me, “We have each other. We can do better. We can try harder.”
In our stories our fathers spoke of happy kings, studied their examples, tried to crack open their successes. In our play room, we little ladies spoke of happy children: we braided flower crowns to show our fathers we forgave them, we traded big words we could use to impress them, we searched forbidden spell books for ways to bring our mothers back—sure that fixing these mistakes the world had made would make our fathers kind again. We imagined our fathers in their secret rooms consulting books on parenting; we were sure that one day they would stumble on good advice, would emerge from those rooms changed, would pull us close and promise never to be angry again.
Take the lady, take all the ladies, who one day each decided to rid themselves of their own ghosts, to push down the tears they’d once expressed in the comfort of friends, to blind themselves to the want, to the longing. Take those ladies, those monstrous ladies, who followed in their father’s footsteps, trapped in palaces of people who did not love them enough because they knew no other way.
I will not be one of them.
Sir Samira leads me through the front gate. “This is the Lady of Cards,” she says to her companion at the watch.
“So you’ve said.” The other knight waves me on. “They’ve since told me about you. I’m told it’s best for all of us if you’re not in the city to incur your father’s wrath.”
As I stand far enough away from the palace that the guards can no longer see me, I take the lady of the cave’s stone into my mouth. I swallow. It is the opposite of removing my ghost; it is giving in to truth, especially the truth of myself.
To understand the reason my father was a monster was not to forgive him. To sympathize with his shell, to have desired to turn off the well of pain that lived in my own gut, was not to let my anger at him free. But it was something, at least, to understand him, even if it left me feeling more like him than I had ever wanted to be.
The fear returns even if I choose honesty. Fear feeds on vulnerability and the ability to ache. With fear comes the still-lingering dreams of monstrosity morphing inside of me, changing me. The coming and going of fear is as normal as the weight that clings to then falls from my bones as the weather changes, as the changes in how much I smile and laugh, as the fluctuations in the amount of time I am able to go without remembering him, without remembering my childhood.
Some days I remember good things, new memories. It is easier to hate than to cycle between hate and love, a daunting task, more daunting than any other I have accomplished. I live as in my childhood never knowing which of my own temperaments will greet me with the fresh sun.
Still, I will not remove my ghost no matter how strong the sorrow or the loss. Instead I will walk this road of uncertainty, the path that leads away from the city and toward it at the same time.