(Finalist for the Eugie Award, 2022)
The first thing I asked, when the mage-king gave me a mouth, was whether he had given me a soul.
His people’s beloved king, who held back the lords of the undead when they came roving; by whose conquering hand the strongholds were fed in the long fallow winter. You can see his likeness remade in stone or woven into tapestries in the halls of the many keeps where he is celebrated: his brow heavy with jewels and wisdom, his staff and sword outstretched. It was not of stone or fine thread that he made me, in his turn, but of flowers.
Bog rushes, first, in place of bones; and yarrow for fine white flesh. Curls of foxglove to give me a matched set of ears. Pink campion, to raise the color in my cheeks; a shock of pimpernel for a sharp red tongue; a perfect string of snowberries sewn into my jaw for teeth. A tumble of honeysuckle, that my hair would always smell as sweet as rain. And last of all he set two perfect blossoms of sheep’s-bit in the soft hollow spaces of my eyes.
Flowers for beauty, he said later, his hands busy with wand or pen; a half-justification long after the thing was done. But many things are beautiful, and flowers are also soft and yielding, so easily bruised and torn. And flowers do not know how to run away.
So I wandered the mage-king’s halls. I knelt in his gardens and whispered to my silent sisters the morning-glory and the ox-eye and the goldenrod. I learned how to move as a woman would move and to speak to people in place of plants. I mapped out the spaces of his keep in my new-forged heart and when the winter’s cold came, I learned to tremble and not to crumble into nothingness.
Forgive me, Primordial God of the soil and sky, who blessed me with my first and truest shape: there was one more thing I might have learned, with more time, and that was to forgive the mage-king. To my undying shame, I think I might even have found a way to love him, had his heart been lonely, had he undone and remade a thousand blossoms only for want of gentle company. I could have loved his hands, which were ink-stained so much more often than they were covered with the blood of his wars, for all he that he declaimed the joy of battle. Mage-craft was his true nature, as the exchange of sunlight for sweetness was mine. It was only necessity that drove both of us, in our course, to bloodletting.
But I do not forgive him, and I surely do not love him, because he devised me not on his own account but rather on behalf of another man: a bride-gift for his sister’s son. Long ago, the boy’s mother had laid a tynged on him, that he would never marry a human woman. A spiteful magic, and a stern one. Her power was not less than that of the mage-king’s, and he could never undo what she had sworn.
So I was the fruit of the mage-king’s compromise, a halfway thing that never should have been. He made me and he taught me; he housed me in cold halls of stone. He wrapped me in linen robes and gave me to his sister’s son to wed, with my dead kindred braided into my hair. When my new husband clasped my hand beneath the bower, his fingers were black too, but with the bruises of battle—not ink. He was never a man of learning, my husband.
I did not understand, at first, what it meant to be so given. The courtship of flowers is a modest thing: the exchange of love letters by a soft-spoken messenger, a distant dance. No one in the mage-king’s hall told me what awaited me in my husband’s bed: the tears that do not mend, seen and unseen alike; the lingering sickly-sweetness of bruised oils that refuse to wash from the bedding.
Any man, the mage-king told me, would be proud to wed his daughter to such a man, whose hall stands so strong, whose sword has never failed in battle, whose larders overflow with his good fortune. But the mage-man is not my father. If I have any parents at all, they are as monstrous as he is, and their names are Appetite and Necessity.
Why did he choose flowers? He should have made me from the soft pelt of the hunting-dog and the wet dark eyes of the ewe. These are creatures who strive to love their masters in all that they do. A flower cannot love the hand that tears it from the stem.
The people of this land hail the mage-king as a hero. He is Prince Fox-fast for his sly clever nature; Lord of the Alders, who raised up the very trees against his enemies from the world-below. O wise one, o saint of the small-folk, did you never stop to wonder why a mother would shelter women from her own son’s marriage-bed?
You swore that he was owed a wife. What am I owed, O you who shaped my lips petal-soft to smile, who clad me in skin that weeps sweet fragrance when it bruises?
The mage-king had not told me whether I had a soul, and so I begged my husband, my maker-made match, to say in his place. He laughed, calling these wild fancies for a wild wife. He gave me a gown of blue linen and he tore it away from me, at his desire. It was not mine. I was not mine.
He had no gardens; his servants tilled vast monotonous fields in his name. I was not permitted to walk their green rows, but I could see them from the high window of his hall: a violence of rigid lines imprinted on the earth. An earthen prison for my barley-cousins and vetch-sisters and beet-brothers, not allowed to mingle one with the other, not permitted to strive above the rest for sunlight and the sweet kiss of summer rains.
Once, when I slipped my keepers, I tore up an armspan of yellowing grain before they caught me and dragged me to the ground. As far as I could stretch, from fingertip to fingertip, and yet when I was ensconced back in the solar, I could not even see what mark I might have left, and the barley-heads nodded in sorrow and gratitude.
And so I withered and waned in my husband’s manse. I do not believe that a human woman is meant to wilt, but who would have told me elsewise? My husband’s servants never spoke to me, nor even met my eyes, when they brought food and wine.
But then I only ever asked them for help, for an open door, an unbarred window, an unsheathed knife. I screamed at them, I raged and gnashed my teeth—I bit, if they were heedless enough to put themselves within my reach. Perhaps they would have answered me, if I had held my voice to human timbres? If I had asked them only about their own true nature and not to restore me to my own?
A flower has its thorns, too, and the bright-bitter berry that warns away the hind and the hart.
How shall I shape my thoughts around him who I loved, and who, in my carelessness, I lost?
Though he was a man, shaped of the same flesh that the Primordial God drew up from the ancient mud, I remember him only in parts. The ivy-green of his eyes, the wind-in-the-wood of his laugh, the tuneless hum that brought his yapping dogs to heel. A hunter by trade, and my fast friend for that he had never set plough to earth.
I remember him soaked in moonlight, begging the hospitality of my husband’s halls by dead of night. I could not see his face, the moonlight was too bright—it would have pained any eyes, and most especially those of one whose face was never meant to hold them.
My husband had gone to fight in his uncle’s war, joining the mage-king’s vassals who rallied beneath the banner of the alder-and-wand. It cost me nothing to offer up what did not belong to me. At my word, the servants let the hunter pass beneath the beams of my husband’s hall, and he ate my husband’s food and drank his wine. If he slept in my husband’s bed, too, and if he touched my husband’s wife, then that is only one more thing that had never belonged to me and so one more thing that I could give without care.
The Primordial God raised the first man from clay and gave him the world. But he made the flowers first, yes, and all the trees and moss and good green things of the earth. Why should the elder be disinherited so? What was the sin of our first kin, that our rule should be handed over to him who came last among the children of that singular Creator?
Perhaps my lord-and-lover treasured me merely because I was never his to treasure, and perhaps again it was something more. I do not know how to cry, so I cannot spill tears for that.
He could not, or would not, tell me whether I had a soul. I asked him so often, while we lay sleepless in my husband’s stolen bed, with his fingers tracing the petal-patterns on my bare skin. That trickster, Hope, had knitted me up tight within her obscuring veils, and I believed these new stirrings in my heart, in my needful flesh, were the certain signs of ensoulment.
Instead he would always turn the question back on me, laughing, asking where his own soul could be found, whether I could touch it and with what medium I would mark it when I did. Though he had traveled far and wide, he told me, he had never yet seen the map to any living thing’s soul.
But he would search yet, he promised, with his words and his hands; as far and wide and deep as I demanded.
For a season, he warmed my husband’s bed and supped at my husband’s table. For a season, we breathed love into one another’s warm, open mouths and ignored the simmering perfume of the servants’ hatred. A season is so long. A season would have marked a lifetime, once.
But I wanted longer, and I told him how we could have it. I birthed the idea, I crafted the plan, and the blame should have been chained around my neck alone.
He was a hunter first, before he was mine. All he would have to do was throw his spear true, one more time.
A flower will never bless the garden wall that blocks out the light, but she is grateful for the bee that lands lightly and takes what is offered to make sweet things.
The bee has its sting, too, as the flower has her thorns. Their tragedy is this: though they may pierce the flesh, their damage is as short and sweet as the honey season.
The mage-king dragged us out of my husband’s hall and bound us with cord and with sorcery alike. His eyes were sad, as he stood over us. A waste, he said, a terrible waste. I could not see my lord-and-lover’s face, with the frost-rimed grass against my cheek, but I could see the mage-king’s sadness, and I could hate it.
My husband, still marked with his wounds, stood forth as witness and called my deeds a great betrayal. A betrayal, that I reached back for the first arms that touched me in tenderness? That I sought to break the living bars of my prison?
My husband does not understand what it means to be betrayed. It was him who betrayed the Primordial God, when he pledged his faith and fidelity before the priest-men’s altar and then broke those vows upon my body. It was the mage-king who betrayed the God’s gift of sunlight to make a wife-woman of its flesh.
It was my lord-and-lover’s spear that betrayed me, when it broke my husband’s side but not his grasp on life.
To betray is to break trust, confidence, love. What was there between my husband I, to be broken?
My lover’s blood is in the river now. It will find its freedom in the sea, and I will not mourn him. A blow for a blow; my husband slew him for coveting what he did not own, and his mother’s brother, my maker, the mage-king, named it justice.
This justice should have fallen on me alone. It was I who wished to prolong the honey season past its natural limit.
And it is I who will live to pay the price through the long lean winter. When this justice, the justice of men, turned to me, it did not spill my blood. The mage-king chained me and bound me by all the wards and sigils of his craft. I did not scream or beg his mercy, nor my husband’s, as he tore away the woman-shape which he had given me.
Bones sheared but did not snap. Pieces of my body sloughed away into nothingness; others hardened where they had once been soft, grew light and fragile where they had been strong. When he found me no longer fit to be a woman, he reshaped me as an owl, cursed by all the birds of the forest and hated by all the small tender things that scurry in the night. A creature of the night, with eyes that would never again open on the honest light of day.
My punishment would be to endure all the long cold years of my life alone without the sun: my first love, my own flesh.
What is a flower but sunlight incarnate? What becomes of her when she is banished to the dark side of day?
But do not forget: each night, the moon holds up her mirror to the sun. A wan reflection, but a true one.
Here is the justice of men, bent past its breaking point so that what was chained tight is free again: the woman-shape was never mine, and to lose it gives me no pain.
I am still myself, rearranged into this bird-form. I am made buoyant by its hollow bones. I am cloaked again in petals, murky gray and brown though they are.
I am still myself and so I am answered at last: yes, I have a soul, no matter what shape its vessel is forced into. I remember that I am sunlight made tender flesh, even as I stir soundless feathers against a starlit sky. I remember the wind in the woods, the gift of nectar, the graze of wings. Though I cannot see the sun, I fly ever closer to its resting-place, and I pray it hears me, in its dreams, when I call.
From this new high vantage I can see that this soul is one that no one gifted me: I made it for myself. From endurance like fine linen I wove it. With shears of spite I cut it to shape. With Hope’s fragile, tricksome thread I stitched it. And in blood have I dyed it twice over.
Perhaps the day will come when my tormentors decide that their justice has not left deep enough marks in my flesh. Let them break open this shape, too, and crush my soul-stuff into the next, and the next, and the next. I will still be what I am. I will still remember the face of the sun, and her sweet sacred name.
And when there is nothing left of any of us but bones and muddled myth, it will be made plain that their shells were hollow ones; that it was the mage-king and his sister’s son all along to whom the Primordial God of soil and sky never troubled to fit a soul.