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Miranda’s Child, by Louise Wilford

“O, I have suffered With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel, Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her, Dash'd all to pieces! O, the cry did knock Against my very heart!”

[Miranda, The Tempest: Act 1, Scene 1]

The old glass twists the clouds out of shape. I look away, back at what I’ve written. My father always told me words have power. The scratch of the quill sounds like distant laughter.

I can count the hours left on one hand.

Footsteps beyond the door, a metronome pacing out the dead minutes. Gallow-creak; ship’s timber groan; the flapping full-stop. Reminds me of those months aboard the King of Naples’ ship.

Painting of woman surrounded by hands
My Hands Hands Hands Hands Hands Hands Do All the Talking, by A. Martine

What do the hangmen think of their victims? Perhaps they don’t see us as people, just jobs with canvas faces. Oil the trapdoor, test the hemp. A soldier does much worse. Lawyers plait the rope.

No one here wants me to live. They say I murdered my child.

Tipping my thoughts onto this parchment helps pass the final hours. My father wept, when he left Ariel behind on the island. Half-blind with grief, he stood in the stern of Alonso’s ship, watching the isle dissolve. Ariel’s farewell breath filled the sails, flickered in cold flames along the spars and rigging, danced atop the crow’s nest. But all my father did was weep and stare.

It’s there I see him now, hands gripping a salt-roughened rope. In my memory, he seems to age before my eyes: spine bends, nose hooks, cheeks shrink. No more the mage who raised the dead, controlled the stir and sweep of the wind, brought goddesses to earth. Yes, he knew the power of words—and of silence.

But then, it always was a show—always the clifftop pose, cloak billowing behind, staff raised. The ducal voice. I am Milan. My bully father. It was Ariel who could change for the occasion, slip into a mermaid’s skin, vanish on a drift of pipe and tabor. My father thought I didn’t know the mighty Prospero relied on such a demon, mastering him with a promise.

He never promised me.

He turned me off and on. Fed me to Ferdinand, the sap, to stitch together Naples and Milan.

I was a child. How could I know the world had such men in it? No, it was his Ariel for whom he wept. I was just his blood. I watched him, clinging to his words as if they’d raft me home.

*

I recall that wild day when the ships first arrived in Naples, having netted the old Duke and his staring daughter. It was obvious what the young prince sought in me. But others saw, even then, I was a keg waiting for the flame.

It arrived eight months later, a premature scream on the bluebottle air.

My father died the night my son was born. Just as well, all things considered.

After the birth, Ferdinand’s disappointment coloured the air we breathed, but he didn’t shirk his duty. He ensured the child was cared for and busied himself with affairs of state—and with his mistress in Milan. I imagine that powdered bitch reminding him, with faux sympathy, where I’d grown up:

“What could you expect, my poppet? No wonder she’s run mad!”

Within a year of our triumphant homecoming, I was desperate to return to the island. It was my home, my child’s home. With father dead, there was nothing here for me. So, secretly, I made my plans.

My behaviour was, of course, considered unseemly. After the child was born, they watched me carefully. King’s wives should sit in gilded rooms making tapestries or painting screens, emerging only to wave and smile at the crowds. That’s what the people pay their taxes for. What use is a consort who roams the streets? Were the privy counsellors doing nothing?

Of course, people talked.

“Her mind’s cracked,” claimed my maid, shaking out my petticoat.

“Is it any wonder—father dead, husband neglecting her, and that poor infant…well, Ferdinand should stop her,” whispered the cook, rolling pasta dough with hefty arms.

“Her place is with her child,” concluded the wet nurse, repulsed by his dribbling mouth.

I ignored the gossip, spent my days with charts, or staring out of windows. I talked with learned men, adventurers who weren’t quite the thing. It was rumoured Gonzalo, my father’s friend, encouraged my folly.

“Home looks different to each of us,” he once told me, squeezing my hand in his old man’s red-knuckled paw, while gazing at my monstrous child in his wooden cradle inlaid with garnet and pearl. Oh, sweet Gonzalo!

For months, the weather was against me. The sea bled into the air, painting the city grey. Ships cowered in the harbour, sails lowered, pennants flapping like rags. Sometimes I watched from the palazzo, counting the washed-out hours as the city’s edges deliquesced. At others, I pulled my cloak around my shoulders, scurried down puddled streets, two hated bodyguards to elbow aside the churls. The markets were abandoned. Filth ran in streams down slanting cobbles, staining my fine silk shoes. I refused the carriage. Quicker to go by foot, such a short step to the harbour master who’d say again they couldn’t sail. The storm must pass.

I recalled that other storm my father and his tricksy marionette conjured up. Everything begins with violence and chaos.

And then, at last, we sailed. The voyage was vomit and anxiety, etched with the screams of an inconsolable child, ending in another wreck. Ariel’s a master at storms, stirring the oceans like a witch’s gumbo, but he lacks control. His passions sometimes distract him. He probably meant to keep my ship intact, to waft us away like a leaf boat on a pond, but he miscalculated, panicking perhaps when he realised what I’d brought with me.

I heard from Gonzalo, who visits me in the tower, that after I left, Ferdinand wept—in rooms just private enough to be witnessed by the odd servant. There were rumours I’d fled to some old lover—but we’d been married only days after stepping ashore. With unfitting haste, in fact, everyone now thought—though at the time it had seemed like joyful eagerness, wrongs put right, a union of great city-states. They’d thrown flowers in the streets.

Of course, Gonzalo was arrested, questioned, but at last released. Enquiries were made, with a sword’s edge. The ship was foreign; some hinted that Ferdinand’s sister had a hand in the deed. And when news came that we were wrecked, in distant waters, it was—for Ferdinand, at least, I’m sure—a relief. A problem solved.

He’d thought me a maid, you see, my father’s strictness proof of my innocence. He’d kept his hands off till our wedding night, but all the while he’d cast smiles at me like maggots on a hook. If you couldn’t find a virgin on a deserted island, then where? And later, in the marriage bed, though there was little blood, I’d been so modest, almost frozen in my girlish shyness—remembering that other time.

But he knew the child could not be his—not that bulging head, that low hairy brow, lopsided mouth, that bent-spined dribbling monstrosity. His family were famous for their looks.

My memory falters. All that’s left are fragments floating on the shifting silt of my thoughts. Orange crabs with knitting-needle legs. Gulls darning the fish-scale sea. Too much sky. The clouds never used to be that still, cadaver white. I wished I could hide. Heat pulsed through my skin. Wet sand stuck to my arms and in my hair.

My mind sticks.

It’s that damned spirit-magic that swaddles the island, messing with your senses so you don’t know up from down. My shoes were lost. But my child was safe in my arms.

I used to think that I would fly one day, like Ariel, slitting the air like a paring knife, giddy with sunlight. Where was he now? Pulling the wings off hummingbirds? Stealing gull’s eggs to smash against the rocks? I could always see him in the twilight. At noon he was bleached out, at night just a voice. He hides behind the sky.

*

We found Caliban on the mountainside. I lurked behind a tree, holding my malformed son to my breast, whispering to him.

“There he is, my sweet! Look, that’s wolf-skin round his neck.”

He was sitting on a throne of rock, listening to the honeyed voices sweetening the breeze. Ca- Ca- Caliban. His life was piled high against the hillside: spears, spades, knives, some left by father, some newly made.

He howled! No words. He’d forgotten—or rejected—what we taught him: the power of words—to create, to crush. His hair, smeared with coconut oil, gleamed in the white moonlight like a cat’s.

“There’s the man my husband calls your father, my son.”

Hog bristle skin and black-hole eyes, a fish-bone crown twisted in his shining hair, a smell that met you at the cave-mouth. The witch’s seed, though magic never stuck to him.

Ferdinand thinks the boy got his face from Cal. He sees what he wants to see; he never could see what was really there. It’s Ariel I see, not Cal, staring out from my child’s eyes. When he came to me that night, dressed in Ferdinand’s skin, I dreamt of the child we might make, the clean-limbed godlet with his nose, my hair. All women fantasise. I should have known my father would never let the real prince get that close. While I groaned beneath his slippery thighs, poor Ferdy was still groaning as he chopped firewood under my father’s spell.

I was tricked. That black-hearted incubus made me think it was my prince stroking my breasts, taking his measure of what would soon be rightfully his. When he was done, he let himself drift back into his true shape—air and shadow, pink-faced ancient boy laughing on the wild wind. I remember screaming, but my voice was lost in the jangling music those damned spirits spin round everything they do. Ariel protected himself. Each time I tried to tell, my tongue twisted, vocal cords fell mute. My father never knew what his precious fiend had done.

Cal seemed content enough, spitting into the fire, ripping the flesh from a boar’s bone. His black eyes roamed the shadows, and I slipped behind the trees.

I had to think how it could be done. It wasn’t as simple here, in this old homesick land, as it had seemed in Naples. The place had run to seed again, since father released his grip. The spirits had run wild. And the boy’s father was there, somewhere, idling in the clouds.

He was always father’s favourite. Prospero chastised Cal and me while he dandled his puppet-pixie on his knee. Ariel could look like anything—visible, unseen, a breath of air, a scent on the breeze, a harpy, a monster.

A prince.

Poor Caliban and I were always merely ourselves.

Who knows what tricks that sprite got up to, alone in the cave with my father, while I ploughed through my Pythagoras, my Cicero, my Ptolemy, and Cal caught rabbits and collected roots to keep us whole? How did they lure those ships? How did they conjure up the spell to blind me with a veil of love?

I didn’t know whether Cal—my close-as-brother, confidant, best friend—would still remember me, or whether he’d agree to protect my mangled son. All I knew was that my child needed to be here. The island was his home.

Ferdy sent a ship after me. It found the wreckage, reported back. But my husband wasn’t easily fooled. Hadn’t he been cast upon that shore, believing all his shipmates dead, only for misery and despair to be magicked into joy and harmony? No, he couldn’t leave me there, reunited with my savage lover, as he thought. His people goaded him into outrage on their behalf. Kings survive on the shoulders of their subjects and Ferdy likes being king.

We’d been on the island three months before The Golden Prince was sighted.

I left my son with Caliban and ran down the hillside to the shore like a madwoman.

Ariel whipped up the sea like meringue, sent it frothing round the ships. He took the wind’s voice, screeched around the masts like a huge white albatross, spat salty foam and sent his breath hissing round the shattered sails, just like he had when my ship arrived. My pursuers thought they were lost but in fact he held them balanced in the palm of his hand, and washed me out to them, childless.

I told them I’d seen the child dashed against the rocks. It was the only way to leave him under Cal’s protection in the place he belonged.

The captain was a harsh man, fed with the city’s prejudice—it was soon announced that I’d killed my son, smashed in his head, drowned him to make sure. Where do these tales come from?

As we pulled away, I saw a silhouette on the cliff top. I imagined Cal’s voice screaming his anguish into the empty skies. But my child was safe. Cal would see to that.

I flex my fingers, watch the knuckles crease and redden, twist the stiffness from my neck. Rise to pace the tiny room—and I wish, I wish for...

Purpling clouds rest on layers of grey, livid with the dawn, the sky fractured by old glass.

 

Louise Wilford lives in Yorkshire, UK. Her work has been widely published, most recently in Bandit, English Review, Goats’ Milk, Jaden, Makarelle, New Verse News, POTB, The Fieldstone Review, River and South and Parakeet. In 2020, she won the Arts Quarterly Short Story Prize, the Merefest Poetry Prize, and was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Distinction). She is working on a children’s fantasy novel. Read here blog here.

 

A. Martine is a trilingual/multicultural writer, musician, and artist, and might have been a kraken in a past life. She's an editor at Reckoning Press, co-EIC/Producer/Creative Director of The Nasiona, and has been nominated for Best of the Net, the Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. She’s the author of AT SEA (CLASH BOOKS), which was shortlisted for the 2019 Kingdoms in the Wild Poetry Prize, and BURN THE WITCH (forthcoming with Finishing Line Press). Follow her work at www.amartine.com.

 

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