As Beautiful as Fish in a Dream
by Shannon Joyce Prince
Part 2 appears|
in this issue.
|part 1 of 4|
This is a people for whom the wondrous is not foreign. In the graveyard, there are headstones with birth and death days four or five hundred years apart from each other. These sit quietly next to the grave markers of people whose lives lasted only seven or eight decades. And among the living, there are those who can trace their ancestry back to tree nymphs or autumn sprites — folk whose hair does not gray, but greens.
And people hope for a ligneous babe, a chrysanthemum-smelling child. These they love with the love of the spiritually poor, rigidly circumscribed love that never blesses anything other than its object, not even the giver.
The possessors of this meta-human blood either regard it with levity, allow themselves to be encouraged into superciliousness, or shiver in a privileged solitude. They are not more beautiful than other folk, just rare, the children of a people who do not cherish their humanity, a people whose only tenderness comes in deifying the other and only power in denigrating the self.
This is a people for whom the wondrous is not foreign, yet whenever it enters among them, they soil it with the bitterness of their gaze. It was to this people that Fern was born.
Fern is a sixteen year-old girl more evocative than beautiful. Her skin is an écru somewhere between the eggs of chickens and swans. Her eyes are clay-colored, though with humor there are traces of a butterfly’s green iridescence in them. Her hair is the color of a thrush, long and shoddily bound.
She is a solemn, strange, silent child. Outwardly, she is not yet radically different from her people, but she senses that inside of her something is trying to be, so she keeps quiet, offering it the necessary serenity for birth. She knows one day it will reveal to her its color, will become her breath and sustain and purge her until the day she leaves the village. Her heart is splitting, waves of an ever deepening realm filling the fault, and as she ponders this, she waits for a signal from God that He has noted and condones her metamorphosis.
One day, when Fern is in the forest, a white unicorn appears between the trees, and Fern cannot even smile, so full of dread is she of the only miraculous thing she has ever been privy to fleeing. But when the unicorn approaches her, shedding otherworldly pansexuality with each step and becoming more of a male wonder each time he arches his knee and lifts that longed-for pewter hoof, he either wounds her with an arrow or heals her with a needle.
Her arms are flung out for a moment, appearing multiplied with their spinning speed because she feels what he is about to do is forbidden, then she stills them because she knows it is. The unicorn drives his horn into her heart and a sphere of pain blossoms in her body like a world being spun out of stardust. Her flesh is bursting apart neatly, in folds, like separating petals.
She remembers when she used to get hit because she couldn’t help sticking her thumbs into the thick, meaty layers of roses and prying them open. No blood tarnishes his white twisted horn, and she doesn’t know why.
An act so unintelligible, it is like watching lovers of another species and not knowing lure from consummation. It is like listening to music in another world and trying to keep the beat. She is more like a spirit caught in the limbs above observing than the consciously current object of a legend whose canon spans and enraptures millennia, more an awe-struck witness than a conspirator.
And when he withdraws his horn and she shakes herself out of the legend that is real into the vesper light, awakens to the reality of earth with its forest full of branches crooked enough to snag dreams, the ability to believe her memory evanescent upon her ripped-open chest, she remembers/doubts, remembers/conjures, remembers and loses herself all the way home, but everybody in the village knows what happened to her, because for a fortnight, she looks as if she has been finger-painted with lightning in long warrior-style battle streaks.
And to everyone’s scornful delight, being pierced by a unicorn doesn’t leave Fern heir to the life of mythological splendor it surely would have promised one of those girls descended from yarrow, born of a wind heavy with leaves of russet death...
Men and women give Fern terrible looks: it’s not the dismay of the elders at youth’s seemingly disrespectful vitality, it’s punishment for her being assuming, for being impertinent, for not scraping the moonlight from herself with her nails, her skin along with it if necessary, for daring to believe she was worth a unicorn’s communion.
These men and women with harsh punishing bones prodding their way beyond the confines of their flesh or girth in the bust or thigh that rebels against their clothes, Child, it’s not corpulence that distorts them, it’s the monstrosity they can barely conceal.
Men and women circle Fern’s incident, prowl around it hungry and vicious as leopards in a graceful predator’s proprietary ring. They store it up as fodder treasured as their best snuff, they approach it with pilgrim reverence for it is the drum full of the magic that, in pseudo-miraculous form, imbues them with voice.
Pregnant with noise they soar into the heavens and with celestial certainty proclaim that Fern is “off” since that unicorn got ahold of her, they descend with sadness unto the earth to lament how she was left fit for nothing but, in four years time, becoming Argus’s wife.
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Copyright © 2008 by Shannon Joyce Prince