(Alternative ending to Clemency)
Back in the lounge, he curled up beside the fire: a nest of orange-red coals, a fresh hatch of phoenix eggs blanketed beneath a thin veil of grey ash. Wonderful flashbacks from the evening effervesced from memory, physically jolting him each time. The dancing about the lounge. His singing by the fire. But mostly how his father had sat with him and spoken of his childhood.
He'd cried. He'd felt a burden lift. But knew there was still work to do. The subtle brace about his being, still in place? The gnawing sadness often felt, still lurking in the shadows? The urge to flee from relationships; still be there also? No matter, he told himself. Tonight was important. He’d begun the work. A minute later: Besides, who doesn’t carry ‘baggage’ anyway? Who can claim they are totally whole and healed? Perhaps what matters is accepting things as they are…
He settled down to sleep again. The carpet a hard but welcome 'mattress'. His winter coat his duvet. It was easy to feel cosy by the fire.
Then, in that twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness, the memory of a fairy tale his mother always read to him as a child came to mind with startling, delightful clarity.
First he saw the central character; a young prince living alone in a palace made of crystal. Then, he remembered the task he’d been set by his father: the capture of a magical bird that had been prophesied to protect the future of their kingdom. Next he saw the old witch had been behind that. Her haggard frame and shrill voice had always sent shivers down his spine as a child, whenever his mother got to that part of the story. The prince had caught the bird, he remembered that much. And it had lived in a golden cage in his chambers, singing sweetly, or so the prince thought. But it only lived a year, and each new year he had to catch another. And the boy lived all alone. Safe, but all alone. And the clarity faded as quickly as it had come, and he just lay there listening to the crackles of the fire for a while.
Then the details of the fairytale unfurled from his mind like a carpet seller unrolling some dusty tapestry and displaying it to customer. I was that customer, transfixed, the touch of my fingers on woven threads sparking recall. All the while I pined for sleep, and sleep remained evasive.
Apart from some guards who manned the palace walls, the boy lived alone. Every night—and for a reason he either couldn’t remember, or maybe it was never part of the story—people pounded on the gatehouse doors, furious. The palace was sparse and as cold as a catacomb, and in the day, the boy wandered its cavernous and empty chambers, read reports of nightly raids upon his keep, and ordered his guards to build stronger defences and higher walls. Of course, his enemies would always come with more destructive weapons and longer ladders.
There's something in that, he thought: more defences, more attacks...
Something that spoke to him now. The fire popped all of a sudden, spiting sparks towards the chimney.
He pictured the palace—fine, smooth walls splintering sunlight like a prism and resounding eerily in some minor key—and then the prince; just a boy: his wide, imploring smile; his handsome features, framed by a thick crop of coppery hair that flowed about his shoulders like lace curtains by an open window; the purple cloak he wore, with buttons made of amethyst; his soft red slippers…
Slippers... He remembered the slippers his mother would buy him each autumn as a child. She was always worried about him catching a chill in the old, draughty Victorian house they lived in. She liked to worry. In the story the prince didn’t need firmer footwear, he remembered. He never left the palace—he feared the dark and fierce world outside its thick, sheltering walls. It probably wasn't so dark and fierce, of course.
The price’s eyes, he saw those next. Eyes that shone dully. Some sadness staining their jet-black, cerulean-rimmed centres like a dark cloud obscuring the sun.
Lying on his back, he lolled his head to the side and stared at the fire. His gaze slipped between where several coals nestled together, and entered a great, cavern pulsing red, orange and white. What lurks in there, he wondered, afraid to come out.
Next, he saw the witch again. The one who’d visited the boy’s father and given him the prophecy. She’d pounded on the gatehouse door one day with her walking stick made of Python Pine–
He smiled. He’d always liked that name as a child, and the way his mother would hiss it theatrically whenever she read it.
No one ever knocked in the daytime; naturally, the boy’s father had been intrigued. The long cloak she wore left her face in shadow, but when she’d pulled it back, she had appeared to grow a few inches and was as pretty as any princess. She came seeking gold. She came offering knowledge.
The prince's father had made him memorise her prophetic poem word for word, and…
He shuffled and rolled onto his side; warmth immediately radiating the length of his spine as the fire gently caressed him there. Amazingly, he could remember the poem now, lines of verse appearing one after the other as if his mind was unwrapping an ancient scroll, the text as honey-hazel as the witch’s eyes had been in the story. Eyes that were beautiful despite the rest of her appearance. Eyes whose irises swirled like clouds of lustrous orange pollen lifted on a summer breeze.
Take heed of the bird that arrives on the northern wind.
Be not fooled by the beauty of its rainbow wings.
Upon each pinion beat rides pure malice as down upon your palace it swoops and sings.
You have only to whistle once and hold out an open hand,
and down from the tallest tower, old milk eyes will land.
Never fail to appear at new year’s cresting hour
when day breaks and appears father fire,
or one peck of its beak upon the crystal spire and your kingdom will shatter and sink in the mire.
Take the bird instead, and house her in a golden cage.
She will sing you sweet lullabies till we turn year’s page, and your kingdom will hold for age after age.
He smiled, intrigued at such recall of memory. Is every past experience filed away somewhere in my mind, he wondered. Or do we really ‘forget’ things, forever? Then he doubted he'd remembered it so accurately afterall; perhaps he'd just made it up. He didn't know what would please him more, and he didn't have long to ponder it: scenes from the fairy tale continued to play in his mind as a slideshow:
In one of the palace’s many vast and gloomy chambers he often wandered through each day, a painting of an old man hung (long white hair, skin under the eyes, dark and sagging; eyes which, eerily, seemed to follow him as he passed through the room); the golden cage that housed the bird, centre stage on a podium in the princes room; the palace's spartan furnishing (his father had said to keep it that way: fewer things for the marauders to steal if they somehow breached the walls); his mother's death (from a snake bite one time she ventured outside the palace walls); the cold (how fire had begun crackling and hissing dark temptations with it's fiery tentacles, suggesting he not listen to the witch and let the bird free; how he stopped lighting them; how wearing furs beneath his purple robe kept him warm instead; how he'd been happy for his guards to sacrifice many a forest animal for this. A good number of snakes had also been slain, an action born of petty vengeance of which he was no longer proud); and his father's death, of old age.
All too soon, it had become the boy’s responsibility alone to capture the bird. Each New Year at first light, on the palace’s highest tower. Just as the witch had foretold.
The birds were no ordinary birds. Their feathers coruscated every colour of a painter’s palette; their bellies glowed like the blackest night, and they had eyes as white and round as the moon. They sang and sang and never needed feeding—magical birds, a delight to behold. Over time, however, their feathers would lose their brilliance, their colours bleeding and merging like an artist’s watercolour struck by a sudden spring shower. Though their song stayed true and bright, and the boy knew that each New Year another would arrive, the his anxiety would grow.
On the morn of New Year's Eve, the bird would always drop dead in it's cage. Though he had only a day to wait before he caught the next bird, the interlude between birdsongs was always an oppressive, agonising silence for the boy.
The fire crackled expectantly. Perhaps it could see his thoughts. Perhaps it too sought meaning from the fairy tale. More sparks shot up the chimney, like fairies. Fire fairies.
Despite the beauty of the bird’s peeps and trills, it was full of sorrow and dreamed of flying free. The boy didn’t know this, of course, and at night, its sweet, mellifluous melody drowned out the awful nightly thumping on the gatehouse door and let him sleep.
He'd recalled only fragments of the fairy tale, but he knew that didn’t matter. And soon enough, he finally fell asleep.
And he dreamt of the boy. A boy who was now...
A bearded old man. Standing on a parapet staring out at a dark tangle of forest that stretches as far the eye can see. He wears the same purple coat and red slippers as the boy.
The faint crepuscular light fades; darkness swallows the scene.
The same spot, but lighter now. Another time. The old man looks weary.
A bird perches on his callused palm, peering at him with beady, white eyes. They flick black a moment as it blinks, and there: the man’s own reflection.
Another blink: the image of a hunched figure in a long cloak, face in shadow, hands poised about the hood.
Another blink: a ghastly, haggard face. The witch?
The old man raises a hand to his face. Fingers gently probe his wizened features. The boy?
A distant hammer and thump; people struggling at his palace gate.
Dawn’s light fast swelling on the horizon.
His other hand. The bird still stood there.
One stiff and swollen finger gently strokes its pretty crest, then smoothes the feathers on its back.
The horizon. There he fixes his gaze.
The beat of wings.
A shadow streaks the sky.
His hand: empty!—a moment’s fright, swallowed.
An almighty crack.
His kingdom shakes, and shakes, and shakes and…
“Wakey, wakey. What a drunkard.”
It was his mother’s voice. He half-opened his eyes to see an arm retracting from the hollow of his shoulder.
“We’re going for lunch. It’s almost twelve. You need to shower,” she said, whipping the curtains open.
“Ah, Mum!” he protested weakly, blinking himself awake. “It’s New Year’s Day!”
“I know, dear,” she said, now opening a window. “Your father wants to treat us to lunch.” His mother liked to air the house each morning. He felt the air gently stir about him and sweeten, and noticing birdsong coming from the garden, he smiled.
He rolled onto his back, and stared at the ceiling, not feeling so different than if he were lying in the rubble of a shattered palace—his body ached horribly.
Eating out? he thought. His father rarely suggested such treats.
He thought of the boy and the magical bird. His smile widened, and... he sighed. He then yawned and stretched his arms wide, shifting in the debris of his nearly forgotten dream.
“Fly free, bird,” he whispered. "Fly free".
He drew a deep breathe, then let the air wheeze out slowly between his dry lips. I won’t rebuild those palace walls, he thought, incanting the words within. He rolled onto his side, then pushed himself up.