For Philip II, King of Spain
My king, feel not for Callisto
Do not concern yourself with sympathy
Hysterical tears beguiling weaker men
She begs mercy for her own transgression
Remember she has earned her nakedness.
Fear not nakedness
The Church counsels against sins of the
Flesh. This is neither sin nor flesh
Simply a pagan fantasy rendered in oil
Laid upon canvas for your delight
My liege, relish this vision of Diana,
She is pale as moonlight, plump and nude
Her chastity unbroken by your gaze upon her breast
Sensuous and beautiful and
Unveiled for your courtly pleasure.
See her pleasure in Callisto’s shame
Compelling her nymphs to reveal
Humiliation laying with despair
It gives honour to your virility
Bears witness to your majesty.
My king, witness this little world of lust
Hallowed by gilt framing and respectable allegory
I ask of your majesty
As I stand before you, recent heir to Callisto’s misfortune.
Would you have me similarly uncovered?
Do I have a choice?
Queer The City: Dale Street, L2
[TEXT MESSAGE TONE]
It is too early for anyone to be texting me. 10.30 on a Saturday is too early when - somehow - even sunshine smells like her.
Nix wants me to come to brunch. They promise me a club sandwich the size of my head and more coffee that I can drink. They do not say they are worried. They send me a selfie from their car, flame haired and gap toothed. I consider saying no, and spending another day alone watching The US Office and ordering in.
Instead I leave, and on the train into town I stare at my reflection in the window. I tell myself I am not broken, that the hook Toni slipped under my ribs with the wicked curl of her tongue had not torn out something vital when she left for the airport. I am lying.
Moorfields is busy, forcing me to dodge and weave around the weekend crowd from the moment I disembark. I try as much as possible to not touch anyone; my suit may be a fine wool second skin, but it is too thin to keep out the bright and the rough and the screech of a city at leisure. I am still too raw to be touched. I am still aching for her to touch me.
When I see Nix walking past Thomas Rigby’s I run up and call out their name. Their face breaks into a grin and they touch me, a soft hand on my arm that pulls me into a hug too sudden for me to reject. Their stubble against my forehead should be too much, their hands splayed across my back too close but we have known each other long enough that the locked door of their embrace is not a cage. I have the key. We crafted it together.
They ask me how I am as we walk towards Moose Coffee. I lie. They don’t call me on it, instead updating me on Lo’s new cat and Manny’s new houseplants. We wait outside the door for a table to free up. I ask them how they are. They tell the truth. I don’t ask them not to. They are happy and I should not resent it. We are ushered in by a small man in a branded t-shirt. We get a booth. I stare up at the moose astronaut on the wall. The smile that unfurls somewhere deep in my chest is a shadow that doesn’t make it anywhere near my face. It shouldn’t surprise me that I cannot smile properly without her. We order coffee and sandwiches. Nix looks at me. They are waiting for me to be honest. I don't think I know how.
I say I am not broken.
I say Toni was never vital.
I say that I am over her and wish people would stop acting like I'm made of glass.
They tell me not to lie.
They thank the server who returns with our coffee. They tell me I am still hurting and fragile and that’s OK. Nix takes hold of my hand and tells me that I am a castle built on sand because Toni convinced me it was bedrock. They stare at me such that I cannot look away and tell me that Toni convinced me that I didn't need ribs or freshwater so it's no wonder I am left bleeding salt.
I don’t beg them to stop, but they must see my eyes, wide and red and pleading. They must feel my hands shake and the hummingbird thrum of my pulse. They must know that I am still bleeding and the salt is keeping me alive and they cannot expect me to just start breathing again.
I stop listening. I call out to gods whose names I do not know and beg for my bed, a bed, anywhere soft and dark and quiet. Anywhere I can escape this person who knows me too well and tells me things that are too true and the server puts our dishes on the table. Nix lets go of my hand. They say they are sorry, they promise not to bring it up again. They say I will be ok. I know they must be lying.
They eat their sandwich and I pick at mine and we talk about travel. They’ve booked flights to Berlin and I am considering America. They look at me. I reassure them it’s not going to be Chicago. I don't reassure them that I don't want Toni back; I have lied too much already. We fall into silence. I eat my sandwich. It's cold.
Nix pays and I tip and we exit into the cool autumn sunshine. We cross the road and I turn to walk back towards Moorfields. They stop me, suggest a walk down to the docks instead. I lean against the white-turned beige stone of the Town Hall and look down toward Water Street. I can see the water. I cannot go near the water. I know I am being dramatic but I say ‘I cannot go near the water’ and Nix nods. I don’t think they understand that Toni loved the wind and the tourist traps so enjoying it without her would be a kind of betrayal. I’m sure if they did, they’d tell me I am being dramatic. We don’t hug goodbye; my skins - both of them - are too thin and too raw.
It is Sunday morning and today I think it is my hunger that drove her away, that the way I wanted to swallow her and nestle her beneath my diaphragm disgusted her. A whatsapp notification goes off, and then another, and then another. I mute it. Maybe she found my appetites shallow and tepid, that I wanted the wrong things from her. Perhaps if I learned more about the Impressionists, or sat stiller for her paintings, or understood her brother better, perhaps if I wanted her anger as much as her wit and her stubbornness as much as her loyalty. Perhaps - Perhaps - Perhaps - I go back to bed and cry myself into a fitful sleep.
It is evening before I check whatsapp. Nix has posted some She-Ra memes into our groupchat, Lo a succession of cat pictures, Manny a compilation of otter TikToks. Somewhere deep in my chest, a shadow of a smile unfurls. It doesn’t quite make it to my face, but I don’t mind. I respond with a gif. We all text late into the night.
It is Monday, and on the train into town and I tell myself I am not broken, that the hook Toni slipped under my ribs with the wicked curl of her tongue had not torn out something vital when she left for the airport. Somehow, today, I am not lying.
Moorfields is busy, but I am content to be bumped and jostled on my way out of the station.
At work, I am more productive than I have been in weeks. Even so, my manager glares at me, watery eyed and thin lipped. He thinks I am stupid, or lazy, or some other thing he’s projected onto the dark wide screen of my body and I have never cared to correct him. He decided a long time ago, and I am not about to fold and stretch and crumple myself to slip behind the frayed tapestry of his expectations. I have already torn and tied and remoulded myself for someone who did not love me and at least she made me pancakes on Sunday mornings. This man offers me nothing.
Around mid-morning I fill my water bottle and take an apple. The water is crisp and sweet. The apple is crisp and sweet.
I suppose that is one thing he and Toni have in common. She no longer offers me anything.
After work, I walk past the Tesco and the Blood Donation Centre, past Moose and the Town Hall. I walk down Water Street.
I can feel the wind, brisk and cold. I take a breath, my lungs and ribs swelling to their fullest capacity. I can see the river, glittering in a sunshine that - of course - doesn’t smell of anything.
Ifenna is having a nightmare. In the nightmare she is running through woodland, breathing heavily. She screams, but is abruptly cut off by a plunge into water
Alarm clock sounds - 7am on BBC Radio 2
[Breathing - rapid and shallow then gradually slows]
Bring her blood, bring hair and bone, there are games to be played beneath the first spring’s bloom
Front door opens and closes
Sounds of a busy call centre
Apples and rosewater, sunlight and quick streams, blood dyeing the winter snow a scarlet prettier than she could ever be.
Is this Hubert Edwards? Hi Mr Edwards, according to our records, you were in a car accident -
Line hangs up
– Hi Ms Wang, according to our records, you may be owed –
Line hangs up
– according to our records, you were recently in an accident that wasn’t –
LADY OF THE EVEN MISTS
In the background of Lady Mists’ speech, Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp in C Major - Andantino is playing
Hello pet! It’s almost your Claimday.
Lady Mists? How did you -?
LADY OF THE EVEN MISTS
You called me, didn’t you? How are you sleeping?
What are you -?
LADY OF THE EVEN MISTS
You didn’t think I’d forget, did you? I love you far too much for that.
Of course I didn’t think you’d... I’m not doing this.
Don’t be like that! You love it when I surprise you. You -
Ifenna hangs up
Sorry Sharon I’m really not feeling well I have to go I’ll come in early on Monday have a good weekend bye
Ifenna rushes to the lift and pushes the button
[to herself] Oh God I’m - I’m fine. It’s OK. I’m fine
It has been 3 years and her Lady Mistress still wishes her back, through brambles and freezing water.
You have 18 new messages. First new message received today at 1.23pm
LADY OF THE EVEN MISTS
That was very rude, hanging up on me. I just wanted to talk. It’s been almost 20 years since I claimed you. I’ve missed -
Message deleted. Next new message received today at 1.33pm
LADY OF THE EVEN MISTS
We’ve barely spoken since last year I –
Message deleted. Next new message received today at 1.43pm
LADY OF MISTS
We both know the nightmares won’t stop unless -
Message deleted -
MUSIC: ‘I put a spell on you’ by Alice Smith
She bought her freedom with a split tongue and broken skin. She is no longer beholden to a mistress’ moods, fleeting as dew. But sleep is precious and a moment’s peace may be worth more. After all, there are days and there are days and there are nights long enough, pains sharp and sweet enough to slip into your bed.
Ifenna is having another nightmare. She is running through woodland, crying. She falls. We can hear twigs snapping in the distance. She screams.
No, no, no. I can’t do this. I need her, just for a minute - for a moment - just a second.
Freedom was hard won but sleep is precious
Mirror, mirror, in my hand. Show me the fairest in the land
Harp sound effect
Mists, please answer me.
Classical music plays in the background of her speech
My pet, you’ve finally called. But really, you must remember to use titles for your betters. Now, where are you? I’ll bring you home.
I don’t want -
Answer the question
Salford, my Lady
Oh pet, you told me that last year, remember? I need more if you want my help. But if you don’t want me then I could just hang up and leave you...
Please no! I haven’t slept in –
Of course I’ll stay, I only ever want to help you.
Why are you doing this to yourself? You never hurt like this at home.
I’m free here
What is freedom when you’re alone? When memories of your mistakes haunt you? I love you, I gave you everything. Don’t you know how much your suffering hurts me?
No please, don’t cry. My head hurts so bad when you cry
Your head hurts? What about me? [crying] I just want to help you. I just want to bring you home.
Please, please stop crying. I can’t bear it. I’m sorry
How can I? When my own darling, my own pet, the child I took and raised as my own, refuses me the smallest favour? I’m not asking you to stay forever, just your Claimday.
I guess I could? Just for the day? If it’ll help?
Of course it will! You must tell me where you are in your dreams.
I am - I am near you. Not far from the forest’s edge. I am bruised. I am close to drowning.
Now, was that so difficult? Where...there you are! Take my hand darling, and come home.
Sound of a stream nearby and owls hooting in the distance
Oh it’s so quiet.
Of course it is. When you’re with me everything will be ok. Now come on inside.
Her Lady Mistress wished her back, wished forgetfulness, wished rose windows and sweetness. Sleep denied granted that wish, and she counts up the cost
Ifenna and Lady Mists’ are inside a large entryway. Classical music is playing.
We’ll have dinner in the parlour later.
I can’t -
Don’t interrupt! Anyway, you’ll have to get changed first. I kept your old room. Come along
Ifenna and Lady Mists walk across the marble floor
Is this a new dress. For me?
Of course my darling. You mean the world to me, you know that. I’ve had a dress made for your Claimday every year, even though you left. Unfortunately, you’ve spread somewhat since I last saw you - you greedy thing - but a little magic works wonders. Now put it on and we’ll go to dinner. The cook prepared all your favourites.
Yes! Thank you! Wait, I’m sorry. Could I just go to bed? I’m so tired and it’s quiet for the first time in days and I –
Alright, if you insist. You can put this on in the morning before breakfast.
Goodnight my pet. A servant will fetch you in the morning.
Ifenna is sleeping peacefully, the sound of nocturnal birds can be heard out the window.
There are days and there are days and there is peace sweet enough to slip in your bed.
Dreams are sleep tucked under her tongue like sugar. It melts into her like sunlight and new snow.
Rosewater and fresh honey, fresh honey and new bread. Sleep like hunger and hunger like want.
Classical Music is playing
Come in Goodness, I thought you would miss breakfast! Better late than never. Good morning my pet. Your Claimday is set to be a beautiful one. And don’t you look lovely! Round as an apple, but lovely even so. Come, sit. Eat!
I can’t. This is fairy food. You know what’ll happen if-
You will be home, with me, your Lady
I can’t let fairy food keep me here.
Don’t be silly. Living amongst humans has made you arrogant. You came because you miss me, need me. You belong here.
I just needed to sleep and I have. Thank you for helping me but I have to go home.
This is your home. I wish you could see that. [She starts to cry] You would abandon me again? On your Claimday?
Wait! No! Please don’t -
Distorted sounds from Ifenna’s nightmare: running, panting and weeping
Please no! This isn’t supposed to happen here.
What did you expect? Being so cruel to me.
Please, anything. Just make it stop?
Eat something. Here, have this apple and it’ll stop. Then we can go sit by the water like we used to and it’ll be all better.
Start over with apples and rosewater. Begin again with sunlight and quick streams. Return to burst blood vessels dyeing the winter snow a scarlet prettier than she could ever be.
Of course my darling. Just eat a little and we can even play our old games. You so loved those.
She demands blood, demands hair and bone. There are games to play, stretch skin tight as a drum and beat a happy tattoo. Always playing. Always playing
No I - I don’t like your games
Of course you do! They make me so happy.
She fought through glass, brambles and freezing water. Broke her ribs and tore her feet. She sliced away the self her Lady gave her and crafted a new one from spit and soil and half a memory of a mother she cannot know.
I have to go. I ran away for a reason. You -
You were being a silly child. You need me.
You took me away from everything I -
I gave you better
You gave my parents a changeling, then killed it. I watched when -
Only because you asked me to
I didn’t know what I was asking. I was -
That’s why you need me, you don’t know anything
They grieved for me, buried a body that wasn’t even mine. You let me -
Why must you bring up ancient history? Come to the stream with me, and I won’t even get angry.
I don’t care
Watch your tone
No. I don’t care if you’re angry
You forget that I gave you everything
Arm yourself with memory. Dreams cannot stand against the truth.
No, you took me. You kidnapped me then made me celebrate its anniversary. It’s sick -
You love your Claimday
Yeah, because no one would beat me. You’d give me nice food and dresses. You -
You need me. I -
No! Let me finish. You took everything from me and made me need you. Even when I got away, I thought I needed you. I kept coming back here in my dreams, kept telling you things about me because I thought I couldn’t live without you.
Sound of overlapped weeping and screaming.
You need me or this will never end. I own you
No, just let me go
You are mine and I will have you.
No I’m not. I don’t care if I never sleep again. I’m going home.
Lady Mists grabs at Ifenna. They tussle. Sound of tearing cloth as Ifenna breaks free and runs out the door.
Ifenna is running away from the house and into the forest. Sound of the stream and distant birds. Lady Mists starts to chase her
Come back! You won’t get away again.
Ifenna keeps running, breathing heavily
Find the borders, the fluid places. Find a shimmering surface twisting this place to honesty. Find the only truth untainted by lies and luxury.
Ifenna breaks through the treeline into a clearing.
Yes! [pause and pant] Mirror mirror, on the ground. Take me home, don’t let me drown.
Don’t you dare!
Goodbye, My Lady.
Ifenna jumps into the lake. Ifenna is swimming down, attempting to reach the bottom of the lake. We can hear her heartbeat throughout
Swim down. Beyond drowning. Beyond freezing. Swim down. She must swim herself free.
Ifenna breaks through the water in her bath. The bathroom is small, with tiled walls and a tiled floor.
She breathes deeply, as she’s been holding her breath for a long time.
She pauses and listens
I’m home? I’m home! I’m actually home. And it’s quiet - so quiet. But she knows where I live. I can move. I’ll move. I’ll go somewhere else, change my number, change my name if i have to. It’ll be fine
Music: St Beauty - Lucid Dreams
She strips away the Lady’s silk and velvet gown. She breathes deep diesel fumes and dust. Bathes herself with soap and chlorine-treated water. Her mind is quiet as a fox stealing through the witching hour, peaceful as a cul-de-sac at midnight. She is alone, and full, and herself.
This tale, like a thousand others before it, happened in a kingdom. In it, King Stefan’s head bore the crown. His reign was one of peace and plenty, such that - in some quarters - he was known as Stefan the Wise, Stefan the Just, even Stefan the Good. He had a wife - Iris - she was lovely as a summer storm and dark as a moonless night. Yet for all that abundance, they did not have a child.
Many a night he sat surrounded by his courtiers, quaffing wine like water. Stefan told them that, wishing to see his line continue, he would cure his wife’s barrenness using old magic. He dismissed their gasps, their fear of witchcraft and ill omens. He cursed the impotence of his court doctors, their useless cures. He lectured them at length on the natural abilities of true born kings, explained that they guided him to me, the witch who inhabits Iris’ forests. He boasted that he understood the power in my line, the consequences of my contracts - mine, no less. In his natural born wisdom, he thought he knew the cost.
Stefan entered my grove, astride a fine grey gelding. I might have called him beautiful, so covered in the wealth of his birth-right from the scented oils in his hair to the soft leather of his shoes. But the carefully neutral look in his eyes and hard set of his shoulders radiated contempt. It soured the features I already so despised. Still, I bowed to him, offered the contract he wanted. We sealed it with ink, with blood and nightshade and then? And then, I waited. When the moment was right I came and Iris came and her belly grew and grew.
When the time came she burst and bled and
Her coffin was wrought of
Clay and iron and
Sealed by men with
Pale eyes and white hands they
Said my name like it was poison
Stefan said my name like it was poison like
I didn't give him exactly
What he asked for like
My coming didn’t fill her with joy like
We didn't love his heir into the world
My Iris she
Bled and he
Would not let me help her. In fact, Stefan
Had me banished from her and had them
Fix leeches on her and I...I...
I beat against the silence
Sounding to all the world like river burst its banks
My heart burst its banks and I would have joined her
But mortality was something we did not share
I watched, helpless, as her
Needle sharp tongue fall silent and her
Ember bright eyes grow dim and Eudora
Our baby, our russet creature of
Magic and mortality came into life
She screamed for both our souls
For our loss. It was
A requiem we never should have known
I have neglected an important part of this tale.
Before the coffins and requiems, long before Eudora emerged wrinkled and screaming, Iris and I loved. I adored her laugh and her fat, her wit and the weight of her braids. I loved the nettle sting voice her crown kept trapped behind her teeth. I adored the way she sneered at her husband and the court, at their obsession with pomp and glory, at Stefan's blown glass ego and wild boar temper.
Each year, when the midsummer sun shone through verdant branches we would meet in my grove, our lips and tongues tracing promises into each other’s skin. Every midsummer, our oaths faded as smoke into the noonday air. Each midsummer, I promised her a life unshackled by age or time, if she would only take it. Every year, she kissed my palm and my cheek and my breast and told me that mortality is not so ill favoured a thing.
She would not join me, so we planned for me to join her. Magic may have been banished from the king’s palaces, but no power on earth can long keep a sire from their babe. When our plan - the contract - bore fruit, I could finally come to her night after night. Her head heavy in my lap, I watched Iris dream of making our child a queen unbound by marriage. Together, we dreamed of making Stefan an end worthy of him.
But this is a kingdom run on a king’s whims and mortal weakness; all our careful planning and all her shrewd wit could not save her.
Iris, it has been near a
Half dozen midsummers
I have not allowed our plans to grow old or frail, wither
Into rose tinted regrets.
I watch Eudora, come to her when she is sleeping
And whisper oaths into her dreams. But
Some nights, our daughter thinks she can you breathing.
I know my love, I know.
Stefan talks to her about you. He’s
Teaching her to hear the voice of a woman who
Spent her entire life seeking to
Be quietly. A Queen made of
Regal stillness and splendid shadows.
Whenever he looks through her,
Ignores her until she makes herself a
Mirror and a metaphor, whenever he tries to
Choke her with honour and shame
She thinks she can hear the moment
Your life was sold for her own.
Our child is so young, so easily deceived.
She hears nought but the echo of a lie
And a hunger I am teaching her a name for.