2013 Summer Creative Writing Contest ~Honorable Mention~
The Heart of a Queen
by Lydia Zilahy
The date is July 10th. One of the three nurses all in white, the one with silvered hair, presses the oxygen mask painfully tight to keep the seal. This has to be done. She knows that. She hears the words “toxic”, “miscarriage” and “high hCG” as the second nurse writes in her chart, humming. The third nurse is explaining the procedure; the bright light overhead is the only distinctive feature she associates with the nurse’s voice. She would like to jump off the table and run, run with all her might towards a heartbeat, a sign of life. She is too sleepy. She cries as her body is fading from her. The light overhead blurs, and then becomes a glowing eye that winks and is gone…
She wakes in a large field of wild flowers. The air is fragrant with the tangy smell of ladybugs’ wings and soft soil. In this field is all that remains of a forest – three stalwart oaks. Their limbs are raised high into the sky. Their arthritic trunks are hunched, betraying their great age. She is drawn towards them.
When she is standing in the middle of the Three Oaks, from their woody cores, three monstrously large white owls appear.
They swoop down on her and in this instant, she fears they will tear her apart. Instead, they surround her in a tight circle.
The eldest, his wings full of silver, speaks to her “we have been waiting for your return for a long time now. Welcome back, our Queen.”
With the Silver Owl’s words, a feeling in her spreads like spilt honey. It is slow and thick and sticky. It is utterly delicious, filling her with joy. It makes her forget. She forgets the heavy things as they sink down under their own weight. Childhood memories gain new buoyancy, floating to the surface. She remembers this field, this land from long ago and wonders why she did not come back sooner.
“We must return you to the palace” says the owl that is neither old nor young. This owl’s feathers are not as demure as silver, yet not as bright as the youngest owl’s plumage. She knows him to be the Moonlight Owl, who adds “the King has missed you dearly.”
The youngest owl is newer in the world and is still untarnished and glistening. He is the Light Owl and makes clear their intentions “before we restore you to the palace, we would like to bless your return with a gift.”
They speak in unison “each of us, you may visit once with a wish on your lips. We will grant you what is in our power.”
They seize her arms and chest and she is flown faster than the wind, faster than the heartbeat of a hummingbird back to her home in the palace.
She is set down in a room with ceilings so high, it is as if the walls have taken a great breath and hold it still. In this moment, the Oak Owls are gone and out of sight. She is amazed to see that her flimsy, dirty blue travel dress with ties in the back is gone. She wears instead a beautiful gown of silk tinted a blue that seems to have been gathered from the very edges of the sea. The urge to run swells in her heels and she dashes down corridors, startling guards who bow as she streaks by them.
Into the throne room she flies, where the King is in shock at her appearance. In an instant, their hearts recognize one another and there is great happiness in the kingdom. The Queen has returned.
The kingdom is beautiful, prosperous and peaceful. Everyday, the couple hopes for the only thing in the world they do not have: a child. Months pass and yet no child comes.
In her sadness, the Queen remembers the wishes gifted to her upon her return by the Oak Owls.
She cannot fly as they did. To make her wish, she promises her husband she will return and travels alone for one full day to reach the Three Oaks in the Wishing Field.
Under the Three Oaks, she stands still in the night. Then, in the twinkling sky, one silver sparkle draws closer until the Silver Owl is perched in his oak. He says in a voice creaking under the weight of his many years “ask and I will grant what is in my power.”
The Queen speaks her heart’s desire “I wish for a child.”
An acorn drops from the great oak’s reaching limbs at the Queen’s feet.
“Put the fruit from my tree under your bed, my Queen” the Silver Owl tells her and flies off, a spark shooting back up to its place among the stars. The darkling sky closes around her gently and takes her away as she sleeps.
She wakes in the palace, astounded. That night, she places the acorn under her bed.
Over the next few weeks, the Queen’s gowns become too tight. The King and Queen are overjoyed; she grows rounder and rosier with child.
Then, her wish given to her in the dark of the night is taken away by the light of morning. The Queen wakes to feel her legs sticky, her sheets wet. The King raises their covers and there are angry red streaks snaking down the Queens legs. He rushes from the room for help. She reaches for her jewel case, a gold casket, by the bed and empties the precious contents on to the floor. The Queen reaches between her legs and catches all she can and places the pieces in the casket.
In agony and pain, she sets off immediately towards her only hope, towards the Three Oaks, without a word to anyone.
The journey is horrific as she stops periodically to add pieces into the golden casket. The bleeding Queen arrives in front of the Three Oaks by nightfall.
It is the Moonlight Owl that descends to her this time.
The Queen, wincing in pain asks “please, I wish for you to give me back the child I lost.”
The owl makes rattling noises in his chest and then regurgitates a sharp, pointed bone at the Queen’s feet. He replies “it is only in my power to give you this bone. So long as you sew to a tune, the bone will serve you as a needle and guide you.”
The Queen takes the bone and as she does, once again the night wins over her senses and she wakes in her bed.
The next day, her ladies are all seated by the light of the windows, working on fine lace, needlepoint and embroidery.
The Queen spreads her pale blue skirts and sits down, the golden casket under her arm. She takes out the bone-needle and threads its winking eye. She lifts the lid of the casket and takes into her long, slim fingers the first slippery red piece. It is so fluid that the ladies of her chamber mistakenly believe she is working with crimson silk. As she removes another wet, delicate piece from the casket, droplets of red fall on to her dress, which was once the colour of a Robin’s egg, and becomes speckled with blood.
The Queen notices the ladies visibly blanche. They stop, like marionettes whose puppeteers have lost interest. They stare at her.
It takes her less than an hour to sew all she has. She hums a lullaby as she works and takes no notice of the bloodiness that stains her priceless gown, her skin and her reputation.
Her steady hum is the only sound. She draws the needle in and out of the flesh, the promised magic lays out the pattern before her mind’s eye and guides her fingers.
After the day’s final, tender stitch, the Queen seals her work with a kiss, rouging her lips. She gently rests the bloody lump at the bottom of the golden casket. With her sticky hands, she brushes hair from her face, leaving a wet red streak in her dark hair.
It takes her three long days and nights to collect and sew her precious child. By this time, the Queen’s chamber is empty, her household whispers that she is a witch and her husband is beside himself. His councillors advise exile and worse. He cannot act, he is lost without her. Guards are posted outside the Queen’s chamber.
Finally, the Queen’s work is done. She admires her craftsmanship; their child is perfect. Only then, she realizes that she cannot complete the babe. She has no soul to stitch into the child’s heart, to make it beat and animate this tiny body.
Wild with grief, the Queen shines like a beautiful, bloody ruby in the moonlight standing at her window. She hears a hiss as a great fissure begins to run a line through her heart. As she falls to her knees, her heart shatters inside her breast into a hundred jagged, moaning pieces.
The Queen’s heart, in its one hundred pieces laments day and night for the beautiful child that will not stir.
She becomes a desperate creature, no longer a woman, with a desperate wish. She is a prisoner in her own home, her body is broken and her child is lost. She believes she will never get to the Wishing Field, to the Three Oaks to ask for the last wish. She cries until she cannot endure any more.
There is always a light in the dark for those who despair; this magic is greater than grief. The Light Owl comes through her windows. He carries away the frail, bloodstained Queen to where she can wish once again.
When the bereaved Queen wakes, she finds herself in a clean, plain, dress the colour of a blue sky softened and smudged with mist. Her skin is no longer stained, she no longer smells of tears and blood.
Then, the Light Owl appears looking softly at her from the hollow of his tree.
The Queen, choked by grief, sobs “I have come for my last wish. I ask you to take my heart from me.”
The Light Owl continues to sit silently, listening only.
She pleads “please, I wish to be heartless.”
The Light Owl gives her a moment to consider and asks “do you know the consequence of having no heart?”
The broken woman begs “my heart is in a hundred pieces. These pieces rattle inside my chest keeping me in agony day and night. Please, take my heart and stop my pain.”
The Light Owl seems more luminous as the world around them quickens into a shade deeper than night itself has ever been. He says gently to the Queen on her knees “this wish I cannot grant you, for it goes against the wish of another.”
The wretched Queen demands of him “what other? I am a Queen, whose wish can be greater than mine?”
“That of your child” replies the kindly Light Owl, who continues “who lives in you, in your heart and always has. If you have no heart, your child will have no home.”
The brightness of the Light Owl flickers. The darkness stronger than night opens wide and gulps it all hungrily in, even the Queen…
Voices fall like pennies ringing in a tin cup.
“Poor Mrs. King” one says.
The second adds sadly “cried through the whole procedure”
“I think she is coming around” the last says brightly.
She doesn’t open her eyes. She can feel the itchy blue hospital robe against her skin. She aches deeply in the hollowed out space where her baby once rested. There is maxi pad wedged in between her thighs. Then, she hears her heartbeat and knows her most dear wish is with her. She has the heart of a queen; there are some things neither medicine nor magic can take away. Not in this world or any other.