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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Kiss, part I

Earlier in the week I showed you a poem I wrote for a creative writing class.  I'm about to do something much more nerve racking and show you an actual story.  This one is not technically a fairy tale, or even based on a fairy tale.  It falls stricly in the "-esque" category, and is based on a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay called "The Princess Recalls Her One Adventure", which I always thought had a fairy tale feel.  It's told in alternating points of view.  The "princess" in questions always makes me think of this one -----> 
This story is...intentionally slow burning, and the end is a little -- well, I don't want to spoil it, but it's not for the faint of heart.  But we won't get to the end today, anyway.
You can read the poem here, but I'm going to get straight into the story.


The Great House

The handmaids shared a knowing glance over their mistress' head as they lifted her arms into her gown. She showed little response, just let herself be pulled and prodded and primped. They had grown accustomed to her seeming catatonia, her complete lack of interest in the minutia of her daily life; preparing herself for the day, slipping into her finery - and into her role of Asha Desideria Alaric Basile, Great Lady - was a nuisance, and they knew she paid it no mind. Everyday was the same routine: they made her ready for her day, followed her around and performed for her any tasks requiring sustained attention. They left her to her own devices each night, and each morning ignored the tear stains on the pillow cases they replaced. The handmaids had grown so accustomed to this, in fact, that they had taken to talking to each other almost as if she were not there. They were careful never to talk about her or her husband, of course, or any other thing that would threaten the position - or even the life - of a maid. They did, however, carry on with their simple little gossips, petty feuds, hypothetical matchmaking: all of the general nonsense that made a servant's life bearable.

Today, as they pulled her thick, dark hair into place, they chattered in mock-hushed tones about a handmaid of a Lesser Great House who, it had recently come to light, had gotten herself in a bad way - with the master of the house, no less. The handmaids' voices were viperous, half scorn for a fellow handmaid's downfall, half covetousness for the passion that had created it. This, of course, led to a dialogue on the mistress of said Lesser Great House, her reputed disinterest in her husband and her wifely duties, and the fact that she had yet to produce an heir. All of this, of course, was discussed in truly lowered voices; their mistress may not seem to be paying attention, but they knew the consequences of criticizing a mistress of a Great House - even a Lesser Great House. The implications of their criticisms, as applicable here as in any Great House, were harsh indeed for a lowly handmaid.

They needn't have worried, however; Asha's inattentiveness was by no means feigned. She was lost as always, stuck, it seemed, in her past. The handmaids' voices came to her ears as if through water, but her mind was already floating away, back through time to the days before her marriage, to her journey to his home, her one adventure.



I could not control the butterflies in my stomach. No, they were more than that; ravens, a swarm of bats, magpies swooping and reeling inside of me. Falcons, and I was no falconer to control them. The entire estate was in a furor of activity as it prepared to rid itself of me. I was tugged in so many directions, I felt like I was being drawn and quartered. I was sad to leave the only home I had ever known, yet anxious to be a Great Lady of my own estate; I was terrified of my husband and my duties in regards to him, but eager to learn firsthand of those whispered mysteries, the things that made every woman, handmaid and Great Lady alike, drop their voices when I entered a room.

I had seen my husband some weeks before when he had come to our estate to finalize the marriage contracts with my father. I knew him to be a tall man, with dark hair that fell back from his brow in waves; it was beginning to gray at the temples. I peeked at his handsome face from my hiding place in the great hall: his eyes were a cool stone gray and his mouth was full, but set just so - I doubted it remembered how to smile. One of the winged things in my stomach whispered that, perhaps, I could teach that mouth to smile. He turned, his eyes sweeping the room and passing over me as if I did not exist, then stalked off down the hall to meet my father. Perhaps I could not teach that mouth to smile. I wanted to follow and listen at the door, but of course, I could never do such a thing.

I sneaked back down the hall to my rooms where Mathilde, my handmaid, was waiting. As she brushed my hair for the feast we would have once the contracts were finalized, I casually asked about my husband-to-be. Ever-proper Mathilde responded as I knew she would - and hoped she would not - that my husband was a master of a Great House, who always did his duty, as should I. I could get no more out of her. Later, however, I did overhear her talking with another handmaid.

"He is a cold fish, that one, so they say, but he'll not beat her, which is more than can be said of most."
Mathilde was not a casual gossiper - one of the reasons my father had assigned her to me. It was highly unlikely that she should start now; she had meant me to overhear. Distant, implacable Mathilde, the only mother I had ever known, was going against character to give me a clue. But when the other handmaid, a young pretty girl my father had recently employed, turned the conversation to speculations on the nature of my wedding night, Mathilde quickly silenced her. I wished she had not, because the amount of information I had managed to glean in that regards was paltry at best. "Do as you're told" seemed to be the mantra of every other aspect of my life, and it applied to relations with men as well.

The contracts were finalized, and there was a feast. I saw my husband again, but all I was able to ascertain was that he was capable of eating without dribbling down his shirtfront. No small feat, that. He did not stay at our estate that night, but left directly after the feast. We never spoke a word.

~ Asha ~

The following weeks were spent preparing for my departure to my new home. My trousseau was completed; I followed all of the traditions for a bride, bathing everyday in rose water and milk, avoiding mirrors and spicy foods so evil spirits had no chance to tempt or possess me. Mathilde and the handmaids placed frogs and spiders in my path for luck every chance they got. I wore gold coins in my shoes and blue ribbons on my robes. My husband did his part too, sending me the traditional gifts - evergreen boughs, a wooden spoon, a pair of mandarin ducks, linens and jewels, of course - all of the best quality, as befit his status. I had yet to find out for myself if he was a "cold fish," but I learned he certainly was not lacking in his ability to follow form.

My last panicky, breathless week in my father's home was soon gone, and I began the long journey to my husband's home. His estate was near the borderlands, and the journey was a long and arduous one. My father could not - or would not - spare a handmaid, so I traveled alone in the care of the coachman, an outrider, and the carriage groom. I said goodbye to my father and Mathilde, whose parting words were "Do as you're told, and mind he doesn't pay the handmaids too much attention." She very nearly had tears in her eyes, I could swear.

I was handed into the carriage by the groom.

The road was long and dusty. I tried to recline into the folds of cloth on the inside of the carriage, but the road was a bumpy one, and the thoughts which had a hold on my mind were not reclining thoughts. I bounced along in the carriage and images of my future bounced along with me. Occasionally, I could see the outrider pass by the window, but I ignored him and immersed myself in my musings. I had little information to go on. My husband was tall, taller than my father, and had cool gray eyes. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to have those stony eyes on my body, where no man's eyes had been - and his lips, his lips were too full to always be set so, and I wondered how they would feel; I could barely conceive of such a thing, yet I felt a blush creep up my chest. I had heard two handmaids once, on one of the rare occasions that Mathilde was nowhere to be found, speaking of being kissed. A footman, it seemed, kissed well enough to "make m' toes curl, is what...”

 I wondered if my husband would make my toes curl. I could not remember being kissed - having another person's lips on me - a day in my life, but I had seen it done. It always looked so animalian, a devouring messiness, something to be endured, not enjoyed - but the handmaids spoke almost reverentially.
When the sun was high, we stopped to rest the horses and ourselves, to stretch and sup before we began the last leg of the journey. I was halfway to my husband's home. The groom handed me down from the carriage, then went to tend the horses. I walked in a few lazy circles, looked for someplace to eat the food Mathilde had packed for me, and finding nothing desirable, decided not to eat. Mathilde always said it was best for a woman not to eat too much, anyway, and my stomach was unsettled besides.

I stood and pretended not to be hungry or tired as the coachman and outrider sat on the ground next to the carriage and began to eat. They paid me no mind. The groom soon joined them. He told the coachman that he would need to be careful not to push the horses too hard on the last part of the journey; the cob was favoring his right foreleg, and if pushed too hard, would go lame. As he folded his long legs beneath him, he looked at me. "Aren't you going to eat?"

The coachman nudged him, clearly a reminder to know his place, but the groom continued to look at me. His eyes were a deep melting brown. It was too bold, to look at me directly in this way, and I knew that I should censure him, a thing I would need to get used to doing as a Great Lady. But I could not seem to bring myself to do so.

He tore his crust of bread in half, then climbed to his feet with the awkward grace of a spider and handed me half. I took it. When he sat back down, I sat with him. I simply smoothed my skirts under me and sat, right there in the grass; Mathilde would be scandalized. I bit right into the bread, not stopping to tear off dainty bite-sized pieces. The groom smiled at me. It was thrilling. I could see the coachman watching us out of the corner of my eye, but I did not care. All of the tension I had built up during the ride was slowly dissipating. I had never been alone with men like this before, and it should have made me nervous; instead it made me giddy.

Ladies did not get giddy; I needed to compose myself. I finished my bread in sober silence and stood. The men finished eating, the groom handed me into the carriage and took his position on the back of the carriage, and we began our journey again.

I fell back into fantasies, but this time the lips that kissed me were not my husband's. In my head, I could feel the groom's eyes on me, like two dark tar-pit traps for me to sink into. The groom's smiling lips, fuller even than my husband's, memorized my body. In the shadowy darkness of my mind I could feel his dark eyes like a physical presence, caressing me. The winged things flew back into my stomach, swooping low in my belly in frantic circles. My heart beat time with the horses' hooves. I lay back in the carriage, oblivious to the bumping, and indulged in dreams I knew were not allowed me.

We traveled for perhaps another hour, and had not made it all that far, when I noticed that we seemed to be slowing. I heard the coachman yell to the outrider, then the groom yell to the coachman, and we slowly came to a stop. I peeked out the window. The groom had leapt down from the back of the carriage and was stalking toward the horses; I noticed one horse seemed to stand with one foot off the ground. The cob, I assumed, had gone lame.

The groom and the coachman began cursing at each other and I sank back into the shadows of the carriage interior. I heard the outrider's horse canter past the window, followed by more yelling. This went on for some time before it was decided that the coachman and outrider would go to find a fresh horse, and the groom would stay and tend to the lame cob and myself. The two men set off down the road and were soon gone over the horizon.

~ The Great House ~

     Frederick observed his wife in silence.  She had come down to the breakfast table much in her usual manner: hair perfect, clothes pristine, face vacant.  He was unsure exactly why she was so distant.  They had been married for some months now, but she did not seem to be warming to him at all.  This was not to say she showed any signs of disdain; she performed her duties as wife, if perfunctorily, and she comported herself as any Great Lady should.  She was beyond specific reproach, and yet...
     He watched her eat her breakfast, moving it around on her plate more than anything.  He cleared his throat.  Most mornings he did not bother to say anything; he knew any answer he received would be hollow. His wife was merely going through the motions.  This morning, though, he had some news that he thought might get her attention.  Her father was coming to visit.
     He cleared his throat again, and this time she looked up.  She did not actually make eye contact, but she raised her head.  He considered this encouragement enough.  He told her that they could expect a visitor within a day or so.  She nodded and mumbled a quick "That’s nice," and looked back down to her plate.  He could see she was about to slip back into wherever it was she went in her head, so he quickly said, "Your father."
     He saw her start and her face, which was still angled down toward her breakfast, was momentarily overspread with a rapturous light.  He had never seen her look so; he did not even have a word for it.  He wanted to get up from his chair and go to her, wanted desperately to touch her in this mood, but he did not.  One did not do such things at breakfast.   She whispered something that sounded like "the groom."  He was unsure why this would be, and was momentarily confused, but then thought perhaps she had said, "oh, soon," a little prayer for her father to hasten his arrival.  He repeated the little prayer to himself.  "Oh, soon."

~ Asha ~

     The groom turned his attention to the lame horse, but out here in the sun, far from his stable and supplies, there was not much he could do.
     I decided to get out of the carriage and refresh myself with a walk.  I climbed down and saw that this stretch of road was nestled between two hills, so that nothing much could be seen down the road in either direction.  A shining lake murmured invitingly not twenty yards from the road, beckoning.  The sun glinted in blinding hypnotic flashes off the points of the gentle waves.  I could hear the groom's light voice consoling the horse.  I walked to the lake and dipped my fingers into it.  It was cooler than I expected in this heat, and I dragged my wet fingers across the back of my neck.  I stood there for a few moments, then heard snuffling behind me.  I turned.  The groom was gingerly leading the two horses to the water.  The cob was limping heavily, jerkily, back and forth.
     The two horses dropped their long necks began taking long draws of water.  The groom dipped his hands in the water and brought some to his lips, then came and stood next to me.  We did not speak.  I wanted to say something, but did not know how.  Unless it was to issue an order, Great Ladies did not speak to servants.  He had spoken to me earlier, a breach of conduct I hoped he would make again.
     We stood in silence.
     The sun enveloped the little hollow, spreading through the little basin and magnifying its warmth.  I felt already overheated from my daydreams, and the sun was soon too much.  I knew I should retreat to the carriage until the others returned, but I did not want to give up my proximity to my groom.  I stood in the sun by the side of the gently talking lake, absorbing his presence through my skin, soaking it up.  My skin began to redden, but still I stayed.  I wanted so desperately to speak to him, to hear him speak.  He would ask me about my husband, and I would say he was the master of a Great House who always did his duty.  Or, he would not ask me about my husband, but he would kiss me.  We would lie in the grass in the sun and we would belong to each other.  The coachman and outrider would never come, and we would stay like that, in the grass by the lake, forever.
     My breathing began to grow ragged, and I felt sure he must hear, and would turn to me and press his hand to my chest to feel it rise and fall, rise and fall, to feel my heart beat against his palm, just for him.
     He did not turn to me, and we did not speak.
     It seemed as if I should burst apart with my longing, as if he must feel it beating against him like the waves against the shore.  Kiss me, I thought.  Kiss me, kiss me. I felt I understood the handmaids' longing for that animalian devouring messiness.  I longed for it, to be messily devoured.
     But he made no move.  I saw myself going to him, standing in front of him close, close to him.  I would put my hands on his chest, lean into him, stretching up on my toes, and he would lean his face down and we would kiss.   Kiss was not strong enough a word for what we would do, but I had no other, so we would kiss.  We would kiss.  His arms would enwrap me, we would kiss, and then -
     I took a step closer to him, my hands trembling with the desire to entwine themselves in his hair.  Another step.  He turned towards me.
     My mouth wanted to say his name, but did not know it.  "I -"
     I heard a sharp whistle behind us.  The horses lifted their heads lazily from the water, and we turned to face the road.   In a cloud of dust, the coachman and the outrider had returned, a shining chestnut mare between them.  Our carriage problem was solved.
     The groom cleared his throat and turned away from me, gathering the horses' reins in his gloved hands and leading them back to the carriage.  With a shuddering breath, I took my skirts in my hands and made my way up the little incline to the road.  The groom was busy tethering the horses, so the coachman handed me into the carriage before climbing to his box.  I sat primly on the carriage seat, too disheartened to sink back into the fabric, too heartsick to slip into my fantasies again.
     We never kissed.
     With a lurch, the carriage started off down the road, resuming its journey to my husband's home.
     We never kissed.
     A few more hours and I would be there, the place where I would spend the rest of my life.
     We never kissed.
     Away from him.  An entire life, my husband was a cold fish, he had stones for eyes, an entire life away from him, no animalian devouring messiness, no drowning-deep eyes, do as you are told, an entire life...
     We never kissed.

~ The Great House  ~    

The Basile Great House was similar in the way that all Great Houses are similar - too much space, too much opulence, and very little life about it - but it was different to the groom from the Alaric Great House in the way that his sable bay was different from any other sable bay: it was not his.  Great Lord Alaric had dismounted at the sweeping front gate, where he was greeted by Great Lord Basile and his wife.  The groom then led the horses to the stables to give them their rubdowns.
     The Great Lady had grown thin, the groom reflected.  He wondered if she was sick; her eyes had seemed fever-bright when he'd stood before her, along with the liveried footmen, to present her father; perhaps it was a trick of the torchlight.  The thinness, though, that was no trick.  He wondered if she had the wasting-sickness, and fleetingly hoped she didn't; she hadn't seemed as harsh to him as many Greats were.  He didn't worry long, however; he was soon engrossed in caring for his horses.
     When he was done at the stables he made his way into the manse through the rear door, joining the rest of Great Lord Alaric's men in the servants kitchen for a late meal.   He collapsed his tired frame into a chair and busied himself with a bowl of stew, his mind too tired to hold a thought.  A scullery maid kept trying to catch his eye, and he winked at her.  He supposed he could postpone his tiredness a while longer.
Great Lord Alaric was to stay for some  days, two weeks at most.  The groom settled into a routine, exercising the horses and bragging of his skills - regarding horses and women - with the other grooms.  The scullery maid visited him nightly.  It was a pleasant stay.
     Basile's Great House seemed to be run differently, though, than Great Lord Alaric's; there seemed to be more mingling, less strictures on class.  At least, he kept coming across the Great Lady, finding her in places Great Ladies did not normally go.  He saw her near the stables on more the one occasion, her fever-bright eyes trained on him.  It was not a trick of the torch light, it seemed; she was unwell.  Her skin was sallow and her eyes had that manic look of those whose time was limited.  He did not like to look at her in such decline, and avoided her gaze when he could.  But it seemed the more he tried to avoid her, the more he saw of her.  Sometimes, it looked as if she would say something, but she never did.  It was just as that day beside the lake.  She was a strange woman; perhaps she was sick even then.  Her eyes seemed brighter, fiercer, every time he saw her.  He felt for her, but her constant presence made him uncomfortable, and he hoped his master would make their visit short.
     Then, one night some days into the visit, when the groom was coming across the courtyard from the stables, he saw a little dark figure scurry out of the shadows of the Great House and make its way towards him.  It was a woman, her hair loose and flowing, making her way to him in awkward lurching steps.  He squinted at the figure.  It was the Great Lady.  She was stalled in the middle of the courtyard, staring in his direction.
     She said something to him, throwing her voice across the courtyard at him; her voice sounded strained, scratchy as if from disuse.  She said, "We never kissed."  The groom was startled.  What could she be talking about?  He must have misheard her.  Great Ladies did not speak of "kissing," especially to a groom.
     She arched her arm into the air, and he saw a metallic glint.  Panic clenched his abdomen, and he wasn't sure why.  He made his way toward her.   She shouted something unintelligible and waved her arm again.  Her hair was snapping audibly in the air.  He drew closer, and suddenly was able to recognize the object in her hand.  She held a little single-shot dueling pistol, which she held high in the air.
     "We never touched," she whispered hoarsely.  Hectic roses bloomed in her cheeks.
     "I don't - "  He looked at her in confusion.
      Suddenly, she swung her arm down, lowering the gun and training it on his chest.  He could see her body tense and he rushed toward her, gripping her wrists in his hands and lifting them out to the sides.  The gun went off with a noise like an avalanche, and she dropped it, sending clattering echoes bouncing around the courtyard, like horses stampeding hooves.
     When his hands touched her, she collapsed against him with a shiver.  He could feel her body shaking against him, and it took him a moment to realize that she was silently crying.  She was repeating something over and over.
     "We never kissed; we never kissed."
     He let go of her arms and she leaned her body into him, half-sinking to the ground.  He pulled her up with one arm around her waist, and with the other, he smoothed her hair - which clung wetly to her cheeks - from her face and tilted her head up.  She looked into his eyes, and he was startled by the expression in them.  It was - he wasn't sure, exactly; he would almost call it animalian.  Her eyes were glossy and bright, and there was a looseness behind them, an unnatural intensity that he had only seen when breaking wild horses.
     She clawed at the clothing on his chest, gripping the cloth to pull herself closer to his face.  She pressed her hands to the sides of his face, slid them down his cheeks and back up into his hair, pulling his mouth to hers.  She devoured him, pressing and pressing her mouth against his, sliding it wetly over his chin, his cheeks, his neck, any part of him she could reach.  He gripped her upper arms and tried to force her away, but she was possessed of some inhuman store of strength, and she clung to him, kissing and licking his neck, grazing his shoulder with her teeth.
     Where is everyone?, he thought desperately.  Surely someone heard the shot?  He tried again to force her from him, but she was implacable.  Her hands clamored to touch his skin; his fingers were beginning to feel numb, he was gripping her arms so hard.
     Suddenly, he heard voices in the courtyard, the pounding beat of footsteps running towards them.  Finally, he thought.
     Someone seized the Great Lady around the waist and tore her from him.  The courtyard was a jumble of shouting voices, and the Great Lady added hers to this, a keening wail.
     The groom opened his mouth, emitting a short "I don't -" before he felt a sharp pain in the base of his skull.  He fell, his long body crumpling to the stone.  The noise of the courtyard became muffled as if through water, and he felt himself sinking.

~ Asha ~

It was a beautiful day, the day they hanged him.  The sun was shining like it had that day by the lake, shining like it had forgotten how, and now remembered.  I listened to the birds through my window.  Their chattering was excited and manic, disturbed by the break in routine.  They were unused to so many people gathering in the courtyard.  They were joined, too, by the unfamiliar cawing of larger birds, here to play their part; they would never miss such a meal.
     I heard the snap of the rope through the raucousness of fluttering wings outside my window; the wings in my stomach were gone.  When the courtyard birds settled, I could hear the faint screec screec of the rope scratching the wood.  I turned away from the window and went to my vanity and began arranging my hair.  It was nearly time for lunch.
     My skin in the mirror looked fresh and on its way to plumpness. Touchable.  My husband would be pleased.  The birds outside disputed their rights to the meal.  Their noise made it hard to think.  I went to the casement and looked down on the feast.  The groom's tall body was overwhelmed with scrambling black bodies.  They pecked at his full lips as I had, but they had only leftovers.
     I turned away and went back to my reflection.  Cool green eyes looked back at me; they approved of what they saw.
     My handmaids came to make sure I was presentable, then led me down to the dining room.  They no longer spoke over me as if I was not there; it seemed everything anyone said around or to me these last few days was said in lowered voices.  I sometimes overheard people talking, voices pitched in that anxious tone that had come with the recent excitement.  All of those anxious voices seemed to agree about one thing: it was shameful, these voices said, him taking advantage of me so.  No one could seem to believe a groom would so overstep his place; he knew, everyone knew, what the penalty would be.   Now, everyone treated me as if I were a fragile thing; one wrong step, one misplaced breath would break me.
     But they did not understand.  I had never felt so alive, so unfragile, in all of my life.  He had finally touched me, and we had finally kissed.

Alrighty, so that's my story.  Cheerful little thing, isn't it.  ;P
Hope you enjoyed!


  1. Misty-

    I'm so sorry no one has commented on your excellent story. I know it's hard to put yourself out there, but be sure it is an excellent story and I am totally hooked!


  2. Omgosh Misty, this is so good. It grabbed me and wrapped me up so quickly. I need to know what brought about this state of mind and what happened after the marriage to the cold fish. I came directly here when I saw part III posted. I've so busy and behind on things that it's killing me.


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