ALICE HILEY – SHORT STORY
The sun rises in the winter sky – a plump orange in a cotton field – and stays there. Women stirring pots of stew wipe sweat from their brows. Children run home from school in the late afternoon: you hear them scuffing ash and pebbles with their street games. The clock in the plaza ticks steadily on, silhouetted by a fierce light. It is soon seven in the evening.
In houses across town, confused whispers begin to titter around dinner tables. Will the sun not set at all tonight? Which god’s work is this? Some neighbours fret over their firebush trees, sweeping the explosion of red petals from the ground. The children gather around the well, parched in the strange heat. Merchants have made use of the longer hours, bartering the remaining pieces of fruit and joints of meat on their market stalls. You pay them all little mind. You have a ball to get ready for, and the light accentuates your cheekbones nicely.
In the mirror in your chamber, you apply the finishing touches. A sprinkling of rouge; the excess powder falls like rain. The maid’s calloused hands pull your corset tighter. Pearl necklace, heeled shoes. Good. You look older now, a lady. You’ll blend in perfectly. A film of sweat lines your upper lip; your creams and pastes are already slipping.
Outside, your carriage awaits.
The driver helps you into the small velvet seat and you’re away, winding through the bustling centre of town, through paved squares and sloping streets. There is something else about the town tonight, besides the brightness and the pungent scent of jasmine. The bars run out of liquor in the early evening, so fathers and sons escape to the cool comfort of the empty cellars. Their wives and daughters, used to the burning heat of ovens and boiling water, share gossip in the streets, shading their eyes with one arm, holding babies in the other.
The carriage passes under lines of laundry and banners of past fiestas. In the outskirts of town, the brothel entrances stand empty. On towards the mountains. No highwaymen wait in the grassy embankment of the path with sharp knives and glinting eyes. When there is no darkness there is, you suppose, nowhere to hide. You imagine the question spreading on the lips of the women and the workers: have our prayers been answered?
It’s now ten at night. The sun still beams, and the horses pant.
Carts carrying city men back to town squeeze along the opposite side of the track. They marvel at sights usually shaded by the time they return home: intertwining orchard branches, dragon fruit and guavas growing fast towards the sky; goats and cattle grazing in the same rocky stretch of land; the broken lake punctuating the valley bottom like an exclamation.
Meltwater makes the black rock glisten. There is only a sprinkling of snow left on the peaks of the mountains, the sugar you lick from your fingertips after the final pastry.
It’s not long before the castle peeks at you, a wink of gold buried within the hillside.
You step out of the carriage. The marble steps up to the doors are infinite, radiating heat. You slip amongst the giggling throng, the brush of ruffled skirts and shoulders bumping shoulders. As you enter the ballroom, what catches your eye is not the gilded ceiling sown with dozens of chandeliers, nor the high windows refracting prisms, but a dress as blue as sapphires.
You’ve heard the rumours. A girl with an ashen face and hollow cheeks; your friend swore she saw her feeding rats one day outside the baron’s courtyard. But this girl looks nothing like the one from the stories. A thousand layers of fabric grip her waist but look weightless. Blonde curls rush over her shoulder like a stream. Her skin glows with a blush no powder could produce and the prince, holding her, admires her every move.
You cringe in disgust.
Turning away, you find a partner: rather, a partner finds you. You curtsey as he bows, and you find your positions amongst the spinning crowd. The dance leads you dizzily towards the centre of the floor and out again, stumbling to recover each misstep. The nobleman who picked you stares at a point just above your head, his smile vacant. Each time you come close to the prince and his companion, your ears prick.
She mumbles. ‘I – I only have until midnight. Then I need to be home.’
His grin is winning and warm as he replies: ‘Don’t you see the sun tonight? I’ll have you as long as I like.’
Like a true dancer, your eye remains fixed on one spot as you twirl: the prince. You angle and twist your head to keep his sharp jaw, his slick black hair within sight. Eventually your partner tugs you away, tired of lingering in the couple’s shadow. His grip on your back tightens, fingertips pressing the hollow of your spine. The band, on a plinth at the corner of the ballroom, shuffle as a song ends. Shallow pants echo round the room in the absence of music. Another man taps your shoulder and takes your hand, broad-backed and brooding. Beneath his twirled moustache, he does not smile. Guitar strings pluck and timbale drums tremble, but they slow, slow as the musicians tire. You are swaying now, a lazy rhumba, barely dancing.
Beside you, a flash of blue. You stand on tiptoe to watch the prince’s partner, the dressed-up servant girl, rushing surreptitiously between couples and unlit candlesticks. You excuse yourself.
She flees down the steps, two at a time, her dress bunched in fists by her hips. She totters in her heeled slippers, and with shaking hands she hauls one from her foot, then another, sending them tumbling. Glass clatters against marble; the splitting sound of small cracks. But the marble scorches the soles of her feet. You pass through the entrance doors and watch as she hops over the hot ground. Eventually, she collapses onto a step near the bottom of the staircase. Her shoulders heave; maybe she’s panting, maybe sobbing. You cannot tell. You are too distracted by a set of footsteps behind you.
‘This is not what I asked for,’ he says.
You turn towards the prince, head bowed. There’s a pang somewhere in a dark corner of your ribcage as you risk a glance at his tanned face. You despise the effect he has on you.
‘You asked me to do whatever I could to bring her here, did you not?’ you whisper. ‘She is a serving girl. A life of morning fires, breakfasts, folded bed sheets. Too many responsibilities to dream of dancing with princes.’
‘I knew what she was when I first saw her. I wanted her anyway,’ he says darkly. You don’t have to look up to recognise the flicker of fire in his eye – you know it well. ‘Your job was to bring her to me; to allow me to have her as long as I wanted.’
‘This was what it took,’ you say. ‘This was the only way to ensure that she would not be needed at home, that she would not have to escape –’
‘Then you have failed!’ he hisses, thrusting an arm in the direction of the sad figure on the steps. Ahead of her, a warped mirage glimmers on the pathway, as though the ground itself begins to sweat. The mountain air is dank with the smell of warm bodies and rotten pumpkin. All you wanted was for him to look at you like he looks at her; hungry, impatient. Now you’re not so sure. Now you have his eyes on you, every instinct tells you to run.
You inhale deeply, gathering every tatter of courage. ‘No. My part is played,’ you say. ‘She is free, now, to stay as long as she likes; free of the pain and the work of the morning. It is up to you to persuade her. I cannot force her to stay. I cannot alter feelings.’
He growls in frustration. ‘And the damage to my castle? My kingdom?’ The dryness of his tongue has turned his voice to gravel.
‘That is not of my concern. I do not break the spells, I only make them.’ For this, you receive a hard slap on the cheek.
But it’s true; there are limits to your powers. Spells fade like ink from parchment, like sand slipping from fingers. Curses and incantations are as easy to spoil as pots of stew. When he first asked for your help you were delighted with your plans to suspend the sun, concocting scenes of confused revelry and the lowly little thing suffocating in her layered dress. But you never imagined the birds falling from the sky. You didn’t mean to make the mud turn to charcoal. You never thought, in the light of day and the heat of exhaustion, that he would choose her, still.
He leaves you with only a hand-shaped bruise on the side of your face.
Despite the heat, you would prefer to remain on the balcony than return to a room of empty minds and dim expressions. So you watch as the prince descends the stairs to reach her. You watch her feeble attempt at escape, two arms pushing against the burning marble. He strokes her cheek, and you hold your breath. His entreating hand closes into a fist.
What can you do but watch? How can you possibly help? As he drags her through the doors, into the ballroom, towards his private chamber, you shrink into the shadows. You make a feeble attempt to follow, but soon get lost in a labyrinth of halls and locked doors.
The nobles only begin to leave when the kitchen runs out of food. The castle kitchen maids observe with bloodshot eyes as they climb into carriages and depart, lacking the energy to wave or joke or notice that their host has been missing for hours. What time is it, now? A chorus of shrugs and shaken heads. You return to the staircase, your chin resting in your hands. They shove and nudge your hunched shoulders and step on your toes in their haste to leave. You think: how odd that one suspended sunset was enough to shatter everything you knew. You think of the girl, of what is happening to her, of what waits for her at home once it is done. A sob rises in your throat.
And suddenly, the rain begins to pour. It is a cymbal in a silent amphitheatre, one long and endless rumble. The cracked soil crumbles beneath the weight of it. Rats with strange chestnut tails like horses lap the water from murky puddles. It runs down the mountains, fills the valley bottom. The lake, once the fractured shape of an exclamation, swells to a gash in the earth, bleeding, bleeding.
Alice has an English and Creative Writing degree from Lancaster University and has returned to Halifax to work part-time so she can finish her YA novel.