Story art by Melissa A Schwartz.
From the author: This story was originally published in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Issue 20.
There are three kinds of darkness: the first is the icy, terrifying pitch black you either avoid or jump into like the cold, cold water at the beach in spring that swallows you up and steals your breath. Then there is the darkness you just want to get through or move aside with a candle or flashlight. It is weightless and silent, made to be pushed back and walked through. The third kind is harder to recognize or describe, but I’ve felt it, warm and feathery light brushing up against me. It is a place, liquid and right next to us all the time. But no one can touch or hold it.
There aren’t many thunderstorms here in Brooklyn. Not like home where they rumble in all flash and fury and leave everything dripping green and breathless. Here summer is either cement hot or days of drizzling rain. Of course I don’t get out much during the day to know one way or another. All of my hours are spent training with Lao, or studying. Mostly history. It’s not the kind of history I learned before. Granddad doesn’t bother with the Civil War and stuff like that. I must memorize long involved family maps and lineage. And battles, battles I’ve never heard of in places with names that sound made up. Like Ifingard. That’s not a real country. I know because I sneaked out one day and looked it up in the bookstore around the corner.
It’s hard to sneak away from Granddad’s house; the servants tell on me and someone is always watching. But today Mrs. Mowett has the staff polishing silver so I know I have at least thirty minutes. It is worth risking Granddad’s anger to stand in that warm and dimly lit place full of strangers and brightly-colored books that have no lessons or necessary things inside.
“What are you doing here? Are you skipping school too?” It’s a girl’s voice, but I’m almost positive it’s a boy. A very young boy, it turns out, less than half my height stands behind me, his head barely reaching the second row of books.
“Yes,” I lie, slowly replacing the almanac on the shelf and nervously check the clock. If I am not back in time, he will know. Everything in Granddad’s house runs on an exact schedule. Except Granddad.
“So are we,” he says. “School is so wretchedly stupid.” But he isn’t old enough to be skipping school, at least I don’t think he is. I don’t remember much about school, except that I hated it, but now I would give anything to sit through boring lectures in a classroom full of other kids who don’t say, “My Lord,” after everything.
“Jack, leave her alone,” a bored voice says and I look over to where she sits reading, not even looking up, which is probably where the ‘her’ came from. Everyone else is fooled by the suits Granddad makes me wear at all times. Coat and tie and everything scratchy wool even in summer, and too warm.
“It’s okay.” I say still not sure how to behave with people like this who aren’t servants or teachers.
“See,” Jack says loudly and she rolls her eyes.
“She’s just saying that to make you feel better,” the girl says and looks at me finally. I wait for the apologies, the ‘oh, I didn’t know you were a boy’, stammering but there isn’t any.
“No he’s not,” Jack pouts and I really should leave because Granddad could be back at any moment, but I can’t. “Did you know the world is getting brighter,” he says more than asks and I just shake my head. “Soon it’ll be day all night.”
“Jack,” she says with a loud sigh, putting down her book, and now it is his turn to roll his eyes.
“I have to go anyway,” I say and the girl just lifts her eyebrows at the young boy as if to say ‘I told you so’.
As I walk away I hear his bright voice behind me, “Is he really a girl?”
“Don’t be rude.”
“But what am I the prince of?” I ask, trying desperately not to whine. My tie is too tight and I feel like I might choke to death on the chewy bread, but this has been bothering me since that day in the bookstore.
“Be quiet and eat your dinner,” he says without even looking up. Granddad has been in a foul mood for weeks. He hates summer, which is strange. You’d think somebody who likes the sun as much as Granddad would love summer, but not him. “It’s all the filthy plants and flowers,” he would say and I can just imagine him somewhere in permanent winter where the light never stops bouncing off all that white.
“You can’t even tell me which country?”
His eyes finally move, flashing at me like hard metallic sunlight. “You’ll find out soon enough.” Which is exactly the kind of answer he always gives. Nothing is ever for right now. It is always some day far from now.
“But shouldn’t I at least learn the language?” It’s a reasonable question, but he rises and throws down his napkin angrily.
“You are learning your language, from Lao,” and that is all he says before leaving me alone in the too-big dining room. As the servants nervously clear his dishes, I think back on the lessons with Lao, strange movements that are like sharp dancing, chanting and fighting all at once. And the memorization. Hours and hours spent learning long, impenetrable strings of meaningless sounds that almost but never quite repeat. But nothing about my country, and no words that have meaning or hold anything inside except themselves.
“Your grandfather will be gone for the next week, your Highness.” I jump at the surprise of his secretary’s voice, but he is gone before the sound dies. Granddad’s assistant is always sneaking up on me like that, thin and sharply silent. When he is gone and there is nothing but the harsh overhead light, I make my way back to my room, cringing as the servants lower their eyes and bow their heads.
This house isn’t really a ‘house’. Not like the one I used to live in with Mama; Granddad’s house is a building, four stories of brick, stone and glass and a basement. A mansion really, even though it doesn’t look it from the outside. There are extra mailboxes for people who don’t live here so it looks like every other brownstone in the neighborhood, but there are no light switches anywhere.
Inside, it is a maze of hidden rooms and crooked hallways that dead-end in ancient plaster walls. My room is on the third floor near the back, so no one can steal me through the windows. It’s much larger than my old room back home, but there is still nowhere to hide. The lights burn loud around the clock.
That’s the way he likes it. The entire house lit up so that no night can ever sneak in. I remember being afraid of the dark, before Lao came for me and took me away from Mama and the tiny worn out house in Mt. Sterling. I would slip into Mama’s room or rise after she had gone to sleep to turn on a lamp. Things moved and walked in the darkness, shadow people who spoke in long whispering sentences I could never quite understand.They would move around and through us in kind of darkness that I just wanted to find a way through until morning. It was the second kind, but I could feel that it held the first hidden inside it and that sent me into the closet with the light on or under the bed where the flashlight could find it all.
Mama, when I finally told her about the dark, wasn’t afraid. She began to sing and didn’t stop until it felt safe, until it was warm and liquid and almost right.
Now it is the terrible bright that keeps me awake and the dark follows me around everywhere anyway — muttering under my shoes, in the thin black line of the cracks in the plaster, inside the desk drawers. All this light has made it blacker than ever.
The bright I used to covet is now just hard and cold and never any comfort at all. I wonder if Winnie and Jack’s Mama sings to them as I begin to hum the same lullaby she used to sing to me, long and low, but I can’t remember the words so I make them up. Just before I drift off I realize the tune is still hers, but the words are Lao’s strange sounds stuttering almost in time.
“You don’t have to steal books, you know. There’s a library just down the street,” she says with that same indifferent roll of the eyes, and I feel the heat in my face that usually only happens when I’m scolded by Lao.
“I’m not stealing books,” I say with as much confidence as I can, but her eyes narrow. I have always been a terrible liar. Granddad says it’s because I haven’t practiced enough.
She reaches into my jacket pocket and extracts The Little Prince with a smug half smile I imagine she uses a lot on Jack. Her eyebrows rise, head tilting slightly to the left, as she appraises the small book, and I recognize the look. Lao gets it sometimes when I surprise him by doing something right — the highest praise he ever gives. I don’t have the nerve to tell her that I only wanted it to learn more about what princes do.
“I don’t know why you’re stealing books. You look rich to me.” And she is right. Princes are supposed to be rich, but the only money I ever have is the change I find on the street or the few bills I’ve managed to steal from the help. They deserve it for never once speaking to me or looking me straight in the eye.
She is still studying me with a strange smile.
“Where’s Jack?” I ask hoping to change the subject, but her smile fades.
“At the doctor,” she says and sits back down, placing The Little Prince on a stack of books.
“Is he okay?” I ask as she opens another book and begins to read.
“He has acute nonlymphocytic leukemia,” she says in a cool, faraway voice that sounds like Mrs. Mowett when she talks about the week’s menu.
“Oh. Is that bad?” Her eyes narrow again as she studies me, and I know I have said the wrong thing. The very wrong thing. I feel stupid and nine years old all over again.
“Yes. He might die.” There is a deep line now between her eyebrows. “He’ll be here in a few minutes.” She says and returns to her books.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, because I remember people saying that to Mama when my grandmother died and because for some reason I am. Sorry. But she doesn’t hear me.
We sit there in silence for what seems like an hour and I check the clock to make sure it is only minutes, because even though Granddad is away the servants will tell on me if they notice I’m gone. She doesn’t ever look up from her book and I have nothing to read, so I use Lao’s observation techniques and list the important things about her: straight brown hair that is always a kind of controlled mess; dark brown eyes that flicker over the pages; no makeup; a mouth that betrays her severe concentration, lifting into tiny smiles and frowns as she reads. I stop when I realize these probably aren’t the important things.
“You came back,” Jack’s high-pitched voice cuts through my inventory and I turn to find him standing next to me. An older woman huffs, red-faced and frowning behind him. Maybe she is their mother.
“Sweetie, the doctor says you need to take it easy…” the woman begins only to be interrupted by the girl I realize I still haven’t officially met.
“It’s okay. I can take care of him,” the girl says, and I understand immediately that this woman is not their mother. She is a Mrs. Mowett or a Nanny, only with smiles and hugs. Maybe their mother is dead. Or maybe, like mine, she just got left behind.
“You sure?” the older woman smiles and helps Jack out of a thick jacket. “‘Cause I’d like to get home and start dinner before your parents get home.”
“What’s your name?” Jack asks and I am not sure what to answer. I am ‘my lord’ and ‘your highness’. That name Mama used to call me is almost gone and it wouldn’t go with the suit anyway.
“What do you think it is?” I ask nervously and risk a glance at the girl, but she is talking to the older woman, both of them nodding and too serious as they walk away.
“I think it’s Jack,” he says with a confident nod. “Like me. But Winnie says it’s probably something posh like Emma or Helena.”
And suddenly they are looking at me and I hear the older woman say something like, “You’ve met a nice young gentleman. Finally,” and Winnie’s face goes completely red like the maid’s does whenever I catch her singing to herself in the hallway.
My own face feels hot so I look back to Jack who has thankfully moved on as he holds a magazine article up to me. I can’t really understand much of it, but he exclaims, “See! I told you the world is getting brighter. Haven’t you noticed that nighttime isn’t even that dark and scary anymore?” He rambles on in that high sing-song as he unpacks a soda and some crackers from his very neat backpack. “Soon, I bet you won’t even be able to see the stars anymore, but it’s okay,” he says, suddenly serious. “They’re still there. They’re just on the other side of the world. You know, and outside the air.”
I try to remember what the stars do, what night looks like. All of that blue black stretched around and over and Mama pointing out shapes drawn in tiny pieces of light. I can clearly see the pale arc of her arm against the black, but not her face. It makes me dizzy so I sit down.
“Winnie doesn’t care about the brightness thing. All she cares about is superstrings like Dad. He’s a physicist,” he says proudly and I wonder how it is spelled so I can look it up later.
“Superstrings?” I ask as Winnie sits down, again regarding me suspiciously.
“Yeah!” he jumps up from his chair, spilling his soda. “There are all these other tiny worlds rolled up inside our world with countries inside them, right Winnie?”
“Not exactly,” she says mopping up the soda with a stern expression. She doesn’t explain what exactly superstrings are though. “What’s your name?”
“Um, Jack?” I offer feebly and her eyes narrow again.
“See, I told you!” The other Jack jumps up and down again until an employee shushes him.
“Is that short for John?” she asks coolly and I shake my head, hoping that is the right response. I never find out because she stops talking and we sit there staring at each other for one of those seconds that stretches out too long as my face gets even hotter. Maybe she is one of Lao’s people, or Granddad’s. This is probably some kind of test and she knows all about me. I decide I don’t care if I fail. At least she and her brother look me in the eye.
I finally look away to find Jack regarding me with a smile as he munches sloppily on the crackers, crumbs covering the table and the front of his bright red sweater. It is then that I notice the familiar, hard shadow in the corner of his eyes, gray and brittle like the thin edge of dark that follows Granddad just under and behind even in the perpetual light of the mansion. It is so much like that too bright house and the first kind of darkness that steals and swallows. I can smell the rotting leather and wood of it, and I can feel him nearby, his hard, shining eyes watching me from every angle.
I stagger to my feet, tripping over the chair as I mumble some apology and a whispered, “I have to go.”
When I get home I find the copy of The Little Prince in my pocket, a nearly transparent receipt slipped inside the cover and in uneven script the words, ‘I know what you really are’. I push it into the sneaky seam of dark under the mattress and try not to cry.
I train with Lao in the back courtyard, sweating and straining in my dark wool suit as we go through the dance-like motions. It starts slow like always and I should concentrate on my breathing, but I can’t stop noticing things like the lack of green. There are no weeds in the enormous, brick paved expanse, no unruly plants sneaking up around the stones like they do on the sidewalks. The trees that stretch from next door over the high stone wall are brown and dying.
“They steal your oxygen,” Granddad had explained testily over dinner when I asked him about the lack of plants in and around the house and returned to his steak.
When I asked Lao about plants later, he accidentally told me the truth. “Plants turn sunlight into oxygen and food for themselves. It’s called photosynthesis,” and I thought surely this was the most beautiful and terrible thing I had ever heard. It was real magic, turning all of that bright into something you could use. But there are no plants here to study or books on the subject and I am afraid to go back to the bookstore. I tell myself I am afraid of getting caught, but it is really Winnie’s deep brown eyes that terrify me. I stumble simply thinking about that intense stare and Lao frowns.
“You are not concentrating,” he says with a disappointed sigh.
“What’s a physicist?” I ask to distract him and he stops his own movements.
“A physicist studies the forces of the universe and their inner workings,” he says without hesitating because Lao knows everything about everything even though his answers aren’t usually very helpful.
“Forces…like armies and economics?” These are the only forces I remember from my studies.
He folds his arms and looks at me thoughtfully for a long time, which surprises me. I am sure he knows everything I am going to say before I actually say it. “No. Forces like gravity and electricity.”
“Oh.” That doesn’t sound like the countries rolled up that Jack was talking about, but I remember now, lessons about gravity and the hidden things that hold us down and together and connect us.
“Maybe it’s time we moved on to Calculus,” he says with a nod. “If you’re interested in physics. That could prove useful. A prince should know about the universal forces. I think your grandfather will approve.”
I nod, a wild sort of joy erupting around and inside me at the thought of understanding this other strange language Jack and Winnie speak with each other.
His eyebrows rise and he uncrosses his arms, “But first, movement and arts.” And we begin the slow, steady build of the dance that isn’t.
That night, after dinner, I sit alone trying to remember when I was a girl. There aren’t many mirrors in Granddad’s house and the only one I’m allowed is a tiny, blurry square that is barely big enough to check the knot in my tie. My body doesn’t belong to me anymore. I am a prince, which means that everything I am belongs to my country…and Granddad. But I remember Mama’s softness and I’ve seen women on the street in tight tops that squeeze, but my chest looks nothing like that even in the bath without the suit. The few times I’ve seen myself in a shop window was all angles and straight lines. But Winnie thought I was a girl and maybe still does.
I slowly remove the jacket and loosen the tie intending to use the small mirror to find some answers, but the lights flicker. It is only for a moment, but the moment is terrifying in its newness and momentary dark. The last time something new happened, I never saw Mama again.
I run out of my room to look for Lao. There is no one, not even a servant in the hall, but the impossible sounds of shouting are audible from downstairs and I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The silence here is like the light — incessant and invasive — no one can stop it but Granddad and he wouldn’t.
There is a loud crash and I drop the suit jacket and tie to the floor. I’d rather take the punishment than miss whatever is happening.
When I reach the first landing above the entrance foyer, they are all standing there very still. Six of them. Lao and Granddad on one side, four gray-clad strangers facing them.
“You tried to hide him from me in a girl,” Granddad sneers coolly and Lao moves to stand just behind him, his hands folded carefully in front. “But I won’t be fooled. He’s mine.” he says and taps his forehead with a bony smile. “He’s the prince we’ve been waiting for and you hadn’t taught him a thing. He was defenseless.” Even though we can’t hear the shout in his words, it’s there.
“The only thing she had to be afraid of was you,” she shouts. “And you’re wrong,” she says, her face twisting in a smile that looks like his meanest. “I did teach her and she’ll never be…” and I wonder what I will never be, but she has finally seen me on the stairs and the words stop. Her face goes blank like Lao’s for a moment then twists into a strange smile that looks more like pain.
That was what she called me then, what everybody called me, but I haven’t heard it in years, since that long highway they used to separate the parts of my life. I remember it though, have even written it down on the wall behind the bed and other secret places so I will never forget it, but it wasn’t mine until she said it again.
“Mama?” She looks different, the shadow lines I catalog at night have multiplied and divided. She looks tired. Worn out. The tears start again without warning like it hasn’t even been six years since the barn and the long drive away from her.
“You selfish, crazy old man,” she hisses and shakes her head. “I won’t let you keep her here, just so you can be free.” Lao’s arms unfold then like the wings and legs of insects and I recognize the start of the dance he has taught me for years.
“It doesn’t matter what you want, he will take his rightful place,” Grandad says in that voice that allows no questions.
I want to scream a warning, but I can’t do anything but stand there on the steps above and between them, terrified because I know Lao will win. He always does. And I will never see her again. I study Mama, looking for some sign of secret strength she might have that will give her a chance against them, but she is just a woman like Mrs. Mowett or the maids. Small and thin and no match for the terrible things they keep. Even though she is so much more: Warm warms and voice and safe. A house with dark and light and dandelions growing in between the cracks in the sidewalk. Even if she won, if she could somehow take me back, I wouldn’t fit in that world anymore.
I am already forgotten anyway. They are not even looking at me anymore. A slushy quiet descends on the room and the lights begin to flicker as the six of them stand frozen until it is not the lights that flicker anymore, but them. They blink on and off, their hard eyes never leaving each other. Granddad’s mouth is open now as the flickering increases. So is Mama’s. They face each other in a frozen argument, the lights blazing as the room becomes a blinding furnace of bright. All that light and no heat.
Shielding my eyes I see it then or maybe I hear its whispers just inside the thundering silence that fills the foyer: the soft rectangle of the open door and the darkness just inside. I try to take a step toward it, but am held along with them, caught between the flickering moments of light. The burning cold white is a physical force that holds and separates me. But my body or a part of me somehow remembers the training and the everyday lessons for years and I start to move. Not in the forward and across, but in that long slow out and through of the underwater dance movements, the foreign guttural sounds of the language Lao has taught me that aren’t sound really. As they leave me they are no longer Lao’s or Granddad’s, they are mixed with Mama’s sad lullaby, my only defense for years against the relentless light.
I understand in a moment what they have done: Lao taught me the language, but not the rhythm of it. They have taught me to talk in a loop and I have been caught for years in a long, stuttering spiral of a spell, unable to move beyond it.
The unwords smooth into the Mama’s delicate melody and it all opens up just like that, the dark rectangle from the door unrolling to meet me, pulling me into the street and the soft world. There is a dull gray glow to everything that I know somehow is Jack’s bright night. I move again without meaning to and see him from the shadow places, the closet in his room, the corners and the cool dark inside a drawer of clothes that smell sweet and vaguely medicinal. I am all the hidden places the light can’t reach, but it slips away too quickly like a memory, like a name or face you want to remember.
Jack is lying across a racecar bed in blue pajamas under a poster of the planets, everything emerging in deep twilight tones of sleep. Except the icy darkness in and around his eyes that I see now will only get harder and bigger as the world is made bright. But it doesn’t have to. It could be another kind of dark if I only knew what to call it.
Winnie is here too, her long legs folded to fit in a child’s chair near the bed where she reads in the dim dark, books piled around her. I think or maybe I hope that she won’t see me or hear the humming, but there is a gasp and the flutter of pages as she jumps in the seat. Her eyes narrow and I am expecting that intense stare, but she just studies me like she is still reading. I watch the recognition run over her like relief and the book lowers slowly to the bed beside Jack.
“What are you…?” I think it is a whole question, not the start of something and my eyes begin to burn with the tears I’ve been holding onto for so long. I wonder if I reach out again, will I be able to touch the book under my mattress and the words she wrote?
“You said you knew.” My voice sounds more like a muffled whisper into warm blankets.
She looks puzzled and more than a little afraid, but doesn’t run.
“I know your name’s not Jack,” she says in a low voice, her eyes darting to ensure her brother is still asleep. When she looks back, her eyes move over and around me like she can’t find me in the dark. “And even if you wear a suit all the time, you’re still a girl.”
My breath catches in a hard sob and the edges of the room begin to feel blurry so I hum again to keep it all there.
“But I’m a prince.” I wipe at my nose with the back of my hand, hoping she can’t see me in the dim light.
Her head tilts slightly to the left and I feel things begin to tighten, the dim light blinking faintly. I know he is close — Granddad.
“So? You don't have to be a boy to be a prince. Or a girl. You can be anything you want.”
I remember a day before they took me from Mama with sudden clarity, playing in the fields with friends, the wind knocked out of me for just a moment. Because it is just like that without the roughness and the hard ground. The blinking stops and the humming seems to unfold inside me, becoming more of a song with those unwords I am just beginning to understand, that have meaning outside Granddad’s house. Meaning that is just out of reach but that has everything to do with the dark, the light, and the third kind that is so close.
Something unrolls or unravels around me or maybe it is me who is unraveled — away from Winnie and Jack and back to that bright house.
“Run, Grace,” Mama’s voice is loud and wild, but I am already sliding through and around Granddad and Lao’s fluttering forms out into the street. The hollow dark edges toward me in elongated fingers of shadow, leading me to the park that waits behind the street lights in endless voices of pitch black, each muttering in its own familiar rhythm.
Still singing Mama’s sad tune, I move the way Lao taught me, but softly, sliding in and through the curled up spaces to finally claim my country. And the trees lean down to me whispering the dark’s long, lost name.
This story was originally published in LCRW, Issue 20.
This story originally appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.