Sorrow – by Mary Johnson

I could have killed myself, of course. I could have flung the child from the top of the tower, and flung myself after him. Then all our troubles would have ended. They told me I could live so long as the child lived, but what did I care for the child’s life? What did I care for my own? I could have killed myself, but I did not.

Why not? I have often asked myself, over the years, and I’ve never found an answer. Was I so afraid to die? And, if I was, how did they know I was such a coward? And why would they trust that child to me, whom they called a murderess? I’ve never found an answer to that, either.

Or have I? Maybe a hint of an answer: deep in my silent thoughts, it came to me that the king would be pleased if I killed myself, and the child as well. He didn’t have the stomach to murder his nephew, so he left it to me. Well. I would sooner be damned than kill a little child to please his majesty.

The tower. Yes. It’s a dreadful place, but, when I first came here, I felt no dread. I felt nothing at all. The wind in my face, the rustle of the grasses, the horse moving under me, and Gaspar’s arms round me, as mine were round the child-all of it meant nothing. I was in a dream; we were all shades.

Then the horse stopped, and Gaspar threw a grappling hook that caught on a window high above. He climbed the tower, his feet on the smooth stones and his hands gripping the rope.  I watched him climb through a window high above me, so that I had to crane my neck to see. Then a ladder of ropes and wooden rungs came snaking and rattling down the wall. A moment later, Gaspar climbed down it. With gestures, he showed me that I must climb up, I and the child. And I did. I am afraid of heights, but I did. What choice did I have?

It was Gaspar who brought the little boy up the ladder, and the child clung to his neck like a monkey. He whimpered, just a little, when Gaspar handed him to me. He doesn’t cry much, nor often, and doesn’t speak much either. His name is Dolor. It means sorrow. A good name for a child condemned to live and die in this place.

#

This place. Sometimes I wonder how they built it, so far out in the wastelands. How, and why? It’s a round tower, at least sixty feet high at a guess, but it seems even taller because there is nothing else anywhere near it. Nothing but the endless plain. The walls go straight up to the rooms we live in. Below us are storerooms, and below them, nothing but air. There are no stairs.

Yet the little prince, Dolor, has every comfort one could imagine. They have cleverly contrived a little room for cooking, and one for washing. When it rains, the water runs into a cistern, and there is a pump, too, that draws water from deep under the ground. The child has a great four-poster bed, quilts, pillows, toys and books. Oh, he is rich, this little man! He has silks and satins, strong stone walls, the wind and the rain, the blazing sun, the dry grasses, and four rooms. And his life, whatever that may be worth.  Yes, and his life.

There’s a walkway round the peaked roof, and I am charged to bring him out to the open air every day for half an hour, for his health and mine. I must take every care to guard his health. So they have told me, the king and his servants. But I don’t forget. I don’t forget that I can live only as long as the child does.

I had thought the child simple. So I heard them say at court, because he cannot use his legs. But he uses his eyes well enough, and his mind, too. The first time I brought him out onto the roof, he pointed and said, “Look! The mountains.” He said it so clearly, though he was only three, and, indeed, there they were, the Beautiful Mountains, so far away they seemed like a faint line of clouds. The little boy stared and stared, and when my walk brought us to the opposite side of the tower, he craned his neck as if he hoped to see round the roof, trying to keep them in view.

He has the rooms that face the mountains and our native country. My window stares out at the plain, and the sea that is supposed to lie beyond it. But I have never seen the sea. I suppose it must exist, for people bring salt fish from it, but, for all I know, it is just a tale told to children. “Once there was a fisherman who dwelt by the sea.” I began telling that story to the little boy, and he looked up at me and said, in his clear voice,

“Go on, nurse. What did the man do?”

I shook my head and could not go on, for thinking of another child. I won’t tell that story again.

 

#

We had been there a month, I think, and the evenings were growing cool. I had brought the child out to the battlements to take the air, and he pointed toward the mountains, as he so often did. But this time he smiled and said, “Gaspar!”

“What do you mean, prince?” I said to him.

He bounced a little in my arms. “Gaspar’s coming. Gaspar!” I had not known he even knew Gaspar’s name. Yet, truly, a horse was running toward the tower across the plain, and after awhile even I could see that it was Gaspar, on his black gelding.

Horse and man alike were burdened with bags. When he came to the tower, Gaspar quickly got the ladder together and climbed up, a heavy sack on his back. Then he mounted a second time, and a third. He brought food, mostly, but also books and a slate and pencil for writing, and clothing, and much more. The books-only a few histories-were for me, but the child looked at them with interest. It made me wonder whether I might teach him to read. He is still too young, but not much too young, and a child cannot play all the time. He must work as well.

“Bring books for the child, too, next time, and another slate and pencil,” I said. But Gaspar, who had turned toward the window, did not respond. I caught him by the shoulder, and he turned back to me and looked into my face. “Please bring me some books for the child, books with pictures,” I said. Then I wrote it on the slate. Gaspar took the slate from me, scanned it, and nodded. He reached out for the pencil and wrote. When he handed it back, I read: “What more?”

“Nothing, now.” I wrote it down, then said to the prince, “Gaspar must go now. Say farewell.”

“Farewell,” the little boy repeated, and then sobbed aloud. After all, he is scarcely more than a baby.

I touched his head and said, “Don’t cry, Prince Dolor. Gaspar will be back.” But my touch was rough and awkward and the little boy paid no heed to my words. Gaspar himself did better. He knelt and looked the child in the face and shook his head. Then he put his finger to his lips. The child swallowed his sobs and repeated the gesture. A moment later, his dark face grave, Gaspar swung over the windowsill and down the ladder. When he reached the ground below, I unhooked the ladder and tossed it down to him, as I have been commanded to do. Gaspar mounted his horse and rode away from us. We would not see him again for another month.

#

Gaspar’s visits were like a holiday to us, but, in the meantime, there was a month of days to get through. I soon realized we must have a routine, if I were not to go mad. Rather than thinking of the world below us, I must think of my tasks here. The child, too, needed order.

I soon found that what I’d noticed at Gaspar’s visit was true; the child had a good mind. He might say little to me, but he spoke when he was playing with his toys, directing them to do this and that as a child will. I saw no reason why I should clear away his playthings; I had enough to do with cooking, and washing our clothes and our bodies, and getting water, and getting rid of the wastewater. And the little boy could crawl and clamber about very well. If he could strew his toys and picture books all about the room, he was well able to pick them up, too. So I told him he must pick up his toys each day at sunset. Then he was to have his tea and his bath and get ready for bed.

One day, when I went to remind him of his task, he turned to me with a frown pulling down his little mouth. “No!” he said. “I shan’t. You can’t make me!” I raised my hand to him as if to strike him, and then I froze. Prince Dolor looked up at me, puzzled and a little frightened. In my mind, I heard my mother speaking to me.

“You mustn’t grow angry when Felicia says no. I’ve seen you angry with her. Little children like to say no. You must be firm, but not angry.”

At that time, I hadn’t fully understood her. I did now. I lowered my hand, looked the prince in the face, and spoke. “You may have another quarter hour, my prince. Then I will come back to take you to your bath.” I left the room and tried to compose myself. I was shaking. A quarter hour later, I went back into the room and took the prince to his bath and his tea. He fussed a little, but only a little. And after that, he picked up his toys, as I asked.

I did not strike him, not then. Not ever. I will never strike a child again.

#

So we lived, the boy and I. Gaspar came faithfully every month. When he climbed over the sill, he brought much more than food and clothing and books and other such essentials. He brought a human face, the breath of the outside world, and a kind heart. Once, on one of his early visits, he plucked flowers from the grass near the tower and brought these up to us. They were poor, weedy things that any cottage wife would have scorned, but to me, they were beautiful: pale blue, with white streaks on the five-part petals. And they had a fresh, green scent. Gaspar gave a blossom to the prince, and the child breathed in that scent and then stroked the petals, as gently as one might stroke the cheek of a sleeping babe.

But Gaspar was gone an hour later, and the blossoms had withered by the next day.

Another time — I think Prince Dolor must have been six or seven years old by this time — Gaspar brought a little white kitten for the boy. Prince Dolor was delighted, and I was not displeased. A kitten would grow into a cat, and it might destroy any vermin that managed to get into our storeroom. In the meantime, it was a creature for the boy to play with and care for. Child and kitten lived happily together for perhaps a month. Then the cat got up onto the windowsill, and sprang or fell out.

Prince Dolor sobbed, at intervals, for days. When I first heard him cry out, I came rushing into his room, relieved to find him unhurt. After all, the creature was only a cat. But the boy had loved it, and I must say something to comfort him. So I told him that cats had nine lives, unlike us humans with only one. And they could survive falls from great heights.

“Truly, nurse?” the little boy sobbed.

“Truly,” I answered. I saw him peer out the window; he was just tall enough, then, to see out if he lifted himself by gripping the ledge.

“She’s gone, Nurse,” he said wonderingly. “She must have run off.” I assured him that yes, the little cat must have run off. And, indeed, I saw no little white body at the base of our tower. But where could the kitten go, if it had survived the fall? What could it eat? The boy was clever enough to think of those things himself, and that was why he sobbed. He had failed to protect a creature in his care.

I must not do the same.

Gaspar did not bring another kitten. After all, there were no vermin in the stores.

#

The winters in the tower were cruelly cold, the snow often lying for weeks on the plain. During the first storm of the first winter, the thought rose up in me, almost to choke me: If Gaspar does not come? But he never failed us. One bitter day—I think it was our fourth winter there—the snow swirled about the tower, blown by a piercing wind. Yet Gaspar found his way through the storm. When he clambered through the window with his baggage, his eyes and nose were streaming, and he seemed fatigued. I made hot tea for him before he left.

A week after that, the little prince fell ill with a high fever, and I was in terror. If he died! The child must not die. I sat by his bed and bathed his forehead, and made him light soups and teas and urged him to drink. I sang to him, too, the songs I’d once sung to Felicia, but I don’t know if he heard them.

If he died! “Coward, coward!” I said to myself. “For shame! You should think of the child, and not of yourself.” I knew that, but I was almost frozen with fear the whole time he was ill. In time he recovered, and began to regain the vigor a growing boy should have. But he was pale and quiet for a long time after the illness.

#

It was after this that the boy grew solemn and retreated into his books. I’m not sure how long after; one day was much like the next in the tower. But he loved to sit in a beam of sunlight near the window and read, often the same book, over and over again. I often saw him sitting so. Perhaps I should have tried to rouse him and make him cheerful. But how? I had little enough cheerfulness in me, and the boy was doing no harm. He was quiet. It was easier for me thus.

There’s just one thing I remember from those years. A lark took to singing by the tower. I heard it, and mentioned to the prince, half-teasing, that I would like to catch the bird and make a lark pie. “No!” he said. “No, you shan’t! You mustn’t!” I looked at him in astonishment. It wasn’t pettishness, as when I’d told him to pick up his toys as a little child. No, this was real fear. But what was the boy afraid of? I had no chance of catching a wild songbird, not locked up as we were in strong stone walls. And weren’t the creatures made for our use? But I didn’t tease him any further.

 

#

Weren’t the creatures made for our use? So I’d always believed, but perhaps it wasn’t a good thought. That night, I heard Florian saying so, as he often had before. He worked in the king’s stables, and I used to watch him breaking the horses. The wild young horses frightened me, but it thrilled me, too, to see the mastery he had over them. They would bow before him in fear, and fool that I was, I loved to see that. He would smile and wink at me, and I would feel pride that such a masterful man took interest in me.

But he was not pleased when he heard about Felicia.

That night, after I’d heard the lark singing, he said to me, “Can’t you stop that brat’s whining?” He stood before me, as he often had before, with the sweat from his battles with the horses still on him.

“But it’s only a lark. Only a little bird,” I said. “The boy loves it. He doesn’t whine.”

“Give it to me and I’ll get rid of it,” he said, and I woke with that voice echoing in my ears. Felicia’s, too, crying for her little pup.

How could I ever have cared for Florian?

#

I had a few more bad nights, whenever I heard the lark singing round the tower. But the boy seemed happier. He was browned and rosy from the sun. I still took him out to the roof every day; now he helped me by gripping my shoulders as I took him pic a back. But still, I was a little puzzled at how sunburnt he seemed at times. And once I found his skylight open, when I was sure I had shut it.

Otherwise, he remained the quiet boy he had always been. He worked hard at his studies, and, as the days and months passed, I noticed that he seemed to work hardest at the lessons he liked least. He tidied up his books and playthings willingly, and I began to teach him how to dress himself, to the best of his ability, and to do what he could for himself. This was the child’s idea, not mine. He said, “Nurse, I’m a big boy now, and I ought to be able to manage on my own.” So he learned to get himself onto a high-backed chair and work the pump for water, and to plump up his pillows, and to get himself in and out of bed, and much more. It was not easy for him to do some of these things, but he always found ways to manage them.

It was around this time that he began to ask questions that were hard for me to answer. Oh, he didn’t persist, or ask many questions at a time, like a little child. Instead, he would drop them into a conversation, like stones into a well, and wait for the echo to come back. The first such that I remember came when he was perhaps ten or eleven years old. “Nurse?” he said, as we scanned a new geography. “All the boys and girls I have read about have parents. Who were my parents, and why aren’t they here?”

“Your parents are dead, my prince,” I answered. So much it seemed safe to say to him, though I felt shaken. At his inquiring look, I continued, “They died when you were very small. Your father was the king, and your mother the queen. They were good people, I believe.” Thankfully, the prince seemed satisfied with this and asked no further. Not then.

Several months later came a question I dreaded. “Nurse, why are we locked in this tower?” I shook my head at that and put my fingers to my lips, and the boy stared. I must have shown my fear in my face, or in my gestures, for he said, “Don’t be frightened, nurse. I shan’t ask you again.” And he was true to his word, and asked no such questions for many months more.

But then came the question that was the true test. A week or two after Gaspar’s latest visit, when we were going through a new history book, Prince Dolor looked up at me at said, “Nurse? In the history books, princes become kings. Shall I ever be a king?”

I froze, my mind racing, and the boy waited. Ten years, I thought to myself. Ten years and more the little boy had been locked up, and what had he ever done to deserve it? He must be thirteen or fourteen now. I understood my orders very well. Two things would bring me death: letting the child die, and telling him the truth. But he looked into my face with those wise, innocent, dark eyes, so like my Felicia’s, and I could not lie to him.

I had promised never to say a word. But if I wrote?

“Nurse?” the boy asked, and I put my finger to my lips and picked up his slate. My hands were shaking so that I could scarcely form the words, but I managed to write, “You are a king.”

He read the words, frowning a little in puzzlement, and began, “But if I am a king, how is it—”

I shook my head frantically and took the slate back. My hands grew steadier as I wrote. I told him the whole story; how his parents had died, how his uncle usurped his throne when prince Dolor was scarcely more than a baby; how he was condemned to live and die in the tower, and I with him. He read silently, wide-eyed, and then handed the slate back to me. He was very straight and very pale. “Thank you, nurse. I think I should like to be alone now,” he said.

 

 

#

I would have thought that conversation, which so frightened me, would have changed everything. I expected the king’s minsters to come riding over the plain and drag me off into their dungeon, to be killed at the king’s pleasure. But, of course, this didn’t happen. And the boy, too, didn’t change, except that he seemed more patient with me and more determined to master tasks that were difficult for him. So we went on for a couple of months. It was summer, I think our eleventh in our prison.

Then something did change. Not what I expected, no, it wasn’t the king’s jailer who came riding to the tower. It was our faithful Gaspar. But he was late, and had few stores with him. When he climbed the ladder, tight-lipped and frowning, I drew him aside and wrote on my slate, asking him what was the matter.

“The king is dead,” he wrote.

Dead! Our jailer was dead, and, as Gaspar made me understand, the kingdom was in turmoil.

I had just recently told the boy that he was king. Now he was king indeed. Nomansland had no other ruler.

But I also knew that the boy’s fate was a deep secret. Most of the folk didn’t even know he was alive. If I told them, though?

My heart beat fast and I nearly fainted, groping for a chair. Gaspar helped me into it, and I took his hands in mine.

“Take me with you,” I said to him. “Let me speak to the boy, and take me with you.”

Gaspar shook his head. He had not understood all that I said, so I wrote it on the slate. “A moment more,” I begged him. “Let me do what I can for the child. Then I’ll be ready.” I rushed round doing one task after another and trying not to think about the risk I was about to take. Then it was time to speak to the prince.

I had thought him asleep, Gaspar came so late, but he was sitting quietly reading, as he so often did. “Prince Dolor,” I began. My heart was racing, my hands sweaty, and my mouth dry. I licked my lips and began again. “Prince Dolor, the king is dead, but no one knows you are alive. I must go with Gaspar and tell them. I have left food for you and pumped water. There is enough for a week. Gaspar has brought more bread. I must go now.”

It seemed to me that the boy looked up and smiled at me. Like a faint breath of wind, a voice sounded in my ear, “Godspeed, nurse.”

Had the boy really spoken? He did not beg to go with us. But he was an intelligent boy, and probably realized he would only hamper us. I must go, to cry out the news, for Gaspar could not. Gaspar must go, to manage the horse, for I could not. The boy’s part was to wait, and hope for rescue.

#

Gaspar went in to the boy, and came out with a finger to his lips. I glanced into the room, and found, to my amazement, that the prince was asleep. Night had already fallen.

It was full dark when Gaspar got me down from the tower and I felt the earth under my feet. I was shaking so that I could hardly stand. The great horse stamped and blew, and I cringed away from it, expecting it to bite or kick. But Gaspar stroked its head and hummed to it softly, and it subsided. He got me up onto its back.

I had thought we would gallop hard all the way to the palace. Florian would have driven the horse until it foundered, but Gaspar was more careful of his mount. We rode only a couple of hours that night before stopping and making a rough camp in a hollow on the plain. Early the next morning, we started off again. The horse trotted bravely forward, and by nightfall we were in the mountains, coming to villages where folk lived. As we came to the first village square, I shouted as loudly as I could, “We have a king! Prince Dolor lives!”  A couple of men walking by raised their heads and stared, and one of them made as if to grasp the horse’s reins. But Gaspar clicked his tongue and the horse sped up. We rushed past him and went on.

We camped again in the mountains. It was not till the third day that we came into Nomansland and saw the palace before us. Then Gaspar began to gallop, and I called out constantly. I was hoarse with shouting, and a crowd was rushing and buzzing behind us, when we came to the palace itself. One of the king’s ministers came out to see what the fuss was about. “Prince Dolor lives!” I cried into his face. “We have a king!”

The man frowned at me. “This woman is a criminal. She is raving. Take her to the prison,” he said.

Two men grasped my arms and pulled me from the horse, though Gaspar tried to prevent them. I stumbled when my feet touched the ground and nearly fell. But still I cried out, “Prince Dolor lives!” I was still shouting when they locked me in chains, and the cell door slammed behind me.

 

#

It was then the dream haunted me, as it had more than ten years before. Whenever I fell asleep, I would find myself living it again. I was in the mews over the stables, and my little Felicia was turning, a broom in her hand. Her pretty little face was toward mine, her eyes wide with fear, but I could not come to her. Florian stood between us, his fist raised. He struck her so that she slammed into the wall behind her and crumpled like a broken-winged bird. I heard myself screaming. I picked up something—I don’t know what; a stick of wood, a rake, whatever I could grasp. I struck Florian from behind, as hard as I could, still screaming. The screaming always woke me. I would sit up, shaking, my throat raw, still seeing Florian on the floor before me and feeling my daughter’s blood on my hands.

I should have saved her. It was my fault she died. All my fault. They were right to condemn me.

Those were my nights. The days were not much better. It is true that I could sometimes see a gleam of sunlight on the wall high above me, but that made me think of the boy. How long had it been? It was already three days and more before we ever reached the palace. He had food for a week. If he should die! The child mustn’t die, not my pretty boy, too. Would they even have gone out to look for him?

I lost track of the days and nights; days and nights alike were haunted by the dark eyes of children. I don’t think I truly slept at all. At long last, there came a sound of metal scraping against metal, and the door swung open. The king’s minister stood there. I sat in the straw, straw in my hair and my mouth hanging open, staring at him. Was the boy dead, then? Were they going to kill me now? The minister looked at me for a moment, as you might look at a bit of dirt you’d scraped off your shoe. Then he spoke.

“Get up, woman. You are free. The prince has pardoned you.”

And so I stumbled to my feet, and they unlocked the chains that bound me and led me out of the prison, into the evening light, and Gaspar stood waiting for me.

#

Yes, the prince pardoned me. Thus, I saw his coronation. I was a long way back in the crowd, and, though I’m a tall woman, I found it hard to see over peoples’ heads. Indeed, I found it hard enough to stand, in all that heat and press of people. I was thin and weak from the prison cell, and those who were near me looked askance at me, and at Gaspar, who stood behind me. It was as if they scorned to have a condemned woman and a black servant among this crowd of free people. But we are free, too, I told myself. The prince has set us free. Still, I found it impossible to meet the eyes of the courtiers. Gaspar merely smiled at their frowns, and I leaned my head against his chest, where I could feel his warmth and strength and hear his heart beat.

The boy, too, was surrounded by a press of folk, all the advisors of the court. It should have been enough to cow him, but it did not. We all saw him-yes, I too saw him-put his hands between the bishop’s hands and swear to rule Nomansland. Then they pressed the crown on his head, and heavy it looked above that small, solemn face. They spoke through trumpets, so all the folk could hear them, and asked him what name he would take as he began his kingship. “Honor?” they suggested. “Valor? Dignity?” But the child shook his head.

“You must have a name, your majesty, one that will inspire and unite your people.” So said the chief advisor.

The boy looked at him, his back straight, and spoke. His voice cracked, as a boy’s will when he begins to grow into his manhood, but it still rang clear as a bell through all that hall.

“I have a name, my lord. I am Dolor.”

And I smiled then, with pride in him. My pretty boy! How wise he is.

While I live, I shall be ruled by sorrow.

maryjohnson

Mary Johnson will always be grateful to her family for nurturing her love of story. Her father read her Lewis and Tolkien, her mother introduced her to the Greek myths, and she played endless games of make-believe with her sisters and brother. Her sisters are still among her first and best readers. As a little girl, Mary longed to find her way into Narnia through a magic wardrobe, visit the Beornings with Bilbo and the dwarves, or tesser with Meg and Charles Wallace Murry. Another story that sparked her imagination was Dinah Mulock Craik’s Little Lame Prince. Even as a child, Mary found the nurse fascinating; she’s a cold, cowardly and selfish woman who nevertheless risks her life to correct a great wrong. Mary has retold the tale from the point of view of this minor character. She’s very pleased to share the resulting story with the world thanks to Sick Lit Magazine. Mary’s been published in “Mythic Circle” and in the “Westchester Review”. You can find some of her other writing at her author page, where she welcomes comments and discussion. Visit her online at http://mjohnsonstories.net/, or at http://maryj59.wordpress.com/

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. deirdrea says:

    Reblogged this on Deirdre’s Blog and commented:
    I want to share this story with everyone, because I think it’s beautiful. I hope you enjoy it!

    Like

    1. Mary says:

      Thank you, Deirdre!

      Like

  2. Mary says:

    Thanks so much, Angela! I’m really glad you found it engaging.

    Like

  3. Angela Mathews says:

    Very sweet fiction. I found myself really caring about the characters and didn’t stop reading until I was finished with the story.

    Like

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