The Queen of Hearts. Aoibheann McCann.

3 Jan

The Queen of Hearts

 

Matthew draws the worn playing card lightly over and back on his stomach trying to emulate the half-memory of a brush of long hair. The Queen of Hearts looks out at him with a red flower in her hand, commanding him to understand. She has no torso, but doubles back on herself, repeats the message he cannot decipher no matter how many times he turns the card around. Sometimes she tells him to leave; sometimes she is asking him to set her free.
His father returns just after darkness falls. The sweat on his forehead reflects the light of the oil lamp in his hand. Matthew comes out from under the table when Robert places the lamp above him. From exactly what he is hiding he isn’t told. Robert greets him with a grunt and a tousle of hair, then turns to prepare the dinner, which consists of brown bread with butter and cheese, that his father slathers in mustard. Matthew does not like the sting of the yellow mustard on his tongue, but knows better than to complain.
His father does not allow him to use the knife to cut either bread or ham for himself, or even butter, nor is he to touch the axe his father keeps sharpened by the door and under his bed at night. The axe is an extension of Robert’s arm to cut fallen wood into logs, which Robert sells somewhere outside the woods.
Why the people do not come for their own wood and gather it where it lies for the taking, the boy can’t imagine, unless, like him, they were too afraid of Robert, and the dark woods that surround the cabin, their tree branches clawing on the windows at night.
His father speaks to him when he eats, spitting chunks of food into his beard and onto the table. Then sweeps the heel and crumbs with his arm to the floor where the dog waits. Dog by night, Matthew by day, wearing a smooth groove into the stone floor. The dog, Laddie, a red setter, has no regard for the boy.
His father sits by the fire then, swigging from a bottle, staring into the fire. Matthew’s heart is like a stone dropped in a pool, lost and hard, the ripples having long fanned out into nothingness.
The woodcutter had won Matthew’s mother in a game of cards. The mer-people swam up to the dock on weekends, languished in the shallows. The fish had gone and pollution pumped into the sea from the mill. The men had developed a taste for alcohol and cards. Their women sell all they have left under the pier and then return to their reservation pool, west of the docks.
And so the woodcutter had come by Ethel. He had named her himself as she had never spoken and had grown drier and paler the further into the woods he carried her. He had thrown her back the next day, more dead than alive, as she had been the night before, the smell of rotting fish overwhelming the cabin.
The child had been left outside his door, in a bucket, some months later, but he had no gills like his mother and red hair like his father. The woodcutter had sighed and taken him in, fed him watered down cow’s milk he exchanged for wood. The child never suffered from any illnesses, but his father couldn’t risk an accident so he bid him stay under the table when he became too heavy to carry. He no longer tied him to the leg of the table as the child was obedient and does not even try to venture outdoors.
Occasionally after late nights in town, his father brings a woman back. When they see Matthew they touch his hair and gasp at its colour, but the same woman never returns twice.
The only woman in his life is The Queen of Hearts, a single red backed playing card that he found sticking up from between the floorboards. He loves her so much her image is worn down from the curve of his cheek. He thinks this is a picture of his mother. That is what his father says when he asks.
Then one evening his father does not come home, the night is long and dark, the branches claw at the windows. Matthew asks the Queen what to do. She tells him to leave. In the morning when the light returns and the branches retreat he opens the door with the key his father said was only to be used in case of a fire, and ventures through the woods. He follows the path, it is silent, the branches welcome him and part to allow him pass. He realises they too work for the Queen and will help him find his way out of the woods. The trees thin out and he steps into the light. He cannot bear it, and steps back. The branches prod him forward again and he shades his eyes with his hand to go on.
He sees a huge cabin on stilts, the water washes up around it, there is a ramp that leads him up to its porch. There is a man by the door watching him approach. Matthew holds up the card in front of him, he laughs at Matthew, he gestures his thumb beyond. Matthew goes forward down a wooden walkway. Below him the roofs of the ruined houses are covered with bare-chested men whose bottom halves are submerged in the water. Their hair is long like his. He turns back to the first cabin and stands and stares at the man, until the man turns and goes inside and returns with a grey gruel that Matthew slurps from the bowl. Matthew curls up on the porch like the dog and sleeps then, the sounds of the town around him, the thump, thump on the wooden walkways, the Mer-men below in the water laughing and fighting in equal measure infiltrating his dreams.
In the morning the mayor of the town, John Gill is waiting for him. He has short red hair, the same colour as Matthew. He takes him to a house. It is on stilts too but is the biggest house in the village. There are other boys there with long hair like seaweed, like him. They sleep together in lines of bunk beds. John Gill points him to an empty one in the corner.
In the daytime there are chores. He is set to fetching water by the shapeless woman who opens the door in the morning and serves them the watery porridge, but there is food and company and freedom in the afternoon. The first afternoon Matthew goes to the edge of the boardwalk to spy on the mer -people. They play cards on the flat roof of a submerged house, bobbing up and down in the tide. The cards are set up on crates and the sailors and locals sit on the wooden slats, playing against them, wagering spirits against the pearls the mer-men use to trade and gamble. The women splash in the distance, appearing now and again to check for customers. Matthew marvels at their beauty, their hair like his. He wonders which one is his mother, sees none who look as regal as the Queen of Hearts card he keeps under his mattress.
Though soon he sees that very child in the orphan house has a worn playing card from the same pack, everyone a queen. The boys who surround him on the first afternoon have shown him their Queen of Hearts. They lead him to the flooded quarry on top of the hill. It is black and green with algae and does not reflect the sun. He is afraid, but the other boys surround him chanting and he jumps in, his stomach sick. He swims like a fish and he glides, feels free for the first time, he joins with the water under the sky and knows why he has left the woods, why he was born, where he belongs. He swims with his hair flowing behind him. The boys are a lawless gang and the mayor and the other villagers are afraid of them, their silence, their stubborn refusal to engage in tasks they do not see as necessary. They will fetch water but will not fish or tend the animals up the hill. But they are the only children left in the town now. Sometimes fully human babies are born but they are sickly and unformed, missing an eye or both, or worse. They barely live out the day.
Matthew wonders less and less what has happened to his father. He wonders if he even was his father when and if he ever thinks about him. What kind of a father just doesn’t come home? But this is the tale every boy has to tell here, brought up alone in the town’s surrounds, and one day left here by their parent or finding their way here themselves.
Everyday they swim in the quarry, which looks down over the town. In the distance there is a castle, the flag that flies over it looks red in the distance. There lives the Queen of Hearts which they serve, the other boys say, they tell Matthew she can see them, and watches how brave they are swimming, how fast they jump in so they can serve her best by maybe someday diving for pearls for her crown. Matthew decides to dive in, the water barely ripples when he enters it from higher and higher heights. When he swims he swims for her. His card is left with his ragged clothes but fades more everyday, the light all pervasive where even these sallow boys burn in the hot sun. They are only safe diving in the murky waters here in the quarry and in the shade of its high cliff faces. They never swim in the waters below the village where the mermaids live. The mermen turn from them when they pass the boardwalk to gather water where the river meets the sea, before the salt water turns to salt. It is dirty no matter where it is gathered and has to be boiled in large vats outdoors which belch out sulphur. The housekeeper fills the cooling vats with the mint that grows profusely though the town, filling up the roofs of the half submerged houses nearest the woods and covering their charred walls with green riot. Mint is one of the few things that grows, mint and Johnny goosegrass which the boys stick to each other’s clothes and occasionally chew upon. They mostly eat the meat of the scrawny animals who are butchered screaming for all to hear in the abattoir hut, the smell of their blood, shit and fear mingling with the mint and sulphur.
Sometimes girls show up just as Matthew has, shown here by the mayor but they disappear again within the day. Matthew does not know where they go to, he thinks maybe there is a separate place for them somewhere. Nor does he see the older boys leave, as they seem to when they their voices deepen and whiskers sprout on their upper lip, and they become Jacks, the old cards tossed away, almost disintegrated, they are beholden to the Queen no more. If she has not sent for you by the time your voice finally stops playing games and drops for good, you must leave. Matthew sees the Jack of Hearts has an axe like his father had. He wonders where he is.
The leadership of the gangs change then in a vicious burst of uncharacteristic violence reserved only for this. And daily now the bottom gaps are filled, the ranks are swelled by the new children who turn up terrified clutching their cards to their chest, tangled hair down past their shoulders. Matthew regards them as he was regarded, in silence. In silence he matches his card to theirs and leads them to the quarry for their first swim. He points them to the castle.
Once a month the joker appears, the boys go to jeer at him but he makes Matthew afraid. He carries a stick with perfect replica of himself on top, his ribbon becomes a whip that he twirls as he spins, almost floating. Then he laughs, passes around his tricolor hat for offerings. When he waves goodbye, his flapping hand turns into a pointed finger and the boy he points towards must join his side and leave with him to the castle. They never look back, and the boys are never seen again.
The boys who leave alone head for the mountains; they say the water is clean there, that the girls wait for them there, that there are no villagers and no mer-people, that they will be free. Matthew strokes his upper lip for hair, listens for change in his voice.
The joker comes for him in the night. He floats up to the window and taps on it with his whip, none of the other boys stir. Matthew tucks his fading card into his shirt and leaves by the front door that is never locked. The joker doesn’t speak; Matthew follows him through the dark by the sound of the bells. They reach the castle by daybreak. The joker turns and nods at him before he knocks on the gate. The drawbridge is lowered.
Inside it is cold and dark, Matthew wants to see the queen but he cannot see anyone, not even the joker. He can hear crying. It seems to come from the walls.
When the sun rises he sees some boys he recognizes but they are different. These boys are broken now. The food, which is heralded with a gong, appears on a long table that did not appear to be there before. The boys file along silently and take their place on the benches. They do not even acknowledge Matthew.
There is bread, brown and hard, but it is bread. There is butter; Matthew has not had butter since he left his father’s house. He follows the boys after they eat; they go to the throne room through a door behind a dusty moth eaten tapestry where a younger Queen rides a unicorn and laughs. The Queen is there, his Queen, the rose in the hand but she has legs. But she does not sit on the throne; she sits at the edge of the raised steps. The joker takes his place on the throne.
His Queen sits to one side, always crying, mumbling from time to time, always the same thing, Matthew positions himself near her ‘Hearts, Spades, Clubs, Diamonds’, she says over and over she mumbles. The other boys kneel down and bow before the joker. He takes them in turn into the back room sometimes an hour at a time, they come back more silent than before. Matthew knows he has left his father’s house for nothing. He knows he must leave and take the Queen with him. He sees the other boys will not follow; they obey the joker without question. He must go before he is broken too.
When the third boy is chosen and the joker is gone again, Matthew steps forward and takes the Queen’s hand and pulls her up, still sobbing. He turns and drags her to the door he came in by. They are let out of the drawbridge without question. They turn left, and take the path to the mountains.
All the years that seemed so long, all the years he spoke to her on the card and sought comfort from her, and heard her advice in his head, and prayed to her though he did not know what praying was, all the years he followed the advice he thought he heard her give, all the things she bid him do, leave his father’s house, join her other devotees, swim with abandon. She was comfort after the recurrent nightmare where the tree branches come and take him back, pluck him from his bunk bed in the mayor’s house and place him back under his father’s table, where he no longer fits but the branches claw and poke until he is crammed underneath, the dog snarling endlessly for him to leave, his knees crammed against the table top.
Now she is here, the woman from the card, but she is weak and pathetic and hinders his way up the ravine, up the paths to the mountain while all the while he worries about why the joker did not stop them, doesn’t come after them, but there is no one to advise him now, there is no one to comfort him, the one thing he believed in is a lie, a weak and stupid lie. He looks at her now asleep on the ground where she fell after a few hours, he thinks about stamping on her head, taking her crown, which up close is nothing but pasted on plastic jewels that are worth nothing, but perhaps could trick some guileless fool into giving him something to eat other than the black berries that trail down on the path and claw at his fingers as he picks them. Still he gives her the best ones, he feeds them to her, her lips pouting to greedily suck and swallow the purple juice as if she is a baby bird and he the mother, as he had always assumed. But when she wakes they climb again, the yellow dust under their feet, her dusty velvet robes catching on every stone and briar but she does not take it off.
When they reach the mountains the older boys are waiting. They have been watching them make their way up. The girls are there too, watching with their black eyes. Some of them hold babies, who suckle as they stand. There are goats too; they walk among them, untethered. They take them to the caves, but they know it is temporary, he knows that his arrival with this creature does not gain him entrance to their world, that he has chosen the wrong path. The Jack of Hearts is painted on the wall of the cave they are shown. They eat the rich goat’s milk porridge and sleep for a while, and are sent on their way upwards into the clouds. Further up, the mountain seems impossibly steep but he pulls her upward. They come to old ruins at the top by nightfall; there are solid circular walls but no roofs. There is no miracle world up here, nor does there appear to be one back down the other side where the path now leads. The queen cries more when she realises this, as if she knows she is a wreck and the world is dirty and empty, but the next morning they keep walking, until they lose sight of the ruins and fall out of sight of the boys who followed them at a distance to the top, who watch her leave with Matthew, who have lost their hope too.
But the further down the mountain path they get the Queen changes, her sighs decrease, her back straightens and she walks quicker, stops less frequently to rest. Matthew barely notices it at first but it is as if they have changed places. He does not know where they are going now and his feet hurt. When he stops she points into the distance, to another mountain and smiles. He does not know what to take from this but he is dazzled by her new smile, it drives him on. On this side the joker’s power has weakened its hold. The sun comes up and illuminates the surrounding landscape; it is nothing like the village or the mountains behind them. Sickly thorny plants grow up through yellow dust and ruins. The track they take has not been used for some time, and then only by animals. The interior of the country is uninhabited now destroyed by something long ago. Sometimes they see movement ahead but it is nothing when they get there. The water the boys have given them is running low but the queen does not seem worried and now leads the way, picking up her robe with her hands and charging forward, face turned to the outline of the castle at the bottom of the mountain ahead.

 

 

 

Aoibheann McCann

 

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