Life is very long when you’re lonely.
The Queen was once a handsome woman, but now, she sits drab in her spiky silver throne on the dark lawn among the dandelions, and little of her beauty remains. She has not gone to seed in the usual overfed manner of her kinswomen, but instead has a thin, strained look, as though all the angles in her face have been redrawn to be a little sharper by some malicious artist.
The Lady-In-Waiting looks at her mistress with some concern; the soft links of her hair are fraying and her nails are rough and serrated with bites. She is gazing, fixed eyed, at the bridge to the castle, and at the crowned figure who stands, immobile at its rail, elbows propped and legs straight. The King has been a statue for almost a year, and still the Queen has not forgiven him for the haste of his leaving. A moment’s shudder, a clutch of the chest, and a wax-faced figure in a long wooden box; and another who sits in the silver chair and watches his statue, and the thick water pools and eddies like blood in the river below him.
The Queen stares up at the Lady-In-Waiting, and her blue eyes are thick yet absently clear. The Lady-In-Waiting kicks a stone with the tip of her slippered foot. Far above, a bird chirps in proclamation as the wind hurls a single dark cloud across the sky, but when the cloud moves on, the Queen remains in darkness, her brow set in a crease that shadows her face, a reflection of the rotating edges of pain that cut her inside. To the Lady-In-Waiting, she seems like an empty vessel, a paper puppet of a woman with no form or function but to jerk awake in the still of the night and lie breathing alone in the incomplete dark.
But then the Queen rises and walks to her King, her feet crunching on the chipped gravel of the bridge below, and carefully extracts her handkerchief; folded, she dabs it at the King’s face, scouring it of the day’s effluvia and muck. She does this every day and every hour, although there are staff who can do it for her; and as she does, she never once loses the lock of her eyes on the dead King’s face. But the granite is grey and unforgiving, and never quivers in its turn, and every time the Queen turns and retires to the throne.
Today, she finishes her task and drops the cloth into the waiting hands of a maid, climbs from the pedestal in a flurry of skirts and black stockings, and looks up at the model of her King. In life, he was not so hard of jaw, nor so smooth of skin, but the castle staff are agreed that it is a likeness; and to the Queen it is more than that. The King was burned on a hamper of crossed sticks, with oil, his ash gone to the sea from a cave in a cliff’s edge. The Lady-In-Waiting remembers that day; for though the Queen never cried, she would not release the ash until the wind tore it through her clenched knuckles, drifting grain by grain between her fingers. The Lady-In-Waiting’s black lace was pricked with grey, and though the Queen ordered all the paintings, writings and clothes from that day destroyed, the Lady-In-Waiting has kept the grey ash in a porcelain thimble.
The wind is whipping leaves across the bridge, and the Lady-In-Waiting’s eyes fill with tears, although she does not know if the wind or the scene is to blame; and the Queen’s dark hair flies out in an untethered cloud as the dandelions burst and the flags blow down; and the clouds grow huge and darken the sky. A soundless white light clicks on for a moment; and when the Lady-In-Waiting opens her eyes the Queen is dead and collapsed on the grass; but by the side of the King, there is a woman in motion, her eyes live with light and her face glad with joy; her limbs made of glass and her heart made of diamond. ##
One thought on “The Queen Is Dead”
– E.M. Forster
I don’t remember being aware of that quote when I wrote this little piece – it seems unlikely, though it was a long time ago, maybe 1992 or thereabouts, so I can’t be sure – but it captures exactly what I was trying to achieve: a very short story (we’d call it flash now, of course) that is nonetheless satisfying beyond the succession of events it describes. So I’m glad to have (re?)discovered it now.