Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Mai Queen

I don’t know who I am anymore. I’ve changed. I can remember the best of my life so clearly; the soaring thrills, the feeling I’d become what I’d always been destined to be; the knowledge my life had been leading to that one brief period of fulfilment.
It was hardly any time ago. The proctors had collected us all together; this season’s Queens, they called us. We were excited to be together; hundreds of us, all the same age. We were driven to the coast and then fed a delightful feast; the flat-backed proctors always watching, hardly eating anything themselves, their poor bodies deformed and twisted into parodies of nature. We all pitied them then, as we always did. We were young and they were aged; we were vital and they were staid and heavy and dour. It was almost that they were another species from us; their lives a travesty, their existences soured by what they’d missed, their bitterness directed toward us in revenge for the cruelties nature had exacted upon them.

We were then shipped to the island. There must have been hundreds of us. Thousands, maybe. Again, the proctors were with us, feeding us until we could swallow no more - the rocking of the boats and the strange juices they were giving us making us feel odd and uneasy. I can remember the proctors I had with me then; the one rowing and the other one urging me to eat and drink. I never really identified with the rower – she was just a back to me; never speaking, never doing anything but pull on the oars – but the other one was mercurial; trying to act as though she was a friend but still with a calculated edge to her. I’m sure she would have thrown me overboard if I hadn’t done as she demanded. And then we were ashore and it was dark and we were hustled on again, across the beach and then up to the castle.

There were more proctors on the island, each as silent and muscular as the rower, the original one with the boat returning to the mainland as soon as we were ashore. The cheery one that wasn’t, the feeder, stayed with me while we were taken up the cliff, the new one we’d been assigned following behind as I was led up the steps. There must have been hundreds of steps we had to climb, carved into the rock, with only our balance and sure footing stopping us from falling. And there were fallers – I know that because I saw one above me, her skirts opening and flashing red for a moment before she hit the rocks and the sand. My mainland proctor stopped above me then, looking down, and I had to stop too, becoming conscious again of the other one behind me, her breath now in my ear. We must have stayed like that for a minute, with me always looking forward and up.

And then we were at the top and I felt safe again, despite the company I had with me. The proctors led us to the castle, although there was nowhere else to go, its walls almost up to the cliff’s edge. We were taken to a great hall and then stripped; the slimmer of our attendants removing our clothes while the others stood aside in readiness. I can remember feeling silly – it must have been the excesses of the food and the strange drinks, I think – but I felt enervated by my nakedness and the sight of all the other Queens there. I slipped away from my entourage and we danced together, hundreds of us, each of us happy to be together and apart from the moderating influences of our proctors. We were young and we were free and we were reckless; our spirits heightened by the screams of the fallers we’d heard, feeling the relief of knowing that it hadn’t been us and the guilt of us still being alive. It was just good to be there and present and we took advantage of it, kissing and hugging and laying entwined with one another, taking delight from our youth and the excitement that bubbled through us all.

I wasn’t the first, but I was one of the early ones. I’d heard someone cry out and then the screams of the others near her before it happened to me. I already knew something was wrong when my back collapsed; the bulge between my shoulders breaking open to let the wings fall free. The attendants must have been watching us, waiting for it to happen, because they were with me almost immediately, primping the feathers and pulling at the muscles to warm them. My long-term proctor was there, forcing me to drink again, the other one doing the massaging. I saw others like me, their wings either trailing or still half-folded, all of us with our attendants; each of us being coaxed to straighten our wings or to make those first few flaps, exercising the muscles we’d discovered we’d had lying dormant. I know I felt dizzy and afraid and confused.

The next thing I remembered was the ledge. The door had been locked behind us and there was nothing but the pale light of the windows and the darkness in front of me like a wall. My proctors were with me then and there was none the fakeness I’d sensed before; the slimmer one now stony-faced and the more muscular one a barrier, preventing me from making my way back to the door.

“It’s up to you, now,” my proctor said, her eyes hooded and unreadable. “You can take the dive or be pushed – it’s all the same to me.” She craned her neck around and then smiled, pointing, feeling no fear of the height. “The men’s island is that way – second star to the right and keep straight on. If you’re lucky, you’ll get there before morning. If not…” She shrugged. “It’s all the same to me.”

I looked out toward where she was pointing and saw a dim light, low on the horizon. “It must be a long way,” I said, dread filtering through me. “How far is it to the mainland?”

The proctor smiled, hawkishly. Her nose was very narrow and her cheeks were concave, almost cadaverous. “’Bout twenty-five miles, I’d say. Your best bets going straight on, toward the men. At least you’ve a point to aim for – you could fly around in circles till you fall, otherwise.” She paused, then continued, delight suddenly animating her face, “The fishes eat well this time of year.”

The blockier proctor was closer now, clenching and unclenching her fingers – first a fist and then a clawed hand.

“And don’t think you can fly back here – we patrol the coastline and drown the ones that aren’t already dead. An inexpert flier’s noisy; we can hear you coming from miles away.” My proctor shrugged, mockingly, her face now as impassive as it had ever been.

“So, I just jump? From up here?” I could see the castle wall, rising dimly above me, and the few lights of the courtyard far below; the blocks of the wall in both directions large, smooth and fitted closely together.

There would be nothing to save me, if I fell. Or if I was pushed. I would just have to put trust in what my wings could do. They had to be there for a reason.

And there was no other choice.

I heard the noise behind me and I jumped, determined to make the decision for myself. At first, it felt like I was flying; the rush of air past my face heady and intoxicating.

And then I opened my eyes.

The first thing I saw was my feet. Then I saw the wall, rushing past me. And then I saw the slabs in the courtyard, growing larger, gaining detail. I began to thrash out with my wings; feeling them first being pulled up vertically so that they dragged uselessly through the air and then the pain as I drew them down again, shedding feathers and feeling my muscles knotting with spasms. I sensed my weight again, not realising the euphoria I’d felt had been my headlong plunge, my vision tunnelling and growing dark even though my eyes were open.

I would not give in, I vowed; knowing it meant nothing to my proctor. I would do this. I would defy her. I would do whatever it took.

And then I was in control.

I soared above the castle, not knowing how I’d made it up there. I could see other Mai Queens on the ledges, their own proctors implacable and brooding. I arced up and away from them, seeking the light I’d been promised. It seemed closer from up there, the dot brighter almost and knowing it offered me freedom, I turned instinctively toward it, aligning my face and my hopes in its direction.

The first few minutes of my flight were dreamlike, and I took pleasure from rising up and then diving again; the sea’s waves always there when I got low enough to distinguish them from the dark aquamarine wall they’d become when I was higher. The skies weren’t truly black either, of course, stars appearing when I became better dark-adapted, populations of bright sparks forming patterns when I studied them more intently; the brightest one always being the one low down toward the horizon. I played with my new-found ability of flight; swooping with first one wing down and then the other, trailing their tips through the waves, then circling and spiralling through the air, rising up into a stall and diving down again, knowing I could always recover my equilibrium and my heading. The beacon-light grew brighter and soon became an island; the dot now covered with trees but with also an inviting shingle beach that I corrected my course toward. It seemed too soon to end my flight but I also felt tired, only now realising the efforts I’d put my body through. What I needed now was to rest and then to eat something more after I’d slept. I would fly again tomorrow, I promised myself, but first I needed to recover.

I landed awkwardly, almost dropping out of the sky, clutching at the air to fall in a steep glide onto the sand, my knees bucking beneath me. A group of people were there to greet me – not Mai, like me, but not like the proctors either. They were broader shouldered and muscular and had hair on their faces, unlike anyone else I’d ever seen. They all seemed glad to see me and quickly crowded round.
And then I awoke in the dark and I was alone. I stretched my shoulders to flex my wings and felt nothing, backing clumsily to the wall so I could trace their lengths against it.

And still felt nothing.

Feeling nothing but the roughness of hewn logs against my shoulders.

I turned about and oriented myself with the doorway, its empty archway lighter than the rest of the room. As I moved toward its opening I felt something brush against my foot.

A feather. One of many on the ground,
I was weeping when the men came for me, crouched alone, clutching my useless wings to my chest. I’d tried to reattach them, but they’d fallen away again, refusing to re-join themselves to my back.

How can a life pass in a day? I wish I’d never been given my freedom. It only made my return to earth more painful when I fell.


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