The Writing Quarter October 2018 WinnerPosted 2 weeks ago under Uncategorised,
by Colette Coen
Colette Coen has most recently been published in Chroma, Structo and Crannog Magazines. Her novel All the Places I’ve Ever Been and short story collections are available on Amazon. She lives in Glasgow, Scotland with her husband and their two teenagers. She is also Mum to a university student who has flown the nest and whose bedroom now doubles as Colette’s office where she writes and runs her proofreading business – Beech Editorial Services. Follow http://colettecoen.wordpress.
Once upon a time there was a princess who was much loved and very loving. Her eyes were as dark as night and her black hair fell in waves down her back. One day, the beautiful princess, let’s call her Olivia, was to meet a prince from a neighbouring kingdom. But on seeing the prince, Olivia fell into a swoon. The Queen apologised to the dignitaries, so embarrassed was she by her daughter’s behaviour in front of the suitor, but, she mused, Olivia was not the type of girl to faint at the sight of an attractive man. When the girl had been revived with smelling salts, the Queen asked her what had caused her to act in such a manner.
‘I had a pain here,’ Olivia said, pointing to her heart, ‘and I could not catch my breath.’
‘Ah, love at first sight,’ the Queen said, ‘I felt the same thing for your father.’
‘No, Mama. It was not that,’ Olivia said, blushing slightly, for the prince had been very handsome. ‘I have felt it before, when I am at my studies, or at my play.’
So, the Queen summoned the Royal Physician, even though she knew him to be club-footed.
‘Give her vapours,’ the physician said, ‘that will cure her.’
But the vapours made her feel no better, and each day she would cry a little about how she could not run with her friends as she used to.
Now the Queen was a very busy lady, running many households, and with staff who needed to be told what to do, but she always had time for her daughter. So, at the break of dawn, she took Olivia to the local village.
The Queen pushed open a sticking door, and with a glance to both sides, she ushered her daughter in. When they pulled down their hoods, and took off their cloaks, the apothecary gasped, then bowed low, but quickly realised what he had to do. He hurried them past his vials of tinctures and bottles of potions into a small room behind his shop, so no one could see their shame. He motioned for Olivia to remove her blouse, for he could not dare say such words to a princess. Then he took a small trumpet and laid it on her breast, listening intently. The Queen took deep breaths in time with her daughter, and gently turned her when the apothecary signalled for it to be so.
The small man rubbed his hands together, blowing on them before stretching out an arthritic finger and running it along the course of Olivia’s spine.
‘Bend over,’ he said sharply, so Olivia bent.
‘Stand straight.’ He put his hands on her shoulders, on her hips, no longer showing her the deference he once had.
‘Mmm,’ he said, shaking his head, and frowning at the Queen.
‘What is it?’ Olivia’s mother said. ‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘She’s crooked,’ he said, snarling now, ‘well on her way to hunchback. Deformed.’ He almost spat the words.
The Queen’s eyes ran with tears which overflowed and formed a silver stream on the apothecary’s floor. Olivia stood, stunned, looking to her mother for reassurance. But her mother’s face gave no such comfort, for she had read her history books, and her fiction — twisted backs meant twisted minds.
‘What can we do?’ Olivia’s mother asked when she finally regained her composure and remembered that she was Queen.
‘Take her to the women in the woods,’ he said dismissing them, ‘they’ll help you.’ And with a sinister hand he drew an ink-smudged map, and thrust it at the Queen.
So the Queen and Olivia did not return to the palace, but went instead to the market where they bought new clothes that would hide the uneven shoulders, the lopsided hips, the protruding ribcage, and the oh-so-horrible hump which seemed to grow with every passing minute.
Once they were disguised they hurried into the woods beyond the village. As the forest grew denser, the Queen’s face became more set, and Olivia was frightened to lose sight of her mother, or fall asleep when it was time to rest, in case she should be abandoned. But after they had walked for many a long hour, they came across a cottage, just as the apothecary had described.
The orange door swung open as they approached and out came a woman, younger than the Queen, with hair to match the colour of the door. The Queen put out her hand for a formal greeting, but the woman turned away, pulling her hand under her starched white cuff, not quite quickly enough. Growing from the heel of her hand, next to the thumb, the Queen spotted an extra digit. A witch for certain.
‘My name is Hope,’ the young woman said, ‘and you have travelled far to find me.’
‘Yes,’ the Queen said, ‘this girl needs your help.’
‘Come,’ Hope said to Olivia, stretching out her six-fingered hand to the princess, ‘do not be afraid.’
She took Olivia and the Queen to a shed behind her cottage and there they thought their hearts might stop at the sight they beheld.
‘Take off your garments, and come, lie down.’
A four-poster bed filled the shack, but it was a bed like no other they had ever seen. Olivia shyly removed her upper garments and stepped over to the bed, which lacked a mattress and most of its base. Hope helped her lie down, supporting her weight as she re-positioned slats beneath her shoulders, her hips, her feet.
‘This may be unpleasant,’ Hope said, but Olivia was brave and, recognising a kindred spirit, said, ‘I trust you.’
Hope put a scolding cap on Olivia, with ribbons twisting down under her chin, then up over her ears. Hope then tied the ribbons to the bed frame with strong knots. Then she took bandages and wrapped them around Olivia’s hips, criss-crossing them and feeding them through buckles, attached to belts, attached to handles.
From the shadows another woman appeared, as tall and as ginger as Hope. ‘This is Faith,’ Hope said, ‘one of my sisters.’ Faith took Olivia’s head in her hands, holding it gently, but firmly. The women looked at the Queen, and then at each other, giving a little nod.
Olivia grimaced as Hope began to crank the handles to tighten the belts which pulled the buckles to yank the bandages to reposition the bones.
‘You’re hurting her,’ the Queen said, ‘please stop. This was a mistake.’
But the women continued, for they knew there was no other way. One handle racked two notches, another three, then back to the first for more.
A single tear ran down Olivia’s cheek. Now a third woman appeared, whose name was Charity and after she had caught the tear in a silken handkerchief, she took hold of the Queen’s hand. ‘Not much longer,’ she whispered. ‘You are both doing well.’
When they were satisfied the women wrapped Olivia in cast, and left her to dry. Then they fashioned her a corset, stiff and tight, designed to pull her body straight, to stop her from twisting and curving. And on the wings of the corset that flared out over Olivia’s hips they drew swirling shapes in gold and red and green.
‘Go now,’ Faith and Hope said as they refused the silver coins the Queen held out in gratitude.
When they returned to the Palace, the Queen Mother strode out to meet them. ‘Where have you been?’ she demanded. ‘The King has been cut low with grief.’
So the Queen explained, and Olivia showed her grandmother her new corset, and her grandmother turned away. ‘I have never seen the likes of this,’ she tutted under her breath. ‘No one in our family has ever been so afflicted. It must have been how you swaddled her as a baby, or how you let her run wild, turning cartwheels and climbing trees.’
The Queen sighed but she did not argue, for she knew it was not her fault, or Olivia’s. No, she could not rile the Queen Mother lest she call for Olivia to be hidden in the cellars or sent to a nunnery.
Now Olivia wore her corset day and night, though it was ugly and uncomfortable and it made her skin red and sore. She wore it to please her mother. She wore it to please the courtiers who wished her to be perfect. She wore it despite the ridicule from her playmates that the stripes on her tunic still did not run true, and that the hem of her dress only covered one ankle. And through the pain, and the name-calling she continued to grow, she continued to deform. She wore it until she could wear it no more. Which is why, dear readers, the Queen now awaits the time when her daughter’s back will be rent open and a magician will use golden screws to fix a rod to her spine, to fuse her bones, and get her back on the straight and narrow.