Tower

Kirk Nesset

The girl wanders for weeks, if not years. She happens at last on the prince in the woods; he was blinded by briars in his fall from the tower. She embraces him, weeps. His eyes are healed by her tears. And they live ever after in peace, and bliss, more or less. The girl singing and spinning, the prince more in love as each hour passes, occupied by his lute, and his falcons.

But today as they wend through the woods collecting herbs and sweet lettuce, speaking in verse rhymed and unrhymed, they confer over paths.

This way, she says.

Yes, right, he agrees.

Or pretends to agree, since these woods are his; nobody knows them better than he. She takes his hand, leads, and he follows. They pass massive, moss-covered stumps, ferns wide as ovens.

The night descends, he observes.

As it must.

Yes.

My lord is distracted, she says.

They duck a hackberry branch, waves of persimmons. A whippoorwill calls. Owls. A distant chorus of frogs. He follows. Her skin in the dusk is dark honey; her hair is deep brown.

There’s a mystery at the heart of this he still can’t fathom. He was beckoned as if in a dream. It all happened quickly. He was barely sixteen. Nothing made sense: a girl alone in a fortress, entombed, music issuing down as if from heaven. The mother wasn’t captured or heard from again. He’d returned with his men more than once for revenge, or rather closure, and found not only nobody but the tower gone also. Then it appeared again on its ephemeral hill, imposing and gray, right where it should be.

She spends hours these days in the tower while he hunts, or sits with his notebook of verse. They cut a door at ground level, installed ladders. He’ll hear her sing, if he’s close. He’ll see her face at the high, fog-softened window.

The girl herself is the witch, some claim—a thing split apart, half-child, half-dame, unearthly—which is nonsense, of course.

He pauses, taking his bearings. The path skirts a stream he doesn’t remember.

This way, she says, bending under a fern.

He’s wrong again about paths. Which rattles a little. She knows where she is, knows which elm is which and which damp stone, and knows what he’s thinking. In dreams she murmurs in tongues he can’t comprehend. She hears in dimension and color, intuits, inhabits; her hair grows a hand’s-width each day. Up the hill they go on the needle-soft path. The wooded maze of his boyhood is more hers now than his.

They wind up in a clearing in view of the tower. Which isn’t possible, really, after a two-hour meander, no wagon or horse. He feels drugged. Untethered, unhinged. But here the thing is, rising out the trees. The little high window there and not there, as if unfinished, dreamed—there where she’d lowered her ladder of hair.

My lord?

He stands holding the basket of herbs, taking her in. The pale cheeks and barrette, dark hair gleaming with mist. He wants to enfold her, absorb her, and does, and does not. Or cannot. He doesn’t know her.

So, he says. Will we be long?

A moth flits by her shoulder.

How long, my lord, is long?

Longer than brief. But short of too long.

You mock me.

I mock myself.

What exactly occurred? He scaled the wall, saw something strange, plunged. He’s not sure he saw what he saw, or sure what happened happened. Was he pushed? Did he fall? Jump? He doesn’t know. He wandered for weeks, if not years, blind, in wind and blue shadow. Dank, bleak earth on his cheeks, in a vale, the roar of the torrent the dark song of the world. Awake or asleep, he ordered the grey palfrey saddled, ordered wineskins and horns and baskets of cheese. A bier, there was, carried along a riverbank. A knight in the guise of a harp player. Spirits arrived in crystal boats. There were cartloads of emeralds, carbuncles. He was without food or drink, save an apple—and as he ate it grew, the fruit undiminished, the apple still whole.

Then he was found, as we know. Healed. His sight returned. And wrens on hazel boughs, and vespers and compline. Steeds with dapple grey heads; axes for battle that draw blood from wind.

Go then, he wants to tell her, but doesn’t.

Swallows call. Whippoorwills, owls. The door hangs invitingly open. The moon infuses her miraculous hair. They stand gazing, unspeaking. Something in him unravels, upends. What is she? A veiled field. A vision. A fairy. And he? A blackbird in flight with its spot of blood red. Glimmers of limitless light seem to move through her from elsewhere, somewhere eons away. What can he do now, or say?

Night descends, he says, because a person has to say something.

Yes, she says, after a pause. Her face is unreadable, empty. He feels her breathing aligning with his.

The song quickens, she says.

He’s lost, yes. This thing is unendingly layered. Here, too, she guides, and has all along. Her words and looks are his wings. Whatever she does or needs are his nourishment now. He’s blind like the rest of us, not exactly unhappy. The girl enters the tower, gently shuts the oak door. The prince gathers herbs, radish and relish, then sits, weighing dimness and dust. And while miles away the castle settles, while the babies and nurses and horses are fed and the lamps lit, the mystery deepens. The prince is quietly measuring words, preparing to meet her, this creature of stillness, this dark-eyed, dark-haired bird in her cage peering out into his.

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