Prompt: A midlife career change
Include: chef, upgrade, monkey, turkey, fashion, team, harden, noon, elevator, baste
The handmaidens bathe me in rose water and sing songs to me of the setting sun. They dress me in layers of white undergarments followed by a soft yellow dress embroidered with white lilies. I slip a heavy gold serpent bracelet onto my right wrist and fasten an emerald teardrop necklace around my neck. My hair sits braided on top of my head, like a crown, with tiny dried star flowers and fresh roses.
None of the women of the court have come to see me off, but the house staff stands silently in the hallway bowing to me as I pass. Some have tears in their eyes. At the front door, an old woman from the kitchen presses a silver coin into my palm for good luck.
“May the moon and wind guide you always,” she says.
The doors open outward and I expect him to be waiting for me with a smile on his face, but instead, I’m greeted by two palace guards and a small team of horses ready to escort me away. I tell them I’d rather walk. They hand me a heavy wicker basket and leave in a cloud of dust.
The noonday sun burns bright as I walk unaccompanied through the ornate palace gates. I’d known all along it would end this way, but I’m struck by how strange and unreal it feels. We’ll never see nor touch each other again. I try to remember his parting words to me, but it’s like trying to remember the foggy wisps of a dream and I can’t solidify them into something tangible. I do remember we’d laughed.
Keeping my eyes downcast, I walk for hours through the twisting and noisy city streets, down the steep mountain road, and through the peaceful farms of the valley. I eventually turn onto the well-worn dirt path leading toward the woodlands and the rushing river—towards home.
The further I walk, the more I feel a loosening of the ropes tying me to him and his bed. The gold-sealed letter arrived late last night filled with flowery goodbyes and pleas for forgiveness. I burned it in the fireplace and climbed into our bed searching everything for his scent. I’d slept late and lingered hoping he’d come home and tell me he’d made a terrible mistake. He did not.
My feet hurt. The stiff leather sandals, fashionable in the court, aren’t good for walking. I sit on a moss-covered log to remove them and see three young children playing Monkey in the Middle with a rock at the edge of the woods. They don’t look at me and it’s freeing. I realize I’ve been holding myself in the upright way I had to amongst the ladies of the court, but I don’t have to anymore.
I dig my toes into the squishy ground before leaping into a run. My body responds with all the sensations I’ve missed—the quickened breath, the tightening and contracting of my leg muscles, and the thunderous pounding of my heart. The heavy basket on my arm slams repeatedly into the side of my leg, but I’m overcome with joy. I’d forgotten the wildness inside me and I roar as I run faster and faster.
My feet slip in a patch of slick mud and I fall flat on my back with a jarring thud. I lay looking up at the clear blue sky catching my breath, feeling cold and alive. My basket lies beside me in a patch of green clovers dotted with tiny delicate yellow flowers. I pick a few and press them to my nose, remembering the elaborate bouquets I’d seen in the inner chambers of the palace women.
They’d all been so kind to me, even the Goddesses with their striking beauty and regal ease. They’d dress me in their most alluring gowns and would confide in me intimate secrets and family gossip. I’d been a plaything to them, lusted after and treasured, but I’d also been a friend. It hurts that they didn’t come to say goodbye, but perhaps it is for the best. I don’t know what we’d say.
Gathering up the heavy basket, I notice my dress and legs are now streaked with thick, reddish mud. I walk toward the sound of the rushing river, the lifeblood of my family. Its icy waters are fast running this time of year, so I walk until I find a calm inlet to wash myself. I wade slowly into the cold water and rub my dress in my hands trying to remove the dirt before it has a chance to harden.
Nobody has called me by my childhood name for so long it takes me a moment to realize the person coming along the riverbank is calling to me.
“Cal! Is that you? Cal!”
A broad-shouldered boy with thick curly brown hair rushes into the water, picks me up, and spins me in a circle. He plants kisses on my cheeks and head. I pull his scruffy beard and giggle.
“Timothy! Is it really you?”
“I was about to say the same thing about you! Does this mean we have you back?”
“Mother will be beside herself and you won’t recognize Maple. Wasn’t she a baby when you left?”
“Barely three days old…”
“She’s going to flip out when she meets you. She’s quite jealous of you, you know.”
I wonder what they’ve told my little sister of my alluring beauty. The story of how, when he saw me fishing along the shore with my father, he’d leaped from his riverboat and swam to me. How he claimed my green eyes and silky hair had transformed him into a foamy sea monster who would die without my touch. A far-fetched claim my parents had found ridiculous and insulting.
They’d tried to reason with him but, in the end, he’d won them over with his sultry charm and enchanting dark eyes. I’d left immediately, too excited and young to feel the enormity of what was happening. His words and his hands were the only things I could think of. I’ve spent Maple’s entire childhood drinking wine, eating elaborate feasts, and being the plaything of a God. I’ve barely thought of her, and the realization makes my stomach hurt and my face burn.
Timothy pulls me to him in a tight embrace. I’d forgotten how it feels to be held by my loving brother and I sink into his warmth for a long time, allowing the tears I’ve held in to flow into his chest. He rocks me back and forth.
“I’ve missed you,” he says over and over.
I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.
He carries the basket in one hand and holds my other hand firmly as if I might drift away. We used to be close, my brother and I. He’d been my protector and best friend. For the first time since I’d left home, I consider what life has been like for him without me and I feel a crushing sense of guilt and shame. I push it away with an uncomfortable laugh. He taught me how to do that.
Our fishing hut sits along a sunny riverbank surrounded by spindly green trees and large colorful rocks. Raised onto tall wooden planks to avoid the floodwaters, our home has always reminded me of a fat wooden spider. It’s early evening and a thick plume of smoke puffs out the narrow brick chimney—like clumpy white spiderwebs. As we enter the yard the smell of fish stew makes my belly rumble. An intense longing and ache rises within me and I wipe tears from my eyes, lean on Timothy’s arm, and laugh.
“Guess who I found?” Timothy calls as we walk up the steep ramp.
My mother stands at the cookstove stirring soup with a large wooden spoon while a young girl with thick brown braids holds a stack of wooden bowls ready to set the table. My father sits in the corner working on one of his many fishing poles, restringing wire, and preparing for tomorrow’s work. When they spot me, my parents throw down their tasks and rush to me.
“My Calla Lily,” my mother says. “You’ve returned to us! My sweet, sweet Cal.”
She looks the same and it makes my heart sing. My father pushes my mother to the side and pulls me into his warm embrace. He smells of fish and the river and home.
“We’ve missed you around here,” my father says. “Your brother isn’t half the fisherman you are.”
“Thanks, dad,” Timothy says with a laugh from the stove where he’s taken up stirring the pot.
Maple sets down her stacks of bowls and walks toward me. She has my eyes and Timothy’s wild hair. We stare at each other for a moment and then she leaps into my arms. I plant kisses on her head and we spin around and around until my mother pulls us apart and demands we all eat before the soup gets cold.
We eat a family dinner at the small round table, talking in a rush, filling in the gaps of our time apart. My mother’s stew makes my body feel settled and calm. When the table has been cleared, I bring the wicker basket into the room and pull the items out one by one to be examined; delicately embroidered handkerchiefs, fine jewelry, gold coins, and my favorite honey buns from the old pastry chef.
My sister cries with excitement over each item, but my parents and brother are far more reserved. I’m sure they don’t think this small amount of treasure makes up for losing me for five years. I should have brought more. He’d said I could have whatever I wanted, but none of this stuff matters.
“It’s time for bed, little missy,” my mother says.
Maple argues, but then agrees when I offer to tuck her into bed and lay with her. The loft used to be mine and I cuddle under the familiar patchwork quilt and pull her close to me. She smells of river water and dirt. I spin a strand of her wild curls with my index finger and feel her vibrating with energy and questions.
“What was your bed like in the palace?” she whispers.
“Large and filled with piles of soft pillows and more blankets than you could imagine. I’d get lost in the covers.”
She giggles. I’d get lost with him, I think. He’d had a way of making days pass in a moment.
“What did you eat in the palace? Fish?”
“Sometimes, but we had all kinds of food. My favorite was wild turkey basted in plum sauce served with mashed turnips. Oh, and of course the desserts! They’d have piles of them each night and I’d eat so much I’d barely be able to walk to bed.”
He’d carry me out sometimes on his back as if we were children playing horses. Galloping and snorting we’d pass his horrified father and brother who’d scowl with great disapproval. They didn’t share his sense of playfulness and he delighted in torturing them.
Maple runs her fingers over my necklace and dress.
“Did you have lots of pretty dresses?”
“I had a wardrobe of the latest fashion of the court. It took several women to dress me each day in layers upon layers of silk, velvet, cotton, and wool. The corsets were made of whale bones and would make it nearly impossible to take a deep breath. I wore jewels so heavy I couldn’t bend down for fear I’d fall over.”
“Do you want to hear something far more silly?”
“The men wore fancy clothes too. Some of them wore elevator shoes designed to make them appear taller and more important. They would make a terrible clomping sound when they walked into the great hall and I’d have to cover my mouth so they’d not see me laughing.”
Maple lets out a huge laugh and I join her.
“That’s enough girls,” my mother calls from below. “It’s getting late.”
Maple giggles and rolls on her side. I rub her back and sing her a lullaby about the moon and wonder if my mother still sings it when she bakes bread. I want to ask Maple, but she’s already breathing heavily.
I wait a long time until I’m sure the others have gone to bed before leaving the loft and slipping outside into the cool night air. Moonlight bounces off the rushing water and I walk along the rocky edge listening to the sounds of my home. I’d nearly forgotten how wonderful it feels to be alone outdoors. I undo my hair and let the flowers fall into the dark water.
I’m Cal again, the girl with the freckles on her nose who fished in the river with her father and could outrace anyone.
I find my favorite stone which juts out over the river and l lay on its cold flat surface. My body shivers and I sniff my arms and hair, searching for any lingering scent of him. He’d called me Lily, not Cal or Calla Lily. I’d been his plaything and he’d made me laugh harder than I thought I could. Forever scheming, playing, teasing, and pleasuring, he was mine for a time, my own God to hold and touch.
He’d made me love my body, kissing and praising each part of it with elaborate speeches and endless poetry. We’d shared our bed with others, but it was me he’d return to over and over. Our bodies fit perfectly and I’d never tire of hearing him talk.
He’d let his mask fall last week and I’d held him as he wept in my lap like a small child. I knew as I stroked his hair and his tears soaked my nightgown—it was the end. The God of Mischief, the trickster, the magician with the lightness of a thousand suns; he can’t allow anyone to truly see him.
He’ll have another in his bed by now, an upgraded version of me, younger and eager to please him. I run my hands along my body and know I’ll remember the tenderness and love he’d bestowed upon me for the rest of my life. He will remember it too.
Tomorrow I’ll wake before the sun and find my old overalls and fishing pole. Following my father and brother to the water’s edge, I’ll return to the life I had before. The time I’d spent in the palace will fade until it’s a distant memory, and my life will become as ordinary and beautiful as the river.
Pulling up the right sleeve of my dress I look at the marking on the inner part of my arm, tattooed into my skin by him in the dead of night with a sharp needle and black ink. He told me it would protect me for all eternity. I trace it with my finger and smile.
I’ll forever remain Loki’s girl.
Author’s note: I’m currently reading “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker, the story of a Trojan princess who becomes the war prize of the Greek half-god Achilles. As I went through the possible ideas for this week’s prompt I kept returning to the idea of a woman’s career change being something out of her control. I considered a mother turning to crime to care for her children after falling ill, a sort of female-centered Breaking Bad. As I began to write, however, the idea of using my love of Norse Mythology merged with the prompt and we get this tale of Calla Lily and Loki.
My NaNoWriMo project two years ago was a middle-school adventure novel featuring a fictional daughter of Thor I’d called Thorn. It was based on a game my daughter used to play when she was younger, a sort of coming-of-age tale of a girl who wants to break free of her expected role. I’d love to revisit the tale soon and perhaps turn it into a series of books for young girls.
Next week’s prompt: Week 10
Prompt: A ghost story
Include: tango, diversify, blog, invisible, missile, glitter, scuff, balloon, birdcage, grizzly bear