by Ingrid Nelson
“Agnes, let’s pluck out your eyebrows and the hair on top of your forehead,” says Codre. I don’t say anything. She’s my maidservant, and my best friend, though it’s difficult to understand this relationship. Sometimes we’re awful to each other on purpose with an intensity neither of us acknowledges, though other times we act completely normal, like best friends, or like she’s my maidservant. We’re in my room, in the castle, with its heavy green velvet drapes and matching bed canopy. Codre and I do everything together, including using the bathroom. She helps me take care of my pet bird and my pet monkey. She’s been working for me since she was seven and now we are both fourteen. Every night we sleep in the same bed. She knows me better than anyone.
“Come on,” says Codre. “You’re getting married soon. You have to start looking nice.” I look out the window at the forest filled with herons and wolves and wild boars and at the little purple flowers and mushrooms growing in the grass. People say there are animals that are half goat and half elephant and animals that are half deer and half man in red tights and unicorns in there. I don’t believe them. I think it’s just woods. The sky is blue and exquisite. It’s winter still but really it’s almost spring. Codre naturally has white blonde eyebrows and a graceful forehead like a long piece of mirror. Her eyebrows barely have any hair at all and it’s so white you can’t even see it. Her skin is so fair it doesn’t look like skin, it looks better than skin. She’s beautiful. But she’s not important so it doesn’t matter. She’ll just marry some squire. No one has to look at her. Beauty only matters in relation to something else, it’s like light and dark, it’s like color. Everyone looks at me, on feast days and at festivals.
“Ugh,” I say. Black hair grows on my legs and thickly on my eyebrows, and on the top of my lips like a mustache. I’m not like Codre. I’m hairy.
“Don’t you want to be pretty for Adwidge?” she asks. She looks at me smiling. I feel my neck stiffen. Her voice sounds like she knows some secret about me. A secret she knows I know she knows. In ten days, at the start of the new year, after Easter, I have to marry my second cousin, Adwidge. All my life it’s been, “You’re getting married to Adwidge.” I have to marry him so my father can get more land. He’ll inherit it if I marry Adwidge, so I have to marry Adwidge. Adwidge is important supposedly, but he’s ugly and his mouth hangs open like he can’t close it properly. He has red inflamed acne on the sides of his face. Part of being a married lady is laying in bed with your husband sometimes. When we will do this, once we’re married, the acne will come very close to my face. The thought of this makes me feel like there’s a worm inside me. It feels horrible. Sometimes he comes and visits and I see him in the main hall of the castle and his face always looks far from me, like it could be anybody’s face. Then I remember I have to marry him and he suddenly feels very close to me. We never actually speak or acknowledge each other at all. We are two ugly people and looking at him just makes me feel uglier.
“I guess,” I say. I don’t want to pluck out the hair that grows on top of my forehead because it hurts, and because I find it painful to think about anything that reminds me of Adwidge. It feels incorrect, it feels impossible. But I know soon I will be married to him.
I live in a castle, a big grey castle. It’s the biggest thing around by far. I’m a noble, which means I’m closer to God than poor people. In the basement of the castle there’s a room filled with gold coins and cloth and pelts called “the money chamber.” My father rides a white horse, the most special type of horse. It signifies dominance and authority. Other men ride grey horses, or speckled horses. Some men ride brown horses.
I’m wearing my favorite dress, which is white silk embroidered with green vine leaves. The silk is shiny. My coat is blue velvet with red embroidered stars and compasses. “Kiss me right here,” I say to Codre, pointing at my cheek. I’m sitting on the bed and she leans down and kisses me right where I gestured. I say this so I will feel more powerful than her, even for a minute. Her mouth is wide and enormously pink. Her eyes are blue like flowers. Her lips are soft. I think of my hairy skin, hairy like the face of an animal.
I have over one hundred hats. Sometimes when I feel bad I go into my closet and count them. I love each one and it relaxes me to look at them. I like their number even more than the way they look. My shoes are very pointy and made of red leather. They have bells on the ends. Poor people are supposed to wear only brown clothes, like mud, but no one really follows that law. There are so many laws that the king can’t enforce them all. There’s no way. Poor people try to dress like me, like a rich person. But they have to walk in the dirt and they get dirty feet. On Holy Thursday my father is supposed to wash a poor person’s feet, but he never actually does it. He says that the filthy feet of the poor will give him wretched diseases. I know it’s sinning to not wash the feet of the poor, but I don’t know how to stop the sinning.
“Sometimes,” says Codre, smiling like oil, “if a husband dies before his wife, his heart will be cooked for her, and put in a special box. The wife will have to eat what is in the box. Then she will have to starve to death, to sacrifice herself to God.” She giggles in delight. I feel something in me like glass cracking. “I wonder if that is what you’ll have to do for Adwidge.”
Codre is wearing a plain blue dress, without embroidery or anything. I wonder if that’s how I’ll die, after I eat a human heart, Adwidge’s heart. Anything and everything seems possible, in terms of my death. But I guess it doesn’t matter after all, my life on earth. It matters when I die, and then I’ll be judged. It doesn’t matter that I’m a noble. If I’ve sinned too much I’ll have to go to hell, where I’ll walk around forever as a skeleton using my own skull as a lantern. If I haven’t sinned too much I can go to heaven. I touch my fingers against my forehead. I know that my forehead is too small to be considered beautiful or lovely or anything like that. I know that this will disappoint Adwidge, my future husband, my husband for the rest of my life.
“I wonder what a human heart tastes like,” I say as I gather my strength. I smile at Codre and look right into her eyes, as if we are playing an unpleasant game. “Probably not too bad.” She smiles back. Her face is pale and lovely, a tapestry, a painting, a message from her to me. I feel like she’s displaying herself intentionally. You can only do this if you look like her. I bite into my fingernail. There something in her face that’s wild and uncontrolled, like it’s meant to be outside but it’s stuck here, behind thick walls and glass.
“Hey,” I say. “Can you get out Mr. Monkey from his cage?” Mr. Monkey is my pet monkey.
“Fine,” she says. She walks over to the cage, which is made of real gold bars. I walk over to my closet, where I keep Mr. Monkey’s hats. He has a little white turban. He has a pointed white hat with a veil, he has a red one like a saucer, he has a blue hat with two points and a cloth on top. Codre hands me Mr. Monkey and he crawls onto my shoulder. I put the white pointy hat on him. I feel his little hairy toes digging into my skin. At least he can’t go to hell because he doesn’t have a soul: he can’t sin at all. Suddenly the image of Adwidge’s face comes into my head. I can’t believe I’m going to have to lay in bed with him. It seems so terrible that I can barely believe it will happen. I know it will.
The forest is also filled with men, hunting boars. That’s what they do all day. I stay in my room, in my tower, talking to Codre, looking out the window. My father keeps saying there might be a war soon, an actual war, not just his play war. He told me there is a plague in other cities, caused by the Jews, who poison wells and want to control the world. He said all life on earth is ending maybe. Then he laughed and said the plague probably won’t come here, haha. When Adwidge visits I always hope that he’ll be killed in the play fighting but he never is. Whenever he comes home with the other men from a few days of jousting, I think, maybe Adwidge won’t be with them, because someone’s stuck a lance right through his face or he fell off his war horse. But that never happens. Life goes on and it is always so unpleasant but at the same time always so boring.
Mr. Monkey jumps down from my shoulder and I run after him.
“When you get married you can’t walk around like that, Adwidge won’t like it,” Codre says. “You look like a sick runaway horse. You don’t look like a lady.”
“I won’t walk like this when I’m married, idiot,” I mutter. I hold my hand out to her and she pulls me back. Her hand is cold and stiff like metal. I look at Codre. I think her face is beautiful, but it also makes me feel nauseous. I think that being young is hard work, even though I’m barely doing anything.
Everything I know about marriage I’ve learned from paintings in churches. There are many different paintings of both men and women. In the castle, the men mostly spend time together, and the women together, but in different rooms. Like Mary in the paintings, you are supposed to get a baby and it’s very special. I think about my mother and father. They don’t see each other too much and I don’t see them. Sometimes I get to watch my father do his play fighting on special tournament days. He gets a look in his eyes like he doesn’t care about anything else in the world. My mother just watches him and looks bored in her big uncomfortable headdress. It feels nice to go outside.
Codre puts Mr. Monkey back in his cage and comes back with the big wooden tweezers. I sit down on the bed and lean my head down and she sits over me and begins plucking the hair off my forehead again. There’s a smudge of something brown across Codre’s cheek that must have been there all day, but I hadn’t noticed it. She must not know it’s there either. I don’t tell her. It gives me a distinct, cool pleasure not to tell her. When Codre was seven her parents sent her here and then she became my servant. She hasn’t seen them since. Her white blonde hair falls onto my eyes and she brushes it away with her hands. Her hair against my face doesn’t feel like anything. It feels like when the wind hits you and I know that you can never catch the wind.
I jerk my head to the side and gasp. “Ouch,” I say. It hurts when she pulls out the hairs, and it makes my eyes start to water.
“Please hold still,” she says. “I’m just trying to make you more beautiful.” Neither of us says anything. I feel the pressure of all the things I don’t say curling around the room like bad air. It’s hard to differentiate between what she knows and doesn’t know, what’s outside of me and what’s inside of me floating like clods of mud.
“Aren’t you excited to get married, Agnes?” she says. I can feel the tears begin to fall on my cheeks, real tears. My heart hurts, real pain. I look at her fingernails to distract myself from the jagged thoughts building in me. They’re split and black.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m excited.” Once I get married, I will keep living with Codre in the castle. I will sleep with her in my bed, except for some nights when I’ll sleep in a bed with Adwidge. Codre and I will keep waking up to pray at three in the morning, then we will pray again at six, then at noon, and then at six in the evening. We will pray to the same music, the music with no melody. One day soon Codre will get married as well, to another man. I think about a game Codre and I used to play when we were little, eight or nine years old: we would race little carts up and down the floor of my room. They were little carts filled with hay. I loved the carts because they looked real. They even had little wheels that spun. We would laugh a lot, laughter that exploded. I would always beat Codre though, most of the time. Later she told me she was just letting me win. She thought she had to since she’s the servant, she said. I guess that’s right, the servant should never win. The wheels fell off the carts and then we stopped using them. I think about how this other self is still packed inside of her, like a hard little stone. Codre makes me feel less lonely, only sometimes.
“Wait,” I say. My voice shakes weakly. “I wish I looked like you. So I didn’t have to marry Adwidge. I mean, I want to be happy. I want to be free.”
“No,” she says. Her voice is cut and exacting. “That’s not right. You don’t know a thing about happiness.” This doesn’t make sense to me. Obviously I know a lot about happiness, and the opposite of happiness. Though I know that what I said wasn’t completely true. It is true that Codre will have to marry someone one day, of course. One day soon. But sometimes you bend the truth to say what you mean. To make something correct you have to tell it incorrectly. Codre pulls my hair back tight with her painful hands and I feel my expression shift as she does. It’s like she’s trying to read something in me but I don’t know what it is.
“I think it’s good,” Codre says.
“Thanks,” I say, but then I realize we’re talking about something else entirely, not just all the little hairs on my forehead, so I stop. I look away from her, at the thick curtains running on either side of my bed. The curtains are as green as snakes. We are in my tower, in the castle. The monkey is in its cage. The unicorns are in the forest, the poison in the wells. The vines are on my dress. Adwidge is somewhere else maybe, outside. We keep sitting there like that, and Codre keeps plucking the hairs from my forehead.
Ingrid Nelson‘s short stories have appeared in Joyland, Slice, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. She lives in St. Louis where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.