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Foam and Gold


Foam and Gold
by Meredith Rose Schorr

You don’t know what it means when you’re young, to make a choice you can’t see the true depth of: “each step will be like knives”. You’ve felt a butterknife slip against you hand, felt the pinprick of hot sand against your skin. Little pains, little punishments.

A butterknife isn’t a dagger.

* * *

The jut of your chin. Your hair and eyes the color of the knotted grasses that wash in with the tide. If this was a different time, you might have been my own blood.

It was harder every year. Not the loss, for we, you and I, don’t see loss the way beings do who have always lived on land. To feel the throb in my ankles and heels and soles in the absence of tight shoes and grand balls and breathless layers of silk and tulle. When you marry royalty, you marry what they give you, and I loved it all.

I have overstayed my welcome, and yet there is nowhere to go, no vanishing under the tide or to the world above whose grace had never materialized.

On moonless nights I would sometimes walk the dunes. It is as close as I may ever be again to my family now. I do not need, never needed, to sleep, and yet my haunting the castle, I was told gently (as I am now told everything), caused discomfort among those who did.

If I had a daughter, if I had a friend or a lover, I’d tell her she’s free to make her own mistakes. I have nothing to say beyond that, and you press me for more. Each day you’ve returned more insistent that I have something to teach you. Do you only want to speak to someone else in the turns of phrase you lost when you came here?

But I answer questions, you and I together in the early morning cold.

* * *

“How did it feel to kill the prince?”

“I knew he’d live,” the woman says, letting a handful of black sand drift out between her fingers. “I thought he’d live. There’s tricks to these things, and surely the suffering was meant to come on me, not him.”

Kaja's on her knees now, too-freckled face nearly alight at each point with curiosity.

She says, “Are you too young yet to see that?”

“Young, young! I’m only ten years younger than you.”

“You’re thirteen years younger than me and you’ve lived no life at all. You’re, I’m sorry, I must be mistaken—a stable girl? The chef’s assistant? The scullery maid? What have you decided to pretend to be to ingratiate yourself here?”

“You ask more questions than I do,” says Kaja. “So I shan’t tell you.”

If the old woman, the Princess From The Waves, Eline—her friend Eline—chooses to be this way, than Kaja can be patient. She has decided they are friends and so they are, by all objective measures.

Eline heaves a great sigh, like the world is so very heavy, the weight of air on a body of water, no longer made to bear it.

“I take leave of you, Princess,” Kaja says. From where she’s sitting, she tries a bow. “Perhaps you need your rest.”

“If I thought you meant that with any sincerity I’d truly have you sent to the stables for the rest of your tenure here.”

“Come inside the palace, Eline.”

Eline has stopped listening for a moment, a moment where she is somewhere else entirely. Not sea, not sky, but a dark splinter of a place between them all. Then, as quickly as she was gone, she comes back.

“This once,” she says, and her teeth are gritted.

* * *

You want to cook for me, and know well neither of us will ever need to eat, or at least, not like the constant crush of bodies swarming through this place who always seem to have something in their hands. A drink, a small, beautiful cake, a vast tray heaving under the weight of the raw-looking meat humans love. You make these things, then. You do good, hard work in your service here.

No other servants have offered me a chair with a false politeness, which comes as a relief. Presently you’re a cloud of soft emerald curls tied under a kerchief, bent over a cutting board and eviscerating something with delighted precision. You like this job.

I brace my elbows against the countertop, feeling with the same surprise as always the moment when the bones move some other direction than I’ve told them to, the dry shock of it. I need to look at something that isn’t moving, and everything here is moving, so I close my eyes. In the ocean movement seemed always within my own command. I could float through a dark and silent world. This place was wrong to want for so many reasons.

It’s a few minutes of silence before someone is telling me, as one would to a child, to open my mouth. There’s a briny, silver taste on my tongue I had almost lost the memory of. It’s been long since I’ve eaten for pleasure, at the grand events where I was drunk on the atmosphere and not the food.

“I’m good at my job,” she says, maybe before I can disagree with her. “My lady of the great seas,” she adds, reverently.

And at that, she goes back to work.

* * *

They provide her everything she could want here. There have been too many stories of maids and cooks hiding in animal skins and wishing for dresses from sources of magic that nearly always backfire. Some nights a dress, other nights the loose breeches she wears in the kitchen, with beautiful embroidered jackets and waistcoats and jewels that haven’t lost any of their shine from years of disuse.

Had she the motivation to run, she could take this all with her and be rich. She has never desired to be rich, and has nowhere to run to. Kaja did not have a good reason to leave, except that it was her turn to see the surface. She desired nothing in particular so strongly that it was worth giving up something else for it. Not then. Her contentedness comes from nowhere she has ever been able to pinpoint on the map of herself.

And though Kaja misses the world she left behind she hadn’t loved it to begin with, with the fierceness to make it the real sort of loss.

Her hands struggle over the buttons that will encase her collarbone in silk and lace. Eline gave up everything.

Just as she can’t cook a food she’s never tasted, Kaja does not understand the feel, the shape, the bitterness of pain.

* * *

I didn’t love the Prince, not in the way you must, and he didn’t love me. But we were simultaneously fascinated and amused by each other. And that’s what everything hinged on. That’s what it always does, in these cases.

Of course that led to such a series of inane things. We had a responsibility, all of us, to explore the world above; I was seventeen years old and desperate for a newness that could have taken the form of anything. The royal line would never have a place for me, so I went somewhere else. I did something else. And if it wasn’t for love, what was it for? A whim. That overvalued virtue, “curiosity”.

The black sand, the blistering sun. Cliffs like melted red stones that led step-stair to our palace. The sky, that nearly crushed you with its turquoise fullness and the way the air smelled at night like it could cut. Those were the things I loved, once.

His blood dripped over the bones of my feet and the hem of my nightdress, and I was sure, for just a moment, the pain had eased. That the next step I took would be as soft as a glide through a mild wave.

There is nothing to say about the fact that it didn’t. You go on.

* * *

They’ve finally relieved themselves from the ball and sit again in the kitchens drinking wines brought as gifts by foreign dignitaries the Queen won’t bother to touch.

“Do you know why I’m here?” Kaja asks.

“To make my mistakes over again, I’ve always assumed. To fret over me like I’m some kind of ancient relic you’re kind enough to ask for a tale once in a while. To marry well, and learn to live with whatever the sorceress made you trade away.” Eline pauses, her face contorts. “Which can be done.”

“Did you ever stop to think about anyone but you long enough to listen to yourself,” Kaja's voice is rising, higher with each word, and she feels to herself like she’s near pitching to throw a tantrum. “People aren’t going to live your same life over and over again. I’m not you.”

“Of course you’re not me,” says Eline. “I wouldn’t like you nearly as much.”

She cups Kaja’s cheek in her hand, hot, sticky, green with fury. Then Kaja is looking at her directly for what might be the first time. They have the same eyes, those cloudy moss eyes, as common as water. She is very young, she realizes, and with that realization comes at last what might be fear.

She presses her mouth to Eline’s, careful for only a moment, then caring no longer for what kind of hurt she might inflict. Eline’s hot, papery lips, the long folds of her fingers pulling Kaja closer to her, onto her lap. Her tongue is brine inside Kaja’s mouth, and she’s shuddering, her whole body shudders as if it’s been hungry for so long that it can no longer remember or accept sustenance.

* * *

“I’d heard stories of you before we even met. How much you gave up to come here. What you were willing to give up to stay.”

“I wouldn’t think that would be how they’d speak of me.”

“They didn’t all. The royal family was mad for a very long time. Your choice was a great affront to them.” She pauses.

In the space of the pause, Eline smiles. It is the first time Kaja has ever seen this, free of any kind of wariness. It might even be a grin. As soon as it’s crossed her face, it’s gone. “Don’t give up your life for a passing fancy, Kaja. When it’s your time, go home.”

“So there aren’t really decisions, as you see it.”

Eline is struggling to rise from the bed, but Kaja knows enough now to try to touch her.

* * *

Queen Sveta is above all things polite, and she has always been polite enough to know the story she is in isn’t her own. She is polite enough to know she isn’t particularly smart, just pretty enough to get by, and good at the sort of things pretty girls like her are supposed to be good but never truly exceptional at. She is just on the edge of a series of grand, heroic tales, and right on the edge is where she’s comfortable.

Sveta remembers her Uncle. How fiercely he loved the standoffish, voiceless, wild young girl who came from the sea, whose every moment seemed too fast, as if there was something she tried to outrun. Who did not love him that same way.

This is the life she has to live, for him. It is not for her to quietly doom another person.

“Where will you go?” Sveta asks. “When?”

Kaja shrugs her shoulders.

“I have a request for you. My Uncle would have wanted it. Will you make her understand?”

“I’ll always try to make her understand,” says Kaja.

* * *

To sit for the sketch is nearly unendurable, as if flame is coursing through each nerve ending of my body, turning me from blood to air to foam, but when it is over it’s over. For the first time there is no duty left for me to do, nothing left for me to abide for. The sculptor will build the statue from the charcoal drawings. This form of me will be left to the kingdom, on my beach, and so it will be like I am never gone, or I was never truly here.

If they ask my opinion on it I am too distracted to remember—should it be gold? Should it be silver? Should it be copper? I remember thinking only that copper will be turned green and sick as time marches forward, obscuring my features. That the people will love gold, and it will make them feel as bright and uplifted as the unliving woman they’ll always care more for than the person I was.

Kaja chooses bronze, and I concede to her choice because I tire of it. I tire of all of it, but I’ll live on here as my sisters once knew me, twin tails gliding painless through the ocean, forever in a kind of beauty that eroded long ago.

I brace my hands on the small of my back before pushing off into the crowd as if it’s water, the way out of the hot city rolling and bustling itself along, until we’re through the gates and nothing is behind, ahead or around us but land.

I imagine for the briefest of moments her blood, the color of my own, foaming and bursting over my feet, slipped from their heavy laced boots. The thought tears at my heart for no time at all before I find it, suddenly, unappetizing.

* * *

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Meredith Rose Schorr is a writer, reader, editor, and a graduate student in Children’s Literature and Disability Studies at NYU. She writes and loves fairy tales, weird magic, and speculative fiction about feelings, and has been previously published by Spirit’s Tincture and Helios Quarterly Magazine. You can follow her on twitter @rosemerediths or contact her at meredyd.rose@gmail.com.

What advice do you have for other writers?

There’s so much advice about there about how writing should be a torturous process, and my unpopular opinion is that writing should bring you some form of comfort and joy, or why bother? Write the things you most want to read yourself, even if that’s much easier said than done and you think they’ll be interesting only to you, because someone out there wants to read exactly those things. But also, I couldn’t take writing seriously until I stopped following any and all advice about it, so don’t listen to anything anyone says, including me.

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