I was very old when I first learned to walk.
In the long quiet years since my birth, my legs have atrophied. They have grown thin and warped, the dark skin overrun with purple veins. I have lain in a bed all that time, legs stretched out before me on white cotton sheets.
“I miss the silence,” I tell my nurse. The breeze that blew the gauzy curtains from the window to my bed. The glimpse of the cool green gardens. The sound of the rain trickling and dripping through the foliage. I miss these too.
My nurse is not allowed to speak to me, but sometimes I imagine that she wants to. I shuffle under her guidance, back and forth, back and forth, across the glossy parquet floor. I grow accustomed to her tight grip on my elbow. My legs hurt, but they grow stronger.
“I miss the stillness,” I tell my chancellor. The smell of the lavender tucked between my pillows. The faint music from the phonograph in the corner. The spider-webs trembling in the nooks of the cornices. I miss these too.
My chancellor does not want to speak to me, but sometimes he answers my questions. After all, what good is a chancellor who has no advice?
“The crown prince will be able to ascend to the throne in three months’ time. Your regency will be a short one.” He does not thanks to the gods. He did not say blessedly. But I hear these words anyways.
“So my brother is dead?” I ask him the first time he explains this. “And his queen? Together? Both at once?”
The chancellor lowers his chin and clears his throat. His skin is white around his lips and nose. “Both at once,” he says.
I look down at my feet, bare on the tiled floor. My toes seem small and shriveled, and I marvel at their strength. I am standing on my own.
“And I may leave my room?”
I pause a second, studying his face. I test myself, swaying back and forth slightly, feeling the muscles at my heels, my calves, my thighs.
“Show me then,” I say. “Show me the palace.”
“You are lucky to be first-born,” I tell my nephew when I first meet him. I try to find some similarity between us, but if there is any, I cannot see it. He is slight and delicate, his fingers like twigs on the harpsichord keys. He continues to play as we talk, and he will not look at me, as if he is afraid to see me. I do not like the music, strident and jangling, but I sway a bit to it anyways. When my body moves, I can feel every part of it, hips and breasts and shoulders. My body feels new and stiff, like clothes too heavily starched.
“Why?” he asks, his voice almost lost between the scales he is practicing.
“Because you were not preserved like me.” The notes falter. The boy finally swivels on his seat. He looks up, glancing at my chin, not my eyes.
“What is it like?” He speaks very low, almost whispering. “What is it like to be preserved?”
I place both hands heavily on his shoulders. He feels fragile, thin and breakable. He is tense. He wants to break away. I won’t let him squirm.
“You never move,” I tell him. “You never talk. You never eat. You are never sick. But you grow old. And no matter how strong the spell, your body begins to fall apart.”
My nephew’s face crinkles, and he squeezes his eyes shut. He begins to cry. I drop my hands, and he slips off the seat. He runs for the door.
I could have been kinder, I think, taking the boy’s place at the instrument. I strike one key, and listen to the note resonate until the sound has entirely died away. I strike another. The wood of the harpsichord has been polished to such a degree that I can see my face in it. I am old and I do not know what I should look like, so I sit for a long time staring at my reflection until even the memory of the music fades. There is only an impression, a foggy idea of me there—white wiry hair and wrinkles, so many wrinkles. I wonder that I cannot feel it more, the sagging skin. But it is all new to me.
“Only two months more,” the chancellor says to me at breakfast. I stare down at the runny yellow yolks of my eggs. I am surprised. Time moves so quickly. I use my toast to sop up the egg. The chancellor smiles in a suffering sort of way, tolerating my eating habits.
“How did my brother die?” I finally ask the question, mostly because I want to see the smile slide off the chancellor’s face.
I imagine I should have asked the question earlier, but I do not care about proprieties. There have been more physical curiosities at hand.
“A disease, a sickness the doctors had never seen. It worked rapidly. We hardly had time to prepare, hardly time to pack the prince off to safety.”
The yolk tastes like fat, meat and not meat. It is slippery, slick down my throat. The chancellor looks at me, hearty and hale, making slurping noises as I eat. He is upset. He has been upset for weeks. You can see it in the slope of his shoulders and the jowls of his cheeks. I am almost sorry for him, but it has been hard for me to focus on others.
“How long has he been dead?”
I have never seen my brother, so cannot imagine him a corpse. I cannot imagine him a person.
The chancellor pales. He looks down at his watch, as if it might count the days for him. “Twelve days.”
I put the fork down and wipe the crumbs of toast on the tablecloth. It is very quiet. The room smells suddenly stale and I feel almost sick. Eating is, after all, still new to me.
“So for five days, there was no designated regent. There was no monarch.” This is what I say, but it is not what I want to say. I think of what I could have done in five days.
“We worked as quickly as we could,” the chancellor says. But I know this is not what he wants to say. And I know what he says is not true.
I realize that I must spend my time in a more deliberate manner. A month ago the world was new, but now it already grows pale and old, a moon waning fast in the sky. My knees creak and pop as I walk leaning on my cane, and my hair pulls loose when I comb it in the morning. The flowers from my brother’s memorial rot in the hallways as if the maids are too afraid to remove this last testament to the old king. I smell the flowers wherever I go. I think the scent has sunk into my skin, and I am afraid that I am decaying. So I touch my arm, my leg, my belly with trembling fingers and assure myself that I am still there, that I am still whole.
“Let us bring you tea. Sit and rest,” the servants say to me, scurrying close behind me, careful not to outpace me.
“I don’t want tea,” I tell them. “Bring me some alcohol.”
They bring it to me with reluctant, disapproving glances. The alcohol burns in my throat, sharp and sour. When I drink it, I feel it hot in my chest, and the heat spurs me on. I quicken my stride. Until they need you. This is what I should have told my nephew. You never move. You never talk. You never eat. You are never sick. Until they need you. Then they pull you from the womb of your quiet room, your soft music, your dripping leaves. They usher you towards death with a rough hand at the back.
“Bring me the witch,” I order my chancellor when he comes up simpering, feigning obeisance. “Bring me the witch who cast the preservation spell.”
The chancellor smiles ever so slightly. “She is surely dead.” He does not use any honorifics with me. “She was old when you were a baby.”
“Search anyway,” I tell him. “The old have a way of sticking around.”
I think it will be too late. Another month has passed. I abandon my cane, even if I am unsteady without it. I use my hand against the wall instead. I feel the texture of the fine-grained wood, the ridged wallpaper, the closely-woven tapestries. I feel the house living and growing beneath my fingers, old but still strong.
I glimpse the preparations for my nephew’s coronation. He looks very small, almost consumptive, in the fur-trimmed cloak and the ornate crown. His arms and legs are skinny and knobby. He catches me watching him once. At first, he looks frightened, and he almost turns to ask for help or protection. And then he freezes and something almost like pity flits through his large dark eyes. It makes me angry. I lower my hand from the wall. I stand on my own two feet and feel the whole trembling length of my legs, weaker than his. I scowl at him.
“Madam,” a voice breaks my concentration and my anger. The servants have adopted the chancellor’s informality. “The witch has come. She is in the drawing room if you wish to receive her.”
“They found her?” I realize how much I had expected to be disappointed.
I nod. I turn away from the throne room and my nephew. “Tell her I am coming.” The servant races ahead to do as I have asked. There is a pain in my hip as I turn and hobble after her.
I pay very close attention to each detail of the hall and floor, of the wall and ceiling. Tiles and chandelier. I am afraid. Afraid that I will not see them much longer if this witch cannot help me. Though it is not really that I will miss them. After all, I did not miss my old room for long.
She sits, small and slight, shriveled and shrunken, on the end of a settee. The fabric of her clothes is heavy and woolen, blending in with the fabric of the cushions beneath her. It works as a sort of camouflage, distracting the eye from her sharp face and sharper eye.
“Do you remember me?” I ask, without pretense or introductory small talk.
She tilts her chin to one side, looks me up and down. Thick, gray, matted hair falls on her shoulder. She doesn’t blink. “It’s all I am. Memories. And I remember you. Though you were redder-cheeked, fresher-skinned.” The way she skinned puts me in mind of the animals strung up on the wall of the huntsman’s shed.
I ease myself into a chair opposite her, but close. There is only a spindly-legged table between us. One of the servants has laid out a tea-service. I can smell the strong leaves brewing in the water. “How old are you?”
She does not answer with the labored deflections of a courtier, protesting the question.
“Older than you, younger than some.”
I cannot imagine anyone older than her. But perhaps that is what my nephew thinks when he looks at me.
“You cast a preservation spell on me.” I can hear the accusation in my voice, though I do not think it is her I really blame.
“I know.” She sounds irritated. “Have you called me here, frail as I am, to discuss the undeniable facts of years past? Have your servants roused me out of bed for the mundane?”
And so I spit out what I have been thinking, what I want. “I do not want to die.”
“Then don’t.” She laughs, rasping, almost inaudible. “Living and dying is your own business. No one else’s.”
I try to calm myself but I am maddened by her flippancy. I steady my hands and pour a cup of tea for each of us. I watch the small specks of leaves drift and settle in the cup.
“It is not so easy for some of us,” I finally say.
She is very quiet. She does not reach for the tea. The steam from the cup twists around her wrists, like cloudy bracelets.
“And when my nephew is king, they will have no more use of me. I’ll be returned to my room. I’ll be shrouded in my sheets. They will wait for me to die.” I try to catch her eye, but it is hard to do. “If they wait.”
She shifts in her seat and the whole massive array of her robes and garments shifts with her like a separate animal.
“Waiting is a hard game to play at. I know. I’m waiting for you to get to the point.”
“Help me.” I am on the edge of chair. My hands are stretched out in front of me. I can see the veins and the knobs of my knuckles. They tremble slightly despite my best efforts.
“I do not have any magic for you.” Her voice is softer now. “I have barely enough to keep myself together. I am old, so much older than you.”
I nod my head, and now I feel that this was always the answer. I struggle to my feet, pushing hard against the arms of the chair. I nod my head again and leave the room.
I can hear the noise of the coronation from where I sit, hunched over the last breakfast I will eat as regent. The eggs are unappetizing. I pick at the toast with my fingers, letting crumbs fall on the tablecloth. One footman at the door to the room clears his throat in irritation, watching me. I ignore him. Eventually, he moves out into the hall, and I am alone. I can hear the tall grandfather clock ticking, its hands moving stead tick, tick, tick—around the face with the gilded numbers.
At last, I hear the shouts, the horns, the blaring music crescendo. Doors are opened and the noise wells up, loud, exultant, and then is cut off. The doors shut. There are footsteps in the foyer, the sharp clicking tap of dress shoes moving this way and that. The chancellor finds me. For the first time that I have seen, he seems relaxed and at ease, almost happy. There are still flower petals and confetti clinging to the velvet of his jacket. It makes sense that he would come, and not my nephew, the king.
“Thank you,” he says, gracious in his triumph. “Thank you for your service.”
I do not answer him. I push my plate away. It clinks against the glass. The chancellor holds his hands behind his back.
“The maids are airing out your room. You can return to the peace and quiet you knew before.”
I stare at him. “I did not know anything before. How could I?”
“You deserve this,” he continues as if he does not even hear me. “You deserve rest.”
“I am no longer preserved.”
He bends slightly at the waist. “No.” I hear it then, the assurance that I might as well be preserved with all the guards and maids in constant wa
“If I am to grow old, chancellor,” I assume again the authority of a monarch. He widens his eyes slightly and his cheeks flush. “Then I will do so on my own terms.”
“You are already old,” he answers. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
I shove myself to my feet as quickly as I can. The chair screeches as it slides back.
“I shall decide when I am tired, chancellor. Or when I want peace. I will not return to silence and obscurity.”
“You are not welcome at court.” There is no longer any pretense of courtesy.
“Chancellor, I will not be imprisoned.”
He blusters. “It is hardly imprisonment.” There are guards who join him now, as if they had been waiting for a signal and grown impatient.
“Chancellor,” I repeat, and I pull out the small pistol that I had held in my lap, tucked beneath the lace of my sleeves. I point it at him, and my arm trembles slightly, but it is steady enough to aim. “I will not return to that room.”
The guards stiffen. They take a step into the room. The chancellor grabs the arms of the first man in. He grits his teeth. “Leave, then. You’ll die soon enough on your own.”
But I do not plan to die just yet. I take the steps down from my old room slowly, one hand on the stone wall, one hand clutching close the carpetbag with my shifts and skirts and pills. I find my way to the servant’s entrance onto the gardens. The bushes crowding the door brush my shoulders and leave water in my hair. I can still hear the crowds from the front of the palace. They are singing and dancing, and I imagine for a moment that they are celebrating with Long live the queen, they shout in my imagination.
The garden walks are covered with small pebbles and they are slippery beneath my feet. I hold my arms out, finding equilibrium. I have not brought my cane with me. I trust that my legs will continue to grow stronger.
Perhaps, soon, I will even learn to run.