The Voiceless of Shalott

“We’re doing this for your own good, Tasilinn,” my mother said when my parents dropped me off at the island of Shalott. “You’ll be safe here from predators. It’s not forever, just seven years, then you’ll be a lady. Chosen, like us.”

“These years are the sacrifices God expects of us as His Chosen Ones. The guards here will protect your purity until you are safely married,” said my father, scowling at me from the boat as though I’d already shamed him.

I didn’t dare tell them that I wanted to be more than my virginity or someone’s wife. My father had repeatedly warned me how dangerous my voice was becoming and the damage it could do to their status and my future.

My parents took my voice before they left me on the beach, stuffing my throat with holy texts. I choked back my sobs while they set them aflame. I screamed as the fire seared my voice box and filled my lungs with smoke, loud and shrieking until the scream died on my lips with my voice.

Since early in my childhood my parents told me terrible tales of the monsters who would hunt me if I was left to navigate my adolescence on my own. But in that moment, while the scriptures burned away my voice, I wished I’d taken my chances with the monsters.

Father gathered up the ashes into a small sack to show the church as proof of his sacrifice, refusing to look at the charred ruin of my mouth. “We’ll return when you’ve learned your place as a lady and your faith heals your voice.”

“I remember how much it hurts, sweetie, but if you’re faithful, God will take away the pain.” My mother squeezed my hands. “I swear to you, we do this out of love,” she said, tears slipping from her eyes.

This does not feel like love, I wanted to shout with the voice I’d lost.

My parents turned away from me and paddled home to their church and to Camelot, comforting each other while they abandoned me. I longed to swim after them and beat my fists against their boat, but the sacred magic of Shalott did not allow girls like me to leave the island without a voice. That is the curse of Shalott.

I remember how the sun shone pretty on the beach that day while I shivered in the shadow of the tower. My guards watched from the casements. They did not then, and would not ever, speak to me.

The distance between my parents and I widened, a gulf of water and of disillusionment. It was easy to play the faithful child when I had their love to protect me, but in the agony of my damaged throat I found myself faithless and my unanswered sobs only made it worse.

The hurt subsided after weeks of slaking with cold broths the guards left at my door. Something inside me died in the twisted torture of that pain, the last of my faith, I suppose, or my innocence. The pain laid everything bare: this was not done to protect me, the church silenced me to control me. I’d read too many books in Camelot’s library before my father found out and forbade me, enough to know that cruelty is not the action of a loving community, but the tool of a cult.

The view from my tower room was all the church allowed me to know of the world. A mirror reflected the view of Camelot into the spaces where I could not see it otherwise, taunting me with freedom and always, always watching. I grew to hate that mirror. I forget the moment when it became fixed in my mind as a metaphor for my parents’ God, beholding everything I did and studying me for faults. At night I dreamed of smashing it and wielding the shards like a knight with a sword.

The guards monitored me where the mirror did not, when I ventured to the river to wash my hair, my clothes, my linens. Ever observing, never speaking. Not to me, not to a girl without a voice.

At night, the guards practised their war games. I supposed I could have taken comfort in the effort they put forth to protect me if my heart wasn’t too broken to try. Twilights were accompanied with the steady whoosh and thwack of their throwing knives and archers’ arrows punishing their targets. Beneath that, the low murmur of the prayer witches gathered power in the deepening shadows. I didn’t like to see their prayers twist the shape of things into something new. It was like viewing the embodiment of a lie. I learned to hate the sounds, pulling a pillow over my head to drown them out, weaving stories in my mind to carry me far away.

I had paper and pen, but books and letters from home were not allowed. I longed for the library where I once spent such happy hours. At first, I wrote what I could remember of the books I missed the most, then stories of my own.

Sometimes, from my window, I saw girls running through the fields on the far shore from the island, laughing and shouting. They were not Chosen Ones, which made them sinners in my parents’ philosophy, but they were free and their voices loud and clear. If I’d had a voice, I would have called to them, and maybe they might have come and rescued me. I wrote stories where those girls climbed the tower and broke off pieces of their own voices to make me whole enough to leave.

My stories grew angrier, wilder, until I couldn’t hold them back, rivers of words pouring out through my pen after too long dammed up in my body. I wrote with a rage I did not know I had inside me, thoughts I never dared to think, blasphemies against my own indoctrination.

As I wrote, my determination strengthened. I didn’t want this life, not the island, not the husband who would force my daughter here, not the Chosen, nor the cult of Camelot. I wanted the agency this religion denied me because of my sex. I wanted choices and to get them, I needed to escape. To escape, I needed to break the curse, and if I could escape, there were still the predators to contend with.

Night after night my mother had told me stories of the nightmarish monsters who preyed on the innocence of teenage girls, who could smell us from the underbelly of the world and rise to devour us whole. The only way to keep safe was to stay quiet and faithful on the Chosen Ones’ islands and God would protect us.

My belly ached as doubt crept into those beliefs too. The stories stank of control in the absence of familial love. I couldn’t be sure, though I could be careful. I paid closer attention to the guards, to see if they fought off monsters stalking around the island, attracted by my ruined faith, but all they did was drink and practise war.

Soon a peal of laughter rang out across the river from a pair of lovers frolicking together. The girl was young, not much older than me, clearly godless to risk her purity without a chaperone. I checked the shore for monsters and, finding none, squinted to see if the boy was one in disguise, waiting until they were far enough from the city to eat her alive.

They laughed, they kissed, they loved, and no monsters came to ruin them. My pen moved idly in my hand, inking out a thought too dangerous to think. The monsters are a lie.

I slammed my pen against the stone wall in a sudden rage, clutching at the paper, crumpling it tight before I threw it across the room. It bounced off the mirror and tumbled somewhere under my bed. Tears of rage and frustration scoured my cheeks. I stared down at the river, wondering what other lies I had been told. I didn’t consider the repercussions before I stormed down the stairs, across the beach, and dove into the river, desperate to escape.

For one bright, hopeful moment, as the cold water embraced my body, I believed the curse was just another lie. My strokes were strong and true.

But the water around me twisted and heaved, sending shards of panic through my veins. The sunlight disappeared. I couldn’t breathe. The pressure of the water on my skin became unbearable. The moment I thought my bones would crumple, the pressure released, splashing me into my room in the tower. My knees barked against the stone floor. I looked behind me in time to see the mirror distort as it vomited me out and smoothed back into glass.

My horror forced burning bile into my throat and a myriad of small bruises bloomed across my skin. They would be a painful reminder that the curse was real for weeks to come. Without a voice, I was going nowhere.

A sparrow chose that moment to land upon my window casement. It turned to me, ruffling its feathers and squawking once before gliding away, soaring on some unseen wind.

Startled and overjoyed to have been spoken to, even by something as inhuman as a bird, my horror eased and my breathing calmed. I brushed the last of the water from my hair and dried the floor before stooping under my desk to retrieve the pen I’d thrown.

Something carved into the wood, hidden, stopped me. It took my eyes a moment to adjust before the message clarified. If you can read this, then I have a voice. I brushed my fingertips over the words, longing to connect with this lady of Shalott, wishing I could save her.

It wasn’t until later that her words sunk in, dredging up memories of my old library and an essay I once read about a writer finding his voice. The voice he found was the one with which he wrote his stories. I trembled with the memory, for I’d forgotten there were other kinds of voices.

For a moment, my heart leapt with hope, but I had no way to get my stories off the island. I slammed my fists into my pillow and screamed, soundless and ineffectual.

Days passed before I thought to retrieve the crumpled story. It was under my bed, to the far end where a spill of light from the window caught the folds and, for a moment, I could swear it was a bird, its wings long and sleek for gliding. The illusion shattered when I reached for it, remembering the sparrow on the ledge before it caught an updraft and soared away.

A new idea burrowed into my brain, insistent and refusing to be ignored. If I could fold paper into a bird, a story might be able to fly, and if it made it off the island, someone might find it. They might read it. If they did, I would have a voice my parents couldn’t take away and this island couldn’t keep me prisoner anymore.

I spent the next few weeks folding paper into birds, until I found a design that could glide across the room. Next, I wrote the story. I feared few people would empathize with a girl like me, but if I twisted my story and made it happen to someone considered important, its horror became obvious. So I wrote the story of a tower that devoured warriors whole, gnawing on their armour until it yielded to the tower’s will, shaped into automatons the tower spat out to take the late warriors’ places. I cried as I wrote it, wishing I didn’t need to hide myself inside my own story.

I polished the story well, whittling it down to fit a single page, writing out copy after copy, and folding them into a little flock.

When I finally had enough, I held my breath, crossed the room, and tossed them from my window. The story birds fumbled a moment until the air caught their wings and they flew. If one made it to the fields across the river, to the carefree girls who played there, I could be freed. My blood pumped fast and time slowed down, my little birds dancing on the air.

But my guards were vigilant. Their windows opened, the Chosen Ones ready with their daggers, their flaming arrows, their magic books, and their boredom, and they picked off my stories one by one.

Thrown daggers obliterated the first of my flock, littering the ground in a clatter of knives, my stories a confetti too broken to read. Arrows hissed through the air and more of my stories flickered with fire, holding form just long enough to hope before they crumpled into dust beneath the weight of their own ashes. The prayer witches turned the last of my stories into birds I didn’t recognize, white as paper, eyes as dark as ink. They opened their mouths to chirp but only a strangled gargle sounded before they flew to places beyond the sight of any human eyes.

After the last bird disappeared, the Chosen Ones met in the courtyard to celebrate their success. The sounds of their drunken revelry climbed the tower and wove through the windows, shattering whatever was left of my heart. All the time they spent practising for war I never realized it would be waged against me. I sobbed into my knees, hating myself for having believed so many lies.

Soon the tears washed clean the frustration of my defeat and I tried again. This time I folded boats of wax paper stories and hid them inside my laundry. I carried them with me when I went to the river for washing, past the moorings of the wooden boat that tempted me with freedom and away from the scowling man who guarded it. As I scrubbed the stains from my clothes, I released my own stories one by one.

Some sank, too crushed beneath the weight of fabrics, while others floated true. The Chosen Ones sounded the alarm when they saw them. The boats were out of range of knives, but the arrows still flew, sizzling as the water guzzled up the flames and my stories sank into its depths. The air grew electric with the spells of the prayer witches and my stories turned to fish who dove beneath the surface. A moment later, the Chosen Ones’ shutters slammed shut, proud of their easy success.

Tearful, I reached for another shirt to scrub and found a handful of boats still hidden beneath. This time, I waited until I heard the chosen ones toasting in the courtyard before I released those final stories, afraid to breathe. The boats bobbed along in the current, a bright armada on the river, until they slipped around a bend and disappeared.

I rushed back to my tower, my lungs heaving, to look out my window and see where my little fleet of story boats had gone.

A figure on a horse appeared in the distance, sunlight glinting off his armor like the knights in my story. He rode closer to the river, dismounting and wading into the water. I tried to tell myself not to hope hard enough to break my heart again, that if he did find a boat, what were the odds he could and would read it?

He fished out my little boat as my hands flew to my mouth. The knight unfolded the wax paper and held it up. I squeezed the casement hard enough my fingers ached. Oh, please, Sir, I begged him from my silence, please read it. If he could read, he should look at the tower of Shalott with distrust or discomfort that there may be some truth in the story of a tower that devoured knights like himself.

Minutes passed before he left the river, tucking my story into a saddlebag and climbing onto his horse. He gathered the reins and paused, glancing at the tower with an expression of disgust before he shook his head and rode away.

I sank to my knees, giggling and crying, imagining him returning with his army to pull down every last tower on the Chosen Ones’ islands and setting all of us free. Shaking my head, I pushed the thought away, unwilling to risk my chance on an errant knight, not when I’d just saved myself.

I grabbed my papers, my pen and, catching my reflection as I moved to the door, I stopped, remembering how the mirror sent me back here once already. I grabbed my desk and hurled it into the mirror. It cracked, a spiderweb from side to side, and a million girls like me smiled from the shards before they crashed to the floor.

I flew down the stairs, the guards still lost to their revelries, but they couldn’t have stopped me. My excommunication was the only weapon they still had and I’d long since left the last of my faith behind, buried beneath the heap of lies their church had taught me.

I struggled with the moorings of the boat, my hands fumbling with too much adrenaline. There were no oars and I didn’t waste time hunting them down. The mud sucked and squelched at my feet like a sad, final attempt to keep me on the island as I pushed off from the bank and leapt into the boat.

I laid on the bottom, holding my breath as the stream bore me far away, unsure if my new voice was enough and braced for the curse that might yank me back inside the prison of a broken mirror. The sky passed over the boat in fluffy clouds, tears streamed from my eyes, and nothing happened. I pulled my pen from my pocket and I wrote along the prow as the island and the tower faded in the distance, Tasilinn is free.