MIRANDA AND CALIBAN
I awake to the sound of Papa chanting in the outer courtyard. It is a morning like any other morning. I lay abed watching a bar of sunlight creep across the dusty tiles of the floor.
Papa forbids me to interrupt him at his art. When I was little, sometimes I would take fright upon waking alone and forget; and then he would have to punish me, which grieved him. But now I am six years of age and old enough to know better, for I mislike nothing more than to grieve him.
Beneath the deep, distant tones of Papa chanting the music of the spheres, I hear a faint pattering sound close by and roll over on my pallet to see a little green lizard creeping down the wall. It stops and stares at me. Its eyes are like shiny black beads and its throat pulses. I hold my breath and count, one, two, three, before I reach out with one finger to stroke it.
The lizard skitters away. Disappointed, I trace the flowing lines carved into the wall instead.
Papa says the lines are Moorish writing which is different from the Latin writing he teaches me. He says that Moors built this palace, but they went away and left it behind when their magic grew weak, too weak to summon the spirits of the island to do their bidding.
I think it was a long time ago, for the palace is old and crumbling now. Still, it is my home; and Papa’s magic is strong. The air shivers and chimes as he calls upon the spheres.
There is a calm note in his voice this morning, not a stern one; and I am glad to hear it, for mayhap it means the studies he conducts late into the hours of the night in his private sanctum went well, and he will be pleased to see me and attend to my studies today. Mayhap he will even pet my hair and praise me.
When the last note of Papa’s voice fades, I throw back my bed-linens and rise. The dusty tiles are smooth and pebbled beneath my bare feet. I had shoes, once; cunning little kidskin slippers embroidered with seed pearls. I have them still, tucked away in a chest, but they’ve been far too small for ever so long.
I don’t mind. Even in the winter it is not so very cold that I cannot bear it, and I think I should hate to wear shoes, now. Indeed, on warm days I should like to shed my clothing and run as free and naked as the wild boy, but Papa says we must be civilized or all is lost; and so I wear an old nightshirt of his to sleep and cast-off robes cut down to size by day.
Thinking of the wild boy, I go to the window and look into the walled garden. I’ve caught a glimpse of him lurking more than once, crouching like a toad in one of the wall’s many gaps.
Not today, though.
I make use of the privy in the garderobe. When I have finished and emerge, a lumpish spirit scuttles past me; one of the household spirits Papa has bound to our service, an earth elemental smelling of freshly turned soil.
“Hello!” I call after it. “Good morrow!”
The earth elemental shows its stony teeth in a deferential smile, but it doesn’t answer. They never do. It empties the chamber-pot beneath the privy cupboard into a pail and scuttles away.
I sigh, don my robe, and make my way through the empty halls of the palace to the garden outside the kitchen.
Mayhap it is mean-spirited of me to feel lonely. After all, I do have Oriana for company, as well as Beatrice, Bianca, Carmela, Elisabetta and Nunzia. And I suppose I must count Claudio, although I like him no better than he likes me. He makes muttering sounds deep in his chest, cocking his head and eyeing me with suspicion as I examine the nests one by one. He is a handsome fellow to be sure, black with a fine speckling of white and a proud red comb, but I have reason to be wary of his sharp beak and spurs. I find an egg. Claudio scratches in the dust and mutters.
Bianca is my favorite. She is all white and she does not peck at all, only clucks softly in protest as I inch my hand beneath her and find a second egg. On the east side of the garden, Oriana strains against her tether and lets out a mournful bleat.
“I shall return anon to milk you,” I promise her, carrying my prizes carefully into the kitchen. It is only since the spring that Papa trusts me to gather the eggs, and it grieves him when I am careless with them.
Papa is already seated at the kitchen table when I enter, his head bent over a slate tablet on which he scrawls with a piece of chalky ochre. I wait for him to notice me and curtsy when he does.
“Good morrow, lass,” he says in greeting. “What does the day’s bounty bring us?” I show him the eggs and his brow furrows. “Only two? Methinks someone may be ripe for the pot.”
My heart quickens with alarm. I am not ready to lose one of my only friends. “Not yet, surely! ‘Tis the heat renders them sluggish.”
Papa considers me for a minute. His eyes are grey and piercing, and I feel their gaze like a weight upon me. At length he relents with a nod. “Very well. But you must begin keeping a tally of who is laying.”
I curtsy again. “Thank you, Papa.”
When I place the eggs in a bowl on the shelf, I see something unexpected; a chunk of honeycomb lying on a large green leaf. There is a bit of dirt in it as well as a squashed bee and several long black hairs, but, oh! My mouth waters at the prospect of sweetness and I reach for it unbidden, thinking to dip just the tip of one finger in the amber liquid oozing from the comb.
“Do not touch it!” Papa’s voice is stern and I feel a painful prick on my extended fingertip like the sting of a nettle. I snatch my hand back, tears coming to my eyes, and curse my impatient greed. “What do you see?”
This is a test, then. I gaze at the honeycomb. The pale wax cells echo the decorations that adorn the archways of many of the palace chambers. Mayhap that is what Papa wishes me to see? Like draws like, he says; that is the cornerstone of his art.
But no, I think that is wrong. If the Moors wrought the likeness of honeycomb in plaster, it was to draw the bees who love it. And though there are many bees that buzz amid the myrtle and the jasmine in the gardens, there are no hives on the palace grounds, or at least none that I have found in my explorations.
No, the honey is an offering from the wild boy. He has brought gifts before, many times, leaving them on the doorstep of the kitchen. Fish, usually; mullets and sardines, Papa says. Mussels gathered from the rocks. A handful of dates or ripe olives. Once before, honeycomb.
Why is this time different? A squashed bee. Three strands of hair.
I draw a sharp breath. The wild boy is swift and elusive, coming and going too quickly to be caught. But Papa should like to catch him; catch him and civilize him. He says if the experiment is to work, it must be done gently, with art and kindness. I should like to be kind to the wild boy if he would let me, but I have no art with which to lure him to me.
Papa does, though. Papa wears amulets strung on fine chains around his neck to help him command the spirits; and one that holds a lock of my own hair so that he might charm me to sleep or soothe my fears or punish me at need. He summoned Oriana with a tuft of hair he found caught on a bramble where the wild goats graze.
“It is the hair,” I say, looking up. “Do you think it is his hair? Do you mean to summon the wild boy?”
Papa smiles at me in approval and it is as though the sun has emerged from the clouds. My heart swells with pride. “That I do, lass,” he says. “I believe it is a portent. And if the thing is to be done, ‘twere best it were done quickly, ere the malleable nature of a child hardens into a man’s savagery.”
“Do you reckon him savage?” I ask a bit fearfully.
Papa steeples his fingers. “There is an impulse in him that lends itself to generosity,” he observes. “Whether it be the untrammeled nobility of man’s true nature made manifest or a base and craven instinct to appease remains to be determined. It may yet be that blood will out, and if my suspicions regarding the whelp’s dam are proved—“ He cuts his words short, fishing a kerchief from one of his robe’s pockets. “No matter, lass. Fear not; whatever may transpire, I’ll allow no harm to come to you. Now fetch me those hairs, and have a care with them.”
I extricate three strands of the wild boy’s hair from the honeycomb. The strands are sticky with honey and coarser than mine. I bring them to Papa, who folds them carefully in his kerchief and tucks it away.
“Well done,” he pronounces, returning his attention to the slate. “You may finish your chores.”
I remove the wooden pail from its hook and return to the garden to milk Oriana. She stands patiently for milking and suffers me to scratch the shaggy brown hair around her ears when I have finished.
I tell Oriana she is a good girl. The chickens are content to roost in their cote, but Oriana chafes at captivity. Papa says that unlike the simple elemental spirits he summons, goats, like people, are too willful to remain bound and obedient without tending, and it is not worth his while to tend to a goat. If Oriana were not tethered, she would scramble over the crumbling walls and rejoin her wild kin until Papa summoned her back.
Will the wild boy feel the same way, I wonder? I hope not.
I lug the milk-pail into the kitchen, then return to the garden once more to gather two handfuls of mustard greens.
Papa sets aside his slate to prepare our morning repast. He does not trust me yet to tend the fire or cook upon it. We eat boiled eggs and greens, and yesterday’s journey-cakes of ground acorn meal smeared with honeycomb picked clean of grit and bees. Oriana’s milk is set aside for making cheese. I eat slowly to savor the honey, relishing the way the comb collapses under my teeth, chewing the wax thoroughly before spitting it out and saving it for use later.
Afterward I wipe our trenchers clean and scrub the iron cooking-pot, which is very old, its curved walls growing thin with usage; and then Papa wipes his writing-slate clean and gives me a lesson in ciphering. Sitting close beside him, I smell the sharp odors of the chymicals he employs in his sanctum clinging to his skin and robes.
When the lesson is over, Papa gives me the lump of ochre so that I might begin keeping my tally of who is laying on the wall beside the door that leads to the kitchen garden. “You must be incisive,” he cautions me. I nod, although it is a word I do not know. “A gentle heart is a virtue to be praised in a young girl, but in matters of survival, cold reason must prevail over sympathies. Do you understand?”
I nod again. “I will keep a careful accounting.”
It is the right thing to say. Papa rests his hand atop my head and smiles. “Good lass.”
I bask in his praise, and hope that Bianca continues to lay well. “When do you mean to summon the wild boy, Papa?”
“In good time.” His voice has grown distant and he withdraws his hand. “There are preparations that must be made ready. Occupy yourself gainfully, Miranda, and do not trouble me.”
Thus dismissed, I rise, curtsy, and leave.
For the remainder of the day, I seek to occupy myself gainfully, but there is little to be done. Earth elementals till the gardens with their spade-like hands. Air elementals blow softly through the palace, sylphs scarce visible to the eye, setting the dust to scurrying. In the fountains, the transparent figures of water elementals cavort and cause the water to flow. Although I am surrounded by spirits, I feel very much alone.
It seems it has always been thus, though I know this is untrue. Save for the terrifying spirit that remains trapped in the great pine tree in the front courtyard, there were no spirits in attendance on the palace before Papa summoned them and set them to their labors, and the grounds were desolate. It must have been a difficult time, I think, although I was too young to remember it well, and Papa shielded me from the worst of it.
There was a time before the island, too.
I think so, anyway. Papa does not speak of it and I do not ask because it grieves him. Sometimes I think it is a thing I have dreamed; but if it were not true how would I know to dream of such things? There was a great house with walls of stone, not carved plaster, and pictures that hung upon the walls. There were ladies with kind eyes and gentle hands who brushed my hair and tied it back with ribbons; ladies who helped me dress, who slip my kidskin slippers onto my feet. Ladies who sang me lullabies, smoothed my bed-linens, and bade me to sleep with a soft kiss on my cheek or brow.
Yet if were true, how did Papa and I come to live alone upon this isle? Yet if it were not true, from whence came the kidskin slippers I keep tucked away in a chest?
Thinking on it makes me feel strange to myself. Papa is so wise. If he does not wish to talk about it, likely it is best I do not think on it.
I will think about the wild boy instead.
When the midday heat begins to abate, I climb the winding steps of the watchtower. It is a good place for thinking. From atop the tower, I can see the whole western side of the island from the rocky path leading down the hill on which our palace perches to the sprawl of land below, dotted with palms. Beyond it lies the sea, and what lies beyond the sea, I cannot say. The sea is ever in motion, crashing and churning. It frightens me, although I do not know why. I dream of it sometimes.
Today it is calm and shining, and the ripples break gently on the rocks. When the tide goes out, the sea leaves pools behind. I think I should not be scared to splash in those pools. From this mighty vantage, I have seen the wild boy do so before, a tiny hunched figure clambering over distant rocks.
I look for him there, but I do not see him. It seems I will catch no glimpse of him today. Soon that will change. I cannot help but be hopeful at the prospect. Surely there is goodness in his nature to leave us gifts as he does. I think he must be lonely, terribly lonely.
“I will be your friend,” I say out loud, wishing the wild boy could hear me. “Only come and stay, and I will love you. I promise.”