art by Shothot Designs
The Two of Us, After
by Steven Popkes
Steven Popkes has had the usual writer's spotty career: morgue technician, laboratory technician, house renovator, biologist. Now, he's a software engineer by day, writer by night. He lives on his turtle farm in Massachusetts with his wife, son and two cats.
The sails are not black but they should have been. The three of us don't know it.
I stand aft. Sometimes talking with the Rafe, the tillerman. Sometimes not. Mostly we watch her wait in the bony bow, drawing the light out of the air to shine around her. Looking towards France. Looking towards Tristan, of course. I was, too, for I could not have loved him any more than if he were my own son.
Though I remember that it was different from this. With Tristan's brother-in-law standing with me and Rafe long dead since he was the head of the stables when I was a child.
"She's a wee slip of a thing, isn't she?" Rafe spits over the side. "l wouldn't have thought she was worth this sort of trouble."
"Tristan is my nephew," I say shortly.
''I see." He agrees with his king. What else was he going to do? Was he always so agreeable?
It isn't the first time he's made this observation, nor the first time I have so replied.
The next moment, I am standing by her side in the seaside castle and she is collapsed, weeping, over Tristan's still warm body. I can't weep for him, or her. I left my tears behind the day I banished the two of them from court the first time. Death was waiting for both of them, then. All I had managed to do was delay one death more than the other. Though, now watching Isolde, it wasn't clear I succeeded.
It grows cloudy and the sound of a strong wind drowns out her tears, my comfort and even the glare from Tristan's wife, watching us from the shadows.
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I open my eyes. A dream and a memory but not the waking life. It is getting harder and harder to tell the difference. The sunlight pours in the room, thick as old honey. She is sitting in the light, finger-weaving. A belt, perhaps. Or something to tie back her hair. She does not yet know I am awake.
Isolde is no longer the fifteen-year-old girl Tristan brought to my court. When she was young, she had an animal's grace and fragility. When I startled her in the halls at night--going to or from Tristan's room, no doubt--it was like the moment a deer is caught in the sight of a crossbow, its last moment of life resting on the whim of the hunter.
She is lovelier now. Her hips are womanly and wide from delivering two sons and a daughter. Her bosom is heavy from nursing. She is no longer fragile. Nothing tempers like grief. I can see the lines of grief on her face, first for Tristan, then James and Mary. Only Charles, the middle son, still lives. When word came from Ireland that her mother had died, she had no tears left. The time is not far off when I will also die. She will not weep for me.
Some movement or breath alerts her. She looks over to me and smiles.
''How are you feeling?"
There are flowers outside in the fields. Someone has poked one sloppily in her hair--Charles, I am sure. I should be able to smell the flowers, spring, her. But all I can smell is the foul scent of my own corruption.
"Fine,'' I say shortly. I start to sit up and she is instantly there to help me. ''No thank you," I say gruffly, panicked she will smell me and be disgusted. I chide myself. I'm old. My sight is failing. My hearing is all but gone. My skin is as pocked and dry as a snake's. My breath is a sty. My body is an open wound. She is disgusted already.
She helps me anyway. I love her touch, the smallness of her fingers, the strength of her hands.
"You need to go outside. It's a beautiful spring day."
I ask to be taken to the south courtyard. She is right. It is beautiful. But that's not why I must be outside.
Then, I am standing outside her door, the door itself filled with enormous meaning and significance. I tell myself it is my right to be here, as her husband and her king. But it doesn't help as I knock on her door.
She opens it and stands there, secure and sad in her grief. Tristan has been dead over a year but to look at the broken expression on her face, he might have died yesterday.
"Good evening, Your Majesty," she says quietly.
I walk past her into the room. I have never done this before: enter her room without her permission. But she closes the door behind me without comment. Even on our wedding night, I came announced, to make sure her handmaid had time to take her place.
She is small. I sit so I don't tower over her. It is important she listen to me.
I can think of no gentle way to begin so I just start. "You and Tristan were banished for betraying me."
"I passed the trial--"
"I know how the trick was played," I interrupt her. "And so do others. But he still had to go to Brittany because, regardless of the result of the trial, people knew what was going on. Now, Tristan is dead and you are here. You are still my wife."
"Am I to die?"
"Of course not. I banished the two of you once and Tristan a second time. Do you think I would have done that just to kill you now?"
"I suppose not."
She sits down on a nearby stool. She is so young--not a day over seventeen. And a young seventeen, at that. Tristan had killed Morold and wooed her at a much younger age. Wooed her for me, of course, when he loved her himself. If he hadn't been an idiot he would have seen that. If I hadn't been an idiot I'd have seen it, too, and none of this would have happened. But you must play the dice as they roll.
"I could go back to Ireland."
"Possible but risky. Your father is proud and your mother powerful. How would they see it? Or the nobles?"
"They would be insulted."
"So would my own people. It's nice to know that fools are universal."
"They would avenge the insult."
"Ireland has already beaten Cornwall once. I'd rather it not happen a second time in my reign." I lean towards her and speak gently. "I've seen enough death."
"Me, too." She nods. "So I can't go back."
"You can stay here. You can be my wife and queen."
She looks up at me, suddenly wary. Good, I think. Innocence can take you only so far in this world. After that you have to think.
"What would I have to do?"
"Produce an heir." I take a deep breath. "With me." If you can, I think. With the way she and Tristan carried on, it was a wonder she hadn't produced a litter. Could have been Tristan's fault, though. No way to tell but one. "This time no servant can take your place."
She pales. "You knew of that?"
"I told you. I know how the game is played."
Isolde falls quiet. "Why did you let me live?"
I look her in the eyes. "At first, it was because of him. Announcing your betrayal meant his death as well. As I grew to know you, I decided I didn't want either of you to die."
She nods slowly. Isolde stands and begins to remove her gown.
"I don't understand." I shake my head as if my vision is cloudy. "I didn't mean--I thought you would have to--what are you doing?"
The gown is falling from her shoulders. Her pale and tender breasts shine of their own light. "Producing an heir is serious business. We'd best get to it."
"What about Tristan?" I am suddenly standing. My voice comes out in a croak.
She glances up as she slips her gown over her thighs. Her gaze is unreadable.
"Tristan is dead. I am alive."
And I'm staring at my brother John, wondering what he's doing here.
"You sent for me," he says dryly.
I look around. I'm sitting in a chair in the south courtyard. Beyond the courtyard's wall lie the cliff and the sea. It was a dream. A remembrance.
John puts his hand on my shoulder. "Steady, Mark. You were asleep."
I shake my head. I can barely tell the difference, now. Sleep. Dream. Death. Will I even notice the change?
For a moment, I can't remember why I had sent for John. It's for Charles, I remember. "Do you want to be king?" I ask him. I watch for his reaction.
He stands up stiffly, as if I've insulted him, but I know my brother better than that. He's trying to figure out why I've asked him. I watch the expressions flit over his face as he wonders what to do: lie and say he does, lie and say he doesn't.
He decides on honesty. "I did once. But not anymore." He sits on the wall, watching me and past me to the sea. "I've got my castle. I've got my wife. I've got my children. That's enough for me."
"Do you want to be regent?"
He understands immediately. "For how long?"
"Until Charles turns twenty."
I can see his thoughts as clearly as if he were made of glass: just long enough to set aside a bit of fortune for myself--insure my title and lands. Maybe make a few changes before I have to hand things over. Teach Charles the way a king ought to be taught. Not like my loudmouth brother.
I wait a little while for him to spin out his dreams. "You'd have to care for Isolde, as well."
He glances up sharply and mulls that over. "I like my wife and wouldn't divorce her even if I could."
"Isolde has no interest in being your wife or queen. She cares only for the welfare of her son."
He mulls that over. "Fair enough," John says at last. "She'll be a pain to deal with but she can be nice enough when she behaves."
"She's been kind to me."
John nods. After a moment, he says, "You think it'll be soon, then? You wouldn't be talking to me like this if you didn't think so."
"It'll be soon." I lean back. The sun warms my stinking body.
John doesn't say anything for a moment. Then, "You did a pretty good job."
"What do you mean?"
He bites the edge of his thumb without realizing it. I remember he used to do that around our father when he was a boy. Not a patient man, our father.
"You lost to Ireland but you got them to ease the terms of defeat. Then, when Tristan killed Morold you managed to use him to get their Queen's daughter to marry you. That let you set aside the tribute and hold onto a hostage. And then you handled the mess the two of them made of it without killing either of them or going to war. Charles is the heir to your throne with a claim on the Irish throne. You can decide if it prudent to pursue it or use it as a bargaining chip. I thought sure Tristan and Isolde were going to bring you down but you came out of it golden."
I closed my eyes. "It's better to be lucky than smart."
I open them again and he's gone and I can smell the evening coming. Did I sleep this time? I have no memory of it.
Then, James comes walking by, looking around to see that no one is watching him, leaps up quickly to the top of the wall. My heart is in my mouth and I can't breath. This is a dream. This must be a dream.
"Take care," I whisper, quietly so I don't startle him again.
But I do. He sees me in the distance, younger then, and sterner. More prone to a harsh correction then gentle suggestion. He sees me and turns to step down, knowing he's done wrong. But his step slips and he falls, strikes the wall.
Both of us cry out, "No!" and I lunge out of my chair to him, I can hear the pounding of my younger self behind me.
James scrabbles, slips, catches a hand, slips again, and is over the edge, nothing between him and the rocks but four hundred feet of empty air.
I fall to my knees, weeping, feeling the scar on my heart torn off.
I open my eyes, gummy with tears. Isolde is leaning over me. The light is behind her and all I can see is her eyes, hear her voice.
"It's all right, Mark. You're awake. It was just a bad dream."
I can't speak for the bloody wound pumping in my chest. Can't speak for the tears. I shouldn't cry. It was years past. But it is as if it had just happened seconds ago. I could still see his hand slip out of sight.
Dear God. What was next? Would I now find myself sitting next to poor Mary when she was wracked with fever? Would I see her shivers turn to raving, watch her clutch at me and then as I hold her in my arms, grow suddenly, terribly, still? Must I go through that again? If I have to dream, could I not revisit the good times? Let me see Mary dancing again. Or see James running again--my son was always running. Or Tristan when first he came to court, excited to be here at last. Or when he first brought Isolde to meet me and I, an old fool, was grateful to have her.
She pulls my head to her breast and I can smell her in the muslin, smell the smoke of the kitchen where she must have been, smell the grass and the flowers of spring. It's the first time I've smelled something other than myself in days.
She lets me go and cleans my face like a child's. I start to pull away, ashamed, but she'll have none of it and insists on wiping away my tears.
"Goodness," she says. "That must have been a terrible dream. What was it?"
I almost say it. Almost blurt it out. But I stop myself. Why drag it up for her? It was bad enough that I be haunted. Must she be haunted as well?
"I don't remember," I say slowly. "Just a dream."
She sees through me but lets it lie. I am grateful.
"Are you getting cold now? It's getting on in the afternoon."
"I could do with a fire," I admitted. "Maybe a little tea."
She calls over two soldiers, Raum and Blanc, I think, but I can't be sure so I contrive to be overly concerned with my progress back inside so I don't have to remember their names. They take me to the sitting room, a place Isolde has made over to suit her ideas of what I should need. They prop me up with pillows and I nod and close my eyes dutifully. And nod off I do, quick as winking but this time there are no dreams, just a sense that time has passed when I wake. I don't open my eyes immediately. I wonder where I am. The pillows feel the same. The air is cooler now. I'm still in the sitting room but it is later.
"So, the king here doesn't twig to a thing," comes one voice. It's the same two: Raum and Blanc.
"Here now. Think he can hear us?"
"No. Deaf as a post and sleeps like an old man." The two laugh quietly.
I keep my eyes closed, intrigued.
"So the queen puts her lady in her place."
"Why'd she do that?"
"She loves Tristan, you see."
"Really? But Tristan's dead and she's still here. The king couldn't be all that bad, could he?"
"You're missing the point--as usual. She loved Tristan--and couldn't bear to be touched by anybody but him. Now that he's dead, she doesn't care so much."
"Doesn't make much sense, then, does it? I mean, if he's awful before Tristan's dead he'd be awful after, wouldn't he?"
"He never was awful. He's a pretty good king, all things considered. She was lucky to get him."
"Clearly, she didn't think so or she wouldn't have sent in her bloody servant. Which is an awful trick to play on your king."
"He never noticed."
"Pull the other one. Still, it's a pretty shabby thing to play on your husband--maybe the lady was pretty. Could be the king got the better of the deal."
"Shows what you know--"
At that point I coughed to keep from laughing, and the two of them fell quiet.
"Are you all right, Your Majesty?" Raum--I'm guessing it's Raum--steps towards me.
"What? Speak up?" I say, trying not to grin.
"Are you all right?" Raum is practically shouting.
"I'm fine. Don't shout. I'm not deaf."
Raum nods and they stand up against the wall like two tedious bookends.
I stare out the window. It comes to me that I've lost control of things. John will take care of Charles and Isolde or he will not. I can't do anything about it. Charles will eventually become king or he won't. It's all out of my hands. I feel a sudden relief. I've done all I can. I wonder if anything I've ever done will outlive me for very long. I have no control, do I? I've done all I can.
I send for the priest. He comes immediately--he must have been waiting somewhere in the castle. He administers his rites and points me towards heaven. It will make Isolde feel better. The Church was dead to me after James died.
Isolde comes in directly afterwards with a litter. She probably came with the priest. She wants me to dine in the hall tonight. I have no appetite at all but I find myself feeling tenderly towards her. At the table it is a strain to sit up and I find myself leaning forward more and more. I try to eat but the food is tasteless. Even the wine smells foul but the others are not repelled by it. It must be me.
Isolde sees I'm tired and calls for the litter. Once I'm taken back upstairs to my room, she has me eased into bed.
I'm so tired I'm groggy but I can't fall asleep. I've been falling asleep at a moment all day and now I can't close my eyes. I try to keep quiet.
Isolde sits in a chair next to my bed.
I feel ashamed she's here because of me. "You should go downstairs and enjoy yourself."
"I'm fine here, thank you." She pulls out her weaving and I watch her fingers move in the golden candlelight, in and out of the yarn like small birds in a bush.
Sleep lurks in the dark and behind sleep, death. I can feel it rolling slowly towards me, a great boulder that will not be swayed nor slowed. If I have anything to say, now is the time. I won't have a second chance.
I reach out and take her hand. She is startled a moment.
"I loved you the first day I saw you." I frame my words carefully, afraid that my ancient, trembling lips will make a mistake.
After a moment, she covers my hand with hers and looks me in the eyes. "I took a little longer."
This story was first published on Friday, December 24th, 2010
My father discovered Joseph Campbell late in life. Campbell's work gave him a lever with which he could pry himself out of his Southern Baptist upbringing and, like any new convert, he enthusiastically sent me tapes of Campbell's lectures. To which I dutifully listened. One of Campbell's lectures was about Tristan and Isolde. At one point in the lecture, Campbell made a long point about how King Mark was a particularly good man in banishing the lovers when they betrayed him. How much Mark loved his nephew. As he retold the story of Tristan's death, Isolde looking on, I realized that at the end of the story Isolde was still married to Mark. I'm always interested in what happens after the story ends so I was off.
- Steven Popkes
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