Other Mother

by Skye Makaris

 

The king’s cock was small. Much too human. Small and cold and hard, a swede of ice lashed to his hips. He grunted and squirmed: just like that, his part was finished. He nodded me away, and I retired to my moors to begin the creating.

He wasn’t the first king I served. His great-great-grandsire had shared my bed, a hundred years ago and change, but this was different. This was duty.

The queen’s insides were lumpen, she told me, in a whisper laced with a sob. She had tried for years already, and couldn’t I see how her hair was growing grey? How her brow creased where once gaiety had dwelt?

“I need an ersatz womb,” she whispered. She worried her hands in shame.

I reached forward to clasp her trembling palms. “What’s mine is yours,” I said, and kissed her cheek.

***

What’s yours is mine, I thought when the king presented his cock. He wasn’t an ugly man, but he wasn’t his grandfather. Great-grandfather? How long had it been? A human lifespan and then some, cold and puckered with loss, since I’d had him. Mothers on mothers on mothers of mine had kept his line’s counsel. Lent our ears and our arms and our keenness for strategy to a family near as ancient as ours. It was the way of kings back then: keep the fair folk close to your breast, and we’ll proffer loyalty no human can summon. That was then.

***

When he first unlaced my stays, that man of mine, my mother rang harshly in my mind. Keep that man out of your bed, idiot child. Keep humans out of your heart. They are beautiful, cursory, all too slight, and one day they will die and you will be tempted to follow.

She was right. He shriveled, while I continued to bloom. His faculties shrank while mine grew shrewder. He died, and I keened sharply. And then I peeled myself from his graveside and went to attend his son. That was then.

Now son of son (of son?) lay beside me, giddy with my gift to him. What’s yours is mine–indeed.

***

Soon I summoned them to feel the quickening. My belly was bright and bold: the seed inside was knitting, and briskly at that. When the queen laid her hand against it, my dear friend gasped and sang.

“He will be strong,” I promised. “You won’t find a better stopgap womb anywhere. His blood will be rich and sweet. His bones will be sturdy. His hair will be spider silk; his eyes, sea. A faery’s body is the best first home a child could want. You have chosen well.”

My queen’s eyes were shining. She took my hands in hers. Her husband gripped my shoulder.

“But he will, of course, be a he?”

***

She was not a he.

I hit my throes early. The babe still had another month to go. When I felt the sluices open, I was delighted. I had spent eight months succoring the child, making him strong and fair, a man with roots in each world. A man with the salt of his father’s people and the glamour of mine. It was only fitting he should arrive a month too soon. He would be his own man from the very first breath.

For an hour and a day I labored, but the bearing was easy: we are our own race, informed by our own gods, our own bloodlines our own flesh our own memory, and we do not share Eve’s curse. My dear friend the queen was there to knead my back and kiss my forehead.

“What’s mine is yours,” she whispered as my belly rippled. “We will never forget what you have done for us—for our kingdom, for me. I promise he will know us both, you as well as I. He will always love his faery godmother, who gave her body to the service of our bloodline.”

With a final howl, the babe unleashed himself. The queen sobbed with glee while the nurses toweled off the squirmling. And then I watched my dear friend’s joy sour, her color sink to grief, for the squalling heir was soft and pink and all too feminine.

The room grew cold as the nurses prodded her. The queen was silent. Her chin was harsh, her eyes dark and sour. I petted my goddaughter’s head. Her lips cooed back at me, demanding love. A princess in perfect miniature. Begging, hoping, I offered her to the woman who had promised to be her mother. And my dear friend turned her head away.

“You promised,” she said, when she could speak. “A son spun of spider silk and sea. A boy in his father’s image. Instead you bear us…this. A half-breed daughter who will never rule, never own, never wear the crown her blood deserves. You might as well drown her yourself, for all the good she’ll do us.”

She straightened, but her back was still sloped with grief. I couldn’t speak. My legs were still spread, my brow striped with sweat, and the girl in my arms was beginning to writhe. I could feel my blood stirring in her barely-body, and I understood all at once.

The queen, that dear petty striving conniving woman, would not be outshone. A faery son would be joy itself, pride in a glowing skin, but a faery daughter would always dull her mother. Just the wrong side of mortal brilliance. She would be, forever, a brighter coin. In the presence of her birth, my dear friend had already begun to crumble.

I observed her, but I could not act. I was still lashed to my childbed, witted but weak. I let her scoop up the child she could not love.

“She will be ours,” said the queen. “She was never yours, and your word will be sullied should you ever speak else. She will never be fae. Never more than her human flesh implies. When the time comes, she will marry the man we choose and forget she ever bore another name. Good riddance to half-breed rubbish.”

***

They called her Aurora, I heard. A tribute to the morning sun. I laughed when I heard, the better to keep from crying. This from a mother who could not abide her daughter’s shine. I was not invited to the christening. I tossed and turned that night: that was my flesh asleep in the cradle, my blood bubbling behind those pretty eyes.

Did she know who her grandsires were? Did she know she’d been born too late? If your father had been him, my love instead of my duty, I sang one night, hoping she could hear, hoping our blood might carry bits of magic to her bones and guts and brain, you would know what you are.

I grieved her faithfully. I grieved the loss of my queen’s dear friendship, and I grieved my dismissal from the king’s counsel. Mothers on mothers on mothers untold had advised the royal line. I had shamed us all. I had lost a history and a daughter in one. I had lost.

***

I went back to my moors. My people asked no questions. I took a lover among my own stock. Waking up beside him was almost good enough. He didn’t ask me questions. He was warm and measured, tender when he needed to be. We lived in my mothers’ mothers’ moorland home. Hunted for our food, studied for our craft, built something that looked like a life.

Sometimes when the moon was jaunty, leering a little too close to the night of my princess’s birth, I stormed. My home was haunted, they started to say. I heard whispers of spirits and spooks, of ghouls and ancestral wails: no, just me. Me and the sprinklings of magic I sloughed off when it all grew too much, a private palaver between my grief and me. Braids of lightning attended my walls. Guarding, smarting, snipping intruders away.

When my lover left—well, I had expected as much. I had filled our home with storm and stress. My grief had made him a cuckold.

“Why,” he asked me as he packed his bag, “do you light a candle every day in June? Why do your fingertips crackle, why do your lungs sob, why do you ache all night long? Who lashed this woe to your life, and why must I live swaddled in its mien?”

“Go, then,” was my only answer. “You have made me no promise. Go and seek more fitting fortune.”

For even better measure, I gave him wings to point his way. I watched his skin blister with feathers, his eyes shrink to beads. I watched his face ask the final, desperate why; I cackled.

“Because what’s mine will never be yours. You can keep the skies. Leave me my earth and the pain that swaddles it. Go and make some swaying branch your home; you’ll find no more shelter in mine.”

He shrieked, thrusting and snipping with the beak fastened to his once-lovely face. I blocked, I ducked, but I wasn’t truly prepared for the venom his love had left behind. He set upon me, wailing, until my left eye ran red and viscous and my right was barely spared.

With that he turned tail and flew. There was no more love in him.

***

I applied all manner of tinctures, of herbs, of muttered incantations to the bloodied eye, but no use: for the rest of my days it would be milky. A scar-spangled galaxy in my very own face. On the stormier days, I rather liked the effect.

And anyway, even with one eye drained of use, I could see clearer than ever: my precious princess was growing up. Her bones were lengthening; her waist was whittling into womanhood. Time was carving elegance from a chubby child body. I could see her plain as day itself, my womb twinging with every birthday. I marked each one with care, with a mad faith that grew madder still. Soon I’d see what I’d waited for: number sixteen.

 

Do you know what happens to a faery child when her sixteenth year clicks closed? Of course you don’t. Mortals never do. They’ve happened on our secrets, time and again, but the knowledge never lasts. There are things that can’t stay in the minds of men, things their thoughts can’t quite make room for. As it should be. It’s a whole other order. A whole Other.

When a faery child turns sixteen, she puts her childhood to bed.

You say it’s brutal. So did I, when I lived among men. I let myself be tamed, if you can call it taming: I see now it was merely a nudging aside. You cannot make a faery other than what she is. What men call brutality is our daily bread. It’s simply the way. The world does not spin on an axis of human judgment, whatever they want to think.

When a faery child’s youth gives way to the full complement of power, she must prove she can use it. She must prove her prudence, her mercy, her ruth and ruthlessness alike. And it so happens that nature has provided the perfect mark.

On her sixteenth birthday, a faery girl shall kill her father. A faery boy, his mother. Twins share the privilege. We never birth more than one, not on purpose.

***

Never bear a mortal’s children, my mother had said. Her fierce face was soft, almost begging.

The countdown begins from the moment their squalling heads emerge. We are prepared, you and I and the rest of us. We are capable of living the intervening years with grace, even knowing how they will end. A mortal is different. His grief will drive him mad from the child’s first cry. He will look at the babe and see only his death, or yours, and he will crumble.

She took a deep shuddering breath, a half-sob.

His grief will eat him until he does the job himself. I have seen mortal men slit their own throats, the better to avoid a precious daughter doing the same. I have seen them kill the children themselves. Drown them in the bath and no one is the wiser. I have seen one take the knife to his faery wife’s throat, in fury that she lashed him to such a fate. Loving a mortal is pain, my daughter. Kiss him if you must. Tease him and savor that all-too-brief body. But you mustn’t take him to your bed.

I took her words, in my own way. I loved that grandsire, I did. I took him to my bed. But I kept myself barren. Should a seed happen to catch, I snuffed it quick and clean, and put the retching down to a bad cut of fish. He never pushed, and I have always been thankful. He had his wife, after all. His children from a rightful womb. He died having known fatherhood, and every day I am grateful for that. It would have killed me to deny the man anything.

But not his grandson. I could deny that man everything and more.

***

On my daughter’s sixteenth birthday, the sun hung red and low, a bloody bulb dripping from the morning firmament. Aurora’s namesake was stirring. I watched the dawn break fiercely, and for the first time and the last, I prayed.

Faeries don’t pray. We barter; we don’t beg. But on that morning, just for a moment, pride softened in lieu of something tender.

Let her become herself. That’s all I ask. Let the fruits of my womb become what her blood demands, and I will ask nothing more in my lifetime.

And with that, she knocked upon my door.

I waited before unlatching. I had to fix her in my mind, as though she might fizzle into empty air the moment the hinges creaked. She would shine: curls, curves, and countenance alike. I would know her for mine at a hundred paces. She would be every generation in final, grandest form; she would be what we had waited for. I smelled lightning under her skin, working to a full-bore crackle, and I practically sang.

The knocking rose, a more insistent pitch now. I breathed deeply, my last solitary breath before greeting her precious perfumed presence, and I unlatched the door. It wasn’t her.

It was the other mother. The ersatz mother. The other me, gone sixteen years to seed. What was full had turned shrunken; grey converged on buttery blonde. Her eyes were fierce and sad, almost wild. Her dress was splashed with red. She opened her sniveling lips and said:

Help me. Please.

Not an apology. Not a forgive me. Another beg. A whisper knit with a sob, an echo from all those years ago. I felt my own lip curl.

“This morning I came to my parlor to find–oh, he was white, so white, and drenched in red. And she was leaning over him, her hair trailed all in blood. She looked at me, and I could see it: she wasn’t sorry.”

She was sobbing in earnest now, tears and sweat and spit and blood staining her grey face. How perfectly human. I looked at my Queen, my old striving conniving friend. I let my eye slice away her wrinkles, her sags, her aching mask of a face. Somewhere, she was the girl I had led from squalor to the fripperies of court. When her husband plucked her from the ash and the cinders, his father wept.

A weed, he cried. That girl was born in dirt, and by all that’s good and holy she should die in dirt. My son has poisoned his birthright for–what, a slipper? True love–true lust, that’s all this is, and love of kingdom means nothing! I will die of shame.

I was the ear. I held the cards. And I liked the girl. She was rough. I liked rough, with or without a diamond underbelly. She was plain and true, she was determined to win, and that’s what charmed me: she had a touch of the ruthless in her. Clawing out of ashes the way she did, she had to be just a smidgen fae.

And I knew love when I saw it. The prince was besotted, a gone man. If I nudged him to happiness, I thought, I’d be that much more comfortable when he ascended the throne himself.

So I put in my word. I stroked, I wheedled, I sweetened the pot here and there. When the knot was tied at last, I greeted the incipient princess in her chambers. I taught her grace and charity. I taught her a proper curtsey. I coaxed her true name, Eliana, from her quivering lips. She was titled now, no more Ella. I took a bundle of bones and I made a Queen. I loved her like she was mine, and when she brought me her tears, her shame, her knotted womb, of course I did what she asked. Of course. Our race is brutal, but we know what love is.

Now there was blood on her face, there was blood in my memories, there was blood where there used to be ash. There was always a touch of the fae in her. A touch of our brutal, bloody, fiercely loving race. I don’t regret what I did next. She had begged at the edges of my world, my womb, my word, until she cracked it open. She had reckoned with faeries and we had finally reckoned back.

I took her hands in mine. “Eliana,” I soothed her, “Ella, sit down.”

I coaxed her trembling paleness across my doorstep, and I arranged her in a wooden chair. She sank fleshly into the carved arms and looked at me, full of human gratitude. I turned my back. I bustled at the cupboards. Eliana of the cinders never saw the knife that killed her. It was drawn from my skirts and cozied against her throat before she could cry out. She melted into the assault, her shoulders slackening as they never had in life.

I bent before her to meet her eyes as she bled. I couldn’t let her die in middle distance. I took her hand; with my other I steadied her head. She didn’t flinch at my milky eye.

“Godmother,” she said. “Godmother?”

“Yes, Ella. What is it?”

“Thank you.”

***

The cinder queen is buried in the belly of the hearth. I dug deep, deep, deep below my firepit, mounded the dirt until it dwarfed me, and I laid her in. Her husband, the king, my lover’s great-great-great, was burned. So I heard. The new vizier, a human of course, had taken one look at the entrails spilling this way and that and given the order. Torch the evil. No one must know.

They burned her too, my kingly daughter. The whole village turned up to watch the stake’s assembly, the reading of her deeds, the march to the dais where she would meet her grief. I was there, swaddled in somber skirts, my milky eye veiled. No one knew me, not anymore. Least of all my daughter.

But I know she winked, from her bounds against the stake. I know she met my milky eye and smiled, briefly and brightly and meant for no one but me. I know I collected her ashes when my fire was doused. I know they make my hearth burn that much bolder. I know that when the moon is right, my milky eye is almost clear.


About the Author

Skye Makaris is a writer and antiquarian from Burlington, Vermont. By day she mines the past for truth; by night she takes refuge in fiction. Her literary interests include fairy tales, Puritans, and body horror. She runs the fashion history blog My Kingdom for a Hat; other publications include Body Parts Magazine and Yale’s LETTERS Journal.

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