July 6, 2012

The White Marriage, By William Saunders

Editor's note: What a marvel William Saunders has created with this story. Fragments of magic, slivers of drama, shards of history, are all mingled together in a reverie called, "The White Marriage."  EC is delighted to present the story as a guest post, as it seemed the best category in which to place it. Enjoy!

Once upon time there was a beautiful princess, and she married a handsome prince, who took her far away across the sea to rule with him over the city of Prague.

And Prague in November resembled an enormous wedding cake, as the Princess, who was now a Queen looked out of her castle window.  After a night of snow, the roofs and the spires of the city shone and sparkled as if they were gorgeous curlicues teased out of sugar by a clever pastry chef. Only if she leaned very far out of the window could she find any sign of the dark earth at all.

Down below among the cottages pressed against the wall of the castle the snow had not settled due to the steady tread of the alchemists going back and forth to fetch coal. Day and night they tended their fires in pursuit of the secret of immortality.

Jessie Dunlop

As things fell out this November, the Queen was alone in the Castle because the Prince, who was now a King, was away making war on his enemies at the White Mountain.  For company she had her three companions from home, Mary, Mary and Mary, and the four of them gossiped and giggled together in their native tongue as they wandered the enormous rooms, but there was no real life to be had with all the men away. The Queen also had her English players with her and that afternoon they were to perform a masque for the ladies. 

Not every man had gone to the war. Down below in the city there was a young soldier who had decided to seek his fortune by other means. He had rented a small room, with a stove to sit by as he thought and thought about how to decide what is real and what is only a dream.

The English players are the mechanics of dreams. Together they raise the scaffold in the Castle throne room with easy practice - the platform on which they will become kings and even queens, although they are all men and boys.  Mary Carmichael will not leave them alone. She hangs around the doorway as the crashes of the scaffold work echo up in the rafters of the Throne room, with no thought of her dignity.

She is fascinated by Rufus, the lead boy of the company who takes the main feminine roles. She loves to finger his tinsel dress and stroke his down chin and ask him "How can you play a woman when you've never known one?"

Rufus blushes but answers, "I play maids."

"Oh! Oh!" shrieks Mary Carmichael "That's put me in my place, for I could only play a maid from memory." Her laughter skirls through the great chamber high above the laughter of the men. Rufus blushes deeper, and Mary pinches his cheek and says "He blushes like a maid." But the Queen has heard the laughter and has sent Mary Seaton to take Mary Carmichael away from the players.

So the Queen and all three of her ladies walk together in the long gallery before dinner, their breath hanging before them in thin white clouds. They talk of Grace, the snow, Anabaptists and Mary Seaton's small dog, Duncan, who runs ahead of them and snuffles at the fringes of the tapestries. None of them mentions the war.
Dinner without the men is a jolly affair. Among only themselves and waited on by women, the ladies can forget their manners and be free with their appetites. Mary Carmichael is always greedy, and Mary Heaton enjoys her food when she gets the chance, although she is as thin as a needle. There is no fish, with so many men away, but even in November there are peaches and plums grown magically under the low winter sun in a room with glass walls on the roof of the castle.

When at last dinner is cleared away the light has begun to fade. Much of the throne room is already lost in shadow as the Queen leads the Marys in to see the Masque. The stage is lit with sconces, and up in the gallery the musicians have lit their candles. One could fancy that the pin pricks of candlelight are the stars in the sky. And such fancies are what make the Queen uneasy about Theatre. Surely to make a mockery of Nature is to mock its Creator? And the better the mockery the greater the spiritual danger, for a perfect imitation of form will draw Spirit into it, like the brazen head built by Cornelius Agrippa which spoke and prophesied. And in this poor light the Imagination will spring to the aid of the Intellect to make the stage, and only the stage real, and what are the dangers of the perfect illusion?

Rufus is the perfect illusion now, as he steps onto the empty platform of the stage. Who could doubt that he is what he claims to be, the Lady Moon in the Garden of the Night? He moves with delicacy and modesty. His feet glide beneath him, his arms float before him has he uses his hands to emphasize his unhappy situation, and his horse hair tresses fly around him with each toss of his head.

The Lady Moon has nightingales and owls for company and it is the sweetest scented flowers which exhale their perfumes during the hours of darkness. Yet all is not well with her. She loves the Lord Sun, loves him and fears him, for she is afraid that in his great light she will disappear. She would take that risk but her cruel father Saturn keeps her away from her lover.

The Queen hears Mary Heaton draw her handkerchief from her sleeve ready to weep for Lady Moon. The Queen is moved too. She knows what is to be the daughter and lover of powerful men. She is gripped rather more than she would like.

Here comes Mercury, a lithe and nimble lad, resplendent in yellow robes. His dances and songs are so gay that even Lady Moon forgets her troubles and laughs.  Mercury brings hope as well as laughter, for he knows a way to bring Lady Moon together with her love, but it will require her to change completely. Lady Moon asks herself if she dare trust Mercury, the Guardian of the Dead, the Master of Shadows and decides she has no choice. They depart in different directions.

Here comes Lord Sun in golden armor. All the ladies gasp. His heralds are the roosters, his knights are the eagles. He is all seeing and master of all that he can see. Poor Lady Moon, for surely such a magnificent being must be complete in himself? He who has everything must want nothing. Lady Moon's cause must be hopeless.

Yet, strangely, Lord Sun is susceptible to flattery. Mercury skips on and sings his praises and his Lordship is very pleased. Sly Mercury then sings a song of longing and love from afar. Lord Sun is moved and asks where Mercury learned it. Mercury says that he heard it from a lady in a secluded garden, a garden where the Lord Sun can never go.

Lord Sun is devastated, he wants more than anything to enter the garden and court the lady. Mercury promises that he can arrange just that but it will involve great sacrifice on Lord Sun's part. Without hesitation the Lord Sun says he will agree to anything that Mercury asks of him.

Lord Sun departs and Mercury reveals to his select audience that his game is deeper than either Lord Sun and Lady Moon can guess. Their marriage will be the accomplishment of the Great Work. He summons his two servants Castor and Pollux to send word to Lord Sun and Lady Moon to meet him in the Garden of the Hesperides, the garden in the West, where Day and Night meet.

Castor and Pollux are not the most competent of servants but after a few misadventures together which set the Queen and her ladies laughing, they go their separate ways to perform their errands.

Mercury appears again and announces he is in the Garden of the Hesperides the orchard whose golden fruit bring wisdom and immortality to any who dare to eat of them. Lord Sun and Lady Moon appear form opposite sides of the stage. After they have sung in celebration, Mercury instructs them to strip to their shifts. Then the atmosphere darkens. Lady Moon announces that her cruel Father Saturn is about to arrive and stop the wedding.

In fact it is another person altogether who stops the ceremony. A young knight runs into the throne room and falls on his knees before the Queen. The mud and the blood on his clothes speak of his valor and yet he weeps like a child. Through his tears he tells the Queen that the King has been defeated at the White Mountain and she and her ladies must flee Prague that very night.

Lights are called for everywhere and all the servants are stirred up to pack whatever can be carried off. Mary Heaton begins to weep and the Queen tells her if she has tears to shed she should not waste them on herself but cry for the women of Prague who have nowhere to flee to and must await the mercy of the enemy army.

Down below in the city the young soldier wakes up beside his stove, and in the moments between sleep and waking he realizes he is dreaming his life and in those same moments he realizes that if he is dreaming himself, there must be a self to do the dreaming. And in the years that were to follow, the young man wrote his thoughts about this in a book, and many wise men have come to believe that the young soldier was right.

Jessie Dunlop

And beside the Castle the Alchemists went back forth to fetch coal as they always did. Day and night they tend their fires in search of the secret of immortality: living, in effect, as if they had already found it. 

Bio: William Saunders is a London based poet, journalist and author. His collection of short stories is called Leah And Her Twelve Brothers.

Bio: Jessie Dunlop is an archaeologist who lives in Vancouver. These are her first published illustrations.

Leah And Her Twelve Brothers

EC readers are invited to download "The White Marriage" as a free .pdf here:

or via this page where it is listed as Prague.


Laura B. said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this enchanting tale with such incredible illustrations!

Caedmon said...

Thank-you Laura

William Saunders

Teresa Robeson said...

Completely captivating and fascinating - this story is a lovely mix of reality and fantasy!

Nice artwork too - and I was just in Vancouver for 2 weeks. :)

Christie said...

I enjoyed this story immensely!

Caedmon said...

And thank-you Teresa and Christie!

Adam B said...

Adam B.

This is one of my favorite posts! I love the authors writing style here. The sentences have a certain poetry to them and they read like silk. The descriptors that he uses fit the picture in my head so perfectly. His style of writing combined with his ability to describe pictures allows me to read this story so smoothly that I can see a movie instead of the words. This is one of my favorite posts thus far and I'm surprised to see that it's a guest post. My favorite sentence, that hooked me for the rest of this story is, "Prague in November resembled an enormous wedding cake". Cake and snow remind me so much of winters at home. We often bake during the winter and cake is a favorite thing for our family to bake. It gave a good feeling for November which I usually hate because of the snow. The poetry of that one sentence immediately took me to eating cake in the warmth while looking out at the snow outside. It is nice to find a style of writing that matches your own thought patterns so well. This story is compatible to me.

I was actually enjoying the play of Lord Sun and Lady Moon and was sad that it did not have the chance to end properly. I was trying understand why I felt that the interruption was so tragic, and I believe that it is because the play is synonymous with reality. Not only did Lady Moon not get the chance to end her story, but the Queen's life and the life of every one in the village may just as abruptly end with bloodshed. The women and the Queen would not likely be able to write the ending for their own lives, because the enemy was about to take it from them. Just to make it more tragic, it was an unfinished love story.

Adam B.

Caedmon said...

Thank-you Adam, I'm overwhelmed.

Manjai .Z said...

This got to be my favorite tale so far. I enjoyed reading it, this is something I could read over and over again and never get tired of it. It was captivating, and had every little element of life in it. Love story mix with the reality of war, the movement of our universe, indicating the connections between sun and moon, and the surrounding planets, as well as fantasy, this tale is incredible and I love it. I love the writing style; the author had perfect description of the Prague as a large wedding Cake is amazing. Your entire world on a cake, however this connections maybe a wedding cake created with the groom and the bride image created on it. It is amazing how the author connects two tales together within one very impressive. The play between Lord Sun and lady Moon, who were trying to find a way to get married despite their difference, and the struggles of them coming together, may have indicated the struggles between the Queen and her power King who was at war. Sometimes when two tales are combining within each other, readers maybe confuse, but I must say, this was well done. The author style is amazing, and I enjoyed reading this story, however it got me wanting some cake. Excellent job William Saunders, I am looking forward to seeing more from you.

Anonymous said...

This is such a moving story. There’s a lot of pain and sadness in it, but it trips and skips along so sweetly (like Mary Carmichael’s laughter when she’s teasing poor Rufus) it’s easy to forget until it makes itself known. I love that the feeling the readers get is a mirror of what’s happening in the story. The new Queen is off to a completely new world, and the only connection she has to it is off fighting a war. But it’s a beautiful city, and she can eat what she likes, and she can gossip with her friends, and forget for a while.

I found myself getting invested even in the Masque. It reminded me a little of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or All’s Well That Ends Well.

I like how the philosopher soldier ties in. At first glance, it’s completely out of left field, but I like the comparison between his thinking and the Queen’s uneasiness. After all, what is the Masque but a dream of a different world for a few hours?

And I love the implication of perfect imitation drawing Spirit-- it’s almost a bit of magic realism that the Masque ends when the knight comes in, bearing his horrible news.
There’s also the gorgeous imagery in the beginning-- Prague doesn’t seem real, being made of wedding cake and sugar spirals.

This whole story is really, really lovely. Thank you for sharing it!

Danielle L.

Caedmon said...

Thank-you your comments Manjai and Danielle

tjpaj219 said...

This tale was a little bit hard to follow at first, but provoked some interesting thoughts similar to when you watch a mind-bending thriller filled with twists and cut scenes. I’m still unsure if the part of the story where the soldier puts on a play and the queen is warned of the king’s defeat was real or a dream. Either way, I thought it was interesting the way that this idea was introduced. Until the very end of the story when the soldier declares he was dreaming his life, you have no second thoughts on if this was actually happening or not. Aside from the mind-twisting dream sequence, there were some familiar aspects to this tale. For example, the rule of threes makes an appearance the three Marys. I can’t quite put into words what the purpose of the different Marys were but I believe that each one was supposed to represent a different type of personality or flaw that was common for women at the time.

Sandra said...

'Tis seldom one finds decent Thirty Years' War historical fiction, and you have given us a scrumptious treat: Shakespeare entwined with the 1618 storming of Prague, and early modern penchants for classical mythology, through the figure of Elizabeth Stuart herself