June 25, 2020

Throwback Thursday: Those Who Came Before, By Gerri Leen

Editor’s note: This is from The Ghost Issue, 2016. Gerri’s work has appeared often on this site. You’ll see why when you read this poem.

You wander the castle
Your husband lies sleeping
Or that’s what you tell yourself
You have not shared a room for some time
You can’t decide if you miss him
He stopped being a charming prince long ago
Your sons mutter as you poke
Your head in the doorway, the candle
Throwing strange shadows on the wall
The heir and the spare
That’s what the courtiers say
With knowing looks
As if doing your duty means the end of everything

You find your way, as you do most nights
To the slipper of glass
You haven’t seen your fairy godmother
Not since that night she made you more
Than a girl who slept in ashes
And brought you all of this
The slipper is glowing, catching the moon’s light
And the lamps in the main room
Their flickering flames
Lighting up the one who walks with you

“Have you nothing to say?” you ask
Your ghostly companion
“I have said my peace”
This is a woman you know only
From portraits
Your mother, your dead mother
A revenant who walks with you
But only recently
And you think you know why
“Is he with her now, Mother?”
“Do I have to say, my daughter?”

Your mother reaches for the slipper
And you cry out, your protest a form of fear
If the slipper breaks, all will be lost
Or so you still think
Even if you are queen
Even if you have born the prince-now-king
Strong sons
Still, his love for you is rooted in
The legend of your romance
He fell for you in the space of an evening
He tired of you far more slowly
But still, he tired of you

“She is very beautiful”
There. It is out. You have said it
Your husband’s lover is beautiful
“They always are”
Your mother leaves the slipper in peace
Her eyes are gentle and knowing
“Your father’s lover was no exception”
You close your eyes, hating to hear this
The beauty of your parent’s love sustained you
When all you had were cinders and rags

“What happened to Father’s woman?”
Your mother laughs, a loud cackle
Making you startle
“Why, she has been exiled, my love”
You close your eyes to yet another hard truth
“You called her stepmother, did you not?”
It makes you hate your stepmother more
But it makes you hate your father, too
You always blamed grief for her presence
In your life, in your mother’s house
She was such an unsuitable replacement
But he knew her, he knew her before

“What do I do?”
“You are queen. She is not. There is
Nothing to be done”
She nods at your slipper
Before your children, it was the
Most precious thing in your life
“Smash it, if you want
End the charade”
You reach out and touch the glass
Remember the way the orchestra sounded
The looks you got from the other girls
Looks you still get sometimes, if they aren’t
From court—aren’t in the know

“It’s still pretty”
You leave it and return to your wandering
“Watch your back,” your mother says
“I didn’t watch mine, witness the result”
She leans in, her expression ugly
“Even queens die of poison”
You think the king’s mistress would be
Better to your boys than your mother’s rival
Was to you
She is a sweet girl
She once was your friend
If queens even have those
But he will tire of her, too, and the next one
May not be so harmless

“I don’t know what poison smells like”
Your mother beckons you follow
The stillroom lies dark and peaceful
She points to various herbs and spices
And begins to detail what to watch for
How they smell and taste and feel
You wonder how long it will take
Before you ask her how to make a dose
Kings die, too, of poison
And some toxins leave no trace
This is not what you envisioned when
A pumpkin carried you to a ball
But you’re a mother now
A better one than the woman floating next to you
And you will protect your children
From the life you had to lead
No matter the cost

Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle.  She has work appearing or accepted by: Nature, Flame Tree Press’s Murder Mayhem and Dystopia Utopia anthologies,Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Grimdark, and others.  She recently caught the editing bug and is finalizing her third anthology for an independent press.  See more at http://www.gerrileen.com.

Altered image by Stuart Weitzman.


Alicia Cole said...

This was startling. Thank you.

Gerri Leen said...

Awww, thank you for featuring this!

Ellie a.Goss said...

Clever, dark and chilling!

Katew said...

My thoughts exactly.

Katew said...

It’s a great poem!