Before I arrived at the palace, I had sensed the view
from within. I had been sent to serve a woman I knew very little
about-for I had come from another part of the country and this place
was unknown to me. The first time I came to the palace, the night
has set in. Walking inside, the darkness had enclosed me, until
I had reached the light from a door ahead.
As I entered the room,
a lady greeted me, and asked me to sit down. I made myself comfortable
on a beautiful mahogany armchair opposite her. She welcomed me
and told me of my new duties as maidservant. While I said nothing
in reply, I returned a warm smile.
The lady stood up and
moved to a dresser on the far side of the room. Standing in front
of a mirror with swirling decoration, she began to undress.
‘Can you help?’ she
She motioned towards her corset.
As I began to untie it,
I noticed her gaze through the mirror: she was smiling.
‘I didn’t ask your
‘It’s Celeste, Madam.’
The perfect name. For me, it has nothing connected with it.
No memories, no face to go with it, until now. You are the first
Celeste I have ever met. A name is nothing if it does not belong
to a face. Don’t you think, Celeste?’
‘And you, Celeste, have
a history behind your name that I for now know nothing about.’
As I removed her corset, our gazes collided in reflection.
Looking at her, I saw that she was very beautiful.
‘What I meant to say
is that I know you see yourself as my maidservant, my mistress, but
I don’t want you to feel ill at ease here Celeste. That is why
I hope you can come to trust me as a friend.’
I let my hand be drawn
into hers as she brought me to stand beside her.
‘I realise to talk about
ourselves is often the hardest thing of all. But do not be afraid
to speak what you feel. Don’t think that anything that has or
will transpire here is shameful or wrong. For it is merely us
learning more about ourselves. And that is the best thing that
anyone can do.’
I could not find the strength
to raise my head and acknowledge my reflection with that of the woman
standing next to me. I had known her for the briefest of instants,
yet already she was a woman who wanted to know me, and this made me
Oh dear Celeste, I am
sorry. You have barely arrived and here I am asking all these
She took my hand and drew
me around so that we were facing one another.
‘Please forgive me Celeste.
But I am no different from you and don’t wish to hurt you or take
advantage-for you are the first Celeste I have ever met.’
I lifted my head.
Her shining auburn hair tumbled past her shoulders and flowed down her
back. It framed an elegant and assured face: her flashing
blue eyes, a gently pointed nose, and delicate, yet poised lips.
She was quite slight of build and her breasts were small, yet pronounced:
her corset had hardly needed to hide anything. As our eyes met,
I found myself blushing. But again, she was smiling. She
squeezed my hands.
‘It’s alright for
you to look at me. Don’t be embarrassed. But now I think
the time has come for you to retire. Presently, I will show you
to your quarters.’
She slipped on a long
flowing silk nightgown. After lighting a candle, she showed me
to her room.
The next morning I awoke late-I could not tell why.
But as I opened my eyes to focus on the pane glass window, I saw that
the sun was already high in the sky. Stepping out of my bed to
stand on the cold tiles, I quickly pulled off my nightgown. Having
no time to tie my corset, I slipped into my dress as I was. Rudely
fastening my hair in a bun and tying my shoes, I ran to the kitchen
to prepare the morning meal, which would now have to be lunch.
After doing this, I paced
into the dining hall to find it empty. Ducking into the sitting
room, I found Isabella seated on her chair in the middle of the room.
I saw that she was not in the least concerned with my late arrival.
She simply turned to me and said:
‘By the way Celeste,
I forgot to tell you that I have a husband.’
We were wed when I was still but a young child. Younger even than
you are now. Royalty demands wedlock of its disciples-for it needs
heirs you see.’
‘My husband was already
a young man when we were brought together. He treated me with
a gentle politeness, but he did not respect me. My love for him
was in turn just a token. He soon realised this, and that made
him angry. For although he had no respect for me, he did not expect
the same in return.’
‘My husband, he expected
me to serve him, which I saw as my duty, but he had no intention of
serving me in return; except for a kind of mock concern, which was in
any case bound up with his own self interest.’
‘Excuse me Madam.’
I brought the lunch tray down to where Isabella was seated.
‘Please Celeste, leave
that and come and sit down.’
I sat down on the mahogany
armchair, like I had the day before.
‘I must say I do not
miss him much,’ she said. ‘He is abroad somewhere, engaged
in trade or something of the sort. Money fills him with an empty
sense of pride.’ She reached over towards the lunch tray and
the carafe of wine.
‘Allow me Madam.’
She sat back down, and
taking her glass, sampled the bouquet. Now she drew the wine to
her lips and began to drink. It was all done with a reserved confidence
that was enchanting.
‘Is the wine suitable
‘Indeed it is Celeste!
It reminds me of summer fruit,’ she said, beaming. ‘Now, what
was I saying?’ she asked.
‘You were speaking of
‘Yes of course.
I said I was his tireless servant. As I told you, I did not object
to playing this role, except that I expected his affection and devotion
in return. For I believe it is not enough for one person to serve
another. They must be prepared to love one another.’
‘I see, Madam.’
‘Yes Celeste, but understand
there are two types of love: one sort requires two people to share
a bond involving trust and respect, but only by way of birth ties or
common friendship, without a close intimacy; while the other dictates
that two people must share a common bond, but one that involves deep
‘That is true Madam,’
‘Well Celeste, I must
admit I believe in this latter form of love: that of strong and
consummate union-though you would expect a woman in my position to believe
the other way around: in harmless and ineffectual love.
For that is all I have had all my life. There is an intense superficiality
in royalty, Celeste. We must be seen to honour traditions, to
maintain a noble standard. After all is said and done, the aristocrat
claims love as a noble right. Love is never admitted to in the
light of the carnal; the bestial. Although, the more I think about
it, the more I realise that in a sense we all belong to royalty in some
way: allegiance can often cloud faith.’
‘I don’t quite follow,
‘Here,’ she said.
‘Help yourself to a glass of this splendid wine, Celeste.’
‘Thank you kindly Madam,
but I don’t think I should accept.’
‘Oh Celeste, I will
be offended if you don’t. This wine has such an extraordinary
palate,’ she laughed to herself.
I filled my glass.
‘This wine is indeed
splendid Madam,’ I said, swallowing a mouthful.
‘There, what did I tell
you!’ said Isabella.
Later on that night, after
I had been dismissed, I found myself wandering through the palace, exploring
the rooms which I had not been shown on my arrival. Stepping into
the darkness of one of these rooms, the light of my candle lit up the
body of Isabella stretched out in the bath. The candlelight caused
her naked form to emit a strange flickering radiance. Moving closer,
I saw she was asleep.
‘Celeste,’ she said
softly, as she opened her eyes.
‘I beg your pardon Madam.’
‘That’s alright Celeste.
I said, putting the candle
down on the side of the tub and sitting awkwardly on a chair where Isabella
had left her clothes.
‘You look uncomfortable
there, Celeste,’ she began; ‘Why don’t you come in here with me?’
I am fine here.’
I could see Isabella’s
gentle smile behind the wavering flame.
‘Here Celeste, I will
make room,’ she said, stroking the water in front of her. ‘You
can sit here.’
‘Thankyou, but I don’t
I turned away. I
was not ready to face her on equal terms. Yet how could I deny
her friendship, when she was the first person who had ever really wanted
to know me.
Isabella’s wet touch
brushed my cheek.
she said; insistently.
Her hands touched my shoulders,
then began to trace the line of my neck.
Without turning around,
I began to undress.
As I slipped out of my
clothes, Isabella said:
‘You’re not wearing
a corset, Celeste.’
I had forgotten all about
it, and I was caught off guard. But with my back turned, Isabella
did not register my surprise.
‘No Madam, in my haste
this morning I forgot.’
‘It doesn’t matter,
Celeste. You have no need of one, you have a beautiful figure.’
Undressed, I turned around
and quickly stepped into the bath. The water was still warm.
Slowly, I let it encircle me, while giving Isabella an uneasy smile.
I untied my hair, to let it fall across my face. Reaching
over, Isabella parted it back and said:
‘Let me wash it for
She gave a hopeful smile.
Using soap, Isabella worked
a lather into my hair. I was suddenly reminded of my mother, and
Isabella’s smile made it seem as if she had been all along.
‘Duck your head Celeste,
and I’ll rinse your hair out.’
Leaning over, Isabella
washed the soap from my hair. After she had finished, I sat up
again, while she carefully brushed my hair off my face.
Isabella lay back and
began to wash herself. Watching her, I noticed a remarkable youthfulness.
Looking up at me, as if to acknowledge my thought, she said:
‘Our bodies have great
strength, Celeste. They are the cause of doubt and discomfort,
yet they hold a great wisdom-the knowledge that nurtures life.
Time passes through us: my hips protect the centre of birth; the
bleeding renews the cycle; my breasts can feed a child-my body is not
vacant. A man can pass inside me, but he cannot sense the whole
coming and going: the sense of the everything that engulfs me.
In turn, as barren as they are, they nevertheless cherish their manhood-but
absent of regular return, they remain alone.’
Isabella gazed at me for
a while, and I did the same, surprised at her sudden and lavish honesty.
Then, after leaning over, Isabella kissed me on the forehead.
Standing up, she stepped out of the bath.
My dream had barely dissolved, when Isabella’s gentle
voice entered my sleep. It belonged to my dream, yet it belonged
to the morning.
I was awake.
‘Celeste,’ she whispered.
I felt her warmth pass over me. I opened my eyes. Isabella’s
face was gleaming. Raising my head, I eclipsed the morning’s
‘Isabella,’ I uttered,
my mouth smoothed out into a soft smile.
‘You were dreaming Celeste.
Lying here beside you, I sensed that you were.’
I dreamt of light. I thought it would frighten me at first, having
nothing to hold on to. But the light evoked such serenity,
that I felt a great calm.’
Isabella ran her warm
fingers through my hair. This time I was not thinking of my mother,
but only of Isabella. Her thoughts within me excited me to the
point where I was almost overwhelmed by an unexpected rush of longing.
‘We have much to think
about today, Celeste,’ said Isabella. ‘I could hardly sleep-it’s
hard having thoughts alone.’
‘I’m here Isabella.’
‘You are,’ she smiled.
‘But now, get dressed so we can talk,’ she said, and left the room.
Straight away, I pulled
the sheets off, and closed my eyes to let the sun strike my bareness.
Lying there, I found myself slowly willing my body into existence.
I had begun to believe that beauty could be willed into any object.
I woke a second time; to run my fingers over a surprising curvaceousness.
My presence at last felt full and defined.
Standing now, I tested
the space around me; sensing how it enveloped my form and offered a
light airiness as I passed towards my dresser.
Abandoning the corset,
I slipped into an open summer dress. It wasn’t quite the same,
I thought, still sensing my brooding nakedness underneath. I left
my hair down and forgetting my shoes, stepped out of the room, my feet
treading the frigid tiles as I went.
Isabella, as I stepped into the dining room, ‘You look magnificent!’
Exalted with her approval
of my presence, I extended a childish grin. Stepping forward,
she embraced me. Feeling a rising excitement, I closed my eyes
to feel Isabella’s warm lips suddenly twisting inside my own.
Slowly, her hand slid from my shoulder and began to move lower.
I found myself raising my skirt…
The hand stopped.
‘I’m sorry Celeste..’
I stood, still entranced,
watching how her body defied the attempts of her drapery to enclose
‘I received a
letter from my husband. ‘
Stunned, my body slipped
reluctantly back into disconcern-it had known even before the words
were spoken. My unchecked passion was suddenly replaced by a rising
disappointment and anxiety, which consumed me, until I found myself
back in front of the palace again, wondering what was to become of me.
All this had happened as Isabella had spoken, and now her eyes offered
she began. ‘Please don’t cry. I was so happy to receive
the letter and I want you to be pleased with me. It reminded me
that my husband was still thinking about me-that was important to hear
at last. But I know that he will not return for a long time, Celeste.
I have always known that we would live in separation. Yet I am
part of him in another way and I can’t hide that from you, Celeste.
But understand that I feel you inside of me as well.’
My thoughts arrived between
‘Oh Isabella,’ I began.
‘This morning I forgot I was your maidservant- dreamt of you Isabella:
I thought of you and I felt full. I have never felt this strength
in my body before, Isabella, and I was scared that all this would suddenly
disappear, and as fast as it had arrived, I would look down and there
would be nothing.’
Isabella brought me closer.
‘Celeste,’ she whispered,
‘I realise how frightened you must have felt for an instant just then-but
here are my thoughts again: you are a beautiful woman. See
that in yourself. Know it is there and do not ever think that
beauty will leave you. You must always realise your presence signifies
Isabella’s words renewed
the warmth inside me. Again I sensed my being. But having
Isabella’s presence so near, I knew I needed her closer still.
‘I want to give you
this,’ she said, offering me a ring.
I took the ring and placed
it on the ring finger of my left hand. It was a simple gold ring
that was shaped into a curved square on top.
‘Look Isabella-how the
ring shines on my finger!’
‘Oh Celeste, it really
is beautiful,’ said Isabella.
Her aura was overwhelming-I
understood her now: there was only one type of love.
‘I love you Isabella,’
I said, as my gaze consumed her.
As we sat at lunch the next day, I began to wonder
which part of me wanted to belong inside of Isabella and which part
wanted to remain outside. I became a celestial object, orbiting
a bright sun and then part of me would break off as a fireball; to plunge
madly in the direction of Isabella.
‘Have some more of this
delicious fruit, Celeste. It is quite splendid.’
I took a peach.
Biting into its furry softness, the juice trickled down the crack of
my lips as I swallowed a chunk of orange flesh. I delighted in
the fact that everything had suddenly transformed itself into a sort
of poetic bliss.
‘Tender summer fruit,’
Isabella could not resist
describing the scene for herself:
‘This banquet spread
before us in such elegant abundance reminds us of the true attributes
of the solstice,’ she said, beaming.
There was a brief pause;
then Isabella interrupted it, and asked:
“What are you thinking
‘ I am thinking that
up until now, I have never known myself-never described myself in my
mind; so that no one else could have known what I was like.’
‘Well then Celeste,’
Isabella began. ‘What would you say if I were to try and describe
what I think I see in you? Perhaps it would help you to begin
to understand your reflection.’
‘I would be pleased
if you would do that Isabella,’ I said.
‘Good. Then I’ll
begin with your appearance.
‘Your face is lean,
yet it is full enough not to suggest gauntness. Your head
is more long than round. Your eyes are penetrating and suggest
concentration. They look dark brown but are really a chocolate
‘Your nose forms a long
pear-like plumpness. In profile, it points slightly upwards, in
a sort of arrogant flounce, accentuated by the serpentine curve of your
upper lip, which rests firmly and assuredly on your slightly thicker
lower lip. When you are concentrating, your lips are gently pursed;
when you are kissing they curve gracefully outward, like the rounded
lips of a vase.
‘Your chin in not at
all short or doubled back, but is instead delicately pronounced.
‘Your hair is dark brown
and glistens with occasional highlights of apricot. It is quite
long, and flicked back from your forehead to flow down over your ears,
along the graceful curve of your neck, across your long thin arms; that
frame a fine, yet shapely figure; heightened by a graceful belly and
full and rounded breasts.
‘Your hips are slender
and your long legs make you quite a tall person.’
‘How well you know me
from the outside, Isabella,’ I said. ‘But how do you describe
‘That I cannot tell
you in such detail, for as you yourself admitted, you have only just
begun to ask yourself that question. But what I see so far is
a sincere individual, whose intelligence and responsiveness is thwarted
slightly by an inherent shyness, which renders first encounters quite
overwhelming-yet endows situations with a patient and reserved intent.
You have a desire for solitude, and for passing on your knowledge to
others. I also sense a remarkable inquisitiveness and determination
which may lead to great ends.’
Again, I was taken aback.
Isabella’s remarkable sensitivity and wisdom suggested the gift of
prophecy: for as far as I knew about myself, Isabella had not
described my reflection at all; but had all the while been watching
from behind the glass, telling me in advance of who I was, before I
had the chance to produce a reflection.
That night, as I lay down to sleep, Isabella drifted
into the room.
‘By the way Celeste,’
she began, ‘I thought I should give you a full explanation of that
letter I received. I gave you a reassurance about it, but I feeli
have not clearly explained my feelings.’
I could see that Isabella
was trying hard not to upset me.
‘Isabella,’ I said.
‘About that before- I am sorry for being so selfish. I realise
you needed to hear from your husband and you wanted me to be happy for
you even though you knew I felt cheated-but I am sorry. My fear-and
this is not an excuse-my fear overtook me. It was all such a sudden
awakening: the days before I had not even realised, yet in such
a short time it had been building up. So you see-scared of losing
what I had just been given, I became a selfish little child. I
am sorry Isabella.’
Isabella had been unprepared
for the apology, but she smiled, and said:
‘You don’t have to
be concerned about before, Celeste. Such things tend to happen
all of a sudden. But I was excited too-knowing how you felt.
It made me feel so aroused; yet the knowledge of the letter seemed to
interfere: that is why I have to explain it to you.’
She lay down on the bed
beside me and staring up at the ceiling, she began:
‘The letter made me
realise that I had never really expected to hear from my husband again.
I remember telling you that he left me, but it was I who abandoned him:
‘My memory of him was
replaced by empty things: a hate for his interest in money; an
envy of the power of his will; a resentment of his allegiance to tradition;
a loathing of his clumsy and messy lovemaking-my dissatisfactions with
my husband became the only memory I allowed of him. Frankly, I
resented the fact that we had to live apart. Yet that was what
he needed to do: he had to live away from me. Not because
of any hate or mistrust between us, but because in order for him to
feel as a man, I could not always be part of him.
‘You see, at first,
there was no question that he needed to belong to me: we fell
in love and got married; and I felt part of him as well. That
is what he needed: to know all of this was there for him; was
part of him. Then, in a sense, he did not need to be surrounded
by it any more-it was enough for him to know it was inside of him-that
‘So when you arrived
Celeste, I was glad. I had not realised then, or even before;
but I missed my husband. You, in one sense, replaced him.
I was grateful-even desperate to have someone beside me again:
learning from me; knowing me and loving me; touching me. But even
now, I do not think you represent my husband at all-merely his latent
curiosity. I knew he didn’t need to be with me-just to make
passing contact; to make sure everything was alright. And I, sensing
this, felt I had to reward his concern with glimpses of myself-in case
I lost him altogether.
‘This is the way I explain
it all. I am sorry I have compared you just now to my husband-although
in some ways, you are very much like him. Yet you are a different
person, who, in a short time, I have come to love very much.’
I lay thinking.
Of course I valued the intimacy I shared with Isabella. I knew
I was not the total embodiment of her husband. Yet despite all
that she had said just now, I could not help thinking that her letter
had somehow quelled her interest in me: that she would no longer
need our relationship on such an intense level, knowing that her husband
was thinking of her.
However, I was still obsessed
with discovering the source of Isabella’s passion: an unbridled
insatiability still overtook me-the brief enticement she had offered
me made me seek more: for the first time I felt a dependence.
Isabella was getting up.
‘Goodnight,’ I replied,
reaching up to kiss her.
All that night I lay there;
churning through fantasy and self-doubt. It occurred to me that
I had chosen to love a woman. This didn’t seem to bother me-instead
I was reminded of the affairs I had shared with men; and pondering each
one, I could not remember a single moment of importance. It was
like Isabella had told me: that when a man is inside you, he fails
to sense anything of greater importance than what is in front
That was the way I felt.
It explained why only a woman can truly understand another woman:
it explained therefore why I felt I could love Isabella.
The suddenness of it had
surprised me: I hadn’t realised then-but I had discovered what
had lain dormant for a long time between us-something that had developed
in its own way, before I had decided to take it further.
I fell asleep thinking
about this-to slip into a dream…
I was woken by a hand
on my neck. My eyes flicked open: it was still dark.
‘Celeste?’ the darkness
‘Yes?’ I replied;
in the direction of Isabella.
‘Celeste, I had an awful
dream. I dreamt I was underwater and that I could no longer move
at all-I could not hear anything-I just saw myself floating there-staring
at nothing. Then I woke and needed your company. Will you
come with me?’
She took my hand as I
glided out of bed. I was led from my room down the long wide corridor.
Passing the rooms I knew in the darkness, Isabella led me still deeper
into the palace –where I had never been.
The hallway ended in a
large door, which she opened, leading me into a room of magnificent
proportions. The entire space was lit up by a pearly phosphorescence,
which came from near the side of four-posted bed in the middle
of the room, which was draped with silk curtains that extended into
Bringing me towards it,
I was filled with a complete sense of confirmation: the bed glowed
as in my dream-I imagined Isabella’s wholeness lying there, buried
in that soft glow.
Knowing all this, Isabella’s
breath extinguished the candle. I felt her hands grasping my thighs,
reenacting the events of this morning-except now with a more purposeful
excitement; as our mouths met again-bringing me closer, sliding my fingers
over her body: I would stroke the entrance to the birthplace;
touch the mark of her own birth; glide over the softness of her breasts;
feel the harness at their tips where a baby could suckle; felt the bulk
and intensity within her centre; waited as she did the same-this all
went on between us…
As time passed, we came
to know this part of ourselves-consuming one another in order to know
and confirm it was only a facade that represented substitute for
another higher experience: only the idea of wholeness, not any
true union-so that with joining eventually there came a sense of disinterest-to
the point of it becoming unimportant if it weren’t for the euphoric
convenience it promised. Isabella had offered gratification:
my curiosity had intensified it-then diffused it. The enticement
had shaped itself into a desire to drive deeper into the source-to learn
of the spirit.
‘You have never told me much about yourself , Celeste’
said Isabella. ‘I have never heard about your mother or father;
where you were born.’
‘There isn’t much
to tell, Isabella,’ I said. ‘I have not had a rich life as
you have. But what I choose to remember is very clear:
‘I felt I had to grow
up quickly: as the eldest, my parents had fed me with too many
responsibilities to allow me to stay a child for long. So as I
grew into a woman I learnt about little things: how things grew;
about right and wrong; to question things. But coming here, I
realise that there are many things that I hardly know about-that there
is still much to learn.
‘My mother disappeared
when I was still quite young. I remember her concern-yet she is
too far away now to know how she was important to me. I remember
times as a young woman when I missed her desperately-those times when
I needed to talk to a woman about what was going on inside me-to just
talk. Sometimes, her absence would become so unbearable that I
would find myself searching the streets, looking everywhere-in
case I found her again.
‘I was angry that my
father had never really told me how she had gone. Perhaps they
had had a disagreement (they often fought) or even she just died.
But it was incredible: I was so busy looking after the others
that mostly I never really thought about her much.’
‘Tell me about your
brothers and sisters,’ said Isabella.
‘I had many and each
was very special in their own way-but I never came to know any of them
very well at all-for it was my father who would always be wanting the
attention and sympathy.
‘There was never a time
when he was without the need of something: for me to tell him
how he looked; for me to be there so he could show me how strong he
was and how he could hurt me; for me to feed him and wash him and love
‘In a sense, he was
like a small child: he could not live without my constant attention.
He wanted me to see him in all situations, through every mood, through
all changes and events. So I never left his side. The children
grew up without my proper love and eventually left. My father
and I lived alone for a long time; until I could no longer meet his
demands, and after a painful separation, I left the house to search
for the life I needed to lead: that is how I came here.’
‘Do you still think
about your father?’ asked Isabella.
‘No, not very often.
Although I have often wanted to be him: belong to all that strength
and pain. But the more I grow older, I realise that he can only
be an important memory. I have to know I am part of him, but in
order for me to become who I am, I have to learn not to rely on him
as much. That was ironic: despite my constant efforts to
serve him, I needed him as much as he needed me: a compulsive
‘I wish I could tell
you about my parents Celeste. But I was born an orphan.
I knew that my mother and my father were of noble blood and that they
were the ones who had left me in the hands of my husband’s parents-who
later married me to their son-but I have never known my father, or my
Isabella was searching
my vision to find some comfort in my memories. Knowing this, I passed
them out to her-so she could know of my happiness.
Every day I wandered through
the maze of rooms that made up the palace. Yet I had never sensed
the palace in its entirety. So a time came when I wondered how
Isabella belonged to all this-and why we lived alone in such an immense
‘This palace had been
promised to my husband even before he was born-he grew up here.
Yet all the time he lived here, I knew he could not have learned of
the scale of this place: that is, he lived here without really
knowing where he lived,’ Isabella explained.
‘Did it seem empty to
him?’ I asked.
‘No, it was just he
felt-or it never occurred to him, that there was a great richness here.
It was strange: I remember arriving here and sensing that straight
away. Perhaps because I hadn’t learnt to take all this for granted.
I was too young to realise how he lived here in disconcern. To
him it was nothing special-just an inheritance. But it was me
who was the guest here, who learnt to make myself at home among the
things that my husband came to despise.
‘When he left, this
palace seemed to change in relation to the outside. Its sturdy
walls became a thin, transparent mantle. They could no longer
protect what was in here-how could they? -for it had been my husband
that had kept all this safe, even despite his indifference. For
him it was an inheritance that he put into safekeeping along with everything
that was inside it-including me.
everything in here remains fresh and unchanging. So I suppose
that flimsy mantle offers security.
‘Still-I love to look
out my window-to know that all of this can only be taken by someone
entering through the threshold.
‘Light is the other
visitor-that comes and goes as it pleases-streaming in through all the
windows in this palace-to light up everything-to make it warm and safe.
‘That is why at night
time we close our eyes: because that light is not there, and we
cannot live without it for very long. So we close our eyes and
try not to let the dark in. But when we do and it absorbs us-we
become evil. For the darkness in itself is empty: providing
nothing other than the black cloak it throws over everything.
It is only that which is suggested behind it that is good.
‘So when I sleep and
close my eyes and try not to let the darkness in, my body is taken up
by the night to be violated.
‘Dreams provide a place
to go until the morning comes, when I can let my body take up the light
again, so that it can bring strength for the next long night.
Without that I would not live for very long.
‘I nearly died once;
before you arrived, Celeste. I will never forget the shameful
pain I felt. One night I waited for the morning-but it never came.
Not for a very long time. Every moment in that long darkness I
gave my body away to the evil, while I struggled to live inside my dreams.
But soon that became impossible and I awoke to be taken up by the night;
to become part of it. I became its mistress and in turn it repaid
me with nothing.
‘That is why I gave
you the ring that first time we trusted one another. That ring
gave me strength during that long night and now you will need it to
‘Who gave it to you,
Isabella?’ I asked.
‘It came from someone
I love very much. He gave it to me a long time ago.’
‘No. Someone else-just
‘Is he still alive?’
‘Yes, he is still alive.
I think of him often. But he is almost too far away now to visit
properly. Still, I often talk to him. He is very gentle
and very kind.’
Isabella looked away.
But she was not sad. She was remembering a man that was very important
to her. Perhaps he had been a visitor once-that had come in with
As time went on, I learnt of renewal through the passing
of the nights. The night was a catharsis: each night was
a new trial to endure. But sometimes, I would find that the vastness
of the palace would overcome me.
‘Why do we live here
‘We don’t really Celeste.
The palace has everything we need. Why-have you felt lonely?’
‘Yes. But I don’t
know why. Having you here I didn’t think I would ever need that
‘You must always have
it, Celeste. Otherwise you would never know that you are alone.
Everything belongs to you, yet some part of you inhabits its own space
apart from anything else.’
From then on, I would
go around the palace, occasionally touching everything, not to feel
them, but to sense the importance and richness that Isabella had
vested in them. I found that every object was endowed with a small
memory: a conversation that traced a lifetime.
Like my mahogany chair:
I shared its conversation-that is why I would choose to sit down in
it without knowing.
The food we would eat
was like that too, but it had a more direct way of speaking: the
juiciness of a peach; the firmness of an apple; the sweetness of a grape.
And the rooms of the palace-the ones I knew, each offered their own
personality: the bedroom spoke of passion and solitude; the dining room
of a thousand dinners and their conversations; the kitchen of a myriad
of smells and tastes; the bathroom of dirt, soap and nakedness-they
all spoke in their own way.
I learnt of purity just
being here; for the palace itself I knew to be chaste. It didn’t
mater what went on inside here-the presence of the palace walls redeemed
This thought eventually
brought a fear into my mind-something I feared to be almost inevitable:
that one day the door of the palace would sing shut behind me, to leave
me trapped inside-so that no one else could know of my ecstasy.
For Isabella it would be worse-for she had never really known the outside.
So that when no visitors came-shewould be cut off, and begin to slip
into her self again.
Our strong and consummate
union in itself had changed: I sensed that some aspects of myself
already belonged to her, although other parts remained obscured.
Isabella in turn existed in some parts of me. Yet we both realised
that this binding, joining, could never be properly complete until we
shard our presence with another. Because of that, I knew that
both must learn to accept the world outside the palace…
Isabella approached me.
Sitting at the foot of my vision, she spoke:
‘Celeste, we must make
preparations. A darkness has settled itself outside and I fear
it may choose to enter.’
‘What are you speaking
of?’ I asked.
‘I can’t tell.
I sense an absence-a departure. Perhaps-‘
Isabella had sensed my
exchange. Knowing of the dissipation, the time had come for renewal-not
in so many words or a sudden or complete shift: instead, a trace
The flowers vibrated with fertility. Isabella was
saying good-bye to her husband. The letter just said: ‘-missing’,
she had explained. Her sadness reflected a dichotomy of realisation:
the presence of separation; the consequence of that loss.
Pressing her close, I
tried to reassure her. I was sorry-although I knew that ‘missing’
confirmed very little. I suggested a presence somewhere, yet it
threatened a permanent absence.
‘These blooms are so
lovely,’ said Isabella; ‘so fresh.’
I was reminded of our
meals together: the table seething with fruits and wines and cheeses-the
abundance was what I had always looked forward to.
‘We will leave them
on the sill of my bedroom window, in all that light. They will
last longer that way.’
‘I will take them for
Picking them up, I found
a vase and gave it water and placed them in.
Opening the large door
into Isabella’s room, I stepped towards the bright window; where I
placed the flowers. They immediately took up the radiance; became
saturated with light. I knew that while they were here, they would
not die for a long time-the room would not allow it.
‘Did you place them
right up at the window?’
‘Yes Isabella, they
look beautiful there.’
I feel I should be thinking about my husband now, yet the finality of
the whole situation seems to make that unimportant. Best to think
about it another time. Shall we have lunch, Celeste?’
‘Yes Isabella, that
would be perfect.’
We walked to the kitchen
and I felt the sudden urge to become her proper maidservant again-to
spare her of her chore. But seeing Isabella’s troubled expression,
I knew she needed to be occupied.
‘I am very hungry,’
I was often surprised how Isabella’s foresight
suggested itself in the most casual manner. It made me realise
that insight came from the observation of the commonplace-everyday life
is absorbed, bringing to some a feeling of profound knowing: this
is happiness. Yet it was strange-I don’t think I would ever
really come to know of Isabella’s place in the silence of things.
‘Do you think this needs
rearranging?’ she said. ‘This room is meant to look spacious,
yet it is nothing but cluttered and tight. Help me with
these chairs, will you Celeste.’
I picked up my mahogany
armchair, but its light sturdiness would make it look out of place anywhere
Seeing this, Isabella
‘It looks wrong, doesn’t
it Celeste. Let’s put it back-where it as always been.
I am very tired-I think I will rest now, Celeste.’
‘Sleep well,’ I said,
feeling tired myself. It was though a great energy had been drained
out of us-to leave us bored and defeated. The death of Isabella’s
husband had passed over us like a malady. I sat down on the mahogany
armchair and slipped into an uneasy sleep.
What an important part
sleep plays in all of this: that was my waking thought.
We are always between waking and sleeping. Thank God for dreams-that
keep us busy while we are doing other things.
Personally, I was still
exhausted. Rising, I went to see if Isabella was awake.
It turned out that she was-except she was asleep. I watched as
she walked to her window, clutching the bouquet of flowers to her breast.
She turned to look at me-but with closed eyes.
‘Go back to bed Isabella,’
Walking out of the room,
I suddenly became upset at seeing Isabella so distressed. I had
never thought that a woman as strong as Isabella could succumb to such
a desperate sadness. Her sleepwalking brought to life that part
of her that was still searching for her husband. But now she could
only search for him in dreams. In this way, I realised that in
a sense, she would always be asleep-as she searched everywhere-while
the waking part of her would be devoted to me and so I in turn would
For it was Isabella who
gave me insight and purity-the promise of renewal. It was her
that brought on the bleeding-she who was my sense of everything:
my longing, my fear, my passion, my concern. I had forgotten the
place I had come from long ago-coming here and drawing from this strange
source of knowing-that was the most important thing.
-Missing-the letter had
said. He had sent me here and now he was hidden. Yet I could
not give up his concern. For he represented the conformation that
this was all here-and the fear in coming back to it. That is why
he had sent me here-to learn; in secret. I felt that if he knew
how much I had brought the other part of him alive, he would return
. That is why I had to go and try to find him. To share
with him all that had happened here. For I knew that without him
realising what strength existed here-all this would amount to nothing.
Still, I was happy to
be with her now: she was the sublime talisman; her husband the
absent spirit; and I: the eager and uniniated intercessor-defending
both causes. To learn from someone, and for them to learn from
you-that was enough for now-just being here…
My eyelids flicked open again, and Isabella was standing
in the doorway. She was surrounded by a magnificent aura which
caressed my vision to leave me content. As she passed towards
me, her presence filled with light. It felt as though every room
in the palace would at last be lit up and revealed.
But lying in bed, surrounded
by it, the light passed through me. Closing my eyes, I watched
as the afterglow died. But as long as I waited, a circle
of light persisted, and never quite disappeared.