a story by
David W. Landrum
I was born with a caul—part of my mother’s womb attached to my head and covering my face. This is considered a good sign. The midwife preserved the caul and gave it to me. I bore it across the sea when I went to marry the King of Tunis. Perhaps the good weather we had then resulted from its presence (that is one story told about cauls). But if the stories about cauls are true, and they bestow some sort of special power to the one born covered, my behavior growing up would be more a sign of its magic than anything else.
Princesses live to be married. We learn to dance, look pretty, and manipulate men. I hated those expectations and detested the training I received to fulfill them. I remember rebelling against them at about age 9.
Some of my departures:
Riding. As a Princess, you learn to ride, but only so you can sit atop a white filly and go in a procession at a trot with two grooms walking alongside holding the reigns for you. I learned to ride at a ferocious gallop and soon had a stallion who would not listen to commands from anyone but me.
Walking. I walked in the wood. You may not deem that unusual, but a pure princess should not go where peasants live and wild animals roam; nor should she take off her shoes, hike up her skirts, and go wading in streams; or bathe in one of the delightful hot springs that erupted deep in my father’s hunting parks.
My parents were alarmed. As I came of age, the men to whom I might be married looked on me with a wary eye. I looked on them as crude, unlettered louts and did not return their overtures of affection. Most noblewomen in our kingdom were married off at age 16 or 17. I resisted the arrangements father proposed. Soon I was 20, then 22, 24—past the typical age of marriage. And I had no intention of becoming a nun.
Grumbling arose. Rumor spread that I had secretly become a Protestant—not true, but the fact that I, out of curiosity, had read Calvin, Luther, and Tyndale deepened the suspicion. Father grew anxious. Scheming nobles who wanted to be king abounded; they had allies and relatives in the Church. My behavior would give them occasion to bring a change against him. He knew that he had to do something with me, and soon.
I also knew what he had done to Prospero and his child Miranda. I had lodged for a Summer in the house of a noble family in Milan when I was 9 years. These nobles had a daughter who was lonely, so Father and Mother sent me there when Father said he had some ‘business’ in the area. I liked Cynthia. She taught me to speak English. I supplied her with books for clandestine reading. She was a delightful girl who shared my love for riding and mischief. She became my friend. One night, she snuck into my bed chamber and said she had seen my father. We dressed in warm, dark-colored garments and slipped down to the shoreline just below their home. Sure enough, Father was there, along with Antonio, the powerful Duke of Milan. We hid behind a rock as he, my Father, other nobles, and some soldiers herded Prospero and his three-year old daughter Miranda onto a vessel that even I could tell would sink when the first high wave struck it. We went back sobered. I had never thought my father capable of such treachery.
Time rolled on. When I reached age 25, Father and I got in an acrimonious quarrel where he told me I needed to either marry or enter a convent; that my being unmarried and unattached constituted a scandal.
I scoffed at him. “Scandal? I hid in the rocks the night you and Antonio sent Prospero and this poor little girl out on a rotten boat on a stormy night so they would die! Don’t lecture me about scandal!”
I should not have said that.
Father faced a dilemma. He could not kill his own daughter. I told him that if he put me in a convent, I would convert to Lutheranism. A few weeks later, he announced that he had brokered a marriage for me with Sulaimon, King of Tunis. Before I could protest, he put me in a sealed carriage, delivered me to a seaport and, accompanied by an entourage that included my brother, the detestable Duke of Milan, and a selection of others, and we sailed across the Mediterranean to Tunis, where I was married to the Tunisian king. None of my serving maidens accompanied me.
I don’t want to create any negative impressions. Sulaimon dazzled me with his beauty, strength, and courtesy. Tall, a warrior, with lovely black skin, piercing eyes, and a noble demeanor, he struck me as a better match than any of the scheming nobles who stood as possibilities in my homeland. I delivered three strong children—all boys and potential heirs, which everyone applauded. I loved Sulaimon and cherished his embrace. He came to my bedchamber frequently and did not take another wife all the years we were together. Sulaimon allowed me to practice my religion and did not force me to convert to Islam. I had serving maidens who were Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.
Not everything went smoothly. Some of the men on the Council of Elders who advised the king thought having an unbeliever in the palace did not bode well. They said I had surrounded myself with unbelievers and alleged that I meant to mislead the young women of the city so they would abandon their Muslim faith. My husband did not want to antagonize the Council, so he had his Grand Vizier appoint a ‘guardian’ for me.
I expected an older woman. Caliana, my age, an incredibly beautiful woman but stern and severe, became this guardian. She stayed near me all day. At night she slept in a chamber adjacent to mine. When the weather turned cold, she was my bedfellow. Everywhere I went, she accompanied me like my shadow—a constant presence in my life. Caliana had taken some sort of vow and could not marry until her vow ended four years from when she first joined my entourage. Until that time, she devoted all of her vigilant energy to keeping an eye on me. She belonged to a sect of Islam that pursued a fanatical interpretation of the faith and enforced severe asceticism on its followers. Her sour milk expression and judgmental silence could dampen even the most joyous celebration or excursion.
One morning I finished nursing my youngest son, Amahl, left him with an attendant, spent some time with my other two boys, and got ready to go riding by the sea. We cantered to a grove of trees where a spring poured water into the ocean, dismounted, and let our horses drink. It was then that we saw the bakahasten. It walked out of the trees, a magnificent white horse. We marveled at its beauty, but most of all Caliana seemed taken by it. She gaped as it stood in the fog, tossing its head, its long white mane shaking, its body shining in the grey dimness. Almost as if in a trance, she walked toward it. Everyone wanted to tell to her to stop, but my maidens were afraid of her, the guards did not feel that they should speak to her, and I did not quite understand what was going on. Caliana liked to ride—it was one of the few things she liked to do, but anyone knows you must be careful around a wild horse. This was a stallion, ferocious-looking, huge, and formidable. She walked toward him as if in a trance. Later I found out the cult to which she belonged made much of the Prophet’s ascent into heaven on his horse. They taught that such a horse would appear to carry the most righteous of their followers to Paradise. Caliana thought that she had been chosen, I suppose, maybe believing that she would ascend to heaven as the Prophet did.
I knew about bakahasten, brook horses, through the stories Cynthia’s mother had told me. They were water spirits, could change their shapes, and seemed to favor transforming into the shape of a horse. I wanted to cry out and warn Caliana, but by the time I realized what was happening she had pulled up her skirts and leapt on to the horse’s back.
The animal reared, bolted, and headed off at a sprint toward the seashore. My maidens cried out in horror. The soldiers mounted up and gave chase, but they had barely gotten into the saddle when the creature plunged into the water. Caliana screamed and tried to leap off its back. I knew, from what Cynthia had told me, that she would not be able to free herself and that the bakahasten would plunge her into the depths and drown her. After only a moment, her head and the horse’s head vanished beneath the slate-colored waves.
The women wailed and prayed. The soldiers took their horses into the sea as far as they safely could. I knew they would find no trace of her. The bakahasten had drowned Caliana. It would turn back into its form as a water spirit so as to be undetectable.
The day after we brought the news of Caliana’s death home, I dressed in sackcloth, put ashes on my head, and walked barefoot to a shrine her particular sect considered a sacred place. The 2 mile walk to the shrine exhausted me. Once there, I had the Muslim women among my attendants pray at the shrine. Back at the palace, I decreed three days of solemnity to commemorate her death, returned to my chamber, bathed, and fell into bed.
The next night Sulaimon and I dined at the home of the leader of the Jews in our city. That night I met Jacob. I also heard about the appearance of the Lotan. I asked what this might be.
“A sea creature,” said Abraham ben David, the leader of the Jewish community. “It is large and dangerous—the Hebrews call it Leviathan, the Greeks the Kraken. For centuries it has not been seen, but suddenly it has reappeared—very near to our shores.”
“Why would it appear after being gone for so many years?” my husband asked.
“Because of the magic of the Witch Sycorax,” replied a man far down the table where the lower-ranking people sat. All eyes turned to him. He looked to be 30 years or so, with sandy hair and a light beard. He dressed plainly but elegantly and did not seem reticent to speak despite his placement near the lower end of the table.
“Please explain,” said Sulaimon, overlooking the man’s speaking out of turn and intruding into the conversation of those who outranked him.
“On an island to the north lived a witch who for centuries cast her evil magic over our seas. She died, but the evil lived on until a magician named Prospero came to rule her island. He has gone now—happily returned to his homeland—but the evil of Sycorax, even though she died long ago, has asserted itself. Since Prospero’s magic no longer restrains the evil residing on the island—not to say the monsters Sycorax created—evil once again stalks the seas and, now, our shoreline.”
The man’s words sobered us. Abraham ben David brought in musicians and singers. Their performance put us back in a festive mode, and the party ended on an upbeat note. We got to bed late. I spent the next day with the children. In the evening my husband and I met with some new British merchants who had applied for admission to Tunisian territory as traders. They seemed shaken and said they had seen a sea monster off in the distance as they passed the Kerkennah Islands.
This troubled Sulaimon greatly. I asked him why what the British trader said had upset him so much. He paused a long moment, looking up at the moon that shined through our window and cast its light in a white square onto the bed.
“I know of Sycorax. My father ruled Algiers and was the one who banished her.”
Sulaimon’s father had divided his kingdom between three sons. Sulaimon received Tunis, his brothers Tripoli and Algiers.
“She is dead, but now the evil things she created by her sorcery are coming to exact her revenge.”
“Why would they come here and not to Algiers or Tripoli?”
“For one, this city is closest to her island; and I am the oldest son.”
The next day, the creature attacked.
The palace overlooks the harbor. Our family was eating fruit on the cool of the roof and enjoying the beautiful weather when the creature reared up out the depths. I screamed, recovered, had the serving women take the children to a safe place, and watched with horror as the monster attacked our harbor. Huge and scaly, much like the descriptions I had read of dragons, with giant claws and rows of sharp teeth, it wound its way around an anchored ship, tightened its serpentine body, and broke the vessel to pieces. It dove again and surfaced, capsizing another vessel; then, with its long tail, demolished a section of the sea wall that protected our city from the bay waters.
People fled in terror. Our soldiers released arrows at it, but they had no effect. A citadel guards the harbor and is fitted out to fight against an invasion by sea. The men there activated catapults and ballista. Large stones moving at high velocity and huge arrows from the ballista hit and seemed to hurt the creature a little. One shaft from a ballista stuck in its side. It emitted a loud, high-pitched scream that hurt my ears, used its claws to extract the arrow, and slipped back into the sea. We waited. As if to show us we had hurt but not defeated it, it rose out of the water, crushed one more ship, and slipped away into the open water.
I went to my bedchamber, where all my maidens knelt and prayed for deliverance. I joined them. The city was in chaos. People fled in droves for the hills. Mosques, churches, and synagogues filled with suppliants pleading with the heavens to keep them safe. My husband met with his staff and worked far into the night to reinforce our defenses.
I went to his chamber, but he was asleep from exhaustion. Upset, I took Angela and Lenora, my Italian and English serving women, up on the rooftop to pray. I felt too upset to do so, told them to pray, and stared out at the sea. It sparkled with small waves beneath the moon. After a moment, I looked over at my women. They had fallen asleep. I heard a noise, turned, and saw Jacob ben Gaon-Abuha. I almost screamed, but he held up a hand and I could not open my mouth.
“Peace, Queen Claribel. I mean you no harm. I will free your tongue now.”
I could speak again. Rather than screaming, I kept my voice low and asked him what he wanted and how he could be so impudent as to intrude into the harem.
“I beg pardon. It is necessary. The British merchants who spoke with you told the truth. The Lotan is near. Even now it sleeps at the bottom of your harbor and will unleash its fury on the city when it awakes. You alone are able to stop it, my Queen.”
“I deem it improper for you to be here.”
“I came here by magic. I put the sleep on your serving maidens. The situation is dire.”
“And how can I help the situation?”
“You can meet with Sycorax.”
“My husband said she is dead.”
“Witches die but travel to other lives. Sycorax is alive again. She has a new life.”
“If the creatures she created are filled with her hatred for our kingdom, what does it matter that she has a new life? The creatures will still exact revenge. Does she remember the old life she led on the island?”
“She remembers all her lives. Perhaps you can persuade her to leave us in peace.”
“I? What could I possibly do to persuade her?”
“We think only the human mind has memory. Earth remembers too. The memories her island holds reside within her heart. She knows what Prospero knew, and Prospero knew that you and the English girl who was your friend saw him sent to exile and were aghast at your father’s treachery. She admires you for this.”
I gaped. When I could speak, I said, “She knows of me?”
“She was already dead when Prospero arrived. But, as I said, the island remembers and she hears its thoughts. And she can hear the thoughts of her son Caliban.”
“Was she not a wicked woman?”
“In her prior life, she was. Remember, though, she has received another life. She is a changed woman. The life she inherited has given her a mild spirit and a propensity to do good. You might persuade her to undo the magic of her past life. Our city would be spared. Your husband, and his brothers, would escape the revenge she sent out in her former life.”
“How can I find her?”
“I will take you to her. You must agree to the journey. It will be outside of time, so your maidens will be there sleeping.”
“I’ll come with you,” I answered, “but not alone. I will insist that my serving maidens accompany me. Please wake them.”
He gave me a look. I suppose I was being snippy, but I needed to show him I had a authority in the face of his magic. He waved a hand. Lenora and Angela awoke. I explained to them what had happened and said I wanted them to accompany me. Lenora knew Jacob and seemed respectful and a bit afraid of him. Angela, who was devout, detested anyone who trafficked in magic. Still, they agreed.
I thought Jacob would magically transport us to where Sycorax, in her new incarnation, dwelt, but we walked down from the rooftop, through the courtyard, out the front gate, and into the city. We passed innumerable guards who took no notice of us. The same thing happened as we walked the city streets to the harbor. None of the watchmen saw us; nor did the thieves and prostitutes who roam there in the dark hours. We walked to the docks, avoiding the ruined sections, and climbed into a boat docked at one end. Jacob rowed us into the moonlit bay. In only minutes we came upon an island so far from the city we could barely see the beacon lights burning on shore.
We disembarked, walked a short distance, and came to cave where I was told Sycorax dwelt.
“You must go in alone,” said Jacob. “Remember what is at stake. Some people in the city dislike you. They will attribute the appearance of the Lotan to your presence and seek to have you killed. Don’t underestimate their power. My people are often blamed for any disaster that befalls our land. It is to our advantage that the creature leave our shores. Go in now.”
“What will I say to her?”
“The prophecy is dark at this point. I don’t know. Trust your heart, as you always have. The words will come when your heart speaks.”
I walked into the cavern. It had a dry, sandy floor and dry rock walls; it was not damp and not filled with spiders and other vermin. I smelled wood smoke and saw a dim light burning and casting long, unsettling shadows. I turned a corner which opened to a much larger section with a taller stone ceiling. A small fire burned. Sycorax sat behind it.
I had expected a hideous old woman. Sailors spoke of Sycorax and said the evil inside her had twisted her body to the extent that she was bent double like a hoop and her appearance frightened even tough mariners who did not fear storms and waterspouts. But instead of such a sight, my eyes fell on a young woman who rested a chair of stone, beautiful in the blaze of the fire. Her skin glowed vivid blue as I had always imagined the skin of water nymphs in Greek legend to look. Long, black hair fell over her shoulders, framing her. She wore a simply cut garment and no jewelry. I hesitated a moment and then sank down on one knee.
“It isn’t every day that a Queen kneels before a penniless woman.”
“Your wealth in magic is great, Lady Sycorax. And if beauty were wealth, I would be a pauper in comparison to you.”
She laughed. I guessed that was good.
“You have a way with words, Queen Claribel. I wandered many years in the spaces between before I found the path to a new life. You’ve given me the first compliment in my fresh existence.”
“It will be the first of many, be assured.”
“And you want me to stop the Lotan from ravaging your city?”
“I do, my Lady. I know you seek justice and requital for the wrong done to you. My husband was only three years old when you were banished. Should the sons suffer for the sins of the father?”
“Jacob ben Gaon-Abuha brought you here. What you have said is written in the holy writings of his people, is it not?”
The nuns had taught me some of the Old Testament, and I remembered, though vaguely, their teaching that a father should not suffer for the sins of his son nor a son for the sins of his father but that every man should bear his own sin.
“He fears for the welfare of his people, Claribel, as you fear—rightly—for your own safety. Yet I cannot punish his father, so how is justice to be done?”
“Is punishment necessary?”
“For me it is. My spirit will not rest until punishment for what was done to me is meted out. Someone or something must pay for that crime. The odious nature of the deed flutters in my spirit and in my memory like a hateful bird. I will not be able to assume my new existence fully until the matter is taken care of.”
I hesitated, gathered my courage, and then spoke. “May the punishment fall upon me?”
She stared at me a moment and then laughed. “I forget that you are a Christian. And I suppose it could. Let’s say, yes. But I like you. I don’t want you destroyed. Why are you willing to take your husband’s place?”
“I don’t wish to perish—but I love him. I have given him three sons.”
“Your sons will carry on his name.”
“They are young. If he isn’t there to protect them, they will die at the hands of treacherous men who would take the throne for themselves.”
“Rise,” she ordered, “and look into the fire.”
I gazed down into the orange flames. Suddenly I saw myself lying on my bed. My eyes were bulging, my tongue protruding, a dark line encircled my neck. I had been strangled by assassins. I heard screaming and pleading. My serving women were being murdered. My husband had been killed by the Lotan. My sons, undoubtedly, were captive, if not already slain. The vision faded. I saw the fire again.
“You are correct in your assumption. Return to your city. Go out and stand on the dock when the sun appears. The Lotan will come. Go now. This is all I have to say to you.”
We returned. I did not feel like speaking. Sycorax had changed, but the law of retribution had not. Someone had to pay the price for what was done to her. It would be me.
By the time we arrived back home, it was nearly dawn. I went to my chamber, washed, prayed, and dressed in a simple garment. In the grey of pre-morning, I stole out of my bedchamber and into the courtyard. Lenora and Angela were there.
“You didn’t tell us what the witch said to you,” said Lenora, “but we know your spirit, Claribel. We will go by your side.”
“I won’t hear of it. Return to your rooms.”
“We have never disobeyed you,” said Angela. “But this is different. It would be unseemly for you to die unattended. Give us the honor of dying with you.”
I could see that they would not be persuaded. And what they said was true. If people saw me walking through the city alone (and not hidden by magic) they would be suspicious. Tears came to my eyes to think two beautiful young women would be willing to go with me and die in their virginity for the honor of my name. I nodded. The three of us walked out to the docks.
I took my stand on the part that jutted furthest out into sea. Lenora and Angela took up positions on either side of us. The people of Tunis were too afraid to go near the docks, but when they recognized me, hundreds of them surged down toward us. The sun broke the horizon. The waters of the bay began to boil. I gathered my courage. Lenora and Angela blenched with fear but stood still. I felt Lenora squeeze my hand. The sun rose higher. The waters churched and splashed, and we saw the head of the Lotan rise from the bay.
I prayed my death would be a quick one. I suppose my maidens were praying the same, but the Lotan did not lunge at us and swipe us off the dock and into its maw as I thought it would. We waited, hearts pounding, and saw its back, claws, and tail emerge out of the waves. I realized that it was floating—not swimming and not moving. It had no strength. It was dead. What we were seeing was its corpse.
Lenora collapsed. Angela and I caught her. By that time the townspeople had seen that the Lotan was not alive. They flocked to us, shouting that the monster was dead and I had killed it. I had saved the city. Physicians rushed to me and asked if I was alright. I felt faint. They cared for me until my husband appeared. His guards carried me back to the palace. Our sailors launched boats into the bay, snagged the Lotan with grappling hooks, and dragged it out to sea so the rotting of its body would not foul the waters of our harbor. I went to my bedchamber.
I told Sulaimon everything. We had no secrets. He said I had been wise. That night I had Lenora sleep with me. Her warmth and nearness were assuring. I woke in the early morning hours when a strange silence fell. I could hear no one breathe or stir. I sat up in bed and saw Sycorax, in all her beauty, standing beside me.
“My Lady,” I said quietly.
“You have done well. I said someone, or something, had to die. Creatures such as the Lotan are constructed of old passions and hatreds. It was time for it to go away. Retribution will come. Your kingdom will be conquered, but not in your lifetime or in the lifetime of your sons’ sons. Your place is secure.” She vanished. I heard Lenora’s quiet breathing. I closed my eyes, weary but reassured. The grace of the forbidden had opened doors for me in the past. Its magic had worked good for me again.
David W. Landrum teaches Literature and Creative Writing at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications, including Web Del Sol, The Barefoot Muse, WORM, riverrun, and many others.