“Musings On Flesh And Other Prisons”
by Jennifer Greylyn
Nothing was ever allowed to touch her fully.
Lamps were fretted, breaking their rich golden glow into dozens of tiny specks of light, all determined by the patterns cut in the metal. Candles were screened, turning their bright flames into many muted jewel-shades, every colour that glass could be painted. Windows were covered, first with gauzy curtains that transformed the harsh sunshine to warm mist and then with fitted panels whose elegant designs carved the wide world into unthreatening segments of sky or plaza, buildings or people.
When she had a desire to see more of the world, she went out, but still things were interposed between her and it. There were the fringed parasols carried by her attendants, shielding her from the daylight and any eyes rude enough to stare. Her bodyguards, armed with naked swords and hard impassive faces, were another barrier. If someone, though, managed to penetrate both, there was, lastly, her raiment. She draped herself in robes of butterfly silk, deep amethyst, fiery orange or spring-grass green, and wound veils of a paler hue around her face and hair. Then anyone looking would be blinded by the brilliance of the material, the shimmer of it, the expense.
Because a price had to be paid to look upon her and it was mountain-high. Still, many paid it and would have paid it more often if she had let them. But it was her rule, inviolate throughout her decades of service, that she would never see a particular client more than once a month in a year. And, even when she did see them and they thought they saw all of her, unrobed, unveiled, wholly unclad, there was still a distance between them. It was the sheath that enclosed her flesh, visible like the flicker of ice on her skin, that separated her from time and made her a stranger even to it.
In all these ways, she kept herself free.
Time could touch only her mind and only when she permitted it. As when she thought of how long it had been since she had made her bargain. She gave herself to the mage in return for his magic and then he sold her to the master of this place, the House of Timeless Delights. He was long food for the earth and so was his son, who had inherited her in turn. It was his grandson who ran the establishment now and he was in awe of her, the living woman who did not age.
Awe and agelessness were all very well, but she could not appreciate them without some way of measuring them against the life she might have had. So, every dawn, before the grace of night was entirely stripped away, she sat at one of her windows, pulled back the gauzy curtains and looked out the carven panels.
Far below her was a paved plaza with a fountain in the middle of it, a fountain of pale marble growing grey and pitted with time. And, every dawn, among the throngs of women and servants who came for water, there was a very old woman, shuffling along, carrying a water-jug on her bony hip.
Her name was Tenella. They had known each other when they were both mere girls, slim, beautiful, and ambitious. They both had plans to rise in the world and, in their own ways, they both did. For Tenella, it happened in a more typical manner, through a good marriage that brought her to this wealthy neighbourhood. Although it was less desirable than it had been in their youth, the buildings, like the fountain, beginning to show their age, it was still fine and safe and well-tended.
Much like Tenella herself. Although no longer slim, she kept herself nimble with her daily walks to the fountain. Although no longer beautiful, she kept herself elegant, her clothing simple and dignified, her hair styled and dressed with a few tasteful jewels. And, although no longer ambitious, she was wise enough not to mind the two servants who trailed her discreetly in case she needed help.
That seemed all the more likely this day. Tenella’s steps were ploddingly slow. Her head sagged like her wattly neck could not bear its slight weight. Strands of dishevelled grey floated unnoticed around her crevassed face. She made only small attempts to talk with the other women, the servants, to glean the gossip that made her forays to the fountain so worthwhile. She struggled to lift the jug from her hip, let alone to fill it from the fountain.
There was the inevitable crash. The shattering of clay on the paving stones. The jug had slipped from Tenella’s quivering, crooked fingers and water was bleeding from the shards in silvery streams. Everyone was frozen save the very old woman herself, who was bending over to pick up the pieces and looking like a dry twig about to snap.
The sight of her rallied everyone in the plaza. The two servants rushed forward, one to clean up the mess of the broken jug, the other to escort their mistress home. But they were not alone. All the women and the other servants encircled her protectively, setting their own jugs aside, taking her arms, practically lifting her with the flow of their concerned words. And Tenella rallied to reassure them, raising her greyed head, patting hands with her own tremulous ones, letting them carry her back to her house.
That was beyond what Tenella’s friend could see. High in her window, she made herself watch the minor spectacle in the plaza. Just as she made herself watch Tenella every day. Tenella was her measure of time. What she herself might have become if she had not made her foresighted bargain.
Tenella was the last of the girls she had known and, from what had just happened, it seemed she would not last much longer. Her friend should be looking for a new girl, one of the much younger ones swarming around Tenella, someone new to study and mark the passing of the days. Someone, who would age in turn, to remind her why she insisted on fretted lamps and screened candles. Someone, because of her lack of them, to remind her why she needed the parasols and the bodyguards, the robes and the veils. Someone, by her slowly fading example, to keep her from uttering the word that would dissolve the sheath around her that held time at bay.
Instead, though, she watched Tenella and was shaken when Tenella’s head jerked up and back, in the very direction and to the very height from which she watched. Tenella’s eyes were rheumy, dim as guttering wicks, but her gaze was piercing. Her friend felt it in her heart. It was like Tenella knew her friend watched.
The word was suddenly trembling on her tongue.
Her onetime friend, who had chosen a very different path.
The word was a sour taste, to be spat in defiance.
Her former friend, who did not tell her what she was going to do.
The word was a bitter flavour, to be gasped in despair.
Her old friend, who would never grow old.
She clenched her teeth on her traitorous tongue and held the word in until the terrible moment passed. It always passed. It always would. But, first, she had to turn her eyes from the window, keep them shut and unseeing, until she was sure Tenella was gone. Then she opened them, looked and sighed in profound relief.
She took another moment, which did not feel nearly as long, to smooth the wrinkles from her dressing gown. She did not bother to touch up her face. It was always perfect. Then she rose, closed the curtain and rang her silver bell. It let her guards know she was ready to receive. She waited for them to unlock the door and send the first of her admiring clients in.
Jennifer Greylyn has been writing for most of her life, mainly because her characters discovered early on that they could drive her crazy if she didn’t. (They wouldn’t necessarily mean to, but they could be quite insistent.) She started publishing her stories about three years ago, and they have appeared in markets as diverse as the magazines Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Neo-opsis to numerous print collections, most notably the EDGE anthology Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead and Tesseracts 15: A Case of Quite Curious Tales . She has several writing projects on the go, again due to the demands of her characters who like the idea of seeing their stories reach a wider audience. She has tried to persuade them she could get more done if they’d let her concentrate on one project at a time, but they don’t seem inclined to cooperate. Talks are ongoing.
Story © 2008 Jennifer Greylyn. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish