Once upon a time there was a queen. But where she lived, the people no longer liked kings and queens; they said they had no use for them. So, unlike the queens and kings of old, this queen and her king lived in a very ordinary dwelling, in an ordinary neighbourhood, on an island that used to have a name, and which no one remembered.
Their street, like the island, had once had a name, but the sign had been torn loose in a quarrelsome hurricane and never again replaced. So when the queen and king wanted to direct people to their home, they always said, “Go past the fruit stand at the corner of the street next to the wide and tall Silk Cotton tree. You’ll come to a pink clap board house with purple trim. Keep going. You’ll come to a white church with a pointed wooden steeple, called “Church of the Great Redeemer”, keep going. You will soon see a blue shack and an old woman selling candy; take the first left there and come straight the way down, till you arrive at a cross roads. Go straight; ours is the purple house on the left just past the yellow house with orange trim and stone lion heads on either side of the gate. The purple house, with the tall Alexander fur that points to the sky and nearly touches it, is ours. You’ll know when you see it.”
Well it was the season of flowering trees on the island whose name no one remembered. And the queen found herself with child, which was odd, since the king drank heavily and was usually asleep by the time the queen had finished the daily chores of an ordinary woman’s day to day life. She was not at all happy about this revelation since she had always admired her regal figure and knew a child would fatten and distort it.
Trying to rid herself of the unborn one, she boiled dried chamomile flowers, a remedy passed on to her by Grandmother Brigitte, and drank the steaming yellow infusion from Brigitte’s best china. When that did not work, she paid a boy to buy a bottle of Guinness from a round-the-corner liquor store, for she had heard once that it too relieved women from what must not grow inside them. But the growing thing prevailed and the queen worried her lip staring out the window at the street and the neighbours’ houses beyond.
Nine months saw the flowers fly, the rains come falling, crabs go crawling and the season of fruit bearing trees to bear their fruit – sea grape and hog plum and mango; it saw bougainvillea blossom, hurricanes skirt the edges of the island and veer off to the north in exchange for cold spells and dry grass, till finally it was time for the child to be born.
On a cold day in December, at that hour before sun had risen and after night had moved on, the queen gave birth to the strangest child anyone on the island had ever seen.
This child had feet like a Gaulin, webbed, with talons that curled under spindle legs growing out of a pale brown torso, wrinkled and puckered like a plucked chicken. Its belly protruded and its face was gaunt and wizened. It was the ugliest child the queen had ever looked upon and when the king awoke he flew into a rage and cursed the queen, accusing her of lying with bush spirits when he had been sleeping. The queen wept. The child squawked and stretched out its spindle fingers. The queen turned her face to the wall. She thought of all her friends and all the people who knew them and was ashamed. She said to herself, “This is no child of mine. By night fall, it will be dead.”
The queen wrapped the child in a flowered cloth her maid used for cleaning windows and took her down into the basement of the house to a secret and hidden room. The queen set the swaddled child on a wooden table, drew a large knife and cut off its two webbed feet. Blood, rusty brown, oozed like sap from a tree onto the table and the wooden floor. The child screeched hideously in the shadows of the hidden room and the queen returned to the sunlight above.
While the queen was resting she heard a faint knock at her front door. Thinking it was the gardener come to collect his pay, she opened the door. Instead, she found there a small girl child and an old woman who stared past the queen with milky brown eyes.
The small girl asked the queen, “Have you anything to give the blind?”
The queen snorted, “I have nothing to spare. Go away!”
That night, the queen returned to the hidden room below the house, hoping to find the child dead. But to her astonishment, its feet had grown back, and small brown and red feathers were sprouting all over the child’s belly and spindle arms. It cooed and stretched its awkward hands towards the queen. “Agh!” cried the queen. And again she drew her knife and hacked off the Gaulin feet. Again, blood, rusty brown, dripped like sap onto the table and the wooden floor, and the queen hurried out of the hidden room, returning to the moonlight above.
The following morning, at dawn, again came the faint knocking at the front door. Thinking it was the maid come to do the weekly ironing, the queen drew on her robe, tightened her sash, and opened the door. Instead, there again was the little girl and the old woman with the milky brown eyes.
“Have you anything to give the blind?” asked the girl, her hand outstretched before her.
“I have nothing to give you, now go!” yelled the queen, slamming the door on the strangers.
The queen paced the living room biting her lip and wringing her two hands, anxious to see what remained of the child down below. Breathing in deeply and crossing herself, the queen retraced her steps of the day before to the hidden room. She listened at the closed door for signs of life. She heard nothing but her own heart beat. She cracked the door open, peering into the gloomy cavern. The table was bare. The blood, rusty brown, had vanished. The queen stepped inside and heard a scraping and a rustling and out of the shadows came a rush of air and gleaming brown wings outstretched. The queen had no time to scream or draw her knife, for the great bird lowered its beak towards her and in swift motion pecked out the queen’s startled eyes. The great bird flapped its wings once, twice and on the third flap sprang out of the hidden room through the open door and into dawn, carrying with it the queen’s eyes far into the changing blue yonder.
•••Helen Klonaris’ work has appeared in two anthologies including Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writings from the Antilles, and several journals, including Yinna, The Caribbean Writer and HLFQ. She is the co-director of the Bahamas Writers Summer Institute and teaches creative writing in the Bay Area.