The first denial the young prince had ever received was, “Don’t open the door to the dungeons”. So unsurprisingly, the first thing the prince did when opportunity presented itself, the universe’s way of saying ‘teehee’, was to insert and turn a key. But to do so, the pampered royal rascal had to elude his caretaker’s ever-watchful gaze, a retired military scout once known as The Cat in part due to her sharp senses, and even now she retains that title, but only because she enjoys taking catnaps in her rocking chair.
Children will cause trouble without ever understanding why, the prince was told no, after all, and that is enough for most to seek out the forbidden. Curiosity, however, this drive shaped like a key, is superstition’s pendant, a force which pries open mountains and poisons goblets just to see what happens, and what happened was that the young prince opened the door and was never seen ever again.
We can say he shouldn’t have done this, but this is a hindsight, a wisdom that catches up too late, a friend tapping on your shoulder to warn you about the paint bucket on a wobbly ladder one unfortunate dye-job too late. Simply put, to forward ourselves, we must accept that he is no longer needed, but his actions stand at the precipice of events we could never prevent, motion creates motion, and loathe as we are to admit but quick to realise, nothing is without consequence.
For it was the caretaker who took the blame for this child’s derelict behaviour and for the nastiness which ensued, but we won’t blame her, not an inch or iota or other quantification one might use for culpability, as it is fear together with the mechanism of the unknown which becomes a justice that demands a scapegoat, never a justice to begin with. She was locked in the darkest dungeons for this, for the crime of being herself a circumstance and a subject.
But what is a subject without a name, no one should ever be just a referential! The name she is with is Minoes, and her cell is quite alright. She was branded a witch, a demoness, an arcanist, conspirator with the dark, she is rather fond of that title, agent of the Brim Dividing; these nominations have their benefits, because no one with a soupçon of superstitious sense will ever think to disturb her. Or execute her, for that matter. Death, who welcomes all strangers, but who is always personal, we are never true strangers to them, should never be made to host a true stranger in their halls. Minoes is exempted from even this.
There is another boon to this ordeal: this dungeon is the biggest home she’s ever owned, wooden walls became stone, metal partitions to give her rooms, plural. Middle-left will be my gallery, she thinks, Bottom-right has the most hay so that is where I will sleep, upper-right can be my own little dining hall. There is nothing we could consider furniture but this is where the theory of forms picks up. The far exit of the dungeon remains locked, separated from the castle proper with a thick wooden door, wrapped in chains and padlocks plus a sliding grate for the convenience of eye-contact, to deign dignity and courtesy for a context where there is none. Nevertheless, Minoes makes the most of things.
Before you ask, no, she does not have a surname, an inheritance common to her bloodline, which makes birth a spectacular event: parents, uncles, aunts, nephews, and cousins, even friends are invited to deeply consider together what special name to give to the new-born. Beer is brewed and herbs are smoked, it must be exemplary and magnificent, suggests tipsy cousin Wilhelmina, recognisable and grand, yells the undulate uncle Armand. Then father Swit interjects, it must fit her and only her, there is no blood to make her special, only one word, let her decide it when she is old enough. Minoes picked this name five years ago.
Most days, Minoes simply eats bread upper-right. On the scratched metal tray they slide through the viewport is fresh bread and a relatively generous jar of pickles, but you see, she cannot open the jar, she has no strength in her hands, sometimes she curses these vestigial things, but what she lacks in physical strength can be found in her resolve, patience, and respiration. She makes due with just the bread, she calls her meals a latecomer’s banquet. The jailor knows about her condition, yet spares her no cruelty, morality is an objection saved for humans, so he chooses to see a monster.
A monster that came from the dungeons, of course. It hid the entrance to the Brim Dividing, a dark dimension where demons roam, if the old and corny legends are to be believed, and they are by many, perhaps that is why a simple door could for the longest time stave off this invisible threat, one needs only peer inside to let our worst nightmares out, yet it is the door that keeps us up at night.
But as it stands, no terrible demon army or rain of fire has come pouring through the portal, desecrating our symbols, burning our farms and fortunes, committing the massacres which are clearly a fantasy, in both senses of the term, that which is unreal and that which is a desire, but no king will address that everything might actually be alright. In the dungeon, there was a woman, no more, far from less.
This woman, it must be stated, is neither demon nor apparition nor delusion of a lonely woman, she is simply there, a being-there, Minoes calls her Daar, an old word meaning ‘there’, because that’s where she is. Daar is happy to provide, she is younger and healthier and can glide between worlds with relative ease, she even goes so far as to remove her feet with a comical plop, because that’s customary for guests, right?
Minoes, used to and even familiar with the bizarre, or perhaps there truly is no place for suspicion when under suspicion yourself, there are no pretenses for solidarity, appreciates Daar’s company, the only thing she provides. No greetings or thank-yous, no whispers or rumours, no conspiracies or conversations about the difference between their radical worlds and the funny fact that all life everywhere contains more questions than answers but this is distinctly not a bad thing. Hardly ever a word about Daar’s transparency or the occasional cough of Minoes, not everything lends itself to exposition, not every meeting requires words, the coward’s language.
They dance through the rooms, familiarised with the subtleties native to bodies, Daar offers Minoes the things she asks for. A rug please, she begins, My knees are quite sore, Then I would like an oil lamp and some blankets, perhaps a jar opener. Bring me a mattress and many chickens for filling, she chuckles a joke, Then a bookstand, two quills, one swan and one goose feather, their thicknesses differ and that difference is valuable, some parchment and ink if it’s not too much of a bother, you are such a dear.
The chickens announce another daybreak, this is the only time Minoes knows, wasting away takes so long, but when the sun is your clock, it swings by faster than before, no pesky minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, clothes, letters, crows, deaths, geriatrics to subdivide time into frustratingly-present minutiae, pieces of the past that keep stacking with each new experience.
Minoes receives a platter of things she can only eat one half of, even equipped with a jar opener her grip fails her. Daar, unprompted, opens the jar of pickles for her, with no twist or turn of the wrist, no second attempt after great exertion, the lid simply comes off, vertically. She mentions how olives are stored much more practically and are much more delicious, too. Minoes agrees, but doubts any funds would be spent on providing such lucrative fruit to a witch. She then discovers she does not enjoy the taste of pickles. Finally, she chomps down on the loaf of bread only to hurts her teeth on something hard, a cruel prank by the guard, she concludes, and tosses it away. No food today, it seems.
However lovely this arrangement seems, its paranaturality cannot go unnoticed by way of its own nature, it escapes the conventions we’ve been taught to recognise and normalise and has fled into, created a new modality of comfort, a love that’s better than regularity, loud in its weird and new silence, therefore horrific. It doesn’t help she was already branded an evil woman.
The first pair of eyes to take note is the torturous guard who is normally stationed fifteen superstitious steps away from the door, only closing in when the overworked chef hands him the food tray. Today of all days he has reason to exert a supernormal amount of cruelty; we might empathise with that and attempt to scrutinise what’s got him feeling prickly, for we share that base humanity with him, but how about instead let’s not.
He yells a dehumanising word, hoping to draw attention, for what is power without a subject which acknowledges and which despairs, but he receives none, and it his attention that fixates on Minoes and her silly expression instead. Sour pickles will crumple the most statuesque of faces, and he only knows her through death-wishing glares.
It takes him a second to realise this, that she is eating pickles, and demands to know how that is possible, not out of curiosity or wonder, and an old woman who overpowers vacuum packing is deserving of praise, but moreso out of panic at losing control over the one cruelty to prove himself with. He spots a feetless ghost and scampers off to call for help, but not before tripping, the echoes of his armour fill the dungeon. The ladies laugh; the prisoner’s victory comes small and easy.
What are you making, May I know more about you, two questions like kisses on the left ear of Minoes, inflections audibly added to the end like Daar was taught is the custom when asking questions.
Curiosity, as we know, is not only a tool for scrutiny but is often a question behind a question, wanting to keep words dear, wanting to fill in the blanks together. To figure out the legends to navigate your maps with, what words are your roads, what nouns line out the mountains and the malpaises, what verbs show where the winds are fiercest, a remark in your throat that tells if this river can be forded or must be caulked, dotted silver phonemes for cities, towns, borders, places we named together, red squares for the landmarks around which memories are built, monuments to what two people share. The brass plaque reads and a pair of lips speaks, I will keep your secrets safe.
Minoes replies, quilling down a last word before tickling Daar’s nose with the feather, their mattress feels warm, A memoir. Daar repeats this as a question, Minoes lets her know it’s a simple piece of evidence that she has been here, a being-here, in the cell, in this life, in anyone’s life.
Why do you need to write it down when I know you have been important, this emotional declaration coming from a quasi-physical being, it must be noted, unfalsifiable words we pitch against a background of metaphysics, love as we might call it, means more than words, hers or these, can convey. Minoes chuckles and snuggles closer to the woman, her body incorporeal but the intimacy is there.
Do you have to die here, there is a height in the breath of Daar’s question that feels cold, No, dear, but I am an elder and a prisoner, and what they have in common is that both have to wait for freedom to come, Do you have to be, No, dear.
In the ensuing embraced silence, where language piles up in minds and gets stuck in throats, everyone resorts to their most personal selves, personal in the individual and independent sense, tiny habits become havens, each idiosyncrasy a pub, a bar, a quiet pier, a leaf-green bench beneath a lantern overlooking a cold and smelly promenade crowded with sailors making the most of it. Daar does something inscrutable, Minoes gnashes her teeth, remembering the exact hardness of the loaf she tried to eat. She lets her eyes wander as if a tourist inside her own awkwardness and spots a key sticking out of the bread.
You see, there was a second pair of eyes to take note of the extraordinary fate Minoes had been subject of: the overworked chef in charge of the meals of prisoners as well as the custodians, the servants, the knights, the advisors and ambassadors, the halberdiers stationed in the courtyard though not Clarice because she is allergic to nut oils and buys her lunch in town instead, and, of course, the undeserving royalty. Every very early morning, Antoin waits for the steward who unlocks the kitchen and the pantry to return to his tiresome job of saying yes sire and promptly heads out to the markets carrying a satchel of saffron, which he trades for a jar of pickles.
The guard had never known the pickles aren’t a part of the prescribed meal, but conversely, because everyone has their own tasks, Antoin means well but seeing as the entire day he must cure meats and bake breads and baste pheasants and broil soup and remember each royal member’s favourite combinations of herbs, he spits on the king’s pork, he could not have been aware of his refusal to perform the base courtesy of twisting the lid for Minoes, the sliding grate evidently only there for show.
He figured the delirious guard running up the stairs, falling back down the stairs, and running past him meant that his plan to free Minoes had worked. A monster without a cage to him, but to Antoin, she was a woman he had served with half a lifetime ago, who told him five years ago, Let’s change our name together, But we’re so old, he had lied, Age is no objection, Antoin. He had snuck in the key, a shape that spells curiosity as well as freedom, and there is only one possible outcome, really, the one where Minoes is an ex-prisoner.
What Antoin hadn’t accounted for was that she would be having company. Oh dear, I didn’t want to believe the story of your incarceration, but this ghastly girl here is damning evidence you are in some faint way conspiratorial with demons, he shrugs, Anyway, did you like the pickles?
Oh no, not at all, an honest lament, but a chef knows they cannot please every palette, their art the art of necessary destruction, after all. Minoes continues, So you were the kind soul who expanded my meals, is it too late I trouble you for olives from now on?
Yes, actually, all-considering. The two friends pause and laugh, Daar joins in, drawn in by shared amusement and the weird elation of freedom. Antoin conjects it is likely our friend the guard is screaming for reinforcements and Minoes laughs again, a beautiful sound, So having a girlfriend was the last drop, was it? Daar’s face flushes at the statement. Antoin, knowing there is no time left to ask who Daar even is or where she came from — does it matter? — or what the deal is with all those chickens, instead makes a suggestion which sets into motion events we could never prevent: escape.
Where there is a captive, escape is always at the horizon, where there is love, there is an unfathomable weirdness that is good and that tickles, where there is a prince, there is an incredible lout of a person, where there is motion, things will never be contained. Daar asks Minoes, they are in the back of a wagon, and outside in farthest possible distance there is a city with a castle, Let me hold your face, her rough hands on her dark cheeks, she feels warm and hers, what a strange meeting, so of course they kiss, of course they do.
In the cell, the fuddled guard scratches his head as his retinue attempts to catch the mysterious chickens. He finds a piece of parchment.
It reads “I will make the most of it.“