Behind Bars

     Suspicion thudded in my head like a drum beat as I chewed a nail, curled up in the dust outside our tent and waited for Abigail to finish her administrations and give us the diagnosis.
     How long had Clopin been standing there before making his presence known? What had he heard me tell her? Had he seen the way she'd looked at me, the way I'd responded? That second before Clopin had laid a hand on my shoulder an image had sprung, unbidden but strangely welcome, to my mind - her hand tracing my cheek, over my neck, encased in those beautiful red-leather gloves - was such a thought visible on a person's face?
     Was it really an accident he'd leaned on her so heavily, right then, at that very second? Clopin who I trusted without doubt...and now I was doubting him.
     Even when she'd pulled the dagger out he'd only stared in a kind of dumbfounded shock. It was I who raised the alarm, screaming for help and old Abigail, our dearest and wisest awenydd, to come and stitch the wound up. It was I who told them to take her to our tent. It was Clopin who tried to stop them. It was only when tears started in my eyes that he let them go ahead---he never could stand to see me cry. He'd turned to me with his arms open, expecting to be my hero like he always is when I cry, but I'd pushed passed him and chased my butterfly.
     My eyes kept seeing the blood. Dancing in front of my vision, like the dye that ran through the stream whenever Bethan was preparing a bridal gown. Red blood. Like mine. Like Clopin's. For some elusive reason I had been surprised to see that blood, as though I thought perhaps she bled honey, like the daughters of the goddesses in the old tales. But the sweat that had broken out on her brown forehead, the blood that smeared there when she'd reached up with a shaky hand to wipe it away, had washed away all masks, torn away her feathers and silks and strong legs and had left---a woman.
     Abigail came out of the tent then, wiping her hands on an apron, and I looked up with my heart leaping into my throat, and foolishly, into my eyes as well. She narrowed her eyes at me harshly. Abigail who can see into anyone's heart with the least effort. Does anyone include my Francoise? I didn't know, but I did know Abigail saw exactly what I had been feeling the last two days and she did not like it. Old woman, old values. Even as I dismissed it to escape her cold eyes I knew it to be a lie. If anyone else knew how I felt....
     But surely Abigail knows Clopin can be the only one for me as well? I felt the soft, comforting press of her gnarled hand on my shoulder, and her eyes softened a little. Yes, she knows. "She'll be fine," she said, in her rasping little voice. "But your husband needs you more."
     My mouth pulled into a stiff line, and all my muscles contracted. My husband wasn't just impaled on his own dagger. Standing, I tossed back my hair and pushed aside the tent flap, walking in stubbornly. How dark the tent was, so much darker than usual, the scent of incense strong on the air, lit by Abigail for Francoise's health. Combined together, that darkness and the incense, the air was heavy enough to move about me like water, as I paused in the tent flap. Then I began wading through it to where she was propped up on a mound of cushions opposite our bed, a huddle of clothes centered with a sharp doll's head and eyes that are heartbreakingly not blank.
     But they were not Francoise's sharp, humorous eyes, or the Bird's sly, mocking ones either. They were a new set of eyes, still the same deep coffee-color, still the same wonderful almond shape, but a different pair. They were grim. When I reached her side I hesitated. She had given no indication she knew I was there, just continued to stare ahead with this new pair of eyes someone had given her. The candlelight was a flickering kiss down her angular cheek. I wanted to know where these new eyes had come from. The packaging, as desirable as I found it, was merely that. What I really wanted, what I hungered for, was the inside.
     And as I looked at Francoise, one hand clearly pressing the wound beneath the blankets that covered her, her eyes deliciously uncovered, I knew that I had been given the perfect opportunity to do it.
     Suddenly, her head snapped up and she glared, her eyes sharp and wary on me. I smiled at her and moved slowly, so slowly to kneel by her side on the straw mat settling at the end of the mountain of cushions, my skirts crumpling and rippling up around me, and she watched my entire progress with unfaltering eyes, constantly alert.
     "I forgot for a moment," I said to her softly, wanting my voice to be the caress Clopin's is, that hers is. "…that I have a bird here in my cage with me. That the bird would rather be free. That I had best tread carefully lest my eyes be pecked out."
     When she spoke her voice was a harshly humorous whisper -
     "Chased by dogs, hunted by cats, pursued by rats, and outwitted them all. Caught by a kitten, oh the irony."
     I smiled at her through lowered lids. "Kittens don't like to destroy what they catch. They just like to admire it for a while, play with it, and then let it go free again." My hand moved slowly out from the folds of my skirts and ran gently over her own brown one. Thankfully, she didn't recoil from my touch, and encouraged I edged a little closer. Her own eyes narrowed and darkened, and her breath came a little quicker, a little more raspy. I felt fearful---I thought thatI had better run and get Abigail again, but she arrested me with her gaze. "What kind of bird do you think I am?" she hissed out between her teeth, the intensity of her look almost pushing me away. But I couldn't help the grin that suddenly splits my mouth like a stream in the woods, for to me, the answer is obvious.
     "An ibis!" I say with a kind of mad joy, squeezing her hand. "A scarlet ibis, straight from the River Nile!"
     Her eyes widen a little---I don't think she expected me to give her an answer---but I can be surprising like that. Like when I danced last night. Sometimes I'm something of a prodigy. A small laugh shook her shoulders. Again there's the sparkle in her eyes, and it made me foolishly glad for some inane reason. I picked up her long, slender hand and pressed my lips to it, not exactly a kiss, but something like that.
     "Careful, now." she said with a mocking kind of warning. "If his Royal Highness Trouillefou walks in my next wound might be fatal."
     "Clopin won't be walking in!" I said impusively. "He is banned until you are well."
     A quirky raise of an eyebrow. But her voice was strangely quiet. "A woman is not allowed to bar her husband from her bed."
     It doesn't seem right she should say it. Certainly not like that. My eyes rake over her, searching, seeking. Has she ever been married?
     "I bar him," I say with soft decisiveness. The next look is so sharp I can feel it pointing into me, like the tip of her dagger.
     Why? "Isn't it obvious?" I exclaimed. "Look what he's done to you! He might as well have torn the wing off a bird and left it on the ground for the next dog to tear to shreds!"
     Again that soft laugh shook her shoulders. "But lucky for me, only a playful kitten, is that right?"
     I smiled at her the smile Clopin calls my purr. Her eyes were almost sardonic as she asked--- "You never get tired of these damn zoologic metaphors, do you?"
     I shook my red-head decisively. "No, never." and smiled again. She laughed outloud then, and I turn my face gently to it, but within a second pain contorted her face and she gritted her teeth, grip crushing my knee. Immediately distressed I pushed back the blankets and wrenched her other hand away from her wound, anxiously making sure it hadn't burst open. I was leaning over her chest, the wound just below her breast, still covered---the dress has been torn away only where the injury itself was---and my hair drifted down over the rest of her. I heard her take in a breath, and then her voice came floating over to me -
     "Are you sure that's the reason you're banning him?" I sat up abruptly, feeling stupidly fearful. Let me see just a spark of that same longing in her gaze and I won't be so confused. Let me see something that is not amusement, or provocation, or calculation and this won't be such a heady ordeal for me. But as I looked into her rich eyes, I saw only a curious questioning, almost a challenge. It wasn't enough for me. I didn't want my actions questioned or challenged, I wanted them answered. Why am I feeling this way when I have a soul and body completely fulfilled by another? Why am I so intrigued and why do I want to know? Answer me that, Francoise, and then perhaps I can tell you.

     I left the tent and drifted towards the Center, my excuse being a hunt for food for her, food to keep up her strength, food to make her well. I sighed and pushed a hand up and through my hair, free now from my diklo, shaking it out and around my shoulders. I wanted my rings and bangles. I wanted my gold-hemmed skirts. When Paul asked me laughingly how my bird sang and if I enjoyed the song, nudging his companion before both broke into shouts of hilarity, I fixed them with a vicious glare, and they fell silent.
     I'd expected the news of Francoise's injury to have gone all the way around the Court and back by now. Maybe Clopin had found a way to hush things up. Maybe he had a reason for wanting to. Curiosity and desire can play strange tricks on people. If my husband was going to hurt someone, he would do it outright not disguise it as an accident. How could I suspect him like this? As I wandered into the great circle and towards the simmering pots, gathering to me an old chipped earthenware dish and a ladle, I hummed under my breath the tune the Bird had caroled to my husband - was it only just last night?
     Golden tones take over, sunshine in a voice I know so well it could be the birth mark on my hip, singing the next verse -

Sunrise comes - night will now give way
Babies grow - mother's laid away
Winter falls - summer will not stay
New threads wove - so long as you pay
Lovers die - upon the bed they lay
Love's the thing
In which there's no fair play
     It never fails to have the same effect on me. I am a slab of butter in the sun. I turned with a crooked smile to my tall, handsome husband who is making his way over on his lovely long legs, a curious expression on his face. The verse finished as he stopped in front of me, our toes almost touching, he with his head bent and I with mine turned upwards. His expression was uncharacteristically sombre, and I knew that mine had something amiss in it. When have we ever greeted each other without a kiss?
     "How’s the Rouen Bird?" he asks dryly, after a fat pause.
     I hesitated. "I don't know." I said truthfully. "But Francoise is doing well."
     "I suppose you want her to stay with us while she recovers?"
     I flinch a little. "I want her to stay with me."
     "Is that not what I just said?" But my husband is a smart man and there was a catch in his voice. He knew what I meant. But how could I tell him right then I want to ban him from the tent---twice my size, five times my strength, just as much temper and not in a very good mood at that moment in time? I didn't answer, just reached out with a sulky hand and fingered a few of the loose threads on his tunic. I made a mental note to mend it later - how could I let my adored husband walk around in a tunic beginning to show fray? He caught hold of my hand in his own and brought it up his mouth, his breath tickling it before his lips caress it. Despite the suspicions, despite the resolve to put my foot down and be cold until Francoise was definitely staying in my tent, I was his right then. I fell into his arms and let him be my hero, enveloped in his embrace, my cheek rubbing happily against his tunic. I tilted my head up for a kiss and was obliged swiftly. How can a man have so much light within him that he tastes like sunlight, like warm golden rays melting into my mouth. I wondered later---for I never wonder this sort of thing with him---if the women he was with before me thought that way also. No. They grew up with the boring French paramitscha, not my Indian tales. With the desire to obey and wear grey and be perfect. They wouldn't have the imagination to consider it.
     But I was willing to bet Francoise would. And I wondered - later of course - what she tasted like.

     I let Clopin come back with me, entwining my fingers in his and leaning my head against his arm. The Court is so quiet at this time---a watchful silence, as though it is waiting for the rom to return and fill it with noise again. But that will come later, right then it is very peaceful.
     Francoise was siting up when we got back, examining the stitches of her injury with a probing finger, a slight wince on her face. She wasn't preturbed at Clopin seeing her like that, and he barely glanced at her. Two performers backstage. I gave Francoise the soup and bread I had brought back for her, fresh and steaming hot. I had a sudden wild urge to try and spoonfeed her, if only to see what recoiled in my face. I didn't quite have the courage.
     She took the bowl eyes fixed on some point beyond me, and staring at her in curiosity I burned a finger on the underside of her bowl, then jumped when Clopin coughed loudly, making me aware I was neglecting him.
     "Francoise is a big girl now, Herli," he said, with the emphasis on big, "She can take care of herself, I'm sure." There was almost a smirk in his eyes as he glanced at Francoise huddled up on the cushions, who has paused over a mouthful of bread.
      “One might say the same thing of the King of Gypsies, but from what I’ve heard, he’d fall apart without his wife,” Francoise said, nonchalantly ripping away another section of the bread. “So one must remain objective.”
     I tried to suppress the smile that sprang up, but Clopin caught it, and yanked me onto his lap, holding me tight there, fitting me neatly to him, as though I'm a piece of his puzzle fallen off. Francoise muttered into her bowl, her hair hanging jaggedly over her face. Her voice was thick as though she were talking through a wall, and my legs suddenly tingled, as though I had sat on them too long. She sighed and then kept on eating. Clopin stared ahead, chewing on his pipe as though he hadn't noticed. Even though I'm sitting placidly on his knee, my body feels as tight as a lute string. For just a second the third had been there, but just a second later Francoise flashed a decidedly wicked grin in my direction as she said, "It might just be easier to declaw her, you know."
     A muscle moved slowly down my husband's cheek. I thought crazily of blood dripping fatly out of a cut as I watched it, but he'd already turned to Francoise with that smile and that sparkle - switched on and off as easily as a pump.
     "I'd still have to deal with her teeth!"
     Her eyes glimmered with her smile then.


(c) Covielle and Harley Quinn 2000