The Sea-Rabbit, Or, The Artist of Life
When, many years after their marriage, the king tried to summon to mind the appearance of this wife on the night he had first seen and fallen in love with her, all that he could remember was her magnificent attire. He shuddered to recall how he had endured the first hour of the ball, before she appeared, in an agony of numbness he had taken few pains to hide. Keeping to his throne and listlessly eyeing the multitude of young women who paraded before him, proud and hopeful in despite of their thick peasant wrists and pitted complexions, he suffered the scene of a busy barnyard to billow up on his dismay; he had hoped for a gathering of goddesses. He had almost made up his mind to plead indisposition to his parents and retire for the night, when his despondent glance rose as if in answer to an unspoken command, and he beheld Ashiepattle framed in the great portal at the height of the stairs.
Her face he could no longer imagine as it had been that night, but her entire figure had roused in him a sensation he could still recall in his own body, vivid and thrilling, a shock of fervid wakefulness floating serenely on the promise of danger. He might brood on that moment forever, it seemed-- he would never lose the memory of the sensation-- but he could not ever rediscover her young face. Yet he could see her costume in his mind's eye as clearly as though it stood before him: the splendid bark-and-silver-colored fur thrown so carelessly across her shoulders, like a wolf escaping a parting shot; the ragged convolvulus of her enormous ballooning sleeves, iridescent blue, green, and white, like the splayed abstraction of mallards hung on a door; the dark dagging of the long nether sleeves, like the parted crucial feathers of hawks aloft; the overlaid loops of her meticulously tended tresses, neat and copper tessellated as the scales of an upstream salmon. The quilted lappets jutting from the waist of her vest recalled to him many gentle paws of foxes, hares, and even lions, slain and arranged in a victorious ring. He helplessly imagined unlacing that superficial bodice, to expose the hirsute white lining that so suddenly put him in mind of the bellies of dead doe, and a cheetah he had vanquished once on an excursion to Barbary. The circular motif in the gown's brocade, being gathered from looseness at the ground to neat folds at the waist, contracted into an even impression of fanning feathers on a quail's or pheasant's throat.
Then she had turned away, out of the door, and moved leftward across the room.
And as she moved, he saw that the shape of her wolverine cape described the very quadrilateral of the field, belonging to his father's renegade vassal across the mountain, which he so long and so ineffectually had yearned to possess; and the pure launch of her skirt mimicked the very contour of the fertile hillside claimed by the Bishop of Tours, which he had not briefly, nor successfully, disputed in the ecclesiastical and secular courts, and yet could not yield his claim.
He had stridden after her then, and gained upon her figure slowly, intent upon capturing her for one sole galliard at least; when, his hand upon her elbow, she turned at last, and deigned to recognize his quest, though he could no longer recall whether the expression upon her face had been one of surprise, or pleasure, or fear, or a mingled gesture of amazement compounded of all three.
He must have avoided her eyes, whatever they were speaking, for all that he could recall of that ensuing moment was the marvelous pattern of jewels and embroidery on the front of her fur-lined vest. Each emerald, topaz and garnet burrowed shyly out of a nest of gold stitches only emerging from the pileous darkness by virtue of this metallic corona, which then feathered out into pinwheels of simple, active wings, so that the jewels seemed to be fluttering from deep, veined darkness into a lighter air. Jewels appealed thim, and he would not ignore the approach of any loyal contributor to the glory of his domain, even ones inanimate as these. He imagined opening the shafts that his great-grandfather had sunk, and that his father had abandoned years before, declaring the earth there rich only for farming; he would charge down through the unmapped tunnels with a team of torch-bearers, to hunt the wily, reclusive gems. If the golden stitches were any augury at all, he would find branches of ore to lead him to their lairs. His prey might watch him pass in the darkness and think themselves safe, but he knew they must be rescued, for they had a service to perform in the upper world. Mens hebes ad verum per materialia surgit. The objects he would cause to be fashioned from these fruits of the earth would furnish his humblest subjects with a present reflection of their sovereign's divine inheritance.
So they had performed to the jealous admiration of all her competitors through the long night, until she had announced that she must leave and return home. He had insisted upon accompanying her, for he wished to learn what she, strangely enough, would not divulge: where she resided, and who her father was. But at a bend in the road quite far from the palace, as he lowered his gaze from the moon, he found she was gone, and the only clue to her whereabouts was a dim trembling in the white column supporting a dovecote that welcomed its inmates as high up as the lowest branches of the trees. He loitered below the dovecote for some time, shook its column, and called out to his lady, but no answer issued from the ghostly hive save a disgruntled cooing of sleepy birds. In such discouraged pursuits he continued until a man accosted him, who claimed title to the birds, and to whom he imparted the story of his escaped mistress. Upon hearing mention of a girl, the man's interest quickened, and he called for a servant to assist him in reaching the height of the dovecote. The two ready men climbed up a ladder and assaulted the dovecote's silence with axe and pick. The birds sprung from the eyes; no one else was within. The prince had then gone disconsolately home.
The Queen Ashiepattle stood in the garden, supervising the construction of her bird-castle.
The columns of the base stand like soldiers on either side of the maw of a great toothed bird. Inside, the peacocks had learned how to sing.
Workmen, the blackbird chattered, shatter those tiles! Warp them, warp them! Our permanent nest is only a fragment of ultimate rest! Let the edges be sharp! Never let them match!
All of the larks were sleeping, head tucked under wing, though the petals in the roof overhead modulated ineluctably from golden orange to blue.
When the exfoliating piers of the interior contemplated spring, they regretted the lost decision never to burst into leaf. Reach, and criss-cross, they murmured to each other, as they traced a pattern of starbursts over the underside belly.
Ashiepattle rolled out the plans upon the castle floor. Stained with droppings and footprints, they gathered dimension from the shadows of the reeling wings. Sunshine informed her deliberations now. The workmen must consult the reeling shadows anew each day.
Wounded as women, perforated as a flayed hive, the pierced steeples host scores of patient sparrows, who have endured their waiting long. The eyes, so full of birds, look only inwards.
Oh, helmeted towers, towers crowned forever! Do not look out so narrowly! The jays, the doves, the whippoorwills, even the lonely vulture, crave an impossible spectacle.
Ashiepattle, pleased, put up her hand to touch the woven grille that repelled all vision, then pulled the gate open, strode inside, and peered, as only the birds knew how, through the cunning iron mesh at the walls of her husband's house.