Authors: Cameron Dokey
How long before all the trouble started?
Because trouble is precisely what I was.
Never mind that my appearance was inevitable, all but foreseen and foreordained before the cosmic ink on my parents' marriage certificate was dry. Sooner or later, I was bound to put in my appearance, and that meant that, sooner or later, a husband would have to be found for me. This caused friction between my parents while I was still an infant, drooling in my cradle.
I can tell what you're thinking:
That must have been uncomfortable.
Not drooling, a thing all infants do, but growing up knowing you are the primary source of tension between your parents, both of whom you would like very much to love. Since you've already been intelligent enough to come to this conclusion, I see no reason to deny it. Why begin my story with the telling of a falsehood?
You're absolutely right. It was.
Imagine you have ants crawling over your body, so many you can never quite brush them all off. No sooner do you relax, thinking, I've finally done it this time! than you feel a prickle and an itch in some body
part you could have sworn you'd taken care of only moments before.
The sensation isn't horrible. Not exactly. It certainly isn't painful. These are only tiny black kitchen ants, not ants red with anger, ready at a moment's notice to sting and bite. The trouble is, the sensation never ends. Those ants are with you every single moment of your life. You never have an instant's peace, awake or asleep. For, when you lie down to rest, with no distractions, it sometimes feels as if the ants will smother you completely, flowing over your body like a great black tide.
That's what it feels like to live in a house divided.
Let me take a moment to describe it for you. I think it will help you to understand what I'm talking about. The house where I grew up, where my parents lived together, yet apart, is set into the top of a mountain, the tallest in any direction as far as the eye can see.
Actually, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that the house is the top of the mountain. Two great buttresses of stone and glass facing opposite directions, set back to back. Like a statue with its arms stretched open wide, each reaching for a prize unobtainable by the other.
My father's side of the house faced due east, the better for him to catch the very first rays of the morning sun. My mother's side faced west, the better to keep an eye on the rise of the moon and the onset of
stars. And the mountain itself comprised the whole wide world, so that there was no part of creation in which my parents did not play some part. No place where creatures lived and breathed that did not know both light and dark.
This, of course, is just as it should be. It may even sound familiar. But I will say again that the world was a very different place when it was young. In that time, sunlight and shadow did not live in the world together in the same way that they do now. When the sun shone, its light bathed all the world. When it went down, darkness covered all.
And, as the years went by, people came to worship the one even as they came to fear the other. So that, even though my parents shared the world, they did not have an equal share of power, for the love of the world was most definitely lopsided. This had pretty much the effect you might expect. My parents first grew to resent, and then to distrust, and, finally, to fear one another.
They say that opposites attract. I've heard this. Haven't you? I don't know what you believe, but I think that it's true. The trouble is, between attraction and understanding there can be a very great distance. Too great for any one individual, no matter how strong and powerful, to cross on her or his own. It is a distance which must be crossed by both, together. How long this takes is not important. What matters is that the journey commence in the first place, that
the parties involved move steadily toward one another until, at long last, each is safe in the other's outstretched arms.
As far as I can tell, my parents never even packed their bags, let alone set out. With the possible exception of me, they weren't all that interested in the things they might have in common. They were more interested in the things that kept them apart.
And so my mother never saw that the rising of the sun could be a thing of beauty. Never saw the way the color returns, first peering over the edge of the world, then tumbling over and over and over itself, like brightly dressed children turning somersaults.
And my father never took the time to see the beauty of the moonlight. Never noticed the way it caresses everything it touches with a sweet, white kiss, turning even the branches of dead trees into decoration as fine and lovely as mother-of-pearl inlay on an ebony box.
What he would have seen had he looked at me, I never knew, for he never saw me. Or, if he did, I never knew it. Due to an agreement made at my birth, the result of a cryptic and dire prophecy, I would not officially see my father until the day I turned sixteen. On that day, I would be considered of marriageable age and would move from my mother's side of the house to my father's, the better for him to select the proper husband for me.
Asking for my opinion about whom I might like
to spend the rest of my life with was not, apparently, considered an acceptable option.
And so, though he was only half a house away, for all intents and purposes, I grew up without a father. Though I did catch glimpses of him from time to time. Unlike my mother, unlike either of my parents, for that matter, I was not confined to the dark or to the light. I could move freely in either.
As I grew older, I began to make it my business to discover as much about my father as I could without him knowing about it. In this way, I learned that he never laughed, that his hair was dark chestnut flecked with gold, and that, when the weather turned chill, he wore a cloak of this exact same color. But it is difficult to learn much about someone when you can't let them see you.
I did learn one other thing, however. And that was that there lived in my father's household a girl who was almost exactly my age. One he was raising as if she, not I, were his daughter. She was tall and graceful, where I was merely tall and often awkward, and dark, where I was fair. And her eyes were as green as holly boughs.
She was the daughter of his forrester, my mother finally told me, though only after I had pestered her so often and for so many years I must have driven her almost out of her mind.
As a general rule, my mother refused to speak about my father. Her business was her business, and
his was his. She could no more explain his actions than he hers. It did no good for me to ask Who? What? Why? and certainly not very often.
But, as my sixteenth birthday began to grow close, then closer still, my mother seemed to change her mind. The only conclusion I can draw is that it finally dawned on her that it would be in my best interest to have some understanding of my father's side of things, of which the dark-haired girl was clearly an important part. And so, she finally gave me the long-awaited, much-asked-for explanation.
She waited until almost the very last minute. She told me the night before my sixteenth birthday.
“Her name is Gayna,” my mother said.
We were sitting in her observatory, my favorite room in our part of the house. The ceiling was all of glass and almost completely round, poking out from the side of the mountain like a great soap bubble. Sometimes, when I was younger and would awaken in the night, I would find my mother in this room, standing absolutely still with her eyes upon the stars, as if they held some message she had yet to decipher.
“Whose name?” I asked, a little sulkily.
We had both been on edge all day, knowing it might be our last together for who knew how long. My mother had arranged for dinner to be served in the observatory, a thing which was usually one of my favorite treats. Tonight, neither of us had eaten much.
“The girl you've pestered me about for time out of
mind,” my mother replied. “The one who's always with your father.”
At this, I sat bolt upright, my food altogether forgotten.
“Why what?” my mother asked with just the hint of a smile. “Why is she called Gayna? Why is she always with your father? Or why am I telling you this now?”
“I don't care what she's called,” I said boldly, though we both knew I did care, very much. “And I can figure out why you're telling me now. It's because I turn sixteen tomorrow.”
“That leaves the middle one, then,” said my mother. “She resides with your father because she is an orphan. Her mother died giving birth. Her father was gored by a wild boar when she was five. There being no one else to raise her, Sarastro took her in.”
“So,” I said after a moment. “He will raise a stranger's child but not his own.”
“Gayna's father was not a stranger,” my mother said. “He was your father's forrester. This I have already told you.”
“But why?” I burst out once more. “Why should he care for her and not for me? It isn't fair.”
“No,” said my mother. “Perhaps not. But it would be a mistake to think your father cares nothing for you, Mina. If anything, I fear he cares too much. Your marriage is the most important thing in the world to him. He sets great store by it.”
At this, I could feel my understanding, to say nothing of my patience, stretch almost to the breaking point. This may seem somewhat precipitous to you. I'd ask you to remember I'd had fifteen long years filled with precious little information in which to try to figure all this out.
“My marriage”, I echoed, and even I could hear the bitterness in my voice. “But not me, myself. How can he choose a husband for me when he doesn't even know who I am?”
“A just question,” my mother agreed, her own voice calm. “And one I once posed myself. Now finish your dinner,” she went on briskly as she rose from the table, and in this way, I knew the brief period of answering questions was over. “The hour grows late and I have work to do.”
At her words, I felt a spurt of panic. This may be the last night I hear her say this, I thought. Tomorrow night, for all I knew, I would be having dinner with my father and the daughter of his forrester in some great hall filled with smoking torches. Some place where I could be pretty certain they did not welcome the night.
“May I not come with you?” I blurted out.
A smile touched my mother's marble features. “Of course you may,” she replied. “Eat something while I fetch you a cloak with a nice big hood. If you're coming with me, that unfortunate hair simply must be covered up.”
With that, she turned and left the room. I ate my
dinner as fast as I could, in a manner that wasn't at all ladylike.
I'll eat all my dinners this way from now on, I thought, suddenly inspired. Then perhaps my father will be so appalled by my manners he'll give up on me entirely and send me back where I belong.
This thought cheered me so much I took the biggest bite yet and dribbled gravy down my chin. Quickly I wiped it off. Who knew when I might spend time with my mother again? I didn't want to begin our last night together with a scolding.
“Hold still, now,” my mother said as she returned with a cloak and a rosewood box full of hairpins. Black ones, of course. Swiftly she tucked and pinned every strand of my unfortunate bright hair up out of sight and tied a black scarf around it beneath the hood for good measure. Then, together, we went out into the night.
How shall I describe it to you? How shall I tell what it is like to move through the darkness with my mother at my side? She cannot be separated from the night, for she is its living embodiment. Her face, as pale as the moon when it is full. Her eyes, as silver as the stars. She has no need to bind up her hair, for it is as dark and lustrous as the sky at midnight. She is beautiful, my mother, and the great sadness of my childhood has always been that I look so little like her.
At least we have the same name, Pamina, though Mina is what I prefer, most often, to be called.
I don't mean that my mother rules the darkness.
She doesn't, not precisely. She doesn't make it come and go, for instance. The universe does that all on its own. It's more that she is the guardian of the night, of the things that belong to it. She keeps them safe and in their proper place, just as my father does for the things that belong to the daylight hours.
We walked in silence for quite some time before I realized where we were going: through the thickest part of the forest to where my father's favorite room looked out over his side of the top of the mountain. It was but a short journey, even on foot, a thing I always found surprising, showing, as I thought it did, that my parents were much closer than they cared to acknowledge. There, my mother stopped, her face turned up to where, almost at the mountain's top, a shaft of golden light stabbed out into the darkness.
“Do you see, Mina?” she said softly. “Do you see the way your father tries to impose his will? The way he will not accept, but seeks to defeat, the darkness?”
I did see, of course. But my mind, which even moments ago had spontaneously plotted ways to displease my father and so encourage him to return me to my mother, now leaped to his defense.
But what if he just wants to read a good book? What if he's come to the very best part and doesn't want to stop just because the daylight has gone? Must the lighting of a lamp always be considered a crime? Do we not pull the shades to keep out strong sunlight?
Of course I did not say these things aloud.
Instead I said, “Why did you ever marry in the first place?” A question to which I'd wanted the answer for as long as I could remember.
“Because it was necessary. It is still necessary,” my mother replied after a moment. “There are some things which must be in order for the world to exist, Mina. The marriage between your father and me is one.”
I bit down, hard, upon my tongue to keep from asking just one thing more, the thing which I had always wished to know the very most. It didn't do any good. I asked the question anyway. I'm just made that way, I suppose.