The Calmer of Two Tempests

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The Calmer of Two Tempests by Aydia Caplan - Photo by Elise Anstey

Secretly, thinking of those stone walls as home made her stomach turn.

The ocean has many names, but she called it home.

She sat in her room with her work on her lap, making delicate stitches. Needle in, needle out, tiny, clever snake trailing bright thread behind it. Needle in, needle out. In. Out. The snake bit her hand again, and she winced. A queen could not be broken or stitched together or imperfect. She bled her thumb out so it wouldn’t stain her embroidery.

Her two hands hauled strong on the ropes and alighted on their smooth place at the helm adjusting the sails and spread like birds’ wings to encompass her world: the light riding bareback the waves, the silversleek dolphins appearing and vanishing with spray comet-shadowing after, playing slyly and grinning rakishly at the wind.

They raged at each other again tonight, her parents, and she could hear their words stumble about, claw each other, bleed from halfway across the castle. Their distant, dissonant voices echoed like the ghosts of past quarrels instead of something real, immediate, and their anger seeped into the walls and drained into the floor like poison, like blood. She lay in the dark, eyes open, clutching her covers to weather the hurricane of guilt, for, somehow, she knew she should take the blame for her parents’ fights.

Her bare feet braced against splintered wood as her ship, her full-bodied home built of wood and canvas and rough and creak, endured the tempest: the rain on the sea, the houndwaves and hunting clouds barking thunder and spitting lightning as they chased each other; the water accumulating, water riling, water storming.

Letter in hand, she paced foot tracks into the floor of her room, reading and rereading the foreigner’s proposal. At last, she paused by the thin slit of her window, inhaling the elusive scent of the outdoors, lifting her hand to let the strip of sunlight dance over it. A servant’s footstep sounded outside her room, nothing, but she started at the sound regardless. Future queens didn’t dally by windows. Future queens didn’t wish to unchain themselves from a wedding and an insignificant life. She turned back to her needlework.

Although her ship never halted, her heart dropped anchor in the blue, in the seagulls tracing salt breeze, in the sun and the frigid moon, in the kind, wheeling stars who embraced the sky like the band binding night to the day in matrimony.

She wore more confinements than she could count: her ribcage, a vow of marriage to a neighboring prince, and for the first time, a corset. But when the drawbridge lowered, not only her tight stays suppressed her breath: he posed tall on his brown stallion, wind whipping exhilaration, sun shining beaten gold, the sea behind him glittering endless. For a moment she couldn’t decide if she loved the sunlit outside world or the figure riding over the drawbridge more. Then his earthy green eyes landed on her, and they captured all the light of the sun. He smiled at her, dazzling, and swung down from the horse. By the time her betrothed reached her and kissed the princess’s hand, her heart had flipped over itself a thousand times for him.

She climbed the ropes and stood on nothing and her soul flew like the wind, the salt-scented and wild-tasting air which rebelled against her beautiful one-woman sloop and lashed at her hair as red as the sky on a dangerous morning. The stays of her ship and of her waist strained like freedom; her skirts billowed like an adventure. She leaned farther out, gripping the mainmast, feet tiptoed, precarious on the boom, wind and a smile touching her lips.

The corset pulled one more inch, and she jolted backward. Another inch and they finished. She couldn’t inhale enough to choke out a single word, but she would fit in her wedding gown, and she wouldn’t need to speak. She wouldn’t need to do anything.

No one would let her do anything.

The servants curtsied out of her bedroom to retrieve her wedding dress, leaving her standing in a slip and corset. Her window slit permitted one bar of light to sprawl onto the floor. She divided her steps to the window and lay one hand on the wall beside it, gazing out to where the sun sank toward the ocean. Splendorous seaset painted a golden swathe across the sea and to the beach at the foot of her castle. It watercolored the waves and paved a path to the horizon, a path to Heaven itself.

She glanced back into the castle, to the imagined room where her handmaidens unspooled her liquid wedding gown from a wardrobe, to her parents colliding and exploding like supernovas, to her skyprecious prince and the expanse of his love more infinite and magnificent than any ocean. She turned away from the window.

And then her eyes fell to her needlework, splayed over her chair; three blood drops marred the pattern despite her countless hours of care and labor. And now she could see herself sitting in the same chair and teaching a girl with her eyes and the hair of her betrothed to spill her blood and allow herself to be trapped. She saw herself drawing and releasing, shooting off words at her prince, their bond stressbroken by the strain of leading. She shook her head firmly and took another step into her room, bare feet on cold stone, but between heartbeats, the room contracted, claustrophobic, and her soul itself yearned to escape the cage of her body.

Again, she turned to the window. Outside, the breeze and the waves waltzed slow and sweet, and the pretty, lithe wood sloop which had carried her prince to her rocked in the sun. The path of gold tugged her forward a step. She hesitated.

And then she whirled and ran, her corset bursting open and falling about her hips with the sudden sprungarrow motion as she fled down the stairs and flew over the drawbridge on winged feet, dashed over the flower petals strewn for her wedding, bare feet sinking into sand, lifting off the earth, landing again on rugged wood. Ropes grated on too-soft seashell hands, so she reached back and did up her corset again—something familiar—but loose as the sun this time. The breeze took her face in its hands and brushed away her tears.

She called no port or harbor home, but took hearth in the endless wandering. Anywhere she rode with the wind in her sails and her eyes on the horizon, unloved by all but the ocean, and the ocean was not gentle, and the ocean was not human.

But rough and lonely mean nothing, for who needs gentle and who needs company when sun glare and skyfury offer themselves to your very hand, when waves throw themselves against the bow and ship plunges into troughs and shoots like a meteor out of the crest spray and into the light!

So she taught herself the rigging, skimmed the sea and stars, needed nothing but her own eternal wildness to sustain herself. So she lived in full, when the other women of her world only survived and married and birthed and fell quietly in trivial deaths. Perhaps she dreamt of fiery arguments and eyes with all the embrace of the sea. Perhaps she awoke with the feeling of white silk on her shoulders and flower stems in her hands. Perhaps she never tossed her corset to the waves. Perhaps phantom tiny clever snakes sometimes bit her fingers. Perhaps sometimes when she leaned over the bow a few more drops of saltwater joined the ocean.

But she was free.

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Aydia Caplan
Aydia Caplan is a senior at George Washington High School in Denver, Colorado. You can usually find her at her sprawlingly cluttered desk, listening to alternative rock, and giving a blank piece of paper an equally blank stare as she tries to fill it with hope alone.
Accompanying photo: “I Feel Like Glitter” by Elise Anstey