The Sisters and the Statue
by Catherine Berry
In the old days, when the world cloaked itself in beautiful words, there was an aging courtesan, Regina, who called herself a lady. She lived in a genteel country estate with her two daughters, Arabella and Magdellan. She kept a lively salon of old lovers and young intellectuals, and presented herself as a font of wit and wisdom.
Regina maintained her household by means as mysterious as the fathers of her children. In her prime, one of her favorite lovers was a member of a mysterious brotherhood of artisans who were secret practitioners of the black arts. He gave her charms and secrets in exchange for their trysts, which she hoarded for the future when her looks faded. And so the two girls grew up in an enchanted household, where their magnificent lady-mother could make gold and jewels seemingly appear in her hand, tell fortunes for a modest fee, and keep the garden blooming even in the snow.
Of her two daughters, the eldest Arabella was her favorite. She was soft, dainty, easy to amuse and easier to command. Regina cherished high hopes for an advantageous match for her. Her other daughter, though, was as much a reproach to the lady as the first was a blessing. Magdellan's hair was as coarse and black as her mother's had been, before age had thinned it and art dyed it a divine gold. Magdellan was intense and bold, as she too had once been, before she had taken up tight corsets, tiny shoes, and the thousand little arts that make a woman into an idol of delicacy.
Magdellan, with her rude beauty, was therefore banished to the servants' quarters downstairs when she was just a girl. There she learned to darn socks and make stews, as Arabella was learning to speak French and play the harpsichord. When she outgrew her skirts and blouses, Magdellan inherited her sister's castoffs. You could see her almost daily in the marketplace, dressed in a motley assortment of dusty silks and dingy linen, like a scarecrow princess. Passing each other in the halls, the girls greeted each other with a kind of pleasant bemusement, like two birds from separate nests. Magdellan held no grudge against her sisters. After all, she reasoned, it was Arabella who had to live under their mother's constant, awesome eye.
And then, suddenly, the world seemed to change in one night. A royal hunting party had been out that day, led by the king's only son, Prince Sibellus. He broke away from the party to chase a deer into a particularly dark patch of forest. His fellows pursued, only to lose him in the shadows. His horse emerged, saddle and bridle, but no master. The king called out his men, and searched the countryside with hounds, hunters and lanterns, but found no trace of the prince.
That night, a ripple of air, colder than the worst arctic wind, passed through Regina's house, and everyone shivered under their summer sheets. The fog it created gathered in the garden, and hung there until midmorning. The servants were out on their errands when it lifted, and they all shrieked and crossed themselves in fear. For there, in the center of the garden, stood a gushing fountain where none had been before. On top of the fountain stood the exact stone likeness of Prince Sibellus as he had been in life, down to his creased riding breeches and unkempt hair. The servants, of course, weren't fools. Whatever witchcraft their mistress had indulged in before was good enough to pay their wages, but to put spells on the king's son could only end in hanging, or worse. And so, every last one of them gave their notices to Regina, affectionate good-byes to Arabella and Magdellan, and left the house before nightfall.
Unable to procure new servants, Magdellan's lady-mother thereby ordered her to take over the household chores. From then on, the girl spent every waking hour from dawn until the dead of night bustling about cooking, dusting, washing and polishing. With all this constant menial work, the clever girl had time to think. How strange it was, she mused, that their mother, who could create the most magnificent gowns and baubles out of air and shadows, was unable to peel so much as an onion. She must think it beneath her even to consider such a thing, mused Magdellan. Perhaps magic, like everything else, had its social order.
Meanwhile poor Arabella was under Regina's scrutiny every minute of the day. Young knights in training for battle were never drilled so mercilessly. The girl was armored into a formidable array of wigs, hoops, and the tightest of corsets. New gowns were conjured up to find the perfect fit and hue, sometimes as many as fifty in one hour. Regina would clap her hands, and thunderclouds of silk would manifest from the ceiling, rippling down and engulfing the poor girl in storms of gems and webs of lace, until she was terribly bruised. New tutors arrived, each more exclusive and exalted then the next. Arabella was made to memorize the complete royal family tree, every glorious conquest in their history, and which inglorious items she must never mention. She was trained in every rule of the complicated etiquette of a Court lady, down to the expert slope of a perfect curtsey.
One of these tutors, on a stroll through the garden, came upon the marvelous statue. Through his connections at Court, word spread quickly, eventually to the ear of the King himself. With his elaborate entourage, he arrived at Regina's estate. The lady and her daughter greeted him with perfect graciousness, and presented the statue to him. At first sight, His Majesty frowned. "The boy doesn't look terribly classical, does he?" he quizzed Regina. "Where are the robes? Where is the laurel around his head?"
Regina, who instantly recognized that beneath his finery, the King was quite a simple man, replied, "Oh, Your Majesty, surely a young man as handsome and accomplished as the Prince hardly needs any Roman pomp."
The King nodded sagely, and commented that as likenesses went, it was probably very good, considering the boy had always been off at a dance or polo matches or hunting with his friends, never quite able to stand still. Wiping his eyes, the old man declared himself pleased and touched by the tribute, with his entourage in agreement. The ladies wept over its beauty. The poet laureate composed verses for a lost godling. Sibellus' hunting companions secretly passed around a bottle. Regina was now in royal favor.
That night, after their mother had gone to bed, Arabella crept down to the kitchen to tell her sister of their good fortune. "We have been invited to Court," she announced, "though how that will benefit you I couldn't say."
Magdellan was thoughtful a moment, then replied, "Ask our Lady-Mother to conjure up an exact twin of the silver key to the front door, so that I am not kept a constant prisoner."
Arabella grinned. "I will tell her I wish to wear it on a silver chain around my neck, to remind me of home."
The next day, Arabella made her request. Delighted by her good fortune, Regina was in too generous a mood to be suspicious. She conjured up a handful of shiny grey fog, clenched it in her fist, and produced a silver key, hanging by a chain. That evening, clearing away the dinner, Magdellan found it under her sister's plate.
Now Regina and Arabella were often in the King's company, off on picnics and expeditions through the countryside, even the occasional ball. The lady treated him with perhaps more warmth than exact etiquette, but he enjoyed this immensely. The Court ladies were charmed by Arabella's naivete, and squabbled over which of them should take her under their wing.
It was not smooth and pretty like a garden statue should be. The body seemed not so much marble made into a human likeness, as a collection of human traits themselves made into marble. The frown lines in the man's face might have carved themselves in a single moment of angry passion, as too the entire body of clenched muscles. Even the pose was strange, an impatient, defiant stance. There was a world of sorrow embodied in the statue, as silent and powerful as her own.
Friends by their mere presence give comfort and solace. Why should she not think of the statue as a friend? If she wept at its feet, the cold stone soothed her burning cheek. Magdellan found herself talking to it, as she had once talked to the servants. She admired its fine features, and said so. She cleaned away the leaves and stray blossoms from the fountain, and kept it spotless. In fact, most days the statue gleamed so brightly that Magdellan could almost believe it was pleased, but then she reminded herself that the sun was only shining bright enough to obscure its usual frown.
Still, some mysterious urge tugged at the girl. She must see the statue's face by the light of the moon. This was nearly impossible, for their lady-mother had strictly forbidden both daughters to leave the house from dinner until breakfast. That night after dinner, she opened the cabinet and let the cat jump in and clamber among the pots. Her mother heard the clanking and rattling from the kitchen and believed her daughter was hard at work.
Unseen, Magdellan let herself out of the house and tip-toed out to the garden. The night sky was murky, and the statue stood in darkness. Waiting for the moon to pass from beneath the clouds, she climbed up onto the fountain, standing close to it. "I must be the world's worst fool," she whispered, leaning her head on the statue's shoulder. Suddenly, in the darkness, she felt stone fingers gently close around her own. With a shriek, Magdellan wrested her hand free, and ran away. Crouched in the darkness, she saw an even darker shape flit past, a single spark dancing beside it like fairy-light. Coming to a halt, the light was steadied, and in its glow Magdellan recognized her lady-mother, standing with a lamp before the fountain. Regina raised one hand, on which gleamed a great ruby ring, and addressed the statue:
"Effigy of thine own Life
Take my Daughter for thy Wife,
Or thy stony Eyes shall see
My Garden for Eternity."
At her words the statue shuddered, and lowered its proud head. In the lamplight Magdellan saw blue eyes open, and glare down at her lady-mother. "Good evening, Your Highness," said Regina with a curtsey, "and what is your answer? Will you make my Arabella your princess?"
Sibellius, for it was none other than he, folded his arms. "Every night since you trapped me here you make the same demand, and every night my answer is the same."
"Then by all means, stay on as my guest," replied Regina, with a smirk. "Shall I let the winter winds and snow into my garden to amuse you, until your face is weathered away and your fingers crack off one by one? Or should I smash you myself, under my horse's hooves?"
"Do your worst," sneered Sibellus. "You are nothing but a creature of malice, an insect, not even worthy to be called my enemy!"
"I may be an insect to such a wise and haughty prince as yourself, but your father considers me a butterfly. If I decided to sting, who would save him?" Before Sibellus could protest, Regina waved her ringed hand again, and only a shuddering sigh escaped his lips before he was returned to stone.
After her mother had stalked back to the house, Magdellan timidly approached the statue. "Forgive me," she whispered. "I should have known. I promise you, if there is any way under the sun for a good woman to adopt a wicked woman's arts for a noble purpose, I will find it and free you."
The next day Magdellan told Arabella how their mother had captured Prince Sibellus, holding him hostage until he should agree to marry her, to which the gentle girl nearly fainted in horror. Reviving her sister, Magdellan begged her to ask their Regina about the ruby ring and its wonderful powers. "I don't dare!" breathed Arabella. "I once asked her where she learned to make diamonds out of water and gold out of candlelight, and she nearly grew dragon's teeth, she was so angry with me! But if you must have the ring to free the prince, I will ask her to show me which jewels are real and which are an illusion, so that I may know what to inherit."
At dinner, Arabella shyly asked this of her lady-mother, whose brows immediately drew together in a frown of suspicion. "Why should you care about your inheritance? Don't I already keep you in fine style?"
"Indeed, Madam," replied Arabella, "but someday you will die, and as I am too foolish to learn your secrets, I only know that those jewels you have created must surely disappear with you."
"Silly girl," said Regina fondly, "your Mama has wealth enough to keep you tolerably well off, at least until you marry. True, most of my finery is a sham. How many pompous, titled fools live the same way, without even the talents of magic? I have only one true piece of jewelry, a ruby ring I only wear for my spells. I keep it in a gold box beside my vanity table, which only my hand can open."
Immediately after supper, Arabella crept into the kitchen and passed this on to her sister. Magdellan then waited for nightfall, and opened up another cabinet, letting the cat sneak in and rummage around the plates. As Regina left the house for her nightly vigil in the garden, she heard the rattling, and believed her daughter to be hard at work. Magdellan washed her face and hands, and silently infiltrated her mother's bedchamber, finding the gold box on the vanity table, locked against all hands but Regina's.
First, she put out half the candles, dimming the room. Then she found one of her mother's best gowns and put up her hair in her mother's regal style. Finally, she removed the mirror of the vanity table, and hid herself behind the table.
Patiently she waited in the darkness, until at last Regina stalked in from the garden. Once again, Sibellus had refused her offer, and resisted her threats. Grumbling to herself, the lady sat down before the mirror and was in the act of taking down her hair when she suddenly caught sight of Magdellan before her, in exactly the same pose. "What trick is this?" she cried. Magdellan made no reply, but mimicked her mother's wide-eyed expression. Regina untwined her wiry gold hair, lock by lock, while Magdellan took down her own thick, black hair, repeating every twirl of her fingers. She bared her scanty brown teeth at Magdellan, who bared back every tooth in her head. She smirked, she simpered, she tossed her head at Magdellan, who faithfully reflected her. And so, Regina was pleased to discover her eyes were as bright, her lips as red, her bosom as smooth and firm as when she had been a girl of seventeen. "The spirits must be rewarding me for my cleverness!" she cried. "Now that I am beautiful, I need never stoop to vice again! Besides, the moment His Majesty sees me, what can he do but fall in love with me!" Gleefully, Regina pulled off the ruby ring and tossed it into the gold box, which Magdellen snatched up, unseen by her mother.
At long last, Regina left the mirror and went to bed. When she had fallen asleep, Magdellan slipped out of her bedchamber, out of the house and into the garden, where she approached the statue. Waving the ring in front of her, she said to it:
Sufferer of Pain Unearned,
Thy Life and Freedom are Returned.
My Lady-Mother ought to be
In Hell for all Eternity.
The Prince immediately returned to life, and stumbled down from the fountain into her arms. Magdellan took him to the kitchen, sat him near the fire, and gave him something to eat. It was an hour before Sibellus was warm enough to move. Magdellan warmed his hands with her own, and he could only stare at her in silent anguish. It was two hours before he could open his mouth to speak. "When I was stone, I could imagine my courage was as solid and unmovable as the rest of me. Now I know if I had endured it one more night, I would have certainly gone mad," he sighed. "You were my last hope. I thank heavens your mother offered Arabella to be my wife, and not you, or all my strength would have deserted me!" She kissed him, and the warmth of her lips did him much good.
But Sibellus' expression grew grave. "When your mother finds me freed, the spiteful old cat is certain to attack my father."
"But without her ring, my mother has no powers," replied Magdellan, "and further, she prefers intrigue for its own pleasure. She has no stomach for real vengeance."
Grimly, he shook his head, and declared that he was only too happy to kill her anyway. Magdellan hotly defended her mother, if only to protect Arabella and herself. A courtesan's fate was always uncertain, she declared, and even more so for her children. For half the night, the two quarreled fiercely. At last, the prince relented, his love for her stronger than his hatred for her mother.
Stealing upstairs to Arabella's room, Magdellan woke her, and introduced Prince Sibellus, who kissed her hand in silent gratitude. The poor girl nearly fainted with joy to see the spell broken. Holding her sister steady, Magdellan put the ruby ring in Arabella's hands. "Our lady-mother will spit fire when she finds out what we have done," she whispered. "You are the only one she trusts, so you must lead her to think you had no part in this!"
"What may I do to protect you?" said Arabella.
"We need time to escape. Once the King knows the truth, we will return for you. In the meantime, watch her carefully," replied her sister. "If you think she has a scheme for revenge of some sort, you must say to the ring, "Turn this wicked woman's art against her," then give it to her, and say you found it. The ring knows her true nature better than you or I ever did. Whatever she plans will come down on her own head." With that, the prince and his lady both embraced the brave girl, and left her, escaping the house under the last shadows before dawn, traveling down the country roads towards the castle.
Awakening from blissful dreams of past glory, Regina jumped out of bed and scampered to her mirror, giddy as a little girl. There, in the morning light, she saw her mirror had been taken down, and the ring stolen from her golden box. She flew to the garden, only to find her fountain without its statue. Returning to the house, she burst into the kitchen, finding no one there but the cat, snoozing among the silverware. When she realized the trick her daughter had played, a growl burst from her lips so fierce and deep that the entire house trembled.
Returning to her chamber, Regina bellowed for Arabella. Clad in her dressing gown, the girl entered, cowering before a woman almost blind with fury. Now that her hostage was freed, her magic stolen, and her least favorite daughter revealed to be twice as cunning as herself, Regina lost of all of her manners and graces, and shrieked curses like a demented old crone. Eventually, she returned to herself, and in the coldest tones explained her scheme to the girl. "My dear mother," replied Arabella, "you nearly gave me a prince to marry. For that, I owe you my deepest devotion. We must not linger here, but go into exile together, you and I. We will find some other country to live, and be happy."
Regina sneered, and shoved the girl away. "I will not be reduced to wandering in my old age! In my day, I was the most celebrated courtesan in the kingdom, and with my magic I will become its most dreaded sorceress! I will have the King, the Prince and your sister at my feet, either degraded or dead!"
Sorrowfully, Arabella begged leave to dress herself, and retreated to her room. Finding the ruby ring, she whispered to it, "Ring, turn this wicked woman's art against her!" Returning to her mother, she presented it to her, saying she had found it under her foot in the garden. Regina shrieked with unholy joy, and embraced her daughter, declaring she must prepare herself suitably for her moment of vengeance.
Helping her to dress, Arabella said, "You must crush them then, Lady-Mother." Regina agreed, and conjured up a corset of iron so tight it nearly caused her heart to burst. "Perhaps instead of crushing them it would be better to smother them," said her daughter. Regina liked this even better, and conjured up a diaphanous dress out of black smoke that swirled around her, smelling foul. "Perhaps instead of smothering them, it would be best to burn them," suggested Arabella. Her lady-mother rejoiced at the idea, and conjured up a lace of gleaming embers to adorn her hem and bosom. Ordering Arabella to pick up the mirror from her chamber floor, she gazed at her reflection, and simpered with delight, the perfect vision of an infernal Venus. "The King will run to my embrace," she hissed, "And die in anguish!"
Hiding her face behind the mirror, Arabella whispered, "Oh, my good Lady-Mother, you are exquisite, it is true. But sadly, nothing can make you young again." Brandishing the ring, Regina ordered it to make her a perfect beauty, eternally lovely. Obeying both mistresses, the ring did its best. It made her a statue.
And now, every last spell was broken. The curtains, the carpets, the paintings on the walls of the house all vanished as if a mirage, and the bare floors were revealed to be crawling with vermin. Arabella looked down, and saw that her lavish dressing gown was little more than a shift. She ran out of the house to the garden, and watched its roses crumple and wilt before her eyes. Overcome with horror, the girl collapsed on the steps in a dead swoon.
Upon awakening, the found herself in a beautiful carriage, far grander than anything Regina had traveled in, but seemingly real. She was sitting between Magdellan and Sibellus, who both embraced her. Her sister explained that the two of them were to live in the castle now, in honor of their heroic rescue of His Highness. Once there, they were fed, fawned over, and dressed in fine style. Sibellus eagerly married Magdellan, and made her his princess. When the King died, they ruled together for the rest of their long lives, and Magdellan's warm heart and quick wits became the standard by which all queens, and indeed all good women, were henceforth judged.
Catherine Berry's work appears
in Murder, Mystery, Madness, Magic and Mayhem: Thirteen Tales From Missouri Authors
Cave Hollow Press 2003.
Copyright © 2005. Do not reproduce without permission.