“The Boy Princess” – Fiction by Jane Flett

Boy with a Crow - Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1884
Boy with a Crow – Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1884

The grand finale of our Summer 2015 issue is “The Boy Princess” by Jane Flett, an unforgettable fairy tale that’s as bizarre as it is touching.

{ X }

EVERYWHERE IT IS AUTUMN, the leaves are capsizing, and yesterday I saw the boy princess in the woods. He was squatting beneath a stone bridge, throwing pebbles into the stream, while I watched from the other bank. I like to watch him balance. His thighs are sturdy—meaty, in fact—though I could see the muscles quivering underneath the skin. A pulse in the neck of a baby bird. His garter had begun to unravel, and the dirty end of the lace was lapping in the stream.

I didn’t want to disturb him. The boy princess is a paper sack of contradictions—part brittle sugar-glass, part thick, sure flesh. The pebbles made an empty thwack when they hit the water and I thought of wishes and wells. If I could be granted one true thing by the wish master, what would it be?

To be the stream, nuzzling at that grubby lace? No—

To be the garter, quick against his thigh? No—

To take the boy princess in my mouth and taste him, so sweet and slick he hurts my teeth.

The wish master gave me none of these things. I left the boy princess to his pebbles and reflection, and climbed over the rocky banks towards home.

{ X }

I try to pretend I can take or leave the boy princess, but of course, either is impossible. The moment I met him last spring, he crawled beneath my heart, and he dwells there now with sharp canine honesty.

I met him on the mountain of rejected objects one morning when the sun was fat in the sky. He was exercising his pet crow. That is, he was throwing scraps of bacon from a paper bag into the void past the cliff and the three-legged crow would swoop and caw and plummet, racing against meat and gravity, to rise up victorious with a morsel in its mouth. I didn’t know he was the boy princess then. I didn’t know the crow was his. But there was something transfixing about the arc of his arm.

The skin was covered in ragged black sketches. An owl’s eye, which seemed to follow me when I walked. A map of islands with a sea full of kraken. The languid silhouette of a bear. But the skin was also very pale. It looked as if it would puncture if you pressed too firm a nib against it. As if any line of ink would be followed by blood.

I watched the crow. It was lovely to watch the balance of his body as he landed. His back leg hit the grass first, then the middle, then the front, and the crow would rock forward, bob, and settle back against his tail. Every time, a gentle crow curtsey: Thank you.

“That’s a good crow,” I said.

The boy princess turned around. He narrowed his eyes, or perhaps it was just mascara smudging in the sockets.

“He’s not,” said the boy princess.

“But—”

“He might seem good. It’s because he’s got three legs, isn’t it? But trust me—” at this, he lobbed another morsel of bacon over the cliff top “—this crow is impossible.”

I shrugged. “Okay.” I didn’t need to believe in the magic of crows.

The boy princess laughed and a strand of hair fell into his eyes. “Sorry. I mean, he’s not a bad crow. Not compared to some. But I hoped we’d be done with this by now.” He crumpled the paper bag and laid it down on the grass.

I didn’t say anything. I sat down next to the bag and pulled my knees up to my chest. I grazed my lips against them. The skin smelled of pollen and old books.

“See down there?” He pointed at the void where the crow had been diving. “I’m training him not to be afraid. I was hoping once he got out in the air over it, he’d be tempted to keep going. He’d be curious. But he just keeps catching it and coming back.”

“Maybe you need heavier bait,” I said.

The crow cocked his head and looked at us both, and took an unsteady step towards the bag.

“Oi,” said the boy princess, kicking at a divot of grass. The crow stopped. The boy looked at me. “Maybe you’re right,” he said.

{ X }

That was how I ended up stumbling over the loose rocks on the side of the mountain, looking for something that could help teach a crow to fall. It wasn’t easy to choose. There are many objects on the mountain and each of them is heavy with its own history. When you pick one up in your palm, you can feel, in its heft, all the times it has been cast aside. There are children’s blankets wet with saliva and weighty with the first day of school. There are typewriters leaden with the decision to quit writing and take up carpentry, or law.

I followed the path as it wound around the stumps of trees and picked my way over the detritus of all these lives. I was looking for something that would fall quickly and soundly. Something that wouldn’t be distracted by changes of heart. Something a crow could fit in its beak.

In a hollow by a stump I saw it: a ring with a diamond that sparkled so sadly it was impossible to catch its glance. It was down off the path, but if I held the gnarled root of the tree in one hand, I could surely lean over and grab it. I scuffled my foot into a hole in the earth, clutched tight, and let gravity tug me down. Nearly. It was so close. I stretched my fingers and brushed the surface; I shifted my weight further into my right thigh. And then I was falling, elbows in the muck, ankles somersaulting, a fragment of broken record digging into my shin.

When I stopped moving, I lay still for a moment, waiting for the ball in my stomach to stop rolling. Then I sat up and took stock. My arms were smeared in soil and my left leg was peppered with bloody pockmarks. My knee was a hot open mess. I couldn’t bear to have the boy princess see me like this. I eased myself into a squat and let my legs slowly take my weight, then I stumbled back to the path and followed it to the sunless side of the mountain and went home with empty hands.

{ X }

It took a few days for the scabs to come up properly, but when they did, it was worth it. This one turned a dark sepia and bubbled up like lava. The ones on my lower shins crystallised into glowing amber studs. But it was my knee that made the best one. Every time the wound crusted over, I would work the edge of my thumb and index fingernail beneath it and prise it loose. The scab rose up like a tectonic plate and separated from the wet flesh beneath. I tucked it in an envelope. A new layer of blood swelled. I went about my day, waiting for it to harden again.

Already, I was regretting abandoning the boy princess on the mountain. Already, I was plotting ways to make it right. I was sure he was still there, waiting, trying to teach his crow the lesson of fearlessness. Throwing things over the mountain that don’t fall quite fast enough.

But what is heavier than rejection? What would plummet into the void, faster than any object could? I looked at my hands and came up with the only thing I had to offer. The one true thing inside of me. Blood.

{ X }

I don’t trust the postal service, so I delivered them myself. I was right: the boy princess was on the very same cliff top. The crow was still landing and curtseying, still the perfect gentleman.

“Hey,” I called. My climb was slow work. Every time I took too large a step, the corners of my scab cracked again. A rivulet of blood and clear liquid ran down my calf.

“You came back.” The boy princess grinned. His front tooth was broken and slightly too big for his mouth. “We thought you’d gone for good.”

“I brought bait,” I said.

“Let’s see?”

I held my breath when I handed over the thin brown envelope and I looked at his fingers. The boy princess has wiry fingers with dirt beneath the nails; he has sharp knuckles. There were flecks of chipped gold varnish. And then I looked away because I was overcome by a desire to place those fingers in my mouth.

He tipped my scabs into his cupped palm and we looked at them together. They glinted in the sun. The scabs looked like tiny Egyptian jewels, like cracks in the hot surface of the earth. “These are perfect.” The boy princess took one between his fingers and bent his arm back. The muscles twitched. The crow stared.

“Wait,” I said, and he brought his arm down. “About learning…” I pulled myself up until we were at the same level, looking out over the void. I reached out and dug my fingers into the boy princess’s arm. The blood beneath his skin pulsed against my fingertips. I pulled him close and I took his lower lip between my teeth.

The crow didn’t make a sound.

{ X }

We found a place on the mountain that was neither too hot nor too cold, and we built a small den and declared it our own. There, we learned the follies of each other’s skin.

In the den, I bit him everywhere. I closed my teeth. I crunched; I kept going until I heard the grind and the creak of underskin tendons. A whimper, a mewl in the back of his throat. When I released my jaw, the blood rushed back into the tooth prints and I could spell out my name in the ridges. The next day he was spackled with yellow moons. His ribcage was an alien sky.

In the den, he scritched the parts of me that make me purr. He found the welts under my bones. He pressed into me with tiger paws that started gentle and slowly shifted the balance of my spine. We fought with thumbs and vibrations, until our skulls juddered and my ears rang. Or perhaps rang is the wrong word—there was no church bell or clear Eastern gong. My ears tuned to white noise and static, and I let him slam my body against the rock.

{ X }

I forgot the scabs. I stopped trying to work out the weight of things; my skin healed new and pink. But despite this—or perhaps because of it—things improved with the crow. Over time, he went further over the mountain. He stayed away for longer. The fear seemed to leave him, shed like unnecessary feathers, and he held his beak higher. When he came back, he’d bob, curtsey, and sit by our feet.

I didn’t mind the crow watching. To tell the truth, I barely even noticed. I was lost in the smell of vanilla, the smell of the river, the smell of vanity seeping from the princess boy’s bones. Each time, I would feel myself drift into a world of shadows and pulsing, and that crumple of black feathers was low on my mind.

So when the crow didn’t come back one night, it didn’t register right away. Time was loose anyway; time was contracting and dilating all the while. It was only when the sun started to dip below the horizon, lighting up the sky in tangerine and magenta, that our reverie began to crack. The world began to seep back into my bones.

The princess boy sat up. He brushed the seed of a dandelion from the corner of his eye. He bit his bottom lip.

“Neme,” he said.

“Mmmf,” I answered.

“Where is he?”

I eased myself into a seated position and looked at the boy princess. I pulled my knees against my chest. “Who?”

But the boy princess was already on his feet and running towards the edge of the cliff.

“Oh,” I said. I smoothed my skirt down over my thighs. I glanced around the mountain, wanting to confirm to the world that there was nothing to see here. It’s okay. We’re doing fine.

The boy placed his hands on his thighs. He leaned over the void and made a loud cawing noise from the back of his throat. It sounded thick and choked, like mud dragged up from the ocean floor. I felt a heat rise in my cheeks. He scuffed at the earth with his foot and cawed again. I walked to the edge and placed my hand on his elbow. “Is he… Is there something I can do?”

The boy princess stared out into the valley, over the scatter of objects and gravity. The void stared back without a sound.

I waited by his side. All it would take was a pierce of black feathers to make everything okay. Surely, just that, over there? Any moment now. I let myself lean slightly into the void and waited for the wind to buffer me. “It’s not a lot to ask,” I whispered to the air.

“What?” His eyes flicked to mine, red cracks running from the iris to the lashes. Again, I felt myself blushing and unsteady. I went to slide my hand into his, to comfort his palm with the small heartbeat of my fingertips, but he flicked me off like water. “Fuck, Neme. Not now.”

“What? No, I didn’t mean…” I dropped my arms uselessly to my sides. “Can I do anything? Should I go?” I asked.

He looked at me with loose, hollow eyes.

“Or I can stay. Can I do something? Where do you think he’s gone?”

He opened his mouth, then closed it again, and didn’t say a word.

“I’m going to go,” I said.

{ X }

That was the last time I saw the boy princess, until yesterday. I’ve picked up nuggets of stories, though I always pretend my interest is vague. The crow never came back. Some people said he had learned not to be afraid. Others said that was what had killed him. The mountain kept gathering objects, and there are places where small children are told not to wander. There are places where the light still does not reach.

I am walking through the woods again now, not because I want to see the boy princess—not necessarily—but I am curious about what he might be doing. Whether he’s forgotten the crow yet, or whether resentment is still lodged in his throat.

It’s this worry that stops me approaching him right away when I see him. Of course, it wasn’t all my fault, but then again, who knows how else things might have turned out? It is part this worry, and part the soft pleasure at seeing him lean over the river. His hair is grubby and dancing in the wind. He is squatting once again, and looking down into the depths. His thigh is quivering.

The boy princess is gazing upon layers of fishes, plunging darkness, creatures that dart in the silt. Or he could be. But then I look again and see him tuck a lock of hair behind his ear and bat his eyelashes, and the lashes of his reflection flicker back. He leans a little further. He reaches out a wide palm to the surface.

I am thinking about the crow and wondering how to bring up words in my mouth when the boy falls forward. One moment he is a perfect poise of balance, the next there is just a willow twitching on the shore. I see him disappear and I feel my own caw rise up.

{ X }

And I am in the water. And everywhere is thrashing, black bubbles, the high whine of mosquitoes. I reach out, and close my fist on liquid. I kick. I plummet deeper. Wide palms. And then I dunt against something warm. And I close my arms around his chest.

{ X }

When I pull him onto the bank he is sodden and heavy. He lies on his back for a moment, breathing beautifully, and then he lifts his arms above his face. He lies there, looking at the backs of his hands. His lace is wet and clings to his legs, but I am distracted.

I look over at the water and I see something flickering deep within it. I want to jump again. I want to know what dwells in those depths. I am not afraid anymore. I am sure I can go down there but also return.

{ X }

spiderJaneJANE FLETT is a philosopher, cellist, and seamstress of most fetching stories. Her poetry features in Salt’s Best British Poetry 2012 and is available as a chapbook, Quick, to the Hothouse, from dancing girl press. Her fiction has been commissioned for BBC Radio, performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and published in PANK, Word Riot, and wigleaf‘s top 50. She is one half of the riot grrl band Razor Cunts, and she lives in Berlin. http://janeflett.com

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