by Cathy Bryant
Evidence irrefutable. No reason sarcophagus like that if not queen. Presence gold, diamonds, silk. Handmaiden dead at feet.
Not proven. Other skeleton might not be handmaiden. Lots jewellery about then. So few records from era! Frustrating. Electronic not supplemented with hard copy then.
Agreed. But why all that if not true? True in some sense? Disputed territories? Looks like queen. Such careful plans, ceremony. Laminated gold plaque!
Great mystery. Queen or not, beautiful. Further research.
THREE THOUSAND YEARS EARLIER
The doctor had been, told me how sorry he was, and signed the death certificate. Lydia had told him, when she still could, that I was taking care of all the “arrangements” – that marvellously ambiguous word.
The nurse and I cried together, and then I paid her, and she left.
Now it was just me and Lyd.
I looked down at all 80 lbs of her, lying there like some fragile alien, for she wasn’t there anymore. She had explained this to me, having seen death before, and the nurse had confirmed it: during the process of dying, there is a moment when the person is still there, and the next moment they are gone, though there has been no distinct physical change. It’s hard to explain or define it any more than that, but she was right. What remained was a version of Lyd, and it was my task as the one who loved her most, to assist that version, and to help her to comply with my Lyd’s wishes.
The sledge and other stuff was packed up already in Jeff’s battered old car, which he had lent to me without knowing what it was for. Everyone was kind to us when they knew, apart from those who couldn’t handle it and disappeared. I couldn’t blame them. Some things you just can’t handle.
The hard part was carrying her down without being seen – after all, we lived in a crowded apartment block. But it was night, and either I was lucky or no one cared, and I carried her out to the car like a baby. I even put her seat-belt on.
Driving through the cold felt good, after the sickroom day full of admin and people. Cold air for the numbness and shock of grief; snow for pain, ice spicules lashing my face, as I’d opened the window for no reason at all other than to feel and breathe. I made for the mountains, holding off my tears as best I could.
After parking at the end of the trail, I tied Lyd to the sledge, on top of the things that weren’t in my backpack.
It felt wrong. Wouldn’t she be cold? I knew that was illogical, but still… Lyd had been so warm. She was a summer creature of laughter, who told jokes to the blue sky and ocean and had hair like sunshine.
But this was what she had insisted must happen.
“Tie me on,” she had said. “Let the weather touch my skin!”
“But Lydia, darling…”
“Elaine. You can do this. You must do this. It will be glorious, I promise.”
So I headed up the mountain, pulling the heavy sledge. I stomped along, solid with loss. Loss is like fat, like concrete: it sticks and stays.
The snow had stopped and the moon was full, which made it easier to find the way. I’d climbed this trail often enough in daylight, but night climbing, especially in winter, is a whole other thing. All the books warn against attempting it on your own.
The cold swallowed me whole, and I wondered idly if I’d die too; but no. She must not be cheated, nor her friends be cheated of their photos. She’d promised them, laughing, after telling them a little about her plans.
“Is she joking?” Jeff had whispered to me afterwards.
I’d shrugged, though I knew perfectly well that she meant it all.
Her chosen spot was on the highest ridge, just up from “our” cave. It took hours to get there, and then a long time to unload all the stuff.
Then I began.
The first task was to place a groundsheet on the sledge and pile snow onto it – a soft enough mattress.
Next I laid her on the mattress, her black skin set off by the white snow (We had loved the look of our contrasting skins entwined). I wrapped her in purple and emerald silk, and put diamonds, gold and pearls in her ears, around her throat and wrists, and on her fingers. I slipped black velvet slippers with gold trim onto her feet.
After that came the flowers.
There were many kinds, both dried and fresh, though some of the latter had frozen to pulp. I added them anyway, along with the silk and wire ones that she had made when she still could.
I took the hot water from the thermoses – it was still warm, though it froze quickly – and poured it over her, dropping blooms here and there between the layers of ice. I was careful not to let any flower obscure her incredible face.
She had got the idea from one of the tortures supposedly inflicted by Elizabeth Bathory (though there are plenty who claim that the lady is greatly maligned).
Elizabeth would drive out in her sledge, with her driver and a servant girl, and stop beside a river. There she would force the girl to strip naked, and then pour cold water over her, so that she died of cold, froze standing up, and became an ice statue.
“But wouldn’t she just fall over, or run away?” I had protested.
“She was held up by the point of a sword,” said Lyd, and we shivered.
I thought of this as I poured the water and flowers over my dead love, and I wept, salty water that joined with the rest upon her. I was pricked by a sword, right enough.
The plaque – I almost forgot it! It was added with the last ice layer, just as the sun was coming up.
She had told me to wait for this.
“You’ll see,” she said with that gleeful smile.
Now, I saw.
The light – oh the light! It hit the ice sarcophagus and gilded it, and then turned it to peach and rose. It was exquisite, like watching quartz wake up, come alive and dance with light.
“Glory,” I whispered.
The light caught the gold of the plaque on Lydia’s breast and for a moment, she held the sun itself. How had she known that this would happen?
The light refracted through the ice and melted a little of the snow around the edge.
It was time to move on.
I pulled the sledge down to the cave.
Not many climbers come up here. It’s hard going, but not the hardest or most spectacular of the range. Actually it’s quite dull and unrewarding, so it’s pretty quiet. Even the few who do come don’t know about the cave, I’m pretty sure. Unless you happen to fall into the thornbush, as I did when I tripped over my own feet for no particular reason, you’d never see the entrance.
It’s small and easily missed even without the bush. Inside, though, it opens out into one of those chambers like the inside of a cathedral, a spectacle of ice and columns and pillars and arches.
Lyd and I had romped there, sung there, danced there and made love there, before the cancer. It was always below freezing here, even during the hottest summer.
I lit the candles that were still where we had left them on our last visit. With some difficulty, I slid the groundsheet and its burden onto the flat rock we called the altar. Six months earlier, we had made love on it.
The candlelight flirted with the ice. I looked at the face of my beloved, a face I know better than I know my own, and then I read aloud the words on the plaque.
“Here lies Queen Lydia of Europe and the Americas, Empress of the Western World, Beloved by all Her subjects. 1966-2016
The pen will fall from the poet’s hand;
nations will weep; children refuse slumber.
Yet heaven will rejoice, unlike the land.
There is a new star, a new goddess joining its number.”
All that on a sheet of beaten gold, which was put through a laminator.
That, the jewellery and the equipment had cost us everything we had.
“Elaine…” Lyd was pensive. “We should save the money for you. You’ll need it when I’m gone. This plan is silly, isn’t it?”
“Maybe, but it gives me something to do when I’m not caring for you,” I replied. “I’m not worrying about cash. I’m just not sure if that last bit about “joining its number” makes any sense.”
“Oh, who cares?” she said with a light laugh. “The more confusion the better. After all, my aim is to mess with future archaeologists and historians. They can all write learned papers disagreeing with each other, and proving the opposite of what the others say.”
I had laughed too, tickled by the idea, and I still enjoyed the thought as I looked down on her.
Then I knelt at her feet and cried my eyes out, howling and sobbing.
I remembered to take the photos. I made sure that there was nothing in them to give away our location. Our friends would be given the photos, along with the special messages Lyd had prepared for each of them. No one would know where she was, though, and I would never tell anyone. I would destroy the phone with the camera, just in case it recorded my location.
The next part was the hardest of all – I had to turn my back on her. I was alone, and only the carrying out of her wishes kept me moving.
Would I be arrested and sent to prison? She had died of natural causes – everybody knew that. Who cared if I did go to prison, anyway? The sight of Lydia in silk, flowers and ice, with the dawn illuminating her, would carry me through a lifetime of incarceration.
What really mattered was her. The very worst thing that could happen was that she would be found soon, and splashed across the media as a sensation. But due to her location, that was unlikely. She could lie there for centuries.
Perhaps she would be destroyed, when tectonic plates shifted and the mountain crumbled, or when climate change caused the seas to rise up and melt her.
Best of all would be if she were discovered a long time in the future, and the plaque believed. She would become a glorious (if mysterious) historical personage. Poets would write about her. Academicians would argue about her. Schoolchildren would have to answer questions on her. She would lie in state, and tourists would flock to our cave.
It was a chance in a million, but we adored the idea. Our pinched, scrimped lives would be transformed by history into something amazing.
One thing I hadn’t told Lyd: when my own time comes to die, I will go and join her, if I can. I will be merely a footnote to her glory, but I will be part of it, just as our love made all this possible. Love. That makes empresses and subjects of us all.
THREE THOUSAND YEARS LATER
Evidence support handmaiden theory. Scan showed saltwater drops in ice. Test tears, match DNA of skeleton. Handmaiden cried over empress.
Amazing. Lit dept going wild – endless poems handmaiden tears! Really queen, very sure. Some disagree. But more and more evidence. Ultimately, must go with evidence.
Cathy Bryant worked as a life model, civil servant and childminder before writing full-time. She has won 24 literary awards and writing contests. Her work has been published in over 250 books and litmags, such as The Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Eye to the Telescope and Futuredaze. Cathy’s books are: ‘Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual Nature’ and ‘Look at All the Women’ (poetry), and ‘How to Win Writing Competitions’ (nonfiction). See her listings for cash-strapped writers at www.compsandcalls.com. Cathy lives in Cheshire, UK.