Below we have another installment of something written a couple summers ago when creative nonfiction seemed boring and research too consuming.
Saffi did not speak again before she died. She just sat up straight in that minimal bed. With her last breath, she relaxed against the headboard, and slumped to her left. Harald was sad, but he hadn’t been holding her or watching too closely. He cared—most certainly, he cared.
But if he had held her, he might have seen something undignified. Dead people always mess themselves, and he could not bear to see his mother so debased. So he let her slouch in her bedclothes instead. Calling the maids to his aid, Harald instructed them to wash her and prepare her for the most important funeral since his father had died.
He left with his gentle hand clapped to his eyes and thought of the songs Mama used to sing when she would send even the old wet nurse away. It was something about candlesticks and chivalry, beautiful princesses who ate raw kale and devilish old men who stole spinning wheels. It was all nonsense, but it was dear to him then. And so he cried and signed papers—documents about which horse and what color of gown should accompany his mother to her final earthly resting place.
As Harald wiped his eyes with his royal handkerchief, the maidservants were preparing the queen for her last public appearance.
“It seems so strange, doesn’t it?” one maid asked. “That we might at last get the chance to see the queen naked in death when she never would let us even help her into her stays while she was breathing. Now we have to figure out how to stuff her into one of those terrible things when she’s getting colder and stiffer by the minute.”
“You are absolutely wicked, Jade. If I weren’t so upset, I would really deck you. You are a crude and bizarre girl. Now please, help me with her nightgown. I’m not sending Queen Saffi off without a good bath. It would be wrong to send off a queen smelling like a wet rat. Death doesn’t smell good on anybody—whether you’re a queen or harlot.”
Jade held the queen as Marna began to gather the gown from the sides, bunching it slowly and lifting it to the dead queen’s waist.
“Good God! Jade,” Marna said, shaking her head. “What makes you think of these kinds of things? And now? How you ever ended up in the castle’s service, I will never know.”
Just then, Jade gasped.
“What now? Are you not so comfortable with the dead now that you’ve been so disrespectful?”
Jade’s eyes grew large, but she said nothing.
“What is it?” Marna said.
Still, Jade could not answer, and instead she gently grabbed the queen’s shoulders and rolled her on her stomach, drawing back the nightgown to reveal an elaborate map, elegantly tattooed from the queen’s shoulders spread wide all the way to her tailbone.
The sprawling tattoo had faded considerably—from deep browns and blacks to faint tans and blues-turning-greens.
The women weren’t repulsed, but they were more than shocked. They were utterly at a loss for the meaning of such a peculiar decoration. It was obvious that the art had been there for a long, long time—perhaps even before she had ever entered this castle. When Marna decided she was being rude for allowing her jaw to drop and her eyes to gape at her dead mistress’s back, and Jade collected her little bit of sense, the two women resumed their duties.
Jade drew the sponge from the washbasin, and wrung it out.
“No one but the king ever knew of this. I’m sure of it,” Jade tittered. “Why else would she not let anyone dress or bathe her? And if Harald was privy to anything—well, that worthless boy was never worth telling anything to anyway, but if he had known, wouldn’t he have said something to us about it? About what to expect?”
Marna warned her not to run to invention and that the prince was probably too grieved to think of business, but she had to admit it was all rather weird.
“You know as well as I do that if he can’t manage himself under stress, he isn’t fit to be king—and if he were so concerned about propriety or honor, he would have said something—swearing us to secrecy about such an infringement to the kingdom’s dignity. A queen with a tattoo! Scandal or intrigue, at the least.”
“Stop it, Jade. I don’t know what to say, but we need to get this body ready for the parade, and she’s bound to get stiffer and more difficult as time passes. If she didn’t want anyone to know and the king didn’t have a problem with it, then neither do I. Get rid of this frenzy before it drives you to do some new stupid thing.”
The two women finished bathing the dead queen, and even though they wished they could have fit her into her clothes without cutting the back of such a lovely dress, they had to because she was too unmanageable. So, they slit her garments and slid her into the coffin. Marna wondered why they ever quit sending off the royal family on pyres like they used to as she and Jade struggled to make the queen’s deadness look elegant and sophisticated.
“At least you didn’t have to worry about the stink so much,” she thought.
But Erik’s father had put an end to all of that. He wanted the country to be more modern like the rest of the continent. In lieu of pyres, the citizens attended ceremonies with little lamps with them and blew them out when the high priest finished the rites.
Modern or not, Marna thought the new burial custom a bit more cryptic than cremation at sea. At least then, there was some image of a last journey as you burned up. Being stuck in the ground with a bunch of dirt all over you seems so cruel and restricting.
As Jade cleared her throat, Marna’s daydreaming ceased.
“Should we call His Royal Highness in for one last look?” Jade asked.
“I don’t there’s much question about it, Jade. Send Christoff to fetch Harald.”
A half hour later, Harald was found in the courtyard sitting by his mother’s story. He was crying loudly about how she had been a good mother, even if she had been soft—if she’d been too sensitive to go riding with him. He cried for his lover Abellona without shame, blubbering about how he wished she would come to comfort him and when Christoff found him to tell him about the viewing, the prince demanded that someone find his sweetheart so that she could join him in the next few days.
Christoff found a stable boy—for he would not waste his time searching for a page—to fetch the woman.
“A country wench! In the castle on the night of the queen’s death,” Christoff scoffed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she served as a bed warmer for that wretched young man on this very night.”
Christoff was wrong in his assumptions about the young maid’s location of repose, but where she slept shocked him even more.
Abellona insisted that she would honor the queen’s memory by sleeping on her famously preserved stack of mattresses whereupon Queen Saffi tossed about all night and secured her place as Erik’s bride.
The room had been roped off for years (even when Saffi had said she’d like to see it put to good use like a spinning room or a more accessible conservatory). But for Abellona, the ropes were cut, and she nestled into the old bed with a comfortable and stately pride for she knew she had already won Harald’s affections and would be the next queen. Sleeping in the room would establish a decent memorial for his mother, and who knew? Maybe she too would feel the rock-hard pea they said was still underneath. Abellona had grown up hearing the silly story, and part of her still believed it had been true.
But that night Abellona slept very well indeed. Even after so many years, the mattresses were still good and perfectly formed for a palace like this. At one point in the evening, she woke up to use the chamber pot, and she wished she thought she might attribute the sudden need to relieve herself as a sign of something. Yet she knew it wasn’t and she knew it. She’d just had too much wine at dinner.