The Wandering the World (A prequel to Oscar Wilde’s “The Star-Child”)
Once upon a time there was a young queen who lay on the desert sand, covered only by a cloak of gold tissue bordered with stars. A chain of amber round her neck reflected the waxing moon, which she likened to a flower of silver. It was a warm night, the first warm night of many to come if the Woodcutters Almanac was to be believed (and, oh, the queen had long believed in the woodcutters, knew she must). It was the beginning of the dry season in the canyon, the beginning of October, which means the eighth month, because it used to be the eighth. Once upon a time.
Around the queen, animals had begun to appear: the chuckwalla lizard from a rock-pile, lumbering about to find fruits and flowers; the spotted owl from a cave on high, gliding on a whisper of wind, a wood rat in his sights. But it was the bassarisk that the queen set her own gaze upon. She always did—that slinky body with its exquisite tail of black and white stripes that was close enough to her now that she could reach out and stroke it if she dared risk the animal’s spray. She wouldn’t, and so she sighed. A sigh that was not at all, really, about a dread of being rendered temporarily incapable of taking in the scents of sagebrush and juniper that she loved so dearly. No, it was a sigh that was strictly about touch, about the silken feel of that ringed tail that her fingertips, she was sure, would never, ever know.
The queen’s sighs were that specific, you see. She had begun honing this skill when she was still an infant on her father’s hip, on her mother’s knee. Her parents had told her that she would be the next to reign, that she must watch them carefully, especially take notice of how they treated the people who served them, all of whom called her parents “sire.” So—right up until that embarrassing day her vocabulary tutor informed her of her faux pas—she worked obsessively at perfecting what she believed a “sire” must do: sigh. Being from the start of her life a passionate and ambitious soul, she had determined to be the best sigher in the land. And, oh, she was.
“It’s hot,” the spotted owl snapped, perching carefully on a thorny branch of a wait-a-bit tree. “The weather has become monstrous. Why doesn’t the government do something?” He shook himself with force to loosen and shed some of the downy feathers that had kept him from shivering in the wet season.
“I concur,” the chuckwalla said, stretching out on the bank of the river that cut through the canyon, where the sand was still soaked from the cool water licking the shore at ebb tide.
The bassarisk sniffed, “I think it’s just that you’ve all become quite lazy.” And she rolled onto her back and thrashed languidly to decorate her coat with the shimmering silt.
The queen looked closely at a tiny auburn feather, one of the owl’s that had landed in her palm. She considered blowing on it and watching it dance like a fairy in the air, as she had with feathers she’d found as a little girl. But instead she tenderly closed her fingers around it—so soft and light, it was, like a wisp of hair from a newborn baby—and she held her fist to her heart and sighed. (This one of dread, oh yes, of wandering.)
She looked up at the channel above the canyon walls, to the teeming stars in their nocturnal procession. Cassiopeia was the first constellation she picked out on this night, its shape like an M or W, mother or woman the queen thought it to be saying to her, depending on the orientation she chose on the sand. Tonight, her feet to the river, the queen saw an M, saw in her mind Casseiopia’s daughter, Andromeda, chained to a rock and awaiting the sea monster that Poseidon would send to devour the girl in revenge of her mother’s bragging, Cassiopeia’s arrogance. And the queen sighed again, a sigh that might be translated as Really, what behoveth the gods to torment the wee ones? She held her fist closer to her heart and let her gaze shift from the M in the sky to Perseus the rescuer, who followed Cassiopeia, except on those nights—see there, this is one—that she let him catch up. The queen, a woman of tact, looked away to the next in the celestial march, Auriga the goat herder, and Taurus the bull, and finally Orion the archer. It was then that she closed her violet eyes and let the night take her.
The king, too, in the palatial tent not twenty yards away, had just fallen asleep, though he fitfully. The scurrying in the corners and up the canvas walls kept him on edge at night. He was sure it was the tarantulas—how he hated tarantulas—chasing after lizards and rodents and black flies. But what helped him to slip into slumber on this particular night was knowing that the dry season had finally arrived, and that, at first light, they would begin their trek up the trail to the castle in the pine forest. He couldn’t wait to return to those strong walls guarded by soldiers with halberts and shields, armor with gilt flowers, helmets with winged lions. The nights were cold up there, always, it was true, but with the wardrobes of the castle stuffed with woolen leggings and vests, hats and muffs of bearskin, one could layer generously, peel off when the sun made a rare appearance. “But a man canst not peeleth off his skin,” he mumbled into the sultry air of the tent. He was still asleep, dreaming he was registering this complaint with the queen, to whom he often complained about the conditions of their canyon retreat. He didn’t find the beauty in it, never had, and especially didn’t understand why she insisted on sleeping under the stars. Up in the castle, in civilization, the queen slept indoors, as a queen should. He smiled in his sleep now, sweet visions in his head of mules piled high with their possessions and clomping up the switchbacks.
“My wish is that we stayeth on,” the queen, standing at the river bank and wrapped in her cloak of gold tissue, said to him when he stepped over the transom of the tent at dawn, finely dressed and ready for travel. “And,” she went on, “it is time now that we hadst a baby.”
“Down hither? Let’st be serious!” he cried. And at that moment a scorpion raced over his boot—oh, scorpions he loathed even more than tarantulas—and so he darted this way and that, his crown falling from his head and clattering over the stones of a cairn the queen’s ancestors had made during the last ice age. Yes, these lands were of the queen’s family, the desert and the pine forest, and the king was ever aware of this, had from the start considered it a matter of pragmatism to defer to his wife’s whims, as he deemed her inclinations. But this, it would seem, he couldn’t abide. He loaded onto a mule a single trunk, the one with his most personal belongings, and pulled the animal toward the trailhead in the steep canyon wall.
“Thou hast forgotten something,” the queen called after him, picking up his crown from the sand.
“Keepeth it,” he muttered over his shoulder, leaving her there at the water’s edge, alone, the crown in her hands, its polished platinum beginning to warm from the sun’s rays that skated westward on the river’s swift current.
She sighed, perhaps one of her all-time loudest sighs, for she wanted him to hear it as he disappeared into the scrub, a sigh she intended to trumpet the lament of loss, of precious years wasted. But what actually came out, what was apparently within, was not lament but undeniable relief, which clattered noisily across the ether.
Let us be clear: this was no act of connivance on her part, this riddance. The queen was not the conniving sort. It was the prophesy that had guided her decision to stay put, the prophesy about the baby, what would happen to him in the pine forest. She had gotten an idea—one that, admittedly, she had not considered sharing with the king, but she hadn’t either shared with him the prophesy; he would have given her one of those looks, she knew—and the idea was that if she simply had the baby in the canyon rather than the pine forest, she might avert misfortune. This was the hope she had awakened with, her fist still held to her heart. And because she was not one to give up easily, this hope remained with her all the day, as she bathed in the waters of a milky-blue creek, smoothed her skin with white pumice, shampooed her hair with yucca root, massaged over the length of her body the oils she’d made from cliffrose, rubbed to a shine her chain of amber. And that hope was with her still after sunset, and after the moon rose, and while she again lay out on the river bank, looking up at Orion the archer, this time without even her cloak of gold tissue atop her.
“What is that?” the spotted owl hooted. He was perched on a lichen-coated ledge, his head tipped up, black eyes on the sparkling channel of sky.
“Hm,” the chuckwalla said, stopping his lumbering and peering up, too. “A new constellation? Or maybe an asterism?”
“Whatever you choose to call it,” the bassarisk purred, stepping lightly into the impression the queen had left behind in the sand, “the bow hunter seems to have acquired a friend.”
“Legal documents should be required for such an addition to the night,” the spotted owl tutted, giving himself a hardy shake and sending an eddy of feathers into the dry air.
The chuckwalla, spooked by the downy maelstrom, pushed himself between two rocks and filled his lungs until he was puffed out and snuggly in place, safe from any prying predators who might happen by. For this is what chuckwallas do.
And so the animals began watching the queen from afar at night, a speck of a star in her middle growing brighter and brighter. In the mornings, the queen was back on the sand, back to her milky-blue baths and oils of cliffrose. She spent long hours strolling canyon paths or sitting on rocky outcroppings over the river, and she told stories to the growing baby inside her. She told him how he would have lips like petals of a red flower, eyes like her own—violets at the edge of clear water—and that he would carry himself like the narcissus of the field. She told him about the castle he would know and rule, and the pine forest with its singing birds and sweet scents and friendly hares. And about the people who lived there, too, how she knew them to be kind-hearted because she sometimes went among them as a mendicant, a beggar-woman, and they were always generous, no matter how base their circumstances. All but the magician, of course, who she didn’t mention at first, but as time passed, she did speak of his cruelty, how he led children to a door he opened with a ring of graved jasper, how he took them down five steps to a garden filled with black poppies and green jars of burnt clay, how he kept them in chains and fed them moldy bread and brackish water and sent them on doomed missions. She wasn’t trying to scare the child but had decided that he must know. And then she’d sigh, a soothing, dismissive one that meant But thou will’st not meet such a fate. Later, though, she could neither ignore nor hide the current pushing through as she inhaled and exhaled: A prophesy is a prophesy.
Orion took to coming down, as well, each day when the sky went white and not even Venus could track his whereabouts. He walked with the queen or, as the months went on, sat on boulders with the queen, her middle grown so large that she could no longer see the obstacles in the desert paths, the sharp pebbles that might trip her or the snakes that might wrap themselves around her ankles. Orion, too, liked to talk to the baby, tell of the myths surrounding his origin or his famous belt, how some in a far continent called its stars The Three Marys, how some deemed it buffalo vertebrae, how the ancients of this canyon—My own people, the queen thought proudly whenever he got to this part—had imagined one star a deer, another an antelope, and the third a bighorn sheep. Orion would then press his cheek against the queen’s waxing belly and whisper to his son, “They are really just hydrogen and helium,” and he’d laugh that sparkly laugh that had made the queen fall in love with him. When the sun ceased to cast its shadows on the sands, Orion would pull an arrow from the quiver on his back. He’d admire the honed point at one end, smooth his pale fingers over the chiseled quills at the other, and wait patiently for, say, the tips of Taurus’s horns or one of Auriga’s goats to appear over the canyon wall, and then he’d steady his bow and let go a shot into the darkness, and the queen and her archer would again take their places in the night.
This went on until Quintilis, the beginning of the wet season, the seventh month of the year. (Though, yes, the word means fifth month, because that is what it used to be, once upon a time.) It was on the ides that it happened, the animals gathered on the bank and watching. That star in the middle of the queen had become so big and beautiful by then that no one who saw it could take their eyes from it. All over the world, the star had made people happy, full of hope for the future. And so there was shock and sorrow when it fell from the sky. Canis Major howled woefully as it passed, a thing of gold that shimmered then faded then was gone. No one anywhere could see its landing on the white snow, for the pine forest obscured the view, but the queen could picture it all the same, how the woodcutters were making their way home, how the frost was snapping the twigs as they passed, how they would soon stumble upon the Star-Child. And this made her profoundly sad, for she had no power over what was to be. The stars that made up her limbs dropped heavily from the sky like great raindrops onto the riverbank, where she sat now, slumped, her amber chain no longer around her neck, her cloak with the border of stars nowhere to be seen on this, the ides of Quintilis.
“Why do the names of our months make no sense?” the spotted owl said, shivering, for he had not yet grown his full layer of the new season’s downy feathers. “The government should do something, I say.”
In agreement, the chuckwalla thwacked the sand with his tail, stubby and misshapen from the many times it had had to grow back after being bitten off by a this or a that.
“Oh, do be patient,” the bassarisk said, shushing them so the queen could get some much needed sleep before her trek was to begin, the wandering the world for her child. The animal curled next to her, close enough that a salty tear landed on its tongue, close enough that its ringed tail rested in the queen’s open hand.
“I’ll wander with you,” Orion said, waking her when the sky went white, the platinum points of his crown twinkling with morning sun.
And, together, they packed the mules and took to the trail in the canyon wall, leaving behind a river bank as empty as the queen’s sigh.