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To Lady Wilde (Amongst the Trial Men of Reading Gaol)

Jane Harrington


He couldn’t say how he knew it was snowing. The feeling was a seeping-in, an efflorescence. Then the Star-Child came to mind, and he challenged himself (his raveled fleeces) to call up a line. Yesterday it was the Happy Prince he tried to summon, in his glory, before the swallow had stripped him of his jewels, before his gilt was gone. He had been able to conjure the prince only as leaden, though, the same color of his own suit, of the morning. But this snow—it was brilliant, falling in soft clumps, clinging to shoots of sleeping rose. Not in this yard, no, where all save the dust is banished (for flowers have been known to heal), but in some other place, where it gathered in the crooks of sagging willow boughs, on words he once penned: The old Earth is dead, and they have laid her out in her white shroud.


As with all his stories, you thought that one remarkable, but you had complained because “Star-Child” was yours, one of your pet names for him. Not that you always minded his borrowings—his fisherman who would give his soul for the forbidden was born of your verse—but this one didn’t fit. This Star-Child was cruel. “It’s not you,” you’d said. He’d laughed, “That is what Fiction means.” And he reminded you that you’d had a win once, that he’d toned down his Lady Brandon before Dorian was bound. He had sketched you too closely, he’d had to admit, recalling your salons of Merrion Square, those comings out—his from childhood, yours from mourning (from trying to rear the changeling Hope in the cave of black Despair). You would sway about in silken gown, a crown of laurel on your head, holding court with Stoker and Le Fanu, modeling the art of irreverence, of mockery. Teaching your sons—even while their lost sister looked on from a chain worn round your neck—to titter at life’s taunts.


And he did learn that, practiced it even on the first day, when he was told he was not to speak to others, not ever. He amused himself with the sentence “I am not aloud,” mouthed it to the warders as they passed. But soon the labor (the treading on asphalt ring, the breaking of stones, the tearing of tarry rope) wore away even his wit. “I am the Star-Child after all,” he thought. For he had written, it was true, of a boy—one who cared much for beauty—made hideous and alone save for the toad that watched him, sent to wander where there was neither love nor loving-kindness, enslaved by one who set before him mouldy bread (weighed in scales) and brackish water (that crept with a loathsome slime). The Star-Child was redeemed in the end, but ruled he not long, so great had been his suffering, and so bitter the fire of his testing, for after the space of three years he died. Just how prescient that, of course, he could not yet divine. He looked down now at swollen hands (at blunt and bleeding nails).


That is the moment he saw you. So real, yet he named you invention, a picture out of gray matter—not one of your spectral foot soldiers, not fetch, as they called it in the west where you reaped your ancient legends and mystic charms, superstitions left behind by a fairy race. “Forgive me,” you said (with icy breath), because it was you who had told him to fight, not to run. Same as you had when you were young and in Ireland, wrote poems for a people scorned, told them the eastern sky was bright. “I doomed them, too.” You’d confessed this in letters (to his numbered tomb), those lost leaves to which he would have responded that there was no need for forgiveness. He was like you in that way, didn’t blame—not even his father for his trespasses, for leaving you penniless, a poor beggar-woman. So tired, so tired (sleep will not lie down in this place, but walks wild-eyed), he wept, his tears hitting the floor, washing your feet. “See?” he rasped, for this was part of the Star-Child’s prophecy, too.


“Do you remember the poet’s place?” you said, and he did. “By the tree of life.” It was why he’d tried the form, written what you couldn’t, the Requiescat to a little girl, your dead daughter. You were grateful, had read it every day to the last: Tread lightly, she is near. Under the snow. He looked up at you now, at eyes forever closed, because you were being lowered into the broken sod, the sun above you trapped behind slate clouds. White flakes sifted through bare limbs of the willow, clinging like rime to the trunk, settling on a carpet of green so vivid it avowed a hidden spring, a watery place to slip off to, away from this common ground where there would be no stone bearing the name Lady Wilde. All my life’s buried here, Heap earth upon it, he heard from somewhere, but it was really the jingling of the warder’s keys as he opened the (listening) cell.


Key to Works Cited, all by Oscar Wilde:

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (quotes presented in parentheses)

“The Star-Child” (quotes presented in italics)

“Requiescat” (quotes presented in bold)


Previously published under a different title in Claudius Speaks, May 2017, Issue 3.

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