after Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” (1842)
and Audrey Wood’s Heckedy Peg (1987)
THE FOREST of Shalott is made up of white willows and shivering aspens, dotted with lily-laden ponds and ice-cold streams. Trout and bluegill meander through these waters, just as contented and plump as Shalott’s happy villagers. Though farmers and their sun-squinted wives toil in fields of barley to provide for dirty-palmed children on either side of the great river-sea, the Shalottians fish without urgency, chop without fervor, whisper prayers of thankfulness to their Lady of Shalott.
On either side of the river-sea and all the way down to jagged Camelot, whispers slip out under the moonlight.
Weary reapers call her “the foul fairy,” ducking further to the ground for fear of heavenly recompense. Their brittle sheaves quiver in the chilling air, yet, as their fields turn yellow then brown, Shalott remains green in perpetuity.
Her skin is midnight, her hair is the color of deep water, and she roams the spring island of Shalott every night. Some say that she came from a land far to the south, a place called Sheba and Saba and Arabia Felix. Others say she was stolen from a kingdom to the north and that her name is Morrígan. Both may be true, but what is also true is that she was there before anyone else. It’s just that no one bothered to look for her, the Lady of Shalott.
News came to her one day that a sister witch, one who lived in a wood northwest of Shalott, had been drowned in the river-sea. This witch, Peg, who turned children into food by tricking them into lighting her pipe, had been captured by a mother of seven just as Peg was about to eat the mother’s children for her Sunday supper. Celebrations erupted in prickly Camelot, not for the saved children, but to ease the city’s bruised conscience; Peg had sold her delicious meals at Camelot’s own market. How many of Camelot’s elite had feasted on the city’s own children?
She can smell their guilt in the hot yellow wind that spews northward from the celebrations in spiky Camelot. She knows it’s the excuse the king has waited for, that soon he’ll dispatch his most trusted knight to finally collect the head of the Lady of Shalott.
As the festivals rage on in Camelot, she lifts her skirts and wades through cold streams, pushes aside aspen boughs and buckthorn branches, and guards her eyes and soul against wayward will-o’-wisps as she makes her way to a rocky beach at the southeastern edge of Shalott. She felt them arrive: the first geese of the year, old friends returned from adventures abroad. She looks into her river-mirror one last time, sees the king ordering her head, sees his coal-haired knight launch into action, and knows she must act. She takes the youngest goose—still a gosling, which breaks her ancient heart—and cuts its throat with a silver knife. Its sister geese scream and fly away, breaking her heart again, as she places the dead bird in a shallow boat made of pale oak. Across the prow she writes The Lady of Shalott.
She pulls a long-forgotten herb from her skirts and puts it in her corncob pipe. She uses flint and an arrowhead made of the king’s own steel to light the pipe, and inhales the herb’s smoke deeply, letting it travel all throughout her body. Then she exhales and blows the smoke over the dead goose.
She turns then, quickly. If she looks at the bird once, it takes her shape she will take its place. She pushes the boat into the river-sea with the heel of her riding boot, and returns to Astolat, her city at the center of Shalott. She cuts her hair and shreds her skirts and melts her rings into a sword, which she names Excalibur. She is sorcerer and stone. She dresses herself in clover, moss, and bronze, and tells her people of her plan.
All around her, the Shalottians chant a mournful carol; they chant so loudly their music floats down to craggy Camelot. In Camelot they hear the sad carol and think it holy, think it signals the death of the Lady of Shalott.
Those round-tabled knights cross themselves in fear as her boat floats into stiff-domed Camelot. Raven-haired Lancelot muses that “she had a lovely face,” which he didn’t expect of a witch. King Arthur announces that the threat has passed, and his messengers tell him that a Green Knight has claimed Shalott in Arthur’s name. He likes the sound of this and invites the Green Knight to visit his table.
An age from now, another lord will think the clover-draped ruler of fair northern Shalott would die for just one look upon his face. An age after that, a prince will be sure she died for the pleasure of birthing his child. In other ages, she’ll hang herself from her weaving in a jealous rage, she will poison herself rather than live without a duke or earl or baron, she will fill her pockets with stones and walk into a river after being slighted by a jester.
That is what these men will think.
But the truth is that she will persist while they gain and lose their kingdoms, while they backstab and toil, while they worry about losing their ever-shrinking holdings. She will remain even as they disappear into the cracks of history.
They will come and go, but she has always been and always will be the Lady of Shalott.
Like Sharon Stone and the zipper, MIKE MCCLELLAND is originally from Meadville, Pennsylvania. He has lived on five different continents but now resides in Georgia with his husband, their two sons, and a menagerie of rescue dogs. He is the author of the short fiction collection Gay Zoo Day (Beautiful Dreamer Press, 2017) and his work has appeared in publications such as the Boston Review, Entropy, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Permafrost, and others. Keep up with him at magicmikewrites.com.
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