Once upon a time, she thinks.
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess. And the princess lived in a beautiful palace on a hill. And from the palace she could look down and see the whole city, and that was beautiful too. And she was never lonely, because she had an angel and a wizard and a knight in shining armour to keep her company. And every day there was music and laughter and a banquet, and all the people of the city were invited, and they were all happy, and they all lived happily ever after. Once upon a time.
Once upon a time, she sings as she dances along a hallway high up inside the palace: Once upon a time.
It doesn't mean anything. The words are just words, pretty sounds she stretches and squeezes to fit the songs she sings to amuse herself as she explores her domain. Time has stopped (or died, or gone away, or taken a vacation to Hawaii where everyone hula-dances and they drink cocktails out of coconuts). There is no Past to remember fondly (or to regret) and no Future whose arrival can be anticipated (or dreaded). There is only this one, endless moment. There is only Now.
Rarely, dimly, she is aware there is some other way of being which is not Now. She thinks of this as Before. Before is not the Past; it is another country, one she might have visited in a dream, or (more likely, this) someone else's dreams.
She wonders, whose dreams?
Not the dreams of the angel. He sleeps standing up, if he sleeps at all. And not the dreams of the wizard either, because she imagines his dreams must be small and grey, just like him.
(The wizard went to look something up in a book one day, and when he came back he was a little old man, with a long white beard and a hunched back and a wizened little face. The wizard says something has gone wrong with time, it's not following the rules any more. (Bad time, she thinks. Naughty time.) Consequence no longer follows action, Effect has become divorced from Cause (they haven't been getting along, and now Effect has run off with a trampy little blonde thing and Cause has hired a lawyer).
She has a mirror - the only one in the palace - and sometimes, when she's feeling brave, she lifts away the cloth covering it and looks fearfully at her reflection. But the face staring back at her from the glass never changes, and she can't conceive of ever having been or ever being different to how she is Now.
Maybe, she thinks, it's a magic mirror.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall
If you catch me, will I fall?)
Her knight's dreams were warm and safe, while she shared them, but he disappeared out of the Now, and the only dreams left are hers.
At Night (and it is always Night in the Now, because there is no Time and thus no possibility of dawn), they light a fire in the largest room in the palace and huddle around it (just like The Flintstones).
The Night is bitterly, numbingly cold, and words like 'sun' and 'warm' have no meaning in the Now. When she includes them in her songs, it's only because singing them pleases her, and she likes the way they feel in her mouth.
She sits as close to the fire as she can, and tells the wizard and the angel about the places she has explored in the palace, and what the raven said to her (if he visited at all), and she sings her new songs to them. And the wizard and the angel listen to her as they play their game.
(Pawn to King's third. She's utterly insane, you know.
I know. Knight to Queen's Bishop's fourth. Bishop's gambit? Haven't we played this opening before?
We've played every opening there is and every end game and every possible permutation between. She's singing again. Stop singing. You should have turned her while you could. At least the vampires didn't go mad. Pawn to Queen's fourth.
Lunacy is a mercy, Now. Sanity's the curse.
You should know, I suppose. Hurry up and make a move. Are we ever going to finish this bloody game?
Probably not. Bishop takes Knight. Check.)
Take the knight, she sings. Let the night take the knight.
(Daddy, I can't sleep. Tell me a story? Please?) Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess, and she fell in love with a knight in shining armour. They lived in a palace on a hill in the middle of a chessboard. And they were happy (even after the world ended and you couldn't get cable any more) until one day the knight rode out on his horse to find treasures to bring back to his princess. And he didn't come back. The end.
She doesn't like that story, and doesn't tell it to herself often.
The palace seems bigger Now, and she's not sure why. Maybe it's because when she thinks about the palace Before, in her head it is filled with people. Before, the palace was full of voices; every room was warm and breathed and had a pulse. Now all the chambers are cold and dead and every door opens on to cold shadows and nothing else. Why are there no other people here Now, she wonders. When did they go away? Why didn't they say goodbye? She's mad at them, and she'll tell them so next time she sees them.
But the thought is forgotten as soon as it is formed and, besides, there are no Next Times or Last Times any more. There is only the never ending Now.
Doyle comes to visit, which is nice. Sometimes he comes as a falcon; more often as a raven. He perches on the ledge outside her window and they talk. Reminisce about things not of the Now. (There is no Past and no Future. There are only Things Which Are Not Of The Now.)
On one occasion (or maybe more than one, because all his visits are exactly the same. Or is it only one visit over and over?) she asks him, Why a raven?
And he says, Because ravens are messenger birds, darlin'. We've always been messengers.
Can I be a raven? she asks.
Raven-Doyle blinks his beady raven-eyes, and tips his raven-head sadly to one side. No, he says. You're not a messenger any more, princess.
And this makes her sad too, because she knows he is telling her she'll never have wings.
After he flies away, she searches through old closets and boxes until she finds two wire coat hangers. She twists the metal out of shape, and tapes the hooks together, and glues shiny paper around the frame (just like Mommy did the year she was an angel in the kindergarten nativity and isn't it funny that back then she believed in angels and devils and now she's back to where she began, full circle) and she sews the whole sticky mess to the back of her favourite jacket, and wears it until the fake wings fall off. By this small denial she defies What Is (it is the only kind of defiance she has left) but only briefly, until the wings fall off.
But although she cries when she hears a clink and looks behind her and sees them lying on the floor, the truth is she is a little relieved as well, because a part of her suspects that having wings may not be a Good Thing. The angel has wings, and his only seem to cause him pain.
She's seen him, when no one else is watching (is there anyone else to watch any more?), reach one thick and scaly arm over his shoulder and massage the places his wings sprout. They're not feathery bird's wings, like Raven-Doyle's: his wings are leathery and bat-like, heavy and ragged, and when he flexes them he bends under their weight and what remains of his face contorts and his eyes glisten wetly under his halo. (The ring of pointed bones erupts haphazardly from his skull, and blood oozes constantly from the base of each spiky extrusion. She wonders if it hurts him. Maybe that's why he doesn't lie down to sleep any more.)
(Anthropomorphism, says the wizard. If you made a little more effort to think of yourself as human -
I'm not and never was.
But the wings. The crown of thorns, for God's sake. It's all so hackneyed.
Wear a name for long enough and it starts to wear you, says the angel tiredly. Reality is broken Now. It no longer supports duplicity and we all have to show our true faces. You are old and I am a monster. Was I white or black last time? I forget.
You played white. Or perhaps black; I can't remember everything for you. *She* looks no different.
Yes, agrees the angel. Whatever her faults are, she is true to her own nature.
A pity, says the wizard. A talent for hypocrisy might have preserved her sanity. And God knows we could use some variety in our conversation.
I don't think He does know. I'll take black this time. Your move.)
The wings are useless Now, but somehow she can't bear to throw them away. So she keeps them with her, carries them as she wanders the hallways of the palace, looks at them last thing before she sleeps and first thing when she wakes. And she wonders why the wings are so important.
When Raven-Doyle flew away, she wonders, where did he go?
Did he fly to the city she can see from her window? And are there people still living there? And does he speak to them as he speaks to her, and what does he say?
And why is she no longer a messenger?
This question disturbs her most of all, and she turns it over and around until it spins wildly. It buzzes inside her until she is afraid it will split her head open from within. Finally (because she is afraid she might go mad) she discharges the question the only way she can. She asks it.
The angel looks at her strangely, as if hers is the first voice to break the silence in an eternity. (And maybe it is, because the wizard isn't here, and now she thinks about it, she can't remember the last time anyone said anything.)
Do you really want me to answer that? he asks.
He winces as he speaks, because his teeth are long and sharp, and stick out at strange angles inside his mouth, so that every time he speaks they tear up his face from the inside out. Maybe that's why the angel doesn't say much - but then, she seems to recall he never did, even Before.
You're no longer a messenger because there's nothing left to communicate, he tells her. There are no structures and no patterns, no destinies or paths to follow, no guiding Powers; no rhyme or reason, no rhythm. What we called Reality and imagined was as hard as diamond was just a sculpture of spun glass, suspended from a single human hair. When the last battle was fought, we severed that fragile tether and brought it crashing down, and it shattered, and it cannot ever be made whole again.
This is not what she wanted to hear. This is not a nice story. She doesn't want to be told this story, but now it has been begun it must be finished. Blood is running down the angel's chin and on to his scaly chest as his teeth tear and slice his lips and tongue, and he cannot stop talking any more than she can stop listening.
This is what was left after the world ended, he says. There is no Time, there is no Logic, there is no Life and no Death, there is no Action, there is no Thought, no Desire. There is no Love, and no Hate. There is no Hope. There is only Now.
He is weeping now. Those teeth, she thinks, must hurt him a lot.
Things fall apart, he whispers: the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
That's pretty, she says.
It's not meant to be pretty, he says angrily. Then the blood-shot eyes blink tiredly, and his voice grows quiet again. But it was one of Dru's favourites, and I should have known you would…
But she doesn't know who Dru is, and if she ever did, she's forgotten.
She gets up and dances around the room, so that her dress lifts and spreads into a wide rippling circle of silk, with her at its centre. She is the centre of everything. I don't like that story, she says. Tell me another one.
There's only one story left, says the angel, and I've told it to you.
She giggles. Then I'll tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess, and she lived in a fine palace on top of a hill - or should that be on top of a hell?
She tries again: Once upon a time a beautiful palace lived in a princess in a hell of a city…
It's all wrong. The story is fragmented and no longer makes sense, even to her. She starts to cry, because this was her story, it was entrusted to her, she was supposed to look after it, and how could she have let it slip away from her like that? How could she have been so careless?
Cordelia, says the angel. He lifts one scaly talon and, being very careful not to scratch her skin with his razor-sharp claws, wipes the tears away. I'm sorry, he says. I didn't mean to make you cry. Please don't cry.
I've forgotten the story, she says. How does it end? Tell me how it ends, please?
The angel is quiet. She is not sure how long for, because there is no Time, not any more. Perhaps it is only a minute; perhaps it is a hundred years, or a thousand.
And they all lived happily ever after, he says at last.
She smiles, relieved. Of course. She may have forgotten the beginning and the middle, but the ending still makes sense.
Then the angel lifts her in his strong arms (very, very carefully, because his skin is plated with thick serrated scales and his touch wounds) and lays her gently in her bed and pulls the blankets around her. Sleep, he says. Dream a better story for us.
She sleeps, and dreams of princesses and angels and wizards and knights in shining armour and a beautiful palace on a hill.
And they all live happily ever after.