She was a lady with fine fingers, my mother Pamphilia. She sat on her throne in her ash coloured, flame coloured gown, and she fingered the key to her fine cabinet. The light came across the floor like alabaster, and across her face like milk; outside the windows the sky showed white with heat above the sea. The wind came in through the windows, hot and salt. She had dismissed her councillors; the room was empty but for us two and the monkey, playing by the door.
Standing at her shoulder, I traced the carvings on her throne with my little finger and listened to the roar of the bazaar far below. The marble fitted round my fingers in cool curves: acanthus leaves and goat-skulls; mermen and cherub heads growing from curls of leaves. Hermaphrodites and monsters, set in stone. Every so often my fingers met a scratch in the marble, where someone, long ago, had carved a name.
My mother rapped on the stone with her key. “Attend, my child,” she said. “I have another story to tell you, princess.”
I smiled down at her hair, looped and snagged with pearls, at her sharp shoulders under whorled brocade. Her flesh was pursy under her chin and her veins showed high and blue on her long hands, but I thought then that she would surely rule forever, stepping through the long corridors of our palace with her robes snapping out behind her; scratching away with her pen in her closet, the walls and ceiling lined with paintings done in flesh-bright oil.
I smiled at her and left her side to pour the wine; our country’s pride, as clear and red as pomegranate juice.
“So,” she began, as always, “some years ago, and in another land – ”
Some years ago, and in another land, she met an Amazon, Cleophila, who'd travelled there to find her older sister, sea-lost nine long months ago with her young child. She met her in a cavern in a forest, where the walls were caked with waxy runs of calcite and the air was wet and chill. This Cleophila, fair, my mother said, as sweet eringoes and as soft summer mornings, was writing on a tablet with an oil lamp by her side. Quick verses for her sister, she said: breadcrumbs; a trail of word-grown stones and word-carved trees.
In fact her sister never found these verses: my mother kept them, and I have them here. I follow you, they said. You and your little daughter.
I follow you; you and your little daughter
I stitch my path through green and shifting forests
Far from our father’s close and shady chambers
I stitch my dress and think of you, my sister.
I slide my hand through cold and constant fountains
And I remember his sweet girlish kisses
I close my eyes and feel after her kisses
In green and shady walks, my father’s daughter
I sighed for her beside the singing fountains
I watched her gold hair flicking through the forests
Her sword, her hair, remember, my sweet sister
I took it up and left our marble chambers.
I sat with him within his marble chambers
He smiled around his green and golden kisses
I left to find you out, my dearest sister
I left to bring you home, our father’s daughter.
Through sun-slabbed towns and chiming ice-spiked forests,
Past gold-slagged rivers and past frozen fountains.
I see you sitting beside trailing fountains
In cool halls, through long empty ringing chambers
Within deep green, sun-dizzy dappled forests
You and your golden hair, his green-gold kisses
You sit and smile and watch your laughing daughter
You write out letters for your little sister.
I follow you, my Pamela, my sister,
I took his sword and left my ringing fountains
I follow you and her, your little daughter,
I left my gowns and my high-ceilinged chambers
I left his girlish hands, his boyish kisses.
I see you running through the green-gold forests.
I see you running through the bruise-black forests
You hands out, hair back, running far, my sister
I follow you with his sharp sword, my kisses
With bells and trumpets and with ringing fountains
I’ll bring you home, to green-gold marble chambers
Back home, my sister, and your little daughter.
Back home, my sister, yes, my father’s daughter,
To kisses in our green and golden chambers
To sun-strung forests and to singing fountains.
She had not in fact taken the sword, Cleophila explained: it was far too heavy. She had not left behind the man, either, come to that: he had gone ahead with his friend, her sister’s husband. She wouldn’t, she said, go so far as to call them lost, precisely. They both had swords.
This Amazon was, my mother soon discovered, little more than the picture of a warrior, fit only for a stage-play with her name pinned to her chest. A kind of artifice; an ivory girl. She stood in that cold cave, with her hair like gold wire and her breastplate glinting in the low light, with blue silk coming down to the small of her leg and her tablets held under her arm, and told my mother how she had taken her name from a true Amazon, a girl she had known some years ago, and in another land, before her marriage to a brave young prince. This first, true Cleophila, she said, had saved her from a lion; had found her weeping in just such a cave. She had told tales of her old mother, waiting for her to return from adventuring; of her warfaring father and her voyages to the east. She had had gold hair and red sandals, and the grass had hardly bent beneath her step. Truly, this new Cleophila told my mother, pleating the blue stuff of her gown between her hands, she was an unskilful copy of this Amazon, a mirrored version seen through thick green glass.
My mother smiled, of course, and shook her head. Queens and high princes cannot let loose such talk: caves echo even in deep woods. She sipped her wine.
This Cleophila, though, did not stand still for long. She left sharp black air of the deep cavern and journeyed with my mother through the forest, where wild men groaned in the high places and great worms coiled in the wet valleys. They travelled, my mother said, as always, for a year and a day, along white roads clagged with dust and by slow sliding deep brown rivers. They found scratches on trees and snatches of verse; sometimes a great bear or some stranger creature lying in a heap of clogged fur by the road, as if heroes with sharp swords had been and gone. They ate thick bean stew in shepherd’s huts, and curds that slid over their tongues like cool silk on smooth hands. They listened to stories about a fair woman and her young daughter, about a storm and a rescue, about pitch-covered ship's ribs picked clean on a beach to the north. Cleophila unpicked gold coins from her sky-blue hem, and picked the pearls out of her hair; in the end she sold her gold breastplate, for passage on a ship that smelt of saffron and tar. My mother told Cleophila tales of Amphilanthus, my lost, twice-loving father. Cleophila told her stories of her husband, of his fighting for fair ladies in strange lands, his father waiting in Byzantium; of his friend Dorus, or Musidorus, duke of Thessalia.
In the end they found her sister Pamela working for board and lodging in a cliffside inn, above the green-blue sea that lipped the sand below and swallowed with each rising tide the words she taught her daughter, scratching them on the beach with sea-smoothed sticks. They’d gone so far, you see, that there were tides: this sea was wider than our own, and colder too. It had spat up her sister onto the beach after a storm; her ship lost out at sea, her daughter held tight to her chest.
Ships came for tin and wool; brought gold and purple dye, carved shells and ostrich eggs and ivory chains; the sisters bought passage on one with Cleophila’s gold, back to the still sea and the forests and the sun. Sitting on bales of wool and playing with her daughter Melidora, teaching the child to count with wooden beads, Pamela’s sister laughed and lightly asked her if this was like her first flight away, with her bold husband-to-be. Pamela laughed herself: not a man who’d always keep a promise, that one, she said – and glad enough to travel with your Pyrocles, I’d guess, my dear. You could tell then, said my mother, that they were sisters: the pair of them a private language, with no easy key. Sailors called and swung above them in the rigging. Behind them, the waves churned away from the ship in fat creases and long smooth-slung furrowed rows, lines of foam rising like letters for an instant on the turning sea.
This while the first Cleophila (a he-she Amazon, she was quite sure, my mother said) had travelled with her Musidorus, searching for the sisters across wide deserts and through silent cities built in old brown stone. Their adventures were no less wonderful and rare, she said, than those they’d had before their marriages, or would have later as the rulers of their lands. The sisters found them later, though, after my mother left them, docking in Tyre where shops swarmed with bright cloth and beaten gold.
They’d stood upon the shore like other women, their hair bright as the sun upon the sea. Remember us, they’d called, in one of your verses. Remember us, Pamphilia, and we’ll do the same for you.
My mother laughed again and drained her glass; her skin like wine in milk, her fingers flicking slowly up and down her key. The sun rose high and hot outside the windows, above our busy markets and our wide dark trader’s sea. It’s worth remembering, she said, that story, although it only has a stage-play Amazon, a girl of golden wire and ivory.
I looked at the wine; at the table, inlaid with jasper and porphyry, with quincunxes of black and red and green; at the white nubbly comfits laid out in a bowl. I felt the curves of my mother's throne; its old white monsters with their curling leaves. It seemed to me then my mother’s Cleophila was in truth only a stage-play Amazon, that my mother herself would rule forever in her high throne room above the wind-shucked sea. I thought my father, loving Amphilanthus, would come back home across the hot red sand; I thought I myself might even travel like a story, through frozen cities with a sharp sword in my own fine-fingered dark-skinned hand.
Some of these things transpired, I can now tell you; some of them didn’t: such is life, they say.
I kept my mother’s cabinet and all her writings; I have the key.
I’ll read them, too, some day.