I was ten when they found me. I hid behind my mother’s brown skirts, bewildered by the soldiers with their rough hands. I remember my father’s face when they took me away from our house. The scream that lodged in his throat and came out as a hiss. He watched them take me away with eyes that dared not overflow. There were chickens scratching in the dirt and puffy clouds in the cerulean sky. It was a lovely afternoon.
I was thirteen when he married me. It was a winter morning.They dressed me in ivory and lace. My breasts were just bumps on my chest and the woman’s blood had only just stained my thighs the week before. The women around me, my attendants, didn’t speak as they handled my dress (it was a work of art, two years in the making) and the bouquet (flowers stolen from the most precious gardens). They put diamonds in my hair and rouge on my cheeks.
They had me close my eyes then and when I opened them again, I was a mannequin.
There was a ceremony. I don’t remember it. Mannequins do not have much capacity for memory. He took my hand in his larger one and clasped it. He smelled like cinnamon and the forest. He was large, had a beard he took great care with and eyes the colour of amber in sunlight. His lips were pink and there was a mole under his left eye. He was the king, my husband.
He came to me in the night, he came to me in my chamber. I had been dressed in a nightgown. It felt as though it was made of gossamer, soft like an apology. There were no candles left lit. He opened the door, closed it and then locked it. The sound of the key turning in the lock did a strange thing to my breathing. I sat upright in bed and watched him as he shuck his garments. This man. The king. My husband.
He touched me. Forced my legs apart. Broke me. I remained quiet. Because mannequins don’t scream. Mannequins don’t cry. But. Mannequins do bleed. I bled.
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like if the shape of your lips, the size of your eyes, the straightness of your teeth determined the person people thought you were? Have you ever felt that strangers measured the sway of your hips and calculated your morals accordingly? Felt the way their eyes took off each item of clothing you wore and look at you naked. What it would be like if the length of your neck, the shadow cast by your eyelashes and the colour and curl of your hair were topics of intense conversation.
Your voice is of no consequence. They prefer you silent.
Do you know the feeling when what you look like becomes who you are?
It feels as though you are living in a world where every single thing and person is a mirror. And all you see as you look around are reflections of yourself. Specific flavors of reflection. Kind ones, cruel ones, ones that show lust, pleasure and envy.
You want to shatter everything around you because you don’t want to look at yourself again.
The king, my husband, had a daughter. Two years younger than me. But he wanted a son. He wanted a son very much but no matter how much I bled, his seed would not take in me and my womb remained empty. I would have told him that mannequins can’t procreate but he didn’t like it when I spoke in his presence.
I was seventeen when the king, my husband, was killed in an accident. It was midnight when we got the news. He had been returning home from a visit to his western provinces. The horses had been spooked, they said. He had broken his neck in the fall. A snake was scheduled to be hanged for the death of a king.
We waited two weeks after the funeral for any illegitimate man children to come forward. To claim the crown. There were none. He had sired none. Some said it was because he loved his wives. Others said it was because he couldn’t.
I became Queen on a green Thursday morning. It was spring. Bluebells grew profusely. The king’s daughter looked at me warily. The mirrors multiplied.
The king’s daughter and I were not friends. It is difficult to like a child whose father makes you bleed. But she was not my enemy. Not even when the mirrors started reflecting her too. My world became brittle and I was held into place by men who directed the world through my hands. They were trying to refashion the mannequin into a puppet.
One day they told me that the king’s daughter was to be married off to a man countless years her senior. I didn’t like the king’s daughter, that is true, but I did not want her to bleed like I had. So I told her to flee. I bade her go. I told the woodsman to take her away to a place she could be free.
They turned on me when they found her gone. The king’s people. They called me jealous, they reflected me as ugly. The whispers began when I entered a room, an obeisance constructed of mockery and buoyed by sneers. It didn’t matter to me. Mannequins are impervious to thorny words.
It was a Friday when I found the king’s daughter in my chamber. The air was stretched tight between us. She asked me why I had sent her away. If I was afraid that her lips were shapelier than mine. At that moment, in that question, the mannequin queen and the king’s daughter came to crossroads. We looked at each other for the first time: she, a princess and I, more stolen child than queen. One bred in captivity, the other forced to live in it. One wanting to fly and the other wanting to gild the bars of her cage a square gold. We looked at each other, the orange twilight creating shadows, and I made a decision.
I was nineteen when I fled the king’s ghost, the king’s castle and the king’s daughter. I left behind the mannequin princess and the body of a queen. I removed the rouge from my cheeks and the gossamer silk from my skin. The mirrors began reflecting someone else and the mannequin queen became a villain, a corpse, reanimated, a disappearance, a mystery.
It was a Tuesday when I reached home. My mother still wore those brown sack-like skirts of hers. My father cried when he saw me. There were fewer chickens in the yard and the sky was grey.