Clouds of Gold

Once upon a time, there walked a boy through a forest. Following close behind was his blue-coated cat. The boy, whose name was Orfeo, was sniffing from a cold, and the cat was keeping its eyes trained for birds in the branches above. Both of them were too distracted to notice the bicycle speedily approaching from behind.

The large woman riding the bicycle was also at a disadvantage, as she was hefting a cumbersome sack across one shoulder. Although she was a physical woman, she had now been cycling for most of the day with this sack of tulip bulbs. As such, she was caught unawares when her body suddenly collided with the boy, both of them tumbling from the road into a ditch. The cat gave a yelp and sprung into a tree. The sack flew into the air, its contents rolling into the undergrowth, and the bicycle crashed against a chestnut tree.

The gardener groaned. Orfeo said nothing, as he was trapped beneath her. He glowered as he extracted himself and stood. The gardener checked her limbs for breakages.

"What on earth were you doing in the middle of the road, stupid boy?"

"And what business have you," Orfeo exclaimed, "running down young men with a sack across your eyes!"

"Yes, answer yourself!" the blue cat growled from her branch.

"I have been riding through this forest since dawn, carrying bulbs for the King's garden. Now look at what you have done—I'm ruined!" She gestured in despair at the bushes. Her face bloomed beetroot. 

"The king?" the boy sneered, "But you are far off course; the king's city over the other side of the mountains. Are you mad?"

Hurt by these remarks, the gardener explained that in the middle of the forest was a castle, which the king had claimed many years ago in a war. This castle was surrounded by gardens of every kind, requiring an army of gardeners to keep it from returning to wilderness. Every day, legions of wheelbarrows had marched through the grounds, clearing windfall, repairing the battered topiary, and cleaning the fish ponds. Only once she had defended herself would she apologise.

"Oh, that's okay. You've jilted my cat, however. She tells riddles, you know."

"Really?" she eyed the cat with suspicion.

It peered down from its branch, grinning madly. "Well; what walks on four legs in the morning, two at midday—"

"Uh…I never learned to read,"

"Oh, but that's terrible, you poor thing," said the boy, "I have read for as long as I can remember. I even feel sometimes as if I had read everything that has ever been written."

The castle, the gardener boasted, had a library absolutely crammed with books. He could hardly have read them, she reasoned. But this only succeeded in whetting his curiosity. Orfeo's face turned pale and he begged her for access.

"Certainly not! The royal family would be disgraced."

"I hardly think so. I'm very careful with books. And besides, my career is in reading."

At this point it should be explained that the boy suffered a terrible curse. How it was factually laid is not now known, but suffice it to say that the boy had offended a librarian, and had since developed an incurable addiction to reading. He read his entire town out of books, and so was forced into adventure.

Now, having read as much as he had, Orfeo was not without cunning. He parted with the gardener amicably enough, and watched her diminish to a speck. But he was sure to follow the thin line of mud left by her bicycle, until he arrived at the gates of the castle. Its stones were pupil-black and covered in moss, and birds had made their homes in its windows. But the surrounding gardens were graceful: every hedge was trimmed within an inch of its life, and not a pebble sat out of place along the neatly-raked pathways.

Creeping forth stealthily, Orfeo made his way into the castle and up a flight of broken stairs until he could survey the garden from above. The gardener was there, pulling weeds, but no other soul was in sight. In fact, she was the only gardener left in the whole castle. Orfeo watched as this stout little woman yanked at a stubborn dandelion, then patted her chest. To his surprise, she next clutched her throat and keeled over into the earth. Perhaps it was the sun, or perhaps it was the daylong tulip trip. In any case, some mystery attacked the arteries of the gardener at that moment, and she was overwhelmed. Orfeo raced down to find her irrevocably dead, victim to a fatal heart-stopping dandelion.

Before the sun had set the woman was buried in one of her beloved garden beds, a rose planted atop the mound in place of a headstone. Orfeo had never seen a dead body before, and had no idea how to feel. People were supposed to cry. All Orfeo could muster was a vague feeling of regret, but that was hardly enough to produce tears. He retired to the library that evening, falling asleep amongst piles of ancient books.

Upon waking the next morning, the sky bright and the breeze fragrant, Orfeo decided to stay. And, since he was surrounded on all sides by books, he attended the task of reading them. Every evening the cat would bring him small game from the forest, and Orfeo filled his pockets with berries whenever he ventured out himself. The further he buried himself in books, the faster the days flew by and the longer grew his hair, yet not a wrinkle appeared on his face. The moon circled with dizzying speed, and the yearly cycle of the sun and the seasons, but it seemed they passed too quickly to catch. While Orfeo remained in labyrinths of prose, the forest steadily claimed back the gardens. His red-gold hair grew down like Virginia creeper, winding out all the windows and into the flowerbeds. In what seemed like no time, a copper-coloured network of hair, all atwitter with woodland animals, choked a large part of the forest. Outside, the centuries passed by like leaves in the wind, but in his tower of books, Orfeo remained young as the day he arrived.

- - - - -

In a city bustling with traffic, the current king had sired a girl with a hole where her heart should have been. The child was healthy, her complexion normal, and her pulse constant, but for some reason unguessed by the many doctors in the king's service, there remained a cavity in her tiny chest. 

The king named her Candice XI, after himself and the long line of rulers before him. From the time she could crawl, the girl grew vigorously. Royal blood pumped mysteriously through her veins without the aid of a central organ, and so, seeing how the child suffered not a whit from her deformity, the doctors closed their files and left Candice's case to God. 

But strangeness of any form is fodder for talk, and talk the townspeople did. Rumours circulated that the girl was cursed, or the progeny of a demon. By the time Candice was old enough to talk, the people had even more to add to rumour, for the Princess was mute. Although she could cry, and even howl in pain when once she caught her finger in a car door, she never uttered a single word. She understood others well enough, following instructions and replying with vague gestures. 

One summer as she lay dozing, a brightly coloured bird flew down and landed in her chest. This odd bird came from foreign lands, carrying a clawful of red-gold strands with which to make a nest. Finally, it had found somewhere warm and safe enough to begin. In no time, it built a nest in the heart of the Princess. Singing a song to the sky, it closed its jeweled eyes and slept. 

The Princess woke to discover the intruder and its new-made home, but could not evict the creature. It was so colourful, its feathers so warm and soft against her skin. And so it was that the bird slept during Candice's waking hours, waking to sing as the Princess slept. All who heard the bird's song were moved to tears, and soon a cult of admirers kept late hours just to hear it. Below the window of Candice's room, a crowd of devotees gathered each night, all of them streaming with tears and beating their chests in passionate despair. In the morning, the abandoned lovers and worried relatives lined up at the palace, waiting to lodge complaints.

"The bird must go!" Ordered King Candice X, glaring down at his daughter "This is a public disgrace!"

Candice XI frowned, gesturing with both hands over her chest to the effect that she would do no such thing. It had become her dearest friend, and provided her dreams with indescribable sweetness. No, she simply would not go.

"Then you must go, although I wish you might be more reasonable. Perhaps you can find its home across the mountains, and cure yourself of this silliness."

Such was her father's advice, and so, seeing no alternative, Candice packed what was required into a small orange scooter, and set off in search of adventure.

The Princess rode through mists and hailstorms, along the spines of wintry mountains, until bright sunlight broke through the clouds. One green Saturday she entered a forest. A road spun its way between budding chestnut trees, lifting her spirits a little. The bird in her heart crooned happily, distracting the Princess so suddenly that she ploughed her scooter straight into a tree. Candice sat up in a ditch, shaking her limbs to find that on all sides nodded the blooming heads of tulips. Odd, she thought, and proceeded on foot.

As the trees clambered closer, she noticed here and there strands of a strange red-gold vine. A few paces more, and the troublesome web clotted every twig and limb. As it slowed her progress, Candice snipped at the strands—of hair! it was hair!—with a pair of scissors from her backpack. And she couldn't help thinking, as the bird whistled coyly at her breast, that its colour was not unlike its own autumnal plumage. The nest that rustled at her chest seemed spun from the very same stuff. But the night was descending and her provisions were low. Soon she was feeling her way through the tangle and fumbling hopelessly along the forest floor. She tripped and fell, headfirst, into a cradle of hairs strung across a ravine. Candice flailed in midair, suspended over emptiness. Resigned, enclosed, she let her arms drop. Something moved below. Was she to be eaten by ogres, caught here in a net like a crayfish at market? The something slunk closer, breathing against her cheek. It spoke in a voice like old velvet, "Well-well. I suppose you'd like to be freed?"

The Princess tried to gesture a 'yes,' but it was impossible. The something, which was shaped like a cat, growled. "Answer me this; what walks on four legs in the morning, two at midday, and three in the afternoon?"

Another silence, followed by a feline sigh. "Well, if you're not in the mood for riddles, I'll see if my master can find some use for you."

With that, the cat unpicked the binding strands, and soon the Princess was on her feet and walking again through darkness. At length, they arrived at the castle gates. Its form stood out like a sea anemone against the stars, covered with a thick mane of hair. A single candle illuminated one tower window.

"My master keeps himself there. He would be glad of a visitor, if you can find your voice for conversation." And with a sarcastic grin, she vanished. 

Candice shuddered, but was glad at the promise of shelter and warmth. She entered the doorway and followed a flight of steps to where a crack of light gleamed. She thought it proper to knock.

"Come in." Orfeo, his face bathed in candlelight, kept his eyes on the page. His red-gold hair spread out in an aura, trailing down across piles of books and wandering upwards, right out the window. Candice waved a hello from the doorway.

"Well? Can't you see I'm busy?" Orfeo squinted at the Princess, one index finger marking his place. He looked tired, but not a day beyond youth.

"My cat has obviously asked you a riddle. I suppose you're replacing the gardener? Well, don't mind me: I'm just a wretched bibliophile. I've got a lot to read tonight." And his gaze returned to the page. A while later he looked up to find the Princess still there.

"If you don't mind heating up leftovers, there's pheasant in the kitchen."

In the fridge, as promised, lay the plastic-wrapped remains of a pheasant. Candice portioned some out and placed it in the microwave, watching it spin. What a strange place this was—with this beautiful boy lost in a pile of books. And his hair! Its prodigious tresses coiled around everything. Had he been in that room for so long? But he was, so she thought to herself, not so terrible to look upon. She fell asleep that night in a warm nest of red-gold hair, thinking fondly of his delicate chin. 

As her snores unwound, the bird in her heart raised its head and started singing. The tune, so achingly pure, filtered up the stairs, into the chamber of books, and settled itself in the crook of Orfeo's ear. He stopped reading. What was this? Why did he feel like throwing himself from a bridge, or howling a plea to the moon? Why were his hands shaking at the page? With one swift jerk he tore it right out. Snatching up a ballpoint, he scribbled a love-letter to nobody, uncontrollably inspired. That letter contained the essence of a thousand thoughts, a million sentences, memories of paragraphs and plotlines that twisted through landscapes of pure passion. All the stories that had ever streamed through Orfeo's head now coalesced into fresh new compositions beneath the ballpoint pen. He finished writing with his pulse drumming at his ears. Now what? How to make the letter reach the singing lover? He could fold it into a paper plane, or he could wrap it over a rock and try hurling it. But how could he be sure the note would not be lost? 

The blue cat appeared then, purring, "Of course, I would be happy to deliver your letter myself." And she tried to keep from licking her lips. Down to the kitchen flew the dusk-blue cat with the letter of love, tiptoeing light as she found the form of the sleeping Candice. The bird at her heart was crooning, 

Oh there's nothing at all
like the maritime roar, 
how dancing with glee 
I surely will be 
when I reach my sweet love
on the peppermint sea!
Oh joy! Oh joy!
To joy your voice employ!

But there it stopped short as it noticed the cat. So courtly she posed, the letter outstretched, that it dared not stir. It was then the cat pounced, letting the letter fall and her fangs unfurl, lunging right at the poor bird. With one raucous shriek it lifted up and out the window. The blue cat followed, cobalt tail trailing after. 

The Princess awoke with a start. Gone! Her heart was hollow as a breadbasket. She touched the space where the bird had been, finding there the envelope. She broke the seal and read. 

Candice had owned volumes of the finest poetry, spent moonlit nights on windy mountaintops feasting on lines delicate as gossamer, but never had she read a letter so personal and pained with love. It smote her like a wasp's barb. When she read, "yours eternally, 'til heaven falls to earth and ever after thence, your love, Orfeo," she nearly had a seizure. Love: what was that? Was this boy a maniac? Love, like a question mark, curled at her throat.

She heard a sound from the library; Orfeo crying alone. Candice climbed the steps and stood at the door.
"Is that you, my love?" Tears streaked his china face. "But you're not my love! Where is the voice, where is the song, why has it stopped?" He wrung his hands, paced the room. His centuries of isolation had made him so vulnerable to music. The song spread itself through him like an infection. 

Candice's smile fell then, as she realised this familiar story. She pulled aside her shirt to show Orfeo the emptiness that bird had left behind. On the back of the letter she wrote something and gave it back. At this, the boy stopped his crying. Not knowing what else to do, he took a letter-opener from the desk and began hacking away at his hair. He screamed at every painful slash, until Candice fished in her pack and retrieved her scissors. She held them out and he took them, snipping at the strands and letting them fall out the windows. Soon he had nothing on his head but tufts of reddish fuzz. 

Princess Candice stood with her hollow heart, and beside him the stricken Orfeo, holding the very last hair that ever graced his head. Not knowing what else to do, Candice laughed. Her laugh rang out like silver coins, spilling down to the deepest dungeons. It was the laugh of a Medusa, or a saint. It lit up the forest like a beacon, mad and wonderful. And it is true that laughter breaks all curses. She had written, Are you alright?

"No. I am not alright. Nothing is alright. Nothing is explained. Nothing makes sense. Except—I don't feel like reading a single story for as long as I live." And he laughed as well.

In the sky above them lifted clouds of red-gold hair, passing by like a crowd of kite-strings, like a floating sea of auburn ribbons set loose from the forest after so many centuries. The woods unwound from Orfeo's hair, blossoming and groaning green in the shaking of spring.

- - - - -

Although Orfeo never again read another story, he wrote many, and thoroughly enjoyed reliving his memories on reaching senility. Candice featured in some of them. Sometimes they were trekking through deserts, and at others they were sailing on mountain-high seas. Candice herself grew old as altar wine, and after many strange adventures, died one innocuous night in her sleep. The cat remained in the forest, smiling as she watched the two humans disappear over the horizon. She gobbled down the bird, feathers and all, chewing on the bones for many happy hours. As the sun dropped to the west and the trees let loose their perfumes, the sky-blue cat hummed herself a tune and tried once again, in passionate desperation, to think up a new riddle. And that is how it happened.