Flower Eyes

The goat was the tricky bit.

The bath had been easy. Her maid hadn’t even thought the request strange.

“The mistress were only brush and petals last May Day,” the maid had said to the cook. “What’s a bath by the river in the autumn chill to a creature made of hawthorne and chestnut?”

The fishnet was no harder, really. She’d only needed her eyelashes. The men by the boats were always so happy to help once they saw her eyelashes.

The spearhead had given her slightly more pause. Bit of a scheduling nightmare that one, really. Missing mass for a full year would have been noticed by the ladies who kept the altar dusted and swept, if no one else, and they would talk. She’d had to get help and take it in turns—her and her lover. They’d traded off Sundays—taking to bed every other week with some illness—sometimes twice in a row, just to keep the tale alive and believable.

The babe helped, too. Her husband was eager for a son to sit on his throne, so it was easy enough to plead the babe and take to her bed, guarding that precious cargo he’d wedged between her legs. He never knew she spent those days at the forge instead, pounding bronze to a sharp, fine edge, fit to slice through rib and muscle and set her free.

So it took some doing, but she had the spear and the bath and the net and the riverside, and now she was fighting with the damn goat, because it, at least, did not give a damn about her eyelashes or her newly heavy breasts—swelled with new milk now her daughter was born—or her tiny waist or her dainty ankles, or any other part of her frankly ridiculous form that so many men went absolutely witless for.

They’d made her this way—a weapon that was the sum of all desire. Crafted her from stick and cloth and flower and given her flesh. Flesh tailored to their own lust—her husband and his creeping uncle. They’d made her as a gift for themselves. A piece of the land they could conquer and own. They’d given her towering hills and soft, smooth valleys—curves to rival the rolling pastures and skin as bright as the primrose petal—and all this in aid of a throne and a son who’d been a cursed daughter instead.

But before the birth, he’d loved her. Her husband. He’d loved the idea of her, anyway. The reflection of his desire in her living body. He’d been so eager to please—so happy to tell her how clever he’d been. How he could only be killed by a river while trapped in a net and struck by a spear forged for a year while everyone else attended mass, with one foot in a bath and one foot on a stubborn, impossible, pigheaded black goat.

It was bad enough that it had to be black. Completely black—from head to hoof. She’d spent the last months of her pregnancy visiting farms all over the kingdom, looking for one goat without a spot of white in its coat. Her husband thought she was finally taking an interest in being Queen. Her people thought she had a fetish for livestock. They’d finally just started bringing black goats to her—a parade of them through the great hall that would have been extremely suspicious if her husband was ever home. He wasn’t, even for the birth. The right goat had arrived the next day.

It had arrived just in time, but the goat wouldn’t be moved now. The farmer had tied it up to a tree down by the river for her—blushing and muttering about witches and royals and the proclivities thereof—but even after she untied the goat, it wouldn’t budge. Her lover was supposed to be here. Maybe he could have led the goat, but he’d taken fright and run in the night. He wasn’t made of oak and nettle—not like her. He wasn’t made of much of anything—just dreams and wishing. Dreams that were gone now like everything else but the damn goat, which just sat before her and stared with dark, dull eyes, chewing bark. Blissfully unaware of her husband—finally home and easily persuaded to bathe before seeing his disappointment of a daughter—who was sitting in his bath by the river in the next copse of trees, nearly ready to get out.

She looked at the goat with its calm, dead eyes, and she envied it. That it could sit here in the wood and not be moved by force, or beauty, or love. How peaceful it must be, to sit and eat and not give a damn about where you came from and who brought you here and where they were going to drag you to next. The goat would not be dragged. The goat would not be born and wed and bred all on the same day, all without its consent. The goat would not go to the bath unless it pleased, and it did not please. It did not please at all.

The net would never be cast now. The spear would never be thrown. The bath by the river would only make her husband smell all the sweeter when he came to her tonight to start on the son she owed him.

She wept then—sunk to her knees on the forest floor, struggling to stifle soft, broken sounds that might alert her husband nearby. She hadn’t cried since they’d made her. Flowers don’t cry when you crush them—they curl up and shrivel instead. She had. She’d been born with all the joy of the forest and the fields at sunrise; she’d been wedded and bedded before sunset. And something inside her had shrunk—pulled away from the insides. Something vital and delicate and small. It had curled up and laid down, ready to die.

But she couldn’t die. She bled water, not blood. She was a flower—and a flower has no wrists to slit. She couldn’t leave, so her husband would have to go instead, and he would have, if it hadn’t been for the damn goat.

It was licking her face now. Lapping up tears. It should have been sickening, but she was beyond caring now. What part of her hadn’t been touched by worse? Pawing hands and searching eyes. Pounding, hammering flesh. The goat was practically an improvement. Her laugh was harsh and bright—choked back before the sound could carry too far. Maybe the farmers were right. Maybe livestock had more to offer than men.

Eventually, she ran out of water for tears. The goat still watched her with dull, dark eyes. Unbothered. She leaned in close and gave it a kiss on the head—right between the horns.

“Sorry,” she said, muffled by the dark, musty hair on its crown. “I know what it is to be led.”

She stood then and collected her things—the net she’d bought with her beauty and the spear she’d forged with her rage. She turned once more to the goat and bowed.

“Go,” she said. “Find your way to greener fields, my friend.”

The goat said nothing—just sat there and stared. Actually, she was lucky. It could have bleated and made a racket, and then her husband would rush out of the bath and find her here with all the ingredients for his death. Maybe that would be a blessing? Surely he wouldn’t keep a would-be assassin for his Queen? Maybe they’d let her become flowers again. Let her blow to seed. Let her fly in the wind—finally, finally free.

But the goat didn’t bleat. It didn’t make a sound. It winked, and it turned, and it trotted to the river and the copse of trees where her husband’s bath must finally be turning cold.

She watched it go—heading right where she needed it to be—and then she shook herself and ran, net and spear in hand.

She could hear her husband splashing and singing old songs about women won in battle. The goat stalked him through the trees—a hunter after deadly prey. Her husband’s back was gooseflesh in the chill air—broad and damp and clean. A warrior—beautifully made—all muscle and dark curls. She might have found him handsome, once, if he’d ever given her the chance.

He never saw the goat. He stood and the water ran—down round buttocks and powerful thighs, well turned calves and strong feet—one planted in the bath and one rising—suspended—over the back of the goat.

It landed and so did her net. He fought like a wild thing, but his fishermen knew their business, and the net held while she hefted the spear and heaved.

She was aiming for his heart, but the spear was heavy, and she missed. It pierced his ass instead. It traveled through and through.

He died. It took long enough. Long enough for him to see her there, kneeling beside him with the goat, who was bleating softly now and chewing on the drying cloth that would never be needed again. The goat looked content, and so was she. Even her husband looked peaceful, somehow. Like loving her against her will had been a prison for him, too. They were both free now, one way or another.

His uncle found her first. She could have run, of course, but there didn’t seem to be much point, now. Her daughter was in the castle, and her lover was probably halfway to the mountains, and her husband was dead. Her work was done.

Her uncle-in-law banished the goat. He tried to kill it, but even his magic couldn’t spell a blade to cut through its pitch black coat, and she was glad when the old wizard finally gave up and told the goat to go. The goat left immediately. It didn’t look back.

The wizard didn’t unmake her. She was ready for it, but something stayed his hand. He had built her, after all—of stick and cloth and all the flowers he could find. He’d spent weeks crafting her to be everything he could imagine his nephew would love, and perhaps he loved her, too. Perhaps creation comes with its own cost. He’d made her to be perfectly obedient in every way, but he’d given her a spark of his life as well. A sense of self that grew in her until the narrow borders of her existence became unbearable, as he would have found them unbearable. Maybe he looked into her eyes and saw himself and all his dreams that would never be.

So he spared her life, but she couldn’t stay. They both knew that. He had her bound and brought to the castle gate, so all within could see her banished. They poured out into the darkening hills—servants and warriors and lords. The nursemaid came with the babe—her daughter. She’d never known who fathered the girl—her husband or her lover. It didn’t much matter. The babe was hers, and they would hate her for it.

They all clustered around the wizard. He was speaking of grief and treachery and punishment. She was listening to the wood at her back—hoots and squeaks and wind in the trees. The rustle of life that would go on without her.

Or with her, as the case may be. The wizard turned her into an owl—with feathers like petals around her big eyes and creamy white plumage like rowan flowers. She was beautiful still and always. She was all he thought she should be.

He told the crowd this form would be the greatest punishment for her. She was born from flowers who drink in the sun, and as an owl she would never see it again.

The crowd wasn’t listening. They were distracted by the nursemaid, who had finally noticed that the babe in her arms was no longer a babe at all but an owlet—white and fluffy and squawking through a beak that was entirely too close to her nipples for comfort. She dropped the owlet with a scream, and it went. Over the crowd. Over the wizard. Over the brush at the start of the wood and into the trees.

Her mother watched her go with new night eyes. She was something precious and free and hers. The moon was bright—so much brighter than the sun had ever been. She beat her wings—

And flew.

Click here to read Rhiannon McCarthy on the origin of the story.

Image: “Goat” by Ida Svensson, licensed under CC 2.0.

Rhiannon McCarthy:
The goat’s the thing. This story didn’t make any sense until I realized how difficult it must be to get a goat to do anything on command. The original Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd that this story is inspired by glossed over that fact and many others. It was recorded by men who had a vested and natural interest in not being murdered by adulterous women, and it shows. The original tale is about conquering the land as represented by a woman’s body, deriving power from that conquest, and maintaining that power through judgement and punishment. It’s a patriarchal trifecta.

In this story, I set out to imagine the other side—the young woman who is born with all the promise of flowers in spring and immediately given to a rapist as a token of his power. The woman who has to be cunning and driven and resilient to manufacture her release—who has to plan and commit the least convenient execution ever devised and needs the help of one stubborn goat to do it. The woman whose final transformation—meant to be her ultimate punishment—turns out to be her best escape. The original myth is about ownership, control, and judgement; I hope my reimagining of it can tell us something about the power of our choices in the face of trauma and how they might grant us the gift of rebirth and transformation instead.

Rhiannon McCarthy
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