“My Lady All in Grey” by Michelle Labbé

Before she had even touched my hand, I knew we would be lovers. For a still-young comtesse, I was well-versed in the German vices, in the partaking of certain intimacies, woman to woman. There had long been those who suggested the queen was responsible for importing such acts to our court, but I could attest that these particular pleasures were known to sympathetic ladies long before l’Autrichienne and her fashions du jour ever crossed the border.

It was the queen’s doing that I was here at all, at this dreary cotillion with the cold North Sea rising almost at the doors. For at this coastal estate dwelt the queen’s latest favorite, and here the much-favored madame chose to hold a fête in the queen’s honor. Where the queen led, we could not but follow. Even her most virulent accusers dared not bar themselves from the opportunity to gain access to the innermost circles of the court.

If not for my ambition, I might never have laid eyes on her, this stranger who commanded my gaze and my senses. The merest whisper of her touch told me all I needed to know of her inclinations, and when her hand lingered I looked into her eyes and found something there I almost could not bear to behold.

There was no reason in the world why I should feel so moved. She was far from beautiful, simply clad, her hair windswept and dark. Had she no wig, no rouge, no powder? Yet standing unadorned among the bejeweled courtiers, she was like a moon that outshone the sun and all the stars in the sky. Her grey gown shimmered as if it were fluid, a part of her as much as her own skin.

To my great convenience, M. le Comte and I had reached an understanding long ago; we shared certain proclivities, and I was not expected in his bed, nor he in mine. Yet I was not entirely unfettered. If I departed for my chambers too soon, my absence would soon be noted, recorded, and whispered from ear to ear.

As the hours passed, I chattered with increasingly dull courtiers, looking beyond them when I could for a glimpse of my lady in grey. Whenever her eyes met mine, I made certain she did not mistake my overtures. I signaled with the furl of my fan, the turn of my wrist, the fluttering of my lashes. Not now. Later. Tonight.

At last my lady and I made our departures, exiting the ballroom through separate doorways only to meet in a side corridor. Once in my chamber we touched skin to skin, murmuring sweetnesses: I called her ma minette, mon chou. She laughed voicelessly, yet her eyes were grave. She whispered only, over and over, ma belle, ma belle.

Shed of her dress, my lady’s sweet flesh glistened seashell-white in the moonbeams that crept through the windows. She was softer than the satin of my sheets, more supple than the velvet of my counterpane, and her hair fell around us both like a waterfall of night.

When my breath returned to me, I could only whisper, “What are you?”

She did not answer; she only smiled and moved her slick hands across my skin. Only afterwards did she speak, her voice rough, her accent strange.

“I come from the north,” she whispered, her lips brushing the lobe of my ear. She would tell me no more. I pressed her for a name. The question seemed to puzzle her, and she did not reply.

“But then what shall I call you?” I protested, rising from my pillows.

She smiled and lifted her hand to trace a portion of my anatomy. I stifled a gasp as my flesh responded to her touch.

As we began anew, she said, “You may call me Griselle.” Grey lady. I might have laughed, but I was too soon distracted.

I woke once in the night to find I had encircled her in my arms. Her skin was damp; she had exhausted herself indeed. Then she shuddered beneath me, and her mouth formed words.

“They will come for you,” she murmured, or that is what I heard.

I reached a hand to her shoulder and she woke in an instant, her eyes wide and searching until they rested on me; then she smiled and drew my arms around her again without a word.

When the morning sun shone, too brightly, from my window, I was alone. I confess I was relieved. Much as I took pleasure in such well-spent nights, distasteful expectations from the various madames often followed. I loved often, but never more than a few hours at a time.

After arising and making my appearance downstairs, although I pretended to have no particular plans, my eyes searched the crowd of courtiers for my grey lady. I found her nowhere. Then, as I broke apart from the crowd, a tendril of breath brushed the nape of my neck. For a moment, I thought—but the whisper turned into a girlish giggle, and I knew.

Bonjour, Nanette,” I said. My interloper turned to face me. Nanette was a vicomtesse, and pretty in the way of the very foolish. No concern had ever creased her face.

“Oh, ma cherie!” Nanette exclaimed breathlessly—she was always breathless, a condition I attributed to stays perpetually laced as tightly as possible. To say nothing of her décolletage, threatening, as ever, to overflow from her neckline (though I would not have been entirely opposed to such a happy accident).

“How good to see you here, my darling Gabrielle! I knew you must be somewhere in this great manor; I tried ever so hard to find you last night, ma cherie, but it was quite in vain. Did you leave early? You must have left early,” she declared, all in one breath. I perceived tittering from the courtiers in earshot. “I have been half-mad since last we met, for want of your sweet company.” She contrived to look up at me from under her eyelashes in a trick I was intended to find entrancing, but as Nanette’s eyelashes were pale and short and rather sparse, the effect was spoiled.

The vicomtesse was my little shadow through the day, chattering in my ear, lightly touching her fingers to my shoulder, my neck, the small of my back. From time to time she admonished my silence, demanded to know why I would not entertain her (for had I not promised to entertain her?), then moments later apologized and embraced me, declaring that she would forgive me for all. As for my lady in grey, though I roamed from room to room, she was not to be found.

As night approached, I took my leave abruptly. My stays pinched. I needed air. I exited down a long hallway, set from floor to ceiling with mirrors in a cheap imitation of the queen’s palace, though it was far cleaner, not being overrun with guests and servants and even horses, all eating and drinking and defecating within those gilded halls. There I found a window and flung it open.

Moonlight silvered the tips of the near-black waves of the sea and the sands of the shore below. But the light reflected strangely off the water. There was a shadow beneath the surface. A shape moved unseen, submerged in the frigid water of the channel. At the shore it shuffled forth from the waters, a strange fat figure whom the moon bathed in charcoal greys and whites and blues. The sound of my breath became loud in my ears.

The light changed and I saw I had been wrong. The figure was not stout or squat but that of a woman, tall and slender, with pale skin framed by long black hair. Even from this distance she was beautiful, ivory face turned towards the moon. My pulse beat faster.

At that moment the figure turned toward the window. Lit as I was from the hall behind me, she could not have seen more than my silhouette, yet it was plain to me that she saw my visage as well as I saw hers. She saw and she smiled.

In the blink of an eye she was gone. A white streak darted through the water and became again a bright shadow beneath the waves. A set of memories flashed through my mind: the taste of the sea on her skin, the grey of her eyes, the slippery feel of her skin—I breathed in short, sharp gasps. I clamped the knuckle of one hand to my mouth to keep myself from screaming.

I stumbled like a drunkard down the gilded hall to find my chambers. All that night I lay atop my bed, awake in all my finery, telling myself what I had not seen.

The next day I was not seen without a glass of wine in my hand. Filling the air with chatter and filling my head with spirits, I did not leave room for the memory of Griselle as she slid herself into the ocean.

I was seldom afterwards without a circle of favorites, laughing often and loudly in their center. I proved again and again to various ladies of my acquaintance that if my eyes lacked a little of the flush of youth, my fingers and mouth had not lost their skill.

The days were as filled as the nights, though less pleasantly; my husband M. le Comte was often away at his cards-tables and hunting lodges, diminishing our coffers; management of our estate fell to me. Taxes rose as the war required, and rents rose correspondingly; the king’s little fashions were not cheap, nor were the queen’s, and someone must pay, after all.

It was some time later, when my memories had begun to fade, that I again encountered my grey lady. Her Majesty had taken a fancy to playing shepherdess and began to hold her gatherings in the out-of-doors. Five years or more had passed, yet Griselle was just as I remembered her. Even her gown, I thought, was the same, the shifting grey that reflected a thousand other colors.

I was about to call to her, Mademoiselle, there before all the court, but I remembered myself and stopped my mouth. It would not do to lose control. I brushed past her instead, and I thought I heard her say, How I have longed to see you again.

When the opportunity presented itself, I led her to my private apartments, and there we were wordless, communicating with nothing but touch.

Ma belle,” she called me again, and “Ma Griselle,” I answered. She laughed at that, a raw sound, and continued her activities with fervor.

I dreamed of the sea that night, and awoke when the first drop of water trickled down the corner of my mouth. My lady was awake, and she was weeping.

“I can feel it, ma belle,” she said, in her hoarse, strange voice. “The terror. The suffering.” Her shoulders shook. “They hunger, and have no bread.”

“You have had a bad dream,” I told her. “If you are hungry, you need only ring for—”

She stared through me. “Not me. The peasants. The people. Do you not perceive it?”

I laughed. “Go back to sleep.”

Her shoulders tightened, and she shook her head. “Ma belle,” she whispered, a quaver in her voice. “Will you not comprehend? They are angry, they are righteously angry. And oh, ma belle, their day is coming.”

She shuddered, but my arms anchored her in place. “Griselle,” I whispered against her skin, not understanding, “Ma petite,” pretty words and nonsense, anything to calm her.

Je t’aime,” I said softly, and for one sweet moment, I almost believed it. I brushed my lips light as a minnow across her shoulder. “Hush now, mon chou.

She calmed, her spine relaxing against me, and “Je t’aime,” she answered.

I was not surprised to wake alone again, my arms still stretched in a ghostly embrace. Not until I had rung for my breakfast and risen to don a dressing gown did I discover it. There in my armoire it waited for me, thrust into the farthest corner. My fingertips brushed against a mottled-grey bundle, slick and shapeless. I recoiled from the spongy-soft feel of it, and it slid from my grasp. I breathed through my mouth to hold back the stench of salt and fat and fish. A note, dripping wet, was pinned to it, the ink spiraling and barely legible. Ma belle. You will need this more than I.

I had attended salons here and across the channel; I read, when there was nothing better to do; I knew a number of contes des fées. I could no longer deny what she was. Not after I had twice tasted the brine of her, not after I had twice gazed into her eyes like the rising tide, in the dark of night, not after I had held in my hands her other skin, her seal-skin, the bristles of it prickling against my fingertips. A skinchanger, a seal-woman, a selkie.

I could not make sense of her message. Bien sûr, I could make sense of very little that morning. What I knew was that I would not tolerate this stinking, slippery thing in my chambers. I sent for my maidservant to dispose of it. I might have slapped her, the way she shrieked at the sight of the skin, but another whiff of its scent and I stayed my hand. If she had not the stomach to dispose of it, I would do it myself. I fancied I could see eyes in its wrinkles that seemed to watch me and mourn.

Enough, I told myself. I opened the window and donned a pair of gloves, then a second. Then a third. Thus protected, I looked sidewise at the bundle, grasping it by its edges as if it were a contagion. When it quivered in my grip I was nearly sick, but quickly flung the thing out the window like the contents of a chamber pot and fled the room.

When I next entered my chamber, I pulled down a map from a cabinet and studied it, tracing with my eyes the distance between the palace and the sea, though the lines on the paper wavered before my eyes. A thousand questions rose and presented themselves to me, but their answers were indecipherable. I rubbed my temples against the headache forming there.

In the months and years that followed, I found myself often forced to retreat from court to untangle the wretched state of M. le Comte’s oft-neglected affairs. Fractious tenants brought us nothing but late payments and loud complaints. It would almost have been droll if it had not been so infuriating. As if I had no greater troubles of my own.

One summer Nanette paid an unexpected visit, begging me to return.

“Court is ever so dull without your charms, your wit,” she said.

I was not interested, that day, in empty flattery, and I told her plainly to leave me to myself. As ever, the vicomtesse proved persistent, dropping hints as heavy as lead about a trip to Paris for which, she whispered to me (this, though we were quite alone), the vicomte, her husband, would not be in attendance. I closed my eyes against Nanette’s voice, but Griselle was waiting for me there, as ever.

“Very well,” I said abruptly. “I will go.”

Once my coach had set off, I conceded Nanette had not been wrong: I needed a respite, certainly from my lord M. le Comte’s dwindling charms. But that is not what I found in the city. Every personage of note attended salons almost nightly to discuss various matters of philosophy, of politics, of economics. To my pleasure, I found my name granted me admittance with hardly more than a wave of my hand, but I did not always care for the topics of discussion.

I said as much to a certain Madame Dumonde, who was herself a celebrated salonnière. I suspected that my invitation had arrived in part because she wished to gain access to exclusive connections of my own—but although I made a point of speaking prettily to her at each salon, I had no intention of granting such favors. The woman was fifty at least, and powder could not hide her flaws.

“I declare, Madame,” I told her, “the people here have debated back and forth for over a week on nothing more than the rights of man! So much of this idea that we are all somehow the same, though a mere glance into streets would prove otherwise. One need only observe and reflect a short while to understand our God-given positions in life. The Third Estate, the peasants, has nothing to do with the First.”

“Divine rights are not quite á la mode, Gabrielle,” said Madame Dumonde.

“Perhaps,” I conceded, “with our current king’s performance, that is not so surprising.” I accompanied my speech with a small hand gesture that made Madame toss her head in laughter.

“Even so,” said Madame, “I find the subject at hand most intriguing. I do not believe you heard Monsieur Franklin speak on the subject when he was a guest of the court these ten years past? He felt that the rights of all men—the Third Estate as well as the First—”

“The Third Estate,” I scoffed. “Yes, the peasants may ask to ‘become something,’ as they demand in their street-corner pamphlets, but pray tell, what have they done to earn the power they seek? They are petulant children, trying to form an assembly of their own! It is foolishness, is it not, Madame?” I batted Madame’s shoulder with my fan.

She frowned. “I think you make too much of this,” she said. “As Monsieur Franklin says—”

“You and your Monsieur Franklin. The américains make their little concessions, but naturellement, it is only men of wealth and property who are permitted to cast a ballot. Monsieur Franklin certainly charmed the king into emptying the royal coffers for their war, raising our taxes into the bargain, but I fail to see what was so revolutionary about the whole affair.”

“It is well-spoken, Madame, but there are members of our own ranks who wonder if it is not time for a change.” This from a young lordling, an upstart of the sort who might have caught the eye of M. le Comte.

Madame Dumonde nodded. “I do not disagree with you, Monsieur,” she said. “It seems our Gabi is quite old-fashioned on this point.”

“Is it not Lafayette who declares we must draw up a ‘Bill of Rights’?” the lordling continued.

“Lafayette!” I said. “The man embarrasses himself. If he loves equality so, let him be the first to strip himself of his titles, his land, and live among the Third Estate himself.”

The lordling had nothing to say to that, nor even Madame. I fluttered my fan before my face, hiding a smile.

The next night Madame offered a welcome change. She announced a guest of honor, come from across the channel.

“From England!” muttered the lordling from the night before. He spoke again, louder. “We are come to a pretty pass if we need les rosbifs to come to our salons and deliver their lectures to us.

“This mademoiselle,” said Madame, “is our guest tonight because she speaks on a topic that indeed we might learn more of. Our own salons have a proud literary tradition as well as a philosophical one. Tonight we shall hear a few of the contes des fées of England and Scotland. But I shall say no more.”

We waited in our seats. Our speaker did not take her place. My hands were restless; I teased and tore the edge of an elegant white nail. Madame called for silence and at last a small figure arose from an unseen corner and moved to the front of the room.

My throat constricted when I observed her dark hair and her simple grey gown. I knew her before she raised her head, before she opened her mouth to speak.

As the room watched, my Griselle announced that she had a tale to tell, and would tell it now. The low tones of her voice and the rapid movements of her eyes made my flesh prickle.

The room and the crowd all slipped away. My lady’s words moved me, and yet I could not hold on to their meanings. I retained only the sound of her voice and the shape of her story.

She spoke of the sea, of great white waves and glittering depths. She spoke of devotion and deception. She spoke of selkies, the seal-women who rose from the sea a few scant nights of the year to shed their sealskins beneath the moon. She spoke of the fishermen who dared to steal their true skins, entrapping them in human form.

She spoke of rough hands and salty flesh, of hasty weddings and round-bellied brides who turned their faces towards the sea. She spoke of skins affixed to door frames, dripping blood and oil, keeping silent watch. She spoke, too, of how all such stories end. How those stolen women find themselves again. How they would reclaim what was taken from them. And then, oh then, the blood would flow.

She signaled the end of her tale, and in the blink of an eye she departed from her place. I thought I saw the hint of a smile on her lips, but she vanished before I could be certain.

For another few moments the room was still. Disquiet crept across the faces around me. Madame Dumonde rushed forth, breaking the silence with a laugh like shattered glass. She was too late. Lords and ladies, academiciens and philosophes, all shifted and whispered and eyed the door. The salon was at a premature end.

Myself, I lingered in a daze, entirely insensible to Nanette, who chattered at me wanting to know if I had understood Mademoiselle’s accent, as it had entirely been beyond her comprehension, and it had been a wonder Madame Dumonde had allowed her to speak—had allowed such a strange woman into the salon at all, and wasn’t this supposed to be the very finest salon in Paris, well, perhaps not after this night, no indeed.

Was it too late to intercept my lady? I stumbled, trying to trace the path she had taken through the clusters of people, and there before me was Madame Dumonde, a formidable barrier.

Her eyes did not settle on me long, but roved about the room, from one corner to another. Her fleshy fingers plucked at the strands of her necklace, at the shimmering opals set there.

“I cannot understand what possessed me,” she muttered. “Why I stood back and allowed that viper to disseminate her tale. I can assure you, Gabi, she was not the guest I believed I was inviting, and I do not understand how—but it is too late now. The damage is done. What shall become of my reputation, I do not know. But did you perceive the meaning behind her tale?”

What the tale meant to anyone other than myself, I could not guess.

Madame shook her head. “She spoke of foxes and henhouses, masks and deceptions. Did you not comprehend?”

Such themes I had not heard, spoken or unspoken, in the tale my grey lady had told.

“The Third Estate. The rights of man! You heard these words fall from her lips, did you not, Gabi? Oh yes.” Madame gave me a significant look, the meaning of which was entirely obscure to me.

She continued to jabber, but I heard snatches of conversations as the departing précieux reported to each other.

“The voice of Death, and all who heard would be compelled to follow…”

“Promise of a firstborn child, she said, and only then…”

“Blood in the grass and blood on the knife…”

I had heard her speak so clearly. So had we all. I could not bear it; I fled to my coach, knowing what awaited me there.

“You have returned,” I said.

She nodded, but her eyes were the grey of a thunderstorm. She was not well-pleased.

“The years have changed you, it seems,” I said.

A small smile, and not a becoming one, crossed her face. “Have they indeed?”

“I have never before seen you so—” I hunted for the word, and could not find it. “Invigorated,” I said at last.

“I have many facets and many faces. Tonight’s was a warning, if you will heed it.”

My temper was short. “Do not speak in abstractions. Tell me what you mean,” I said.

“You rejected my gift,” she said.

“Your gift,” I repeated. “And what, pray tell, was I intended to do with a pile of stinking blubber?”

“That is my skin you speak of,” she said. “Freely I gave it to you! You left it to find its way back to me. Did I not make my intentions plain?”

“Was I to let it rot in my chambers? Stain the upholstery? Was I to nail it to my doorframe?”

She laughed at that, and she did not cover her mouth with her hand. Her teeth were white and strong and strangely shaped.

“You were to keep it safe,” she said. “I have pledged it to you already; it is yours now, as much as it has been mine these many years.”

“I do not ask for it.”

She laughed and shook her head. “You do not comprehend.” There was a bitter tinge to her laugh.

I had nothing to say.

“You do not see what comes.”

I had nothing to say.

Ma belle, do you not heed what you heard this evening?” Her pale eyes flashed with a fire like nothing I had never seen. “Je t’aime, you told me once, and je t’aime, I answer.”

Had I ever let those words pass my lips? I must have been overcome with Champagne.

“Take it and flee as far as you can,” she told me.

“I do not depart for the country until the end of the month,” I protested.

She shook her head. “You must go farther than that, ma belle. And faster than that.”

Something soft was shoved into my hands and she was gone, out the coach door before I could stop her.

In my lap sat a familiar bundle with an even more familiar smell. I pinched my nose, but it was too late, and I leaned out the window to be sick. I flung the sealskin out and it slapped onto the pavement with the former contents of my stomach. But something more remained: a note, stuck to my dress with saltwater.

It read: The blood begins to drip.

I cast out her advice as I did her gift. What reason had I to leave when I had only just settled? What waited for me at home but my dearest husband and his debts?

I stayed and the streets grew restless and I did not care, not until they were dangerous, and I could go nowhere. There were no more salons and no more visits. I had to find new ways of passing the time; most of them involved a bottle of wine. I drank when the peasants marched on the palace and I drank each time the king acquiesced to their demands.

The price of obtaining passports had risen to ten thousand livres. The royal family themselves attempted to flee in disguise—but our king, did not consider that his face was printed on every coin, the fool, so they were seen and seized and held at Tuileries, where I and much of the court soon joined them. I was no less a prisoner, but I was, at least, afforded all the usual comforts of palace life. A formidable wine cellar was not least among them.

From M. le Comte I heard nothing. I could not have; our lands were seized, our coffers raided, and my lord was discovered on the wrong end of a bayonet.

Nanette, the simple creature, had departed for England with her husband—but in a matter of weeks she returned, alone. With a set to her jaw I had never seen—or never noticed—before, she stood in front of what remained of our court and declared she would rather suffer beside her friends than flee to comfort and safety alone. In the face of such sentiment I knew not what to say, and so said nothing.

In the streets, tensions were as tightly coiled as the springs of a pocket watch. With arms from the Bastille and from each chateau they raided, the revolutionaries now comprised a formidable army. And still they were hungry for more. The blood begins to drip.

I saw the truth now, in the bottom of each wine glass. I saw everything Griselle had intimated. The bride would return to the sea, leaving only the blood of many years beneath the floorboards.

It was the hottest day of summer when the peasants—hungrier with each passing day, for an army was not easy to feed—burst through our doors with fraternité on their lips and vengeance in their hearts. It was not long before the lords and ladies were rounded up and the trials began.

Nanette’s was among the first, but she did not cry out when her name was called. My hand stretched to hers, and for a moment only, our fingers brushed together.

Those of us left behind tried to chatter amongst ourselves, but the words did not come easily, and we heard every word of every crude trial carried out beneath our window. Again and again came the questions. Had they plotted to restore the crown? Had they given aid to foreign armies? Would they swear, here and now, their loyalty to the revolution?

Oui, we heard in response. Oui, oui, oui, the words were sobbed, like pigs for the slaughter.

Only Nanette’s voice rose above the rest.

“No,” she said. “I am loyal to my queen. I am loyal to my own.”

Hastily we ladies huddled, chattered nonsense at each other, eager to drown out the ensuing uproar, the sentencing, the screams that were so unlike the ones I had pretended to enjoy coaxing from her lips long ago, in a different time.

I do not think her end was quick. From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the scene in the yard below. Then I felt a touch upon my shoulder.

I did not have to turn to know whom I would see.

Ma Griselle,” I said, when I found my voice. I did not ask how she had slipped into the chamber without notice. I knew she would give no answer that would satisfy.

Her eyes were clear, her hair black, her skin supple. She had not changed since that first night.

“Twice, ma belle, you have refused me. Will you accept me now?”

I allowed her to take my hand and lead me from the room, through a maze of corridors. She held out her slick second skin and my hands closed around it. I could no longer make out its scent beneath the sweat and filth and gunpowder in the air.

Griselle pushed the both of us into a closet, and there she sowed her kisses across my flesh. With each one I felt a little warmer, as if a cloak were draped across my shoulders. I did not perceive what she wrought until too late, far too late, when my faded finery hung loose on her form and the sealskin was nowhere to be seen.

With a final, lingering kiss, Griselle plucked my wig from atop my head and fitted it upon her own. She opened the door and took hold of my hand, motioning me to be silent. I wanted to speak, I wanted to scream, but I could not seem to.

Her footfalls were noiseless as she led me down halls and narrow staircases I had never before seen—perhaps the servants used these spaces, but I did not—while my own treads seemed unbearably heavy, though I was barefoot (had I always been barefoot? I could not seem to recall).

She opened a door and I was surprised to find sunlight streaming down upon our heads. I had not ventured outside for some months.

I tried to speak, but she silenced me, still leading me on down streets that were strangely bare.

“How many times must I show you what I am?” She asked, though it was with my mouth that she spoke. Je t’aime, you said to me long ago, and je t’aime, I answer you now, the only way my kind can answer.”

I began to understand, so late, too late. I did not want to.

Her voice turned colder. “And if you think,” she said, “that I do not understand what it is I do, if you think I do not know what you are, if you think I do not feel every drop of blood that has been spilled—” Her eyes were like tinder and flint (had they always been so?). “But ma belle, you are mine and I am yours, and so I give you my gift, for you sorely need it now.”

We stood at a bridge over the Seine. “Go,” Griselle whispered, and when I do not move, she squeezed harder. “Now!” she cried. She pushed me then, over the railing into the murky river-water, where I sank. I did not see them come for her, the faithful citoyens, did not hear them call her by my name. Under my dress and my wig, beneath her skin as pale as powder, I would not have known her from my own reflection.

Je t’aime, I had said to her once.

I had never said it again.

I did not see hands seize my flesh, her flesh. I did not see her body, my body, tried and sentenced and humiliated. Instead I let the water close over my head, her head, and I swam.

I swam to the coast, swam far from the sea that bounded my country and hers. I did not dare to meet her sisters to the north; I did not believe, somehow, that they would be kindly disposed to my lot. I swam, and I lived, and had only my thoughts for companions. Of how much and how little a life might be worth. Of Nanette, poised and proud as she met her fate. and at last I understood. I knew myself for what I was, knew all I had been granted and all that I deserved.

I swam and did not feel, for I was wrapped in layers of fat and skin. I wanted to weep, but my new eyes were dry. I wanted to scream but my new mouth would not let me. Nor could I form the words—je t’aime—that had left my lips so easily, the words that bound me to this body and this fate. I swam and was alone, and would remain that way. My lady had given me her life, and I could not take it back. I swam and knew myself for what I was and what I had been, knew all that I had been granted, and all that I deserved. I swam, down and down, and I will not rise again.

Michelle Labbé‘s short fiction has appeared in The Future Fire, Scheherezade’s Bequest, the anthology Heiresses of Russ 2011, and elsewhere. She lives in an antique New England farmhouse with her wife, their two cats, and at least one ghost. Follow her on Twitter @redheadedsnppet.