Somewhere in the middle of a blue, blue, sea was a group of eight islands: the Wei archipelago. Western Wei had six islands and Eastern Wei had two. The islands were always ruled by Queens, not Kings, but the Queens took consorts whom they called ‘King’. Queen Wei’me XXV, who lived in a palace on the main island, Wen, had married King Wei’nat. The King was joyful, strong and handsome, and the Queen, who was rather plain and sickly, always felt beholden to him for marrying her. However the King loved his Queen very much and, over the years, she bore him several children: the princesses Wei’wei, Wei’nau and Wei’dem; the princes Wei’wauri, Wei’bodda, Wei’wok. The seventh, and youngest, child had been sent away, for reasons that will become clear, to a different group of islands to be brought up. She was called Wei’natme (after both her father and mother).
Sadly, after many battles, the King died and Queen Wei’me had continued controlling the islands alone and, without the loving hand of her dear husband to moderate her, bringing up her children with fierce authority. She became an increasingly sad and fearsome ruler.
Like their father, King Wei’nat, the princes had a carefree attitude to life, preferring to enjoy whatever the new day would bring and go to bed each night thankful for life and eager for tomorrow. The princesses, on the other hand, were like their mother: always looking back at the hour before, jealous of each other and generally discontented. Over time, as they each came of age, Queen Wei’me’s children went away to live in their own islands, in other archipelagos, where they married and had children; some were so afraid of the Queen’s fierceness that they went far away, almost to other seas entirely.
After many years the old Queen became frail and, as she expected to be soon reunited with her beloved King, she called for a council of her children to see who would become the next ruler of the whole Wei archipelago. However none of the princes and princesses would come; Princess Wei’nau thought that there were more pressing things at home, and could come to see her mother ‘nearer the time’; Princess Wei’dem was sure that it wouldn’t be her that was made ruler, as it (whatever ‘it’ was) always happened to benefit somebody else; poor Wei’wei could never get beyond the nagging doubt that she had forgotten something more important than the thing right under her nose and, consequently, never left her palace. The Princes would never rule anyway, so Wei’wauri and Wei’bodda were on permanent holiday and could not be contacted. The other prince, Wei’wok, had formed a successful little federation of his own with some other islands and was too busy. But, most of all, they were all still afraid of the Queen, and agreed it would be best to send an emissary to represent them at the dowager’s bedside: so they sent for Princess Wei’natme.
Wei’natme was also still afraid of the Queen but wanted to please her brothers and sisters, and perhaps return to the body of her family, so she agreed. Having been brought up without the influence of either King Wei’nat or Queen Wei’me, Wei’natme was, in many ways, quite unlike either of them. She was gentle and pretty but, unlike her mother, unconcerned about her looks. She was quite brave and carefree but, unlike her father, diligent. She had married a commoner and had only one child, a daughter, but lived an independent and fulfilling life as a teacher.
The old Queen Wei’me was both happy and sad, and perhaps a little guilty, on seeing Princess Wei’natme. The years of separation, and her memories, had led her to assume all kinds of things about her daughter, things about her beliefs, her attitudes, her likes and abilities. For her part, Wei’natme assumed only one thing: that her mother did not love her because she had sent her away. The Queen hid her happiness on seeing her daughter, even though she reminded her of her beloved husband. Instead of saying “Hello, how are you?”, she said “Why have you come, I called for the others?” and, instead of saying how nicely she had turned out, she said “I preferred you when your hair was shorter”. Wei’natme was hurt at first, and then angry, for it seemed as if the Queen had, indeed, not loved her – and still did not love her. But she had learned from teaching that not everyone knows how to say what they really want to say. She supposed that the Queen could not acknowledge her daughter’s beauty because it was a painful reminder of her handsome lost husband, and she could not say “I love you” because it was too painful to face up to having exiled her.
The Queen, in her anger and loneliness, found it easier to fulfil her fear that her child hated her by antagonising her. And she preferred to be proved unhappily right than happily wrong because, in sole control of her children and her islands, being right had always been the one thing she could be sure of. She brooked neither disobedience nor contrary opinion. They stood in silence for a while as they wondered how to bridge the gulf between them. Wei’natme spoke first.
“I have come because my brothers and sisters would not, or could not – perhaps you should ask them, rather than me, why they are not here. I am as I am, and I please myself, and my husband, with how I look and what I wear. Since you seem to dislike me so, perhaps I should go away again?” Queen Wei’me was shocked by her daughter’s directness, for it had been years since anyone had dared speak their mind to her. “Disobedient child! How dare you speak to me like that – I am your Queen and your M….” She stopped, as the word ‘mother’ was stayed by Wei’natme’s gentle hand on hers. “Yes,” said Wei’natme, “you are my mother, but not my Queen any longer – remember I live far away from Wei, where you sent me. And as for ‘disobedient child’, I am grown and married with a child of my own. Perhaps we can agree on ‘respect’ as a place to start?” The old Queen rose from her throne, with such pain and difficulty that Wei’natme moved to steady her but was brushed away. “I am tired”, said the Queen, “come again tomorrow and we’ll talk about your respect then.” And with that, she went to her chambers.
The next day Wei’natme was by the harbour, arranging for a boat to take a message to her husband, and buying some cloth for a child’s dress, when the Queen’s secretary found her. He stayed only long enough to announce “Her Royal Highness, the Queen Wei’me, commands that you attend her at once – come with me”, before turning on his heel and marching stiffly away. Wei’natme finished her purchase and sent her message before following, through the cool palms, to the summer palace where the Queen sat in the sun, by a well, reading. She was grandly announced by the secretary, “Her Most Royal Highness The Princess Wei’natme”, before he withdrew, bowing so low that his billowing sleeves trailed in the dust. For a long time the Queen did not acknowledge her daughter’s presence, instead she continued to read several more chapters before finally closing her book and looking up. “You wanted to talk about respect” and, roughly dismissing the servant who was fanning her, “then why did you keep me waiting – is that the kind of respect you mean?”
Wei’natme, trying to not embarrass the Queen, waited until the servant was out of earshot before replying. “No, Your Majesty, I meant mutual respect. I might ask why you kept me waiting? After all it was you who had me commanded to appear ‘at once’, when I was occupied doing something for my husband and my daughter, but you continue to read while I stand before you in the hot sun. And why were you so rude to your servant, she was only trying to help keep you cool?” The Queen hurled the book at Wei’natme, but her arm was weak and her aim poor, so it fell into the well instead. The well was all but dry, and Wei’natme retrieved the book and handed the muddy parcel back to the Queen, the ink running black onto her hands. “There, see what your anger achieves – you’ve destroyed something important to you”. The Queen tossed the book onto the ground saying, “I don’t care, it wasn’t very good anyway and I’ve plenty of other books…..and servants.” before tottering off into the shade and slumping, gratefully, into one of two elaborate cane chairs by a hibiscus bush. Wei’natme followed and, without being invited, took the other chair.
Wei’natme broke the awkward silence. “I like hibiscus, don’t you? The blooms are so vivid, and yet so temporary: here one moment and then gone.” “Rather like children,” said the Queen, with a contemplative voice that surprised Wei’natme with its sad and unexpected insight. But she took her chance and said “Then, why did you send me away?” Without showing any regret, the Queen said “I suppose I feared that your father favoured you over the other children and, if truth be told, over me. You were different: pretty and wilful. I worried that my place, as matriarch, would be threatened if you came to be Queen one day. And yet, of all of my children, here you are.” “Yes. Here I am. But if you were jealous of father’s affection, why were you so fierce with us after he died? I was so afraid of you that, had I not been sent away, I would have left as soon as I could anyway, just like the others.”
“I only treated you as I had been treated by my own mother and father.” Wei’natme was puzzled by this. “And did you enjoy being treated like that?” The Queen’s eyes were misted by tears, the first Wei’natme had ever seen from her mother, as she said “No, I hated it. But I was afraid, of my mother especially. She could be cruel and spiteful if you disobeyed her. But it was necessary, I realised that. The world is a bad place, fighting and danger everywhere. She taught me that no child has a right to an opinion about its upbringing. You are still headstrong – had you remained at court you would have learned that obedience is everything, whether it be your subjects or your children, otherwise there is only chaos and disintegration. Perhaps I should have kept you here. Obedience has held the islands together all these years.” Wei’natme, though filled with compassion for the pain of her mother, could not allow her to escape. “Compliance without respect, or reason, is not obedience – it is fear. Since father died your islands, your people, and your children, have been bound together only by fear, not obedience. They had respect for father because he showed them that life was for living, not controlling. You taught them only fear. And as for your servants, they may make your life tolerable, but you abuse them so that I am surprised any of them stay with you. If they had any choice I imagine you would be quite alone here.”
The old Queen stood up, as if to make an escape from the awful answers to the awful questions that confronted her, but she was frozen. The only parts to move were her eyes as they searched in vain around the courtyard, the sky, and the ground before her feet, for a way out. Wei’natme continued. “And what of love? Did you respect, obey and love father, or only fear him?” The Queen, her face no longer frozen, spoke through her sobs. “I do not know. I was not taught to love by my parents, so how could I know? When he asked me to marry him, I supposed my mother and father would be pleased that somebody would take me. I was still afraid: afraid to say no, afraid to disobey. Perhaps it was love, perhaps dependence, perhaps companionship, perhaps escape; and then there were so many children there was no time to find out.”
Wei’natme also stood, and held her mother warmly, but feeling only her stiffness and emptiness through the fine clothes, she stepped away. “I feel sorrow for you, mother, but not love. You cannot disguise your fierceness and brutality as a necessary lesson in obedience. It was only anger. You visited your anger with your parents, for treating you so badly, on us your own children. You were angry with us for preventing you from discovering yourself. You still are angry with us – perhaps now because we are there, while father is not. I believe that, if you had the power to turn the tides, you would prefer it if we had not existed. We’ll, I can cease to exist for you. I can return to my island and my husband and child. I can leave you here with your poor servants, your ‘obedience’ and your other books.” And, with that, she turned and strode toward the gate but, as her hand reached for the latch she heard the sound of her mother in her own flailing, angry, voice and stopped. Across the courtyard she saw, not a figure of hate but only a joyless old woman. Unlike her, she did not know love; unlike her, she feared the power of her own emotion and, unlike her, she stared down an empty well of happiness. For Wai’natme had learned love from her father, had recognised it in her husband and given it to her child. Her well of happiness was full, and always replenished. She had learned that the more love she gave, the more she received. Wei’natme returned to the Queen’s side. “I cannot pretend that I love you as a daughter ought to love her mother, but neither can I ignore my compassion. I will return to my brothers and sisters and tell them what has happened here, and then come again. Perhaps, by then, you will have thought more about respect. But know now that, when I return, I will not submit to any more of your anger or spite.” Queen Wei’me watched her go, still with a little anger, some pride at her daughter’s assurance but, mostly, sadness at being reminded of her lost husband by, despite her banishment, how very much like her father she was.
Wei’natme travelled around the other islands, visiting her brothers and sisters, bringing the news of the Queen’s health and trying to explain why her mother had been so harsh with them all. It was very hard for Wei’natme to be even-handed, for she too was still angry, and also sad at being reminded of her lost father. Yet she was proud of what the Queen had achieved as ruler. The princes and princesses were all still angry too, but more concerned for themselves and Wei’natme. They told her that she should return to her husband and daughter and forget her mother entirely. The Princes Wei’wokwok and Wei’bodda, and the husband of Princess Wei’wei were the most outspoken. “Why should we go to her now; it was her beatings, that drove me away as soon as I was old enough to leave? Let her face the consequences alone!” “She made Wei’wei’s life a misery and tried to stop our marriage, let her rot!” “Let her physicians and courtiers tend her, I still feel the scars of tongue whippings as if they were from a real lash. I’m not going anywhere near her.” The princesses, made meek and uncertain by years of being ordered what to think, did not know what to say. Wei’natme, however, had seen the terror in her mother’s eyes and could not forget it: she returned to Wen island, the capital, and her mother.
Queen Wei’me was happy to see her daughter again, but could not help herself and, instead of greeting her with affection, scowled and scolded her. “What a poor dress! You may live as a commoner but you don’t have to come here dressed like one”, and commanded “ go and see the court dressmaker before you come next time!” Wei’natme felt the pain of years, as if her ear was still being twisted or her mother’s knuckles were still being rubbed into the top of her head. She backed away, and blazed through her tears: “Next time? NEXT TIME? Why should there have even been a this time? I wish you could hear yourself, mother.” and she ran away. The Queen’s secretary found her, weeping, by the harbour. “Madam, the Queen is feeling unwell. She has asked me to find you and plead with you to come back to the palace. She sends this dress as a gift.” Wei’natme accepted the dress (for, in truth, her own dress was a little shabby) but refused to return, saying that, though she thanked the Queen for her present, if she was really unwell she should send for her physician. She would come again in a month, but only provided the Queen promised to be more civil, and with that she boarded the boat for home.
A month later the inter-island ferry was delayed by bad weather and Wei’natme had been terribly sea-sick, staining her new dress. The Secretary had been too afraid to relay all of Wei’natme’s message, especially the part about promising to be more civil, so the Queen, who knew nothing of weather and it’s effects on the lives of commoners, scolded Wei’natme again. “You’re late. And what a state you are in. I would never have dared let my mother see me like that.” But then, with a little more softness in her voice, she added “But, tell me, how is my grand-daughter?” Controlling her urge to respond to her mother’s criticism, or to run away again, Wei’natme replied “She is well, thank you,” and after a pause which she hoped the Queen would fill, but did not, “ as am I and my husband.” She took a cloth and cleaned her dress by the fountain, before siting down by the Queen’s chaise longue and asking, in return, “And, how are you today?
The old Queen, unused to the niceties of conversation between equals, or genuine enquiries for her health, could not measure her reply; she unleashed a torrent of complaint and, for good measure, some unconcealed jealousy: “How do you think I am… I am old and sick….and nobody comes to talk to me…..you’re young and pretty….and you still have a husband. How do you think I feel – how would you feel?” “Mother!” Wei’natme recoiled, ducking mentally under the distant memory of a slap to the head. “STOP! I only enquired about your well-being! If it is true that nobody comes to talk to you, why do you imagine that is? If you behave like this with everyone, you must frighten away all those who might come to see you – it is hardly a pleasant experience. As for me being young and pretty, and not old and sick: I expect my turn will come. Yes, I have a husband and a lovely child: it is the natural order of living things that mothers and fathers pass on to the other world before their children. Until that happens I mean to show my love for them every day, as they love me, not thrash around like a wounded animal at bay, spitting anger and frustration like you. Now, tell me again, how are you?”
The Queen subsided, her angry turmoil giving way to sadness, but did not know how to apologise. “You are right of course. I am tired and in pain. I eat little and my eyes are failing. It will soon be my time. You might think that I would be impatient to be free of pain and to see your father again – but I am frightened. I know, in my heart, that I treated him as I have treated all of you. He may not want to receive me in the next life. I cannot bear the thought of eternal loneliness.” Wei’natme comforted her mother but her kindly reply was firmly given. “Father loved you, even though you treated him badly. I am sure he will be pleased to see you, have no fear. Now, ask me how I am – and listen to my answer.” The Queen did as she was asked, and Wei’natme went on. “I had a terrible journey, and was very sick. My husband has no work and we struggle to buy bread and clothes on my teacher’s salary. My beautiful daughter has to work in the fields to pay for her own schooling and it costs a great deal to travel here: my brothers and sisters have paid my fare. You see, others have problems too.” The old Queen seemed, at last, to understand a little and together they walked slowly around the courtyard garden talking of ordinary things like flowers and the weather, until it was time for Wei’natme to return to the ferry boat and home. “Please come again – I enjoyed our talk” called out the Queen as Wei’natme left “and, perhaps bring my grand-daughter?”
Wei’natme conferred with her brothers and sisters, telling them of the Queen’s changing attitude. In spite of her own fear and difficulties, Wei’natme knew the power of love and tried to tell them that they, too, might benefit from seeing the Queen again. A month later, on her next visit to Wen Island, Wei’natme was accompanied by her own daughter, Poppy. The Queen looked sternly over her pince-nez (which she found more ‘regal’ than spectacles, even though it was difficult to see clearly with them): “Come closer child, let me see your face.” Poppy, who knew no fear, advanced right to the Queen’s feet and jumped up on her lap. “There granny” she said cheekily, “Is that close enough? What are those funny things on your face, they make you look like a … frog” “Silence!” ordered the Queen. “How dare you speak to me like that?” Poppy did not know that rhetorical questions required no answer. “But you’re my granny, how should I speak to you – you’re funny!” and she slipped from the royal knees and skipped away to investigate the garden. Once the Queen had recovered her composure, she was secretly amused by the bright little girl who inquisitively flitted around her courtyard with the butterflies, like them never settling for long in any one place. “You see how a childhood without fear can be, mother?” said Wei’natme before Poppy returned with a Hibiscus bloom which she thrust under the Queen’s nose. “What’s this called? It’s very pretty isn’t it – but this is the only kind of flower in the garden, why is that?” The Queen looked at the brilliant bloom and smiled at Poppy. “Not enough water in the well. But it does not look beautiful for long, child, – they quickly fade. And it has no smell, well, not a flowery one anyway. It should have a nice smell, shouldn’t it?”
“Well, I think it is lovely enough without a perfume, Granny”, said Poppy. “not everything in a garden has a perfume that we can smell you know, but everything has its place: the butterflies and the birds seem to like different things, don’t they?” The rest of their visit passed in rare gentleness and good humour but, after Wei’natme and Poppy had gone, the Queen sat alone watching the butterflies and the hummingbirds that had joined them. She thought to herself. “The child is right. Even though I cannot smell the Hibiscus bloom, the hummingbirds and butterflies are drawn to it. Everything does have its place and a purpose.”
And so it was that, over succeeding months, Wei’natme brought her brothers and sisters, one by one. With each visit, and especially those from Poppy, the Queen’s temper grew more even. The other princes and princesses shed some, though not all, of their fear and, with it, their envy of each other. In time, although she never quite got over being most important, and still barked at her servants sometimes, the Queen was more accepting. The well in the courtyard was less empty, the garden had more flowers and the matter of succession seemed, somehow, less important. And she thought that, one day, Poppy would be Queen – but only if she wanted.
© Andrew Gold
August 2002, revised January 2012