My First Death
“The Many Dresses of Leda Montague”
Perhaps I am horribly shallow, but my memory is fashion based. I’m certain after such a statement that no justification will make me seem more likeable, so I will not concern myself with impressions. Therefore, let me state it plainly: all moments of great meaning I associate with my wardrobe. Days in the past can blur into oblivion, but when coupled with a particularly fine gown they blaze into reality, as fresh and shiny as a newly minted gold piece. I love pretty things – and I love to be a pretty thing – that is how it started, and now I use my fashion sensibility as a means to capture time.
I always prepare a dress for grand occasions, and invariably the dress takes on an identity of its own. A simple means to manipulate memory, yes, but a very pleasant and becoming one, I assure you.
It started quite simply. I still have the dress I wore the first time I died.
Father had long been promising a sailing trip out in the Inner Sea. Mother had long been fighting him. With Mother, everything was excessive, thus all her vocabulary was filled with superlatives. In this instance I was “too young”, “too foolish”, “too precious”, “too” anything but equal to the privilege. I understand her worry now. Sea-faring trips were dangerous and I was only seven, and children, especially those under ten years, very often do not return to their bodies. It is theorized that as the young are so recently a part of the spirit plane they tend to return to that more familiar level of existence than stay here in this dim and dirty struggle of flesh. But I had no such thoughts or theories then; only absolute excitement at the prospect of leaving the shore behind and being encircled by the rise and swell of the ocean.
Father vacillated between his disapproving wife and his pleading daughter, and gave in to the one with the more adorable pout — me, naturally. He announced his intentions for me to go on an extended outing with his merchant flagship the Helene (named of course for my beautiful, and at this time very unhappy mother) as soon as shipments, time and tide accommodated – about two weeks hence.
In my delight I was as noisy and annoying as the seabirds that circle the docks. My elder and only brother, Lorenzo, who was then twelve years of age, resented my intrusion into his sphere of importance. His resentment was nothing new. He’d resented my appearance since birth, though both my parents laughed at his jealousy – “normal, typical, he’ll out grow it” – when in truth he grew into it, more each year.
Father’s ships had always been Lorenzo’s unique territory he could lord over me, but no more. I ignored his baleful stares and hatefilled glances, not because I didn’t see them, but because I knew it aggravated him more. Besides, I had more important things to do than notice Lorenzo. I had a dress to prepare, the first dress in my memory, my beautiful blue-green gown.
I had searched for five days in the marketplace and merchantiles for just the right fabric. I insisted that it had to be just the color of the waves on a sunlit day – green, yet blue, and just a hint of grey. Mother, rarely patient with things that did not have to do with her, was very indulgent in my search. She secretly rejoiced when I did not find what I wanted day after day, knowing in my stubbornness was the means to prevent me from going.
“Well,” she had sighed in mock disappointment, “if we cannot find the right color, your dress must wait, and of course you wouldn’t wish to go without it. Not on your first voyage. No need to rush such an important event, my Leda-pet.”
I continued looking while she was basking in the flattery of the fat purveyor whose merchantile we were searching. I didn’t blame Mother for not wanting me to go. How could she understand my desire when she was always violently ill at sea — very inconvenient for a sea-faring man like my father. She did love Father and his wealthy merchant fleet – just not together.
Just as Mother was calling for me to leave, I found it. Actually, my hand found it first, reaching under the rough folds of burlap and finding unexpected softness. I pulled a length of it out into the light. The weave of blue and green had a thread of silver grey throughout – the very color I had dreamed!
“Come look, come look, come see!”
Mother sauntered over, and held the fabric up with two fingers. She immediately assessed it as “too costly”, then “too poorly made”, but for me it was too perfect. Mother saw it in my eyes, both figuratively and literally. When she held it up to me she saw not only how much I wanted it, but how well it suited me. I had Mother’s pale coloring, Father’s reddish hair, but my eyes were all my own. Even at seven I knew they were my best feature, and I did not hesitate to use them to my advantage. Tearful eyes would never sway Mother. She practically invented that tactic. But fashion and beauty – ah! –her weakness!
“Leda, my pet, you have a discerning fashion-sense already! This is the very shade for you, just the color of your eyes. Now, stop looking like you would pay a king’s ransom for the stuff and let me see if I can wheedle the man down to duke’s ransom, or a baronet’s at the very least.”
I breathed easy, for Mother always got what she wanted, whether it was because she was the wife of the richest merchant lord of the Calien States, or simply the most beautiful, she never retreated and was never defeated. Even when she lost a sale she won, for the foolish merchant that incurred her ire would have a falling off of his profits to equal his worst financial nightmare. No one of consequence dared shop where Lady Botticelli refused to go. The fabric and the dress would be mine.
Barely a week later, it was all but finished, and I sat in my rooms working the hem. My nurse Memnet and the other ladies of my retinue had sewn the dress according to my own design – no ruffles, tight sashes, or bunchy tucks of fabric. It was a simple dress, with a square neckline, and straight lines, its only extravagance was in the sleeves which draped down past my knees. They were full, like sails, I explained. I held up a sleeve and admired it again, and the neatness of my stitches. I was not vain about my sewing, just aware of my unusual aptitude with needle and thread at so young an age.
I finished off a portion of the hem, and tied off the thread, but before re-threading the needle I couldn’t resist holding it up once more and looking in the mirror. Tomorrow I went to sea! At last! I held my dress close and spun around, my long braids and the sleeves spinning out with me.
I stopped with a dizzy half step when I saw Lorenzo. He and his friend Wesly were watching me from the doorway.
“Go away!” I ordered with angry imperiousness. Lorenzo just laughed and walked right in. Wesly followed. People say Lorenzo looks like my mother with his blond hair and blue eyes. I suppose he does look like her in a way, if you remove all the prettiness, and the strength.
My brother walked up to me. Though certainly taller than me, Lorenzo wasn’t tall for his age. He was scrawny and mean. He didn’t mind that his friend Wesly stood a full head taller, since Wesly always stood behind him. He knew his place.
“Get out of my rooms!” I stood my ground.
“Little Leda is going on a trip.” He pulled the dress out of my hands, and got the angry gasp he was hoping for. “Father says spending coin on your dress is a waste. I heard him tell Mother so.”
I knew he wanted me to ask him to give the dress back. So I did. Lorenzo tossed it back over his head to Wesly. As useless an action as I knew it to be, I chased after my dress and Wesly, who then tossed it back to Lorenzo. I remember how the sleeves fluttered over my head like the wings of a bird – and just as unreachable. Still I jumped and reached as they teased me.
“Father doesn’t really want you along,” said Lorenzo.
“Girls only get in the way on board ship,” agreed Wesly.
Ha. Lorenzo had been in Father’s way for most every voyage for the past three years.
“It’s my turn to go!” I made yet another futile lunge for my gown as it sailed over my head. This back and forth thing wasn’t working. I was too short. So, I forsook that weakness of mine and relied on a strength instead. I was short, yes, but I was pretty. Not that Lorenzo cared, but Wesly was another matter. I stopped the chase and stood in front of Wesly, hands outstretched beseechingly.
“Please, Welsy . . . may I have my dress back?” I was concerned for my dress and tired of the teasing, so the tears in my eyes were not fake, just a bit opportunistic.
Wesly looked abashed. His arm lowered. I almost had my dress, but as my fingers brushed it Lorenzo snatched it away.
“All this fuss over a stupid dress! Real sailors don’t wear such things!”
Wesly was tired of the sport.
“Come on, Lorenzo, leave it.”
I tried, foolishly, to appeal to my brother.
“Yes, please. I need to finish the hem. It’s almost done.”
Lorenzo looked at it appraisingly – then pulled out his boot knife.
The small knife-tip caught the neckline. Lorenzo’s smile was merry.
“Looks like it needs a bit more work!”
The knife slashed even as I screamed – then suddenly Lorenzo was slammed up against the wall. The air around us hummed . . . there was a faint burning smell. Memnet was standing in the doorway, her hand extended, her fingertips glowing faintly in the after-spell.
Lorenzo was terrified of my nurse, and especially at this particular moment. His eyes were wide, and his knees shook as he got to his feet. Memnet walked slowly into the room. She was old to me even then, but her eyes were always strangely young – dark and bright. Dear Memnet. She intimidated full grown men, let alone 12 year old bullies. As she advanced on my brother, he would have backed up even further, had his back not been against the wall already. Lorenzo had my dress clutched in one hand, and his boot knife in the other. Memnet’s repelling spell had not hurt him, but he stared at her certain she meant him harm. She was very angry, I could tell, but now that she was there to help me, I wasn’t. While Memnet had Lorenzo pinned under her glare, I walked up to him and took my dress back. Then I smiled at him and Wesly.
“You may go now.” I dismissed them, and turned my back as well. Memnet put an arm around my shoulder. I heard rather than saw Lorenzo and Wesly leave.
I sat on a nearby stool and Memnet knelt next to me while we surveyed the damage to my dress. It was worse than I had feared. A jagged tear ran a full hands-breath from the neckline down the front. I knew no matter how carefully we sewed it, the tear would show.
“I hate Lorenzo!”
Memnet gave a short laugh in her rough voice.
“Hate well, my little lady, but hate cautiously.”
She muttered something in her own language and I saw a trickle of green light come from her finger. She touched the torn gown. The thread glowed and squirmed like tiny worms as they rewove themselves. The repaired tear in my dress glowed faintly, then was whole. I held it to me – breathed in the scent that lingered from the spell – it smelled of fresh rain.
“Teach me to do that, Memnet!”
“Healing spells are not to be wasted on vain little girl’s dresses,” though she had done just that.
Memnet pulled a chair close to mine and sat, taking up the needle from the table and deftly threading it. She gestured for me to give her the dress.
“Magic wasted is magic that undoes us.” She began sewing the final length of hem along the skirt. “Lazy hands do not wield magic well.” She looked at me, as I gazed at her intently, but not understanding. “I will teach you, my little lady. All I know will be yours.” She held out her hand for mine.
I trustingly gave her my hand. Her touch felt like Father’s parchment scrolls, old, dry, yet smooth.
The needle stabbed into my finger like lightning.
I cried out and tried to pull my hand away, but my nurse held my wrist fast. Her other hand moved over my fingertip where a circle of blood was growing. I heard the words – strange soft syllables – saw the light come from within her skin, then flow to mine. The blood retreated. My finger glowed, tingled, and was mended. I touched my fingertip in wonderment. For just a moment the skin felt warmer, softer, then it was the same as it ever had been.
“Now, you.” Memnet gave me the needle.
I wondered what to do with it. I didn’t want to poke my finger again. She held out her hand to me, and nodded. She wanted me to stab her! I shook my head. Memnet put her hand closer and looked at me sternly. I never disobeyed her. So, I took a breath, and stabbed.
The needle only went into her palm a little, there was very little blood, but I felt awful.
“You feel sorry for hurting me?”
“You wish to make it well?” I looked at her expectantly. “A healer must want to heal. You cannot lie to the powers. Now . . . try.”
I had heard the three syllables briefly, but I knew them. I pointed my finger at Memnet’s palm. I wanted to undo the hurt! I murmured the three sounds.
From somewhere in my mind a place opened . . . the tiniest of cracks, like a door not quite shut through which a draft of air blows in. That was what it felt like. The draft blew through my mind, down my arm and to my finger, then out to Memnet’s hand. I saw the light mend her flesh! The tiny needle-prick was gone, then in my own palm, a pain –a tiny stab – then it too faded. .
I held out my hand and touched my palm. My nurse put her hand over mine, then clasped our two hands together with her other.
“Healer and healed share the power. It is no easy art – but you did very well, my lady.” Memnet’s smile has never been warm, but it fairly glowed at me then. She gave my hand a pat, then we returned to our work as if my first lesson in magic had never even happened.
The next day I was on board my Father’s ship, the Helene, wind whipping back my long braids like ropes freed from their mooring, my beautiful blue-green dress rippling in the wind like waves and sail. I explored every inch of the galleon, although I was not allowed to climb the rigging. I didn’t mind. I’ve never cared much for heights, but I loved the sea! The sea returned my affection, it seemed, for I wasn’t a bit sick, and ran among the sailors as if I were one of them. Naturally they made quite a fuss over me -showing off with fancy knots, swinging down from perches above, tossing me up and down – their little treasure they called me.
I stood on the forecastle, leaning into the wind and spray, riding the pitch of the ship and laughing as I was caught by a splash of sea water. Father came up beside me, and put an arm about me.
“My little Leda likes the sea, does she?”
I turned and hugged him about the waist.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!”
Father laughed and picked me up – though I was really too old for such treatment – but I knew he was very pleased.
“Shall we build you a ship, then? Call her the ‘Leda’?”
My arms flew about his neck as I squealed delightedly and kissed his bearded cheek.
“Can I help design her?”
Father laughed and kissed my cheek in return, put me down, then gave me a swat on the behind.
“Mind you stay out of the men’s way.”
I gave him a jaunty salute in response. He had never paid me such attention before! I knew he was fond of me, in a pleased but disinterested way, but this was a new happiness. He was proud of me. I was not just his pretty little pet. To think, a ship of my own! Not even Lorenzo had been promised that. Of course, Lorenzo had been responsible for nearly sinking at least three ships over the past two years. That may have had something to do with it.
By the next day we were well out of sight of land. We were the center of sea and sky and I was in love with it all. I tried my hand at anything the men would allow. I was worse than useless at knot tying, the rough rope was cumbersome and scratched my small hands, but I wanted to feel a part of the workings of the ship and the wind that made her fly over the waves. So I would hold onto the lines as the sails were played out, feeling the wind catch them, and pull the rope taut, often pulling me off my feet, hands still clinging to the rope, with the sailor behind me laughing. I’d drop down the short distance to the deck, shake my rope-burned hands, and smile. I often caught Father watching. The sailor working with, or more likely, putting up with me, would give my Father a respectful nod. Father would either pat my head in passing, or catch my eye and give me a wink.
Our third day at sea was ending. That evening I shall never forget. The sky was alight, every horizon trying to out blazon the other in color and beauty. Pink clouds and vivid blue were behind us, brilliant gold and amber ahead. Time seemed under a spell as the sunset stretched from one glory to the next.
I was in my favorite place, leaning over the rail at the bow, watching the sky and the waves as we cut through a path of gold, as if we were pursuing the sun itself. Someone came to stand at my right – it was Lorenzo. He had sulked below ship for the past three days, protesting my presence, but at that moment I loved him and all things living.
“Oh, Lorenzo, isn’t this wonderful?” I turned back to gaze at the green and gold-tipped swells. “I love sailing! And Father says he’s going to build me a ship!”
The sun winked behind a scarlet cloud when the push came – sudden, rough.
My surprised gasp was half yell as I pitched over the railing and into the sea. It was cold. Salty water stung my eyes, filled my mouth. It was quiet below the waves. I struggled toward the blurry light – faintly gold – for a moment I broke the surface, heard shouts, then sounds were swallowed with the air as my sea-colored dress dragged me down.
I remember being frightened, my heart pounding so hard it hurt against my ribs. The pressure grew . . . I fought against it . . . my arms and legs uselessly tried to climb up out of the water. I could fight the pressure no longer. I gasped. Coolness rushed in. My sight suddenly cleared.
I saw the great hull of our ship pass over. Then I saw shapes swimming toward me, like dark blue waves rippling under water. One materialized into an impossibly lovely face with coral hair drifting all about. I reached out to her, the mermaid smiled, and touched my cheek.
Then everything disappeared as light blossomed all around me and I floated . . . oh, the joy I felt! I was distant as a star, airy as a dust mote . . . drifting up, up, and up. I saw more light and brightness above me – I longed for it! But, there was a tug as if someone or something had a hold of my little toe. I looked down to see what was tugging at me, and I saw a circle glowing far below, like a fire in a hearth. It did not so much look as feel like home.
I cannot explain the rush of images that jostled and crowded their way into my mind. They were many for one so young – my father, mother, my nurse, and oddly, Lorenzo. If I didn’t go back I wouldn’t be able to punish him for pushing me. I wanted to go back.
That single thought sent me swift as an arrow toward the circle, stars streaming like comets, light fading until the one gold circle winked out into darkness.
I awoke to heaviness. I had been so light and now every limb felt like stone. My eyelids finally heaved themselves open. I was in a round room with white marble pillars, and elaborate gold leafing scrolled on the ceiling. I was home, in our healing circle, as naked as the day I was born. Appropriate, for this the first day of my second life. I laid there on the cool marble bench in the center of the circle and breathed. It felt wonderful to breath. The heaviness receded, but the disorientation remained.
My first hour back was full of sensations – after minutes of silence, voices, which became shouts, candles bobbing in and out of my peripheral vision. Slowly my world came into focus. I knew fully who I was. I knew my mother, tears streaming down her cheeks, and Memnet, calmly wrapping me in soft robes, speaking low.
“She is fine, Madame. Do not weep for this strong little lady. Send word to his Lordship that his daughter is well.”
I was in my own room now, lying on my bed. I watched as Mother swiftly penned a note on a small parchment, tied it into a scroll, then reached into the white-barred dovecote near my window, caught a dove and brought it out. She slipped the note to the tiny carrying case attached to the dove’s leg, then whispered the direction spell – a misty sentence that wrapped around the bird, silvery bright, then it flew out the window to seek my father, the magically directed message an inner beacon that was unerring in its course. The faint sight of the dove against the night sky fluttered as my eyes did, then I slept.
It was a week later when I heard the complete tale of all that had transpired aboard the Helene. Sigmund, the first mate aboard the ship, brought me sweets and wanted to see that I was well. I insisted that he tell me everything that had happened after I “fell” into the water. My mother had thus far refused to let anyone talk to me lest they upset me. What upset me was not knowing! The first mate, like many men of the sea, loved a good tale and was eager to tell it to me.
“Well, m’lady it were quite a time!” Sigmund pulled at the earring in his ear as he shook his head. “The man on duty in the crow’s nest heard your cry and the following splash.”
“Did he see . . . me fall?” I wasn’t sure how to ask without asking, but I tried.
“No, miss. But the splash caught his eye off the starboard bow, and he pointed out where you’d gone in.”
So, he had not see Lorenzo push me. I tucked that bit of information away and let him continue.
“After that, the whole ship was either in the water lookin’ for ya, or hangin’ off the railing searchin’ for signs of ya.”
“What of Father?”
“Oh, when he heard the bell ringing the alarm he burst on deck. But, when he heard it was his own little lady what had pitched overboard he went as white a dead man’s face, he did. He dived in too, and began callin’ for ya something desperate like.”
I clutched my hands together at the drama of his tale, seeing it all before me, and thinking how strange it was that all that transpired while I was quietly drowning beneath the waves.
“I lowered a row boat off the side. It was about this time that the searchin’ was less frantic and more careful like. Too much time had gone by, and we were afraid to find ya, even as we wanted to. Then . . . there she was. . . . Ah, I’ll never forget it!”
Sigmund’s tan and lined face took on a youthful glow as he smiled at the memory. “No amount of tales from others can prepare ya for yer first sight of one. The mermaid was that lovely. Yet, eyes were less on her than on the sad thing she carried: yer tiny body, miss. She gave yer body to yer poor father. Then I helped him into the boat. He were callin’ for a healer, even as I was tellin’ him twas too late. You’d been dead too long.”
“Did everyone think I was truly gone?” I asked remembering like a dream the brightness I had risen toward and then forsaken.
“Yes, indeed, miss, we all did. And yer poor father clutched ya to him, and cryin’ he was.” Sigmund wiped at his eyes, and cleared his throat. “Then, just then, yer body disappeared, leaving yer father with yer dress in his arms and all of us shoutin’ our happiness. We knew ya had chosen to stay and live.”
I knew the rest. I had made that choice, and in that instance my body was called back to the home it knew, and our healing circle, where my spirit was waiting. I thought for just a moment how the first mate’s story would have ended had I chosen the ethereal plane over this mortal one. My body would have remained, empty flesh, and my father would have returned from his voyage with the saddest cargo imaginable. How my parents would have grieved! Lorenzo, I think would not. I wondered then, what would become of what I knew and what Lorenzo had done. Five days later I found out.
I was summoned to Father’s private chambers, where he and Lorenzo waited. In another unusual display of affection, Father crossed the room, embraced me and kissed my forehead. Then, taking me by the hand, he led me to a chair and sat me down. Lorenzo was also sitting in a chair a few feet from mine. He looked very nervous indeed.
Father knelt beside my chair, asked how I was, how I was feeling, a lot of questions that had nothing to do with why I was there. Then he got to the real question.
“Now then, Leda. What caused your mishap. What made you fall overboard?”
Many thoughts crossed my mind. Father said “caused” in a way that made me believe he already knew. I turned my head toward Lorenzo, who was looking at nothing in particular, and certainly not at me. I knew Lorenzo did not love me, but at that moment I knew he was afraid. He was afraid of me and what I knew.
I had power over him.
If I told what I knew then the power would be out of my hands and in Father’s. I decided I wanted the power to be mine, at least for a little longer. As I considered my answer to Father I had continued to look at my brother, and at last he glanced up. I smiled. It did not feel like a nice smile.
Then I looked into the eyes of my father and glibly lied.
“I was careless, Father. I leaned over too far. The sunset was so pretty.”
My words confused him.
“Are you certain, Leda?”
I turned to my brother whose mouth was unattractively hanging open.
“Of course, I might remember things differently someday. It was very scary to die.”
Father looked shrewdly at me, then at my brother who was squirming in his chair. He laughed out loud.
“Remember things differently, eh? Hmm. Yes, well. Until that time I’m sure Lorenzo will do all he can to protect you. I’m sure he would never wish for such an accident to happen again.” Father’s meaning was clear to both of us. “You may go now, Lorenzo.”
My brother bolted out of his chair and made for the door, but I caught the one quick glance he threw back at me, burning with anger and resentment.
The feeling of power was gone, and all I felt was sad. I think I realized then that Lorenzo would always hate me, and in a way it was all my fault.
“Come here, Leda-girl.”
Father was sitting behind his desk, and gestured for me to come around. He set me on his lap.
“It will take a long time before your mother will even think about you to going to sea again, my dear.”
I nodded my head, and felt the tears start. Father reached out, and untied some heavy leather scrolls in front of him.
“Until then, why don’t you and I make some plans for a ship of your own. What do you think of these?”
I looked at the drawings of ships, small and large, merchant-class and pleasure craft, and despite a lingering sadness, a small, sleek ship caught my eye.
“I like that one!”
Father laughed and gave me a quick hug.
“Trust my Leda to choose the most expensive!”
I couldn’t help it. I’ve always had extremely good taste.