the ballad of tristen and izolt

* * *

as he rises from the stone slab, i have already fallen for him. some individuals are yours from the start, and he is mine, imprinted. i say, "you belong to me." i am nine, raised by merlin, so my words carry the power of both the covetous youth and the wizard's apprentice. i make sure no one is watching. then i touch the magic spot above each of his six eyes to mark him, and i name him, "tristen."

* * *

i was six when merlin rescued me. "don't think of me as a father," he laughed, lifting me into his arms, "but as a curator." from then i was his, one more orphan to be found tumbling out of cupboards or clinging to the battlements of the wizard's castle where he housed his collection of the lost and the damned. among our legions were his demons. some as fragile as silk and glassine, others hulking, hacked from stone: they were as variable as the misfortunes that had birthed them. over the next three years i learned that this was because sadness adopts no one form but adapts to the peculiarities that individuate a life. two minds can stand eye to eye and one by one pronounce, "i feel --" and neither may understand the other. so it is with monsters. they gestate in dark earth but once born can not give voice to the particular forces that have shaped them. mute things living incommunicado.

this was why tristen lay silent, patient under the wizard's scalpel. a probing prick of the edge, a flick of the wrist, and blood ran into six eyes. "what are you doing?" i whispered, struggling to mask my terror.

merlin replied through his surgeon's mask, "magic. does that upset you, izolt?"

i remained as quiet as the demon, my secret demon, under merlin's knife. merlin tugged his mask under his chin and chattered, breezily, easily, "if we lose this one, no matter, there's really no shortage of orphans or monsters in this world. do you know why, izolt? it's an issue of ownership-" and the blade bit- "and a problem of love. not the lack of the latter but its mutability. the cycle begins when one starts to view her love not as 'the other' but as an appendage-" the blade twisted. a bloody eye rolled on the floor. my nerves shrieked for a pain that i had no right to claim, and i knew then we had to leave this castle, we had to run away, we had to free ourselves, and yes, that same night, we did.

picture us: tristen and izolt, a child on the shoulders of a mute and blind demon, two runaways bound together in this wild, wide world. for years we shared many adventures, by foot and horse and wheel, the ultimate road trip, we were really quite the pair. then, one summer afternoon, i lead tristen into the shade of a cypress tree and said, "wait for me here. i'll be back soon."

listen, you can't hate me for this next part. i was becoming a young woman. and do you know what a burden it is to bear a demon from the past that will never see, never speak, never grow, all the while you're changing? so i left him. i orphaned him.

* * *

three gray strands of my hair are twisted about my right index finger as my left conjures a flickering demon from a burning wick. in the last few months i've gotten quite good at this old trick of merlin's, and i can even bring stick figures, corncob dolls, and clay monsters to life.

in accordance with one law of nature that dictates something can not come from nothing, there is something i can not do. i can not make my creations stay. they are faithless things. they slip away, leaving me with what i first mistook for loneliness and only just realized is an entirely new concept called regret.

this is what i know of regret: it's a dull ache looking backwards and a twisting away from an inward glance. it's a sun burning like a heraldic emblem over a cypress that lists westward, cradling a slumped figure in its shade. it's a picture of the months that will follow as that figure waits, and waits, while the winds corrupt him. it's an image of rainwater and ice splitting fissures into his rough skin. it's the knowledge that he will remain patient and mute, unable to give voice to the forces and the sadness that will reshape him. it's the past that is forever present.

* * *

he hefts himself off the stone slab and blinks. i see myself reflected in six dark irises as i've never seen myself before. after all, no one's ever really looked at, or for, or after me. "tristen," i say, "do you want to play with me?" he nods. at that moment he becomes my demon, my hero, my friend -- and though i do not know it at that time, he has also become my future loneliness, my regret, my shame, and my every understanding of love.

i take his hand. "i am izolt," i say, "i will never leave you."

<--- the arthurian cycle