You and I have always been together. As infants we slept in the same cradle. As toddlers we shared the same bed. As children we accepted the pull that brought us into the same spaces as often as possible. Nuada and Nuala, always together. I used to marvel over the smoothness of your skin thinking that for it to stretch so softly, so tightly, over your innards, marble must have melted over your bones.
When we were small you used to sweat, much more than I ever did. I teased that you were raining and you chased me shaking your head like a dog. You tasted salty like the sea. I shrieked and ran but secretly I liked feeling those droplets sliding over my skin, hot like the sun. And I liked the way your hair grew wavy when wet. I wanted to be a boy so I would sweat and you could taste me, too.
Your smell was almost as nice as your rain. I spoke of it once to my ladies-in-waiting who were still girls like me. I told them how your body smelled of heat and leather with some other smell below it that I couldn't name. They laughed with me about the pleasant smells of boys but my governess said young ladies shouldn't enjoy the scents of their fathers or brothers. She said it as though the words were something slimy. It made me angry that she would talk of your smell like that. She could keep her opinion to herself, I told her, if she had nothing of value to add.
Her eyes watched me then, hard and close, and I felt as if I had done something wrong, something bad, by wanting to have your smell in my hair as I did after a night in our bed. My ladies looked at me from the corners of their little eyes, the giggles muffled behind hands like secrets but I knew they were still laughing - at me not with me. I did not talk about your scent anymore, though I still thought you smelled better than anyone.
As we grew older I wished more and more that I had been born a boy so I could go places with you instead of with them. It was not that I minded being a girl, but anything that kept me from you was awful. You would have taken me everywhere if you could have, I think. You never minded when I would come, not even when the other boys teased you. And if any of them teased me you knocked them to the ground before they could finish the taunt. Your eyes were golden flames in your pale face, like suns. Leave her alone, you said. Come on, Nuala, sit over here.
I learned to be a proper lady so the instructors would leave me be and I could bring my ladies outside. I wanted to watch you even if I wasn't allowed to do what you did and I knew you liked having me there, my eyes on you as you learned to ride a battle charger or joust. You liked to glance over, slyly of course, and see me smiling when you did it right. You never minded if I saw you get it wrong, either.
The ladies, they would whisper about the other boys and ask me which ones I liked. I named one, the one they all seemed to like best after you. You were the only one I liked, of course, but I didn't say it because I had learned from that governess. I kept you to myself, my secret heart wrapped up in another body beating in your chest. How could any other boy compare?
I tried to pay more attention to boys as I grew but it was like sitting at the bottom of a deep gorge - I couldn't see anything else around me no matter how hard I tried. You were my world. Anything that happened to me, any decision I faced, the only question that mattered was the only one I asked: What does this mean for us? Always us, never me.
I cried when the blood came the first time. I didn't call for anyone or tell my maid, I just laid there in between my sheets feeling shameful. You came anyway. You knew. You said I was silly to cry and I should be glad because it meant I was still alive but I didn't feel that way. You put your arms around me. Your heart pounded against my back because I couldn't stand for you to see my weakness.
If I were like you I could be tall and strong and I wouldn't feel shame. I felt wretched for bleeding alone, without you. I felt alone.
What does this mean for us?
It meant I was farther away from you - different. It meant if we let ourselves we could be closer than ever before. I was glad you were the one to help me to the bath, but I was sad you didn't stay. You pretended you didn't want to, but I saw you look back when you closed the door and I wanted to say, Stay with me. I didn't because I was afraid you wouldn't and that would be worse than if you just left.
The water was hot like your skin. I imagined your essence sinking into me, transforming my softness into muscles, cleansing away this wound you didn't share with me, healing it. The steam made my head swim and I floated weightless for ages before I got out and dried off but when I did I felt different, as if I really had absorbed something from the water. I didn't feel like a little girl anymore, I felt old. I felt more like you. Less like you.
When I looked in the mirror I looked different, too. Maybe I was bleeding away my youth.
That night I wore blue to dinner and your face lit up when you saw me. It was as if all of you had folded up until every bit was looking out from your eyes - all your want and hope and dread and fear and love and trust and joy. I could see it all streaming from you to cover me.
Your hug was different. You were different. I wondered if you had been bleeding too, invisibly. You smelled tangy and wild but I liked it. Your arm stayed around my waist until we got to the hall where you let go and took my hand on your arm like any good escort. The space between us felt huge and I wondered if we would ever reach each other beyond it.
You leaned in close and said, You look lovely, and then you were gone, moving among the crowds.
I don't think you meant to find me like that, did you? You had this startled look on your face when you saw me so I picked up my wrap to cover myself. I wasn't upset but you looked as if I had struck you. There was pain in your eyes like it hurt to look at me. What's wrong? I asked. I went to you without thinking. Why wouldn't I?
Don't look at me like that, you said. I asked how I was looking at you. You brought your eyes up to mine. You said, Like you're calling me to come to you. You looked so sad I wanted to take you in my arms and stroke your hair like I when we were children. You turned and left, but that moment never did.
I could see a shadow in your ochre eyes when you looked at me after. A specter clung to us like shade to a tree. I don't think you meant to see me, but I think that's when everything changed. You had seen too much to go back. I haunted you, I know, because from then on you haunted me.
That night was the first time I had the dream. It started out the same way. You came in just the same, but the look in your eyes became something hungry and you would come to me. I didn't ask if you dreamt it too - it would've been too much - but I think that maybe you did.
I asked to come with you to practice one day and you looked at me strangely, like I wasn't myself. I wouldn't like it, you said, but if I wanted to I could. How long would I need to get ready? I was ready then so I followed you like your shadow until you were. I was afraid you'd change your mind and leave without me. Silly, I know, but I was often afraid where we were concerned. When we did leave I felt light, light, like air. Like mist, scattered in the face of your brisk movement. I did my best to stretch my shorter legs to match your stride but even so I had to run every few paces to keep up. You had grown so much taller in the winter months. I wanted my slippers to click against the floor as sharply as your boots, but when I tried to step harder all I did was make my skirts rustle so I gave up, moving soundlessly beside you.
The arena was bigger than I expected, or perhaps it only looked bigger to me standing inside it for the first time. I waited on the side feeling the gritty sand against my legs while you joined the other boys, some of them much older and bigger than you. I was afraid when you paired off with the biggest because it looked like he would hurt you. From the hill where I would sit with my ladies your fights looked like pretty patterns that danced in the light. Down here it was real, the blades were sharper, more deadly, and when his flashed towards you I felt my heart leap into my throat but you proved faster, more sure-footed. Your lance was violent poetry and your body kept the rhythm. Our blood was the metronome.
I felt things I had never felt before, perhaps because I was so close to you. My hands longed to grip the weight of a blade, my muscles burned with the need to strike and I found myself shaking with the effort of holding myself back. A warcry formed in my throat, shrill and loud, but I swallowed it.
It was exciting, these new violent sensations in my familiar body. I ached to be part of the war dance, but I knew you wouldn't let me, and I didn't know the steps so I watched, my heart thudding against my ribs in time with yours, my body held in sweet tension against my restraint.
Your partner caught you off guard once, striking you with the flat of a blade and the bruise flared on my side too, strangely satisfying. You looked guilty but I was proud to carry the same marks as you. I did cry out then, a noise without words but perfectly articulate. Rise! it said. Kill! You sprang up fiercer than before.
When you were done you came over smiling. How was I? you asked. You were perfect, I said, and your smile grew so big I thought it might swallow your face. Your hair was wavy. I wanted you to shake your sweat on me as when we were small. The smell of you was pungent and sharp in my nose. It made me thirsty and I almost licked your shoulder for the taste.
Did you see that in my face? I think you must have because your smile turned sad and your eyes were hungry. I fought to tell you it was all right, that you had no need of sadness, but my tongue felt thick in my mouth.
I was silent.
We walked back to the castle side by side, but not touching. Not then. It was too much. We were too much.
That night the dream was changed, different. You came to me on the sands of the arena and your kisses were hard. You bruised my lips with the force of them. Your teeth pulled blood from my mouth and skin. I raked your back with my nails. I licked the sweat from your chest without reservation with the sand clinging to my skin. Your eyes on me in the dream were full of sadness.
I woke up crying.
Pain makes people see things clearly or it blinds them, you said. I wonder which it was with us.
The night before you left for war there was feasting in honor of those who would die. I wore blue because I knew you would like it, and because I did not know what else to do. You toasted with the men, and you danced as the occasion required, though I knew you hated dancing. Your hair was smooth and glossy. I missed the waves.
Every second that was your own you stole back to my side.
I did not cry. I would not burden you with my grief on your last night, and in my room I had the only gift I could think to give. I stayed silent, waiting for when the evening died down and we could escape to say our real good byes away from the covetous gaze of the court. It was nearly midnight when I drew up behind you in the shadow of a pillar and took your hand, drawing you away when none would notice.
You smiled, mischievous and grateful. You squeezed my hand as we stole through the corridors and up the stairs. I did not speak because I could not trust my voice yet and your face was troubled. Your palm felt sweaty in my grip but I didn't care. I bit my lip to keep it from shaking.
My rooms were empty as I had arranged. The moon shone through my windows, the only light we needed to see one another. The smell of pomegranates lingered on me from my wine and I wished I could smell you through it. I dropped your hand and went to sit on the bed. You sat beside me, our hips and shoulders touching. Over your wrist I slipped a bracelet that looked woven from very light in the chiaroscuro.
You asked me, What is it? I said, I braided strands of my hair. I wanted you to have something to touch that was a piece of me... My voice broke and the light spread into a soft glow. The tears in my eyes distorted your face so I blinked them away. I wouldn't waste a moment of our time together on my weakness. You deserved more.
I'll never take it off, you said. You ran your hand through my hair, and kissed my forehead. You stared at me. Your eyes were hungry and unsure. There was no sad smile to dilute it this time and I remember the silence before your hand tightened on the back of my neck. Your kiss was soft, so soft it felt like the touch of the moonlight.
Nuada. Your name on my lips, and that was all it took. I don't think I heard the sound you made. I think I only felt it, it was so low, but you pushed me down to the bed beside you and covered me with your body. A curtain of your hair blocked out the stars. Your hands moved over me like fire.
In my belly I felt the soft flutters of love and the electric shocks of violence blended together as they had never been in dreams. I felt the tears well up and shut my eyes against them but your hand was on my face, your voice anguished. Please, you said, Please, look at me like that. I wept and you didn't as you kissed the salty trails from my cheeks until my eyes were dry and my breath came in gasps. I was clothed in desire, my robes on the bed. I didn't remember you doing that but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
All your life you are taught what is right but in the face of want hope dread fear love trust joy, it is swept away like drout before the deluge. The boundaries of us ran together like water, blurring and merging, meeting and parting, one person or two.
You wept and I didn't, then we both did.