Straw Spun From Gold
by Thyme In Her Eyes
Author's Notes: Another Steerpike/Fuchsia story based on the gorgeous BBC mini-series of Gormenghast (though I have read the books too, and am aware of how they differ) set during the final episode while the secret meetings are taking place, but sometime before the red room scene. And just to disclaim, Mervyn Peake owns the characters and the story, and I intend no disrespect to his work. Now enjoy, and please remember that feedback is appreciated!
-- STRAW SPUN FROM GOLD --
Strong swimmers always drown.
– Choderlos de Laclos.
"Tell me how we first met."
When they first met, she was a different creature. She bounded through high, bleak halls and twisting lanes, throwing wild colour and wilder tantrums as easily as a fairytale damsel might have cast pretty flower-petals. In her crimson dress, Fuchsia was awake and alive and a burning shock to stone halls. Her scowling face and rare precious smiles concealed nothing as she ran, unconstrained and uninhibited, now chanting and now whispering spontaneous and beautifully simple rhymes into the dust and dead air. Biting her lip, chewing her hair and picking at her fingernails, she was never still. She hurled herself thoughtlessly and freely down the dark and narrow corridors of Gormenghast on long aimless wanders, throwing bits and pieces of herself to anyone she chanced to pass, hurling the force of her personality, her shifting moods and extreme emotions towards even the cobwebs and ancient stones.
Now, Fuchsia still runs. Never self-possessed enough to walk with calm and dignity, she trembles with energy, with intense feeling, and with a hundred stories untold, and unheard by friends. Her dozen childish habits haven't been broken through maturity and discipline so much as they've simply decayed over time and been forgotten. Her gowns are far more rich and elaborate, defining her as a grown woman rather than a gauche young girl; their crimson deep and sombre as a dying rose. Unlike the big and simple dresses of her youth, these opulent creations are extravagantly embroidered, trimmed with jewels, and are heavy as her unhappiness – but her legs still ache for running, and the freedom of irrationality. There is bravery in her now as she passes down dark corridors, and fear. She doesn't look up or ahead into dream-worlds any more, but keeps her head low and eyes aimed at her feet. Her thoughts turn inwards; away from the golden clouds and winding staircases of her adolescence and increasingly towards the walls surrounding and keeping her, and the figures edging at and sharing her solitude.
Fuchsia is brisk now, but no longer a flurry of crimson or a whirlwind of mood and passion. She remains changeable and unpredictable as ever, but loneliness and confusion – the hallmarks of maturation by way of pain – have begun to drain her. Now, she stands and moves with reserve. Her arms are tightly wrapped around her form, warding off cold she never felt in the past as she gathers her shawl and holds herself inside it. The delicate cloth becomes her shell and stops her from spilling out, as though she perhaps flung too many pieces of herself to the stones and passers-by in her girlhood and now realizes exactly how much of herself has been lost. Bruised and full of need, she holds herself together as she rushes her way across damp and broken flagstones, careful to guard herself and not allow any more pieces, passions and clarity to fall out and leave her. Fuchsia has given too much of her spirit, and now needs the rest for herself. And so she moves swiftly, propelled by a cold and mouldering fear, vaguely understanding that she can't afford to lose any more of herself unless she wants to be nothing but a shadow falling over rotten ivy.
There are moments when she becomes aware of this, and of what she's become, and Fuchsia mourns the girl she once was and the many dreams that refused to come true. Where did all her strength go? Whenever she ventures further and deeper into such thoughts, as she often does, she wonders how much of her true self has been forgotten even by her, and if maybe she's becoming as dull and old as everything she hates. Her twin aunts have been missing and unmourned for years, but sometimes Fuchsia grows frightened as she spies traces of them in herself – mad, stupid, and very lost.
She wants to approach this problem practically and rationally, but it isn't in her nature. Instead, a horrible frustration grips and wrings her. Desperate, she looks to her best poems and favourite stories for answers, but finds none.
This is when he finds her. When she stares out of windows and considers the landscape and the green beyond all the grey, her restless thoughts always reach for him. When she feels lonely, she likes to think of him, for he often finds odd and daring ways of tending her hurts and dreams. She used to wish away her days thinking up brilliant and beautiful adventures for herself, but now she uses them up reliving the events of previous evenings spent with him.
In many ways, he's almost too good to be true. He's brave and brilliant; an artist, a performer, a climber, a rebel, a hero, and a strange friend. And she's fought this fascination for so long.
Over the years he's managed to become one of the castle's central personalities, and Fuchsia knows most of the populace can't remember a time when he wasn't there watching over and guiding the Ritual, and perhaps that's why they find him difficult to understand, but she's different. She remembers when he wore grey and worked for Dr. Prune, and somehow it feels special – almost like a shared secret. She's the only one who can cast her memory even further back – to Steerpike in stained white, long and lean as a wild hare, incongruous and horrible in her attic. She can still distantly recall lank and filthy hair and the faint smell of sweat, the wondrous stories, and how it felt to have mad laughter and delight surge through her. She remembers the boy from nowhere.
Fuchsia watches him now, whenever her eyes can get away with it and keep up with him, and she sees how he maneuvers his way through, across, and always up Gormenghast like an untethered shadow, and sometimes she wonders where he might be going. He's still so very fearless, and still startles her in both the best ways and the worst. His skin is pale, and in the dim lights of the stone lanes, it gleams like exposed bone, and Fuchsia thinks of sad secrets she'll never dare ask about. His eyes have an odd shimmer to them when he looks at her. He's never quite fitted in with the castle and its people, not really, and she wonders why they seek each other out.
One evening the thought chokes her as she realizes how much he too has changed since that first bright day in her attic. He is an official figure now; a presence that carries an authority she's never felt in all her life, in spite of her title. Steerpike is the Master of Ritual, keeper of the castle's lifeblood and guardian of its history and secrets, and even a Daughter of the Line owes him a degree of deference and respect. Everything around them is tangled and thorned, and Fuchsia wonders how it all came to this.
The fire that killed Barquentine has left so many marks; ones not as obvious as whatever horrors lie underneath his mask. He's paler now, and quieter, and looks out at her from a waxen face. His clothes are black and restrictive-looking and his hair, once wild and matted, has been tamed, oiled, and scraped back from his face with great precision. He's changed, and she feels cold.
Fuchsia looks at him, and the intense physical vibrancy that always poured from him is caged and restrained now, turned into something twisted and rigid. Worse, Fuchsia looks at Steerpike and senses that same energy, only churning inside his head. The burns are deep in his eyes too, and he seems to her like one scalded to his soul, and scarred by something beyond her understanding. Her hands strain to touch him and make it all go away, but always recoil from fear and disgust – at him, at herself. Deep inside herself, she knows that she could never make it go away: she hasn't the power. But sometimes she wants very much to try; just to try. He frightens and repels her more than ever, but at the same time she cherishes him more than ever.
Once, he looked at everything as though it amused him, as though everything was part of a great game that he was winning while no-one else was looking. As though he was grinning at a brilliant joke that no-one else could understand, let alone see through, and as if he'd played a marvelous prank, drew ink on all their faces as they slept, and was trying to hold back crowing laughter as he watched them all walking about like fools. All of them except her, of course. He always let her think she was above the rest. Not quite above him, but definitely better than anything else Gormenghast had to offer.
Now he looks so unhappy, and his sense of humour and adventure is a withered and ruined thing. He seems angry too, much angrier than when she first knew him, no matter how cool and calm he may appear on the surface. Steerpike tries not to show her this, and so when she sees, it's more terrible than ever. He still seems in opposition to everything she knows, for even his dark decay is different to everyone else's dull and tired stagnation, and it frightens and worries her. To Gormenghast, change is violent and wrong. She knows this, and has always been taught this. So what is she for being so entranced by him?
Sometimes he appears as brilliantly invincible as ever. Other times, the ways he can be hurt are clear as glass. Her rejections can hurt him. He hates it, she knows. But even her keenest observations can't change a thing, and instead he leads her to places as dark and deep as himself. She can't work around his complexity, can't plumb or comprehend the fullness of it, and certainly can't simplify or idealize it into something more palatable and beautiful. Maybe he understands her, but she barely grasps him.
She never catches him scaling the immense and treacherous walls and roofs of Gormenghast anymore: the constrictions of his station and duties won't allow it any more than they'd allow her to join him on a journey across that great granite back. Instead, Fuchsia feels the cold stone walls of Gormenghast shake, crack and crumble in small pieces as lets herself draw closer to Steerpike, and forgets the incredible distance their births placed between them. Once, they were both stronger than this.
She sometimes entertains vague and confused fantasies of running away and escaping the stifle of Gormenghast with him. The idea is silly, her fantasies are silly, and she is the silliest of all for indulging in such ridiculous thoughts, but they come to her – and when she dreams of escape, she also dreams of setting him free.
But where would they go, anyway? Where could they? What is there beyond Gormenghast? Fuchsia hears herself think these questions, as if prying into the mind of a stranger, and wonders how it could be that her imagination has dimmed so much. Hundreds of sheets of paper have been filled over the years, all detailing the splendid and heroic adventures she once envisioned for herself standing proud, alone and brave far outside the reach of ceremony, duty, loneliness, and age-old stone. Fuchsia strains, but recalls none of them. Somehow, the castle has defeated all her vast dreams and wild fancies, and has made her as incapable of conceiving of life outside its walls as the most accepting and dulled of its residents.
But tonight she's alone with Steerpike, and in this moment couldn't feel further away from boring or dulled. No, she feels sharpened and heated, full of raw warmth and glimmering edges. In one instant, the sensation is tender and soft, in the next it saddens her, and in the next, the pain of mixed excitement and anxiety splits her. It's taken her years to find the courage to be here and to freely feel this. Thinking so heavily on the past, something wells up and forces its way free.
"Tell me how we first met," she says softly. It isn't an order, but a plea.
He stills for a second, absorbing her words. His eyes flicker over her and a new animated energy slowly breaks over him. Something of a faraway past fills them both. Slowly, he grins wickedly and theatrically, all for her benefit, and in spite of herself, Fuchsia already feels herself smiling.
She discovers his perfect memory as he sets her down and clears a space for himself and all but reenacts the whole scene for her, making careful use of the exaggerated movements and rich, complicated, flowing words tangled together in poetic sentences she loves so well. Her eyes are blind to everything but him as he dramatizes his great adventures beforehand, his miraculous and heroic climb to the pinnacle of their world, his exhausted sleep, and at last her sudden discovery and rude awakening, and at that he wins a rushing laugh from her throat. With each word and gesture, she grows more transfixed and he more sure, and yet a point comes when the boundaries blur.
Steerpike romanticizes but sticks with keen interest to the truth, giving her careful and measured doses of both and adding a delicious new edge that she never before felt or considered as they relive their first encounter and the wild, silly games they played. He grins as he delights her, just as he used to, and years of difficulty, doubt and bitterness begin to evaporate. She doesn't even need to close her eyes to see the great pavement in the sky; she barely needs to imagine it, for it's all around her in the moment he conjures. He whirls her around as he tells her of their nonsense games and chases, his flexible voice and magical words mesmerizing her as much as they did seventeen years ago. Fuchsia forgets that he shouldn't dare touch her, with or without permission, just as she did so long ago. She also forgets that she isn't a wild and childish fifteen-year-old girl, but a grown woman now, and that to be held in a man's arms means something very different from what it once might have. The thrilling taste of being the focus of attention, and the excitement that was Steerpike, overwhelms her memory. Freedom waves a red flag in the flushing of her skin as she laughs as hard and as fully as she did on that day – perhaps harder, for she needs laughter so much more now.
Steerpike laughs too, perhaps involuntarily, as he catches his breath and starts to regain composure. Her eyes and smile warm, for she hasn't seen him like this for a long time. After the moment finally closes and seals them in the present once more, he looks surprised and even a little suspicious of her, as though he maybe needed that laugh very much. He recovers, or fails to, and kisses her hand.
This is wrong and awful in so many ways, but he sees into her. He is the only one who can. He knows about her; knows all the secret things she tries to hurt and hide away, even from herself. And he makes her see, even when she doesn't want to, and so often it hurts. But sometimes, like tonight, she does want, and there's not a hurt or a fear to be found.
Suddenly and sharply, Fuchsia wishes she could have seen him – really seen him – seventeen years before now. She misses seeing all of him, and often resents him for doing this to her. So much time has been thrown away, eaten by the stones themselves. And the simplicity of the past is long gone; both their needs are much more complicated now. But underneath it all, she knows he's still alive. And, Fuchsia realizes, so is she.
He escaped from the kitchens, like a hero climbing out of the burning belly of a monster. He explored the rooftops of Gormenghast, saw the world of stone, and rested in the attic of a Groan. He holds her hand even now, breathes her hitched breaths. He changed his fate – and if he can, perhaps so can she. Perhaps Steerpike can show her the way. Not only the way through the clouds, as he promised so many years ago when Titus was still a baby, but possibly the way towards change and towards something different and better. They might find a way to make each other new again.
She's so tired of sitting in pain and thinking in endless circles of all the people and all the places she's lost. She'd much rather run with him; to somewhere where they can forget many things like his anger and her fear, and simply show each other freedom.
-- FIN --