Spring/Fall 2020

The Royals

By Elizabeth Durham

When The Daughter turns 10, Katherine decides to take her to the bookstore and let her pick out anything she wants. The Daughter rarely likes what Katherine buys her these days—books, clothes, food; the teenager that looms ahead will be difficult, Katherine is sure of it—so this just seems easier, to set a precedent of reasonable indulgence in exchange for continued goodwill. The Husband, who does not find The Daughter so difficult, agrees with the idea if not the underlying premise. “She’s a good kid, Katherine,” he tells her that night, over the dishes. “You shouldn’t be so hard on her. It’s not like she asked for an iPhone. Or asked for anything. Just take her to the bookstore, and she’ll be happy.”

In the car, on the way to the bookstore, Katherine steals a glance at the girl in the backseat, all pale and quiet and knobby-kneed, legs so long the rest of her has yet to catch up. She watches The Daughter fret a frizzy wisp of straw-colored hair between her fingers, her eyes looking out the window at something only she can see, her mind somewhere else, anywhere else. Who knows.

Inside the store, Katherine tells The Daughter to pick out her birthday present, and when she sees the girl’s shoulders lift, her thin little back scurry off eagerly, affection wells up from somewhere deep inside her, a place whose existence she’d neglected if not necessarily forgotten. Katherine suddenly feels hot with shame. The Daughter is a good kid, she thinks, and if things had been strange between them the past few years, once The Daughter was no longer the bubbly, bouncy baby she once was, well, that is something Katherine has to fix. She feels this way from time to time, waking up to, or maybe from, some strange maternal reverie, and then the reverie somehow always dissipates, despite her best intentions. This time, Katherine thinks, this time will be different.

The Daughter comes up to her. “I want this one.”

Katherine isn’t much of a reader—she used to be, back in her university days—but even still, she can tell from the book’s somberly artistic cover, its heft, that this may be beyond The Daughter’s admittedly formidable comprehension. “This one? Sweetheart”—hotter still, her shame now, at how stilted the word sounds coming from her—“this is for grown-ups, I think.” Katherine turns the book over to see the author’s photograph grinning up at her, a confident elderly man she recognizes as a well-known historian. Oxford or Cambridge. “Why don’t we put this one back and get a different one, one that’ll be easier for you to read.”

The Daughter holds fast. “It’s about princesses. And kings and queens.” She’d certainly been capable of understanding the dust jacket, Katherine had to give her that much.

“Sweetheart, this is an academic book. I don’t know if Daddy or I could even get through it. We can get another book about princesses and kings and queens, okay? We have to get something you can actually enjoy.”

The Daughter says nothing, but Katherine sees the shoulders drop, and now the shame is like a fire, and she decides, quick quick, to put it out. “You know what? It’s your birthday. If you want this book, you can have it. But let’s get another book, too, how about that?”

This is how Katherine and The Daughter end up buying every book in the bookstore on the Tudors. Academic books, children’s books, even a coloring book, just for old times’ sake. Katherine tells The Daughter to start with the easier books first, and then, when she’s ready to read it, she can have the first book, the one by the well-known historian. The Daughter agrees.

That night, at home, The Husband rejoices. “See? Look how happy you made her. Princesses and kings and queens—it’s perfect for a 10-year-old. Well done, Kat.” He swoops in for a kiss, and now the heat is back, but no shame. Afterwards, in bed, The Husband laughs, exhausted, exalted. “Definitely a day worth telling the therapist about, huh?”

***

Time passes. The Daughter reads. And reads and reads and reads. Unbidden, unprovoked, she begins to chatter, to ask, in a way that reminds Katherine of the bubbly, bouncy baby, which is silly, because the baby couldn’t really talk. But Katherine is pleasantly surprised at how pleasant it is to talk with The Daughter.

In the kitchen:

“Can we make marchpane?” asks The Daughter.

“Can we make what?” asks Katherine.

“Marchpane. They used to make cakes out of it, for Henry VIII.”

They make marchpane. Or at least, they try to. The Husband watches them in their domestic mess, sugar spilling from the countertops onto the floor, and laughs deep in his chest.

In the car, on the way to school:

“Can I go as a Tudor for Halloween?”

“Sure. Which one?”

The Daughter wrinkles her nose. “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it. They’re all so pretty.”

Katherine laughs, though not deep in her chest.

In The Daughter’s bedroom, right before bedtime:

“Mom?”

“Yes, sweetheart?” Stilted still, a little, but less than before.

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

“Of course not. Do you?”

The Daughter is pale and quiet once more. Maybe it’s the moonlight, maybe it’s the subject, but Katherine is spooked, suddenly, out of nowhere, which is silly, because she really doesn’t believe in ghosts.

“Sweetheart, what did you read this time?”

“I was reading about Hampton Court, and Jane Seymour died there, and Catherine Howard was kept there right before he cut off her head, and they say it’s haunted and—”

“Sweetheart.” Katherine needs to cut The Daughter off before she works herself into a frenzy. “Ghosts aren’t real. I promise. What happened to all those women, it’s sad, I know. But it’s over and done with now.” Maybe The Daughter was too young for all this after all.

The Husband, hovering in the doorway, enters. “Mom’s right. It’s only a story.”

“No.” Something takes hold of The Daughter. The thin little back straightens. “It’s real.”

Katherine and The Husband look at each other. “Yes, it was real,” admits The Husband, “but Mom’s still right. Those women are gone, and I know that’s kind of creepy to think about, but they’re at peace. They’re not coming back to tickle your toes.” He reaches out for The Daughter. “But I am!”

In the hallway, The Daughter soothed and tucked in, The Husband turns on Katherine. “The hell has she been reading?”

Katherine’s own back straightens. “She’s been reading about the Tudors. That’s all she reads about these days. You know that.”

“No, I mean, what exactly has she been reading? I thought we’d agreed we’d save the gory grown-up stuff for when she’s older. Kiddie history for now, princesses and all that.”

“She is reading the kiddie history! But it’s still history. Her imagination is just running away with the details, that’s all.”

“Well, get her something else to read then. Something happy.” The Husband pauses, frustrated. When he speaks again, his voice is thinner with hope not quite dashed. “I really thought, Katherine, we were making some progress these last few weeks. You and me, you and her, all of us, a family.”

Katherine looks at him and feels a tenderness part terrifying, part homecoming. “We are. We will. You heard the therapist, she thinks we’re getting back on track.”

The Husband nods, eyes averted, downcast. “All right. Let’s just… let’s just get her something else to read, okay?”

***

The Daughter does not want to read something else. Her obsession with the Tudors only grows, with Hampton Court in particular. She begins to have nightmares, waking up screaming about cold silken figures that only she can see, women with necklaces of blood, women giving birth in pools of blood, women shrieking and pleading and dying, always dying. The therapist is concerned. Katherine and The Husband take the books away from The Daughter, but there is the internet, always the goddamn internet, which proves impossible to fully shield her from. One day, the therapist suggests something radical: to take a family holiday to England, to take The Daughter to Hampton Court, to show her there’s nothing to be afraid of. “You were planning to take a vacation soon anyway, right?”

The Husband is resistant. He is full of work and stress and short temper these days. “You can’t be serious. That’s so expensive.”

“But you were planning a vacation in the near future, right?” The therapist persists. “Obviously, I can’t tell you how to spend your time and money. I’m merely suggesting an alternative approach to a problem you and Katherine have been struggling with for a while.”

“This family…” The Husband is lost for words. “I need a vacation from this family!”

The therapist is unshaken. “I understand that you may feel that way. But right now, your daughter needs you, and she needs your wife. The trip is only a suggestion. But clearly the situation is unsustainable for everyone, and in particular your child.”

The Family—what a fragile thing, so old and yet so new—goes to England, to Hampton Court. Like all those obsessed, The Daughter views the object of her obsession with adoration and trepidation, excitement and fear. “I hope we don’t see a ghost,” she tells Katherine and The Husband on the train, “and I don’t think we will, but it would be kind of cool, I guess.” Pause. “But also really scary.”

The Husband is sharp. “We’re not going to see a ghost. Those women don’t want anything with you. They’re dead. Historical figures.”

Katherine tries to be kinder. “There are no such things as ghosts, sweetheart. You’ll see. The palace will be so pretty, you won’t be afraid.”

The palace is very pretty, its red walls glowing, comforting, in the hazy English sunlight. The Family strolls through Anne Boleyn’s Gateway, makes their way to the so-called Haunted Gallery. Katherine, hand on The Daughter’s thin little back, can feel the girl begin to tremble, and she presses the palm of her hand flatter, harder against the girl, reminding her that she is there. If not always in the past, then always going forward. Her wedding ring, too big these days, slips to the side of her finger as she presses into The Daughter’s spine. Katherine worries for nothing. They pass through the Haunted Gallery seeing nothing, sensing nothing untoward. The Daughter’s relief winds its way through her tense body, fixing it, fixing her, fixing all of them. That night, in the cramped hotel room, The Family sleeps soundly.

***

The Family returns to the U.S. Katherine is hopeful that this is the end of things, that they can put this whole Tudor phase behind them. But it is not the end. It is only the beginning. The Husband has grown careless over the course of this whole Tudor phase, and the beginning begins in the most mundane way. He is in the shower, and his phone goes off. Katherine rolls over from her side of the bed, picks it up, surprisingly heavy in her hand, sees the text, and she knows.

Katherine pleads—What about the trip? What about the therapist? What about The Daughter?—and in the next breath trades pleading for rage—How could you do this to me? How long have you made a fool out of me? The Husband can absorb her rage, but not her pleading. He is firm in his decision. He dissolves the household, The Family.

Katherine and The Daughter’s Father decide that, difficult as it may be, they must break the news to The Daughter together, though for now, they will not tell her about the betrayal. For a long moment, it seems as if breaking the news will break The Daughter. Her shoulders drop, and she becomes paler and quieter than ever. And then—rage, rage beyond that of Katherine’s, rage no one thought The Daughter capable of.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!”

Katherine and The Daughter’s Father have never heard The Daughter talk like this.

“I’m sorry,” stammers The Daughter’s Father, “I know it’s not easy to hear, but I still love you, we still love you—”

“Why?” The Daughter turns, her rage now mixed with a stillness that warns danger.

“Why?” stammers The Daughter’s Father. This is not going as he had hoped.

“No.” The Daughter is talking out loud, but she is not talking to them, but to someone far away, another place, another time. “No. I know why.” She awakens to the present in all its torn, jagged awfulness, and faces The Daughter’s Father. “Who is she?”

“How—” The Daughter’s Father has out-stammered himself by this point. Katherine, her body heavy with grief not for herself but for The Daughter, moves to intervene, but The Daughter, imperiously, stops her.

“It doesn’t matter who she is,” says The Daughter. “I’ll never forgive you.”

The Daughter stalks out of the room. Her legs no longer seem too long for her body.

“Go,” says Katherine. “Out for the night.” The Daughter’s Father leaves the house.

Katherine finds The Daughter in her bedroom holding the book, the one by the well-known historian. She places her hand on The Daughter’s back. “What can I do?”

The Daughter raises her head. She has been crying, of course; who could refrain after such a confrontation? The Daughter looks at Katherine, then down at the book, then hurls it across the room, where it meets the wall with a definitive thud.

Katherine looks at her daughter and opens her arms.


Elizabeth Durham

Elizabeth Durham is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at Princeton University. While she has published academic work in various peer-reviewed and popular venues, “The Royals” is her first creative writing publication. She holds a BA in Sociology/Anthropology from Carleton College, an MPhil in Anthropology from the University of Oxford, and two Fulbrights. She is currently conducting dissertation research on psychiatric treatment in Yaoundé, Cameroon.

View the website of Elizabeth Durham

Spring/Fall 2020