Being Photogenic

I’m writing this post because several friends of mine who are writers asked me to. I feel a bit awkward about it? In part because I’ll be posting pictures of me, and one is always criticized for that, and in part because I suppose it’s a frivolous topic, although how we appear to the world is usually important to us. And particularly important to writers, who are in a strange position, nowadays: they are photographed a lot, and those photos are used for publicity or posted online. And yet, they’re not performers, not actors or singers who are used to appearing in front of people. They are usually introverts, whose deepest relationships can be with imaginary characters.

Anyway. In the last couple of years, I’ve been getting a compliment that’s new to me, and surprises me: “you’re so photogenic.” Usually I say “thank you,” but if the person giving the compliment is also a writer, I say, “I’m not, actually. I’ve just learned how to be photographed, most of the time.” I suspect that no one is actually photogenic after the age of twelve. Children are photogenic, but adults . . . we’re too self-conscious, too aware of what the photograph might look like. So this is a blog post on being photogenic. I’m sure you’ve heard that “pretty is a set of skills”? Well, so is photogenic. I write this with a caveat: I’m not a photographer or a makeup artist, and I’m sure someone who is could do this much better than I can. The below is simply what I’ve learned as a writer, so that when I look at photos of myself online, I mostly don’t groan. (There are plenty of older photos of me online at which I do groan. Oh well.)

Everything I’ve learned has come from doing a professional photo shoot and being on video of various sorts, including a television show. There’s nothing quite like seeing yourself on early-morning television in Little Rock . . . And I should add that I took the pictures below in the worst possible conditions: mostly in the terrible lighting of my tiny pink bathroom, while recovering from quite a lot of traveling. All right, I think that’s enough with the caveats. On to what I’ve learned.

So, what is involved in being photogenic?

1. Attitude.

You must believe you are beautiful. Don’t laugh: you know what I mean. There you are, having your picture taken. You smile, wait for the click of the camera, and just at the moment it clicks, you think, “But I’m not beautiful. My pictures always turn out terribly, and this one will probably turn out terribly as well.” At that moment, your face takes on an expression of fear, apprehension, doubt. And that’s what makes it into the picture. So, you don’t have to believe you’re beautiful all the time. But at that moment, the moment the picture is taken, you must believe that you are worthy of being photographed.

How do you get attitude? Having your picture taken is like everything else: it’s a skill, and you get better at it with practice. So take your own picture. Take it a lot. You probably have a digital camera? Discard the photos you don’t like, keep the ones you do. Think about why you like them, what makes them work for you. Think about how you like to be photographed. This is me, with attitude:

Blog Photo 7

At least, I think it’s attitude. Nothing about this picture says “I don’t think I’m worth photographing.” (Remember what I said about the terrible lighting and my tiny pink bathroom? Yeah, sorry. But if I can produce a picture I feel good about under those conditions, then I can produce a good picture anywhere.)

2. Makeup.

Sorry, this won’t help most male writers, who tend not to wear makeup. (Male actors and many male singers do, of course.) But the standards by which men judge their appearance tend to be looser, more lenient, anyway. They cut themselves more slack. This section is mostly for women, although if you’re male and doing a professional photo shoot, or if you’re on television, you may well use foundation of some sort. Or have it used on you!

So, here’s the thing: the camera isn’t taking a picture of you. The camera doesn’t know you, the wonderful scintillating person you are. The camera is taking a picture of certain planes and angles, in certain lighting. Makeup helps you control how the lighting falls on those planes and angles.

This is me, with nothing on my face except moisturizer. (And by moisturizer, I mean Proactive, because I have what is called “problem skin,” meaning that it breaks out if you say Boo! to it.) I happen to think it’s a perfectly nice face, but like this, it’s difficult to photograph.

Blog Photo 1

This is my face with the most important step in the makeup process, which is foundation. Here, I’ve started with a thin layer of Garnier BB Cream, then MAC Studio Fix, and then MAC Studio Fix pressed powder. That sounds as though it would be heavy, but it’s not: modern cosmetics are designed to feel light. Foundation gives me a lot more control over how light will fall on the planes and angles that are my face. (Reminder: the camera isn’t taking a picture of you. You may as well be a mountain range, as far as it’s concerned.)

Blog Photo 2

Ironically, skin with foundation on it looks more natural, more like your own skin, on camera than your own skin does. I don’t know why — I’m sure a photographer could tell us?

And here is my face with the color added: lipstick, blush, eyeliner, two kinds of eyeshadow (dark under the eyes and on the lids, light on the brow bone), and mascara. These are from MAC and Revlon, but I won’t give you specific names or colors, because you’ll need different ones anyway. We’re all different.

Blog Photo 3

(Oh, and by the way, any male readers who feel like telling me, at this point, that they prefer women without makeup? I don’t wear makeup for you. Both men and women have been wearing makeup since this thing we call civilization started. We wear it because we’re human, and like to play. Not wearing or liking makeup is perfectly fine, but doesn’t get you a moral cookie.)

So, why wear makeup if you’re going to be photographed? Obviously, you don’t have to. But I’ve found that it gives me more control over how a photograph will turn out. It combats the flattening and washing out that is an inevitable part of being photographed.

3. Angles.

Another reason to take photographs of yourself is so you’ll learn the angles of your face. Like all faces, yours will photograph differently depending on the angle from which the picture is taken. There’s a reason that, when I’m photographed by someone I don’t know, I turn my face to the right.

Here’s a shot of the left side of my face:

Blog Photo 4

And here’s a shot of the right side (I feel like I’m doing Dovima here, and if you don’t know who she is, Google her):

Photo 9

In photos of the left side, I tend to look younger, more vulnerable. Also, strangely enough, more foreign. (Hmmm. Is that a picture of my shadow self? My writer brain starts to work on this concept . . .) The right side looks older, more sophisticated. Photographers talk about your “good side”? Well, it’s my more reliably photogenic side. And here I am head-on (which is a very hard shot to take, by the way, in a bathroom mirror). I almost never take a shot head-on because my features are asymmetrical, and the photo can come out looking strange.

Blog Photo 5

Oh, and by the way, I’ve been focused on faces. But here’s a picture of me in a full-length mirror. In this picture, I am dressed in a terrible outfit for being photographed in: loose black t-shirt, old jeans (you can see a paint splotch on them), Timberland boots for going out into the snow with. Which is actually what I did about five minutes later — go out into the snow. What makes this picture not terrible are the angles of my body. If you look at actresses on the red carpet, they all angle their bodies in a similar way to be photographed. And it’s not just because standing this way makes you look thinner (although it does). It’s because the angles add a sense of movement, and therefore visual interest.

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4. Lighting.

Lighting will make or crush and crumple up your picture. Lighting is all. That said, most of the time writers are photographed, it’s in the terrible lighting of a convention hotel. We can’t depend on good lighting.

What you need to do is work with the lighting you have. Figure out where it’s coming from, think about how it will hit your face, and turn so it’s as flattering as possible. Again, that’s something you learn from photographing yourself. That said, some lighting is never going to be pretty. For example, I went out in my Timberland boots and took some photos in the cold gray light of a winter day in Boston. Nothing you take in that light will be “pretty.” It’s just too harsh. So what do you do? If you want pretty but can’t get it, go for cool. Actually, that’s one of my principles: always go for cool. Pretty is boring. Cool has movement and impact. Cool is better.

This is the best picture I was able to take in that light, and I kind of love it:

Blog Photo 9

I love the red of that hat and the lipstick, against the cold white of the skin, the gray and black of the background. I don’t think this picture makes me look attractive, but who cares? The picture itself looks interesting.

Nevertheless, there are times when we want to look pretty. That’s when you want a soft, indirect light. My desk lamp is perfect for this. It almost always gives me a good picture, like this one:

Blog Photo 10

And that’s about it! If you’re at a convention and having your photograph taken, think: where’s my lighting, what’s my angle? And at the moment that picture is taken, think, “I’m beautiful.” Because, of course, you are. (The makeup, if you choose to use it, goes on beforehand.) I can’t guarantee the picture will turn out well, but once you’re “photogenic,” you should be able to look at most of the photos of you posted online and not groan.

I’m going to end with one of my favorite photographs, from a party I went to recently in New York City. The guests were mostly writers and editors, and of course there were going to be photos taken. This was taken before the party with my camera by Marco Palmieri, who takes wonderful photos anyway. But I think you can see all the elements I’ve been talking about in it. The writers in the picture are Nancy Hightower, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Bo Bolander, and me. We are dressed differently, we have different makeup, we are all interacting with the camera in different ways. But each of us is doing what works for us individually, and I think the end result is terrific.

Masque 1

XII. The Rose

This is the twelfth and final section of my story “The Rose in Twelve Petals.” If you would like to see the previous sections, look below!

Let us go back to the beginning: petals fall. Unpruned for a hundred years, the rosebush has climbed to the top of the tower. A cane of it has found a chink in the tower window, and it has grown into the room where the Princess lies. It has formed a canopy over her, a network of canes now covered with blossoms, and their petals fall slowly in the still air. Her nightgown is covered with petals: this summer’s, pink and fragrant, and those of summers past, like bits of torn parchment curling at the edges.

While everything in the palace has been suspended in a pool of time without ripples or eddies, it has responded to the seasons. Its roots go down to dark caverns which are the homes of moles and worms, and curl around a bronze helmet that is now little more than rust. More than two hundred years ago, it was rather carelessly chosen as the emblem of a nation. Almost a hundred years ago, Madeleine plucked a petal of it for her magic spell. Wolfgang Magus picked a blossom of it for his buttonhole, which fell in the chapel and was trampled under a succession of court heels and cavalry boots. A spindle was carved from its dead and hardened wood. Half a century ago, a dusty hound urinated on its roots. From its seeds, dispersed by birds who have eaten its orange hips, has grown the tangle of briars that surround the palace, which have already torn the Prince’s work pants and left a gash on his right shoulder. If you listen, you can hear him cursing.

It can tell us how the story ends. Does the Prince emerge from the forest, his shirtsleeve stained with blood? The briars of the forest know. Does the Witch lie dead, or does she still sit by the small-paned window of her cottage, contemplating a solitary pearl that glows in the wrinkled palm of her hand like a miniature moon? The spinning wheel knows, and surely its wood will speak to the wood from which it was made. Is the Princess breathing? Perhaps she has been sleeping for a hundred years, and the petals that have settled under her nostrils flutter each time she exhales. Perhaps she has not been sleeping, perhaps she is an exquisitely preserved corpse, and the petals under her nostrils never quiver. The rose can tell us, but it will not. The wind sets its leaves stirring, and petals fall, and it whispers to us: you must find your own ending.

This is mine. The Prince trips over an oak log, falls into a fairy ring, and disappears. (He is forced to wash miniature clothes, and pinched when he complains.) Alice stretches and brushes the rose petals from her nightgown. She makes her way to the Great Hall and eats what is left in the breakfast dishes: porridge with brown sugar. She walks through the streets of the village, wondering at the silence, then hears a humming. Following it, she comes to a cottage at the village edge where Madeleine, her hair now completely white, sits and spins in her garden. Witches, you know, are extraordinarily long-lived. Alice says, “Good morning,” and Madeleine asks, “Would you like some breakfast?” Alice says, “I’ve had some, thank you.” Then the Witch spins while the Princess reads Goethe, and the spinning wheel produces yarn so fine that a shawl of it will slip through a wedding ring.

Will it come to pass? I do not know. I am waiting, like you, for the canary to lift its head from under its wing, for the Empress Josephine to open in the garden, for a sound that will tell us someone, somewhere, is awake.

The Soul of the Rose by John William Waterhouse

(The painting is The Soul of the Rose by John William Waterhouse.)

XI. The Prince

This is the eleventh section of my story “The Rose in Twelve Petals.” If you would like to see the previous sections, look below!

Here comes the Prince on a bulldozer. What did you expect? Things change in a hundred years.

Harry pulls back the break and wipes his forehead, which is glistening with sweat. He runs his fingers through blond hair that stands up like a shock of corn. It is just past noon, and the skin on his nose is already red and peeling.

Two acres, and he’ll knock off for some beer and that liver and onion sandwich Madge made him this morning, whose grease, together with the juice of a large gherkin, is soaking its way through a brown paper wrapper and will soon stain the leather of his satchel. He leans back, looks at the tangle of briars that form the undergrowth in this part of the forest, and chews on the knuckle of his thumb.

Two acres in the middle of the forest, enough for some barley and a still. Hell of a good idea, he thinks, already imagining the bottles on their way to Amsterdam, already imagining his pals Mike and Steve watching football on a color telly. Linoleum on the kitchen floor, like Madge always wanted, and cigarettes from America. “Not that damn rationed stuff,” he says out loud, then looks around startled. What kind of fool idiot talks to himself? He chews on the knuckle of his thumb again. Twenty pounds to make the Police Commissioner look the other way. Damn lucky Madge could lend them the money. The bulldozer starts up again with a roar and the smell of diesel.

You don’t like where this is going. What sort of Prince is this, with his liver and onion sandwich, his gherkin and beer? Forgive me. I give you the only Prince I can find, a direct descendant of the Count of Edinburgh, himself descended from the Tudors, albeit in the female line. Of course, all such titles have been abolished. This is, after all, the Socialist Union of Britannia. If Harry knows he is a Prince, he certainly isn’t telling Mike or Steve, who might sell him out for a pack of American cigarettes. Even Madge can’t be trusted, though they’ve been sharing a flat in the commune’s apartment building for three years. Hell, she made a big enough fuss about the distillery business.

The bulldozer’s roar grows louder, then turns into a whine. The front wheel is stuck in a ditch. Harry climbs down and looks at the wheel. Damn, he’ll have to get Mike and Steve. He kicks the wheel, kicks a tree trunk and almost gets his foot caught in a briar, kicks the wheel again.

Something flashes in the forest. Now what the hell is that? (You and I know it is sunlight flashing from the faceted upper window of the tower.) Harry opens his beer and swallows a mouthful of its warm bitterness. Some damn poacher, walking around on his land. (You and I remember that it belongs to the Socialist Union of Britannia.) He takes a bite of his liver and onion sandwich. Madge shouldn’t frown so much, he thinks, remembering her in her housecoat, standing by the kitchen sink. She’s getting wrinkles on her forehead. Should he fetch Mike and Steve? But the beer in his stomach, warm, bitter, tells him that he doesn’t need Mike and Steve, because he can damn well handle any damn poacher himself. He bites into the gherkin.

Stay away, Prince Harry. Stay away from the forest full of briars. The Princess is not for you. You will never stumble up the tower stairs, smelling of beer; never leave a smear of mingled grease and sweat on her mouth; never take her away (thinking, Madge’s rump is getting too damn broad) to fry your liver and onions and empty your ashtray of cigarette butts and iron your briefs.

At least, I hope not.

Illustration by Walter Crane

(Illustration by Walter Crane.)

X. The Hound

This is the tenth section of my story “The Rose in Twelve Petals.” If you would like to see the previous sections, look below!

In a hundred years, only one creature comes to the palace: a hound whose coat is matted with dust. Along his back the hair has come out in tufts, exposing a mass of sores. He lopes unevenly: on one of his forepaws, the inner toes have been crushed.

He has run from a city reduced to stone skeletons and drifting piles of ash, dodging tanks, mortar fire, the rifles of farmers desperate for food. For weeks now, he has been loping along the dusty roads. When rain comes, he has curled himself under a tree. Afterward, he has drunk from puddles, then loped along again with mud drying in the hollows of his paws. Sometimes he has left the road and tried to catch rabbits in the fields, but his damaged paw prevents him from running quickly enough. He has smelled them in their burrows beneath the summer grasses, beneath the poppies and cornflowers, tantalizing, inaccessible.

This morning he has smelled something different, pungent, like spoiled meat: the smell of enchantment. He has left the road and entered the forest, finding his way through a tangle of briars. He has come to the village, loped up its cobbled streets and through the gates of the palace. His claws click on its stone floor.

What does he smell? A fragrance, drifting, indistinct, remembered from when he was a pup: bacon. There, through that doorway. He lopes into the Great Hall, where breakfast waits in chafing dishes. The eggs are still firm, their yolks plump and yellow, their whites delicately fried. Sausages sit in their own grease. The toast is crisp.

He leaves a streak of egg yolk and sausage grease on the tablecloth, which has remained pristine for half a century, and falls asleep in the Queen Dowager’s drawing room, in a square of sunlight that has not faded the baroque carpet.

He lives happily ever after. Someone has to. As summer passes, he wanders through the palace gardens, digging in the flower beds and trying to catch the sleeping fish that float in the ornamental pools. One day he urinates on the side of the tower, from which the dark smell emanates, to show his disapproval. When he is hungry he eats from the side of beef hanging in the larder, the sausage and eggs remaining on the breakfast table, or the mice sleeping beneath the harpsichord.

In autumn, he chases the leaves falling red and yellow over the lawns and manages to pull a lobster from the kitchen tank, although his teeth can barely crack its hard shell. He never figures out how to extract the canary from its cage. When winter comes, the stone floor sends an ache through his damaged paw, and he sleeps in the King’s bed, under velvet covers.

When summer comes again, he is too old to run about the garden. He lies in the Queen Dowager’s drawing room and dreams of being a pup, of warm hands and a voice that whispered “What a beautiful dog,” and that magical thing called a ball. He dies, his stomach still full with the last of the poached eggs. A proper fairy tale should, perhaps, end here.

Illustration by Trina Schart Hyman

(Illustration by Trina Schart Hyman.)

IX. The Tower

This is the ninth section of my story “The Rose in Twelve Petals.” If you would like to see the previous sections, look below!

Let us get a historical perspective. When the tower was quite young, only a hovel really, a child knocked a stone out of its wall, and it gained an eye. With that eye it watched as the child’s father, a chieftain, led his tribe against soldiers with metal breastplates and plumed helmets. Two lines met on the plain below: one regular, gleaming in the morning sun like the edge of a sword, the other ragged and blue like the crest of a wave. The wave washed over the sword, which splintered into a hundred pieces.

Time passed, and the tower gained a second story with a vertical eye as narrow as a staff. It watched a wooden structure grow beside it, in which men and cattle mingled indiscriminately. One morning it felt a prick, the point of an arrow. A bright flame blossomed from the beams of the wooden structure, men scattered, cattle screamed. One of its walls was singed, and it felt the wound as a distant heat. A castle rose, commanded by a man with eyebrows so blond that they were almost white, who caused the name Aelfric to be carved on the lintel of the tower. The castle’s stone walls, pummelled with catapults, battered by rams, fell into fragments. From the hilltop a man watched, whose nose had been broken in childhood and remained perpetually crooked. When a palace rose from the broken rock, he caused the name D’Arblay to be carved on the lintel of the tower, beside a boar rampant.

Time passed, and a woman on a white horse rode through the village that had grown around the palace walls, followed by a retinue that stretched behind her like a scarf. At the palace gates, a Darbley grown rich on tobacco plantations in the New World presented her with the palace, in honor of her marriage to the Earl of Essex. The lintel of the tower was carved with the name Elizabeth I, and it gained a third story with a lead-paned window, through which it saw in facets like a fly. One morning it watched the Queen’s son, who had been playing ball in the courtyard, fall to the ground with blood dripping from his nostrils. The windows of the palace were draped in black velvet, the Queen and her consort rode away with their retinue, and the village was deserted.

Time passed. Leaves turned red or gold, snow fell and melted into rivulets, young hawks took their first flight from the battlements. A rosebush grew at the foot of the tower: a hybrid, half wild rose, half Cuisse de Nymphe, with twelve petals and briary canes. One morning men rode up to the tower on horses whose hides were mottled with sweat. In its first story, where the chieftain’s son had played, they talked of James III. Troops were coming from France, and the password was Britannia. As they left the tower, one of them plucked a flower from the rosebush. “Let this be our symbol,” he said in the self-conscious voice of a man who thinks that his words will be recorded in history books. The tower thought it would be alone again, but by the time the leaves had turned, a procession rode up to the palace gates, waving banners embroidered with a twelve-petaled rose. Furniture arrived from France, fruit trees were planted, and the village streets were paved so that the hooves of cattle clopped on the stones.

It has stood a long time, that tower, watching the life around it shift and alter, like eddies in a stream. It looks down once again on a deserted village — but no, not entirely deserted. A woman still lives in a cottage at its edge. Her hair has turned white, but she works every day in her garden, gathering tomatoes and cutting back the mint. When the day is particularly warm, she brings out a spinning wheel and sits in the garden, spinning yarn so fine that a shawl of it will slip through a wedding ring. If the breezes come from the west, the tower can hear her humming, just above the humming that the wheel makes as it spins. Time passes, and she sits out in the garden less often, until one day it realizes that it has not seen her for many days, or perhaps years.

Sometimes at night it thinks it can hear the Princess breathing in her sleep.

Illustration by Kay Nielson

(Illustration by Kay Nielson.)

VIII. The Gardener

This is the eighth section of my story “The Rose in Twelve Petals.” If you would like to see the previous sections, look below!

Long after, when the gardener has grown into an old man, he will tell his grandchildren about that day: skittish horses being harnessed by panicked grooms, nobles struggling with boxes while their valets carry armchairs and even bedsteads through the palace halls, the King in a pair of black velvet slippers shouting directions. The cooks leave the kettles whistling in the kitchen, the Queen Dowager leaves her jewels lying where she has dropped them while tripping over the hem of her nightgown. Everyone runs to escape the spreading lethargy that has already caught a canary in his cage, who makes soft noises as he settles into his feathers. The flowers are closing in the garden, and even the lobsters that the chef was planning to serve with melted butter for lunch have lain down in a corner of their tank.

In a few hours, the palace is left to the canary, and the lobsters, and the Princess lying on the floor of the tower.

He will say, “I was pruning a rosebush at the bottom of the tower that day. Look what I took away with me!” Then he will display a rose of the variety called Britannia, with its twelve petals half-open, still fresh and moist with dew. His granddaughter will say, “Oh, grandpa, you picked that in the garden just this morning!” His grandson, who is practical and wants to be an engineer, will say, “Grandpa, people can’t sleep for a hundred years.”

Illustration by Walter Crane

(Illustration by Walter Crane.)

VII. The Princess

This is the seventh section of my story “The Rose in Twelve Petals.” If you would like to see the previous sections, look below!

Alice climbs the tower stairs. She could avoid this perhaps, disguise herself as a peasant woman and beg her way to the Highlands, like a heroine in Scott’s novels. But she does not want to avoid this, so she is climbing up the tower stairs on the morning of her seventeenth birthday, still in her nightgown and clutching a battered copy of Goethe’s poems whose binding is so torn that the book is tied with pink ribbon to keep the pages together. Her feet are bare, because opening the shoe closet might have woken the Baroness, who has slept in her room since she was a child. Barefoot, she has walked silently past the sleeping guards, who are supposed to guard her today with particular care. She has walked past the Queen Dowager’s drawing room thinking: if anyone hears me, I will be in disgrace. She has spent a larger portion of her life in disgrace than out of it, and she remembers that she once thought of it as an imaginary country, Disgrace, with its own rivers and towns and trade routes. Would it be different if her mother were alive? She remembers a face creased from the folds of the pillow, and pale lips whispering to her about the lily maid of Astolat. It would, she supposes, have made no difference. She trips on a step and almost drops the book.

She has no reason to suppose, of course, that the Witch will be there, so early in the morning. But somehow, Alice hopes she will be.

She is, sitting on a low stool with a spinning wheel in front of her.

“Were you waiting for me?” asks Alice. It sounds silly—who else would the Witch be waiting for? But she can think of nothing else to say.

“I was.” The Witch’s voice is low and cadenced, and although she has wrinkles at the corners of her mouth and her hair has turned gray, she is still rather beautiful. She is not, exactly, what Alice expected.

“How did you know I was coming so early?”

The Witch smiles. “I’ve gotten rather good at magic. I sell fortunes for my living, you see. It’s not much, just enough to buy bread and butter, and to rent a small cottage. But it amuses me, knowing things about people — their lives and their futures.”

“Do you know anything — about me?” Alice looks down at the book. What idiotic questions to be asking. Surely a heroine from Scott’s novels would think of better.

The Witch nods, and sunlight catches the silver cross suspended from a chain around her neck. She says, “I’m sorry.”

Alice understands, and her face flushes. “You mean that you’ve been watching all along. That you’ve known what it’s been like, being the cursed princess.” She turns and walks to the tower window, so the Witch will not see how her hands are shaking. “You know the other girls wouldn’t play with me or touch my toys, that the boys would spit over their shoulders, to break the curse they said. Even the chambermaids would make the sign of the cross when I wasn’t looking.” She can feel tears where they always begin, at the corners of her eyes, and she leans out the window to cool her face. Far below, a gardener is crossing the courtyard, carrying a pair of pruning shears. She says, “Why didn’t you remove the curse, then?”

“Magic doesn’t work that way.” The Witch’s voice is sad. Alice turns around and sees that her cheeks are wet with tears. Alice steps toward her, trips again, and drops the book, which falls under the spinning wheel.

The Witch picks it up and smiles as she examines the cover. “Of course, your Goethe. I always wondered what happened to Wolfgang Magus.”

Alice thinks with relief: I’m not going to cry after all. “He went away, after his sister died. She had consumption, you know, for years and years. He was always sending her money for medicine. He wrote to me once after he left, from Berlin, to say that he had bought his old master’s house. But I never heard from him again.”

The Witch wipes her cheeks with the back of one hand. “I didn’t know about his sister. I spoke to him once. He was a kind man.”

Alice takes the book from her, then says, carefully, as though each word has to be placed in the correct order, “Do you think his spell will work? I mean, do you think I’ll really sleep for a hundred years, rather than — you know?”

The Witch looks up, her cheeks still damp, but her face composed. “I can’t answer that for you. You may simply be — preserved. In a pocket of time, as it were.”

Alice tugs at the ribbon that binds the book together. “It doesn’t matter, really. I don’t think I care either way.” She strokes the spinning wheel, which turns as she touches it. “How beautiful, as though it had been made just for me.”

The Witch raises a hand, to stop her perhaps, or arrest time itself, but Alice places her finger on the spindle and presses until a drop of blood blossoms, as dark as the petal of a Cardinal de Richelieu, and runs into her palm.

Before she falls, she sees the Witch with her head bowed and her shoulders shaking. She thinks, for no reason she can remember, Elaine the fair, Elaine the lovable . . .

Sleeing Beauty Illustration

VI. The Spinning Wheel

This is the sixth section of my story “The Rose in Twelve Petals.” If you would like to see the previous sections, look below!

It has never wanted to be an assassin. It remembers the cottage on the Isles where it was first made: the warmth of the hearth and the feel of its maker’s hands, worn smooth from rubbing and lanolin.

It remembers the first words it heard: “And why are you carving roses on it, then?”

“This one’s for a lady. Look how slender it is. It won’t take your upland ram’s wool. Yearling it’ll have to be, for this one.”

At night it heard the waves crashing on the rocks, and it listened as their sound mingled with the snoring of its maker and his wife. By day it heard the crying of the sea birds. But it remembered, as in a dream, the songs of inland birds and sunlight on a stone wall. Then the fishermen would come, and one would say, “What’s that you’re making there, Enoch? Is it for a midget, then?”

Its maker would stroke it with the tips of his fingers and answer, “Silent, lads. This one’s for a lady. It’ll spin yarn so fine that a shawl of it will slip through a wedding ring.”

It has never wanted to be an assassin, and as it sits in a cottage to the south, listening as Madeleine mutters to herself, it remembers the sounds of seabirds and tries to forget that it was made, not to spin yarn so fine that a shawl of it will slip through a wedding ring, but to kill the King’s daughter.

Illustration by Edmund Dulac

(Illustration by Edmund Dulac.)

V. The Queen Dowager

This is the fifth section of my story “The Rose in Twelve Petals.” If you would like to see the previous sections, look below!

What is the girl doing? Playing at tug-of-war, evidently, and far too close to the stream. She’ll tear her dress on the rosebushes. Careless, these young people, thinks the Queen Dowager. And who is she playing with? Young Lord Harry, who will one day be Count of Edinburgh. The Queen Dowager is proud of her keen eyesight and will not wear spectacles, although she is almost sixty-three.

What a pity the girl is so plain. The Queen Dowager jabs her needle into a black velvet slipper. Eyes like boiled gooseberries that always seem to be staring at you, and no discipline. Now in her day, thinks the Queen Dowager, remembering backboards and nuns who rapped your fingers with canes, in her day girls had discipline. Just look at the Queen: no discipline. Two miscarriages in ten years, and dead before her thirtieth birthday. Of course linen is so much cheaper now that the kingdoms are united. But if only her Jims (which is how she thinks of the King) could have married that nice German princess.

She jabs the needle again, pulls it out, jabs, knots. She holds up the slipper and then its pair, comparing the roses embroidered on each toe in stitches so even they seem to have been made by a machine. Quite perfect for her Jims, to keep his feet warm on the drafty palace floors.

A tearing sound, and a splash. The girl, of course, as the Queen Dowager could have warned you. Just look at her, with her skirt ripped up one side and her petticoat muddy to the knees.

“I do apologize, Madam. I assure you it’s entirely my fault,” says Lord Harry, bowing with the superfluous grace of a dancing master.

“It is all your fault,” says the girl, trying to kick him.

“Alice!” says the Queen Dowager. Imagine the Queen wanting to name the girl Elaine. What a name, for a Princess of Britannia.

“But he took my book of poems and said he was going to throw it into the stream!”

“I’m perfectly sure he did no such thing. Go to your room at once. This is the sort of behavior I would expect from a chimney sweep.”

“Then tell him to give my book back!”

Lord Harry bows again and holds out the battered volume. “It was always yours for the asking, your Highness.”

Alice turns away, and you see what the Queen Dowager cannot, despite her keen vision: Alice’s eyes, slightly prominent, with irises that are indeed the color of gooseberries, have turned red at the corners, and her nose has begun to drip.

Illustration by Margaret Tarrant 2

(Illustration by Margaret Tarrant.)

IV. The King

This is the fourth section of my story “The Rose in Twelve Petals.” If you would like to see the previous sections, look below!

What would you do, if you were James IV of Britannia, pacing across your council chamber floor before your councilors: the Count of Edinburgh, whose estates are larger than yours and include hillsides of uncut wood for which the French Emperor, who needs to refurbish his navy after the disastrous Indian campaign, would pay handsomely; the Earl of York, who can trace descent, albeit in the female line, from the Tudors; and the Archbishop, who has preached against marital infidelity in his cathedral at Aberdeen? The banner over your head, embroidered with the twelve-petaled rose of Britannia, reminds you that your claim to the throne rests tenuously on a former James’ dalliance. Edinburgh’s thinning hair, York’s hanging jowl, the seams, edged with gold thread, where the Archbishop’s robe has been let out, warn you, young as you are, with a beard that shines like a tangle of golden wires in the afternoon light, of your gouty future.

Britannia’s economy depends on the wool trade, and spun wool sells for twice as much as unspun. Your income depends on the wool tax. The Queen, whom you seldom think of as Elizabeth, is young. You calculate: three months before she recovers from the birth, nine months before she can deliver another child. You might have an heir by next autumn.

“Well?” Edinburgh leans back in his chair, and you wish you could strangle his wrinkled neck.

You say, “I see no reason to destroy a thousand spinning wheels for one madwoman.” Madeleine, her face puffed with sleep, her neck covered with a line of red spots where she lay on the pearl necklace you gave her the night before, one black hair tickling your ear. Clever of her, to choose a spinning wheel. “I rely entirely on Wolfgang Magus,” whom you believe is a fraud. “Gentlemen, your fairy tales will have taught you that magic must be met with magic. One cannot fight a spell by altering material conditions.”

Guffaws from the Archbishop, who is amused to think that he once read fairy tales.

You are a selfish man, James IV, and this is essentially your fault, but you have spoken the truth. Which, I suppose, is why you are the King.

Illustration by Walter Crane

(Illustration by Walter Crane.)