It was a rather dreary and crisp morning. Chilly winds and the pitter-patter of raindrops plagued the windows all throughout the castle. As the Calypso Queen dipped her breakfast bread into a small plate of wine to soften it, she looked across the table at Otis and noticed his lack of cheerfulness as compared to previous mornings. “Something the matter?” she asked.
“What? No,” Otis replied. “Just not that hungry today for some reason.” His pasty complexion and tired eyes made him look as though he was coming down with some sort of illness. A fake smile soon followed as he inquired about the passenger freight.
“It should be here any day. Any moment, actually,” the queen said. “How’s your meal?”
“Good. Very good,” Otis said.
The words left behind by the woodcutter were starting to dig further into Otis’s core; with his weak appetite, he struggled to force down the tiniest bite of bacon. “I can’t tell you enough how grateful I am for all your help and hospitality.”
“And I can’t tell you enough that you need to stop thanking me. It’s truly no bother at all.”
“Still. I feel I’m beginning to overstay my welcome,” he said.
“Are you sure you don’t prefer I find a room in town? It’s really no bother. I won’t be offended. You’ve done so much for me since I’ve been here. I’d hate for it to reach a point where either of us feels as though I’ve taken advantage of your kindness.”
“Otis,” she said, locking her eyes with his and cracking a small smile. “Don’t make me beg you to stay. I can’t in good conscience let you leave here just to end up in one of those rat-infested hostels while your room here just collects dust.”
It was the first time she’d referred to the guest quarters as his, and he felt the back of his neck grow warm.
“As long as you say so.”
“And you’re quite sure you have everything you need? Fresh linens, food, water? Firewood?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve wanted for since my arrival—with the exception of a visit from my wife and son, of course.”
For an instant within an instant, Otis caught a glimpse of raging jealousy beaming across the table.
“She really is the luckiest woman in the world. True love is hard to come by these days. It’s only more difficult to maintain when you love someone who has monetary incentive to love you back.”
“That’s a sad way to look at it,” Otis said, struggling to chew and swallow another bite of bacon.
“It sure is,” she said. “But it’s true, unfortunately.” She lowered her eyes to an empty spot on the table and stared into the past for several moments. The clanging rhythm of armored footsteps broke her from her trance as she turned her attention to a guard who had just entered. He approached her from the left and leaned down to whisper, staring at Otis with a look suggesting that he close his ears and mind his own business.
“Oh, my,” the queen said, with false surprise. “Well, that’s awful. Send out as many men as we can spare, and keep me informed. In the meantime, see if we can get someone to fill in for him temporarily.”
The guard stomped out of the room, closing the heavy door behind him.
“What’s wrong?” Otis asked.
She let out a phony sigh of concern. “I’m afraid the man who delivers our firewood has gone missing, along with his children.”
Otis carefully swallowed a nervous lump. “That is awful,” he said, raising his eyebrows.
“It’s just so uncharacteristic. He’s always been dependable, barely leaves his property. I’m already starting to fear the worst.”
“How old are they?” Otis asked.
“Oh. I’m not sure. Young. Maybe four to six. Somewhere in there.”
“Maybe I can go out and help some of your men look for them,” Otis said, his insides swelling with petrified guilt. “They’ve got to be on the island somewhere, no?”
“They do. But my men are the very best. They’ll find them. I just pray nothing bad has happened to any of them. My late husband and I tried our best to make this island a safe place to live. But, sometimes, bad things happen here. “Hopefully, they find them soon, though,” the queen said. “We’re going to need more firewood before long.”
That night, Otis lay in the bronze tub. Despite the warm water encasing him from the neck down, the frosty air chilling his damp hair and face made his entire body feel as though it was covered with ice. He didn’t want to believe that the queen knew about his conversation with the woodcutter. Even more, he didn’t want to believe that she had anything to do with the disappearance of him and his children. However, it was difficult for him to shake the intuitional suggestion that she had known and that she was involved. Such timing.
He rose from the tub and drip-dried on the balcony before walking to the ledge, staring at the pitch-black sky as it rested on an even darker ocean. In the distance, he spotted the incoming flicker of candlelight. It twinkled through a series of estate room windows, lining a slow-moving passenger freight.
“Heh,” he said, feeling a bit relieved.
Otis slipped further into the night and into the soft cotton sheets pinning him to the plush mattress. He closed his eyes, keeping them shut through the entirety of the night, but he never fell asleep. As the red sun carried the new morning into view, he pried his body out of bed and listened to a series of cracks and pops work their way from his toes and ankles and then up to his neck. After a thorough stretch and a lukewarm bath, he left the guest quarters and joined the queen for breakfast.
“Good morning,” he said, stepping into the dining hall.
For the first time since his arrival, Otis felt the dominating presence of the queen’s mood. She had a supernatural ability to control the ambiance of the entire room, as a thick and somber humidity radiated from her chair. With light and curious footsteps, Otis approached his usual seat and sat down.
“Good morning,” she said, finally acknowledging his presence.
“Everything OK?” he asked.
“No…no, I’m afraid not. Still no word on the woodcutter or his children.” She stared out the window as if looking for answers. “Did he say anything to you? At all?”
“The woodcutter?” Otis asked.
“Any of the times he came into your room?”
Otis felt his heart begin to race. “No. Not a word, in fact. Why?”
“It’s just—some of the people we talked to said he was acting very peculiar the day after his last delivery here.”
“Hmmm,” Otis mumbled. “I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. But I don’t know what he’s usually like. What do you think?”
“Honestly,” she said, scraping her thumb across her chin, “I have no idea. There is some good news, though. The passenger freight has arrived. You should be leaving here in a few days.”
“That is good news,” Otis said. “Although, given the circumstances, it feels bittersweet. Is there anything I can do to help—with the search efforts?”
“My men are on top of it,” she said. “And they’ll get to the bottom of it.”
After breakfast, with an armored guard on either side, the queen took gentle and graceful steps down to the castle’s lower level. Once she’d reached a certain depth, the smell of death and moldy, iron-rich air plugged her nostrils.
“Let’s make this quick,” she said, glaring at one of her guards.
She nodded her eyes at a warped wooden door, prompting him to open it and reveal a dim, musty dungeon. Inside, strapped to a rack with ropes around his wrists and ankles, lay the woodcutter. His face had been beaten and was swelling as though it had pockets of water amassing beneath his skin.
“Please, no,” he cried. “No more.”
The queen stood in front of him with a stoic and unapologetic stare. “Are you ready to start telling me the truth?” she asked.
“I have told you the truth,” he said, sobbing through each syllable. “I didn’t say a word, and I don’t know how you got it into your mind that I did.” The panic surging through his heart almost made him forget about the excruciating pain stabbing his back, hips, shins, and ankles.
“It’s never taken you more than half a minute per room to deliver firewood, yet you were in there with Otis for over three. What—did you tell him?”
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he cried. “I swear. I didn’t tell him anything.”
“Then what were you doing in there for all that time?”
“I already told you; I tipped my cart on the balcony and had to pick it all up. Then I had to broom up the dust.”
“OK,” she said. “I’ve heard enough. My patience is wearing thin.” She ran her polished black fingertips over the bruises where his thumbs had been clamped.
“I’m going to go see Otis and ask him what happened while you were in there. You better pray that he tells me the same thing you just did. Because if he doesn’t, I’m going to kill your kids.”
As she and the guards turned to leave the room, the woodcutter finally began to cooperate. “Stop,” he said. “Don’t. I’ll tell you everything. Just don’t hurt my children.”
She turned back to face the broken woodcutter with a satisfied grin.
Up on the guest quarters’ balcony, Otis took advantage of another soak in the bronze tub and began to envision getting his own for his balcony back in Ithaca. Now that he’d actually seen the passenger freight with his own eyes, dragon-sized butterflies swirled in his belly as a whole new battle of nerves began to rage inside him. An ambush of harsh realities consumed his afternoon. While he’d only been gone for roughly four years, they were difficult years and had taken a tremendous toll on his mind and body.
What if she’s forgotten about the love we shared? What if I don’t look how she expects me to? Little did Otis know that he and Penelope were tied together with these thoughts, as she had the same fears regarding his return. She couldn’t fathom a life in which he didn’t love her with as much passion and vigor as he did when he left. And her biggest fear, outside of him being dead, was that Otis would return a different man. She worried that the man he’d become would have no use for her anymore. She even feared that he might return to Ithaca with a new true love. And perhaps this new mystery woman was the reason he’d been gone for so long.
Down in the dungeon, still strapped to the rack, the woodcutter felt his heart weigh heavy with anticipation of the queen’s next words.
“Thank you,” she said, gently. “It’s just unfortunate that you couldn’t have told me this sooner. Otherwise, your children might still be alive.”
“What? No,” he cried. “You said you wouldn’t hurt them.”
“And I didn’t. I don’t think I can, the way they are now.”
“No,” he said, losing control. “You didn’t.”
“No. I didn’t,” she said, with fictitious sympathy. “It seems that one of your neighbors found out they were alone. He dressed up like an old woman and lured them over to his house with promises of candy and other sweets. Once he got them there—and this is so awful; I’m so sorry you have to hear this from me—once he got them there, he burned them alive in his oven.”
Tears streamed down the woodcutter’s bloody face as several piercing howls echoed through the dungeon chambers. His entire body went limp, and he privately prayed for death.
“Where does one learn such violent behavior?” she asked. “Is it something they’re taught? Or maybe something inside them? I mean, whoever heard of such a thing? I just wish you would have confessed sooner. Maybe you would have been there to stop it. Pity. I guess we’ll never know.”
The queen walked out of the dungeon, invigorated. Once out, and with the door shut behind her, she turned to her loyal guards. “Kill him,” she said, assigning the one to her left with the task. “As for you,” she said to the other, “go pay the warlock his fee, and once his guard is down, kill him. I’m thinking the official story will be that the woodcutter died trying to save them, but several trusted members of the queen’s guard arrived and killed the witch, just in the nick of time, saving the children. People love a good close-call story.”
“Will it be a problem that the kids are, uh—”
“No,” she exclaimed with buoyancy. “No one needs to know they’re not alive. We’ll say that between the trauma and the fact that they have no family on this island, it was in their best interest to leave here. Just make sure there’s a written record to show they were on the passenger freight, in case any of the gossips start to pick apart the official story. Once it’s on paper, spread the word. The queen’s men are heroes.”
“What do you want me to do with Otis?”
“Mmmm, yes. Otis,” she said. “Let me sleep on it. I still haven’t decided what I want to do with him just yet.”
Otis rubbed his pruning fingertips together under the surface of the hot bathwater. With a wet washcloth resting over his face, he continued to fantasize about his return home. At first, his thoughts were pleasant and jubilant. As more steam escaped his washcloth, however, more harsh realities began to arrive, realities he hadn’t yet thought of. What if they’re no longer living in Ithaca? What if they’re no longer living? No. I can’t—I won’t—believe that.
“I’ve missed you so much,” he said, using his imagination to look into Penelope’s eyes. “More than you know.”
“Well,” the queen answered, “I’ve missed you too.”
Otis ripped the washcloth off his face and sat up in the bronze tub. “Your Majesty, I was just—”
Before he knew what was happening, two armored guards placed a sheet of wood on top of the tub, holding one of the edges against Otis’s throat.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked.
“Why don’t you tell me?” She sashayed to a nearby stack of firewood and retrieved a few logs before bringing them back and placing them on a tiny fire beneath the tub.
“What are you doing?” he asked, beginning to feel the heat of the rising flame.
“The woodcutter told me everything that he told you,” she said.
“So?” Otis replied. “I didn’t believe any of it.”
“Then you’re a poor judge of character,” she said. “I’m afraid that he was telling you the truth.”
“Please let me out of here. I’ll do anything you ask.” He raised his body off the tub’s floor as the surface tried to sear his skin.
“I’m afraid it won’t be that easy,” she said, taking a seat and running the back of her fingertips down his cheek. “I love you, Otis. I’ve loved you since the first time I looked in your eyes. I saw the hurt. It’s the same hurt that I’ve felt most of my life, and I never thought for one second that I’d meet someone who shared it with me. Yet here you are. And I thought I had you all to myself. But then you mentioned her. Again. Now, I don’t know what she could possibly have that I can’t give you. But I do know that you and I are meant to be together. Someday, hopefully sooner than later, you’ll know it too.”
Otis’s forehead poured sweat as the excruciating heat began to coat his insides with nausea. The queen stood up, prompting the guards to remove the dense barrier. Otis burst from the tub. His red and blistering body crashed on the balcony, trying to soak up any relief it could from the cold concrete.
“Your only son has no idea who you are,” she said. “And surely, Penelope has moved on. Even if they haven’t, they’ll never be able to love you like I do, Otis.” She nodded one of the guards toward the woodpile.
He promptly walked to it before kicking it over and revealing a book of blank paper and a small bottle of ink.
As bits of Otis’s skin peeled off and cooled to that of the air’s temperature, the queen smashed the bottle, making the ink disappear on the concrete. “From now on,” she said, “there will be no more secrets between us.” She reached down for the book of paper and tossed it over the balcony ledge.
Otis turned his burning body sideways and into the fetal position as uncontrollable whimpers caused tremors to run over his entire body.
“Now get some rest and heal, my darling,” she whispered into his ear. “It’s been a very long day for everyone.”
She and her guards left the room as Otis gathered enough strength to stand. He considered throwing himself off the balcony. He stared for hours at the raging waters, crashing into the jagged rocks below. But he couldn’t do it. There was still a sliver of hope.
It may have been hubris or just a lack of attention to detail, but the queen failed to notice that one sheet of paper had been ripped out of that book. And one milk bottle was unaccounted for. Indeed, there was a sliver of hope. While the value and shelf life of that sliver were both in question, Otis was willing to wait it out, as another ten years slogged ahead, and she kept him locked away.