I stay mostly in my bedroom chambers, examining what has found its way into my pores or the mucoid crook of my eye. I take my sister’s small round mirror from her vanity and position it strategically on the floor, or hold it if I’m on all fours, and check out what may be developing on my backside, somewhere between its cracks and finally, eventually, delve deep inside where the sun don’t shine, as the saying goes.

But there is light up there, for certain. Up there, so to speak, is where light goes to hide, saving itself, I imagine. I have seen this light insofar as I’ve seen its reflection on things.

And given the location of the light, it being up there, deep inside, such must be the thing on which the light is reflected, too – up there, deep inside. Its luster shows like a candle’s soft white flicker, it saves itself that carefully.

Coaxing something up there, into the light, can take all day. I have whole conversations with myself just to remit certain muscles, frames of mind, all the while holding the mirror, and the thing, taking breaks in between to use the latrine, pick at what the servants leave for me in my study, warm myself by the fire there. This is what I do on days I have no trouble in the castle or the manor, days the village does well by the knights and the parapet is armed, no threats: I engage in myself this way, with the light up there, deep inside. If you can imagine that.

A few things I’ve managed to illuminate are worth noting: a small bottle of sherry, my sister’s confirmation crown which I snatched from its velveteen case and hammered down straight and flat, a rabbit’s foot, a brass corkscrew, an ivory penknife. When I traveled to foreign kingdoms this method was ideal for concealing jewels, sums of money, keys to containers I’d left to the proximate nosiness of my sister, her goose-neck friends, the staff.

I used to carry an occasional doodad up there during our all-too-extensible family dinners – a little wooden top from my boyhood, for example. I spun it on the cold stone floor. Now a small blond dog sits there yapping as a servant girl sweeps. Another girl scrapes the tallow drippings from the wall.

‘Lord Brom,’ a feeble voice follows a knock on my door. It is the servant girl Ilspeth come to take the chamber pot. I am lying in the curtained bed. I watch her shadow pass. I cough.

‘Shuh,’ she says, alarmed. ‘I didn’t hear you say “come in”.’

‘I could not,’ I say, gasping for air.

‘Are you ill, my lord?’

‘Not ill, no,’ I choke.

What Ilspeth doesn’t know is that a certain loop of rope tied with a lovely turk’s head knot does more than hold back the curtains. Occasionally I like a good strangle.

‘You ate fish bones last night, my lord,’ Ilspeth tells me. I hear the chamber pot slosh and watch her shadow carry it from the bedside past the windows. A hunched little wisp of a girl whom I entrust with the blood of my bowels.

‘Ilspeth!’ I clear my throat, wince. ‘Ilspeth, tell me what time it is.’

‘Past noon,’ she says.

‘Very well,’ I say.

I untie the rope.

‘Ilspeth, are you still there?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

The floorboard creaks as she shifts her weight. I exhale.

‘Still there?’

‘Yes. Leaving now, my lord.’

I hear the door close.

I toss open the bed curtains and stuff my feet into fur-lined slippers. I see a gold streak of hay on the carpet which she must have trailed in with her from the latrine. I shuffle over, pick it up and hold it between my fingers. The hay is coated with pale brown excrement. I inhale deeply. I eat the hay.

I had a sister who didn’t like me. She didn’t like me, she said, because I was a bore. ‘What do you even do all day?’ she’d ask. ‘What could you possibly be doing in there?’ When we were small she’d draw pictures of pretty days – sunshine, flowers, rolling hills, with notes in Latin slipped under the door:

Obscurum est mortifer!

Procedo quod lascivio!

She was a very pretty thing, and had escaped the curse of intelligence without loss of much in the way of know-how. She could sing a fine song, sew something pretty. Whatever it is girls do. Now she was preparing for her wedding. Happily she preened about the castle with her cohorts, ladies-in-waiting juggling their tits, tapping feet, drawing pictures they’d point and laugh at and rip up and throw in the fire. I watched them with some pleasure, as one would regard a litter of kittens. ‘Get a life,’ I heard her say, ‘think of what that means.’ I take it she thought I should adhere myself to a life, my life, anybody’s life, like a leech on a pig. ‘Get married,’ she said. I had very little respect for her.

Plus I always thought it’s plain vulgar to be a lady. I’d like to meet one who can do it, be one, without making faces when she passes her reflection in the window, or who will invite you to her chambers and get finicky with the servants watching, yet have no qualms about instructing you like a whore when your head’s between her thighs.

But, ‘Oh,’ said my sister, ‘come now.’ She was smiling. ‘You’ll marry and have children and be a father and let yourself go into the natural order of things. Have faith, Brom, there’s more to life than what’s in between your ears,’ she said. As if she’d had an idea. There was acid in my mouth I’d have liked to spit on her.

‘Bring wine,’ I said to the cup bearer.

‘Bring bread,’ said my sister after him.

We were seated in the great hall. There was a vase of red gladioli between us. A fat-burning lamp. A rat’s skull was illuminated in me, up there, not so uncomfortably that day. I had caught it, a large brown rat, in the pantry one night when I was up late, roving. My sister’s dress was a fine purple silk embroidered with gold filigree and pearls. I did have love for her. She was my sister. I still can’t imagine her as anyone’s wife, bearing anyone’s children. That seems wholly ridiculous.

She pointed down the gallery through the window past the motte. The sun was out. The crimson leaves of autumn swayed and frilled in the wind.

‘It’s always deathly boring and dark in the castle. Let’s go for a walk,’ she said. ‘At the very least, Brom. It’s a fine afternoon. Look.’

I rolled my eyes.

‘It’s our last day together before I’m married,’ she said. Her chin rose, mouth parted.

‘To please you, sister,’ I said.

‘God bless, Brom,’ my sister said. ‘You look like an absolute toad, besides. Fresh air, sunshine. You’ll feel good. I promise.’

I held back a mouthful of vomit.

On our walk she said that she’d been to visit our mother. That there were certain disgraces which our father never wanted us to know. That I was an abomination of the family name.

This Is Our Descent
All the Caged Things