August 2022 Contest Winner: One in Splendor, One Fading
My lord has brought home a new concubine, and to appease me, he bought me a honey shop.
The first night that he spent in her chamber, the candles burned long into the night. When he saw me next, he introduced an azalea flower to the hive in my courtyard. The flower was cut mid stem with no way for it to thrive even if I put it in water. It would be fine for some time before like everything in the world, it would wither and die.
“So you have brought this to me.” It wasn’t a question, more so an observation of what
he was trying to do now. My chambers were larger, but in our marriage, my lord had
never shown interest in the tokens of romance. It was duty always, never this.
“You deserve one too, so I bought it after I picked it.” There was such a boyish hope in
his eyes. I was thinking that you should have the other one, as a bee needs flowers to
make honey. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make your own honey so you can stay sweet?”
Stay sweet? Truly I didn’t even like sweet things. Too much sweet always left a sticky residue on my hands that was a bother to then clean. Then of course it was going to have an aftertaste, as if the sweet could life the sour of my usual moods.
“I appreciate the thought,” the words he wanted to hear were these.
My lord was giddy that both of us were satisfied, so he did a silly spin as he was still slightly drunk. He moved to where the hive had been placed and put the flower at the mouth where the bees were spitting out. There it seemed to get a nice stream of activity, so he balanced it by placing it in a vase. This was my dowry vase that I had brought with me from Jiangnan but this significance was lost to him in the pursuit of being this—flouncy family man I had never known. I hid my disgust behind a handkerchief as he walked back with those same light steps and looked at his handiwork.
“The new concubine was going to pay her respects to you today. I have decided it’s not needed. These old traditions can be done away with.” His eyes seemed to be asking for my approval.
“Of course, my lord. Respect is earned. You are wise to know this.” My mouth did not twitch as I maintained my posture.
He didn’t care as he returned to his favorite chamber that was over the wall from mine. I had a month of peace before hunger came back to me as my husband drunkenly hugged a pillar in my courtyard. As he had a promotion at his ministry from clerk to a more prestigious position. Some of his lackeys had arranged for him to go to a brothel to my delight. He had remarked that he would imagine me when he was with her.
“That I am in your thoughts at all is a relief to me, my lord.” My voice was monotonous. “But this is your time, so you should enjoy yourself. I know you have been working hard. I am useless to you as I have been so busy tending my bees that I am tired. I need to take a bath and look at the account books.”
My dear looked at me with his red stained eyes. “You are so much better than other wives who yell and ask their husbands to spend less money. So sweet are you so I cannot make you sour by being out of order. Therefore I will return to your chambers tonight as my oath.”
I set out a jar of wine, and I drank it while watching the reflection of the moon on our artificial pond. As the candle waned, my own head started to spin. Of course, his oath had really bittered my night, as probably he had returned to his favored wife. Not this wife of his, but to make sure, I had a servant check in.
“The Lord is with Courtesan Guo, milady.” The servant bowed as he retreated into the night.
My mouth quivered into a smile as I was helped into my bed by my maids. There was a note that was handed to me, smelling sickly sweet. The words swam in front of my eyes as I tried to remember I had gotten so drunk that I forgot I was illiterate.
And I went to vomit once, twice, then a final third time, and I realized that other than my maid, we were alone in the chamber. The echo of the retching was the only sound. But truthfully, the only one bothered was me.
As I finally fell into a peaceful sleep as my migraine receded, I was violently shaken awake. He was here next to me with his clothes all torn, even though these fabrics were bestowed by a noble family. It was the best he had, and now it was gone.
I cried and he made a sound of irritation. His shadow loomed over me, and as my whimpers alarmed it, he moved back to the entrance of the chamber. His eyes were odd and shifty as I realized for the first time in a long time, he was staring at me sober. He righted the blankets around me and left with a strange steadiness.
The maid came to me to whisper. “He’s gone to the side chamber, madam.”
I closed my eyes as she moved away; the truth was too hard to keep me awake.
But sleep was not an escape forever, so when light could touch my whole bed, I finally
stretched as I was handed my hangover soup. The second blanket was unfolded, but no one had used it. After my medicine was taken, I was surprised to realize the hand that was taking it was veined. I looked into the eyes of my husband. His green robes were the ones he always wore and were embroidered with the leaves I had favored in my earlier days. It spoke of a simpler time when love was still in the air. His eyes couldn’t hold mine for long as he turned to the meal he had brought.
“You look the most beautiful at dawn.” The words were strange now as he patted my hand. “Would you like to try the snacks? They’re freshly made.”
I shook my head. “I have a hangover. I won’t eat until I have eaten something more kind to myself. Why are you in the main chamber? Usually you begin your day getting ready for court. You were home so early, aren’t you tired after such a long night? It must have been joyous to be so wild.”
“It is rare that I am even having something to celebrate, so I tried to enjoy it to the fullest.” This hand tried to weave through mine. “After there was one after another in dances and performances, so I really did lose track of when I had promised.”
“It’s fine to break a promise.” My voice was cold, but this was how it was. It was normal for him to visit outside of the house. A woman should not wonder outside of the inner quarters. But today I did. “Who was there with you as you were celebrating?”
He tried to feed me a bit of cake, but I shook my head as it touched my lips. “I was out there with Madam Liu and others who were there from the ministry.”
“What about the rules of the inner quarters?” My voice had an edge to it as I did know everyone around us was going to talk. This was not a common question as protocol that was not being followed would lower our status. I couldn’t be angry, at least not until–
“My workers want to meet my new concubine.” He put the cake back onto the plate. “How is this something incorrect?”
He got up from my bedside without caring what my reply would be. Then he pushed open the two windows and showed me that a new bloom had joined the decaying one at the mouth of the hive. The petals from the older one was gnarled all around the vase.
“Why don’t you take a look?” His hands beckoned to me. “As I was thinking of what to bring to you when I went to the market to get your sweets. I found such an interesting and beautiful flower. Here is something new for you to look at.”
Look at? This gesture seemed to ignite a passion in him as if I was interested in this. There was always a new leaf or flower every time he would come to visit me. The visit when he took Madam Liu to the lantern festival he brought me a daffodil. Then a chrysanthemum as he had been so busy at work with the upcoming review of ministries that the Emperor was putting together. Even though it was hard work, Madam Liu was seen exiting his carriage. As I had been coming out of my chamber at the same time, a trio of mums in different colors followed all facing the hive. I had to give up three chairs just so the height would be right.
But of course my little courtyard soon became crowded, but the flowers sought new places to bloom, curling around the supports so the whole space was buzzing with bugs and decaying flowers. I had brought out some scissors to clear the space, but they had been snatched out of my hands by my husband who shook his head as he explained this beauty was spreading all because of me. I had done this, and I should just let the whole of my chambers become beautiful like this. Everywhere I turned, something was crawling or a vine was climbing. Even on the oddest day there would be a new pot or plant where I should like to sit or see.
So long I had tried to be kind, when I understood that yes I wanted what was happening
in the second chamber. She was allowed to trim her flowers. I could see as the view into her courtyard was gorgeous. There was a maid assigned with a spangled set of silver scissors that had come from my sewing basket. He had gifted her my dowry, and she was ruining the clothes I had sewn for him in my youthful days. All of the nurture was gone now as he brought me a lily of the valley. He startled and he looked at the pot and the disgust on my wild walls where a spider had made a web in his neglect of me. He couldn’t say a word as he turned on his heel to the more pleasant place where things were just fine.
It’s my duty to nurture all of his gifts to me. The concubine’s portion of everything is given to me and the respect of the main wife is given to her. How can I keep it tidy if the whole of my servants is just myself, now scrubbing the clingers and tending to the ficus?
Goodness if one of then starts to know decay, then people will know that a woman inside has fallen. The moss on the stones are so thick that it’s seeped to discolor everything with murk and mold. My bed smells of something strange as I feel the whole of the mattress is a fungus of all the displeasures I cannot forget.
Everything is so disgusting that the spores are in my mind.
My maid has told me that I have started talking to myself. All the food I eat is rotted, so what is the point of manicuring myself? The scattered mirror shows that one eye is white from neglect as the cataract has come into it. But every doctor refuses to step inside of here, saying the fume is what is making me insane. But I have these plants here with me. At least they are on my side.
My lord’s shadow no longer even passes by here. I understand completely. I cannot be beautiful to his eye anymore, as I know in my reflection that something horrid has become of me.
I did this all to myself.
But the hive is still buzzing with activity as I harvest the honey. I have been waiting for this moment since I got the hive. Can you imagine me when I was still pretty? My smile was hollow then, and it is true now. One eye still has some splendor remaining.
lilseasalt, the winner of WriterVana's August 2022 writing contest, is a romance, mystery, and historical writer.