The Fairy Kingdom

Under a fair ympe-tree

Under a fair ympe-tree

Take my love. Take my love down to the orchard, lay her below the branches of the ympe-tree. An ympe-tree is one which has been grafted, fruit-bearing, apple perhaps, or pear. I choose pears. I love pears. Pears are delicious. Whenever I bite into one, my chin runs sticky with juice. Why don’t more people drink pear juice? You can make or buy it, it’s called nectar. But I was saying. Telling you of my love. Here in the orchard, as she settles in for a midday nap. It is dangerous to sleep under a tree at noon. The membrane between this world and the Otherworld seeps open, smooth and porous. Let me tell you something. Let me tell you a secret. I am my love and the one laying me down. Both at once. Oh the grass here is sweet. A soft emerald kiss against my skin. I am tired, and am watching myself be tired, and will sleep here if I like. Despite the warnings. I don’t heed them. The Otherworld, you see, is a glittering place. It is time away.

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When I first read the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo, the earliest manuscript of which has been dated back to the 1330s, my skin stretched out a bit. As if I too were a membrane and part of me were getting out. I probably touched the white page, the black type, fingers searching for the ympe-tree. What is it? Where is it? Again, a fruit tree, in an orchard, and Heurodis, Queen of England and wife to the titular Sir Orfeo, takes a nap under those branches one day but wakes disturbed beyond all measure. She tears at her clothes and flesh. She cannot be consoled. A different king, one who rules over the Otherworld, has appeared to her in a dream and told her she must come again to the orchard on the next day so that he may spirit her away to his realm. Who wouldn’t be upset by such news? Heurodis certainly is, enough so that she must be restrained, but the next day, despite fear and foreboding, she returns to the ympe-tree. Why does she go to that place? She must know what is coming. Indeed, she vanishes despite the armed escort watching over her. Now it is Orfeo who is distraught. Wretched with grief, he leaves his kingdom in the care of his steward, telling him if news arrives of his death, a Parliament should be held and a new king chosen. Then, taking only his harp, Orfeo wanders the forests for ten years until he sees Heurodis riding in the distance with a host of sixty fairy ladies. He follows them, and in so doing, enters the fairy kingdom. He is brought before the king, who scolds him for trespassing. But then Orfeo plays his harp and the king, swayed by the pleasant music, offers him a reward. Orfeo chooses Heurodis. They return to court, where after some trucking with disguise and testing of the steward’s loyalty, Orfeo reveals his identity and declares the steward his heir. Heurodis makes her grand entrance and the people weep with joy.

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at some orchard tree

at some orchard tree upon a clipped lawn

in green dressed like a beggar I take off my gold crown

going to get to the bottom of this & get my

          love back

only taking my harp

not tending my hair for ten years that’s life grizzled grizzled beard

what have you become

if you in your body remain the same within the fairy kingdom

if I can find the right song to seek you out & pluck

           only the correct strings

the song’s name writes the passing of time

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How many ways are there to tell a story? In Sir Orfeo, I look in a mirror. I eat a pear, the juice dribbles down my lips. How many times have I lost my mind (twice, three times?)? And how many times has time passed before, finally, I returned to the world that is known? I’ve decided I hate writing about it, because nothing boils down to it, to the mind-loss, no, it’s the pears that are important. Me standing in my apartment, leaning over the sink, brand new glasses balanced on the bridge of my nose, biting into ripe fruit. A little juice spurts out when I sink my teeth in. A few droplets spray on my lenses. But I do want to say, to write, regardless of how tired I am of hashing out mental illness, that it is the time passing that matters. Heurodis’s ten years residence in the Otherworld, described by the poet as a marvelous place, aren’t just a literary impediment getting in the way of the story’s happy end. Rather, they’re the point. Though not, I grant you, the only point. This is when I run hot soapy water across the surface of my glasses to get rid of the sticky pear juice. I love fruit. Apples too, and cherries. Peaches and plums, what have you. The other point is that Orfeo, her husband, is there waiting for her upon her emergence from the fairy kingdom. In fact, he effects that emergence. Maybe when I think about this I think about the family meeting at the third hospital, the half hour when we figured a few things out. About our lives. About where to go from there. There is a we, an our, no one person lives in the world alone. Community support. Orfeo, for his part, never gives up. He makes room for Heurodis. Rather than cast her aside to take a new wife, he sacrifices his crown, his power, and takes a different path. Ten years in the forest, then he enters a strange, unknown world and tests his mettle by singing for that kingdom’s lord. He shows fortitude as he performs for this powerful being. Nor do his love and support stop here. No. He facilitates Heurodis’s return to Winchester (called Thrace in those days, we are told by the poet), but instead of relying upon business as usual, where a queen’s traditional role would involve bearing an heir to the throne, a task perhaps more difficult for a woman who has gone mad under an ympe-tree, he declares his faithful steward as next in the line of succession. Limitations are understood and respected. They are woven into the daily fabric of time moving forward.

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like a veil falling

like a gray veil falling over the slant of worlds

everything I see as fringed but it now worlds

tatters my sleep tattering worlds

& I return to the ympe-tree to the lawn to be taken

because I can do no other thing the thing is

the time the ten years in the story the time has to pass & you have to

            be there waiting for me

waiting I swear it I intend to reenter our house

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She did go mad. She did. Loss lost to an illness is still loss. What else is there to say? She tore at her clothes and flesh, then was put to bed. But sleep under such circumstances is only ever a corridor to other places behind half-open doors. Cool light shines from those rooms. Voices, too. I think that is why she goes willingly the next day to the ympe-tree. There is no place in Thrace for her large, swollen head. Even though I am sick of talking about it, I will say I went willingly to the third hospital. One of the therapists there wore sweater sets with slim belts and rang a gentle gong to call us to group meditation. It’s the small details I remember. The fridge in the day room full of juice, applesauce, and salad dressing packets. I went there because I was terrified. I knew what was coming, what was whooshing over my shoulders, filling my head. The beginnings of psychosis. Such sudden terror most resembles a crown of sharp, cutting beads. The beads pressed into the flesh of my head and left permanent indentations. In other words, one layer of my life unfolded, but there were other layers poking through as well. I wasn’t ready for it, who is, it, I don’t know, I don’t want to put a name to that episode. But time passed, I got better, the you in the us was waiting for me, and now, here I am, eating fruit, wondering how long I should continue to peer over one shoulder. The summer is ending. Soon, persimmons will be in season.

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coming back is hard but not impossible

like a great clattering what happens all tambors horns cymbals

this celebration lighting me on my feet or bogging me down

abbreviate us the players shout

these lords & ladies from pulp fluttering lungs

being two places at once two ones so I try to explain

how long was I gone that is the question

now all the broken light rakes my face shining

my cheeks bathing in it such luminous understanding

picking up the old things

slowly & surely putting old things back what do I still need

a familiar place made strange

smiling I break open my pristine face

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Maybe the fruit is a way of saying: I’m tired. I want to write about something else. Maybe the fruit is a way of saying: Did you hear the owl last night? and that being just as important as any other type of experience. So I go to the grocery store. I buy a kilo of cherries.