Today it’s called Pilosella aurantiaca, or Fox-and-Cubs, Orange Hawkweed, Devil’s Paintbrush. It’s on the quarantine list of noxious weeds in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washingtion, Austraila, New Zealand, and several regions of British Colombia.
At its base is a rosette of leaves, and the pale stem reaches up in long, bare strands until it splits into a dozen, or two-dozen, buds that eventually burst into fiery orange, gold, or rusty red blossoms. Rather like bolder dandelions. If you snap the stem, or pull off the leaves or petals, it bleeds a milky-white liquor that when rubbed over one’s eyelids causes love at first sight.
No wonder it’s considered a poison across half the world.
Not that the Department of Agriculture knows this – they don’t tend to perform the kind of experiments that lead to love potions. But anyone who reads enough obscure (and undeservedly popular) Elizabethan fiction can connect love-in-idleness with grim-the-collier with good old pilosella aurantiaca. Especially in this age of Google.
When my king allowed me to keep the flower, I took it as a sign of his love. He smiled at me, one long-fingered hand on my face to angle my head up at him, and said, “Do with it as you will, my sweet Rob.” His touch slid away before I could respond, and I watched as those eyes looked beyond me, searching for his queen.
She is a most beautiful creature, a goddess of light and blood. Her skin is so delicate you can see through it to the silver bones of her hands and the throbbing flesh of her heart. I am not beautiful but through artifice, and nor is my king. We are gnarled, spindling things with hooves and brutal limbs. My eyes are blacker than the devil’s, and my king’s are purple and blue like the spirit of fire. It was that fire that drew her to him, and how could even a king not love her in return?
I love her, too, when I would wish to despise her.
And together, they are everything in the world.
Then one day she saw the play. You know the one. It made her scream and tear out her hair and banish all living and unliving creatures from her palace. The king, in turn, attended a performance so to understand the cause of her distress. It wasn’t my fault so many damned poets found out about it – I certainly am not the drunkard hob who ran into a cluster of weepy men in a pub and cheered them up with tails of mistaken love and fairy trickery. I’d have been more likely to fill their lungs with their own damned tears. But by the presence of my name in the play, the monarchial rage descended upon my head. And thus was I banished.
After a period in which I wandered, too miserable for tricks, dropping seeds of the flower behind me like waste, I began plotting my return.
I found beautiful children for the queen, brought them to her wrapped in blankets of petals and spider-silk. I found the sweetest fruits from the heart of Brazil, and toys made by the cleverest minds in China. They charmed her, but still I was not invited home.
So I came to America. I rode trains across the desert and flew in rickety metal planes over forest and city. And when I had seen it all, I took love-in-idleness, broke the stem, and slathered the sticky milk over my eyelids.
The girl who woke me had eyes like impure topaz, skin darker than a piskie, and braids hanging past her waist. Her nose was flat and crooked, her lips full, and when she smiled I thought the moon had never been so bright.
She led me to a boat and rowed us through cypress trees with their knees poking up through scummy waters. Fireflies gleamed, winking slow dances at each other. I held her hand and showed her my prettiest face, smooth and soft and boyish. I said, “I love you.”
“I’m going to read your fortune,” she replied, skimming my cheek with her rough knuckles.
Her cabin was dark, and the radio played scratchy blues. On a table were a pitcher of lemonade and a stack of Tarot cards, bent and worn from a million futures. She offered me drink and laid the cards in an arc. She studied them, and poured herself a finger of whiskey before standing in front of my stool and saying, “These are the cards I laid out for myself only this morning.”
Bending, she knelt before me and placed her head on my knee. I stroked her braids and drew her up, kissing her. I kissed her mouth and jaw, her ear and brushed my skin onto hers. Our eyelashes fluttered together, sticky with milky-white liquor.
“I love you,” she said.
I stayed with her, and even when men and women came to her for her sight, I hardly noticed them. She read and told them what she saw, and always her eyes trailed to mine as I washed her skirts and pans and ceiling like a good puck, waiting for her to finish. She would slip out of her dress and sing whispery songs to me, breath in my ear and dark thighs around me.
And once as we spread out through the swamp hunting red fungi, I came across love-in-idleness growing out of the cracks of a decaying tree. A most odd spot for a dry-weather flower. I snapped off a single ginger blossom and pressed the bleeding base to my eyes.
When I saw her again, I saw that silver crawled through her braids like worms and her hands were swollen and cracked. A stretch of distorted skin wrapped her left elbow from a childhood burn. Yet I loved her still. I took her to the cabin and stripped her, settled her back onto the bed and found all the irregularities I’d never seen. With every mole and every scar I allowed my pretty face to fade until I lay beside her with my spindled, jointed arms and sharp, long cheeks. She kissed me.
She died too soon, and I burned her body with cypress wood and collected the remains in a golden cup. With her ashes, sweet honey-water and the petals from love-in-idleness, I crushed together a salve and returned home.
The doors had shifted and changed, but the queen’s palace remained dark and dripping with spiders. I entered the feasting hall to the shrieks and laughter of her court. The swirling colors, painted claws, bowls spilling with fruits and blood, cookies, cake, and sugar, honey-crusted tongues and teeth and gossamer wings slowed, pausing for me. Half-beast goblins giggled beneath the tables, gnawing at tendons, and their sharp-gazed piskie friends glared through triple-jointed fingers. In the air, jewel-toned birds clutched the bone chandeliers, whistling at me and flapping razor wings. Insect-eyed brownies and hollow women lowered arms full of brandy and wine. And the troupers, in their green and red suits and gowns, turned up elegant noses and sneered. Bells tinkled in the quiet.
Beyond it all sat the king and queen, he hunkered and dark, she poised and shining. I looked past her radiance to him, caught the purple-blue snap of his eyes. I held up my golden cup and said, “I have brought the queen a gift.”
“Allow the puck to approach,” my king said. His voice twisted inside me. I knew now that he had allowed me to keep the flower not from affection but indifference.
I walked to them, smiling at all I passed with a proud bravado they recognized well. When I reached the dais, I bowed and declared, “I have traveled the globe, and this, my queen and king, is the greatest gift in all the world.”
“What is it, gentle puck?” She held out her hand, and the silver bones gleamed beneath rings of ruby and emerald.
“Love, nothing more.”
“We have such already,” she offered that same hand to the king, who took it and held it between their thrones.
The king frowned. “Watch the liberties you take, Robin. We have banished you once and further misstep will result in making a gift of you to the iron-clad goblins in the north.”
I bowed my apologies, and dipped a finger into my ash-and-honey salve. I put it to my tongue and sucked the juice from my skin. It tingled and I saw my lover before me, her body imposed between the monarchs and I. “Try it,” I whispered to the queen. “What harm can it give?”
She smiled, and there was gasping behind me and my own knees wobbled. Her smile is enough to kill at its most sweet. I dipped my finger again and she parted her lips. One flick of her satin tongue gathered it off my skin.
I waited, and her eyes drifted closed, then open again. The queen looked at me and then stood. She stepped past me and stared out among her people. “Oh, puck,” she said. “They are so ugly.”
“Yes.” I glanced at my king, who watched only me.
The queen glided down to the dancing floor and touched fingers to them all. She caressed horns and claws, smooth skin and warts. She laughed and shook her head at the slime and slobber, kissed rosy foreheads and pinched the most beautiful cheeks. I ignored the king’s eyes on my neck as I observed the court’s reaction to her attention. They fawned and preened and hid, reaching for her feet and mouthing devotion. She did not miss a single fairy. And when she returned to the dais, she kissed me. “Ah, little puck, welcome home.” She lounged in her throne, back relaxed and fingers loose.
“Thank you.” I finally allowed the king to see my eyes. He said, “Come here, Rob. Let me taste this gift from your tongue.”
I wanted him to, so that he might see all the truth of me, of what I was and what he had made me. But I said, “It is the queen’s gift, my king.” I set the golden cup at her feet. “And now that it is given, only she may impart it further.” I saw all the impure angles of his body, and they were beautiful.
I left the palace and climbed up into the world.