Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32e - Alphabet of Signs and Jade Generals by Ursula Whitcher - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/03/30 - listen here)
For the first episode of our 2019 fiction series, we have two flash fiction pieces by the same author. Establishing a historic setting and telling a story in that setting is challenging enough in short fiction of any length, but flash fiction really shows an author’s skill. When I thought about accepting very short pieces for the series, I decided that I’d be happy to include more than one story in an episode as long as the overall length met my target. This year, I bought two excellent flash pieces in rarely seen settings, both by the same author.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
About the author and narrator
Ursula Whitcher is a mathematician, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared in venues including The Cascadia Subduction Zone, VoiceCatcher, The Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, and Goblin Fruit. That sort of combination of fields isn’t at all unusual among the people I know. The most recent times we’ve met in person have either been when she’s in town for a math conference or when we’re both at the same science fiction convention. But we first met through the Society for Creative Anachronism, doing medieval research and re-creation. Ursula can be found online at yarntheory.net and on twitter @superyarn. I sense a theme here. I’m delighted to present her fiction on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
Our narrator for both stories is Jasmine Arch, who lives in a quiet corner of Belgium with four dogs, three horses, and a husband who knows better than to disturb her when she’s writing. Jasmine is a writer, poet, artist, and narrator. She works in health care and finds her creative outlets essential to recharge from facing trauma and disease on a daily basis. Her work has appeared in Illumen Magazine and she can be found online at jasminearch.com or on twitter as @Jaye_Arch.
Introduction to “Alphabet of Signs”
Our first story is set in a Carolingian abbey--perhaps the Abbey of the Holy Cross, founded by the Frankish queen Saint Radegund, or one like it. In the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, I’ve covered two articles that talk about homoerotic imagery in texts from the abbey founded by Saint Radegund. Ursula notes that the story was sparked by a conversation she had with someone in the Society for Creative Anachronism who was researching the history of sign language. There are eleventh-century records of systems of signs used by people living under Benedictine monastic rule, for use when vows of silence were enforced. Valerie Garver's book Women and Aristocratic Culture in the Carolingian World was another source for thinking about the way Carolingian women's lives were described and recorded. This story comes to us in the voice of a woman in the convent where the queen retired from secular life.
Alphabet of Signs
by Ursula Whitcher
read by Jasmine Arch
I will tell you the queen was shining. Her hair was shining and her dress was shining, her sleeves banded in purple. I will tell you my voice is a man's voice, chanting at court. I will claim I made a copy of a copy of a verse, which we are not permitted, and go without my supper.
When the queen came, she was cold.
We are taught signs to hold the silence. We cupped our hands as she pulled the pins from her hair, let them clang on the stone, pulled her braid taut, snapped the strands bit by bit with the knife at her belt, and stuffed her fists in her sleeves.
When the queen came, they said she was wanton. Or a witch, or a saint. Her nose was longer without the braid wrapped at her temples. She walked in squares in the garden, between prayer and prayer.
They gave her a lamp at night, for being queen. Bitter olive smoke. She walked when she thought we slept. The shadow flickered under my alcove curtain.
Queens do not sleep alone, in the cold. They have kings, or handmaidens. If she was wanton, the handmaidens (shining, standing in rows), they knew it, and were silent. I learned signs to hold in silence. I held her, traced her crooked nose and her smooth brow, and burned like a fiend or a saint.
I will make her immortal without speaking, without singing or chanting. I write her name in red in every book. She wore this red, riding away, when her son turned thirteen, and a King.
Introduction to “Jade Generals”
Our second story takes us to the other side of the world. Ursula says, “I wrote ‘Jade Generals’ as a present for a friend who asked for secret identities in Heian Japan. The story references Torikaebaya Monogatari (translated into English as The Changelings), a twelfth-century work of fiction about two siblings who swap gender roles, have various adventures in the Emperor's court, and then swap back again. The plot of Torikaebaya Monogatari involves a very naive bride; I knew I wanted to tell a story where the bride has her own agenda. When I realized that Heian weddings involved three ritual visits rather than a single wedding ceremony, that gave me the story's structure.”
Stories about gender disguise and same-sex marriage occur across many historic cultures, side by side with similar stories that have more the shape of transgender identity. I like versions, like this one, where both parties have the same understanding of the relationship, and the attraction is not rooted in the illusion. Where the secret to be revealed is not about gender identity but about the deep roots of their desire.
by Ursula Whitcher
read by Jasmine Arch
On the first night, the councilor of the second rank brings Shizuko sake in a greenish-brown stoneware jar and picks a fight about the strategy of shogi. They're up till nearly dawn, arguing and laughing. At one point they try to estimate how many incense chariots an army actually needs. Later that morning, the councilor sends Shizuko a poem about falling maple leaves and the inevitability of desire. It's conventional language, but Shizuko giggles. She's thinking about how red her face must have turned, between the wine and the incense argument. She returns a poem about gold and jade generals, by the same messenger.
On the second night, Shizuko warms her room with sandalwood and cinnamon, and plays a soft song on the koto. The councilor compliments her lavishly but intelligently, and asks whether this incense came by chariot. It's clear, though, that the previous late night is taking its toll, and soon Shizuko is the only one awake. The councilor twitches a little bit, in sleep. Shizuko sets her instrument aside and curls around her visitor, as if she were holding a cat.
On the third night, the councilor takes a soft rice cake from Shizuko's hand and pulls it into pieces, hesitating. Shizuko watches the councilor's mouth start to form an ungracious, definite statement and says hurriedly, "I have a secret."
The councilor pauses, with the startled expression of a person who believes secrets are singular and hoarded treasures, rather than donned in layers, like one's robes. How strange it must be, to be such a learned and skilled administrator, and yet so unaware of other people's minds!
"You found out everything about my uncle," Shizuko notes, "his illustrious position, and his prospects. You never asked about my parents."
"I understood that they were dead?" the councilor asks.
"My mother's husband is dead. My father--that most honored prince--is very much alive, though not so lively a courtier as he was in his younger days. And as for my mother--do you not remember a woman who spent the summer sitting by a lake, painting pine trees covered in snow?"
The councilor holds out a piece of the rice cake, giving it back to Shizuko.
The rice cake is rather squashed, but Shizuko eats it anyway. There had been a small girl by the lake, of course, who wanted to catch a fish. And a rather larger one, who succeeded. "I have always admired you, Chiyo."
The councilor gulps her own bit of rice cake now, like a carp grabbing a fly, or a person marrying into the imperial family. Shizuko reaches out and hugs her, properly this time. Chiyo's muscles start out taut; but she relaxes, suddenly, and lays her cheek against Shizuko's hair.
Shizuko has taken a jade general, for her very own. Unlike in shogi, this puts them on the same side.