Issue 17: Jaki McCarrick
A Hermaphrodite in the Vatican
You had to keep it secret,
this otherland of the self:
with the women you spoke high, almost Irish-lilted,
with the men made a point of those prancing female fingers.
The remotest of monarchs, ice queen -
because with your obvious hiddenness
the people could not look up and see themselves in you.
So at night you began to frequent
the dive bars on the streets of Stockholm,
supposing them to be like those you’d known in Paris,
off Rue Mouffetard, all wide-eyed enquiry and lust.
Arranged for your secretary, a trusted sort,
to mind the royal rooms and crowns
while you let it all hang out,
hiding nothing but your monarchy
(the least interesting thing about you).
And, for a while, your bothness made you doubly connected:
to the rubber-clad, tattooed, curious-hearted, yes -
they knew what, if not who, you were (and found no remoteness there) -
but also to those who had been blind to the real (royal) you before:
in unwittingly seeing double they saw you entire.
But then the circle closed.
Word got out.
Headlines were to run with Queen Christina’s Debauched Haunts
(it was The Mail who came up with the ‘hermself’ tag)
– no understanding, of course,
that these were the only places you could breathe in,
where the ice could melt,
in the dark of that queensize kingdom –
when the matter was brilliantly hushed up,
washed out like a regional accent.
And soon the remoteness the people
had grown accustomed to returned.
Until that day I found you reading Descartes
under the körsbärsblom,
your eyes in a sort of grey-skinned surrender to the page.
Years later, post-abdication,
from our room in the Tower of Winds,
you would look out over the Vatican,
a Lutheran unable to relax in a converted Catholic skin,
and wish you could be free of something,
that the ties would all unfork,
thinking this cat’s cradle of a life
the fault of blue-bloodedness
and not your gender(s).
Though, mistress, in that one thing, royalty,
you were straight as a die.
And so we hatched your plan to be Queen of Naples.
(Queen Christina of Sweden abdicated from the throne in 1654 and became a Catholic. She is thought to have been born with both male and female genitals and hormones.)
A cane and teak mustard-coloured divan, a leathered bellows,
like a cittern. A view to the whitewashed yard and outdoor
toilet. In the front room a Chinese tea set, still in its box,
which my sister and I raffled in a Sale of Work for local
orphans in our first week home; a cabinet filled with souvenirs -
evidence of the kind of travel even my mother had not done.
Her spinster aunt’s house (and her inheritance) was dapper,
Oriental, filled with antiques, a Bakelite Radio.
Upstairs, black-rimmed silk and cotton quilts like kimonos,
wallpaper that stared me down to darkness every night:
a curvilinear pattern of blue ribbons round a small red rose.
Books: Blake, Nabokov, Goldsmith, Saki – source of my future
name. And when we first arrived, everywhere empty bottles
of Sanatogen Tonic Wine – suggesting a vice or panacea,
the yellow label a medicinal-looking cover for its 15% vol.
The house was instant history for a family that had none,
coming from London as we did. At the heart a wooden banister
that I can still feel beneath my hand, with its trace of my father’s
hand, my siblings’ and mother’s, my great-aunt’s, too –
on her way downstairs, perhaps inebriated, to her dark elaborate rooms.
Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer of plays, poetry and fiction. She won the 2010 Papatango New Writing Prize for her play, Leopoldville, and her most recent play, Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award and won the Galway Theatre Festival Playwriting Prize. Belfast Girls premiered in Chicago in May 2015 to much critical acclaim and is shortly to open in Canada.
Jaki won the 2010 Wasafiri Prize for Short Fiction and her debut story collection, The Scattering (Seren Books) was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. She has published poetry in numerous journals including Ambit, Poetry Ireland Review, Irish Pages, Stony Thursday Book, Cork Literary Review, Butcher’s Dog, Atlanta Review and is winner of the 2010 John Lennon Poetry Prize for ‘The Selkie of Dorinish’ (judged by Carol Ann Duffy).
Copyright © 2016 by Jaki McCarrick, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.