Rachel Engelman, “Confessions of a Lady-In-Waiting” (The Masters Review Anthology, Volume VI)


This story is my fourth and final stop on these comments about pieces from The Masters Review Anthology, Volume VI (2017). Four powerful stories in a single volume is quite good, much better than your typical “best of” anthology.

Rachel Engelman’s compelling story succeeds by combining the bouncy, noncommittal language of fairy tales with the harsh, bodily, tyrannical world of courts. The narrator is an indomitable character who grew up hunting wild animals in the forests of Italy. She was captured and taken as a curiosity for the queen of France, whose retinue she joined as a lady-in-waiting.

Court life is not the glamourous affair from fairy tales: the ladies-in-waiting have to remove warts and pubic hair and have to smother and kill the babies resulting from the queen’s affairs. They themselves engage in multiple affairs and are often raped by drunken brutes bearing royal titles.

The king is even more disgusting than most, bits of egg frequently tangled in his beard and a dictatorial streak always lurking under the surface. He wants a son, but the queen only gives him daughters, so he forces her to give up her daughters to a life of oblivion far from the castle. She sneaks out once a year to visit them.

As time goes on, the queen takes a liking to the narrator and they end up having a passionate romance that they manage to keep (mostly) under wraps. Then, after a ball, the king summons the narrator to his royal chambers. She makes herself terribly sick. When she recovers, she is summoned again. This time, the queen helps her escape.

The plan was to get her to the colonies in America, where the queen would eventually join her. But the narrator takes another route: she escapes back to France, where she takes up hunting and a wild life, near the remote homes where the queen’s daughters are kept. She waits for the queen there (hence an additional meaning of the story’s title). At the end, they meet once more.

It’s a good, powerful story, both in terms of the language and in terms of the action. I’m waiting for the current edition of Crazyhorse to read another story by Engelman, “The Caveman,” to see what other voices and themes the author develops in her fiction.

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