How to Escape a Gilded Cage - Katherine Roberts

This summer, I've been thinking about different kinds of prisons and the various ways people find to escape them. Of course, first you have to recognise you are actually in a prison, since many are gilded cages in disguise. Apparently, we will all soon be living in a virtual Panopticon, whether we love gold or not... and how did THAT happen without anyone noticing? But I'm not attempting a dissertation on social engineering in this post; I merely write fiction to entertain the inmates. So before you all rush off to Google 'panopticon', here is a (very) short tale of mine from the 1990s, first published in an alternative women's fiction magazine called QWF. This story was inspired by ancient Greek/Turkish legend and, although I never name the characters, you should have little trouble guessing who the famous husband is.

The bars at the window were gold.
The bed was gold.
The single chair was gold.
A golden blanket flowed stiffly to a golden floor.
The blanket had scratched her when she’d burrowed beneath it, trying to lose herself in sleep. But who could sleep properly on a lumpy golden pillow that still bore the imprint of her predecessor’s head?
What saddened her most was the vase of beautiful golden lilies, the tip of each petal sharp to the touch. She sucked her thumb and looked at the bent stamens in regret. She hadn’t been able to resist touching them to check, to see if it was true – that he could turn not only dead objects into the purest gold with a single touch, but also living ones.
She walked to the window and laid her cheek against the bars. Fifty-three wives in four years… of course he could. Why else did he need to lock the door and bar the window against each new bride?
She pressed a palm to her abdomen and closed her eyes. She’d always imagined something moist and warm inside her, a new kind of freedom bestowed by her husband’s touch. Would there be pleasure, she wondered, before the numbing cold? Would there be even the instant of pain her mother had described? And what could it possibly be like for him, trapped inside the lining of her cold, golden womb?
She grasped the bars, suddenly enraged at the way she had been tricked into this marriage, and shook them with all her strength – then froze like the golden riches that surrounded her. For, as she shook them, she felt something give, an unexpected softening.
She removed her hands and examined the bars carefully. She ran a fingertip down the two slight curves she’d made and wondered at her own strength. Then she laughed, recalling the lily stamens that had crumpled so easily under her thumb, their stems bending under their heavy golden heads. Not magic at all, but simple science: her husband was incapable, it seemed, of adding the impurities necessary to make his creations strong.
With another laugh, she flexed her muscles, took a firmer hold on the bars and braced her feet against the windowsill. Gold bars in a prison? Maybe his touch would free her, after all…
Guessed who she is, yet?

The above tale is included in Heroic & Historical, my latest collection of short fiction inspired by history and legend. It's by far the shortest piece in the book, since most of my short stories want to grow up to be novels... and sometimes do! All of the stories in this collection feature strong heroines, and many address the theme of escape. Some were only completed this summer, so covid gets a mention too (bet you can't work out how I got that into a book about ancient history).

Heroic & Historical
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You can read more of Katherine's short fiction in her fantasy and science fiction collections, available for Kindle or as print-on-demand paperback (i.e. a copy printed just for you, so less risk of carrying any bugs).

Mythic & Magical
Weird & Wonderful
Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction spiced with myth and legend for young (and older) readers.
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Eden Baylee said…
Beautifully written story Katherine, and I'm SO bad with my historical and mythical knowledge. I can only think of King Midas?

And yes, I had to look up the meaning of Panopticon! How fascinating though. I loved reading more about it.

Hope you're well,

Jan Needle said…

Gof help her - and us too I called a novel Panopticon once but they made me change it. I've downloaded the book - thanks.
Eden, top marks!

Interesting, Jan - wonder why you had to change the title? Was it to avoid a clash with another book coming out at the same time? What was your new title in the end?
Jan Needle said…
No clash - they just didn't think anyone would like it - or understand it! I think it ended up as The Scar, but I'm not certain.

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