Once upon a time, there was a man who lived in a tower at the edge of the world, in the kingdom of Highcliff. In his youth, he had been wise enough to reject the meaningless things of this world, and at the age of thirty, left the court of nobility with his young wife, a lady of simple beauty and elegance. Resolving themselves to retire from the world and its noise, they built a house at the edge of the ocean, far away from any other man, and before heaven and earth, swore to live a life of peace and quiet.
Very soon the man and his wife had a child, a baby girl whom they named for a famous Siren, for when she was born, she emerged from her mother’s womb with the sweetest cry they had ever heard. And so, the man, being eminently well-disposed in his knowledge of Greek myth, named the girl Parthenope, for this Siren, it was said, not only wooed the young Odysseus on his way back to Ithaca with her sweet voice, but also could charm the waters of the sea and the four winds to abet the will of the gods themselves.
The man and his wife and child lived in harmony at the edge of the sea. Their lives were as halcyon as could be, and each warm afternoon, all three would run down to the shore and collect the treasures that the sea deposited there. The man would fish, and his wife and his child would gather shells and gems on the beach. The man would collect crabs and lobster and clams and all kinds of delicious and flavorful fish, and cook them on the shore, and would tell them stories of the heroes of the ancient past, and the saints who had braved the waves and the winds to travel to distant lands.
One day, some awful affair in the city of Holywood required that the King request this man’s assistance, and he sent a page on a white horse with a white banner to the kingdom of Highcliff. In the city of Holywood there had been much intrigue, for the Queen had taken ill and consulted a witch to make her fair and young again. But instead of making her beautiful and fruitful enough to bear the King a first-born son, the medicine that this witch had made instead made the Queen so ugly and undesirable that any mirror she stood in front of broke, and all the people (even her attendants and ladies-in-waiting), and even the King, was utterly repulsed by her. When the page arrived at Highcliff, a storm was about to break over the sea. The man, sensing the urgency of the King’s request, went straight away, leaving his wife and their daughter in the fortified tower. The man took a ship to the city of Holywood, which lay on an island across the sea.
That night there was a storm not seen before or since. The waves broke on the highest rocks and pounded against the immense cliff. The sea was much disturbed, and the clouds raced across the sky in all directions; the gales tore branches from the trees and the waves dashed anything loose against the shore. This storm lasted seven days and seven nights. The woman took her daughter down to the cellar of the tower to keep her safe, and there read to her by candlelight the life of St Barbara, who had once been imprisoned in a high tower for her faith.
At midnight on the seventh night the woman emerged on the parapet of the tower just as the storm was breaking for a moment, and through the moonlight she saw her husband’s coracle hovering on the waters, with his marvelous lantern that no water could extinguish burning brightly from the mast. Indeed, the man had returned from Holywood, having cured the Queen of the scrofulous malady inflicted on her by that malefic agent of Satan himself, the witch. With him he bought a bag of gold as payment from the King himself.
But as she rejoiced at her husband’s return—lo! The storm renewed its violence, and with an immense wave swept the woman from the parapet of the tower to her doom below. The man saw it all happen from his coracle, and sped home against the wind and waves and arrived on the yellow sands, his ship and his spirit broken.
The man buried his wife in a cave with the lantern whose lamp never went out and resolved to mourn for her for the rest of his life. Now that he was a widower, he swore to spend all of his time studying forbidden knowledge, utterly embittered that God Himself could be so cruel. In time, this bitterness abated somewhat, and he instead focused all his attention on rearing his daughter to be as beautiful and as graceful as his wife had been.
First, he taught her to sing. He roused her with porridge at breakfast and taught her the scales on a flute fashioned from a whale bone. Next, he taught her melody and rhythm, by teaching her the cadence of the waves and the song of the sea birds. He taught her to read and write, until she could speak her own tongue and Latin and Greek and write in all the same. Then, he instilled knowledge of sacred harmony and the rites that attended it, so that in time, she could be awakened by the very music of the spheres themselves, which only he could hear.
But in return for all these things, he forbade her expressly to leave the tower, and most certainly to marry. And to make this so, he fashioned for her from sacred wood gathered from the four points of the earth, a marvelous instrument. He enchanted it and wrote music for her, inscribing the notes in gold on parchment. Both book and instrument were enchanted so that it could never be drenched by water nor scorched by flame. The man fashioned this harpsichord, which he called Parthenia, in just seven days’ time, and by the evening of the eighth day, she was playing it for him while he warmed his hands at the fire.
For many years it was like this, until Parthenope grew into a young woman, blessed by God with beauty and grace, the most beautiful woman who had ever existed in that part of the world. No man other than her father had seen her, but her renown grew as sailors’ tales of her singing and playing reached the kingdoms of Holywood, Fairmount, Fountainvale and Flowerfield.
It so happened one fine summer day that the Prince of Fairmount, returning from fighting the heathens in the lands across the sea, passed by the coast on which Parthenope lived. Parthenope had been accompanying herself on the magical harpsichord. Dropping anchor just off the coast, he and his page embarked in a small dinghy and made their way toward the shore.
Parthenope, on first apprehending the sight of the Prince of Fairmount, had never seen such a beautiful man as he. His hair was chestnut like the robur oaks of the forest, his beard was handsomely clipped close to his chiseled face, and his eyes were like two shining emeralds set in a bowl of milk. He had the form of a man of nobility, but he was more athlete than limp wristed nobleman. She could see he had spent many days on the sea, as was more a fisherman than a prince.
Once the prince was onshore, he looked up at the immense crooked tower that arose from the yellow cliffs overlooking the sea.
‘Hello up there!’ The Prince said.
The wise man saw all this happen and ran up to his daughter, who had been combing her hair at the window.
‘Someone is ashore,’ the man said to Parthenope. ‘Don’t you dare stir from this room.’ And he locked the door and went downstairs.
‘What do you want?’ The wise man cried from behind an iron gate.
‘I heard some beautiful music from the sea, as I was passing in my ship here, and could not bear another moment not knowing whom or what it was.’
‘It was the wind, my friend! The wind and nothing more,’ the old man replied.
The prince stood there, incredulous that this old man would tell him—a man of the world—that the sound he had heard emerging from the coast was naught but the sound of the wind.
‘Pray tell me, old man, did you not hear that marvelous young woman singing of the waves and the sea, of the sea foam that falls on the rocks? Could you not hear what I heard?’
‘I must confess, I heard nothing, my lord,’ the old man replied.
The prince drew his sword and advanced toward the old man behind the grille.
‘I know what I heard. Who is it that you have locked in this tower? I can see that you are evidently a most powerful wizard, and in Christ’s name, I will cut off your hands and suspend them from your stole if you don’t tell me whom you’re holding up there in that tower.’
‘My daughter,’ the old man replied. ‘And there’s no way you can get to her. I’ve locked the door and she can’t come out to you.’
The Prince of Fairmount looked up towards the beautiful Parthenope, sitting at her window. She had been playing her harpsichord and singing. The music was beautiful and sumptuous. He had never heard anything like it before.
‘I will give you as much gold as you will have for that woman’s hand in marriage. I am the Prince of the Kingdom of Fairmount, a man renowned in the heat of battle. I am ready to give you as much as you want for her. If you are her father, I will give you anything for her dowry. I can make you a very, very wealthy man.’
‘I wouldn’t give her up for all the gold in the world, for she is my only happiness. And I would rather curse her and you for all time with misfortune and unhappiness than give her up.’
The Prince, steeled in his resolve, struck the lock off the iron grille that separated him from the tower grounds.
‘I am not to be refused,’ the Prince replied. ‘Bring her down, and I’ll spare your life.’
The old man, already wise enough to expect this sort of response, went up to her room and said to her calmly, ‘My daughter, the Prince of Fairmount has asked me for your hand and I have refused. He has asked me once more and I have refused again. Now he has asked me a third time, and as the custom of our country ordains, I have no choice but to give you away to him.’
‘Father, I will not depart from you,’ Parthenope said.
‘I will give you up,’ he replied. ‘The Prince has promised me all the gold and gems in the world for you, but you are more precious than that. Therefore, go, daughter, pack up your clothing and all your finery, and go with him, but do not endeavor to look on my face or call my name again, for in the day that you do, you will most surely die.’
‘Father, what will become of you?’
The old man did not respond to this question, but instead went to the harpsichord that sat before the window looking out at the shore.
‘You see this fine instrument that I made you to entertain me in my grief. Now it will be the very thing that binds you to your fate. For in the day that you cease to play this instrument for any reason, even for bearing a son, you will be stricken with ugliness and no man will want you.’
Horrified at this prospect, Parthenope asked, ‘Why, my father, after all this time in which I have loved you and lived only for you, why would you do such a thing to me? Have I not attended to you? Have I not resolved to die for you? I would rather die a thousand deaths than to be married over to that man down below, if such a union pains you so.’
But the wise old man knew what was to happen. ‘His page,’ he replied, ‘will fetch your things, and you will depart from here as soon as there is a fine wind to take you. Today is the last day you will ever set eyes on me.’
The wise old man brought out his daughter at last and gave her hand to the Prince of Fairmount.
‘You see what your lack of compromise has gotten you,’ the old man said. ‘I will give my daughter to you, but in the day that she ceases to play her beloved harpsichord, she will become as ugly and as useless to you as the barnacles on the underside of your ship, and she will join them in the depths of the ocean.’
The Prince of Fairmount smirked and said, ‘She will be my Queen, and your curses and threats will dissolve like smoke in the air. You did not tell me how beautiful your daughter is. Your hair, my lady, is more beautiful than spun gold, and your eyes are like two sapphires. You will have no use of musical instruments. In my kingdom, only courtesans play the harpsichord. You shall have at your disposal a whole orchestra to play for you any time you wish.’
‘My lord, I humbly beg your forgiveness,’ Parthenope replied, ‘but I cannot live without my harpsichord. I beg you, be kind to me and let me take it with me to your kingdom.’
Reluctantly, the Prince agreed and allowed Parthenope to take her beloved harpsichord with her. Two of the Prince’s slaves brought down the harpsichord that very day and brought it back to the Prince’s ship. Her father turned his back on her as they were leaving, and she could not help but weep thinking she was never to see her father again.
On the Prince’s ship, the Prince introduced Parthenope to the crew and commanded they make obeisance to their new queen. He moved her in to his quarters and immediately set sail for the Kingdom of Fairmount.
Parthenope and the Prince of Fairmount were married, and all was well for a little while. The King of Fairmount gave her a magnificent crown of diamonds and sapphires, and an emerald dress more splendid that any dress ever seen in the kingdom. The Prince ordered for her baths of rose petals and donkey milk to make her skin even more soft and supple than it already was. He also gave her the largest and most sumptuous chambers in the palace and entrusted twelve ladies-in-waiting to attend to her every desire.
While she was kind and courteous, inside Parthenope was languishing, and what was more, afraid of her future. She could not play music, nor could she sing, for singing and the playing of instruments in the Kingdom of Fairmount was a shameful thing, something that worldly courtesans and the low-born women of the street did. When Parthenope sang it was at chapel early in the morning, when only her confessor could hear her.
The King had begun to serenade her beneath her window in the dead of the night, as was the custom in Fairmount among young men in love. Parthenope, aware of the tradition, knew that once he had serenaded her twice an answer was expected—and he already serenaded her once. She was expected in little time to bear him an heir.
At night, Parthenope could not sleep, for even the very idea of some awful curse hanging over her was enough to keep her up at night. Very soon, she became anxious to inquire on the whereabouts of her harpsichord.
One night she asked a guard to come into her presence immediately.
‘I command you, in the name of this fair kingdom, to tell me where my harpsichord is.’
The guard wavered and said the Prince had, upon his marriage to Parthenope, resigned it to some special place for safekeeping, but the guard had no idea where. So every night after that, she would ask, until weeks had passed and the guard, a reliable fellow, finally ascertained where her harpsichord was.
The Prince of Fairmount’s palace had four wings, one for each season. The Prince lived in the Eastern wing which had been decorated for the winter, with great white tapestries resembling snow drifts, and vases full of willow branches to represent the bare trees in the wintertime. Parthenope lived in the Western Wing, which was decorated for summer, with yellow and green tapestries and vases full of flowers of all kinds. The guard had learned from the majordomo that the harpsichord was in the Northern Wing, behind a great grille of iron and steel covered in roses, for in that wing was the great royal rose garden, itself a symbol of the spring.
Parthenope commanded the majordomo to show her the royal rose garden, but the majordomo refused.
‘The royal rose garden,’ the majordomo explained, ‘is the sole property of the King and his heirs and is off-limits to the Queen and her retinue.’
‘It is imperative that I must have my harpsichord,’ Parthenope replied.
‘I strongly suggest then, ma’am, that you take up this with His Royal Highness.’
When she did tell the Prince, he refused point-blank.
‘What use do you have for such a worthless instrument? Such an instrument is only used to entice people into sin and error.’
Parthenope knelt down before the Prince, bowed her head and said most reverently: ‘It is because that harpsichord is enchanted, and if I play it for you or anyone else, I can charm the winds and the waves to deliver up the treasures of the sky and sea.’
‘How can this be?’
‘Allow me to show you,’ she replied.
So the Prince escorted her to the rose garden and opened up the great iron grille with a large set of keys. He took her gently by the arm and ambling around the great courtyard filled with roses of every kind and color, he took her to a chamber in the center of this vast rose garden. In this chamber were the relics of the martyrs, saints and heroes of the kingdom of Fairmount, and in the center of this holy chapel, Parthenope’s beloved harpsichord. At once Parthenope sat at the keyboard and played a beautiful fantasia on a tune heard in the streets of Fairmount. The Prince was overcome with emotion. When she was done she looked up at him, but he had been so enthralled by the music, he was still in such a distracted state that he did not recognize her calling to him.
‘My lord,’ she said, ‘get up and throw back the window, and look out upon the roses.’
When he did, he was astonished that they had all turned to gold.
‘How did you accomplish such a feat?’ The Prince said.
‘This harpsichord is enchanted. It will give me everything you desire. Therefore, you must let me play it as much as I want.’
The Prince gladly accepted this proposition, and had the miraculous harpsichord moved to the Court of Honor. Whenever the Prince had a reception, he would bid Parthenope play. There all the people would see the miraculous things wrought by this harpsichord—gems and gold would pour from the fountains, fruit trees would mature and bear the most delicious fruit, the birds would accompany her in song, and everyone, from the most miserable beggar on the street to the Prince and all his royal household, at once had every comfort in the world.
Very soon the Prince’s father the King, who was a very old man, died and the Prince was acclaimed as the new King of Fairmount. All the royal advisors met in the Hall of the Four Seasons in the center of the royal palace to discuss plans for the future. They were all in agreement that the King needed a royal heir, and it was time for Parthenope to accede to her role as Queen and give the King a son.
But Parthenope was still a virgin and had never been touched by a man. For in the kingdom of Fairmount there was a custom that man and wife not sleep together until a year and a day had passed between them in holiest chastity. On the night that the King desired Queen Parthenope to come to his bed, she prayed to God to help her. Inspired, she sat at her harpsichord and began to play it. The music rang through the entire palace and at once all the royal household fell into a deep sleep, and she was therefore able to avoid having to meet the King.
The next day he was very angry and commanded she be brought into his presence.
‘You cannot refuse me,’ the King said, furious. ‘I have conquered lands and heathen foes, and I will not stand for palace intrigues to keep me from my duty in sustaining the kingdom.’
‘But my lord,’ she said, meekly, having prostrated herself on the ground, ‘you know how much I love my harpsichord. I can do nothing else but play it. I promised you I could provide for you as much as your heart desired. But I cannot provide you with a son.’
‘What madness is this that consumes you so? You spurn your own husband and King for a madman’s instrument? I have had enough of this. Guards, clap her in the dungeon.’
The King of Fairmount also decreed that no one was to touch the magical harpsichord, and to have it straightaway burned in the public square. Parthenope was taken immediately to the royal prison, where she was shut up in an oubliette filled with unspeakably filthy and horrifying things.
For three days Queen Parthenope stayed there, until on the third day, the King had her fished out. The guards threw a blue robe over her and took her back to the royal palace, where she was brought in fetters before the King.
‘Now have you changed your mind, my lady? Will you abandon your awful frenzy, and accede to the role that Almighty God has given to you?’
The guards pulled off the blue robe, and to their horror and the astonishment of all the royal court they discovered that Parthenope had, in the course of three days, begun to change! Her skin was beginning to turn pale and scaly, and she stank of fish. Her face looked horribly marred. Her father’s curse was beginning to come true.
Astonished, the King sent for the Royal Doctor, but even the most learned doctors could not explain her sickness. The astrologer to the Court pronounced that the stars had aligned in some unfortunate way and had afflicted the Queen with a malady purely out of circumstance. Parthenope, however, knew better.
The King repented of his cruelty and was full of remorse.
‘My dear lady, my heart pains for you. I was foolish to think that your father’s curse were the ramblings of an insane fool. I see the error of my ways! Tell me what you wish to have to make you better, and I will give it to you.’
‘Give me my harpsichord, and I will leave your presence and return to my father. I am of no use to you, for you cannot see the good that is within me. My beauty will fade, and I will die a mortal death, but the enchantment that is within me which sustains the realm can never die. Allow me to go in peace.’
Many people were dismayed when the Queen said this, because not only had Parthenope made it legal for women to play musical instruments in public, but now she was saying that she was more important than the King in playing her harpsichord. The Bishop and the royal advisors, then, planned to depose the Queen and finally destroy her instrument once and for all.
The King released the Queen from his custody and she returned to her quarters and found her harpsichord gone. The Bishop and the royal advisors had secretly removed it during the night. Another day passed and soon Queen Parthenope began to feel ill. She could not walk properly, and she found that she could not breathe anymore at night. Her ladies-in-waiting kept buckets to keep her wet during the night. And good Lord, she stank to high heaven! As the days passed, she grew weaker and more worried that her time might be coming to an end.
The next day after all this had transpired, the Holy Office came with a writ from the Archbishop, asking that she be put on trial for witchcraft.
The Bishop of Fairmount was invited to examine her, to see if she had been possessed by the Devil. The Bishop and his Inquisitors and the entire faculty of the University of Fairmount found that she presented no error in her thoughts or reasoning, nor any sort of heterodox belief contrary to those of the Church. But yet she was treated as a common malefactor of the worst sort.
The Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition on Fairmount held an auto-da-fé in front of the town hall and commanded the King to attend. On trial were two apostates and, believe it or not, the Queen herself. The Queen, very ill by this time, could barely utter a word of protest. One of the tribunal officials read the charge, and before the entire town, someone tossed a torch into the straw that surrounded her and the harpsichord.
At once Parthenope crawled through the flames to get to the harpsichord. Tongues of fire licked all around her, but it dared not to touch her enchanted body. She stood in the middle of the fire, and all her might, played out a fugue so elegant and beautiful that the fire danced in rhythm and turned on the guards. The flames arced over Parthenope and her beloved harpsichord, till at last, she emerged from the fire and the smoke, better than before! As the flames subsided she turned toward the astonished King, and said, ‘You see what this harpsichord is capable of. Therefore, I beg you to let me keep it. You know I cannot give you a son. But I can give you the music that animates the world. I beg you, my lord, let me be free.’
The royal authorities were most certain that she was some sort of wicked enchantress and persuaded the Bishop that the marriage be annulled. The King acceded to their advice, as he could not jeopardize his claim on the crown. Instead, Queen Parthenope gave the King the most beautiful woman in all of Fairmount, the daughter of the Duke of Fruitland. They were married in a year, and she gave him thirteen beautiful sons and daughters, each of them the spitting image of their royal father. Two of his sons became Kings of Fairmount, while one became Bishop of Fountainvale and another the abbot of the Monastery of Thistlegrove.
The Bishop persuaded Parthenope to depart Fairmount once and for all, and to take her harpsichord with her. On her final day there, the King gave her a ship without a captain and bade her to charm the winds to return her home at her own peril. As she began to play the harpsichord a fine wind came from the south and blew all through the night, until after two days, she arrived back at the kingdom of Highcliff, where her father lived in his castle by the sea. But alas! —when she arrived at her father’s tower, she found it but a pile of ruins. For when the man had given her away, he had willed himself over to death, and it was in his library, collapsed over a book of ancient spells, that she found he had breathed his last. She gave him a proper burial in the cave where her mother lay and then took all of the sacred books he owned and put it in her ship.
From there, she traveled west toward the blessed island of Flowerfield, where she persuaded the abbess of the wealthy convent of Roseland to let her take vows. It was said that she stayed there the rest of her life, atoning for the sins of her father, but others said she played her harpsichord daily at Mass, thus enriching the abbey until it was so fabulously wealthy that even the roof of the church was made of pure gold.
When poor Parthenope was buried, the nuns found her legs covered in scales made of mother-of-pearl, hard as nacre and impossible to remove. Parthenope’s harpsichord remained in the abbey church for many years, until one day, like many of the people and things in this story, it simply vanished into thin air and no one has been able to find it since.
The moral of the story, my dear children, is to never let anyone snuff out that most harmonious music that Almighty God has given to you, for it may very well astonish the whole world.
Joe Galván has always written and sold his own books, but for two years in his junior and senior years of college, he sold textbooks at a small bookstore in Lubbock, Texas. A writer and reader since childhood, he has just finished a novel and is working on a series of zines on manners and etiquette for millennials. He can be reached on Twitter @fadopapi.