Let's Worm

Plum Knights

Plum Knights

We spent a lifetime tilling soil with our hands, with mud forever caked in our arm hair, black earth embedded beneath our fingernails, and hair clinging to our faces while we looked down and dug. Ages ago, a mid-sized castle in an unimpressive kingdom was passed by, overlooked, and nearly all but forgotten, other than the occasional visit from a farmgirl on horseback, who discovered the castle gates when she was young. That’s how we came to occupy the space, the unwanted place took us in. Well, my grandmother, Mimi, and her daughters before me. We spent generations this way. Burrowing.

Mimi’s family had been in this country for a hundred years. Goatherds, chicken tenders, soil tillers. They once had a grand farmhouse, which stood on a hillside, like a beacon. As war parties passed through their lands Mimi’s elders had grown used to offering half of what they stored, which they always insisted was everything. But eventually, the scene was a bit too grand for some famished soldiers. And after they’d overstayed their welcome, they burned the place for sport. Mimi was born in that farmhouse. Her mother too. And like life entering the world, her birthplace was just as quickly gone.

When Mimi and her sisters moved to the one-room shed near the barn, the family stuck their hands past the hay and into the dirt and dug. They dug deep, late into the evenings, their father sometimes still at it at dawn. And one day timber was being brought in, and the next day there was a floor over the dirt and beams forming a ceiling. And just as soon as an underground room took shape another room was dug. And from the ground, surrounded by tree roots and soil. a modest pride grew. They were outwardly poor, but their insides beamed bright with hope.

Mimi rarely spoke about the brute she married, only that the sour loaf of a man refused to ignore his societal urges. He was a lamb shank spitting husband. A stormcloud. A thundermass. My mom called him a highground dipshit who liked to sip early to late, whose wide hands were used to grip things and smash them, but those same hands shook anytime he did something small, like striking a match to stone.

He gambled and chattered, talked more than he drank, and drank more than he ate. Only a matter of time before he let slip the family secrets, and once an unknown thing was discovered, there was no turning away the curious. And that is how he lost her family’s farm, it fell into his domain in holy matrimony, which is where Mimi said, everybody got screwed. Rumours spread, the townspeople found an itch they needed to scratch, and sure enough, the next time a war party again passed their kingdom, the well was soiled. In they came, and down they went, and out Mimi and her daughters slipped into the night from one of the various tunnels they’d spent their days playing in, never knowing these hiding games they played were always an act of preparation.

Mimi had found the castle as a girl, chasing the herd into the forest. Even then she could smell its stink. A plan hadn’t formed in her brain, but something about the place brought her back to it yearly, to check in, take stock. How does a castle get forgotten? By the light of a waxing moon they darted to the forest, she and her brood. Upon squirreling their way through the gates, they confirmed the source of the sweet, rotten smell she’d known since she was a girl. The uneven ground was covered in plums. Above the plums, a kingdom’s worth of quiet crows, numbed by their addiction to the rotten fruits. What was once a clear path from the gate to the castle door was now a purple and brown marsh. Yet, above the foul ground, each tree stood upright, and in the light of the white sun peeking over the kingdom’s gates, the plum grove was indeed quite beautiful.

My mother used to start the story of her mother with the plums. Only plums, Annette, she would say. The kingdom was plumb full of them. I asked her what that meant and she couldn’t tell me. She said the Brits had argued that being plumb-anything was a misuse of a perfectly apt word to describe the measurement of depth. But, it seemed as ripe a word as any for a place in which all situations dealt in plums. Plums to the knees. Fresh fallen atop once fallen atop plumb rotten plums. My mother would chuckle. She reminded us language is whatever we want it to be. So, stink the Brits.

Years after I left, I’d find out the original trees were gifts from some emperor, and they came with a note that read, “in lieu of oranges, these plums.” Back then, which was pre-everything, oranges were the fanciest of things to grow, all the rage, really, among tree-gifting empires where what decorated your kingdom’s roads, entryways, and gardens had better look as vivid as your best gilded, avian wallpaper. If inside grand halls decorative birds rested on branches, birds extended wings mid-flight, and birds surrounded the outside of bulbous cages, then trees on the outside had better be plucked and pretty, dead leaves scraped away with rakes, leaving that sweet, tilled soil beneath their claws. There was a mild chorus of mumbles when the plums were received, nevertheless, a planting ceremony followed. Sixteen trees sat in two rows of eight, lining the straight edges of the road that led to the castle entry within the gates.

Shortly after the trees were planted the castle was ransacked by a group of common travelers, part circus troupe, part pillaging party. Those who ruled, ruled no more. The rascals that replaced the hierarchy lived in the castle for a time, resting on the bones of the recently departed, and then abandoned the place, leaving the plums to overrun the gated grounds. This last part is my own speculation, there’s no written history between the kingdom that was gifted the plums, and what exactly happened to them.

Years passed. Wars tore through larger nation-making kingdoms. Large armies were amassed and defeated and victorious. During these years the walls grew thick with ivy, and the forest surrounding the castle gates hid its grandeur from plain sight. When Grandma Mimi finally decided it was time to breach the gates, she found an illusion in the ivy wall, which was actually a passage.

My grandmother and her three daughters made nests of their rooms, spun tapestries on looms, and colored everything in vibrant hues of orange, red, and purple. They made a house sigil of four crows surrounding a single plum tree. She liked to say they were all crows now. And after seasons of cleaning the grounds, they looked up, and enjoyed the bounty of their orchard. But Mimi hardly paused. She moved the work outward. By moonlight, each night, she and her daughters slipped outside the gates to dig. Your grandmother, my mother used to say, couldn’t keep her hands clean a day in her life.

She didn’t say what the digging was for. She didn’t trace a path or acknowledge a motive. But, the trench was her gift to us, a ring embracing the castle gates in a hug. She was determined to keep her home and have her children raise their children in the freedom of this plum kingdom. My mother and her sisters, their only memory of men was their father’s teeth tearing through meat until they met bone. The smell of ale. His rosy cheeks, glowing to a boil from the calm demeanor of his third pint to the agitation that rose after his fifth, which was always when they blew out the candle lights.

So when Mimi’s middle daughter went beyond the castle gates, she did so quietly, without pageantry. She did not return for two months. Then, one day, her sisters woke to find her walking in the orchard, a bruise the color of their house-fruit on her face, a pridefulness in her step, a renewed elegance to her walk, the way she drew her shoulders back from her chest. She returned only after confirming she was with child. Her sisters excitedly tended to her and grew envious. Before long they’d all leave and return carrying a child in their bellies. Their suitors would remain unknown, not asked about, not worried over, and just as soon forgotten.

When we were born, we were crows too, but also plums. Mimi would pluck a word out of the sky and that’s what she’d call us that day, whenever she was done digging, with a muddy foot soaking in a tin of boiled water. Croaks, Toads, Minnows, Leaves, Songs. We answered to any name she sang. She’d filled the plum castle and taught us to stock our cellar with barrels by the end of fall, and bottles every spring. As for the crows, rituals were made of their deaths and our feasts, and their feathers were sewn into wreaths and tapestries, that oil slick blue-black shining the way blood does in pools, rich and syrup thick.


When it was my time, I said my goodnights to the cousin-sisters. I’d worn my swimming suit all day, beneath my dress. I folded my clothes over boots and placed them carefully into a basket I’d lead across the moat that had formed from the trench. If there were one hundred of us, we wouldn’t reach from one end to the next holding hands. Swimming was the only way to the other side.

But, as I slipped through our passageway that night a clumsy commotion froze me mid-step. Imagine me, a pale naked leg bent at the knee, and a searching arm bent at the elbow, like the arm and leg of a K reaching out from an unseeable slit in a wall of ivy. The wall was birthing me, and in a single stroke my stupidity would cost us our kingdom. I couldn’t stay inside. I crept my head past the fold to see if I could get a sense of what awaited me beyond the gate.

My mind calmed upon seeing the armored knight hanging from his horse by a leg, body dragging against the dirt, head trapped in its ridiculous pointed helmet. The knight flailed and the armor’s metal arms searched beneath him to right his position or fall completely off the mare. He couldn’t have seen me with that helmet. But I couldn’t look away. I emerged from the wall and crouched behind a bush. Watching him twist, the sound of the metal scraping against itself, was delicious. I wanted to make a sport of it, pummel him with plums. But with a sudden thud, he was free.

“I saw you.” He pointed towards the wall, but not in my direction. “Come out!”

“It’s impossible that you saw me,” I replied from the bush. “I was never really here.”

“I see you now, sitting there, behind that bush. We’re talking.”

“Very well. I’m here if you say so. What brings you to this place?” I asked, standing up. The knight did not respond. “What are your intentions?” I demanded. Silence. “I can play this game too.” I crossed my arms, the night cool against my bare skin. I’d spent eighteen of my twenty-four years digging mud from the depths of our moat, waiting for some reason to validate its existence. I wasn’t about to cross the water only to land in the metal arms of this fool. “It’s very late, sir. Perhaps it’s time to climb atop your horse and go.” The knight stared back at me, silently. “Do you have anything to say?”

“We’ve watched this castle for months, from afar.” That word, we, beat a drum in my ears. My heart became a fist hammering beneath my chest. I was a twin pulse. My face grew hot as I clenched my jaw. “To what kingdom does this place belong, what’s beyond these gates?”

“It’s difficult to speak this way,” I said, stepping out from behind the bush, making sure to present my legs with each step. My mother asleep behind the gate. My grandmother. My aunts. My cousin-sisters. “I’ll cross now, so we can talk.” I placed the basket in the water carefully and waded in behind it. The mud floor of our moat cradled my feet in its thickness. I spread my toes, letting the earth fill in every gap, planting each foot before taking the next step. These women, my family, we dug our trench deep, and with one steep drop, the water quickly met my chin.

As I made my first steps onto the mainland, which felt more like an island than our own tiny kingdom, the smells hit me, standing closer to the trees than I ever had, the crisp air and savory scent of pine, mint, and wet leaves. I’d looked at these beauties all my life, stretching towards the sky, but I couldn’t focus on them so close. I kept my gaze locked on the thin slits in the knight’s helmet as this metal-clad person approached me, the animal braying behind him, looking cold or frightened, or both.

“Are you going to take that ridiculous helmet off?”

“A knight does not reveal its face.”

“Unless what?”

“There is no unless.” I scoff at him. I grew up in a castle of sister-cousins.

“There is always an unless,” I replied, taking a step closer, looking for eyes beneath the lines. I reached my hands to his helmet. We were taught to act with intention.

“Another move and I’ll cut your throat,” he said.

“With what, that big heavy sword?” I positioned my bare feet to the right of each of his. My breasts met his armor, and it sent a chill down my spine. If he fell towards me I’d be crushed, so I centered my pelvis, and gripped the ground with my toes to keep balance. “I doubt you could –” He tried to cross his right arm between us, reaching to his left side for the sword. I grabbed his wrist swiftly, forcing it groundward while I palmed his right shoulder down too, then swept my leg to the back of his knee, to make it buckle.

He fell with a clatter, twisted into a pile of metal. “Don’t start with swordplay, when you’re dressed that way.” I leaned over him and lifted his sword.

“There are rules of combat.”

“Oh really? Are there rules for self-preservation?”

“I thought your castle gates would be swarming with men.”

“Men? What, eating forkfuls of sausage? Smashing steins?”

“Protecting their secrets.”

“So you’re surprised then, to find a woman?”

“Not as surprised as my camp will be.” Violence and threats.

“You remind me of my grandfather. I imagine your camp, they’ll be thirsty to find a castle full of women, no?”

“There are more of you?”

“Oh my. Of course. A kingdom. Haven’t you heard of us?” I rest the heavy sword on my shoulder to support the weight of the thing, but I make it seem casual. “Why did they send you alone?”

“They don’t know that I’m here.”

“A silent scout.” I nod back towards the castle gates. “They don’t know I’m here either. So what should we do now, the two of us, under the moon alone, while nobody knows we’re anywhere?”

“I could take you prisoner.”

“God. Is that all you want?” This tin man, this cock without imagination. I was hoping he might save me the trip to town. “You know, if you were to take off your helmet you might see a bed of leaves over there. Looks softer than all that metal.”


“Oh? Is that a yes? Do you know how to get yourself out of all that armor, or do you keep your code in sleep too?”

“‘Course I know how to remove my armor.” Tending to the dipshit before me, I kept my ears trained on the distance, listening to the forest. How near might the rest be? He’d only removed a gauntlet. I was getting impatient.

“Here,” I offered, and helped remove the first sleeve, revealing a scrawny pale arm beneath. The frame was a ruse, covering a boy beneath. An easy first. He continued, placing each piece of metal carefully on the soft ground. When he was through he met me on the bed of leaves, still wearing the helmet. I cradled a petrified crow talon in my palm, pressing the claw into my own skin to test its sharpness. “So, keeping the helmet on, then?”

“A knight does not –”

“I remember.” I circled around him. “Well,” I said, resting my free hand on his naked shoulder from behind, “a lady doesn’t spread her legs for a faceless man.” Then I neared close to the helmet and whispered, “I won’t tell anyone.” I could hear him swallow. Then he raised his arms to cup either side of the helmet, and the moment he lifted them my talon was there to meet his neck. I sliced the skin deep and watched the blood speckle and pool over the leaves. I caught the helmet by its feathers before the faceless knight fell limply to the ground. I turned him over to have a look at the thing. I’d only read about his parts.

I wanted so much more than this. My first man, a hapless foot soldier. But there were others out there and a body to dispose of. I shoved the bloody leaves into his chain-linked under-netting. I dragged his dead legs to the shoreline of our protective circle. I emptied my baskets, tore strips of fabric from my dress, and tied rocks to his wrists, his ankles, his midsection. Then I waded into the center, dragging his dead weight behind me, this nameless creature who died with less grace than our crows.

I turned back to the shore, to the carefully placed armor. I sat and slid my calves into the greaves, wrapped the cuisses around my thighs. The metal cut into my legs, forcing me to move in awkward pivots. I slipped the breastplate over my chest, maneuvering it into the proper position when a voice rang out.

“You gave him too much time.” My mother. She echoed across the moat.

“You been there a while?” I asked.

“Long enough,” said my mother. “He got closer than most.” I didn’t have time to respond. “You think he’s the first visitor that’s crept up to our gates?”

“But you never mentioned–”

“We needed to make sure you girls slept at night, without fear of the forest.”

“I could never fear this forest.”

“You should fear it, Annette.”

“I’ll need to make that decision on my own.”

“I know.”

“Get back inside, Annette,” my mother’s sister shouted from somewhere behind the wall. “You’ll freeze your tits off.”

“How many of you are back there?”

“Everyone’s back there,” my mother said. “All your elders.”

“And my sister-cousins?”

“They’re asleep, of course.”

“More will come,” my grandmother said, at last, her voice frail now in her old age. “Armies don’t disappear. Men seek out what is left unanswered, to stamp out every flame.”

“Well then,” said my mother, perking up, “best to save that armor, should we need it.”

“It’s dreadfully uncomfortable.”

“We can fix that,” said my mother. “There’s no need to be a hero out here on your own, my love. We’ve never needed saving.

“There will always be plums,” said Mimi.

“And crows,” said my aunts in chorus.

“And the world, spinning in place,” said my mother.

“I’m still going,” I said.

“I know you are,” my mother responded. “You were always going to.”

“This helmet smells like shit.”

“They always do,” laughed Mimi. My grandmother appeared then, stepping out into the purple night beside her middle daughter. “Now go fly. Be a falcon, lovey. If they ask who you are, tell them in a low grumble.”

“The Plum Knight,” I say.

“That’s right,” said Mimi.

“It was always going to be you, too,” said my mother.

“How do I mount that thing?” I asked, and the women of my kingdom laughed and laughed. I fastened the gauntlets over my wrists, all of their eyes watching me. I placed my foot in the stirrup and failed to mount the mare until my third attempt. But that didn’t stop them from watching either. I disappeared into the forest, carried by the gentle breaths of my protectory, a kingdom of plumb eyes at my back.

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