There’s this legend your father tells you. It’s about a girl who sleeps in the center of a sphere. She floats in the air, tossed above the waves, destined to remain fast asleep until awakened by a kiss.
You laugh when your father tells this story. You’ve heard all the stories before. Most of these stories involve handsome princes on white chargers. You’re not a prince, and you don’t have a white charger. And you wonder what it is about a prince’s kiss that’s so magical.
You are determined not to kiss a prince. No matter that the stories talk about everlasting happiness that follows the kiss.
“Someday,” your father says. “You will meet someone special. And when you do, you will want to kiss him.”
When she was a little girl, Arcana watched her father shape worlds. Shell worlds he called them, and he kept them under bell-shaped jars in the basement.
“Do people live on your worlds?” Arcana asked him once.
“Don’t be silly,” he’d said. “How do you think they’d survive?”
“So why keep them under the jars?” Arcana asked.
“Because, Arcana, strange things have happened before, and the jars are there for our own protection. When you are older, I’ll explain more.”
“Would the council send you to jail if something happened?”
Her father frowned and rubbed his forehead.
“I don’t think so. But these worlds are our responsibilities and it’s not for us to question the council’s decision to keep them under the bell jars until the right time.”
One night, when her father had gone out to a council meeting, Arcana slipped down to the basement. She squinted her eyes as she stared down through the thick canopy of cloud cover inside the glass and tried to see if there were people like her on the world inside it.
She stared at the meticulously planted landscape, gazed in wonder at the green-blue of the rolling sea, and wandered with her gaze inland to where the mountains rose up to touch the navel of the bell-glass.
There was something there, Arcana swore she could see it. She saw movement in the foliage, and when she leaned in closer, she thought she could see someone standing on the rocky shore.
Her mother’s voice made her jump.
“I’m sorry,” Arcana said. “I was just curious.”
“Well, don’t be too curious,” her mother said. “You almost tipped the jar off its stand. I won’t mention this to your father, but next time I catch you sneaking down here and peering into worlds without your father’s permission, you’ll get a good hiding.”
In the spring, you go see this castle floating in the clouds. It hangs suspended above the ocean and from where you are you can see where bits of root and earth still cling to the underside of it.
A crowd has gathered on the beach and a lot of speculation is going around about the castle.
“Did you see that?” someone asks. “It looks like there are people on there.”
If you squint your eyes, you can see tiny forms moving back and forth. When they reach the end of the decapitated drawbridge, they fall into a stream of light that reels them back up again on the other end of the castle.
What must life be like on that castle? What must it be like to move perpetually from falling to drifting to rising up again and returning to the same old routine of life on a movable plane?
“You saw someone?” Arcana’s father said. His brow creased and he frowned and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “Did this someone see you?”
Arcana shook her head.
“I don’t think so, father. Would that have been bad?”
“I shall have to tell the council,” her father said. He frowned again and stared at the world under the bell jar.
“I wish you hadn’t come down on your own, Arcana. You’re not yet of age. These beings, they’re not what you think they are.”
“What are they? You never tell me anything, father. Why don’t you tell me now?”
Fact or Fiction
“How did the princess get trapped inside the sphere?” you asked your father once.
“She disobeyed her father. She opened a box she wasn’t supposed to open and these beings floated out and trapped her inside the sphere. There she lies and there she is doomed to lie until someone frees her from her captivity.”
You stare up at the castle, and you think of the princess lying inside her sphere. Is she dusky skinned or is she pale cheeked like you? Has she aged from waiting for so long for a prince to rescue her or is there some magic that keeps her fresh and youthful as the day she fell under whatever spell was released from the box?
“What if the prince is a wimp?” you ask your father. “Does it have to be a prince kissing the princess?”
“Maybe this princess isn’t waiting for a prince,” your father says. “Who knows? It’s just a story.”
In the night, Arcana heard music coming from the basement. It made her think of waves crashing against the shore of a world that looked like an uninhabited paradise. She tossed and turned, but no matter how she tried, she could not shut out the music.
“Maybe father will hear it,” she thought.
The moon cast strips of light onto her pillow, and as she listened to the music, a great longing rose in her heart to see that shore again.
“What harm can it do?” she thought. “I’ll creep down the stairs very quietly, and just take another look.”
Her bare feet slid on the smooth planks of the floor, and she held her breath, as she caught hold of the doorjamb. Quiet as a mouse, she crept down the stairs to the basement room where her father kept the newly formed world inside one of his bell jars.
“Rumor says there’s a princess sleeping in the castle,” a man in a bright red cloak says. “They say whoever kisses her awake will win her hand and a million golden coins.”
“I heard it’s populated by ogres,” another man says.
“Oh tush,” says a burly woman in a yellow gown. “Everyone knows it’s a trick. There are no princesses locked in castles, and since the death of Prince Jerome, everyone knows there’s a shortage of princes in the kingdom.”
The crowd murmurs and moves away. There is laughter and shaking of heads, and a general consensus regarding the cleverness involved in pulling such a publicity stunt.
“A castle in the air,” someone says. “I bet there’s a trick to it. I bet it’s just another of those automatons.”
Light emanated from the bell jar. There was someone standing on the shore.
“Who are you?” Arcana whispered. “What are you?”
You’ve never been to visit the wise woman who lives in a hut close to the downs. But when you pass by her house, you decide to go in and ask her about the castle. Contrary to expectations, she doesn’t look old and wrinkled, neither is she dressed in rags.
She wears a red apron, and has her hair neatly caught up in a blue and white bandanna and when you ask her about the castle, her eyes twinkle and she laughs.
“It’s quite simple,” she says. “There’s a path leading up to the castle. If you want to go there, you simply have to find it.”
“So, I can just climb the path and reach the castle,” you say.
“There’s a secret to it,” the woman says. “But as with every secret, this one has its price.”
“I don’t own anything of much value,” you say.
“I’m sure you’ve got something you can part with,” the wise woman says. “After all, a secret isn’t a worthy secret if it’s not worth giving up a prized possession.”
You touch your hair. It is long and black and falls down your back like a rich waterfall of darkness. Your father loves your hair, and it is the one thing you are truly proud of.
“No one on this island has hair like yours,” your father says.
Every day, you brush your hair. One hundred strokes until it gleams in the sun and one hundred strokes until it reflects the moonlight.
“Well,” says the wise woman. “What will it be?”
• • • •
When the first lock falls, you shed a tear.
But you are thinking of finding that magical pathway.
You are launching out on an adventure that will change your life forever.
You will have done something no one else has done before.
From here on, all consequences will be of your own choosing.
• • • •
You hardly recognize yourself when she is done with cutting your hair. Without the fall of black to frame your face, your eyes seem much larger than they were. Looking into the mirror, you realize that you look a lot like your younger brother.
“Will you tell me the secret now?” you ask.
The wise woman smiles; in her hands, the strands of your hair dance as if they were alive. You feel a momentary pang, as you recognize what you have lost.
“If you go walking along the downs at sunset, you will see a funny little creature. In the native tongue, this creature is called duende, and if you ask him nicely, he might give you a vial filled with real princess tears.”
“What do I need tears for?” you ask. “And why must I get them from a duende? Surely another girl’s tears are just as good as a princess’s tears.”
“Do you wish to see the castle or not?” the wise woman asks.
You sigh. You’ve come this far, you can’t go back now.
“All right,” you say. “I’ll go in search of the duende. What if he doesn’t want to give me these tears?”
“You’re a smart girl,” says the wise woman. “You can do anything you put your mind to.”
The Creature Casts a Spell
“Please let me go,” the creature on the shore says. “If you let me go, I will grant you your heart’s most secret wish.”
“But you don’t know what that is,” Arcana says. “Besides, my father will be quite furious if he discovers that I’ve opened one of the bell jars without his permission.”
“Little princess,” the creature says. “Do you think your father will begrudge you a single moment of happiness?”
“I don’t think so,” Arcana said.
“Tell me your wish,” the creature said.
“I really don’t have one,” Arcana said. “I’m quite happy as I am.”
And when the creature said “really” in that tone of voice, Arcana couldn’t help thinking about a dream she kept on having, night after night, since she had seen this new world her father had made.
As if of its own volition, her hand reached out and lifted the bell jar.
• • • •
Out floated the world. It was beautiful to behold. Blues and greens and whites and violets, and browns and oranges, and there were myriads of tiny creatures spinning on the surface of it.
There was a crash as the bell jar slipped from her grasp and shattered to tiny pieces on the basement floor.
“What have you done?” her father cried.
“I . . . there was this creature . . . ,” Arcana turned to watch as the world floated above them. She was feeling quite sleepy and as she stared at the world, it seemed to expand until it filled all of her vision.
She could hear the worry in her father’s voice and tears trickled down her cheeks as she thought of how he’d never trust her with his worlds again.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered as the world blurred away and turned to black.
You walk along the downs, not knowing what to look for. A little creature, the wise woman said. There are so many little creatures here. Some of them hop away into the brush at the sound of your approach.
Some of them stand and stare before running off into the woods.
You remember hearing whispered tales about the duende, and you know the townspeople fear them, but you have never seen one, and in the stories your father told you, there are no duende at all.
But when you hear the sound of whistling and you see the little brown creature gathering up bits and pieces of driftwood, you know this is the creature you have been looking for.
He wears a funny little hat, and he is thin and brown. His nose is pointed, and there are warts on his chin. When he sees you, he lets out a shriek, drops his bundle of driftwood, and at the same time, his hat falls from his head.
“I’m sorry, sir,” you say. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“Frighten me? Frighten me?” he splutters. “What do you mean frighten me? Ugly creature that you are, what do you mean by stumbling all over my downs and scaring the hat from my head.”
“I came to ask you a favor,” you say.
“A favor?” And you see a sly glint in the creature’s eye.
“I need a vial of tears from a real princess.”
“Hoo-hoo,” the duende cries. And he jumps about on one foot and slaps his chest as he hoots out his laughter.
You wait until he has calmed down enough to speak.
“It’s important,” you say.
“How important?” the duende asks. “Are you willing to pay the price required for tears from a real princess?”
“It depends,” you say.
“Depends? What do you mean depends? Either you’re willing to pay the price or you just head on home to your mommy and your pappy and forget you ever saw me before.”
“Okay,” you say. “Okay, I’ll pay the price.”
• • • •
“I will give you her tears in exchange for your song,” the duende says.
“I will sing,” you reply. “But first, you must swear on your hat that once I have sung you will give me the princess’s tears.”
“Damn!” says the duende.
And you realize that you were right to make him swear by his hat.
“I swear by the hat,” he mutters. And he looks at you very darkly. “Now, sing.”
You think of the songs you learned from childhood. You think of the songs your mother sang to you. You think of festivals and of how the tinkle of coins and the press of the crowd held the promise of a future if you kept on singing. Now, as you open your mouth, you realize what it is the duende really wants of you.
But there is no going back.
Already, your voice rises in the air like a bird trilling to the sight of its sky. It trills and resonates in the quiet, warm and precious and pulsing with life, then the duende reaches up with his hat and the song dies away, and you know you will no longer sing as you used to.
“Beautiful,” the duende says.
And he hands you the vial filled with the princess’s tears.
• • • •
The moon has not yet risen when you return to the wise woman’s house. You carry the vial filled with the tears of a real princess and you hope it will be enough.
“Ah,” says the wise woman. “So you really wish to climb the stairs to this castle, don’t you?”
You nod your head.
“Well,” she says. “We must head off before the moon has risen to its full height. There is still a lot of preparation to be done.”
• • • •
She hands you a gleaming cape and you see that it is woven out of what once was your hair.
“Wear this,” she says. “It will keep you warm and it will keep you safe.”
And she smiles as she sprinkles your head with the tears of a real princess.
“Now you are ready,” she says.
And when you look up you see a staircase. It glows in the light of the full moon and winds up and around as far as your eye can see before it disappears behind the castle.
“Well,” says the wise woman. “Once you climb, there can be no turning back.”
“Is there a princess?” you ask the wise woman.
“Could be,” the wise woman says. “There are things you’ve got to find out on your own.”
• • • •
Up and up you go. Up and up and around, until you reach the end of the staircase. In front of you is a glowing sphere.
“Are you a prince?” a soft voice asks.
“I’m sorry,” you say. “I’m not a prince at all.”
“Ah,” says the voice.
A woman stands up from behind the sphere. She wears a wizard’s hat on her head and long lengths of diaphanous cloth dangle from the point of her hat.
“But the prophecy speaks of one who comes as a prince. There have been no strangers here. Not since Arcana’s enchantment. Did you see any princes on your voyage?”
“Alas, Madam, I saw no princes.”
“Well, I suppose we can wait another decade,” the woman says. “I wish Arcana had listened to her father. I’m quite weary of playing guardian to a sleeping girl all day. And this isn’t the most comfortable place to be exiled to. When she awakes I shall give her a good pinching.”
“I’ll guard her for a while,” you say to the woman.
“You’re sure you’re not a prince,” the woman says. She looks almost disappointed.
“I’m very sure,” you reply.
“Then you’ll have to go back to where you came from,” she says. “No one may see Arcana except her guardian and the prince.”
“But I have done all that was asked of me,” you say. “I only want to see her.”
“Well,” she says. “This is highly irregular. I’ve never heard of anyone being allowed to see an enchanted princess unless that person is the prince of her dreams.”
“I won’t disturb her at all,” you say.
“Well,” she says. “If you give me your beautiful cape, I’ll let you see her for a moment.”
You take the cape from your shoulders, and you hold it close for one last time. Then, you hand it over to the guardian.
“Five minutes,” she says.
She takes off her hat and hands it to you, and before you can ask her any questions, she’s out of the door and out of earshot.
“There’s no help for it now,” the council said. “We’ve got no choice but to let the enchantment work its course.”
“But she’s my only child,” says Arcana’s father.
“You should have been more careful,” they say. “History is filled with enough warnings. We’re sorry this happened, but we can’t do more than make sure she’s kept safe until the wish comes true.
“In the meantime, we’ll give her a floating castle. We’ll surround it with spells. And she will have a guardian to make sure that only one who is worthy enters in and breaks the spell.”
Under your feet, the floor sways gently, and you think of how this castle hangs suspended in the space between water and sky. You think of breezes rocking the castle, and you wonder what will happen when the spell is broken. Will the castle crash into the sea? Will the world vanish and become something else?
You turn the wizard hat over in your hands, and walk towards where Arcana is.
Perhaps it’s magic, but she doesn’t look like you’d imagined her to be. You’d imagined a tiny little princess, but this princess called Arcana has strong, capable looking hands, and her hair flows like a lion’s mane across her shoulders. Her skin is dusky and smooth, and her lips look firm and decisive.
You touch her cheek and wish she would open her eyes so you could look into them.
In fairytales, the prince kisses the princess and she awakes and the spell is broken.
You are not a prince, but if you try hard enough, you think you could make a reasonable enough impression of one. You stand there and wonder what it would be like to kiss a princess.
“And so the prince kissed the princess,” your father’s voice echoes inside your head.
“Fairytales,” you say.
You shut your eyes, lean in close to taste her lips, and wish you were a prince.
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