a retelling of Sleeping Beauty
Perhaps we are all cursed, in our way. Perhaps my sisters were cursed to hide their gifts under empty smiles and false promises, just as I am cursed to bare my soul to the world. Perhaps the girl was cursed from the beginning, born into a family that put all their values in show and thought nothing of real love. Perhaps there was never any real choice for any of us.
The queen asked us, the thirteen oracles, for prophecies — but prophecy is a word that falls in and out of fashion, and we knew that she didn’t really come to us looking for truth. She wanted words of praise and adoration for the darling golden child. She wanted the people to hear them. To believe in them.
My sisters and I can all see the truth of things, but they are not bound to it the way that I am. They can lie, if they choose, or fashion their truths from patchwork fragments. For this they bid me stay away. There may have been wisdom in their words. And yet — we are the thirteen oracles. I could not stay behind.
They called her Aurora, “new dawn”. She looked very small, buried as she was in swaths of pink linen and lace. The queen adored her. The people adored her. The king adored the queen and the people, and so the child was a great treasure of the land.
“The princess will be the most beautiful girl in the kingdom.” This from my sister, Melhomyna. It felt like a True Saying.
“The princess will be loved by all who know her.”
“The princess will grow to be brave and kind.”
“The princess will be gracious to her people.”
My sisters presented the queen and the king with half truths, pretty gilded things that did no harm. The entire kingdom watched from beneath the hanging terrace, wrapped in sweet-smelling spring air and love for the golden child.
It was my turn. I stepped forward, searching for some docile truth that I could lay at their feet. But the words were pulled from me.
“On her fifteenth birthday,” I said, avoiding the eyes of my sisters, “the princess will draw blood on a spindle and fall into eternal slumber.”
Melhomyna tells me that lies taste different than truth. I would not know. I have never tasted one. But when the people began to whisper that I had cursed the child, it felt of something new — truth and lies tangled up together.
Unwilling to be outdone by their neighbours, the kingdom next to ours invited the oracles to witness the birth of their son. Twelve oracles. I was not welcome.
There was an air of disquiet when my sisters returned. Without speaking, I knew: many of them had lied.
Melhomyna touched my shoulder gently. “Perhaps, Malia, it is better you were not there.”
The princess Aurora grew to be beautiful, and loved, and all the other true things my sisters spoke. First as a child, then with the contours of womanhood. The queen and king began to whisper of joining the kingdom next door. How fortunate it was that there was a son, handsome and brave and as yet unclaimed.
The prince and the princess met, discreetly chaperoned, in a courtyard under a twilit sky. Love ballads were sung in the streets.
My sisters and I attended, as onlookers, the announcement of the engagement. The king spoke of prosperity, security, and respect. A new dawn. The princess did not smile. There were dark circles under her eyes and an angry bruise at her temple.
My sister gripped my arm tightly. “For once on this green earth, Malia, keep your mouth shut. It is not your fight.”
No, it was not. That battle belonged to the princess, to wage in her own way.
Later, the oracles were summoned to bless the engagement of the prince and princess. For once I was glad to stay away. I rested in our empty home and entertained myself with dreaming until I knew, in the way of knowing true things, that I was not alone.
The princess stepped into the room. Moonlight and candlelight wove a veil of silver and gold over her hair. She lowered her head in a gesture of respect and I could see the darkening on the side of her face. There is very little that surprises me, but she… she I did not expect.
“Princess.” I lowered my head also. “What do you seek here? My sisters have gone to your castle to bless your love.”
“I know,” she said. “I sent for them.”
So she was clever, as well. I searched my true knowing for signs that she wished me harm, alone and away from my sisters’ protection, but I found nothing. Her thoughts were hidden from me.
“Fifteen years ago you laid a curse on me, to prick myself on a spindle and sleep forever. My parents think I don’t know.”
“It was no curse, my darling. Only a truth, and the truth can be a malleable and uncertain thing.”
“I have searched for spinning wheels everywhere. I think my parents have banished them.” There was frustration in her voice. For a moment I caught a glimpse of the prince’s face, the way Aurora saw it — the hungry teeth of a hound and the cruelty of a man.
She saw my knowing reflected in my eyes, and nodded. “I would rather face a long life of oblivion than a short one in his arms.”
I wanted to say, run away. I wanted to say, use your voice. But the words died behind my lips. He would find her. She had no voice.
She was right about the spinning wheels. The queen ordered them all burned that day, and the air was perfumed by lambswool and woodsmoke. They all turned to ash but one.
It had not been used in many years. In fact, my sister Terpserie is the only one who knew how. It had been used to weave the fates of heroes and spin straw into gold, but now it rested, alone and forgotten, under a thick layer of dust.
Aurora picked up the spindle. It was made for function, not beauty, and it looked large and awkward in her small hands.
“Will it really be forever?” she asked. For the first time she looked frightened, and suddenly I remembered that she was only a child.
The truth pushed against my teeth and then stopped, uncertain. I lifted my hands to her temples, gentle against the fading bruise. I saw that her sleep would be one of peace, and for that I was grateful. I saw the leaves turn red and the snowdrops bloom over and over without her. In the kingdom the memory of her fades quickly, like a story they were once told as children.
Then the kingdom itself begins to fade.
There is a sickness. At first, no one is even certain it is real. By the time they understand enough to fear, the kingdom is already being overtaken by thorns.
Still she sleeps.
The world is a different place when he comes. He looks a little bit like the prince and I am surprised to see that this man, many years later, shares his blood. He has none of the prince’s malice, however; his heart is good and kind. It is for his kiss that she finds her way back.
“One hundred years.” I did not know how long until I spoke the words out loud.
The princess nodded. “That’s not so long.”
She touched the spindle to her fingertip. It was worn and blunt, but it broke the skin. I caught her in my arms as it clattered to the floor.
Perhaps I did curse her, in the end. I know that is what they will say when they come for me, and my sisters too. But also perhaps, just perhaps, we do have some choices of our own — as Princess Aurora did when she made the choice to escape in the only way she could.
I packed very little, then headed off down the road ahead of the gathering thorns.
Fija Callaghan is an Irish-Canadian writer and artist who believes in embracing the magic of everyday moments. Her work has appeared in Bandit Fiction, Nightingale & Sparrow, The Caterpillar, Eucalyptus & Rose Magazine, Dodging the Rain Poetry Journal, Crow & Cross Keys, and Wyldblood Magazine. She lives between the seaside and the stars on a diet of dark chocolate and stories..
Artwork: Natalia Drepina