Thorn-Rose

There were thirteen fairies in the kingdom when Princess Rose was born; but as thirteen was unlucky, and thirteen fairies unluckier still, the King and Queen only asked twelve to be her godmothers.

On the night of the princess’s christening, while her godmothers were giving her the gifts of beauty, song, embroidery, and so on, a terrible storm struck the castle. It rattled the windows and tore the royal pennants from the towers. With a great howl of wind, the doors of the banqueting-hall came banging open, and the candles all blew out. Silhouetted against the stormy sky, with her black robes whipping about her and lightning in her hair, stood the thirteenth fairy.

The queen ran to the cradle to protect her child, and the king drew his sword. The thirteenth fairy laughed. ‘Never fear,’ she said, ‘I only want to give her a gift.’

The frightened crowd parted as she swept down the hall and stooped low over the cradle. The baby began to cry. ‘Your Highness,’ said the thirteenth fairy, ‘I give you the gift of Eternal Youth. On your fifteenth birthday, you will prick your finger on a spindle, and drop down dead!’

In the outcry that followed, she whirled herself up in her shadowy cloak and vanished with a clap of thunder. A wisp of smoke lingered in the air.

The queen caught up her baby from the cradle and held her tight, and the king ran to her side and held them both. All three of them were in tears. ‘Somebody do something,’ sobbed the queen. ‘Save our child.’

‘I can undo the curse,’ said the twelfth fairy. ‘Little princess, I give you the gift of wishes. On your fifteenth birthday, you will not die. Instead, your dearest wish will come true!’

But somehow, word must have reached the thirteenth fairy that her curse had been undone. One night, as the baby princess slept, a storm-wind whirled about her tower, and riding on its back came a dark and angry figure. Her face leered in at the rain-lashed window, and the window creaked open. The thirteenth fairy whispered a terrible spell:

‘O Rose, thou art sick;
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.’

She uncurled her hand, and blew something from her palm into the chamber. A shadow in the shape of a caterpillar settled on the crib, and inched up the coverlet towards the sleeping princess. It ate its way into the baby’s heart, and there it stayed. The name of the shadow was Fear of Change.

The poor princess, for all her fairy gifts, grew up deeply unhappy. She sang very sweetly, but her songs were always mournful; the pictures she embroidered were always dark and sad; and her beauty was often spoiled by tears. In autumn she cried for the falling leaves; in spring, for the melting snow. When relatives said to her, ‘Haven’t you grown?’ she cried. And on her birthdays she cried most of all. A whole year lost, an age she’d never, ever be again.

Everyone had heard that on her fifteenth birthday, her dearest wish was destined to come true; and everyone had an idea of what that wish should be, and tried to influence her. But the princess hardly heard them. ‘I wish,’ she used to say, over and over, ‘I wish everything could stay the same for ever.’

If her dearest wish came true, she thought, she would wake up on the morning of her fifteenth birthday to find she was still fourteen. When that morning came, and the maid poked her head in and said cheerfully, ‘Happy birthday!’ she was bitterly disappointed. She crept off to the topmost room of her tower to cry alone.

There in the little round attic, where bats nested in the rafters of the pointed roof, sat a beautiful lady at a spinning-wheel.

‘What’s that?’ said the princess, who had never seen one.

‘This is a wishing-wheel,’ said the lady. ‘Come and play with it, and your dearest wish will come true.’

Forgetting all her manners, the princess dived for the spinning-wheel in wild excitement, and grabbed at the spindle; and the point, sharp as a rose-thorn, stabbed into her finger. As soon as her blood touched the spindle-wood, she fell down in a deep sleep, and all the castle with her. The king and queen fell asleep on their thrones, and the servants fell asleep in the kitchen, and the horses in the stables, and the birds fluttered out of the air.

The thirteenth fairy picked the princess up in her arms, and carried her down the spiral stairs, and laid her down on her bed, among the worn old dolls and teddy-bears she had never given up. ‘Sleep well,’ she whispered, ‘your dearest wish has come true.’

In the little attic room, the spinning-wheel suddenly blossomed with roses; it put down roots into the floor, and curled tendrils out of the windows, and by morning the whole castle was hedged about with roses, whose thorns were tipped with red.

For a hundred years the princess dreamed among the roses, while her hair grew long and tangled with the thorns, and the dust of years settled on her face. Many princes tried to rescue her, but as soon as the thorns pricked them, every one of them dropped down dead. The princess smiled in her dreams. She didn’t want to be rescued. She wanted everything to stay the same for ever.

Some say the thirteenth fairy regretted her action at last, and some say it was just coincidence; but whatever the reason, when a young prince was born in a far-away kingdom, there was a storm at his christening, and a mysterious lady came uninvited and gave him the gift of wishes.

When he was almost fifteen, the prince saw a picture of the princess in an old book, and fell instantly in love with her. ‘Who is she?’ he asked his tutor.

‘Thorn-Rose they call her,’ said the tutor. ‘They say she lies trapped in an enchanted sleep, in a castle of thorns, and all the princes who tried to rescue her have died.’

‘I wish,’ said the prince, ‘I wish she would wake up and love me.’

‘It’s been a hundred years,’ said the tutor. ‘I doubt there is much of her left.’

But the prince hardly heard him. ‘I’m going to find her,’ he said.

So he set off on the long journey to the castle of thorns. He arrived there on the morning of his fifteenth birthday. Thick as trees the ancient roses twisted and towered above him, full of bones and rusting armour caught on their cruel thorns. But the prince wasn’t afraid, because he had the gift of wishes. He put out his hand, and touched the roses, and a rose-thorn pricked his finger. And as soon as his blood touched the thorn, the roses parted like a curtain, and let him through.

Past the sleeping guards, up the spiral staircase, he walked in wonder to the princess’s chamber. There Thorn-Rose lay among her dusty toys, as beautiful as the day she had fallen asleep. He took out his lace handkerchief, and wiped the dust from her face. She stirred in her sleep, and sighed, and he couldn’t help but kiss her.

‘Wake up,’ he said. ‘You’re my dearest wish. Please come true.’

His kiss and his voice found their way into the princess’s dreams. She dreamed of a beautiful young prince who loved her, and she dreamed she loved him too. ‘I wish,’ she thought, ‘I wish this was more than a dream. I wish it would come true.’

The prince saw a shadow in the shape of a butterfly flutter from the princess’s chest, and dissolve in the sunlight through the roses.

And the princess opened her eyes.

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The Laughing Moon

The crescent moon is lying on her belly tonight, like a bright boat on a dark sea, or a Cheshire Cat grin. I feel as if she’s laughing at me. I suppose I must be pretty funny to the moon. She’s seen it all so many times before. Every life is the same play with different actors, and the moon knows how it goes. Oh, says the moon, you’re at that part. Ha ha. Hee hee. Ho ho.

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The Boy Who Made a World

There was once a boy who was lonely and sad. The world seemed grey and cold to him and he felt lost in it. So he decided to make another world, a place just for him where he could escape.

He took his pot of bubbles and began to blow. Everyone dreams of blowing one marvellous bubble that just keeps getting bigger and bigger and never bursts. Most people can try all their lives and never manage it, but the longing that the boy breathed into the bubble was so strong, it made the bubble strong too. Bigger and bigger it grew, until it was as big as the boy himself.

It floated free of the bubble wand and settled on the grey carpet, a translucent world of rainbow oceans shimmering with restless tides. The boy put out his hand and touched the bubble, and the bubble didn’t burst. He put his hand right through the rainbow ocean and into the warm tropical air of his breath.

And then he stepped inside, into his own world.

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The Old House

It wasn’t until after I’d grown up that I realised the old house was haunted. I thought of ghosts as sad, or angry, so sad and so angry that they couldn’t stop being sad and angry over and over forever, no matter how dead they were.

But the people who sang late at night in the old house were happy, so happy that it stayed with you afterwards like a scent caught in your hair. And they didn’t seem dead, not really. It was more that time didn’t work quite the same, in the old house.

Every note someone sang there, every word someone spoke, lingered on the edge of hearing and never quite died away. And every feeling lingered too. It was all still there, an endless chord of complex harmony.

I used to creep downstairs at night and sing with them. They never seemed to hear me, but it didn’t matter. The thread of my voice was twisted in with theirs, part of the old house for ever and ever.

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Twins

We’d never thought much about being twins, any more than we thought about having two legs each; but lately when we looked in the mirror together, we were checking to make sure we were still the same.

We leaned our heads against each other, our hair so much the same colour you couldn’t tell where mine ended and his began. Still the same height. I couldn’t bear to think that he’d be taller than me one day. Like if your legs stopped being the same length. How long could we go on play-fighting as equals, before he had to hold back for fear of hurting me?

We scrutinised our bare chests, breathing in the same rhythm. Still identical. What would we do when mine sprouted breasts and his grew broad and hairy? How long would we be allowed to share a room? To be naked around each other? Would we even still want to? I couldn’t imagine what it would be like when we stopped feeling like one body, when we turned shy and shrank apart into two separate lumps of flesh. The thought was as lonely as death.

‘What’ll we do when we stop looking the same?’ I said, talking to his reflection.

‘We won’t.’ Simple as that.

‘Yes we will.’

‘Viola and Sebastian didn’t.’

I turned from the mirror and looked straight into his eyes – my own eyes, but so much more intense. He thought he could make the world the way he wanted it by pure willpower. I wouldn’t become a woman, and he wouldn’t become a man, because he didn’t want us to. I held his shoulders. ‘That’s just a story,’ I said, sounding like our mother. ‘It’s not really going to be like that. We have to get used to it.’

‘No we don’t. Never.’ He didn’t raise his voice, or tear up, or anything. He just stared at me without blinking.

I had no doubt that he could go on saying never forever. He’d say never when his voice was as deep as our father’s. If he didn’t want to get used to it, he just wouldn’t, ever, no matter how much it hurt.

I’d always thought of him as the strong one. Now it struck me that the difference between him and me was the difference between ice and water. He was so much harder, and so much more breakable.

The older we got, the more I was going to have to be strong for him.

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St-Exupery Point

I lay on my stomach at St-Exupéry Point, watching the sunset on the sea through the silhouettes of flowers and feathered grass. I’d named every feature of this landscape – Crocodile’s Cradle, Shimmering Deep, the Primrose Path of Dalliance, Buttercup Hill (which I used to roll down and whisper to myself, ‘Can you move? You’re alive, if you want I can fly.’) But St-Exupéry Point at sunset was my favourite place to mope. You know – one loves the sunset, when one is so sad…

In my dye-stained summer dress and wellies, with seagull feathers in my tangled hair and stars scribbled on my arms, I lay and watched the last of the day go down into the sea, felt the blue chill of night stealing up behind me and the earth slowly turning underneath me.

This is time, I thought. This is time passing. I imagined myself lying on a clockwork earth, cogs as big as continents turning among the stars. Watching as the past melted like gold into the sea, feeling the unseen future at my back; moment by moment, wave by wave, the future washing over me, turning into the past.

I felt the meaning of the sunset sink into my bones. Things change. The saddest and the most hopeful thought in the world.

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Three Little Sea Stories

The lighthouse girl grew up pretending she was a princess in a tower, rescuing the princes on the sea.

The sea is full of the ghosts of ships. You might not see them, but you feel the chill on the water as they sail by.

All day and all night the land hums with frantic activity, while the sea whispers to it, ‘Shhh… shhh…’

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Two Girls in a Window

I saw them as I walked past, two girls in a shop window. One short and fat, flesh and blood, dressed as if she could hardly bear to look at herself long enough to throw on clothes; the other tall, impossibly slender, hard plastic, frozen on tiptoes, with beautiful painted eyes that would never blink, and painted lips that would never speak or kiss.

The flesh-and-blood girl dressed the plastic girl slowly. She pulled off her arms at the shoulder, and the plastic girl never flinched. The flesh-and-blood girl looked up into the sculpted doll-like face with pure envy. Perhaps the plastic girl envied her too: skin that was warm and soft, muscles that moved, the complex grace of fingers, the subtlety of touch. A heartbeat, breath, a voice. She had a wistful look about her, to me. Perhaps she was suffering, but how would we ever know?

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