I kissed her.
She opened before me, like Spring’s rose covered in dew-sweat under the greenhouse glass. I watched the spider’s web of veins on her eyelids disappear into the crevice of flesh below her brow and the deep red of sunset suffuse her cheeks. She was crusted with sleep; her hair was matted under her head and she could scarce untangle her fingers from where they were laced together on her chest.
“Why did you wake me?” The words stumbled from between cracked lips; she pushed them out with a swollen tongue like a worm poking out of dry earth.
She did not ask how, but why, and I had no ready answer. It had been a compulsion, nothing more.
I had come for treasure and the glory of the quest; no bard had ever sung of beauty beyond the gold and gem-encrusted objects littering the sleeping halls. I’d fought my way through thick vines and briars as long as my far-reaching arm. I was covered in gashes, and dried blood decorated my tunic below my dented armor. I stank and beneath my helm my hair drizzled onto my scalp and lay there like congealed pig’s fat.
We were a pair, I thought, and perhaps that is what had compelled me to bend a kiss upon the woman’s sleeping lips. We had both been ravaged — she by time and me by all that time had grown around her. Seeing her there, I must have felt a connection; how now would any shining princess have me, or any perfect prince want her?
Torn and yes, almost broken by the thorns, I had staggered into a hall filled with dust and riches. Tattered curtains hung limply at wide windows through which the sun must have once shone. All was dim now, for no light could penetrate the wall of roses enclosing the ancient ruin.
I had rested for a brief moment by a fountain, a small miracle of fresh water splattering into a basin that remained, somehow, intact. My intent had been to pass through each room, to inventory the things worth saving and then to stake my claim on all the tarnished goods. She had stopped me. I thought, at first, that she was but a corpse, long dead yet by some strange mechanism undecayed. And then I saw the faintest movement, the soft rise and fall of her peaceful breast, and I knew that what lay before me was the miracle.
“Why did you wake me?” she asked again. She waited quietly for my response, though she must have had more than enough of waiting. It did not matter that I hadn’t known my kiss would have this consequence, and I could think of no lie to hand her that would answer.
I was expected to return from this adventure with wealth — enough to secure the hand of a lady from a good, if smaller, kingdom than that of my father’s. My eldest brother would inherit the throne, but I still had to play my part in expanding our fair borders. I had never thought beyond my fate until that moment.
Her eyelids fluttered and her lashes left pale traces of shadow on her cheeks. I felt caught between them. No matter that her breath was stale and her skin as dry as last year’s apples. Nothing mattered but that she looked up at me and waited for my answer.
Did I even want a sparkling princess now? Now that I’d seen the color of her eyes, the shape of her cheek, and heard the simple structure of her words, it did not matter that she wore rags or that her legs had atrophied and lay, it seemed, as shriveled, useless things below the remnants of a gown once fit for queens.
I wanted to gather her up, to fold that crinoline and mold-stained silk into my breast and cup the egg of her skull, so heavy from sleeping, in my palm, to reassure her I’d not meant to disturb her. To explain that my own disheveled state should not be mistaken for me, the prince underneath. And yet, maybe I was more me at that moment than I’d ever been before.
She waited and deserved, I felt, more than any answer I could give her.
I thought of home, of the stable of stark, white horses shod in silver, tasseled and bejeweled, that my father would parade throughout the grounds in celebration of my return. There would be a feast and loud toasting to my bravery, and I would impress the company with tales of my daring exploits. Much over-exaggerated boasting would accompany many pints of ale and flagons of wine. I would be robed in fur and soon thereafter a different parade would begin, that of female flesh before me, as though I was a slave-master about to choose his wares.
I looked from that to this, to her face all wrinkled from the time she’d spent with her cheek on a feathered pillow, hair damp from the night air and bones frozen from countless unprotected winters. Here was more finery than any my father’s court could provide.
I never realized how heavy it was, the burden of a princedom, and I, the youngest son with no choice but to carry all that weight. The vision of my future paled before me. I saw years spent in thrall to a wife I could not love, ending, eventually, with she and I in sadness and our lands spread out as barren as our bed.
It seemed to me in that twilit moment, as her pale eyes looked into mine, that my choice was made already, determined by a single, thoughtless kiss. As I stood there above her, caught in the roses that wrapped around her waist like a maiden’s belt, I saw another future wake just as she had.
The unfurled beauty, who had learned, perhaps, more in her dreaming than any prince could fathom while awake, smiled wan and slowly. “There is another way.”
I started, broken from my reverie of pomp and palaces, and shifted on my feet. Still speechless, it was my turn now to wait. I did not offer my assistance as she pulled herself upright and sat, gently, on the edge of her fraying bed. She did not seem to want my help, though how I knew this I could not say.
“I know,” she said, her voice a ruin from disuse, yet still more pleasant to my ears than any sound I’d heard. “I know why you woke me.”
Still I stood, like a dumb thing, confounded by the sense of time and wonder that suffused her, that surrounded both of us in this rotted chamber. I was growing weary, while she was come to life.
She reached under her pillow while I watched her every movement, slow and crooked, pained and hesitant, but beautiful to me. She pulled something out from beneath it. I could not see it in the fold of her hand, but she held it with reverence and her eyes lingered on it even after her palm had closed around it.
“Give me your finger,” she said, and I complied. Her hand felt like dried silk, her eyes gazed into mine and I saw in them something unfathomable, something as deep as the waters, something as black as the night, and then I felt a prick of pain. I drew my finger away and watched a drop of blood bloom on its tip like a rose in spring unfolding.
“I was once like you,” she said as I fought to keep my eyelids open and my vision focused on her face. “My future was determined before I was even born — a prince to marry, an heir to breed, and nothing left for me but the loneliness of queens — until fate intervened and another path was offered. You woke me for the very reason I once chose to sleep.”
I thought I saw her smile, more widely this time than she had before, but I could not be certain for my senses were as numb as hands uncovered in the cold. I almost felt her ease me to the bed and lay me back into the pillow. A fleeting memory of my father’s face crossed before my eyes, then all went dark. The last thing I knew as I fell asleep was the touch of her lips on mine — a glancing kiss, a hand on my brow, and the fading sound of a princess walking off into the distance.
Did I dream it all? I can’t remember. It comes to me in the shadows that line the room as my eyes attempt to focus on the figure kneeling by the bed. I feel parched, like a river dried up with drought, like a piece of cloth left in the desert, charred by the sun, and I can hardly move my fingers.
I see a woman. Slowly she takes shape, scarred and dirty at my side, her eyes on mine, a look of wonder on her face. I am confused; it seemed such a pleasant dream and I cannot understand why I’ve been disturbed. I part my lips and though I can hardly move my tongue, I have to ask.
“Why did you wake me?”
Somehow, I don’t expect her to have any answer.
[Header photo: Deux-Sèvres, France.]