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A Gray Princess

by Merrill Cole

With a smile as false as the teeth it reveals, Popo brings in the morning’s yellow flowers. In the light of dusk, the dull flowers never fully open but stand half-clenched, unable to show their secret faces and unwilling finally to shrink back into themselves. The Gray Princess knows this, no matter how Popo pretends they bring a sense of gaiety into the throne room. These and the wax fruit.

Popo says, “Very good morning, Your Highness,” with the high, affected tone the Princess always hears when a member of her court addresses her. As if it could be morning! The lands of the Princess linger in a state of perpetual dawn or twilight, where faces can never be bright and people don’t cast shadows.

Still, despite her protests, everyone insists on going about their business as if the sun rose and fell regularly. Every cottage in the kingdom has a sundial, to which its residents regularly refer. She knows that discussing these matters with Popo is a waste of time, as he will say something like “Your Majesty jests” or “As you like, of course, Princess.”

Talk with anyone at court is a continuing disappointment; and the nobles are, by custom, the only people allowed to appear in her immediate presence.

The incident with the mirrors proved this to her. The Princess noticed that every time she looked into the mirrors of the castle, she would see a lovely, spotlessly white princess who she knew was not her. The white princess smiled back at her when she frowned. The white princess wore white when the Princess was dressed, as always, in gray. More beautiful than any portrait by the flattering court painter, the sparkling young lady the Princess saw would doubtlessly collect countless suitors. The Princess attracted none.

After months of hiding her discovery from everyone, unwilling to expose herself to ridicule yet anxious to talk, the Princess visits Valan, the court sorcerer. Valan hears her nervous voice recount the story, without the slightest hint of expression on his smooth, jaundiced face. The Princess implores him to tell her what the apparition meant.

After a few moments of tense silence he says, “It is forbidden to gaze into the cauldron of the Black Witch.”

The Princess begs him to say more. Valan adds only, “Your life is the question. I cannot answer it.”

Who is the Black Witch? What does she do? Can she answer my questions? Do I want her answers? The Princess paces in large circles, while Popo beleaguers her: “Can I get you some candy, My Lady?” “Would Her Loveliness become happy if I brought in more flowers?”

The Princess asks Popo about the Black Witch. His answer mirrors those of other members of the court: “A young, pure girl should not concern herself with such awful things.”

Count Nipna gives the most intriguing response: “Be happy it is not the Black Witch that you stare at in your mirrors. So many have seen her.” The Princess stops looking in mirrors. She comes to see the members of the court as no more than distorted echoes of her own voice. They have nothing to add to her questions, for to do so would be to admit that the Princess actually has important concerns and that they are beings capable of holding real attitudes and thoughts.

A messenger comes into the throne room. Popo receives him ecstatically, as though the news he brings were of the utmost importance. There is something forced and out of kilter about the spring in his step as he leads the messenger to the Princess.

The Gray Princess knows what he has to tell her, but she remains quiet, with the ceremonial dignity in which she has learned to hide. The messenger unrolls a fake parchment scroll and announces in falsetto, “Greetings, Princess! His Majesty and Her Majesty the King and Queen most properly announce their upcoming arrival in this happy kingdom on Sunday. An overflowing of love precedes them.”

The Princess has never met her parents, but every week one such messenger comes to tell of their imminent arrival the following Sunday. So, every Sunday, the people of the kingdom dress in their best finery and await the Sovereigns. The Princess must stand at the central balcony and wave at common folk she has never met. No one arrives, but the Princess is obliged to stand until her feet grow weary. It is inappropriate for a princess to suffer physical exertion. I will not wait to go through that abominable spectacle again. I will not stay here any longer, thinks the Princess. While the court sleeps or pretends to sleep, she stumbles through the lower reaches of the castle.

Since none of the guards have seen her up close, she is able to pass freely. The filth she sees amazes her; in the heights of the castle, all is so polished that the edges of things have dulled. She does not pause to study the sordid halls, though somehow they seem inviting, more real than her chambers. She finds her way out onto the road and walks carefully toward the forest, where, she imagines, the Black Witch lives. In the forest she encounters shadows for the first time. They seem more assertive than anything she has ever seen, more present than the trees or the Princess herself. Popo and the others lied when they told her there were beasts of all sorts in the forest; the Princess neither hears nor sees them. She recalls Rirri the court painter’s pictures of noblemen riding strange animals through the woods. Rirri has a talent for seeing things that aren’t there, she muses.

The forest seems a pleasant place. The Princess notices all the shadows of the trees point in one direction. She decides this is the way to follow, for the forest has no paths or even footprints. The Princess begins to dance. To her mind come verses of songs she has never heard. She begins to sing aloud. There are no echoes. With a keen sense of anticipation, the Princess sights the Black Castle. It stands as though a thousand white armies could not pull it down. Its finely chiseled turrets and towers make the memory of her gray castle a phantom fading in her mind. She stops, afraid the guards will see her, and contemplates the impossibility of entrance.

The Princess decides she has no reason not to go further, for she cannot go back, and marches with resolve toward the black castle. The doors loom open and she enters.

There are no guards. In the center of the empty, dark ground floor is an elaborate spiral staircase opening like a huge, black flower. The Princess ascends slowly, getting accustomed to a circular movement that never seems to stop.

Undecipherable hieroglyphics carved into the shiny black stone commemorate kings whom no one remembers. She wonders if somewhere her father is mentioned, if one of the relief portraits is a figure of him.

The top of the staircase opens out onto a courtyard whose only ceiling is a black sky. The Princess turns to see the Black Witch standing over a steaming, boiling cauldron. The witch is very tall and very thin, obsidian, like the stairwell portraits. Her face is netted like a spider’s web; perhaps, the Princess thinks, the spider lives in her eyes. The witch’s exposed breasts sag over her belly. Her hands are gnarled like rotten fruit. She does not look up.

The Princess approaches slowly but with resolve. She expects the witch to strike her dead, but it does not matter. Suddenly, the Black Witch looks up with animated, dancing eyes. She smiles a toothless invitation to the Princess and beckons her to come closer, with a single, inhumanly long finger. This frightens the Princess: she is unprepared for such a reception. The witch continues to motion to the Princess to come closer, in a manner that makes the Princess want to run. But the Princess steels herself and comes closer.

The nearer she gets, the more the cauldron cools and the less she notices the retreating witch. When she reaches the edge of the cauldron, the witch is no longer there. The Princess peers into the cauldron and sees the placid image of her own face—not the mirage of the white princess. Although she finds she is gray and plain, the Princess is alive with the awareness that she finally grasps who she is. The clarity of the water in the cauldron is the newfound clarity of her mind.

The witch places her hand on the soft neck of the Princess. She cradles it; and with the gentlest touch, she languidly lowers the head of the Princess into the gray water.

Copyright © 2013 by Merrill Cole

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