A kiss from a prince was the only cure for such a terrible tragedy. That was what they said, back then. They had the idea from Snow White (the official version of events, anyway – I met her once and she had a very different story to tell…) So the news was spread, far and wide, that a princess was in need of saving, by the lips of a handsome young fellow with a crown. But this situation was far worse than little old Snow White – this time, not just one princess was asleep, but a king and queen and a whole palace of party go-ers. That’s a lot of work for one kiss. And anyway, none of them came anywhere near: it seemed like there weren’t any brave, strong young princes out there who wanted to try their luck with a witch’s curse.
Apparently everyone thought it sounded like a lot of nonsense back then: who believes in curses? In our day and age? All that old magic, back from the ancient times – it had no place in our lands. That’s what everyone thought. Until it happened. They thought it was just meaningless words, spilling from the spittle-spattered lips of a crazy old woman, someone who had had too much wine at the naming ceremony. She was angry at not being invited, but crashed the party anyway – that’s what had happened. The word was that she had crept in, disguised as a servant, and had chosen the moment, just as the priestess was anointing the baby’s head with the sacred oil, to start mouthing her incantation, quietly at first, then louder and louder and louder, so that the priestess stopped her own words and everyone looked at the witch. She had stopped speaking in her own language and now spoke so that she could be understood by all:
“Leave me out, would you? Seek to exclude me? Then I curse that baby! You think she’s going to grow up? I’ll show you! A needle will prick her finger, and send her to sleep – eternal sleep!”
The baby’s parents, being the king and queen, obviously did not want to lose face to some old woman in rags. In front of their many, rather unsettled guests, they laughed her off and simply had her escorted out of the building. Within them, between them, however, it was clearly a different story. Their little child, their own darling Beauty, she could have no harm come to her. She was to be kept far away from any needle, indeed, needles were banned from the palace altogether. All clothes had to be brought in, ready-made; tapestry and embroidery were forbidden. As it turned out, the young princess, as she grew older, had no interest in such things anyway – she far preferred archery and sword-play. This didn’t much please her parents, but it was safer than sewing, so they grudgingly allowed her to follow her own tastes.
And they did love her, after all. As she approached the age for marrying, suitors were sent from all corners of the kingdom, and although they may have wanted her to seal an allegiance here or restore trade there, Beauty’s parents allowed her to stay unmarried.
“One day, your prince will come, my child,” her mother was heard to tell her, more than once.
“I don’t know about that, mother,” was, as I understand it, her usual reply.
They did love her, after all. When she reached the age of eighteen, they threw her a great birthday party. It was also, for the king and queen, an enormous relief to have had their precious daughter survive to adulthood, free from the curse of the witch, a curse which was never far from the back of their minds. They had done it! Now, for the first time in eighteen years, they could relax a little.
Many were invited to the celebration, from far and wide and from closer to home too. Some of the working people of the village were invited – my parents among them. I was only tiny at the time, but I came along too, so small I was half-carried by my parents in my very best dress. I don’t recall much about the party at all, and memories are mixed up with mythology anyway: who can say if what I remember is the truth or not? There was definitely a band playing. There was definitely dancing. And there was certainly cake. Strange that cake is my strongest recollection, given all the events of the night, but, as a four year old, I suppose cake was more interesting to me than sleeping princesses. Or sleeping kings, or sleeping queens. Or a whole palace full of sleeping people.
My parents were clever enough to notice what was happening and get away – just in time – from the effects of the curse. My mother had laughed at my father’s superstition before that night, according to his version of events. She was going to stay when the witch appeared; she wasn’t frightened. Father insisted, happily, or else we would have been with the sleeping crowds still, and I would have been trapped as a four year old. That would have been a terrible tragedy, and not just for me. As it turns out, I was something of a saviour. And nobody was expecting that.
And so, my childhood was spent in avoidance of the sleeping palace. Nobody went anywhere near it, in case they were touched by the curse. A lot of people were lost on that night, but we survivors got on with our lives, made the best of the situation we had been left with. The lack of a king and queen certainly didn’t trouble us much; we lived a good life, if truth be told. Our land was never troubled by other armies either: the witch’s curse was too frightening for any outsiders to come near. Perhaps that is why no one ever tried to wake them; why no princes ever arrived, crowns polished, lips puckered.
It was certainly not my plan to be brave. It was just a silly dare.
My eighteenth birthday party was not exactly a lavish, princess-y affair, but it was just as memorable, just as important too, dare I say. The banner was raised in the barn: “Happy Birthday Trezi!”; the musicians among us played and there was definitely dancing. And cake, of course there was cake. At the end of the evening, the music eventually stopped and everyone’s parents went home, while we stayed together, my friends and I, drinking ale and talking nonsense. It was late, very late, when the game began.
Truth or dare.
There were five of us left awake and the questions were ridiculous, as far as I remember. “Who do you love?” “Have you ever…?” No, I hadn’t ever. Loved, I mean. Besides, truth can become boring when you know each other so well; dares would be more fun.
Kiss a cow. (She was just outside the barn, old Gertrude – easy enough.) Bare your backside to the sky. (When the rest of the world is still sleeping – hardly a challenge.) Drink your own? (No way, a dare too far!) But I didn’t want to be the one to fail first, not on my birthday. I asked for an extra challenge. Extra tough. (Without involving urine.) The extra challenge was given. Enter the sleeping palace.
“I’ll do it!”
They wouldn’t actually have thought I was going to do the dare. They wouldn’t actually have meant it. But something told me I was going to. I remember thinking – correctly as it turned out – that the curse was too old to affect anyone else now. That it was just superstition that kept us away. That I was an adult now and I was brave. That if I wanted my life to be different, now was the time to start showing it.
“Yeah! Enter the palace!” said my droopy-eyed friend, “And kiss the princess! Break the curse! Ha ha ha ha!” They erupted into drunken laughter.
“If you can kiss a cow, you can kiss a sleeping princess!”
“She’s probably nothing but bones now anyway!”
“Kiss the skeleton! Kiss the skeleton!”
My friends were working themselves up into a state of hysteria. It didn’t seem funny to me, though. “I said, I’ll do it!”
It being a full moon, we were lit brightly enough to make our way: there we were, an unlikely bunch of farmer’s children and trainee blacksmiths, four of us still wobbling and lurching down the overgrown path that led to the sleeping palace. I felt altogether more alert and sober as the building grew closer. Even my friends stopped their giggling and foolish talk as we neared the ivy-covered gates. Saria, my oldest and closest friend turned to me then and whispered, “You’re not actually going to go in, are you? You know this is all just a game, don’t you? Don’t be stupid, Trezi!”
“Wait for me, Saria. I’m going in.”
They didn’t try very hard to stop me climbing over the gate. I don’t think that they could believe their eyes, as they saw me clambering up the ivy branches, jumping over the top and landing on the other side. The cursed side.
“Alright, Trezi, enough now!” Saria looked terrified. The others stopped laughing and looked deadly serious.
“She’s right!” the others said, “Don’t be an idiot!” But something told me to ignore them, to complete the dare.
“Just wait there – I won’t be long!” And I strode off to the palace doors. Looking back now, I can’t say what kind of crazy bravado had taken hold of me, that night. But I’m glad it did, I can say that. I just walked right up and opened the doors. The hinges were a little stiff, but there was no lock, and the ivy was not strong enough to stop me. Moonlight poured in through the large corridor windows, allowing me to see one of the sleeping party-goers just in time to avoid tripping over him. Where he was, sleeping and cobwebbed, there were another three, four, five, ten people – still dressed in their dusty, best clothes, almost completely still but for the smallest of movements indicating breathing. They were still alive.
“Hello,” I said, quietly at first. (This was an unsettling experience and I had no idea what these people would say or do if they did wake up.) Not one of them stirred. “Hello!” I said again, louder this time. Still they slept. I even found the courage to give the first sleeping man a little nudge with my foot. Nothing. But then, nothing had happened to me either: I was wide awake, as far from sleep as I had ever been, there, in the palace of sleep, in the epicentre of all sleep. The curse would not touch me. This realisation encouraged me onwards, to find the sleeping princess; to do what I had come to do.
At the end of the long corridor (and past many more well-dressed sleepers), were double doors. I threw them open and saw the ballroom. Skylit by cupolas and sidelit by wide windows, the scene was silver and grey and white. A stage at one end of the room held a small orchestra of sleeping musicians, huddled over their violins, pipes and drums. At the other end of the room was a great table, covered with the last signs of food-platters, contents long since perished. That was where the cake I remembered would have been. Mould, just like the spiders whose webs draped the palace, did not sleep.
There were the king and queen, their crowns slipped to the diagonal as they slumped on their thrones. How silly to wear a crown. How pretentious to sit on a throne. Maybe waking them up was not the smartest thing to do, I thought, but I had come so far, I wasn’t going to stop.
And there, lying at their feet, was Beauty. It could only have been her – I knew it straight away.
I stopped breathing. Staring at her, I fell under a different spell; not the work of a bitter old witch, but the magic of the heart. Beauty – a name I had secretly thought ridiculous – was the only name for such a face. Those princes were fools! If I had stopped too long to think about it, I know I would have walked away, terrified. What did I know about kissing? I hadn’t ever wanted to kiss any of the village boys, pushed them away if they tried. But I was overtaken by the moment, and I followed my instincts. Wiping the traces of ale and cow from my mouth, I stepped closer. A cloud passed over the moon and a shadow fell on the sleeping room. I knelt at the side of Beauty and brushed the cobwebs from her as gently as if I had been stroking the head of a new-born baby. I bent over her face. I was so close, I could feel her soft breath against my mouth. I closed my eyes. And I kissed her.
I opened my eyes and the room was filled with light. Still so close, I saw the first twitch of her eyes. Drawing back, I saw her eyes opening. She saw me. And smiled. Even thinking of it now makes my stomach jump and my heart flutter! I smiled back. She sat up slowly, not taking her eyes off me, beautifully awake. And then she leaned forward and did something I was not expecting. She kissed me.
As for what happened next, well, I suppose you could say rather a lot happened next. But that is really for another story. What can be told now is that the rest of the palace awoke and the curse was broken. Not the kiss of a prince, but rather true love’s kiss, was the cure for endless sleep. Who believes in true love? In this day and age? We do. Beauty and I believe.