FROM ONCE UPON A TIME UNTIL THE END
They had procured, in advance of the birth, a good fairy godmother, one of the best. Nothing could exceed what the heir to the benevolent throne deserved. But the Monster had grown so strong. And no one had expected twins. At least not the king, or the queen, or their court. If Saebeth had suspected she did not say. By the time they were aware, it was too late, the prince arriving before the princess gathered the breath to voice her first cry.
Of course I asked Claire to read me the story. My eyes are not what they used to be, and I would take no chances. I am grateful that there are still enough kind people who make allowances for the old, and a few who genuinely enjoy us, who believe we have something to offer, something they can glean from our many years. The best I can do is advise them to make the most of whatever life brings, even if I rarely say it outright. But those who take the time to listen, hear.
Yesterday was my birthday. One century had not surprised me. Nor has this feeling that the end is suddenly closer. I know, at 103, I have turned to the final page. Poor Claire, I think she believes I will be with her forever. To her I have always been old. Ancient. Beyond the bounds of mortality.
“No matter how many times I read it, the ending never changes.”
Claire always knew better than to think “happily ever after” was a reasonable conclusion, but she still prefers happy endings. We both, however, love the book. My daughter read it when she was young. And each of her children. And then theirs. Each generation outgrew it. I knew what that was like. But I had come back. Though it would be more accurate to say it came back to me. Claire never quite left it, and never lost her childish hope that someday, somehow, the end would be one that would make her smile.
“Claire… what about the princess?” I had always hesitated to ask her, to ask any of them, to look beyond the confines of the pages, to consider what story could have begun when the princess was transported out of her world, out of everything she had known, when she was rescued from her fate.
“What story do you think she would have written for herself with the new beginning she was given?”
“One without monsters,” Claire answers.
I wait until her eyes meet mine. I hold her gaze.
“One where she knows she can fight the Monster herself.”
That’s my girl. I know what I need to do.
As they had expected, but hoped would not be, a terrified subject arrived during the celebration of the twins’ twenty-second birthday. The Queen paled at the name of the latest village to fall. Her memories of the place were not pleasant. A world away from the palace, but not so far that a beautiful young woman could not catch the eye of a prince too close to exceeding the bounds of an acceptable age to acquire a bride. Even his mother could not object when the girl in rags was miraculously endowed with the ability to restore the family’s fortune.
Another village lost. They would not be able to hold the Monster off much longer.
The reluctant messenger fulfilled his obligation, delivered the dreaded message. The Monster would arrive at the palace the following day to claim what had been promised.
“Claire, could you take me down to the oak tree tomorrow?”
“Sure, Gram,” she says. “Though I have to work until 2:00, so it will have to be after that.”
Perhaps I will have to get myself down to the oak tree.
The princess and the prince made their way as quickly as they could through the darkening wood. They trusted Saebeth. Though they could not understand why Saebeth trusted The Gray One. Was it true she was the oldest of the fairies? It was hard for them to judge the age of creatures so long-lived they seemed immortal compared to the simpler creatures of the kingdom. They did know that in their twenty-two years, and through the lives of their parents and grandparents before them, not a single fairy had died.
“She does not belong to the Darkness,” Saebeth said over her shoulder, reassuring them once again.
But that was not a secret. The Gray One saw no need for loyalties. She was powerful enough she need not fear the Monster. She helped him when it served her purpose. She had no desire to control others, of her own kind or lesser. She had no need to conquer. She wanted only to keep what was hers, and be left alone. She helped humans, and more often animals, when it amused her.
“She loves nothing outside herself but to be by herself. She is curious about what others are willing to do to save what they love."
That she had in common with the Monster.
I wake at dawn, and make my slow way. He is waiting, as I knew he would be.
He had not come last year.
Still young, still glowing with it. But he looks so tired. I do not remember how it feels to inhabit such a body. I know it was good. But I would never trade this worn shell for a chance to be young again, not if meant unliving my story. I have earned every wrinkle, every scar. They are mine, as are my memories, and my family.
The book became mine when I was thirty.
“I think it’s time you had this,” he had said. I had not seen him for five years.
“You moved too far from the trees.” Like every other nonsensical thing he ever said to me, it made perfect sense even if I could not tell why.
Enough time had passed that I could not deny the impossible. Somehow I had become older than the young man who had read to me from a beautiful book for as long as I could remember.
“I remember the first time you read to me,” I had said all those years ago.
He smiled as we held the book between us.
“You will have to watch me grow old, won’t you?” He nodded. “And die.”
“I did not understand,” he replied. “But she promised you many years, and I thought I could find a way to bring you back.”
“But that was not part of the bargain.”
“What will happen to you?”
“I suppose there will come a day when the book is forgotten, and no one reads it again. Until then...”
When I told Claire yesterday that my brother used to read the story to me, as I used to read it to her, but he only read it to me a few pages at a time, she just patted my hand. She knew the beginning of my story: abandoned alone on a farmhouse doorstep in a tiny community grief-racked by the Spanish flu.
Claire never had to wait a year until the day after her birthday to hear more.
"Far away from here, in a land you could not imagine, you will start over. You will begin again. With no memory of this place. You will never return. Not even in your mind."
He never read past the part where the Gray One kept her promise to the princess. But I did. At times I remember the lines of the story more clearly than the details my loved ones expect me to keep track of, appointments, meal times, pills, the dismissive young doctor’s name.
I know that at midnight the Darkness slipped into the palace, searched it from bottom to top and back again. It did not find the princess. At dawn it took its form of the Monster to warn those of the royal family who remained that it would be back the next year, and he expected to find the one who was gone returned, ready to be turned over to him.
The next year, after the Monster sent its latest conquered messenger to remind them that their time was up to have the princess back and ready for him, the prince fell asleep the night of his 23rd birthday despite himself, with the Monster’s threat reverberating.
"If I do not receive what is mine, Dear Queen, no one of your lineage will ever take the throne."
The prince woke the next morning beneath an oak tree, in a different land. He was lost, and confused, but hungry. He went searching for some breakfast. What he found was a farm. And the kind wife of a farmer, who had a beautiful daughter who had just turned one.
But you will not find that in the book.
“At midnight, the Darkness again slipped into the palace, searched it from bottom to top and back again. Again it did not find the princess. It killed you in your sleep,” I told him a few years after I first read his story, when I thought he was ready to hear it.
He was not surprised.
“Every night at the end of my day in your world, I fall asleep, and when I come to realization, I am living it all over again. Once again we grow up together. The Monster’s darkness spreads. Saebeth leads us to the Gray One. We make our bargains.”
All these years. A never-ending stunted story.
“Saebeth and I are the only ones who ever realize,” he says. “We’re the only ones who know we are living the same story over and over and over again.”
“You have watched me grow old.” He nods. “And soon I will die.” He looks away.
“The book… will enter Claire’s safe keeping?” I watch thoughts rove across his face and out over the horizon. “I believe it must be the last copy,” he says with a crooked smile.
I imagine him waking under the oak tree a year from now. With nothing but a gravestone to visit, he would wait alone until sleep sent him back to his Once Upon a Time once again.
“No festivities this year, I see.”
The Queen had always detested its voice, even when she had needed its words.
It’s a beautiful day. The day after my birthday tends to be.
Claire has been let off work early, and finds us in the chairs I always keep down by the oak tree.
She sees him. I have always wondered if I was the only one with the right eyes.
“You made a promise you failed to keep. You stole your firstborn away. So I have taken the life of your second. Perhaps I was hasty. There is no bargaining power in a dead prince, is there? Today I will take your king. You have one year to bring back the princess you promised me. If you fail to bring her back and give me what is mine when I return with your beloved king next year, you will watch him die, and I will take your throne."
Claire makes us a picnic.
The sky is the bluest I have ever seen. All the foods Claire has brought us, the strawberries in particular, taste as magnificent as I can ever recall.
A single cloud crosses the sun in the late afternoon. His face darkens in its shadow.
“It is not the story it should have been, is it?”
I do not answer.
“I will not lose my throne!” the Queen shrieked.
Saebeth remained silent. The Monster had little power to harm the fey, but well knew how a human could bind them. He knew what caused them pain. In the gloom of the dungeon the Queen had learned for herself that fairy’s blood glows violet.
“You will bring her back from wherever you have hidden her!”
Soon enough night falls. We say our goodbyes.
“When did we last have a bonfire?” I ask Claire as we make our slow way toward the house. “Perhaps tomorrow would be perfect.”
“Two days! Leave her be for two days. Even the fairies are mortal, and I will not let the wretched creature die until she gives me what I need! Bring her some water. Tie her back up!”
The morning dawns gray, and I hope it does not rain. Claire has perfectly prepared the fire pit. Everyone who can is coming, and it is most of them. I know they fear it will be the last time I call them all together.
The clouds give way before evening, and everyone is in good spirits despite my impending demise.
The children are distracted with flames and sharp sticks, with marshmallows and chocolate and graham crackers. The younger adults are distracted keeping the young safe amidst the same. The older ones sit in their chairs and chat, or doze, or reminisce.
Claire goes up to the house for me, and, when she comes back, we sit quietly for a moment, side by side on the far side of the fire.
I run my hand over the oddly unworn cover of the book but resist the urge to open it for one last look at the illustrations. They are brighter in my memory than my eyes can see, anyway. And I would hate for any of the rest of our family to notice us there with the treasured book, to realize what we are about to do, and once again question my competence.
My arms are old, and the book has become so heavy. I pass it back to Claire.
Darkness covered the kingdom. East to west. North to south.
Claire gets as close as she can to the fire, then gently drops the book we love into the flames.
Back at my side, she takes my hand in her soft warm own. I turn to look at this amazing lovely great-granddaughter of mine.
About the author
How our minds work. How we relate to others and our world.
People are fascinating, There are stories everywhere.
Personal essay. Poetry. Fiction.
I'm putting it all out there here. Let's see where it goes.