Pricked

A long, long time ago there was a faraway kingdom. Views stretched out from the castle towers over hills and dales, towards a high mountain range that circled the realm. Because of its isolation the country was at peace and lives were harmonious and prosperous.

For all the wealth, there was one sorrow – the king and queen had no children, try as they might. The courtiers, keen to see their rulers happy, did all they could to distract them from their disappointment so the days were filled with games and tinkling laughter, with music, song and dance.

To escape the endless chatter and mindless distractions, the queen often took herself to the river where she had found a secluded rock pool. There she would lie, letting the water flow around her, gazing through half-closed eyes at the sky, the clouds and passing birds calling out to each other. The fish gently tickled her with their nibbling mouths. All tensions left her mind and body.

One hot afternoon in August she arrived to find a fish that had escaped his watery haven and was now lying gasping on the river bank. She saw in its struggle her own. She cupped her hands around it and returned it to the water. It floated on its side, seemingly lifeless while she crooned a song. Then it flicked its tail, regained its balance and swam slowly for a few moments before, much to the queen’s surprise, thanking her.

“Are you not coming to swim with me, my queen?” The queen shook off her robes and lowered herself carefully into the water. The fish swam around her, gently fanning her body with its waving tail and she felt herself relaxing.

“You are sad, my queen.”
“Oh, I am. But I did not think that a fish would know of sadness nor, indeed, of happiness, anger, frustration or disappointment.”
“There is much you do not know.”
“Indeed,” agreed the queen.
“So, what makes you sad?”
“Ah, I don’t expect you to understand. My husband and I long to have a child to love. Our lives remain incomplete and meaningless without one.”
“Even though your subjects depend on your good management and love you as their parents?”
“Yes, even though we care for our people.”

She relaxed even more as she opened herself up to her confidante while he nibbled here, stroked there and fanned his tail, creating small ripples that flowed around her body. The reflection of the setting sun in the water alerted her to the late hour. Hastily, she rose from the water.

“You have been kind, my queen, and saved my life. I understand your sadness and I know that your wish will be fulfilled. You will soon be blessed with a child, a daughter.”

The queen smiled sadly, thanked the fish and wondered how a fish could know.

The king was very anxious when she returned to the castle but at the same time relieved to see her so relaxed and radiant. She told him about her strange encounter with the fish. He looked at her in askance: “Hmmm,” he murmured.

He was surprised over the next months to see her body swell and cast his doubts aside as he shared her joy. When the baby was born, a little girl of such delicacy with skin almost the colour of rose-tinted pearls, his joy knew no bounds; he could barely draw his eyes away from mother and child and hovered protectively over them.

“We will have a celebration like no other,” he declared. “There will be a public holiday. We will show our child to the people and everyone will receive a gold sovereign. Here, in the castle, we will have a feast for the most important guests.”
“We shall invite the wise women, the fairies”, said the queen.
“But they will need special plates. I believe they only eat from gold platters and there are thirteen of them and we have only twelve.”
“We will invite those that live nearest. One lives very far away and it would be hard for her to come.”
“Hmm, I am unsure about that,” but when he saw is wife’s determination he relented and they planned for midsummer’s day “… when Rose will coo and laugh like a bird and show herself to be an early blossom to a beautiful bloom,” he said.

And so it was. Everybody of importance came with gifts and best wishes and all the citizens celebrated in the cities and towns. Towards the end of the banquet, after toasts, the fairies gathered around the crib to give their gifts: love, beauty, riches, intelligence, wisdom, loyalty, compassion, generosity, honesty, kindness, and prudence. Just as it came to the twelfth fairy’s turn, the door to the banquet room was flung open with great violence. The thirteenth fairy had arrived. Her face was twisted in anger and spite.

“You thought not to invite me. Instead you ignored me. I have never ignored you but have lived harmoniously with you, sharing my skills and benevolence. I shall leave this country for another but before I do, I too have a gift.” She looked down at the baby who reached her hands up to her. “It is not the one I would have conferred; it is the gift of a curse. This little princess will, at the age of fifteen, be pricked by a spindle and fall down dead.”

In the shocked silence she departed. The king, after a brief hesitation, regained his composure and tried to follow her but she had disappeared.

The twelfth fairy stepped forward. “I cannot undo the curse but I can soften it. This dear baby will grow and flourish but she will not die when pricked. Instead, she will fall into a deep sleep until she is woken up by a prince who will love and care for her as she will him.”

Only slightly mollified, the king and queen determined to have all the spindles and needles gathered together and burned. They also banned all importation of such items, thus destroying a very lucrative textile industry.

Everyone loved Rose and vied with one another to stay close to her, further ensuring the king’s command that she should never be left alone and always be protected. To the surprise of all, however, in her fourteenth year, Rose expressed restlessness and frustration. She would stand on the highest turret and gaze at the countryside that stretched out to the distant mountains. Her imagination was pricked by what she saw. She wondered what lay beyond the castle. She wanted to know about the people she saw passing by the castle walls. She envied the couples seen wandering hand in hand, chatting and laughing. She wanted to join them.

On her fifteenth birthday, while preparations for the celebration were underway, she escaped to explore a flight of steps she had recently discovered but had been prevented from exploring some days before. “Can I never be left alone?” she had exclaimed, stamping her foot, to the surprise of the courtier who discovered her as she was about to mount them.

“But your highness, we are instructed to never leave your side.”
“Bother instructions! Bother you and my mother and my father! Indeed, bother everyone!” And she flounced to her chamber and slammed the door shut pointedly.

Now, free, she followed the narrow, dank, and steep steps, up and up through the darkness. At the very top was a door, its rusty iron key in the lock. Clearly no one had been here for a while. She turned the key and the door swung open. She was wrong: someone had been there and still was.

In the small, round and comfortably furnished room, a woman sat on a low seat with a wheel and a spindle, spinning the wool from a basket at her side into fine thread.

“Oh, I am sorry. I did not expect to find anyone in here.”
“No, my dear, nobody knows. I am forgotten.”

The princess regarded her with clear envy before exclaiming: “What a lovely room and look at the view and how the light comes through your narrow windows to arrive at the centre where you sit working away. What is it that you are working so hard at?”
“It is not work but pleasure – the pleasure of making something fine that in turn will be made into fine cloth. I am spinning.”

The princess sat on a nearby sofa and watched mesmerised as the woman worked.

“Is it very hard?” she eventually asked.
“There is a knack to it; it is a skill.”
“Can you teach me?”
“Of course,” and the woman slowed the wheel down and explained how to operate it together with the spindle so that they worked together to create the thread.

After a while the princess asked: “May I try?”
“Be careful, my dear, because you can prick yourself and spoil the thread with your blood.”
“Oh, I shall be very careful,” and Rose took the spindle and sat at the wheel while the woman prepared a tray for tea.

Rose kept spinning, lost in a reverie.

“A cup of tea, my dear?” The woman’s voice cut through Rose’s thoughts, startling her. Her hand slipped as did the spindle that pricked her. Immediately she fell into a deep sleep as if lifeless.

Slowly sleep slipped down the stairs and spread throughout the castle freezing everyone mid action including the blow the cook intended for an errant kitchen hand. Only the roses in the garden seemed to be awake. Over the seasons they grew, untended, reverting to their wild ways, clambering across walls and spilling over one another in the ecstasy of being uncontained and undisciplined.

It was not only the roses that lived. Dreams also inhabited and thrived in the sleeping minds of the castle inhabitants. Everyone dreamed, including Rose. She dreamt of a young man she had glimpsed as she gazed out from the window of the small forgotten room. She knew he had also seen her because he had lifted his hand to her. He too, far away, dreamed of her and their dreams became, like the roses, entwined, pricking the sleeping imaginations.

Stories of the beautiful princess also pricked the imaginations of other young men who dreamed of awakening her. No matter how brave and determined they were however, the roses scratched them and held them in prickly embraces, taunting them with their fragrant beauty. Time continued to pass and the young man continued to dream of the princess and she of him and their dreams became infused with those of the sleeping king and queen and their courtiers, the servants and all who slept including the dogs and the cats, horses, cows, pigs and poultry, even the rats and the mice.

The young man made excuses to pass the castle and each time he stared beyond the clambering roses, now flagged with blood stained rags of unsuccessful fortune seekers, looking for evidence of life within the castle.

“Is there a way through?” he asked the old couple who lived on the other side of the highway.
“There is a spell,” said the old woman.
“Only the right man can penetrate the growth,” added the old man.
“Who would be the right man?”
“One who cares to know the princess; one who can unlock her imagination and love.”
“I think I can do that. I know her dreams.” The old woman looked at him quizzically and smiled a secret smile.
“That is a bold assertion,” said the old man. “We all think that we know someone without knowing that we hardly know them at all.”
“You may be right. Perhaps like all the others before me, I shall fail because of my presumption – that I do not really know her and her dreams. I shan’t know until I try.”

The young man found an inn and reconnoitred the perimeter of the castle to establish the best place to make his attempt.That night he and the princess dreamed of sharing their secrets, of riding together and walking through the woods, hand in hand.

The next morning he dressed himself and his horse in thick leather. He sharpened his sword and placed it in its scabbard. He also sharpened a small scythe so he could cut through the brambles more easily. Young branches were shooting from the hard thorny older ones. These were softer and more flexible. Buds were forming, some ready to burst into bloom.

Up in the tower, the princess dreamed of his approach.

After hours of careful cutting back, the young man broke through the tangled growth. There in front of him towered the castle. All was quiet except for the call of a cuckoo.

He rested beneath an apple tree. He was in no hurry; after all, he had waited many years for this moment. He found some water, washed himself and attended to his horse. He stepped across the threshold. A dog whimpered and a cat flicked its tail. He bent down and stroked the dog’s head. The dog lifted its head and wagged its tail, stood up and licked the man’s hand. It leapt forward. The man followed through the silent, sleeping rooms to the flight of stairs. Together they climbed the steep, damp smelling steps. The dog whined at the door and the man turned the rusty key. He stepped into the room, bright with sunlight, where a beautiful woman lay asleep on the sofa.

He looked down on her face and marvelled at her familiarity. He sat on the nearby chair and reached to touch her face gently. She stirred but did not wake up. He took her hand and held it, stroking it while he called her name. Still she did not wake. He knelt beside her and brushed his lips across her face before resting them on hers. She moaned and slowly opened her eyes. They looked at each other and smiled. The dog yapped.

Downstairs, people in the castle drew in deep breaths, stretched, opened their eyes before commencing their interrupted tasks and wondered about a strange strangeness.

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