Yes, yes, the princess is locked in the tower. But the story as you’ve heard it is lacking in several crucial details, details which you may want to listen to, if you are truly interested in rescuing her.
First of all, the princess locked herself in the tower. And the tower is not some isolated, mysterious prison in the middle of the woods. It is not covered with thorns or guarded by crystalline bats or cursed with dark magic. It is a library tower, growing out of the King’s castle like an extra limb. The princess’s grandfather had an inordinate fondness for books, and his collection expanded past the bounds of the old, stately library, until the wide staircase in the tower was lined with bookshelves, from top to bottom.
—But why would the princess lock herself in a tower full of books?—
Ah, well, clearly you’ve never had a love affair with the written word. I suppose I shall have to tell you the whole story.
Her father was a vampire (or at least he believed himself to be one). At night he would creep into her room and slice her skin open with a pearl-edged straight razor. She would lie there, trembling, awake, her eyes clenched tightly shut as if she by will alone she could enter the oblivion of sleep, as he squeezed her blood out into his golden cup. In the morning, they would sit across from each other at the breakfast table, as if what had transpired the night before had taken place in another world. In that world, the night world, she was a pale-faced princess and he a dark-hearted king but in the cold light of morning, at the table with the cereal and the two percent milk she was just a moping teenage girl and he was just a stoic repairman. Her mother, no longer the queen, never commented on the rust colored stains on the sheets.
She spent more and more time locked in her room, devouring books as if she were starving. After dark, when her room became the library tower, she searched out the secret texts of sorcery, and witchcraft. She read ancient books which crumbled to dust beneath her fingertips, forcing herself to memorize each page as it was lost forever. She deciphered scrolls which were filled with nothing but mysterious symbols, not knowing if she were uncovering their true, hidden meanings or inventing her own secret language. She learned blasphemous mythologies and sacred curses. In this way, she taught herself how to make the golem.
She stole a dozen eggs from the pantry, and mixed up a precise, forbidden combination of spices. She ground her own hair into flour, and cracked open the bones of wild birds to let their marrow flow into the batter like milk. She baked the batter for thirteen hours and when it came out of the oven it was like clay.
She molded this clay cake with her hands into a muscular, androgynous shape. She gave the golem a simple, smiling face. She carved out ears, and then whispered a secret story into the golem’s ear, which brought it to life.
—What was the story?—
Do you know what the word secret means? My dear hero, I don’t know the story and if I did, and if I told you, the golem would collapse into a pile of strangely scented brown dough. True friends of the princess would seek to avoid such an outcome, I suspect.
Her mother had once been a beauty queen but now a scar ran across her cheek like a banner. The neighbors whispered that she had scratched her own cheek (“That deeply—with her fingernail.”) but the family never discussed it, around their circular table. She smoked long cigarettes, absentmindedly ashing them into her cold coffee, which she drank nonetheless.
She spent her days burning dinner and gazing longingly into the tropical fish tank.
After the sun had set, she became a queen again but was no less tragic for it. Her people had been conquered and her necklace, although beautifully crafted, was a slave collar.
Her people whispered to each other about revolution; their eyes darted back and forth ceaselessly seeking out opportunities, their hands committed countless tiny acts of mutiny. Most of them were waiting for some kind of sign or signal from their queen. They watched her faithfully, but night after night she sat silent on her throne, acquiescing.
One night a fortuneteller came to the castle.
The king called out, his voice low with anger, “Begone! I will not suffer a witch to remain in my castle!” The fortuneteller bowed and spun around, walking out in silence. But the queen sent word through one of her ladies-in-waiting, and met with the fortuneteller in the garden after the king had fallen asleep.
In the garden, the fortuneteller took off the cloth wound round her hair, revealing wildness beneath; her hair was knotted with braids, and adorned with tiny statues, ribbons, shells, bits of bone and wood. She set down the cloth unto the grass and, under the full moon bulging like a mother’s belly, began to lay out her cards.
“Ah,” she said, looking up at the queen with a knowing glint in her eyes. “Tonight one of the royal family has given birth.”
“No,” the queen said, frowning. “I am sure that you must be mistaken.”
The fortuneteller grunted in response, and drew another card. “Secrecy hovers over the birth, like an anxious midwife.”
The golem crouched down like an animal, bending its legs like a frog. “Eyes,” it croaked. “You must bring me eyes.”
The princess frowned. “None of my books,” she muttered, “mentioned eyes.” To the golem, she said, “But I shaped your eyes with my own hands.”
“Holes,” the golem croaked. “I need eyes to fill them.”
And, unbidden, the image of her brother’s eyes, which were a shining violet, as wondrous as a rare sunset, came into her mind, their color polished and enhanced by envy. Her brother was older than she and had left home some years before.
“My brother has lovely eyes,” she said. “I will send you to him, and hope that he will grant you his eyes as a gift to me. He has always been very kind.”
“How many eyes does he have?”
“Just two,” the princess admitted. She frowned and paced the room. “I could offer him an exchange. Perhaps… my own eyes?” The golem nodded along with her. “But!” Her hand flew to her chest. “How could I read?” She paced back and forth in front of the rows and rows of books. The golem’s head hung down, as if it were looking at the floor with its hollow eyesockets.
“I could pluck out the eyes of a blackbird and wear them as my own,” the princess thought out loud. And so she did.
The golem set off into the forest, the princess’s eyes on the ends of two brown fingers, which wriggled like antennae. The whites of the eyes seemed to glow like fireworms in the night darkness of the woods.
“My, my,” said a voice from nowhere, “what brings a gingerbread man bearing the eyes of a princess into these dark and spooky woods?” The voice giggled. Somehow, it managed to be both deep and high, like notes issued forth from a huge flute, as large as a log.
“Who are you?” the golem said stoutly, moving the hand with the eyes in slow, sweeping circles as if dancing with its fingers.
“I think the better question would be,” the voice said, growing nearer with each word, “Who are you?” And the voice belonged to a figure, tall, wearing an elegant dress with a long train which, miraculously, was not covered with twigs or leaves. Its face was obscured by a grinning mask which grew upwards into horns and downwards into a handle, which it held with one hand.
“You don’t have a name,” the being said, “I can smell it. Your princess, apparently, did not bother to give you one. Now—” Impossibly, the grin on the mask grew wider “—why would she neglect to do something so important? Perhaps she only sees you as a tool, as a useful object. But I can see, my dear gingerbread man, that you are so much more than that.”
“I am a golem,” the golem said, “not a ginger . . . gingerbread man. The princess gave me life, which is the greatest gift possible. I will always serve her to the best of my ability.”
“How loyal of you,” the being said. “Clearly, it would be utterly without worth for me to mention how valuable a princess’s eyes are, or the varied and splendid magical treasures you could get in exchange for just one of them: for example, the shining fins of a sea serpent which become utterly majestic wings once freed from the weight of so much water. (Sea serpents, you know, are dragons who have forgotten how to fly.) But perhaps you would be interested in learning the truth about the princess’s situation, and how your current mission is hardly in her best interest.”
“I don’t trust you,” the golem said. “You’re wearing a mask. I won’t believe anything you say.”
“I’m not wearing a mask,” the being said. And it was true. The golem was perplexed as to how it could have thought otherwise; the being’s face was smooth, and androgynous. It’s eyes were perfect circles of darkness surrounded by golden light, as if it were a saint.
“The princess,” the being began, “is in a state of intolerable pain. Her father is torturing her every night. She has constructed an elaborate fantasy world to protect herself, but this is not enough.” For a moment, the forest flickered off and the golem was a figment of imagination listening to a calm, reasoned professional in an office full of light, a beacon of reason in a world of murk. Then the forest returned, easy as a wink. “So she has summoned you to protect herself. She thinks she can escape but she cannot; even if she were to leave that house, the pain would haunt her; it has taken root inside her, residence, and she is the haunted house now. She created you so that you would cause her suffering to stop, but there is only one way you can do that.”
“Look,” the golem said. The being seemed already to be shrinking. “I was literally born today but even I can see the hole in your story.” The mask had returned, and the being was rapidly becoming smaller and smaller. “If the princess is delusional and this entire world is her fantasy, how can I be standing here talking with you? Who am I, in your story?”
“You are her,” the being said, its voice squeaky now. “Or at least—” But all it could do now was make bird noises. Its luscious hair had turned to feathers and its long gown to a lizard tail, but the mask remained. It still held the horned grin in front of its face, and thus the golem could not tell if it bore a human nose or a beak or a flicking lizard’s tongue. The strange thing chattered angrily at the golem for a moment, and then it turned, hopped, and disappeared.
The fortuneteller frowned down at the card she had drawn. She looked up at the queen, at her dark eyes, and then quickly away. She bit her lip. She sighed, and said, “There is an overabundance of pain darkening this house, like heavy, stubborn clouds.”
The queen smiled wryly and tilted her head, saying, Yes, I know.
Encouraged by this response, the fortuneteller laid down another card. “This house must crumble. It is a tower with a rotten foundation. It is already collapsing.”
The queen replied, in a treacherously soft voice, “Is there no way to save the tower? Nothing to hold unto?”
The fortuneteller drew another card. “The winds tonight are restless and mighty, able to toss around islands and castles like sand. Much can change.” As if in illustration, the images on the cards began to ripple. She gasped. “This has never—”
The queen now had a long scar on one cheek, and held a burning cigarette in one hand. The two sat at a booth in a greasy all night dinner, the changing cards laid out between them.
“But it’s night time!” the fortuneteller protested. She eyed the omelette in front of her warily, as if it might spring into attack.
“Close your eyes,” the queen whispered, and they were back in the garden.
“Now,” the queen said, her voice carrying the dark, polished strength of obsidian, “a witch such as yourself must surely be able to coax the winds to blow this way or that, no?” She smiled coldly.
“I have no such power,” the fortuneteller said, frantically trying to ascertain the new pattern, the new story, emerging from the mutated cards.
“You are asking me to believe,” the queen demanded, “that it is nothing more than coincidence that a foreign witch appears at the castle the very night that such portentous winds blow? You must know that I, and my husband the King, are no fools.”
“There are no coincidences,” the fortuneteller replied, distractedly. Trouble, the cards were whispering, boxes and locks, run away quick. She reached her hand out to the cards, to draw another one or to gather them up, but the queen seized her wrist in an iron grip.
“You spun this fate, witch. You must unspin it, or I will see you rot in the dungeon, praying futilely for mercy from His Highness, the heartless king.”
The fortuneteller loved truth, and she had the impulse to say, “You are a fool, queen, to think that the only way to change your fate is to bend me to your will. I am but a mouthpiece, not the hand that weaves. We each spin our own fates, in every moment.” But she loved her freedom more, so she said, “If you tell the king about me, he will punish you too. You are as much a foreigner here as I, and your pretty throne is only slightly less precarious than my wandering chariot.” The queen’s eyes grew wide, and her grip weak. The fortuneteller easily drew another card. Without reading it, she said, “Your people, enraged by your humiliation, will attempt to rise up. The streets will run with their blood and crackle with their broken bones. The king will emerge triumphant.”
The queen’s face hollowed out, like a majestic tree, rotting on the inside, finally beginning to collapse.
“Ah, an emissary from my sister,” the prince said. “And what an interesting emissary. Tell me, is she also building an army of clockwork soldiers?”
“I have not seen nor heard her speak of any such project, Your Highness,” the golem said. It was quite uncertain about the proper etiquette in this situation.
The prince laughed. He was lounging on a couch and taking occasional sips from a long, slender glass. “There’s no need for that,” the prince declared. “Besides, the only title I accept is Fabulous.” He paused and waggled his eyebrows at the golem, who remained silent. The prince sighed. “So,” he said, apparently bored, “what tidings do you bring me from my one and only sibling?”
“Well, Your Fabulousness—”
The prince burst out laughing. “Oh, that’s marvelous. But please: refrain in the future or I will never be able to sit through your message without falling off this couch.”
“But what should I call you?”
“Call me Opal. I am dazzling and changeable enough, no?” Again, a beat of silence. Again, the prince sighed. “Look at me, fishing for compliments from animated clay. You’d better convey your message before I embarrass myself any further.”
“The princess created me but she neglected to give me eyes. She is hoping to trade her own eyes—” Here the golem wiggled the eyes, which were still on the ends of its fingers “—for yours, so that I may use them. She said that your eyes were lovely.”
A stillness, perhaps somber, had fallen over the prince. He sat up now, and set down his drink, which fizzed in the quiet. “My eyes are lovely,” he murmured. And then: “What a bizarre request,” he said, more loudly, although still speaking mostly to himself. “She sent you carrying her own eyes all this way, in search of eyes for you. And she knows, of course, unless she has gone mad (and that castle could drive anyone mad) that I would never willingly trade away my eyes. Clearly, she is seeking something else. My blessing, I suppose. Perhaps she is crying out for help, desperate for love, like that painter who cut off his ear. Well,” he said, looking directly at the golem again, “I swore long ago that I would have nothing more to do with that house.” Outside, rain poured down steadily like a drumbeat. “But she is my sister, so I will do this much: take this necklace, with the stone that shines and winks. Tell her that it’s worlds prettier than a rabbit’s foot, and perhaps even lucky. And tell her to run away.” The prince paused. “But not to here.” Another pause. “Don’t tell her that unless she mentions wanting to come here.”
In a sudden flash of lightning, the necklace was a purple glow stick bent into a circle and the prince was a twentysomething raver covered in glitter. Before the golem’s clay heart could finish a beat, the palace, glittery enough in its own right, had returned.
“And one more thing,” the prince said, returning to his slouch. “Pop those eyes into your sockets, honey. Nothing says ugly like having your eyes on the ends of your fingers.”
The fortuneteller held unto the frame of her chariot tightly. She was riding the wolves faster than usual, in her eagerness to put as much distance between herself and the castle as quickly as possible. The wolves, for their part, were exuberant at the chance to let loose. Though she could not see their faces, she knew well the foolish grins they displayed, their tongues flapping in the wind like small, wet flags.
Though she was already under the cover of the forest, the knot of worry in her stomach would not loosen. She shook her head. She would not be returning to this part of the world anytime soon.
Something hopped deftly from a low branch, unto the seat beside her. The strange creature with the horned mask and the feathers instantly began chattering at her.
She laughed and said, “Promises, promises. Now–”
The strange thing interrupted her, perhaps desperately, making louder and more insistent noises.
“That is no affair of mine. And I know well your penchant for mixing truth and lies into the most appealing of concoctions. And do you know what else I know?”
The strange thing screeched and began to hop up and down frantically.
“That’s right.” The fortuneteller smiled grimly. “Your name.”
The creature leapt out of the chariot and disappeared into the slanting rain.
The golem was soaking wet when it climbed back through the window in the library tower. “Greetings, princess,” it said.
“Oh, hello,” the princess replied, without looking up. She was absorbed in a book. Several minutes passed.
“Your brother gave me this necklace for you. ‘It’s worlds prettier than a rabbit’s foot, and perhaps even lucky.'” The golem imitated the prince’s voice perfectly, as if it had a tape recorder concealed within its clay body.
“My brother . . . ” The princess looked up, but she did not take the necklace. “Listen to this: The infamous Wizard of Droor Lake, it was whispered, had so perfected the art of enchanting locks that no one, not even the most ancient ghost or the sneakiest sprite, could enter his tower. Though he has been dead for centuries, his tower still stands proud and undefiled. Who knows what secrets, what wondrous spells and forbidden books, remain locked within? If I could find his lock spell, I could finally be safe! But, how could I have forgotten? I created you to protect me. Is such a spell necessary? What plans have you prepared for my protection?”
“You created me to protect you?” the golem asked, still holding out the necklace with the winking stone.
“Of course,” the princess said, impatiently. “Why else does anyone craft a golem?”
“You have given me no such instructions thus far. What do you need protection from?”
“There is a man,” the princess said, each word straining her face, “a vampire. He comes into the tower each night.”
“Have you informed the King and Queen? What measures have they taken to defend the castle?”
The princess turned away from the golem and hunched over, as if she were sick. “The man,” she whispered, “is my father.”
Incidentally, the fact that the intruder was the King was the reason that the princess sought a powerful lock spell to keep him out; a King has great power within his castle, and can easily command a door to open or a lock to unclench its teeth.
Every night, the princess strained to hear the sound of the tower door unlocking and swinging open, but the tower was so tall that she could never hear it. She would lie there, trying to breathe without sound. Any cricket chirp or shifting floor moan would make her jump. It was impossible to say when the terror began or ended. Eventually, the terrible sounds would make their way out of her imagination and into the world, as the King’s footsteps up the staircase grew louder and louder.
Tonight, the golem was there, but the princess felt no less afraid. “I must observe what happens for a night,” the golem had said, “in order to plan how to best protect you.”
Tonight, the three of them form a monstrous tableau: the princess, shaking despite her best attempts to turn her skin into stone; the King holding his bloody, golden cup beside her opened thigh, his eyes gleaming, hungry; the golem, sitting in shadow, high up on a bookshelf, watching blankly with the princess’s own displaced eyes, separate and yet part of the scene, unable to escape.
After an eternity of the sickening sound of blood pumping out and splashing into the cup, the golem moved, shattering the glassy stillness, restarting time. The golem crept silently down the bookshelf, across the carpet, and behind the princess’s bed. The princess’s arm was draped down listlessly, unto the floor, as if she had fainted, and yet the arm quivered with each heartbeat. The golem touched the arm with its clay fingers. On the other side of the bed, the King continued to squeeze out fresh blood from the princess’s thigh. The golem began to methodically massage the arm, shaping–not the flesh but the soul beneath the skin—shaping it like clay.
And so they became another tableau: the princess, trembling like a terrified rabbit; the King draining her blood from one side; the golem, reforming and removing a piece of her soul from the other. They remain in this arrangement until the golem finishes its task, and a bird, bright as the twinkle of joy in a laughing eye, flies up from its hands and out the window.
“This is how you protect me?” the princess screamed, the next evening. “By stealing a part of my soul?”
“I did not steal it,” the golem answered quietly. “I enabled it to escape unscathed.”
The princess lowered her own voice, although she was still audibly angry, “I need as large of a soul as I can get, in order to work the secrets of magic.”
The golem was silent for a moment and then said, “Your brother thinks you should run away.”
“I am no coward!” the princess declared. “Besides, how could I ever live without my books? Bereft of them, I would be better off dead.”
“I cannot force you to leave in body, but you have tasked me with your protection and the best way I can do that is to grant pieces of you a way out in spirit.”
“You are a coward. I command you to protect me in body, to stand guard over me every night. You must make him stop.”
“No,” the golem said. “I will not fight a King in his castle. It would mean my certain destruction, and you might perish in the crossfire.”
“I am perishing already,” the princess said softly. “Little by little.”
The queen’s face had begun to crack; tears leaked out continuously, and her scar would shimmer into view during the night-time, at the castle. All the walls she had so carefully built were falling down and she could no longer keep the two worlds separate.
She took to watching soap operas all afternoon and quickly confused the lives of the characters with those of her long-lost high school friends. “Remember when Marcy discovered that she had a twin who had been brainwashed by the Mafia? I just couldn’t believe it!” She laughed, and then cried, because no one was listening.
She could no longer fall asleep. She paced the opulent halls of the castle, dizzied by the way they would frequently shrink and twist into the blandly wallpapered hallways of her sunlit home. She fell down a lot.
She stopped cooking dinners. She could no longer bear to smuggle food to her daughter because she could not stand to look at the pain which was becoming more and more clear on the girl’s face.
On her own face, her scar spread out, like the tributaries of a river, her once beautiful face breaking open like dry mud. The tropical fish died. She did not clean the tank, and the fish floated to the surface.
“I’m not sleeping,” the queen said, to the dead fish. “I’m certainly not sleeping with you.” And she laughed and she cried.
The dead fish were a message, undelivered. A warning.
The queen’s people grew more and more restless as they watched their queen unravel. “She is going mad,” some of them whispered to each other in their secret hand language, which was so subtle that it was undetectable by the King’s guards. “No, no,” others whispered back, “she is cleverly pretending to go mad, in order to outmaneuver the King and send us oblique signals.”
Whichever it was, feigned or uncontrollable, the queen’s people began to prepare for revolution: to rescue the queen, or to follow her cunning, inscrutable plan.
Night after night, the golem sculpted off pieces of the princess, fragments of her heart and soul, which inevitably fled the scene of torment. There was a unicorn, essence of innocence wearing a wicked sharp horn. There was a graceful singer, cloaked in a dress of shadows, with a voice that could have shaken the foundations of the tower. There were rabbits with bat wings and spiders that could weave thin air into the shiny, solid facets of jewels. There were dozens of birds, a blue cat, and a pleasantly plump monkey whose antics were wise and foolish at the same time. There was a somber man whose feet trailed off into fins and a charming man who could convince a bishop that a twig was a stick of frankincense.
All of these beings (and more) escaped out of the tower, into the wide world, and wandered into many other stories. They played all manner of roles–brave hero, scheming villain, helpful animal, guardian monster, enigmatic witch–in all manner of stories–tragedies and adventures, love affairs and mysteries, comedies of error, and epic quests.
The princess, no doubt, would find their stories (which, in truth, are her stories) at least as interesting as those she is endlessly reading, and much more edifying. But she does not know them.
—Well, someone should tell her!—
Yes, someone should.
One night, the queen sat stiffly on her throne, tears running silently down her broken face. The King was entertaining a Baron or two, and they were guffawing and chomping on roast meat.
The final piece of the wall crumbled.
The queen slumped down in her throne, but only for a moment. A wild grief had been unleashed within her, and she called out, “My daughter, my daughter!” She sobbed rawly and ripped at her hair, at her cracked skin. “I have forsaken you, my daughter. I have damned you here, in this very castle, with my silence.”
Her words were barely coherent but still the King stood before her, his face mottled with rage and restraint. “Control yourself, woman,” he spat. “We have distinguished guests.”
“You,” the queen said, as she rose up. “You!” she shrieked. “You—you monster!” She pummeled his chest uselessly with her fists, kicking and screaming.
The King lifted up one hand and slapped her on the face, in one restrained motion. But, still, chaos was unleashed. The queen’s people, unobtrusive before now in their roles as maids and serving men, beautiful decorative slaves, moved fast.
In her tower, walled in by her books, the princess heard the commotion far below. Though muffled, she could make out the sounds of screaming, crying, fighting, glass breaking, and, soon enough, the unmistakable sound of death. Then sirens wailed, and then there was the flash of red and blue lights, familiar and alien at once. The princess could not remember what it signified.
—So the King is dead?—
Perhaps. He is gone, certainly.
—Then why is the princess still in the tower?—
She refuses to leave.
She is weak and wan, because so many pieces of her are off wandering in the world. She struggles even to lift the pages of her beloved books. She would have starved long ago, were not the golem there to bring her food and water, to remind her to eat.
—Well, then, I’ll go and find all of the princess’s missing parts and force them to return to her!—
I see. And how will you do that?
—I’ll track them down, one by one. I’ll best them in a game of riddles, or a duel, or a singing contest, and claim as my prize their return to the princess in the tower!—
A stirring sentiment. And certainly one approach. But consider this: what if you spoke to them, and told them the true story behind the princess’s plight, and thus convinced them of the need to return? One by one, they would find their way back to the princess and melt back into her heart, which is holed and pocked like a meteorite.
—I suppose that could work.—
Shall we walk back to her together, hand in hand?