This is the story of a girl who had everything, and lost it all.
This is the story of a girl who was too green in the ways of the world.
This is the story of a girl who lost her heart, her faith, her very self.
There was a time when she felt such a love in her heart with unbridled, wild joy.
Her wildness showed in her eyes and it fueled her spirit. She had found this love when least expecting it, and it seemed to have been the will of the stars.
She lived in a village in a beautiful, prosperous kingdom, and like all the village girls, she looked forward each year to the annual ball held by the king. As the ball approached each summer, the little village seemed to come alive, quivering in anticipation and busy in preparation. As a young child, she had watched the candles burn in the thousands of windows in the castle, watched them being lit at the start of the ball and watched them burn all the way down through the course of the evening. All her life she had watched the beautiful, sparkling guests arrive in their impossible finery, in extravagant carriages drawn by statuesque horses. She had watched as the dignified footmen admitted each pair of guests through the great gleaming double marble doors. She could hear the music drifting through the open windows and practiced the lilting waltz before her mirror in her room, a child playing at formality. She watched the sun go down as the revelry inside the castle grew louder and more untamed as the fireflies did their own waltz in the surrounding woods. She wanted with all her heart to attend such a grand affair: to wear a beautiful gown, to see and be seen, to dance with a handsome stranger.
At last, the year came when she was old enough to attend the ball. She had grown pretty, to be sure, but beautiful? Would it be enough—would she be enough—to draw the eye of the fine guests, of her handsome stranger? The ladies she had watched as a child step so gracefully out of their carriages, escorted into the castle by elegant gentlemen, seemed from a different world far above her. She laughed as she examined her reflection in her mirror the morning of the ball, tilting her head this way and that. She was not a vain girl: she had cropped her platinum hair in the name of convenience for the work she did with her widowed mama in the village; her skin, not yet so damaged by the sun, was still passably fashionable enough—a creamy fairness and smooth. Lively eyes, uncracked lips. A beauty in her way, perhaps, but not so very extraordinary. She was no stranger to flirtation and the occasional dalliance with the village boys, but had never felt a true, powerful, knee-shaking love in her heart, and so had always shaken them off in the end. She valued her independence more than a flirtation; she was content with keeping her head down, doing her own work, looking after her mama and her own self. “She’s a lone, willful spirit,” her mama always said wisely. “Only does what she sees fit.” Rolling her eyes, not even bothering to retort, she would turn back to her writing, or her book. It was quite easier to let her mama mutter and moan about her as though she were not in the same room.
She had a vague desire for love, and a vague, far-off notion that it would perhaps find her one day when she was ready, but it was not a particularly pressing matter. She decided to put the idea of the handsome stranger out of her mind—if they found each other at the ball, then so be it; if not, then there was always next year.
She and her mama survived well enough, just the two of them, since her papa died when she was very young. They had a roof over their heads, clean clothes, and food in the cupboard. But she knew they could certainly not afford the extravagance of the grand ladies from wealthier villages who attended the ball. But her mama knew how important this night was to her, and did the best she could: she offered her old wedding dress for her daughter to wear to the ball. Her mama scrubbed her skin raw in the tub with hot, lightly scented water, removing all the dirt from her work until her skin glowed. Mama swept up her short hair and pinched her pale cheeks, beckoning color there. After a few touches, her mama pulled her to the center of the room and had her look into her mirror to admire the effect.
The ivory color of the dress complimented her skin perfectly. The puffy sleeves set off her shoulders just so. She could easily imagine her mama as a lovely young bride wearing this dress, for they had once been precisely the same size—the dress fit her like a glove. “Perfect,” her mama said, brushing away a tear. “You put the moon to shame!” She hugged her mama and tilted her head in the mirror, her reflection smiling back at her. She decided it would do. She would dance the night away, she decided, handsome stranger or not.
They had no fine carriage, so her mama brought an old lantern on a chain from the attic—she would have to light the lantern and walk on the path through the woods to the castle. Though the journey was considered a far distance on foot, she knew she had no choice; but she had the lantern, and she knew all she had to do was stick to the path.
As the crickets just started to take up their instruments to play the waltz for the fireflies, while the sun had not quite set, she kissed her mama goodbye, lit her lantern, made her way through the village, and started along the path in the woods.
It was slow going; the thick trees made it look as though it were the dead of night instead of dusk, and the lantern grew to be a heavier burden with each step. Though she stuck to the path, she was careful to pick her way around any overhanging branches and errant twigs so as not to damage her dress. As a result, she knew she would be late; but perhaps that was best, she decided, so that she could avoid everyone watching her enter alone. At last, the trees opened up and she reached the courtyard before the great wide marble steps that led up to the shining marble double doors. She took stock of herself, put out her lantern and hid it in a nearby urn, and, when she was ready, proceeded up the stairs with as much dignity as she could muster.
It seemed to take an age to reach the top. Her pulse racing—partly from her journey through the woods and up the steps, partly from her excitement—she approached the footman, whose eyes darted back down the steps, clearly noticing her lack of a carriage but made no comment. With a regal dip of his head, he pulled the door open, and as she laid eyes on the room beyond, her mouth fell open in a gasp, all semblance of dignity forgotten.
It was too beautiful, far too beautiful. The white marble floors gleamed and great column after column burst out of the floor on both sides, as though they had always been there like beautiful prehistoric trees. Every inch was shiny and incandescent, so that her blurry reflection was everywhere. In each corner there was a table of immaculate food and exotic wines, some varieties that she had never seen before. There were people everywhere—she was in a kind of long hall that seemed to be the central extension of two large rooms on either side beyond the columns, one side of the room leading back out and around to the front courtyard where some guests were now milling around the trees and fountains, the other side housing the musicians and a grand piano along the wall. People were dancing where there was any space available. She drifted through the crowd as though in a dream. No one recognized her, and she recognized no one—they may as well have been in masques. Finery and free-flowing food and wine made for more effective, mysterious disguises.
She had made one turn around the great room when it happened. She stopped beside a column and was scanning the crowd of dancers when she locked eyes with a man about her age. He seemed to have come alone, like she had—he was alone in the crowd, a glass in his hand. Everything froze. It seemed to be just the two of them in the room; the dancers were still and his face alone seemed to stand out clear and sharp as everything outside his profile took on a fuzzy quality. In that second when his clear blue eyes met hers, something disturbed the air between them, and an electricity passed back and forth through their eyes that she felt in her very soul. He held her gaze and dipped his head ever so slightly as though to say, Hello, I see you. He began to move through the crowd toward her, their eyes never dropping. And that was all it took.
They talked the whole night. She talked and laughed with him like she had never talked and laughed with a man before. It was so easy, so natural, as though they had been born and raised together next to this pillar. He was more real than the dancers, the fine food and wine, the music, more real than the bracing marble columns themselves. Even though they shared the room with hundreds of other people, even though there were hundreds of other girls in attendance far lovelier than she to whom he could have turned his attention, his sincere eyes and genuine smile made her feel like the only girl on earth. She could not remember having more in common with a man at all, let alone a stranger. Even though she had only known him a few hours, she could not recall feeling more like-minded with anyone, could not recall any smile before his making her stomach flutter. Something in her heart felt open and suddenly yearning, as though she had suddenly realized that she had lost something and had been looking for it since long ago, and now she had found it and could not bear to lose it again. Something inside her clicked into place.
They moved to the courtyard, and before the moon and watching stars he said he would never leave her. The rational part of her mind said that this was impossible and crazy, but wasn’t it crazy that they had met here at all, among hundreds of people? Wasn’t it impossible how their eyes had locked so, and impossible how the very air between them had moved with such a charge? She looked at him, measuring his sincerity. Was there anything in the world but his eyes? She had not looked away from them all night. Something was quivering at the core of her being, and she knew she was lost, yet found. She gave in to that—was else was she to do? I know you won’t, she said. I know.
He was from a neighboring village—how impossible it was that they had grown up not far from each other, but had never met until now!—and so knew of the path through the woods which she had taken to the castle that night. He asked her to meet him on the path the very next night, in the place just before it opened up to the castle courtyard so that they could remain hidden among the trees but still find each other and pledge their troth. She agreed, her newly full heart fluttering and her pulse racing. She decided would wear her dress from tonight; it would serve the same purpose for her as it did for her mama. The hour was growing late and she knew she must hurry home; he gave her a chaste kiss on the forehead, helped her gather her lantern and light it, and walked her to where path began. Until tomorrow, was their whispered promise.
The journey home seemed to take much less time than the journey to the ball; swift as a nightowl, she half-ran, half-skipped home, playfully slapping the overhanging branches that she had so carefully avoided earlier in the evening. That seemed from an age ago; her life seemed changed and divided now: there was the stretch of time before she had entered the ballroom, and the stretch of time after. She could hear her blood rushing in her ears, swinging her lantern to and fro, carefree as a truant shepherdess. Openly laughing, she ran down the final hill through the woods, through the village, and up the path to her cottage.
She stopped right outside her front door and blew out her lantern. Her hand on the doorknob, she hesitated. She did not know why, but she did not want to immediately tell her mama about this wonderful, impossible night. She felt that she wanted to hold this night, this moment, sacred to herself for just a little longer, to bask in her joy. Only does as she sees fit. She shook herself guiltily. She would tell her mama after they pledged their troth in the woods. That way it would be official, impossible to be undone. Her mama could say all she wanted and their pledge would still be forever. Resolved, she turned the doorknob and stepped inside.
She patiently answered all of her mama’s questions as she helped her out of her dress. How exquisite the ballroom was, how delicious the food had been, how beautifully everyone had been dressed. She gave her mama every small detail that she could recall. Her mama went to bed, head newly filled with girlish dreams, while her head was filled with his eyes as she laid her head down in happy sleepiness.
The next day her excitement woke her early. The night before was more real to her than the bright dawn pressing its face through her window. The day seemed to drag uselessly; her whole life seemed to be building toward that moment when night fell and she could run along the path in the woods and meet him. The very birds outside seemed to be holding their breath, for their song fell on her deaf ears, her head filled his words and his promise.
At last, the sun began to set. She donned the ivory gown and quietly slipped out the door. She lit her lantern and dashed through the woods, the darkness coming alive around her, the crickets playing for the waltzing fireflies once again. She was heading for something far grander than the ball had ever been, and she had that same feeling from the night before of hurtling toward a dream, multiplied a thousand fold. The night seemed to hum as she drew closer and closer to the place where the woods opened up to the courtyard of the castle; she could see the spires and dimly lit windows through the trees. She slowed her pace and her breathing and reached their meeting place.
He was not there. She could not understand it. Perhaps she was early? She glanced at the sky; the sun had set by now. She set her lantern down. It did not seem like him to be late, or to forget that they had arranged to meet. The minutes ticked by, and still he did not come. She began to worry that some misfortune had befallen him when suddenly she heard voices—laughter—up in the courtyard ahead of her.
He was there. He was there, but he was not alone. As though the night before had never happened, he was there in the middle of the courtyard, whirling another girl in his arms, though there was no ball tonight. They were laughing as he spun her around, her long dark hair flying, those eyes of his dancing, borrowing the finery of the courtyard like a cheeky demigod. She remained frozen, hidden behind a tree on the skirts of the woods as they bordered the courtyard. Pure horror shot through her and she remained transfixed, her mouth open in a silent scream, witnessing one of those scenes that are too terrible to look away from that lock you inside it. The girl was lovely in a way that she could never be—the girl was dark and mysterious, as though she had experience and secrets. As he looked into the girl’s eyes, she could tell that herself was forgotten; utterly forgotten and cast off like a dirty, ugly glove. She was nothing, nothing. Something inside of her broke, that very same something that had been awakened by him.
Finally, moving as slowly as when locked in a nightmare, she tore her eyes away, gathered her lantern, and staggered back up the path, tears blurring her way. Pain such as she had never felt before knifed through her chest and spread outward and outward, as though a great cannon ball had been shot through it. A blade was stuck fast in her heart. She neither knew nor cared where she was going anymore; her ambling, unsteady steps had led her off the path, and she was now wandering in deep, unknown woods like a lost soul with its lantern trying to find the way to the afterlife. She cried as she had never cried in her life, and each tear was for him, and what she had lost. She was drowning inside herself. Each breath cost her dearly, each step required all the strength she possessed, and each thought drove the blade deeper into her heart with a twist. Finally, in the middle of the woods, she collapsed, praying that God would take her away and end her pain.
She cried herself to sleep. It may have been sleep, or perhaps the great darkness that had opened up inside her had finally swallowed her; she could not tell. Similarly, she could not tell what had woken her or whether she was dreaming. She had not been in her cheapened sleep for long; she could tell by the unchanged darkness and sounds that were around her. An owl let cry, and the fireflies still danced, though drunkenly so. She peered through the darkness; she was definitely not alone.
An old woman came toward her, carefully picking her way through the darkness and the woods. She spoke not a word as she reached the dejected form on the ground and beckoned to her to follow. The woman was grizzled and leathery, with a face that had been burned by a thousand suns, and mottled hands with blackened nails that had worked a thousand acres of earth. She gave a toothless smile, which reached eyes that were not unkind. Not caring where she ended up or what happened to her, not even questioning who this woman was or where she had come from, the shadow of a girl numbly picked up her lantern and followed.
They walked for some time, branches tearing at her dress and clinging to her neck, arms, and hair. She knew they must be very deep in the woods. Presently they came upon a cottage where the old woman clearly lived, because she stooped to open the door and went inside. After the door was closed behind them, the old woman spoke for the first time.
“Are you hurt?” she asked perceptively.
A pause. “Yes.” She knew the old woman was not referring to her body, even though every inch of it ached as she fought against life.
The old woman nodded a slow nod that was weighed down with an old knowledge, an old wisdom.
“You can end your pain,” the old woman said without preamble. It was as though she knew this pain, had seen it for many years in long-dead spirits. “It is pain of the heart and soul, not of the body, so you can take it away and still keep your body. I can tell you how, but it will cost you dearly if you go through with it. Few choose it. You must live with the consequences.”
The girl looked up at the old woman through haunted eyes that were veiled with such agony that she could barely see at all, lending her a half-mad, wild look. “Anything but this,” she said. “I will do anything, anything. I cannot bear this.”
“All right then,” said the old woman, smiling like Death itself when it held its victim in its arms for the first time. “But you must do it. I can tell you how it is done, but I cannot help you carry out the deed. It must be your will alone. And understand that when the time again comes to give your heart, you will not have one to give.”
She did not understand these strange instructions, but was past care. “I have no use for my heart, no use for love, if it causes this much pain. I would not so willingly give it again,” she said.
So the old woman sat close to her and began her instruction. Sometime later, the girl left the cottage, armed with the tools she would need, and walked until she was far away from the woman’s cottage and completely alone in an unfamiliar part of the woods. The sky split open, echoing her heart, and rain began to fall, in a parody of the tears that she had cried into the earth. The rain put out the flame in her lantern; it did not matter—she needed the empty vessel. She turned her face up to the sky and finally let loose the scream that had been building inside her.
Her body wracked with sobbing, exhausted from her pain, she could feel the shards of her heart falling and breaking inside her, a beautiful stained-glass window going to ruin. She was truly lost, an earth-bound specter, empty and hollow. Unable to bear her pain any longer, she flew into action: she drew out a knife, cut out her heart, and threw it into the empty lantern. The physical pain was nothing, nothing compared to the brutal agony that had been festering inside her. Knowing she had only minutes, with trembling hands that were covered in her own blood she sprinkled some herbs given to her by the old woman around the still-throbbing heart, whispered the archaic incantation, and put a match inside the lantern with it. The match sprang to life and the rain suddenly stopped, the sound of the gale echoing through the woods that were now silent as the grave.
She suddenly found that she did not need to breathe. She was no longer wet from the rain, her face was no longer wet with tears. She felt a quiet sense of relief. She gazed indifferently at the beating heart inside the lit lantern, making the flames inside pulse and jump in a steady rhythm. The screaming inside her had stopped: she remembered how she had felt, the deep despair, the hole in her chest, the knife in her heart, the pain inside, even remembered begging Death to end it, but she no longer directly felt it. It was merely a memory. She could examine the pain, removed from it, as though looking at an artifact in a curio; she could stare it in the face and recognize it, but she could no longer feel it.
She suddenly realized that the chain on the lantern had snaked around her wrists. It was as the old woman said it would be: she would be relieved of her pain, but it was now forever her burden to carry her severed heart around with her in her lantern. She could not be separated from her heart, for that would end her life, but as long as she dragged it behind her on the chain, she could retain this cheap, borrowed semblance of existence. And if and when the time came to give her heart to another, she would have no heart to truly give.
Years later, the villagers would talk of the Broken Princess that kept to herself in the woods, dragging her severed heart behind her, twigs twisted around her neck and in her hair like a crown. After night fell you could see the glow of her lantern from the castle windows as she crept closer to catch a glimpse of the one to whom the flame truly belonged.
**PLEASE NOTE: THE IMAGES AND STORY CONTAINED IN THIS BLOG IS COPYRIGHT MATERIAL. ANY UNAUTHORIZED USE OF EITHER THE PICTURES OR TEXT IN THIS BLOG WILL RESULT IN LEGAL ACTION.
MODEL: KELSEA KING, B.A.
STORY BY: KELSEA KING, B.A.
PHOTOS BY: ASHLEY BEIGE PHOTOGRAPHY
CURIOUS IMPOSSIBILITIES LOGO BY: CYNTHIA ELLIOTT
ASHLEY BEIGE LOGO BY: CHRISTINA HARPER
THE ONE IN THE HAT