One day, when the king and queen were not looking, the evil troll sprinkled a dark magic on the golden hair of the princess. He had always been jealous of the rose in her cheek and the wild in her eye. She was the keeper of the keys of the future – a place from which he was forever banished.
The queen and the princess went on a journey to visit their friends in the north. They did not know that the dark magic had already begun to take a hold of her little body. The king stayed home with the prince in their castle and watched the rain in dark strands among the green arms of brave oaks. He could have never imagined how such a steady world, an anchored earth, could so easily fall apart.
It was on the second night of the journey that the princess fell ill. The dark magic became gravel in her lungs. Rocks filled every alveolus. The bronchioles closed in. The bellows in her chest labored. The muscles in her neck strained with each inhalation. The queen almost allowed the princess to spend that night in bed with her little friend upstairs. Had that happened, she would have simply run out of air in the quiet of night with no one to know.
But as it was, an angel told the queen to keep her child close. The queen awoke to the rocky brackle of broken breathing. The princess, straining for air, drifted from slumber to stupor and back again. The queen wrapped the princess in her cloak and flew to the white palace of medicine.
All through the night and all through the morning, the healers worked. The queen sent home word to the king: “I don’t know what to say. They have been at it for many hours and she is not responding…”
There was a wretched silence. Un-nameable thoughts, unspeakable thoughts filled the king’s head. He had been in town at the academy where he liked to speak with the youth of the world. When that silence came, the king fell upon it and he shattered as if he had been made of the most fragile glass.
A wind must have blown the shards of him back to the castle, for the next thing he knew he was in the princess’s room. He picked up her books and arranged them on her shelves. He picked up her dolls. He picked up her puzzles. It was too quiet. Would it always be so? The alphabet spilled in nonsense across the floor. The gauze of speculation that always clouded his mind had been ripped off with the scaly claw of mortality. His consciousness had never before been such a desert.
And time had stopped. The future no longer existed. All clocks break when the princess is sick. The walls of the castle wept. The corner stone began to jar loose.
The king clawed at his chest in the silence. He wanted to rip out his heart. What sort of thing can cause such harrowing grief, what foul necessity, what pump of incessant pain? He lit candles. There is no reckoning for this.
The princess lay for hours on the tipping point. Drift one way and the bloom of youth returns. Drift the other way, and… The king had now gone mad. He’d been pulverized by the relentless silence. The queen was the only one strong enough to stand guard over the child. The king would not have been able to watch life drain from limpid arms and ashen cheeks. He could not have stood to hear the brattling and crackling wheezes. Life is far too horrible for man. Only the one who assembled her from her own body could know the depth of the well of life.
Slowly, all too slowly, the dark magic began to subside. The healers began to flush out the gravel. The queen held the hand of the princess and chanted her back into the land of the living.
From far away, the king heard the voice of the princess. He jumped on a dragon and flew to her. When he walked into her room in the palace she was asleep. When she awoke, she did not recognize him at first. She had been so very far away, hidden behind so many boulders with only the faintest shaft of air to sustain her. But it wasn’t long before her eyes lit up above her oxygen tubes.
Two days later, the king and the princess where back in the castle. He showed her the places where the stones had begun to crumble when she had been sick. She only laughed. He laughed too. It is good to laugh, he thought.
They played in the room that he had cleaned. Never before had he been so happy to see it in disarray. She did his hair and his nails. He ordered many pretend meals.
And then they found a tiny field mouse trapped in a bucket. How in the world did he get in there, they wondered. The king picked up the bucket and took his daughter’s hand as they walked outside. She showed him a good spot in the grass by the brave oaks. “We shall let him go here,” she said. “Very well,” the king replied, and he tipped over the bucket as gently as he could.
The mouse twitched his nose and blinked his wet black eyes at the wide world around. The princess delighted in the way his jumping legs carried him through the hummock and into the thicket. The king marveled at the audacity of such a little thing against the impossibly large horizon bedecked in dark clouds. He squeezed the still living hand of the wild-eyed princess and they walked back inside.