It is the rose that people see: the lovely lips, the soft gold hair, the long lashed eyes gone pale and closed in sleeping. They think, those who think to try to brave them, that the briars are just plant life, separate things grown over and around the woman at their center. They do not see that the briars, too, are hers. The briars spin themselves from dreams. They are the world behind her face, grown real and full of thorns.
She lies completely still. Some of the knights think her dead, she is so pale. But the pale in her skin makes her lips look more red, so they say, makes her lips look like rose petals, makes her lashes as dark as the raven. She is vaguely aware of the men that tromp by her, of their footsteps that echo on the empty stone stairs, of the ways that they whisper, voices gone soft in the silence that reigns in her castle.
All the knights are the same, hacking their way through the mazes of thorns until, finally, they all reach her bed. Each one stops, every time, to gaze down at her beauty. They are momentarily frozen by the frozenness of her. But soon they recover and they bend towards her lips and they kiss them gently at first, timid and shy, guilty perhaps, just a little, at kissing a stranger who’s sleeping. And once they kiss they wait, watching for her eyes to burst open and look upon them with fear or confusion or love.
When her eyes do not open, they kiss her again, harder this time, and with passion, as if their lips must convince her to wake. They wait and some, seeing no stirring, walk away, leave her dreaming just as they’d found her. Some try kissing yet harder and longer. Some kiss with increasing frustration until they are shouting into her silence, calling her to wake, wake, wake, wake up. But she never does. And, eventually, even the most stubborn man leaves, taking his vine-cutting sword and his echoing boots back out of the castle in failure.
On their way out they must step over, of course, all the servants, both the king and the queen, the cooks and the housekeepers, the nobles and jesters, all slumped on the floor, fallen sleep-ward when she did, that one time, long ago, when she pricked her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel they told her not to touch. The wheel, she knew, was magicked, the needle cursed to make her what she was, to bring the inside out, the outside in, flipped world-ward and dreaming, exposed in her sleep. She did it on purpose, the pricking. She was tired, so tired, of the way they kept hiding the spinning. She was sick of the sharp prick of fear that she felt when she saw the flashing of points in the lamplight, of how conscious she was, always and forever, that one misplaced finger could drive her to change. So she reached out her finger one night, just the tip, and touched it deliberately, pushed her flesh to its point until it broke through her skin and drew blood and, after that, she felt only the dreaming.
It is not a bad thing, this sleep. In fact, she prefers it to the fuss of before, to the hiding away with three fairies in the forest, to the dreading, always, the wickedness of witches, and the fear, forever the fear, of being turned inside out without warning. Because she’s felt them inside, the vines and the briars, the needle-like thorns, felt them growing, expanding, pushing forward just under her skin. She’s felt them as long she’s felt anything. And it is a relief, she thinks, now, to have them out on the surface, even if it means the entire castle is sleeping, gone silent beneath all her vining.
It is finally a woman who wakes her, not a knight but a gardener. She does not bend towards her lips like the others. Instead she bends to the briars that grow up around them. She kisses each thorn, one by one, until her eyelids flutter open and she gazes, still half dreaming, upon her and thinks that, perhaps, this woman has found her, discovered the secret-est part of herself and embraced it with love. She looks at her, not with the horror she thinks she expected, but with something else, with a thing that seems like admiration. When she kisses her lips, she is still half sleeping, half inside, half outside, her dreams.
The gardener lies down beside her, burrowing into her vines, and she closes her eyes as if she, too, is sleeping. She does not know how long they lie together, two closed-eyed strangers, on a bed hidden underneath thorns.
When she fully wakes, as she must, she is more plant than human, outside as well as in. Now it shows on her face, the hint of green, the tendril curve of vine-like veining—not enough so they know, not for sure. The sleeping castle wakes with relief. The king and the queen, the cooks and the housekeepers, the nobles and jesters are shocked when they find out their savior is not a noble knight, not a prince, but a simple gardener—and a woman one at that. But who are they to argue with magic? True love’s kiss has won them back their waking so they celebrate the end of the curse, the beginning of their princess’s marriage. They do not remark on the way she seems faded, worn down, less rose-like than she seemed before.
It has been, they realize, centuries since the sleeping began. They have all, they think graciously, aged somewhat, even if her aging looks different, unsettling in a way none can name. Even if her once blue eyes (they were blue once, weren’t they?) have gone green and her once soft full hair (it was soft before, wasn’t it?) has gone wiry, her lips are still the deep red of roses.
But her gardener still thinks her beautiful, inhumanly so. She says so sometimes when they lie in bed at night before sleeping, when she gazes down at her with that thing that must be love glowing out of her eyes.
“Yours,” she says then, “is a beauty grown out from inside.” She says it with pride as if the words should please her.
She is not, she thinks, displeased, though she longs sometimes, as they lay side by side in a bed made of cushions and blankets and pillows and all the soft things that their castle provides, for her bed made of briars, for her dreams vining out of her, surrounding her, surrounding them, surrounding the castle: a fortress, a burrow, a maze made of silence where not even leaves dared to rustle.