I had a premonition that night, but my sisters laughed and scolded me. “Don’t be such a baby,” they said. “You’re lucky we take you with us. Not every girl your age gets to dance all night.” It was hard being thirteen, and the youngest of twelve daughters. I tagged along, trying to stay out of sight. No one listened to me, and when they did, they didn’t really hear what I was saying.
For weeks we’d eluded them. Suitor after suitor tried to follow us to learn our secret, and father beheaded them all when they failed. I couldn’t sleep without dreaming of rivers of blood and their staring eyes. Afternoons I tossed and turned as my sisters napped in preparation for our nights abroad.
“Don’t you care that men are dying so we can dance?” My eyes were moist with tears.
“Don’t be a spoilsport,” my sister Drusilla said. “We drug them. We don’t kill them. That’s Father’s decision, not ours.”
“But we know what he’s going to do. We know they’ll be executed.”
“Stay behind if it bothers you so much.”
I followed anyway, filled with misgivings and dread.
That night we were thirteen and didn’t know it. The twelve of us giggling and preening in our finery, admiring our new shoes; the leather soft as butter. And a thirteenth, wrapped in an invisible cloak. I felt him, when he trod on my new gown, pale pink with a bodice encrusted with pearls. I heard him, when he snapped off a silver twig by the river. Again when he snapped off a twig of gold. And again when he broke off a twig of diamonds.
“Didn’t you hear that? Didn’t anybody hear that?”
But they were laughing. Samantha was trailing her hand in the water as the boat glided by the sparkling trees and she splashed me. “That’s enough, little one. You’ve been jumpy all day.”
Twelve princes met us in twelve boats to ferry us to the castle. That night my boat was so heavy. I could feel the weight of him, our invisible follower, and my prince felt it too.
“Have you gained weight, my sweet?”
“I’ve lost weight. I get so little sleep, and my dreams are so troubled.”
“I dream only of you,” he said, his gaze intense. “Perhaps it’s the weight of my desire that makes it so hard to row tonight, or the heat of the night.”
I could hardly look at him for shyness. The heat was like a blanket that made it hard to breathe. I forgot the weight of the boat, lost in anticipation of the prince’s strong arms around me, the intoxication of the wine and music, the dizzying whirl of the dance. They were right about one thing, my sisters. Not many thirteen-year-old girls were so lucky.
That night my womanhood came upon me, a rust-colored stain on my petticoats, a thin rivulet of blood on my leg. I knew what it was, though it was my first time.
“No wonder she’s been so nervous,” Samantha said. “Our little sister is no longer a little girl. She can bear children now. Let’s celebrate!” She raised her glass of wine high and they drank a toast to my future.
I shuddered, not glad at all. I could only think of our mother, whom I barely remembered. Dead before forty, worn out after bearing twelve girls and the weight of her husband’s displeasure. “A bitch who whelps only bitches is no good to me,” Father often repeated. “I never would have married her if I’d known.” Of course, he wanted a son. It was always about that. An heir for the throne. A hero on the battlefield. A son.
Three days later, our luck turned.
If I had known that after that night I would never see my prince again, never dance in his arms, would I have paid more attention? I was feverish, plagued by cramps and lethargy. I had trouble buttoning my dress, and the night was very warm. I can almost recall the silver of the lake, the fragrance of the flowers in the underground grotto outside the castle, the blaze of candlelight in the ballroom, the gay strains of the waltz, the amorous glances of my escort. I can no longer remember what he looked like. When we made our carefree farewells, none of us knew that our charmed girlhood was over.
We assembled the next morning in the throne room, rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, expecting the usual.
Father sat on his golden throne, hands resting on his meaty thighs. His face was very red. His jowls trembled like jelly as he leaned forward and barked at the scrawny old soldier, “Where have my disobedient daughters been? Why are their shoes in tatters every morning?”
He always asked the same question. The men were always struck dumb.
But the old soldier surprised us all. One by one, he laid the tokens of our three nocturnal journeys at our father’s feet. The twig of silver. The twig of gold. The twig of diamonds. The golden cup. He described the underground castle, the twelve princes, and our revelry. Father’s face became brick red with anger as he narrowed his eyes at us, and we clutched each other’s hands, fearing his retribution.
“You’ve done well,” he said to the old soldier. “According to our bargain, you may choose one of my daughters as your bride, and you will inherit the throne when I die.”
We looked at one another in dismay. I held my breath.
“I’m already an old man,” the soldier said. “With your permission I’ll marry your oldest daughter Drusilla.”
Was it a betrayal of my sister to feel such relief?
And so began a dark era for us all. Father increased his tyrannical control after he learned of our transgressions. There were no more outings. We never knew who might be observing us, clad in the old soldier’s invisible cloak, only that there were eyes and ears all around us. After Father died, it became even worse. Ours became a kingdom ruled by men for the glory of men.
They have been years of drudgery for Drusilla, who has borne seven children to the new King—three girls and four boys. No charming prince, the old soldier repulsed her from the beginning, and it has only become worse as he ages. A very old man now, with vacant eyes and spittle on his unshaven chin, he sits on Father’s throne surrounded by his cronies. Military men, all of them. Generals and officers and veterans of foreign wars. The kingdom’s coffers are emptied as army after army departs, and then refilled with the spoils of war. So many of the young men, resplendent in their uniforms (my nephews included) never returned.
Father and then his successor married us off, one after the next, some of us two by two as two pairs of my sisters married brothers. I hoped to escape their fates, but ten years ago my newly crowned brother-in-law handed me over to a coarse, thick-lipped officer named Reinhold. The best that can be said of my husband is that he is often away with his troops. We have a lovely eight-year old daughter. As she grows, I hope that she will treasure dreams that remain underground and outlive her father. May she dance with fairy tale princes and never know the hot breath and heavy paws, the stinking breath of a real man.
I have difficulty separating premonitions and desires, but often I dream of battlefields flowing with blood, soldiers armed with sabers slashing at each other, heads rolling into ditches. They stare at me, eyes wide open, and I stare back. There are no tears in my eyes.