twelve dancing princesses

by A. Harvey-Fitzhenry

you’ll think we were giddy as birds in spring,
as buds opening on the willow tree like green kisses.
what else but love or wine
would make twelve sisters run away when night is
and dance like we were putting out flames or crushing
dance until our shoes wore out and were as thin as we

you never met father.
he had hard wide angry hands
and mother never learned to dance or disappear.
she was a candle flame under his icy winter glare.
we danced because we were cold and there was nothing
else to do.

it was our way of screaming,
though the bards and the storytellers
only saw satin slippers and the delicate arches of
princess feet.
but even princesses blister when they dance from dusk
to dawn.

when father unlocked our door in the morning,
his twelve starlings all sleeping together, precious
as pearls,
he was furious and confused:
he had the only key
and yet our jeweled embroidered shoes were thin as
it was the cost that enraged him
and the not knowing.
our smiles did not help, and for that i'm grateful.
he made speeches and proclamations
and had messengers ride to the edge of the kingdom
offering gold and other rewards for the man who would
solve this mystery.

if he'd asked any of the women in the castle,
mother or the chambermaids, the servant girls, the
they might have told him that we danced because
princesses can not run away,
that we danced because he would not let us speak,
that we danced to be closer to the moon, the forest,
the rain;
that we snuck out of a secret door painted behind one
of the headboards.
they all knew the mystery, but no one gave us away
because father never thought to ask
the women
and because they longed to follow.

the first to arrive was the third son of a second
or a cousin to the high priest
or just a knight wandering.
we only knew him as the first one,
the one father pushed into our rooms with that smile
we all hated.
we never asked his name and he never asked ours.
he thought he would get twelve kisses and twelve babes
in arms
and he was wrong.
we gave him twelve smiles and a cup of spiced wine
and he thought it proper and encouraging and drank it
and sat in his chair and crossed his ankles and
watched us carefully
until the wine began to work and he slept deeply
and dreamt of princesses dancing in tall grass
and starlight.

when he woke we were already dressed in our favourite
watching him quietly, perched on the edge of our beds,
like hummingbirds.
he was still as a deer and suddenly we felt like
the key rattled in the lock like gilded bones,
that awful clatter that made us lean towards the
hidden door
like a wheat field under a heavy wind.
we didn’t know it then but perhaps we should have
father said he acted like a king that day and
the first of our watchers died on the gallows
swinging like a milkpod burst into
the pale pale stuff of legends.
and we, the twelve, danced
because we didn’t know what else to do
and sometimes you die a little when you do nothing at

viii) the next one told us he was a knight.
we were going to tie him up, knowing he would not
drink the wine,
not now,
but father would find him in the morning
and how would it look to be bested by twelve
and besides the storytellers would only leave that
part out.
so we hit him over the head with a pot
and dragged him down the tunnel into the night
and left him in the forest with an unlit candle and a
small fire
to keep the wolves away.
in the morning, father told everyone he had had him
had his head cleaved from his worthless body
and everyone believed him.
i still think about that knight sometimes.
i hope the wolves were kind and that he thinks of us
sometimes too,
not as princesses or dancing girls but as sisters who
showed him the way out.
that is our most precious gift
in this place.

it was the third prince and the third night
but you probably knew that already.
father never did have any imagination
even when he died, not long after, he wasn’t killed by
a falling tree or poisoned meat or a candle left
carelessly by his bed.
he died during dinner in the middle of a speech.
it was a lovely wedding gift and i’m sure my eldest
sister still remembers it fondly.
you’ll think me hard
not a princess or a pale girl
but someone with too many teeth.
i ought to suffer delicately, in velvet corsets with
star-lily eyes.
that’s how it’s always done in the old stories.

we danced savagely and fiercely that night
and i’m not sorry for it.
if he hadn’t locked us away every night
we would have locked the door from the inside
and we did sometimes because no one listens to
especially when they are beautiful.
so we danced
and the last prince drank the wine even though he had
heard the stories
and the moon rose and poured in through the windows
and it was full and ancient and called us out to the
where the swans slept and the forest folk still kept
to the old ways.

it was in the tunnel that i first heard it,
a slight scrape, dirt loosening from the walls.
but no one listens to the youngest,
not even her sisters.

they said it was a rat and i was just nervous and
i followed, the last in a line of princesses walking
through the damp,
following the tracks of our shoes from previous
i was the last to emerge into the cool wind off the
and the moon burned above me and when i turned back
i thought i saw a shadow, something darker in the dark
but then it was gone
and there was only the lake and the others waiting in
the boats.
the princes who were third sons or forgotten cousins
or had once been frogs, or wrens, or voices in the
the ones who escape --
we were the ones who danced,
because we had to.
you'd never know it to see it,
but the little island crowded with pine trees
was more precious to us than palaces and crowns of

when the boats eased into the water
i heard a faint splash, an unnecessary sound
but i knew what my sisters would say:
it was a fish or a heron in the distance
and i let them speak louder than my bones and the pale
shiver which tickled my spine.
we danced savagely and fiercely that night
and grew wings and crowns and fireflies for hair.
the clouds were like honey when we finally grew too
tired to circle the trees.
we had to run back along the hidden passageway,
stumbling with our toes and our heels pressing through
our shoes,
which gave away completely,
like spider's webs.

we were barefoot when we finally fell into our
perfectly made beds
and we could hear father’s footsteps starting to move
and then in the stairwell and that’s when we saw him,
the prince,
leaning against the locked door.
the wine he had quietly spat back into its jeweled
goblet was dark
and seemed to watch us like an eye.

he bowed to us
and for a moment we could only look at one another
and the moment shattered when my eldest sister stepped
i wanted to shout
       you were right
       it was a rat
       but not the kind you thought

but even now no one would listen to the youngest
and it didn’t matter because the key slid into the
lock with its bonedance song
and the door swung open and father was there, large
and red and furious,
and the prince only laughed and took my sister’s hand
and said they would be married without dowries and
and father thought of the gold and the pearls and the
friendship of a neighbouring kingdom
and he forgot about twelve daughters dancing a wish
under the moon to be free of him.
and in some stories the prince might have chosen me
because i was the youngest

but in this story
he chose the eldest because she knew
the way

A. Harvey-Fitzhenry writes in a old farmhouse which she shares with her husband and their pack of dogs. Her first novel Waking is a Sleeping Beauty retelling and more of her fairy tale poetry can be found in Tesseracts 11. Her favourite fruits currently include pineapple and pomegranate.

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