The Princess and the Ghost

by Jessie Suk Roy

"There once was a princess," Rose says, "who was under a curse from the very day she was born. She grew to be seventeen and was very beautiful, but the curse made her prick her finger on a — a funny spinning thinglike a rose thorn, and fall asleep." Rose doesn’t know what the spinning thing was called, but it hardly matters. She still remembers the prick and the sudden dizziness as clearly as if it were yesterday.

"When she woke up, she was trapped inside a tower with only a white rose for company — the only white rose in the world. So every day she watered it and waited for her prince to come. All around the tower grew hundreds of wild thornyrosebushes whose thorns killed anyone who tried to pass. But after a hundred years had passed, a prince with a heart as pure as a white rose came riding by. He, too, tried to reach the tower, and because his heart was so pure the roses bloomed for him and let him pass safely."

Ah, the ghost says, recognizing his own part in the story. And what then?

"The princess," Rose says, then catches herself. "I don’t remember," she lies. "I don’t remember at all. I wish I did."

The ghost smiles, clearly disappointed. I wish I did too, he says, gently, and he is telling the truth. But it’s all right. We’ll give it time, and I’m sure one of us will remember, someday.

* * * * *

Rose has a small garden on the top level of the tower, where the sunlight is brightest and the only window faces south. The ghost doesn’t come here often, so it would be a good place to be alone… if it weren’t for the twisted, shrivelled rosebush with its single cut stem. Rose is careful not to look at it as she comes up the stairs.

Someday. Rose walks in the garden, alone for once, and is careful not to look at the shriveled rosebush with its single cut stem. The ghost has asked that story of her every day for the past year and a day, and never remembered it. He remembers nothing after his death — indeed, he does not even realizethat he is a ghost. He knows nothing except that he is in a tower with a princess whom he cannot remember rescuing. It has never occurred to him that she might never have been rescued at all, and he has never wondered why there are no white roses in the garden, as there are in the story. Rose supposes that this is a blessing — it is not something she wants to explain to him.

"Explain to who?" A small golden snake by the path raises its head and flickers its tongue at her. "Here, Princess, by the path."

"Hello, little snake," Rose says politely, only a little surprised. "Was I talking to myself? I’m sorry. I often-"

"Brood about your tragic fate? Yes, I know. I know a lot of things, Princess. I am a dragon, after all."

Rose nearly smiles at the little snake’s blatant lie. "What would a snake — I mean, a dragon — know about tragic fates?"

"Plenty. My ancestors kept princesses as pets, you know, and most of them came to quite tragic ends. But in this case, I think it might be because I’ve been watching you play with your little ghost–Prince."The snake eyes her slyly. "Hardly an intelligent thing to do, Princess."

"No, I suppose a dragon wouldn’t understand kindness," Rose retorts, stung.

"Kindness? Do you really believe that?" The snake’s eyes glitter bright black. "Do you love him, this ghost of yours? Would you die for him? Because you are dying, Princess, one slow day at a time, wearing your life away inside this tower."

"The door is locked!" Rose protests. "I was never rescued. How can I —"

"Did you ever try it?"

Suddenly, Rose realizes she never has. The realization takes her breath away like a bucket of cold water dumped over her head. "I. . .never. But that changes nothing. I deserve to die here, for killing him. . . and the rose. . ."

The snake sighs a hissing sigh. "There is one rose left, Princess, and her life you can still save."

Rose understands him perfectly, this strange, deceitful little reptile. "She will die for her crime, snake," she replies bitterly, and turns to walk inside. But then there is a sound of sudden thunder, and she whirls to see wings wide and golden and a serpentine tail already disappearing into the vast blue sky.

Rose sits down on the marble bench, her knees weak. So that’s what a dragon looks like, she thinks. And what is she going to do now? Because, oh, if only she could have dismissed him as a lying little snake, everything would have been fine. But he was right. He was telling the truth.

And there was supposed to be a happy ending. Rose knows this, as surely as she knows the lore of the flower for which she is named. She knows her own story from start to finish, and knows exactly what happened to make it all go wrong.

The ghost does not.

"Oh, dear," she says, aloud. Then, slowly, she gathers up her skirts and heads in. She has a story to tell.

* * * * *

The ghost is quiet when she comes in, but he looks up and smiles. Hello, Princess.

"I found the ending," Rose says, quickly. She is afraid that if she stops to think about what she is doing, she will lose her nerve again. "In the garden. Would. . . would you like to hear it now?"

Ah! The ghost pats the stone bench. Yes, come, sit by me. Rose does and he lays his insubstantial hand over hers. Rose shivers a little; she can see the faint outline of his hand over hers, but there is nothing there.

"There once was a princess," she starts. "A princess who was locked in a tower, her only companion a single white rose. She waited a hundred years for someone to let her out, but no one came, for the tower was surrounded by thorny rosebushes that killed anyone who tried to enter.Finally, a prince tried to reach the tower,and because his heart was as pure as a rose, the real ones bloomed for him and let him pass."

The story flows easily, now that her mind is made up. It seems she has never told the story so quickly before, and here they are already at the ending. She stops and takes a deep breath. She has never told this part of the story before, and she wants to get it right.

"When the princess saw the prince coming, she was. . . she was frightened. She had lived in the tower for a hundred years, speaking only to roses, and the prince came wearing strange clothes, riding a strange horse, with all the weight of a hundred years of witchcraft on him. So she tooka knife and cut the white rose, and the prince felldead because the rose was his heart and the princess had taken it away. . ."

Oh, the ghost says. Oh, I remember now. And even as Rose watches, he fades until he can hardly be seen. "I’m sorry," she says, helplessly. "It’s all my fault — I’m so, so sorry. . ."

Don’t be, the ghost says. He is almost entirely gone now, but if Rose looks hard she can still see him glimmering against the light. It was only the curse. . .I forgive you. . 

And just like that, he is gone.

* * * * *

After that, there is nothing left to do but leave. Rose doesn’t pack — she has only a silver hairbrush, a packet of hair pins, and a handful of dresses, a hundred years out of style. She is not leaving much behind.

She marches down to the tower door, and. . . stops, with her hand on the handle. She has never tried the door, in a hundred years, and she is, abruptly, terrified of what she might see. The body of the prince, perhaps? Or the thicket of roses, hung with the bones of a hundred more princes? But the dragon’s honesty gives her resolve,and the prince’s forgiveness gives her strength. She nerves herself, and turns the handle.

The door opens, and light floods in. Instead of bones or a blooming, thorny tangle, Rose can see plains, rolling green hills, a forest, and what might be the sea glittering far off in the distance. For a moment she stares at the empty sky and the vast expanse of land,so different from the tower she has known for a century. Then, gathering her courage, she steps out the door, and doesn’t look back.