by Cezarija Abartis
Sleeping Beauty Falls Asleep
Rosamond tasted anger at the back of her throat, hot bile. She was fifteen, but her parents kept her in the castle as if she were a baby. Her mother’s portrait on the wall, painted when her mother was a young princess and before she married, looked down on her with a stiff smile and lumpy oatmeal cheeks. It was hard perhaps to sit still for an untalented artist who swirled colors as if he were stirring a stew pot.
Her mother was a witch, controlling Rosamond so she would not grow up. When her playmates threw a ball by the river, there was a bodyguard watching her; when there was a dance at the church, her arthritic nursemaid, Bertha, accompanied her; when there was a dinner at a friend’s house, a servant tasted her food, and all because of a dark and unbelievable prophecy that she would prick her finger. She wanted to be alone, a cloud, a wisp of a cloud, sailing across the silver moon. She wanted to be alone!
There was a hostler’s son, gentle with the horses, who had stared at her from behind a tree he had tied a dappled horse to. When Rosamond stared back at him, he blushed and ran to the barn. She liked that power. Last week her mother had told her to comport herself like a lady and not behave like the dirty-faced children from the Bottoms, that she should be improving her needlework, playing her lute, drawing flowers. Rosamond did not talk back. Then her father scolded her in the same way. She looked at the floor and counted the number of boards: one hundred.
Her father and mother left her in the care of Bertha the nursemaid and took a carriage to the adjacent kingdom, where their majesties were celebrating the birth of a new princess. Rosamond was glad she didn’t have to go admire a baby’s potato face. Her little dog, Georgie-Boy, wound around her ankles and yipped up at her.
Bertha suddenly hobbled to the outhouse. Rosamond was alone! She climbed the stairs of the west tower, with Georgie-Boy following, and from the window surveyed the kingdom that would be hers–the patchwork of farms, meadows, forests, gliding rivers. She could not decipher a design, just squares and trapezoids of hills and lands. Perhaps when she was queen, she could make a spiral or paisley pattern in the garden. One brown bunny scurried toward a bush. She turned from the window and noticed a low red door at the end of the room. She moved toward it on tiptoes. Certainly her parents would not approve. Georgie-Boy whined. She bent her head to go through the doorway. An old woman with a cap over her straggly gray hair sat at a wooden contraption with a wheel. She motioned toward Rosamond. “Would you like to try this, my dear? It’s a spinning wheel. But first make the thread with a spindle and distaff. Here’s a puff of wool, a small tuft.”
Rosamond took the spindle from the old woman and turned it like a top. “What fun!”
She looked at the old woman, and the spindle slid out of her hand as if it were a snake. She caught the tip of it on her finger and a bubble of blood welled up, gleaming and perfect, a crimson world. Her eyelids fluttered and she slipped to the floor. The old woman cackled and shrieked, “Alone, alone, alone.” Georgie-Boy licked at Rosamond’s hands and face. She fell into a sleep for a hundred years. She dreamed about having fun.
Sleeping Beauty Wakes
The Prince shook her by the shoulders. She coughed awake and yearned to drift back to her dream of a golden carriage and perfumed gowns. In her waking life, she had been Rosamond.
She swung her feet off the bed and stumbled to the tower window. The world slept outside–birds on treelimbs, a lamb on the meadow grass, its legs folded beneath it, far from its mother, who lay on her side beside a copse. The briars surrounding the tower trembled, sighed, and fell away. Birds roused themselves and began to sing. The lamb struggled to its wobbly legs and bleated.
Rosamond had dreamed of flowers and gardens; the prince who had come to save her dreamed of an empire, a queen, an heir to continue his legacy.
Her chest hurt, as if she had been coughing for a hundred years. She asked for warm soup. He looked all around; of course he had no soup. He would go downstairs and to the tower’s kitchen. She told him to wait and they could go down together.
He wanted to tell her how his grandfather was losing his memory, so that his seventy years were disappearing; she wanted to tell him how the coughing hurt her chest, as if cut by a serrated knife. She covered her mouth to push a cough back. She would never touch a spindle again. She rubbed her hand against her side. She wore no bracelet, no ring.
The ceiling was painted with constellations, the dragon next to his vanquisher, Hercules, and above the dragon, Perseus and Andromeda, perfect couple. Of course, the dragon would never overtake the lovers. She breathed out. For an instant, she wanted them to be devoured, to return to the soft abyss. The prince glanced at the floor with its one bland rug of overlapping circles and squares. Her eyes fluttered, almost closed, until he grasped her shoulders and shook her. “You’re the Sleeping Beauty,” he said. “I’m William.”
Her head nodded. She was going back to the abyss, back to dreaming. He shook her again.
She kept clearing her throat as if there were a clot she could not swallow. She bent forward and coughed once, twice, and stopped. He watched her and finally sat on the bed. He stroked his head. He was trying to hold his memories in: riding here from a distant kingdom, leaving his weeping mother and forgetful grandfather, seeing large-eyed children who coughed and spit, and then encountering a comatose drowsing kingdom, the bramble bush sleepily weaving around the tower and castle. She saw the dark moat in his face and put her cool hand on his brow. Was she supposed to take care of him, this stranger from a faraway kingdom? She had only just awakened.
He took a deep breath; she did too and started coughing. They passed the window, where a breeze flicked the leaves outside, and a sparrow flew to a higher branch.
He led the way down the circular stairway. The stone seemed even harder beneath his feet than when he crept up the stairs. She coughed again. They would soon live happily, he told himself.
Sleeping Beauty Can’t Sleep
She hadn’t slept for a few days. When she last slept, she dreamt of a great lizard taking shape from the side of a building, a dinosaur that started out as a mural but which roared to life from the brick facade. Or did dinosaurs hiss? The poor monster couldn’t sleep either, she supposed.
Perhaps it was that the hundred years of sleep she had undergone was like putting sleep in a bank. Sleep credit. Perhaps she would never have to sleep again.
Beside her, William snored, his small spade beard on his young chin, acne on his forehead less fiery than before. They had married and were now united forever. Was anything forever? Only marriage? Death, too, they said that was forever.
She sat up against the pillow and stared at the night window.
Outside the tower bedroom, the rain splashed down on the spring grass. She could hear the blades opening their childish root mouths and drinking the rain and chortling afterward. The grass didn’t think about the overrunning of the banks and flooding of the meadows, or the following drought, or the fire that would spread through the thorn forest and to the meadow, choking the small voles and beetles and rabbits and birds. Nobody cared about them really.
When she and William had children, she would be–the two of them would be–happy. Sleeping William’s breath sighed out in a sweet, attractive hiss. She envied him. She kissed him awake and asked him to tell her stories, entertaining ones or sleep-inducing ones. Or stories that became real.
He rubbed his eyes and yawned; he had been dreaming of planting grain, milking cows. “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess sleeping in a tower, bewitched because her parents had not invited the bad fairy to her christening.” He kissed her left eyelid and her right eyelid and her rosebud mouth. What a beauty she was when she was sleeping, and even more beautiful when she was awake. He heard rain swishing through the leaves. He hoped the rabbits were safe in a hutch, the sheep and cows in the barn, the chickens in their henhouse, the robins in their nest. The wind battered the leaves. The farmers needed the rain. The country would bloom again. Through the open window he could smell the rich earth. The rain penetrated the fertile earth outside. He remembered kissing her the first time and her slow awakening. She stretched and hummed. Now he kissed her again. He smelled her salty skin. She climbed on top of him.
Sleeping Beauty Wants Her Baby To Sleep
Rosamund dandled the baby in her lap, but she still screamed as if she were being stabbed. She held her baby tight in her arms. She wanted her baby to fall asleep, so that she could sleep as well. Her William would not be coming home from his visit to their neighbor, the White King, for another week. The nursemaid was sick and coughing. Their baby was entirely Rosamund’s to watch, feed, entertain, calm.
Rosamund had told her husband to enjoy his brief reprieve and to bring back a red rose. It was summer; it would not be a difficult. Last year he wanted to make her a bed of rose petals. This summer they just wanted to sleep on whatever surface was free.
She paced with her crying baby around the room and walked to the tower window. She held the bundled child on the window sill and the crying stopped. A flower-soft June breeze blew across the baby’s face, and her eyelids fluttered. She began to blow bubbles between her lips.
Rosamund sat on a chair and unbundled the baby, slowly unwrapped the blankets, the fine woolen one presented by her mother the queen, and the soft cotton one crocheted by William’s mother. The little one kicked her fat legs up in the air in a semicircle.
“You’re so pretty, I could eat you.” Rosamund held her in her lap. She put her tiny toes in her mouth, and the baby chortled. She said the old rhyme and wiggled each of the toes, ending with the smallest toe. “And this little piggy went wee wee wee, all the way home.” She wiggled the little toe and tickled the bottom of the foot. Her baby gurgled happily.
“I never eat pork,” Rosamund said. “Pigs are intelligent creatures. I’d rather eat you!” she tickled her baby and sat up. “I want you to fall asleep.” She carried her baby to the window sill. “Don’t fall.” The baby stretched her arms toward her mother.
“Once upon a time, a pretty girl slept for a hundred years. You’d think that would be enough, but she still got tired.” Rosamund wiped at her eyes. “Why don’t you fall asleep, pretty little baby?” She shook her baby’s hand.
“Baby, darling, Mama will toss you up in the air, would you like that?”
Sleeping Beauty Grows Old
On the hospital bed, he joked that nothing seemed to be working anymore: not the plumbing or hearing or eyesight. And now the breathing was going. “I’m glad, though, that I’m not aging alone.”
She thought he looked paler today, bluish. “You’re glad that I’m getting old too?”
“You are my wisdom, and wisdom comes with old age.” He dropped his head back on the pillow, exhausted from trying to raise it. His lungs were filling up and gurgling. Soon they would be completely full, and that would be that. Pneumonia was the Old Man’s Friend. He could use a friend–so many of his were gone, all of them really. “You will stay behind.” He pointed his gnarled finger at her. “I was kidding before. You’re not to come with me.”
“You don’t tell me what to do.” She stood up, shuffled to the window sill, and placed the flower on it. “I brought you a potted plant.”
“I don’t want any dope.”
“It’s a geranium.” She sat by his hospital bed and pulled out her embroidery to work on. Here was the scene of a prince in a green jerkin climbing a stone tower in which the princess had been sleeping for a hundred years. That prince didn’t wheeze and clutch his chest; the princess inside was slender and fluid as a bird. She glanced around the hospital room. It was clean and had a bright window. If he raised his head, he could see an oak tree leafing out.
When they were young, he boasted that he kissed her awake, that he performed miracles, won her heart. Now there were no more miracles.
He breathed out. “Bring me another blanket. I’m cold, and my chest is scraped raw. ”
She drew herself up from the chair, shuffled to the closet and raised herself on tiptoes to reach for a thin blanket, which she doubled and spread over him. She was warm and took off her cardigan and laid it on his feet. “Always a trouble maker.”
He kept his eyes closed. “Used to like that.”
She caressed his forehead. “Yes, I did.” She made her way to her chair by holding on to the side of the bed. She did like his boldness, confidence, impulsiveness, his heroism moderated by his indolence. They had a terrible fight once, stupid really but keen and damaging. He had taken the shawl her grandmother gave her and put it under their sick dog, Georgie-Boy, fifty years ago, and she flew at him, willing to scratch out his eyes, except he immediately apologized and wept for causing her pain. Her shawl was ruined, but Georgie-Boy recovered. They never mentioned that again.
“You were not much to look at,” she said, “almost puny, but look at you, how long you lasted!”
“You liked my jokes. The one about the woman with the large breasts who–”
“I didn’t like that one.”
“I know. I just said it to embarrass you.”
“I wasn’t embarrassed. I was humiliated for you.”
He raised his head and stared at the window and the oak tree which was a green speckled blur. He coughed and tapped his chest. “It sounds like it’s creaking in there, an old house that’s creaking.”
“I’m going to kiss you.” She slowly rose out of her chair. “You kissed me awake, and now it’s my turn.” She put her lips on his smooth dry cheek and then his sweet lips.
Cezarija Abartis’ Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, Pure Slush, Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012; and “To Kiss a Bear” was selected for Wigleaf?s Longlist 2016. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Read more at magicmasterminds.com.
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The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review is a print and digital literary journal. We offer original fiction, poetry and nonfiction, as well as our Gallery—visual artwork and intermedia—and Groove Mix including original music by The Size Queens. Our archives include emerging and established writers, poets, artists, musicians and comedians such as Rick Moody, Cris Mazza, Eurydice, Steve Almond, Stephen Dixon, Moira Egan, David Wagoner, Zach Galifianakis and many more. We run annual print issues, the Rue de Fleurus Salon & Reading Series (DC, Baltimore and New York), as well as, the annual Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction with a first prize of $1000 and print publication.