I who long to grow
I look outside myself, and the tree inside me grows.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Like a night-breeze in summer, they felt her presence with joy. And as the girl child wafted through the palace, she captivated one and all. She grew to be a great beauty with a magnificence quite unsurpassed, like a rosy sunset cloud, with a full moon rising near. Every grace she commanded, every skill she possessed. Her arrows were the keenest, she conquered with her words.
Emperors from far and near sent emissaries for her hand. ‘I shall meet each one in person, then choose among them for my mate,’ the Princess proclaimed. The King, her father, abided by her wishes and with a grand retinue of officials the Princess set forth. In each court she was received with much pageantry and pomp, and emperors sought to outdo each other satisfying her every whim.
For four years she had travelled, she had met three hundred kings, yet no one did she find worthy to sit by her side.
One evening, as her royal caravan was crossing a mountain pass, hordes of savage horsemen with shields and spears poured forth. They slew her soldiers. They killed her courtiers. They captured her slaves. They robbed her treasures… and led her on foot to their wild old leader.
‘Release her,’ he thundered, as she advanced in the torchlight’s glow, with her purple mantle billowing and heavy anklets clinking. She cast off her crimson silk veil, she drew out her golden dagger. ‘I demand the heads of the warriors who speared my captains brave. I wish to be escorted back to my own kingdom,’ she cried. ‘Now fashion me a palanquin – the best that you can make. I shall depart at day-break,’ the Princess declared.
‘Who are you?’ asked the savage warlord, ‘that you address me thus!’ ‘I am the Princess. And that is enough.’ She grew taller in her anger, and her countenance shone red. The warlord swept up one arm to shield her from his sight. ‘Lead her away,’ he cried, not looking, ‘tomorrow she must be freed. Leave her down beyond the mighty river. Let her wonder as she chooses. An evil spirit of the icy wastes, that’s what she must be.’
In the grey light of dawn, the Princess stood free, alone on the bank of the cold wide river. The hem of her robes flapped wetly with each step she took, but she strode into the thick forest which gaped like an emerald cave. Wherever she wandered a great silence fell, as if all living creatures had fled in alarm. ‘Give me food,’ she said to the trees, but no shower of fruit followed. ‘Fetch me water,’ she said to the swans, but they flew away with strong white strokes. ‘I want new clothes,’ she said to the fawns, but they leapt away like copper bows untwanged. ‘Give me your light,’ she called to the tiger, but his golden body slunk into the green.
Up a craggy hilltop, she climbed fast and sure, and from its summit called, ‘I am The Princess, do you hear?’ ‘The Princess, the Princess,’ the echoes waved back faint. ‘The Princess, the Princess,’ the hills sent back her claim.
She stayed on the hilltop for three days and three nights, then made her way down to the slow curving river. She learnt to pick berries and dig deep for roots. She learnt to cup her palms to drink the spring waters. Her clothes were torn by brambles, her face was scratched by thorns, she grew brown and nimble, her grip became very strong. She slept on massive branches, she dressed herself with leaves.
And one day on her journey, she spied a boatman gathering reeds. ‘Carry me across the waters,’ she went to him and said. ‘I will reward you in my father’s kingdom. On that you have my word.’ He dropped the reeds when he saw her but then he laughed aloud. ‘Who are you?’ he chuckled merrily, ‘wandering alone in this wildness.’ ‘I’m The Princess,’ she replied, ‘now swift be at your oars.’ ‘A Princess, did you say?’ and he laughed a little more. ‘My heart is large, mad woman so ‘I’ll take you to the other shore.’ He ploughed the wild white waters, and he dropped her at a creek.
She lay, with the waters lapping her hair and looked up at the sky. She saw cloud shadows cross her body, she heard the grasses call. She rolled her back to the skies, and with her head on her arms she slept.
Thick fog wet her face when she awoke and she stumbled along the marshes, not knowing where she was. She followed the bog fires darting like strange orange swallows. She let her feet take over and carry her where they wished. Her knees brushed something soft and heavy and she bent over to see. A sheep’s eyes met hers and it bleated into her face. Quickly the veils of mist lifted, the hills became soft and green. Two shepherd families were sitting amid their sprawling flock. ‘Come here,’ they called, ‘we’ve eaten, but we have some scraps for you.’ The children gathered around her. They lifted up her hair. They pulled away her remaining earring and held it against the sun. ‘Who are you?’ asked the elders, as she was gulping down their food. ‘How is it you have but one earring, beggar woman? Who was it you killed?’ They stood around her in a circle with their staffs planted on the ground. ‘I come from a far-off kingdom. I am The Princess,’ she began. ‘Now, beggar,’ said their leader, ‘we don’t want liars here. Out with the truth, you murderer, for your own good, speak.’ She saw the wall of their bodies. And in the shafts of lights between them, she saw her father’s court.
‘This creature isn’t my daughter,’ he said, and strode away. The emperors who had come a-courting didn’t give her a second glance. ‘She doesn’t read the sacred texts, she cannot sing the ancient hymns. Clearly, she is not the one we seek,’ her teachers spoke in measured tones. ‘She does not ride, she cannot fight, she’s of no use here,’ the King’s commander said. ‘I am The Princess, the very same. I can do all the things you ask. The Princess – I am she – It’s just that you can’t see…’ she cried, then swooned upon the earth.
‘So, you are up, my little one,’ an old woman stroked her brow. ‘Come, drink this brew, my princess, and you will feel quite fine.’ ‘At last! You know me.’ The Princess laughed and hugged the woman tight. She felt the snowflakes on her cheeks like drops of honeyed milk. ‘Of course, I do. Now walk, the snow is deep,’ the old woman gently smiled. ‘I’m she who is courted by a thousand kings, I’m she who rules the lands. I’m noble, keen and beautiful, The Princess – I am she.’
‘Indeed, if that is so, then I know your story well,’ the old woman gravely spoke. ‘But since that is no longer true, who are you, young woman, who wanders in these storms?’
‘Then who am I, old woman. Tell me, who am I?’ The Princess almost wept.
‘I’m just an old woman gathering twigs. This question you must ask yourself.’ She kissed her head, then freed herself and dissolved into the whiteness of the snow.
‘Who am I?’ The Princess asked the breeze. ‘Tell me,’ she whispered to the rocks with her ear to their mineral strands. She asked the coloured waters, she asked the jewelled sky. She leant against the tree trunks, and sought her answers there. All she saw was beauty, all she saw was life though she didn’t recognize it so. She picked up an ant she’d stepped on, and asked the dying thing, ‘Do you have the answer, tiny one, as you breathe your last?’ Its crumpled body shivered, then lay against her palm. She vowed to find the answer. She withdrew into a cave guarded by phosphorescent plants. And in its gathered silence, she thought about her quest.
She emerged to buildings towering into a sky blank and dry. Between them ran streets emptied, without a whisper, without a sigh. Flimsy rags piled like dirty slush on either side, some shreds floated like bat wings ripped yet adrift. Deep mines ringed the City like a moat of nightmares with blackened throats agape; not a single stream of light escaped. ‘What is this horror that I see?’ The Princess asked, ‘Where is my friend the Forest? Where are the ponds thick with lotuses in which sleep pollen powdered bees? Where the skies of painted delight that like my mind change colour? Answer! If anyone be alive!’
Hollowness blew from the buildings’ dark mouths and empty eyes. The City’s structures emitted heat; the ground burnt like embers under her feet, her heart’s petals charred in grief. ‘Who has caused this death?’ she asked a whirlwind twirling past, it passed without a reply, trailing sorrow in its path.
‘Why is there no water?’ she asked the ravaged space. Barrenness stared at blankness without a single wink. She wondered, Is this desolation in me or does it lie outside? Or are both the same — a fantasy without containing walls?
She shuddered, and asked aloud again: What kind of war causes such devastation?
How long was its causation?
When is its cessation?
When no answer came, she crumpled like a castoff chrysalis, she was a used and aimless thing.
But then once more she remembered she was a princess still. She stood. Shook out her hair, stretched her limbs.
Striding through empty paths she spotted a thistle trusting up between broken bricks. The Princess bent low, so low her eyelashes brushed its stem. She whispered. ‘Dear One, may my eyelids peel, may I dream up harmonies where everything speaks again.’
As her eyes lifted, she saw a scorpion scuttling by. ‘Friend,’ she said, ‘I’m happy we meet. If there’s one of you, there are two; may I please walk with you awhile?’ She shortened her step to match its pace but it raced towards its home as if she was part of the blazing monochrome, then slid beneath a stone.
The Princess curved her body to look at the unforgiving sky. When she swished back like a thistle, she saw a rat hopping down her line of sight. “Ally, since you’re here I know there must be seeds on which you feed, and grasshoppers which you like to crunch. Predators of all kinds – from owls to foxes, dogs and cats, coyotes, snakes and badgers must follow for you’re a tasty morsel too. Come on, lead me to them please.” But the kangaroo rat wasn’t having any of that, he leapt nine feet and leapt again and leapt and leapt away.
Alone she stood on the blistered road that led as far as the eye could see. The Princess thought, All along I looked inward, forgetting the great holiness where I dwell, what holds me, feeds me, gifts me water, hope. I forgot I am of this earth however broken it may be. A wing of soot spread through her; she shivered like she hadn’t before, and like a stone she sat. Still, so still, till she felt heat warm her once more.
The Princess cupped her face in her hands; she used the imperious ‘we’ with newfound humility, as ache, as slake, as lake of possibilities. She prayed: Whatever has happened may it yet not be too late to mend. May we awaken, repair, renew ourselves and others whoever they be: marsh, mountain, mildew, mongoose or a new species birthed from death. For it’s only in this sanctum crisscrossed and scarred scarlet, green and blue with life that we can find ourselves afresh.
So the Princess wanders, sure she’ll find friends someday, sure secret wilderness will again appear before her nomadic feet; she’s prepared to work on soil and seas under stars that drift like sequins flung on ink.