the moon is not only beautiful
it is so far away
the moon is not only ice cold
it is here to stay
when i lay me down
will you still be around
when they put me six feet underground
will the big bad beautiful you be around?
- Cat Power, "The Moon"
She lives what paper-poets only write.
- Thomas Hardy
November had once thought insomnia was like drowning: the night bearing down with the merciless weight of an ocean, the darkness crushing her lungs, the morning as far away as light and breath and air.
She allowed herself to entertain this poetical notion, poetry being one of the few princess-like pursuits left to her. Needlework was out after the sight of a bleeding six-year-old princess made her sewing tutor faint. She enjoyed singing, though she wasn't very good at it; instruments were forbidden ever since she sliced open her fingertips trying to learn the lute and the harp. Dancing was manageable, although she was fairly certain that one of the topics that her father's ministers discussed with foreign dignitaries, at high tension diplomatic summits, was if any of their princes had the habit of stepping on their dancing partner's feet at balls. No one even dared to mention horse riding.
So instead of the ordinary past times of a nobly born young lady, November turned to the books (she wore gloves and kept a bottle of salve handy in case of paper cuts). Besides the dusty memoirs and histories of the royal family, there was poetry, romances, leather bound epics, novels in foreign languages, huge volumes of children's stories with their illuminated pages and gruesome illustrations, all lying in the palace library, many of them unread for what seemed like decades. Reading was not a particularly popular hobby in the palace, and so the library was mostly empty, except for one silent, grave librarian; November could sense his presence by the dry, dusty little cough that he took with him everywhere he treaded. It was a good place to get away from the court, to be alone with one's thoughts.
After the moon disappeared, and sleep became this fantastic, unattainable Holy Grail, she found herself in the library more and more. The longer she went without sleep, the harder it became to function; to go through the endless rounds of political and social manoeuvring required of a king's youngest daughter; to dance and smile and curtsey and nod; to remember the long names of visiting officials and stand at attention during ceremonies and endless twelve-course state dinners where August would pull funny faces when no one was looking, causing November to snort into her chilled cucumber soup and September's lips to purse into a very thin, disapproving line.
As the months passed, though, she found herself drifting even from her sisters; August especially couldn't understand why she couldn't just dance until the early hours of the morning and collapse into exhaustion like all the other young ladies of their set. The less November slept, the more it seemed like she was sleep-walking through life. And there was no one - not her sisters or her parents or other courtiers or her waiting women or the never-ending parade of doctors - who could understand that, no matter how hard she tried to explain it to them.
She thought of writing it down, maybe, of putting in down in words - but for whom? No one would read it but herself. If she wrote poetry, it would be politely complimented by her writing tutor, who deemed anything the princess wrote as "effervescent".
It was November herself who didn't understand, though, not until much later when she was choking and gasping and thrashing in deep water, bubbles streaming from her lips and her hair weeding about her face, her hands lead-heavy and bloodied from trying to tug an old wooden cross from where it was buried in the earth, at the bottom of a bog.
Insomnia isn't like drowning, she thought. Only drowning is like drowning.
She thought she could hear, past the pounding of her own heartbeat and the water's roar, Red and Perrault up on the surface, fighting all the… Things of the night that were intent on keeping the Moon buried. The Things were all teeth and tongues and strong bony fingers and shifting, sullen, flickering eyes. It made her queasy to try to make out their shapes, which seemed to change at every moment; they had too many limbs, and no matter where these limbs were attached, they always seemed to be in the wrong place. She could hear the Things shrieking, and she hoped they shrieked from the bite of Red's axe. Distantly, she wondered how long it would take for Perrault to clean all the blood and grime and mud from his claws and fur, and how much longer for him to stop complaining about it.
In between the white gushes of bubbles, thin ribbons of her blood were clouding the water; she almost thought she could taste the copper of it, a sharper note amongst the bog water and the rich, decaying earth.
In her mind, the palace healer was explaining to her parents, The princess is a very delicate creature. She must be protected at all times - even, if needs be, from herself. The thin, aging librarian had carried down heavy tomes for her, even if their weight almost toppled him over; the soup spoons were measured carefully so that they would not be too heavy and break her wrist; canopies were erected whenever she wanted to go outside for a picnic. There was one page who was hired on for the sole job of keeping away bees from the princess' royal person.
And now - now she screamed her frustration into the uncaring water, wishing she had been born a blacksmith's daughter or a horse breaker or a washer woman or even a giantess: someone strong enough to pull a cross from a grave without breaking herself along the way.
The pain was unbearable. So she bore it.
Then suddenly, she was floating dazedly through the water, loosened and not understanding. Pale light rushed everywhere, brilliantly flooding a watery grave.
Strangely enough, the eyes of the Moon were very dark. Another surprising thing was that the Moon didn't merely look cold and remote and beautiful in that alien way that November expected. Instead, the Moon wore the kind of expression that November might find on one of her sister's faces in the morning after coming through a long fever that lasted all the night. It was filled with tenderness, with recognition, with relief, and maybe even something a little like love.
And perhaps her whole life had just been one endless sleepwalking step towards this moment, one blurred together fever dream.
The Moon spoke without moving her lips.
Child, I thank you. You have earned this.
She waved one slender hand, flaring with cool white fire, over November's eyes.
Red slid through the shadows in the cavernous castle hallways, the edges of her ragged cloak fluttering behind her. Gossiping maids gave a little gasp at the sight of her and shied away; tonight, she ignored them. Sometimes, she bared her teeth at them in a hunter's grin and watched them scamper, but that was an antic for better times.
She stalked into the familiar room. The guards recognised her, and, uneasily, let her pass; not that it mattered if they wouldn't. The weight of the axe in her basket was comforting and familiar. There are rules, some idiot in a uniform with pretty little tassels babbled to her once, about carrying blades in the palace; only nobles and the princess' guard… The queen waved her hand and he fell silent. There were allowances made for her and the Cat, Red was made to understand, seeing as they were all a sudden so heroical, bringing back the run away princess and all - even if the princess was in worse shape than when she left. Red just hefted her basket higher, and idly played with the wooden handle of her axe.
The Cat was there, predictably, talking to himself. Shirt sleeves rolled up and wee little grey bodies piled up in a corner, his tail twitching restlessly. Once upon a time, she would've curled her lip and asked the Cat, mockingly, why he hadn't yet got gone, or was he just enjoying the fresh cream that the palace cooks put out for him that much? Maybe he just liked all the crook-tailed beasties that the bloody fool with the crown, November's father, let run about his daughter's room so that the Cat could have something to play with, even if it put the resident rat catchers out of a job?
Many things had happened, though, since the day that the Cat came smugly trailing behind November in his fancy leather boots and his frock coat. Beasts couldn't change, or stop being beasts. But sometimes, even in half-measures, they could be tamed.
"Good evening, Madame Red," the Cat said, turning in one fluid motion to face her. His eyes were bright and hectic, his ears and nose quivering. "As you can see, the little princess still isn't in quite the mood to be receiving visitors."
Talk, talk, talk. She understood why he let his tongue run away with him now, though. There was nothing to distract him from the sound of November's slowly rising and falling breath, except for his own voice.
November was changed from those early days just as the Cat was: she was no longer a thin, bruise-eyed little scrapling shivering in the rain and almost swallowed by the pelt of a wolf. The purplish smudges that always lingered beneath her eyes had vanished and were smoothed out by her long sleep. She was blooming now, roses in her cheeks like the one Red had once snipped from the garden of a Beast. Her hair gleamed redly in the candlelight, spilling against her pillow, freshly brushed by one of the always hovering maids. There was not a single scratch or mar or bruise upon her, which in itself was strange. Cushioned by layers of silk and down and lace like some sort of living doll all done up in shades of peach and gold and rose, she was perfectly healthy, the most whole that Red had ever remembered seeing her.
Perfectly healthy, except that she would not wake.
"It's very unprofessional of her, I should think," the Cat said. His voice was strange, the velvet in it becoming more than a little worn. "To be asleep on the job. To sleep so. To make sleeping her job. Don't you find it unprofessional? We should seek out the proper authorities, and write them a strongly worded letter."
He paced the floor, tail still all a-twitchy. His boots had been shed in a corner, and his claws dug into the thick carpet of the bedroom floor.
"This place is making you batty, Cat," she said. "Soon you'll be cuddling rats."
The Cat burst into laughter, high and unnatural and going on for too long. "Cuddling rats! That's a good one," he said. "Now, you know who I'd like to catch between my claws? Those bloody doctors." His words became harsh and dark, no longer any pretense of velvety smoothness, as if he'd cut out his own silver tongue. "With their quack theories and their useless conjecture, and all their hackneyed storybook stunts... I'll claw out the eyes of the next princely prat who tries to pucker up."
It was the Cat's madness that made up Red's mind, in the end.
"Put your boots back on, Puss," Red said, glad that she never put off her travelling cloak, despite the hesitant suggestions of the royal tailor. "Leaving tonight. We're going to find a cure."
He possessed, he was both humble and proud to admit, what one might call a silver tongue. Red possessed, in much blunter terms, a silver axe. Together, they perfected the art of persuasion. He should have been irked at the moments when his dazzling wordplay was not quite enough to gather the information they required, when bared fangs and unsheathed claws spoke louder than words. Instead, he found within himself a deep sense of animal satisfaction at smelling another creature's fear, after too long of being cooped up in the palace with only corpses for company.
Of rats, his mind supplied automatically, as he tried not to think of November's still, sleeping body. Yes. Of rats.
He and Red moved through the landscape much faster without the little princess. It helped that it was far safer to travel at night, even though the sight of the moonlight serenely lighting up forest paths still made him hiss.
"So bloody tranquil," he snarled once to Red. Deep inside of her cloak, he saw her give the shadow of a nod, acknowledging his fury, accepting it. He and Red rarely spoke to each other, instead communicating in scattered half-phrases, saving their voices for when they come to possible sources: flattering, bullying, tricking, using any means at their disposal to find the means of waking up their sleeping beauty.
Between Red's stoicism and these joyless interrogations, their journey - which had started off sounding very noble and heroic and selfless and the sort of thing he detested on principle, i.e. the sort of thing November would have loved - was an extremely depressing waste of his natural gift at verbal wizardry. So in his mind, he composed entire speeches and conversations that he would have with November when she awoke. Naturally, since he was occupied with these fictional exchanges during those long waking hours when he and Red trudged through godforsaken landscapes where no birds sang, these conversations spilled over to his dreams. Naturally.
In his dreams, she trailed around her bedroom restlessly in the frilly nightgowns and the quilted silk bed jackets of an invalid. She ran her hands over the tapestries on the walls, the delicate knick knacks, and the crystal vases of fresh cut flowers that the Queen ordered to be changed every day. These conversations were very vivid, and he prided his mind on its powers of realistic invention: the November in his brain chewed her lip, furrowed her brow, brushed out her braided hair, tried in vain to hunt for something else to wear except for the endless array of nightgowns, and got cross at him when he said the word "altruistic". A thousand small expressions flickered over her face, minute and subtle - expressions he had never been half so fascinated by when she was before him in real life. He supposed some corner of his subconscious mind had made a habit of watching her, if only for the sheer entertainment value of her strange fits and piques; for a court-trained royal, she could be so astonishingly transparent. More than any man, beast, or magical being of his acquaintance, in fact.
Of course, he did more in these little nocturnal ramblings than just stare at her. He told her all the stories he knew, and then all the lies, and when he ran out of both, he made up a few more. He told her of all the strange, true things that happened to him and Red on their travels, some of which outdid his most outlandish inventions. Then there were times that the present was so dismal that he began to tell her stories from the past - before he met her. He found himself telling her that he had once made a manservant cry, after said manservant had forgotten to starch his blisteringly white collar before he woke up in the morning. November's hands lingered on the collar which she had straightened for him, limp and greying. Her hands were surprisingly warm and he woke from his dream with a sigh.
Another night, he told her of her Fool's marriage to his sister August, since he decided to stop waiting around for the youngest. Perrault coolly examined his nails as he reeled off the exact number of flounces in her sister's gown, and pretended not to be watching closely as November's face collapsed into relief. "Thank goodness! One less pest to deal with. Did you know that the day before the wedding, he didn't even know my name?"
And on a night when she was still and quiet and would not move from her bed, he told her how in the village pubs and inns and at festivals and around campfires, they were already telling stories of the princess who went to the End of the World and freed the sleeping Moon. She would stir a little, sometimes and say, "Oh, I like that. Tell me that one again."
Once - he didn't know how - he ended up with his head on her lap as she stroked his head as if he were any common, flea bitten house cat, and he permitted it of both himself and of her because it was a dream, because he was tired, because his favourite coat had been ruined beyond repair by a bad-tempered hawthorn bush he had managed to fall through, because he and Red had just spent three weeks tracking down a sage who lived in an underground cavern that was maddeningly difficult to find, only to find out from a cheery note that the sage had happily taken up soybean farming in the next nation over. Red had grunted, and then sank her axe into the stone wall so that it threw out sparks.
Because she was sleeping her life away, and the only way he could talk to her was through a dream.
"I have trouble telling between the two states, sometimes," he confessed. "Between waking and sleep."
"Yes," November said, softly. Her fingers stilled on the tip of his ears. "Yes. I remember that. I remember feeling like that quite often." She resumed stroking his head, and remarked, "You want a bath, Puss. Also, your boots are in a tragic state."
The more time that passed, the farther they got away from the castle of November's father, the harder his brain seemed to struggle to remember her as she was. November-in-his-mind began to fray at the edges, to speak in riddles, to have long periods of silence and staring, or bursts of energy where she would tear the silk curtains from the wall and shatter the vases and try to find some way out of the room that was always locked and barred, but which he himself passed through easily, waking or sleeping. He wondered if her madness, her curse, was catching, because after a time, he began to understand the garbled words that came out of her mouth, though none of them were in the shape of frogs.
She said, once, gesturing to the Moon outside the window, "She is always full. There are no clocks and the candles never melt down. I think the time never changes here. It is always once upon a time."
Another time, she caught one of his looks and said, "None of this was your fault, Perrault. It was never your job, or Red's, to protect me from some wicked, wicked world."
And yet another time, she sat cross-legged in bed with a large leather book open on her lap, and said, her hands tracing the sparkling blue line of a river, "I think I have always been a girl in a story. I don't feel quite real. I feel like somebody else's words."
Then another time, she was nearly hysterical. He found her slumped against the door of her bedroom, her bloodied fists dangling loosely in her silk-clad lap. She'd tried pounding on it, she said, but no one had come. No one except him.
"You'd think," she said, looking up at him and almost slurring, "they'd learn by now that you can't protect anybody, not really. Especially not princesses. Every ivory tower has a back door."
The last time he dreamed, they were a day or two away from the castle, as lost and clueless as when they had first set out almost a year ago. They were returning to the castle, yes, but only temporarily - only so that they could comfort themselves with the sight of her face, to remember why they had set out at all, to infect themselves with a little of the mad hope that had caused a coddled princess to shed her wedding gown and take to the road. To find a world that the storytellers could only dream of.
The last time he dreamed, there was nothing.
There was just an empty room, a guttering candle, and a crumpled peach silk bed jacket. The leather tome lay on the pillow where her head once rested. He found himself flipping through the atlas, idly, until he reached the blank pages that November had once told him about.
The words on the flyleaf were written in a thin, spidery script that did not seem very princess-like at all but which suited November perfectly.
I found the back door.
A day away from the castle, Perrault and Red woke up to find a barefoot girl shivering in her nightgown in the middle of their camp. She was bruised and tired and looked like she had been travelling all night, but she was also strangely elated, refreshingly alive. It was as if she'd grown since they last saw her - or rather, as if her body finally filled up all the space that it wanted to, instead of folding and compressing itself within the glittering, merciless cage of a fairy tale made out of somebody else's words.
And she looked, for maybe the first time in her life, completely awake.
"Good morning," she said. Her grey eyes danced, her mouth quivered like it was holding a secret she was just dying to spill, and almost compulsively, she curtseys. "I had the strangest dreams while I was asleep. And I have a story to tell you.”