I love it here. It’s my favourite spot in the entire garden. The way the sunlight gleams on the roof of the marble temple like a giant pearl; the weeping branches of the silver birch sashaying in the summer breeze; the immaculate lawn and bushy foliage dazzling in every imaginable shade of green. The gardens are my sanctuary: a place of peace and serenity when family frustrations are overwhelming. And yet, the tall palatial walls encircling every inch of the garden remind me that, in reality, these gardens are just a pretty part of my lifelong prison.
Seventeen years and I have still never seen the outside world nor met a single person other than my family and our staff. Father says that the real world is “no place for a princess”, but I don’t pay attention to his clichés. I don’t need to be mollycoddled any longer. Mind you, I see him so rarely these days, he probably thinks that I’m still five years old. Mother, on the other hand, tries to be a little more honest. “We want to protect you from people who wouldn’t understand. Fools who would judge you on appearance rather than your beautiful personality.” So, essentially, they want to keep me away from potential bullies and their abuse. But surely I am old enough and strong enough now to deal with whatever insults come my way. I have come to terms with the way I look. After all, I have had these scars all my life…
I don’t remember the fire at all. I was less than two years old. Father once briefly described the way the nursery was ablaze, flames raging from floor to ceiling, my little wooden cot wreathing me in fire and smoke. Mother doesn’t like to speak of it much. She usually breaks down in tears at the merest mention. It was my father who saved me, burning himself as he charged into the room and bundled me out into the cool night air. It was a miracle that I survived, or so the doctors said. My father’s advisors called it arson, blamed his political enemies and revolutionaries. But however it started, ever since that day I have been cursed with these grotesque scars all over my body; shiny, raw pink blotches and bumps and blisters, skin melted and twisted beyond recognition. My speech is impaired because of my swollen lips, and my hair grows in uneven clumps. By any standard of beauty, I am downright ugly.
So my parents have kept me locked up here for all these years, away from prying and judgmental eyes, never once glimpsing the world beyond the palace grounds. I have been a prisoner in my own home, with only our servers and cooks and gardeners to keep me company, if pitying looks and platitudes can be considered company. I have no friends… In fact, I have never met another living soul my own age. The weight of loneliness can be suffocating, like an invasive fog clouding my mind with misery. Some days I can barely bring myself to get out of bed. Mother thinks that it’s my self-esteem, that I’m too disgusted by my own ugliness to cope. She can’t comprehend that there can be more important things in life than looks.
And then, just last night, I heard them talking about me.
“What shall we do with her?”
“What can we do with her?”
“She’ll be eighteen soon, how will she ever manage?”
Like I’m a burden, an animal even. They don’t think I can rule the country, as if my visual affliction somehow impedes my intelligence or my leadership or my decision-making skills. They are just as shallow as these so-called bullies lurking outside the palace walls. That’s when I realised that my incarceration isn’t about protecting me at all. Mother and Father are ashamed of me. A monster as their legacy. A gargoyle with the family name. The only thing they are trying to protect is their own fragile reputation. And that is more upsetting than any abuse or slur I could ever face.
So once more I’ve retreated to the gardens, where the abundance of life keeps me company even though I am alone. It’s the perfect place to think. I like to get lost in the bountiful flowers and climb the aged trees and watch the birds swoop and flit and dance in the skies and wish I had wings to join them. But most of all, I like to come to the temple. I call it the temple because “mausoleum” sounds too sombre and macabre. I visit here as often as I can, because the presence of my twin brother is the best company and comfort of all. I wonder if he misses me as much as I miss him. I have practically no memory of him and yet I still miss him. I know that my parents miss him too, and it haunts them every day, particularly Father. He could not save us both from the nursery furnace and the fire claimed his son’s life. Here, beneath this shining marble dome, he has been laid to rest.
I often think about how things would have been different if he had survived. In my favourite spot, I dream about our conversations and games and adventures… even arguments! The loss of his life claimed many others, in different ways. Here I am, wasting mine away in my beautiful prison. I think it’s finally time for me to escape. How else will I make friends? Learn about the kingdom I’m supposed to govern? How else will I fall in love and have a family of my own?
Where is the good in surviving if I neglect to live?
The grand oak overhangs the wall on the south side. Easily climbable.
Brother, this is for you. For both of us.
Emma H, age 27, 13/02/2018
New short story penned for Sue Vincent’s “Sanctuary” – #writephoto prompt. To take part or take a look at other entries, you can follow the link below:
I’m not sure if I pulled off this story quite how I’d intended, I think it may be lacking the emotional kick! Perhaps I would have been better off writing in the third person rather than the first… but I gave it a go. Please feel free to leave comments! And thanks to Sue for the photo prompt 🙂