Dancing Lessons For Princesses
by Claire Rudy Foster
You are a beautiful princess. You dance all night with a man dressed like a bear. With the sound of the string quartet burning in your ears, he leads you beyond the lights of your palace’s fairy lamps and into the cool green dark of the woods. He lays you at the feet of a thousand-year oak tree and unzips his skin.
When you wake up, you’re thirty, and there is a baby at your breast.
When you wake up, the world has disintegrated. Somebody sewed it back together with yellow-striped roads.
When you wake up, you are wearing the bear suit and you have a hangover that could stomp Manhattan. Your belly aches and writhes. You sweat inside the hairy shell. The fur is matted and leaves cling to it. You know better than to examine your reflection in the stream. You know that you are the picture of shame.
You are afraid to remove the head of the suit, in case somebody sees you and takes your picture, so you leave it on. The gloves make your hands feel as thick as your hangover. You fumble to your feet, tuck the velvet tongue between your teeth, and amble deeper into the woods.
The first thing you see is a mermaid on a stone.
The first thing you see is a scarecrow on a crucifix.
The first thing you see is a little white house and a fat little woman with a red kerchief and a broom. You walk up to her, smiling your princess smile, but all she sees is a big ugly bear and she screams and runs back into the house. She is in such a hurry that her wooden shoes fall off her feet. She leaves her baby in the wheelbarrow by the door. He begins to wail.
You pick him up and he bats at your chin. He’s pink as a dove’s egg. The woman comes out of the house, this time swinging an axe. You have no choice but to eat her.
You dodge the first swipe, holding the baby to your chest, and after some yelling, which further upsets the baby, you communicate that you are in fact a princess and you would not like this situation to be taken too far. She drops the axe and seizes her baby, and you are sweating so hard that you can taste your own blood. You taste gin, which makes you feel sick, and you vomit in the bear mask and down the inside of the costume, the sudden hell of being trapped in your own mess as horrible and overwhelming as the stink of it: last night, bear grease, and your father’s paw under your elbow as he handed you over to the stranger in the hairy costume.
You remove the head and boot it, like a football, into the woods. The tongue flaps out at you between the flash of black rubber gums and ruby cheeks. You have vomit on your lips. The woman looks at you and you turn away. You don’t look like a princess. You don’t feel like a princess.
She recognizes your profile from the half-penny coin.
She gives you a dish of milk.
She gets a special little knife and unpicks the row of thick, fishing-line stitches down your back. She peels off the horrible suit, one polyester panel at a time.
Underneath, you are naked as the baby.
Underneath, you are scarred as the world is, divided into warring parts.
Underneath, your skin is just as you left it, smooth and sticky as key lime pie. Your face is still green when she holds the mirror up to you.
“Do you know yourself?” she asks. You shake your head. You don’t want to know. You want to trade places with her. You’ll live in the woods and wear a red kerchief and chase away princesses with a silver axe.
The baby coos in your lap. You know life isn’t as easy as wishing.
She lends you a dress and shows you where to wash yourself, with black soap in the oxbow of the stream. You slip into the water and the bad feelings dissipate like sulfur bubbles in the pure, clear water.
Soon, you hear a voice.
It’s your father, turned into a crow by his guilt.
It’s your long-lost sister, blinded and seeking for you.
It’s a song that goes, “A prayer for a pair of ruby shoes, The map is gone, No time to lose. So lay you down in poppy snow, and dream a dream, and then you’ll know.”
The song is coming from the stream. You lower your head and press your auricle to the surface. The water rushes into your head and you are possessed with a savage desire to do as you’re told. You get out of the stream, naked as a jaybird, put on the borrowed dress and the abandoned wooden shoes, fasten your hair around your head with pine needles, and follow the sinuous curves of the sparkling stream.
It is not an easy road. Especially for princesses. You lose your way.
You are frightened but not alone.
You enter a land where you are not a princess anymore. Yes. This place is barren and the color of snakes. A coral viper wraps itself around your ankle like a bracelet. He is the same color as your skin and has ruby eyes. One night, you have a terrible dream. You dream that you are thrashing under the bear, and his body is heavy. His fingers are in your ears and his tongue is in your mouth and you are voiceless and frantic for words and breath. You were born without a mother, suffocating. When you wake up, your tossing and turning has frightened the snake, who sinks his tiny fangs into your skin. His is a deadly poison. You know that you will die.
Your blood fills the shoes and stains the wood the color of rubies, royal blood, the richest in the land. You are prepared to die, and with each step you give penance and offer gratitude to God for your pampered, useless life.
You wish you had another chance.
You wish you hadn’t met that bear.
You struggle to the end of the stream, which grows shallower as its stones enlarge and become a road of golden quartz. You stumble over the sharp rock points in the wooden shoes, but it’s better than being barefoot. And you’re going to die anyway. The snake, undeterred, is still wrapped around your ankle. Thin purple lightning streaks up your leg, the poison mixing with your blood.
As your strength fades, you enter a cool glade, a ring of slender aspens whose branches interlace. The moss is soft and you lay down, crossing your arms over your chest so that when they find you they’ll know you were the princess on the coin. The breeze touches your cheek, gentle as a lover, and you struggle to remember the words the water sang to you. Poppies and snow. The viper leaves the comfort of your ankle and coils himself beside your head. His tongue flicks your neck.
Overhead, the moon is as big as your mother’s face, and so close you can feel its breath.
“Why did you bring me here?” you ask. You are too tired to be angry. The poison caresses your heart.
The moon says, “I am the great and powerful.”
It turns into a handsome prince.
It turns into a map of your future, pocked with promises.
It turns into a silver disc, in which you see your reflection, pale and sick on the cold, damp ground. The snake is coiled in the thick plaits of your hair.
Yes. You wish for strength, though that’s the last thing you need. You wish, most of all, for home, wherever that is. The moon comes closer, filling the field of your vision. You see that you were wrong. You see light, in every place. You see the world is bigger than the heads side of a coin. You see. You see. You go.
About Claire Rudy Foster
Claire Rudy Foster‘s critically recognized short fiction appears in various respected journals, including McSweeney’s, Vestal Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She is afraid of sharks, zombies, and other imaginary monsters. She lives in Portland, Oregon.