Once upon a time, there lived a girl locked up in a tower. She might have been a princess. She was certainly beautiful and smart and kind enough. But it could not be denied that she was also irreparably sad. Her sadness was of the persistent clingy type, the kind that had separation anxiety. Graciously she let it live within her, aching and hollow and deep. She was content that she was able to provide a home for something in need, but the sadness needed something to eat so she gave it her joy and thus she was not able to throw her head back and laugh coquettishly as a princess might have.
She might have, except that she was not a princess at all. She had built her own tower you see, weighed it down with heavy stones carved from her own monolith of misery and sorrow in a remote forest far away from any people. As the sadness grew, she had to draw up taller and taller walls to shore up the crashing waves of her sorrow, lest they get away from her and flood the whole world. Thus, in the silent cradle of towering trees and sentinel mountains her walls grew bigger, the stones more numerous until soon she was staring upwards at a fully grown tower.
She was grateful for the walls but as she peered out through a sliver of space at the tricky shapeshifting world outside, she knew that she was still not safe. A handsome young prince might mistake her for a damsel in distress and try to save her. He would try to rescue her and the whole world would drown. She couldn't have that. So she did something clever, much cleverer than any prince. She pried her fingers underneath her ribcage and slowly opened herself up, careful so as not to disturb any internal organs. Then, she scooped up the tower and nestled it snugly within her. Her ribs closed with a soft click.
It was a tight fit between her ribcage, and it dug just the slightest bit into her intestine. But at least it was safe. There was no leftover space for princesses or princes or Happily Ever After, not when she had something so vast to hold inside. So it was that her sadness poured endlessly into this tower within her, she could crawl in and visit whenever she wanted, safe in the knowledge that she would be stranded always, lost and unseen by prying eyes.
No, she was not golden and bright. Or wistful and demure. She could not even muster the energy to be tempestuous and difficult. As the years dragged on, she became empty and worn through, hollowed out and frayed at the edges. She became the tattered remains of a girl, her heart whittled down and cased in iron.
She'd had strength once. But her shoulders bowed under the weight of it now, her bones riddled with holes and cracks where the desperation and yearning had seeped through cracks in the tower walls. The pressure of it pressed against her fragile body, curving her shoulders imperceptibly inwards, before slowly, sliding off completely. It was a relief to see it go. Sometimes, she had the silly fleeting thought that her curving shoulders made her look rather similar to a flower bud waiting to bloom. No, she reminded herself. She was a blackened slate, a used towel wrung through and hung to dry.
The sadness began to overflow, slowly. It bled through her fingers intermittently at first, and then in great big gushes of release. She started to draw pictures on the walls, flowers, clouds, then friends. Slowly day by day as her sorrow came more alive inside her, so too did her friends on the wall. They started to move and walk around the walls. She talked to them and they listened, their voices a calming low, rumbling static. Eventually they started to unstick from the wall and she held out her hands to help them up.
She loved her shades of gray in their varied familiarity. They smeared the nuances of the world around her and reduced it to a bearable muffled mutability. They wrapped gentle arms around her shoulder, pressed kisses to her cheek and kept her company. Loneliness crawled into her bed at night, stroking her hair until she fell into a dreamless sleep. Fear stroked her hand across the dinner table and Melancholy strode next to her on her evening walks. They said nothing usually, just listened to the sound of her hiccuping heart and fracturing bones.
She curled up with Grief on rainy days, which were her favorite. She sat still as Grief traced patterns onto her skin and made her wavering nerves feel wonderfully numb. She closed her eyes and listened to the warbling raindrops splatter against the window and drum against her heart. They held her close, all together, coloring the shadows of her grey world in wonderfully nondescript shades of blue.
They shielded her from the deafening light that crept over the horizon. The quieted the rest of the world until the only sound she could hear was the solemn thump-thumping of her own heart and the desperate rushing of blood through her veins. Occasionally the light was strong enough to pierce through their hazy smokescreen and give her a migraine. They gathered around her, shoulder to shoulder. They protected her and rubbed her shoulders and brushed her hair. They whispered stories and sweet nothings, their low mangled voices rushing together as they once again stretched and expanded to become the beginning and ends of her world, insistent gray blotting out the threatening light. Slowly, they fixed her and made her alright again.
Sometimes, the tides of her sadness would pull away and her wonderful gray friends would fade to wisps. That was usually when Life would venture onto her shores. Life made her wary. The grey and blue of her world always slipped and shattered into a million shades of everything else when Life was around. It was disorienting and blinding.
But she liked it when Life kissed her on the cheeks, braided her hair and threw her curtains wide open. Her skin simmered and tingled underneath the touch of the Sun, and her fingers moved through the golden rays with trepidation. In those precious pockets of time, the world swelled around her, deliciously warm and bright. "My darling moonflower," Life would coo as they spun round and round until they were dizzy with delirium, spinning amidst prisms of rainbow light. But every snap of a twig reminded her of her fragile bones, and the murmuring of gentle brooks reminded her of the voices of her beloved friends. As their memories weaved through her the braids would come loose, the curtains would fall closed and dark waves would wash over her shoreline as the world ebbed away once again.
There were other days, when no sound knocked at the door at all. She felt dangerously quiet and still, the only thing that quieted her racing thoughts was climbing into her tower. There, behind the comforting sturdiness of its walls she would pace back and forth like a caged animal, equally feral and resigned. It was on one of these days, when she paced the length and breadth of her prison room fretfully that she found the book. It had been waiting patiently to be found under her bed all this time, some small secret long lost part of her had hidden it away, like a scavenger hunt without the clues. When she finally pulled it out, blowing away the dust and cobwebs, it had greeted her like a long lost friend. It had no title, but was bound in thick, soft, richly colored chestnut leather that begged to be held. She opened it hesitantly, tracing a shaking finger over the words.
Before: The grassy hills stretched towards the horizon as if they had all the time in the world. I feel like that too sometimes, days just go on and on, and time trickles to a stop. It happens usually when I spend the day with the daisies, watching them all day takes positively forever. It's a wonderful forever though, they're absolutely splendid. Well, before the sun starts to set at least. There was a vividly rendered picture beside it and she traced her fingers over it as the colors jumped out, leaving her breathless and dizzy.
Each page was like that. She started calling the book the story of Before. She held it with love and in turn, It poured itself into her, filling up the divots and holes, smoothing over the rough edges. She loved to flip through her favorite chapters as often as she could, tracing her fingers down the lines, and shivering as echoes of laughter and warmth nipped at her hands. When telltale knocks sounded at her door, she kissed the cover gently, murmuring apologies as she slid the book under the bed. It was for safekeeping, just in case.
But she couldn't keep it secret for long. She let it slip at dinner one night, and watched Fear and Melancholy exchange a glance over the table. A few nights later they sat on either side of her as she showed it to them. The next day, Grief and Loneliness joined them. In the beginning they were kind, nodding and smiling indulgently as she pointed to her favorite stories. Soon however, they were pulling it over their own laps, flipping the pages harshly, their fingers leaving behind blackish stains on the corners as they read aloud in ugly mocking voices.
Their jagged voices crawled across the stories and painted the dreamy pictures in harsh broken lines. She did not like the way her sunlight became broken shards of glass in their mouths. She did not like the way the golden hued leather faded to gray in their hands. She did not like the way they pronounced periods like The Ends. But in the same breath that her protestations bore onto her tongue, they withered. After all, she was alone without them. Her china glass heart would not be able to hold itself together if they left her behind. It did not matter much what she did not like.
She was also so tired these days, wavering along these impossibly long hours they spent with her, that it was all she could do to let their barbed words scrape against her as she drifted off into a cloying, sticky sleep. She did not like this either for it clung to her eyes and limbs long after she had woken up.
Soon, too soon it felt like to her, they reached the preciously blank pages in the back. They shared a cry of joy at this discovery, and though she managed a wan smile she couldn't help the thread of apprehension that wound it's way up her knobby spine.
She had loved these pages first, even though they had no beautiful pictures or words for her. They shimmered with possibility and hope, the fragile spider silk promise of a future waiting to be fulfilled. Even as she hoped silently that They would let her this little sliver of light she felt it fading fast, like a stubborn star burning up in the heat of the atmosphere against its will.
They came in the night, rousing her with gently, craggy whispers that carried her from the bed to the desk. She was half asleep, fighting against the sticky sweet drowsiness that stuck to her hair and mouth as they curled her hand around a pen and guided it towards the first, pearlescent page.
They stood huddled around her as darkness drew closer. Hands on her shoulders, stroking her arms, nuzzling her cheek, she sighed at the familiar touches. Loneliness and Fear, ever the frantic pacemakers, nudged and prodded her pen as it scratched hastily across the page. Melancholy twirled her hair and whispered in her ear words of a beautiful story twisted by tragedy. As she found herself listing towards the coaxing gentle shush shush of Melancholy, somehow those words found themselves falling onto the pages. Their whispers snaked inside her ears into her oozing heart. They wiggled their fingers around and pried it open, slowly sloughing off slivers as they retreated. They wrapped a solid fist around her blank shapeless dreams as well, shattering them until she tossed and turned from the jagged edges that prodded her on all sides through the night. As her heart bled and as tears smudged the hastily carved letters, as her fingers shook with numbness and fatigue, Grief finally embraced her. The End, it whispered. Soon. She and her stuttering mind and barbed thoughts almost collapsed from relief. She just had to write enough to get there. Almost, Grief whispered, breath warm against her ear, so close to sweet blissful escape. Nothingness.
And so she wrote. And wrote. Words spilled across the page in a nonsensical harmony that danced across the page, bleeding to the edges and then over and onto another. She wrote into the next night, the weight easing off her shoulders and into her words. She wrote as the horizon swallowed up the sun. She wrote as the night wrapped around her shoulders, warding off the light of day, and in the still, quiet darkness she felt herself coming loose. A crucial tiny pin had been pulled out, and now she was caught in a whirlwind, a wild reckless unraveling. A moonflower personified, stretching desperately into the night.
She wrote until her bones were dust and her fingers paper thin, rendered giddy by the weightless feeling of emptiness. She wrote until the sun crept its way back over the lip of the window and peered into the room. And as the golden light inched its way towards her, she felt herself unfurling into the new day, coming undone. She laughed, the thin sound spiraling into a blank still nothingness.
They stood around her, shoulder to shoulder as they always had, protecting her from the encroaching light, wrapped around her arms that raced feverishly across the page. Grief reached inside and scooped up the remaining shambles of her heart. She wrote and wrote, and they moved closer, whispering and nudging and guiding and pressing. Faded rays of light crashed against them feebly as they pressed in, snaking up her arms and legs and lungs. They held her close and she came loose. They pressed a trail of kisses across her collarbone, pressed in a little closer and finally the steady ache in her heart eased and she felt herself spinning, weightless and free as a feather, springing round and round like prisms of rainbow light fractured against the sky as she split into a thousand shades of gray.