|Image from The Graphics Fairy|
Editor's note: This bittersweet tale shows that details matter in writing stories. I also liked how it evoked both "Beauty and the Beast" and the myth of Persephone.
In the early evening, when the sun was out of sight but it was still light enough to see, Agatha Starless sat at her balcony, weaving a yellow shawl. The thread shone in the moonlight, and she hummed to herself as she sat, deep in lazy contemplation. She thought by turn of her sisters and their suitors, and what she might wear to the next palace party, and of the prettiness of the landscape, the hills rolling neatly out to the horizon.
She was the oldest of three sisters and was regularly courted by a variety of lords, one of whom would be chosen on her twentieth birthday. Agatha looked forward to marriage but was happy enough waiting; it was pleasant to be young still. She could imagine no greater pleasure than sitting on the balcony, weaving and looking up at the sky or across to the horizon, and thinking on a hundred mundane topics, and feeling a few entirely extraordinary things – the feeling of the sky and the horizon and the thread in her fingers.
But after a bit of time her fingers began to mix up and she stood up to rest. The ball of thread was knocked from her chair and rolled off the balcony and onto the ground below.
She tried to pull it back by the remaining thread, but to her surprise the string pulled taut. She looked down to see if it had snagged on something, and found herself looking straight at a skeleton.
Her stomach seemed to disappear. The skeleton was standing straight up and holding in two bony hands her ball of thread.
She could not move but after a long silence the skeleton did, pointing a finger at her and beckoning slowly.
It won’t do to run away from death, she thought as she realized what this was, and when her legs were able, she came inside and walked down the stairs, where it was waiting for her.
She walked two steps behind, watching the string unravel, thinking only of the feeling of the ground beneath her feet, and wondering vaguely if she would ever feel it again. They walked for a long time, and the horizon seemed to swallow her.
But at the base of a hill the skeleton stopped and looked at Agatha. Cut into the hill were two heavy stone pillars, behind which opened a long, dark hallway.
This was it, she thought, the land of the dead, and the skeleton began to walk again, very slowly. The ball of string was quite small in his hands now.
Where there had been silence, suddenly there was sound. The walls, in fact, seemed to be whispering back and forth between themselves. Life! cried one, and the other answered Death! And light! and dark! and joy! and pain! until the whisperings grew so loud and urgent that they drowned each other out. Agatha continued to follow the skeleton, through a labyrinth of thin stone walls, until the thread ran out, and the skeleton bent to set it down and rose again to open a heavy wooden door.
This room was lit warmly by candlelight and did not whisper. In the center stood a wooden table, all set for a feast, with a roast pig and many different kinds of fruits and berries and pitchers of wine and plates of bread. The skeleton took a place at the mahogany chair at the head of the table, and gestured for Agatha to sit across from him.
Then it spoke – with a voice that could have belonged to any ordinary man. “Welcome, my dearest Agatha, to my palace. I’m afraid it has seen better days, but I hope you will be comfortable all the same. Have some wine, and help yourself to the food – it’s all for you, you know. Eating is an impossibility.”
Agatha stared at the skeleton, repulsed and fascinated. The jaw moved, and sound came out, and the eye sockets looked at her as though they were looking about – the overall effect was gruesome and quite macabre.
“Who are you?” she said, in half a voice, and the skeleton laughed (a very strange, dry, coughing laugh).
“You’ll get used to my appearance after a while,” it said – Agatha wished it would not speak; the effect was so bizarre. “It took me years, myself. No, I’m not Death or anything silly . . . I’m just a prince in exile.”
Agatha thought privately that she, too, would put a prince in exile if he had failed to produce skin or blood. “I am honored,” she said.
“And I am as well,” he said gravely. “I wish you would eat.”
Agatha could not imagine eating with a skeleton’s head staring straight at her, but she took a handful of berries from the bowl nearest her and put one into her mouth.
“Aha!” he cried, startling her, “Now you have to come back. It’s a spell, you see. Each berry means one time you come back. Oh, now you won’t eat any more. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Agatha by this point was aware of a feeling of pity for the creature, and it seemed to her the correct thing to eat a good deal of berries. He watched her eat them silently, and when she had finished what was on her plate, said quietly, “So you are not so scared of me after all.”
Agatha forced a smile. “Of course not.”
“She’ll come back nine times,” he muttered to himself, “Nine times.”
Agatha was beginning to feel conversational. “So you live here all alone?”
“No,” he said, “There are roses in the garden.”
“I see.” Agatha’s mind was in paralysis, but her mouth kept thinking of things to say, as normally as if she were at another party, speaking with another suitor. “And – mind you, I daresay it’s not my business, but what have you brought me here for? It’s an honor of course, but it was rather sudden.”
She felt that he was smiling. “For company,” he said, “Roses never talk about anything trivial and I wanted to. And you seem so lonely up there, sitting night after night . . .”
It chilled Agatha to the bone to know that the skeleton had been watching her before that time, but she smiled softly. “Do you have a name?” she asked.
He moved his head to one side, probably not realizing how frightening the gesture appeared. “Everyone has a name,” he said, “Mine is Tristan.”
“And you were born. . .” Agatha trailed off.
“Here,” he said. “This was a palace once. I mean – all this was the dungeon. But some hundred years ago, there stood a marvelous palace here, and I was the younger prince. But a witch fell in love with my brother, and when he refused her, put a curse on the place. Everyone died but me – there was an enchantment on the royal family, that there would always be a surviving heir.” He laughed bitterly. “I’m very likely immortal.”
Agatha was silent, unsure whether she should believe the story or not. It sounded very unlikely. “And the witch is dead?”
“Long ago,” he said. “And I’ve just been living here.”
They talked a bit more and then Tristan instructed her to follow the yellow string back to her house. She did, and strange as it might seem, the walk seemed longer and lonelier without the skeleton leading the way.
When she woke up she was sure that it had been a dream, but nonetheless looked out the window to see if there was some ruined palace out in the plains. She saw nothing, but there were footsteps in the earth, leading away from the house. Could it have been true? Her heart beat excitedly and she turned back inside and dressed for breakfast.
It was an ordinary day. She went to the city with her sisters and they drank tea at the house of a friend. Agatha was distracted all the time by thoughts of the skeleton. He felt so real to her, and in retrospect, not at all frightening.
The hours stretched on endlessly until finally twilight hit. Agatha painted her lips a little redder and ran a comb through her hair. She thought she looked very pretty, and, very nervous, walked down the stairs and to the plain.
She walked for a long time, trying to remember the path she had followed in her dream. She came behind the hills and no palace remained . . . with a dull feeling Agatha realized that it had not been true at all. It had only been a dream . . .
She sat on the hill and looked up at the several early stars in the sky. She didn’t know why she was so disappointed. It had been a nightmare, rather than a dream, after all. But it had been so interesting. She had felt so comfortable.
Something touched her shoulder; she spun around and could not help but scream. The skeleton stood above her, his head tilted left on the neck, all the bones so white and still in the twilight.
“You didn’t have to come today,” he said, “I will come and get you the next time.”
“Oh – oh,” said Agatha, “I’m sorry. I only wanted to remember –“
“If this all had been a nightmare?”
Agatha bowed her head slightly. “It was so interesting to meet you,” she said faintly.
“Well,” he said, “Come along anyways. You might be hungry.”
He led her around a few hills and opened the door. They walked through the labyrinth – some of the passageways were familiar to her now. The walls were as whispery as ever, but Agatha was distracted by her own thoughts.
They sat at the table again, and today Agatha did not find it repulsive to eat. He seemed more comfortable, and they conversed. Agatha told about her life – the recent gossip in the city, and amusing incidents from her childhood. He explained what the palace had once been and told her how he spent his days – looking after the roses in the garden. “They are watered by an enchanted river,” he explained, “which is a symbol of the kingdom. Since I’m the last one left, it is defined by me. If I’m in a bad mood, they wilt a bit, and I must sing to them or recite poetry to lift their spirits. When I’m in a good mood, they are very bright and extraordinarily beautiful.”
Agatha laughed and asked, “How are the roses today?”
He spoke very shyly. “They are very happy – very colorful. Would you like to see them after dinner?”
Agatha nodded. Tristan poured her a glass of wine. “You are probably the kindest girl who ever lived,” he said, “You laugh at the feast of a skeleton.”
“By the way,” she said, “What have you brought me here for? It seems very strange, since you live alone. Do you often make friends with people from the city?”
The mood in the room changed at once. “Not often,” he said briefly, “And I can’t tell you, Agatha, believe me.”
“I’m worried that you’re going to sacrifice me to some god or something,” she said, hoping she sounded playful, and not afraid.
“I will try not to,” he said with a laugh, and then, as Agatha laid down her fork, “Shall we go out to the garden?”
Agatha acquiesced. He led her into a courtyard, which sat under the open sky, and all around grew small, red roses. In the center was a fountain, which did not run with water, and everywhere else was set with flat stones.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. He touched one of the flowers with the back of his hand. “They aren’t entirely well after all,” he said, “Sing for them. You’ll see how they’ll brighten.”
“What should I sing?” cried Agatha.
“Anything – there must be some popular songs in your city.”
Agatha cleared her throat, and, watching the flowers awkwardly, sang one of the songs that had been very frequently sung at the lyre over the past few years.
"The moon rises on the dark plain and my love is far away
He flies to her arms and they dance till break of day
And I sit in silence and I am no man’s wife
For I am cursed to love him to the end of my life."
If anything the flowers turned browner, as though daring to go invisible. Tristan looked at her.
“It’s better to sing happy songs,” he said, “They’re very sensitive flowers – they take things very much to heart. It will be quite difficult to cheer them up after that.”
“You sing something,” said Agatha.
“Oh, I can’t,” he said. “Not – no.”
“Then the flowers will be sad.”
“We can have some conversation to cheer them up. Tell me more about your sisters.”
“Oh – there isn’t much to say. They’re very silly, honest girls. They’re quite popular. I never was,” she added, “I could never be purposefully light-hearted. If I have a conversation, it lasts hours and hours, while they can do the same thing in five minutes. They’re very clever,” she added, “And rather stupid.”
“I understand,” he said, “I was that way once. But now I’ve had a good deal of time for contemplation. And it’s very sad, living here, in the dungeons.”
Agatha nodded. “Why do the walls whisper?”
“Oh – they’re alive, too. Very single-minded creatures. All the left walls are very negative and the right walls are very positive. I think they remember the thoughts of the prisoners who died here.”
They conversed more. Agatha found that she often forgot he was a skeleton, and only remembered when she looked right at him. When it grew very dark, he suggested that she might want to go home. “Do you remember your way?”
“Yes,” she said, “But you should escort me back so I’m not lonely.”
He laughed. “Very well.”
They returned. When they came to her room, he reminded her that she was to return eight more times. She agreed. Sometimes he came to fetch her, and sometimes she went herself. They became very good friends in an altogether short period of time. In fact, Agatha came to feel that he was not only her best, but her only friend.
On Agatha’s ninth visit she was surprised to see that he was wearing a formal suit. The effect was initially comical, but the more Agatha saw it, the more morbid and disconcerting the outfit was. It made it impossible to forget that he was a skeleton, seeing the coat hang so strangely on his yellow-white bones, and Agatha tried her best not to look at him.
“This is your last visit here,” he said solemnly, after they had talked gaily for a little while. “I must thank you for all your wonderful conversation. Your friendship has put a sun in my sky.”
Agatha could not help but smile. “I feel the same. You don’t know how much I’ve looked forward to seeing you. I treasure our meetings more than—“ she paused in confusion, “More than anything else.”
“Agatha,” he said in a new and frightening tone of voice. She looked up; he was looking directly at her, the terrible suit still sitting so strangely on him, and seeming very suddenly like an image from a nightmare. “Agatha, you have probably guessed – you must know that it is not always with friendship that I think of you. I knew you long before you knew me, and your heart . . . Agatha, don’t be afraid!” He stood up and walked towards her. “Agatha, I was so afraid that you would be afraid of me, and you weren’t, and now you are. Agatha, forgive me. I love you – forgive me.”
He touched her arm with his hand, as though he wished to comfort her, and his hand was so cold and felt so much like death that Agatha was afraid she would die. She jumped back. “Don’t touch me!” she screamed, “You – you creature, you horrible creature, get away from me!”
He stared at her dumbly, and she ran from the room, shocked herself at what she had done. She knew the labyrinth quite well now, and though every footstep she took away from him hurt her, she kept running, ashamed and confused and utterly distraught. She reached her balcony and sat in her room very quietly, her tears all dried away.
She loved him. She missed him already, and it was impossible that everything was over. If he had loved her, he couldn’t any longer. In that moment he had seen how ugly and selfish she was. Everything was over, and nothing seemed real.
She fell asleep just so she could stop thinking of it, and she was disappointed that there were no skeletons in her dreams. She went through her days listlessly, so that her mother wondered if she wasn’t in love with someone, and Agatha found it quite impossible to explain. Even if she could have said, “There’s a skeleton who sometimes takes me away to his palace in the distant hills,” it would have been unthinkable to tell the other part: “And when he said he loved me I pushed him away, and said something terrible, because he was wearing a suit.” Every night she sat outside weaving, utterly nervous, staring all over the sand, hoping he would appear, like before, and forgive her.
“I’m here, it’s Agatha,” she whispered into the empty night, over and over. “I love you, and I’m so, so, so, sorry.”
He didn’t come. Agatha gave up weeping, and waiting, although she could not help sometimes looking out anxiously out to the hills, wishing she would suddenly hear his voice.
Months passed like this, and entirely to her surprise she turned twenty. Her father asked her over breakfast who she preferred to marry. “Anyone,” she said, “Whoever you like. I hardly mind.”
So a match was chosen, whom Agatha did not mind. He was a nice man and in time she grew to like him, and even love him. She felt guilty for deceiving him, for loving someone else, but as the years passed Tristan seemed like a dream. She had children and they grew older. Before she was at all prepared for it, they married. Her parents died, and her husband, and Agatha became very old and very alone.
One night she sat at the balcony, and an idea came clearly into her head. “I should tell him,” she realized, “I shouldn’t be afraid. He should know before I die that I am awfully, awfully sorry.”
It was a sickening feeling that accompanied her every step to the palace. The road was so familiar – it didn’t feel like more than a week since she’d gone this way with Tristan walking beside her. She could not bear to think of hearing his voice, of hearing his cold words . . . when the last thing he’d said had been so warm, and gentle. She couldn’t bear the thought – but you must be brave – she thought, and somehow didn’t turn back home. She reached the door of the palace and she could hear her own heart beating. The walls whispered, as always, and despite her fear and sickliness it was a relief to be in this familiar place. Perhaps I could just sit here forever – so close to him, and die here, she thought, and then she heard what the walls were saying. You – you creature, they whispered, in every kind of dreadful tone --you horrible creature, get away from me!
Agatha began to run to the center of the labyrinth, her sickly dread being replaced by a strange and less definable fear. She ran into the dining room, which was quite empty, and then out into the courtyard.
The first thing she noticed was that the roses were all brittle and dead. They hung shriveled on their stems, and made the courtyard seem like a graveyard. It took a long time for her to see the figure who sat, dressed in an old formal suit, at the fountain. His hand covered his face, and he was completely immobile.
Could he be dead? He had said he wouldn’t die . . . she sat next to him, and touched his arm very gently. “Tristan,” she whispered, “It’s me, it’s Agatha . . . I just wanted to say that I’m sorry –“ tears stuck in her throat – “And that I love you. Tristan –“
She broke off into heavy sobs. Suddenly he looked up at her, and Agatha felt as though she had been struck by lightning. “Tristan?”
There was a moment of silence, and then he kissed her – his lips were so cold, and she felt so safe, and then somehow they grew warm, and soft, and the arm around her back was like an arm . . .
Agatha pulled away and stared at him. He was a young man, not a skeleton anymore, handsome and absolutely alive, his dark eyes full of a remarkable light. Agatha saw that the roses all around them had burst into bloom, and were full of color, and she began to cry.
“Tristan, Tristan,” she said, “Has this all been a dream then?”
He didn’t understand. “This is all it needed,” he said, “To end the curse. You just needed to kiss me. And it means – Agatha, it means you love me! After all these years, and you still remembered.”
They both began to cry. Agatha pressed her face into his chest. “I never forgot,” she said, “And now I’m so old . . . soon I’ll be a skeleton myself. Oh . . .”
He laughed tearfully. “Why didn’t you come sooner?”
“I was afraid,” she said, “I didn’t think you would forgive me. I didn’t want to hear your voice speak angrily to me . . . if I had known that you were still waiting . . .”
“Never mind,” he said, “That’s all done with. If only the kiss had worked the other way around! Then we could be skeletons together. But . . . we will be soon enough. I expect I’m not immortal anymore.”
Agatha began to cry. “I ruined everything,” she said, “It was so silly. I’m glad,” she added, “That I saw you. My whole life feels like a dream – but to think we could have spent our lives together! If you stay with me until I die -- It won’t be very long until I die. I keep thinking – only a few weeks. It gives us enough time to catch up.”
And so she stayed with him until the end of her days. When Agatha died he held her in his arms and buried her in the courtyard, where the roses were never bright or bold again, but were always a soft, faded, wistful red, full of one beautiful memory.
Bio: Adele Jones is a college student currently working as an au pair in Germany. She is interested in languages and folklore.