The Beloved's Embrace

All an embrace means is that you expect to find the one you reach for reaching for you.
— Garrison Keillor

                                                  "The Embrace" by Henri Matisse

Once upon a time, there lived an enchanted princess.

How was the princess enchanted? The kingdom was not completely sure, for she was very beautiful, and full of goodness and wisdom. But something was definitely amiss, for she had long come of age and not yet married. The kingdom reasoned that the only reason a beautiful princess might have to remain unmarried after reaching this age was magic!  It is an enchantment of some kind, they surmised.  

Some of the subjects believed she had been cursed with a hatred or fear of men -- so much that she could not even bear the thought of marrying one. Some thought her to be, as Psyche had been, unwillingly betrothed to a powerful immortal spirit. Some thought, bad breath.

No one could have guessed the real spell, which was this: no suitor could do so much as kiss her hand, or else she would begin to transform away from her human shape and into the shape of an animal. She couldn't control the transformation. It was part of her curse. But the princess also knew that the curse could be broken.

So of course, many princes and great lords, hearing of a beautiful enchanted princess, sought to break the spell and win her hand. They traveled from great distances to reach the castle. And when they saw the princess, or heard her speak, they were quickly smitten by her radiance and grace.

But when these suitors tried to touch the princess, when they would embrace her, she would begin to transform. They would find themselves no longer holding a princess, but a walrus, then a tiger, then a sparrow. Now of course, inside, the princess remained the same, for the deepest essence of a soul rarely changes -- it only switches its skin. No prince, nor duke, nor baron had been able to break the spell -- for no one could not sustain their embrace long enough to see her return to her princess form and thus claim her for his own. They all let go -- too frightened, exhausted, and sometimes, even disgusted -- to keep holding on.

But there was a boy who lived outside the city walls, and he thought little about enchantments. He tended sheep, as his father and brothers did, in the fields north of the castle. Being the third son, he was tasked with shepherding during the night, and so grew accustomed to the darkness -- his eyes became keen and his ears sharp.

Often, he would fix his gaze on the castle towers that jutted high above the rest of the sleepy city. There, a light always shone from a window in the tallest room of the tallest tower. Some nights, the boy saw a maiden lean out from that window. The moonlight fell fairly on her features, and he thought her very beautiful. He began to watch for her shadow every night in the window, and in doing so, came to know her patterns of movement: the way she tilted her head, how her hand cupped her cheek, and how her hair fell over the ledge just so.  And even at such a great length away, sometimes the boy thought he could hear her sigh. And her sighing made him sad -- he began to wonder about her, then care about her -- this maiden whose eyes were drawn so often by distant things he could not see. He thought her heart must be heavy, and so his became.

One day, the boy took a risk, and leaving his sheep with his brothers, marched towards the castle with his staff in hand. 

He came without fanfare or entourage. He came without a herald or pedigree.  He came simply, and asked for a chance to break the spell that lay on the princess.

The king and queen were skeptical. But the princess, having grown tired of stuffy princes and dukes and barons, thought that it could not hurt to give one humble contender a try -- especially one with such grit. For no commoner had ever been so bold as to believe they could break the spell, but the shepherd boy did not seem to fear failure, shame, or ridicule. 

So he got his chance. The princess and the boy were taken to a guarded room, large and full of high windows. Except for a small table and two chairs, the room was empty. From noon until sundown, the princess and the boy talked, about nothing, about everything -- but they did not speak of the curse. As she talked to the boy, the princess began to feel more like a girl.  And as the boy talked to the princess, he began to forget that she was a princess (and an enchanted one, at that). The more he listened to her speak and laugh and sigh, the more he knew with certainty what he had suspected from the beginning:  that she was the maiden from the tallest tower.  

When the last rays of the sun had gone, the princess looked at the boy in the dim light, and said, "Now we come to it... the part where you must attempt to break the spell."  She stood, walked to the center of the room, turned, and held out her arms toward him.

She was anxious like she had never been before, for during the course of the afternoon, she had tasted something of eternity, and did not want it to pass. She did not say this to the boy, thinking that the words might scare him away too early, since she was anticipating that he would run when the curse took effect. All the others had run before-- why should this shepherd boy be any different? Her mind was practiced, and braced itself. Still, her heart hoped. 

The boy stood up, and the princess swallowed.  "Just don't let me go," she said, looking straight into the boy's wide eyes, "and if you cannot hold onto me, don't stop trying... and do not run away from the room or from me."  The boy nodded slowly and approached her, sensing that he would only understand the real meaning of her words later. He took a deep breath and opened his arms to her. She stepped into his embrace.

At first, nothing happened. Then the boy realized that her small shoulders were growing and stretching. Before he knew what had happened, the princess had turned into a whinnying mare. He was astonished, but began to brush her neck with his hand to calm her, as he would have done with his sheep. After some minutes had passed, the horse suddenly became a dog, and the boy held the dog as it squirmed, scratching it behind the ears and speaking in soothing tones to calm it down.

In one moment, the princess became a butterfly perched on his pinky, and the boy trembled for fear of breaking the brilliant wings.  Trepidation turned to panic when he found himself facing a wild boar that thrashed its tusked head this way and that. The changes became faster and more drastic the longer he held her--

                                                  "The Victory" by Phoebe Anna Traquair

                                                  "The Victory" by Phoebe Anna Traquair

Then she was a lizard, almost slipping through his fingers.

Then she was a lioness, and he paced around the room with her, sometimes dodging her great paws and wrestling her to the ground.

Then she was an elephant and he could hardly keep his arms wrapped around her great trunk.

Then she was an eagle, and sailed through the room, beyond his grip, diving at him in the air so he had to hold up his hands up to defend himself.

Some of the transformations delighted him, and left him staring wide-eyed in awe and wonder. Some of the transformations shocked him, some frightened him, some infuriated him. Her transformations into these many forms did not leave the boy unscathed-- his body was soon bruised and bleeding. 

Time wore on, and it seemed as though an eternity had passed since the night had begun-- it had grown so dark, and he was so weak. He began to falter. Who was this animal? What was his life? He was sore, broken, exhausted and wanted only to collapse, to leave it behind. But even as he had these thoughts, his keen eyes saw the shadows of the small table and the chairs, still standing, in the corner of the room. They called him back to the time before he had been locked in the fitful embrace, when he had looked into her eyes and heard her voice and felt as though he would do anything for his princess. In that moment, the boy (if he had not by now proven himself to be a man) gathered his remaining strength, and thought of the light in the tower window. He remembered her elbows on the window ledge, her hair in the silver moonlight, her sighs falling through the air. 

He kept on holding onto her as she twisted into hundreds of shapes in his arms, willing himself to remember who it was he held and why it was he had come in the first place.  

Then the world went black.

 The boy woke in the arms of an angel. He thought that he was in a dream, or that he had died. Neither was true, but he did know that there were golden tears sliding down her face and onto his cheeks. The dawn had broken and filled the room with light.

"It is finished. The curse is broken," the princess said. "Because you stayed beside me through all my forms, held me when you could, and did not balk or cower or run, you shall have my hand and half of the kingdom."

The boy sat up in astonishment. All that had happened during the night seemed to him a distant memory, and yet he also felt himself to be irrevocably changed. 

The boy took the princess' tear-stained face in his hands, not daring to believe that the curse had really been broken. But her cheeks were smooth, wet, and warm beneath his fingertips, and when he touched her, she remained a princess.

"Oh milady," he said at last, "Your happiness is prize enough for me. Now you shall not be sad when you look out your window and into the distance. Follow the path of your heart now that you can... you owe me nothing." He paused, watching her react to his words. Of course, the truth was that the boy did love her, but beyond his own love, he wished her to have freedom and peace. She said nothing, so he continued, "You are a princess, and I am only the third son of a shepherd.  And..." he said with a bashful smile, "we don't really even know each other."

As he spoke, the princess marveled. She realized that what she had called a curse for her entire life was, in truth, a blessing. She thought of days past, and the countless other suitors who had come to woo her-- all gallant, regal, intelligent, and charming.  They had brought delightful gifts, and been witty and clever, and she knew that, had there been no curse, she would long ago have chosen one of them to be king at her side. But though she had been smitten many times before, there was a truth in the eyes of the shepherd boy that she had not yet seen in any other, a goodness so immutable and real that it left her without words. She would marry the shepherd boy.  

The princess laughed for the first time in a long time. It was a bright, dazzling sound, and it filled the room with life. She took him in her arms again, and pressed her cheek to his heart.  "Oh dear one," she said, "I think you will find that we do."

                                                                    "Doing Dishes" by Carl Iwasaki, 1954

                                                                    "Doing Dishes" by Carl Iwasaki, 1954

You could say that was the end. But it wasn't an end. Because sometimes she would come home after a long day and throw her bags down, as grumpy as a bear. And sometimes she would burn the popcorn or her finger, and hiss like a snake. Sometimes she brooded and huffed like a rhinoceros.

But she also moved through life with the spirited grace of a hummingbird. She was sharp like a fox, and resilient like a wolf. And on some nights, he would gather her to him as though she were a lamb -- soft and meek.

Other nights, she would lean out of the kitchen window on her elbows, lost in a far away dream while the kids played at her feet and the dishwasher ran and the water boiled. Only now, her dreams were full of certainty, and her sighs full of exhaustion... and peace. 

He knew so many of her ways, and was still learning them. And sometimes they fought, and sometimes they paced, and  sometimes they grumbled. But always, again and again, they came back to holding on to each other, as they had from the beginning.

What he loved best about her was everything about her, for he had come to realize that each form and shape of her spirit was only one window into the greatness of her soul, a vast and endless soul, which he was sure he had loved long before his present life and would keep loving long after it.

Yes, they both lived happily--but also wildly, tumultuously, deeply -- for many long years, always finding a way back to their beloved's embrace.


The End

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
— Rainer Maria Rilke

Copyright 2015  anEmily

The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently did a cool online exhibition featuring the "embrace" theme. It's beautiful and pithy-- check it out here. Enjoy, and thanks for reading!