Damsel Undistressed

I’ve been saving myself my whole life. I’ve been a dragon guarding all the treasure I’ve stored up (my work, my books, my writing), incinerating anyone who got too close. When everything went up in smoke, burned to the ground, and turned to ashes between my hands, there was nothing left to protect. There was nothing left for me to do.

I had lost more than a voice. I had lost all sense of purpose. I had left the dragon’s keep and landed in a dungeon. In the dungeon, I had lost all sense of time, all sense of autonomy, all sense of self-dependency. There was no saving myself without outside help. I wasn’t a princess, I was a prisoner locked in a position too tight to get myself out. Up until that point, I had orchestrated every single one of my own rescues, fought every single one of my own battles, pulled myself out from the bottom of a well on my own. I was an island, unconquerable and solitary. Nobody was ever around when I did these things. It made me proud, too proud for my own good.

Too proud to happily accept help ever after.

I don’t feel like the hero in my own story. I don’t feel like the princess in my own fairy tale. I feel like the sole survivor at the end of a horror film, and the experience has been terrifying, has left me haunted, scarred, and tortured. The saddest part is that my story isn’t anywhere near the grim tale other lives have endured. I didn’t audition to be a damsel-in-distress. I was conditioned to be otherwise.

And it exhausted me. I burned out. I fell down without a reason to get back up again. I had no desire, no strength, no will left of my own. Whatever sense of power saving myself had bestowed upon me could no longer sustain me. I had built up a tolerance to the level of adversity and resilience I reached, and I didn’t have the capacity for more.

Enough, I said. I can’t do this anymore.

All those years of playing my own hero and sidekick to someone else depleted me. It was futile and worthless. It inflated my ego, driving more people away than it convinced to stay.

Let them go, I said. I don’t need them. I’m an island. I’m a queen. I’m a warrior. I’m the storm. I’m exhausted. 

I don’t recall ever asking him for help. I think it was all the crying I was doing. He couldn’t concentrate. One day, when he had had enough, he sprung me from my cell, and I didn’t see him for a long time after that. He seemed annoyed by the entire event. I wasn’t exactly ecstatic about owing somebody something for the first time in my life. He didn’t need any favors returned. He didn’t need anything or ask for anything in return. The crying must have really bothered him. Silence was repayment enough, if I had stayed silent.

I didn’t know how to say thank you for something I didn’t ask for without sounding ungrateful. He had freed me from a dungeon, but escape hadn’t given me back my voice. Without a purpose or anything to do, I had all the time in the world to practice using all kinds of voices on him.

He never said a word.

There were no boundaries. There were no subjects off limits. There were no expectations. There were no clearly defined parameters after springing me from the cell. We were one big, giant blob of nothing, a vacuum inevitably destined to be filled. For as much as I told him (which is to say, everything), there was one thing I always left out.

The demons chasing me. The stalkers hunting me. The voices assaulting me. I left out the part where I was still, even after being saved from a lifetime imprisonment, a damsel-in-distress. Sometimes he wonders if it wouldn’t have been better to leave me in the cell, crying and all. Noise-canceling headphones would have been a wiser investment.

He eventually found out. He found out through the grapevine. To this day, I’m not sure he knew anything for certain until I told him. He sort of reminds me of how detectives ask questions in a way that makes it seem like they know more than they do, until you finally give something up. He knew I was pulling all-nighters. He knew I would disappear for days at a time. He knew I’d sleep for days at a time. He let me lie to his face over and over again, even though telling the truth wasn’t something I had agreed to do. I had agreed to nothing.

He didn’t save me in any traditional sense of the word. He didn’t say he’d catch me if I fell. He didn’t say he’d always be there. He didn’t say anything. He simply existed. If I fell, he’d just wait for me to get back up. By saying nothing at all, he became the loudest voice I heard.

This is who I am and that is who you are. Misery doesn’t need company.

The realization hit me slowly. Over months. Through near-death experiences. He never wavered. He had become the only constant in my life. The only solid ground through earthquakes. There were no stakes, but he was daylight after a life in the shadows, and I wanted to be near him. He made me uncomfortable.  He made me see myself in a new light, and he didn’t look away, even when I did. He never flinched.

He is the only one who let me know that I was, in fact, a damsel-in-distress, and also that it was okay to be one. He was signing “you need help” to me the same way my family had verbalized it to my face. The only difference is that my family wanted to pass me off to someone else, while he stood his ground. 

I’m giving you help. Take it or leave it.

I had no choice. I was beyond the point of saving myself. Circumstances threw us together, and if anyone else had handed me a rope, I might have used it to hang myself, instead of using it to climb out. If you asked him, he might tell you I saved myself. He’d be lying. If he hadn’t been there, I would have destroyed myself first. There was nothing left to save. He extended grace to an otherwise irredeemable monster.

Changing because of him saved me. By not using his voice, he gave me mine. He will always be the fairy tale in my life because I didn’t turn out to be the queen, or the princess, or the damsel-in-distress.

I get to be the storyteller.

Bluebeard

Once upon a time, a beautiful maiden was walking through the forest when out of nowhere, a king stepped out of his golden coach and proposed to her. Frightened by his beard, which was totally blue, the maiden objected to marrying her suitor. Her father couldn’t believe his good luck, and after nagging his daughter relentlessly, she finally consented. However, the beard was so blue, it made one shudder somewhat to look at it, and so the maiden went to her brothers for some help.

“Dear brothers,” she cried, “if you hear me scream, drop everything at once and come to my aid immediately.” The brothers promised to do this, and said, “Farewell, dear sister. If we hear your voice, we will jump on our horses and be there as soon as possible.”

Then, the maiden hopped into the coach with Bluebeard and off he went with his new queen to a splendid castle, which was now also hers and would have made both of them very happy were it not for the king’s blue beard that, no matter how hard she tried, frightened her beyond belief.

One day, he had to go on a long journey and gave all the keys to the entire castle to the queen under one condition: she could go into every room and look at everything with the exception of one particular room, which was forbidden to her.

“If you open it,” he threatened her, “you will pay for it with your life.” The queen promised to do as he asked.

As soon as he left, she wasted no time opening every door one right after the other and saw many treasures that must have been gathered from around the world. Soon there were no more doors to open, except for the forbidden room. It was the only thing left on her mind. Curiosity gnawed at her as she turned the golden key over in her hand, wondering what was behind the last door. The queen would have willingly given up looking behind all the other doors if she could have just seen what was worth hiding in the last room. Since the key was made out of gold, she believed that something precious must be inside.

There was nothing precious inside. Instead, blood rushed towards the queen and she saw only carnage. The skeletons of dead women were hanging from the walls. Some still even had flesh on their body. Horrified by the ghastly scene, she slammed the door shut, accidentally dropping the key into a puddle of blood.Terrified that Bluebeard might discover what she had done, the queen tried to wipe away the blood, but to no avail; the bloodstains could not be erased. Out of desperation, she thrust the key into a pile of hay, thinking it would absorb the blood left on the key, but it was hopeless.

The next day, Bluebeard returned to the castle and asked for his keys back first thing. Heart pounding, the queen brought the bunch of keys back to the king as he requested, hoping he wouldn’t notice the golden key was missing. However, after counting all the keys, he looked straight into her eyes and said, “Where’s the key to the secret room?”

His queen blushed red as the blood she had seen. “It’s upstairs,” she stammered, “I misplaced it. I shall go and look for it tomorrow.”

“You’d better go now, dear wife. I need it. Today.”

“Oh, I might as well tell you. I lost it in the hay. I’ll have to go and search for it first.” Bluebeard was angry.

“You haven’t lost it,” he said. “Now you’ll enter the room whether you want to or not because you did not listen to me.”

The queen brought the key, still stained with blood, back to Bluebeard.

“Prepare yourself for your own death,” he told her, “because you shall die today.” Bluebeard grabbed a knife and started to sharpen it on the bottom step.

“Before I die, let me say my prayers,” the queen asked, and ran upstairs. As soon as she got to the window, she yelled to her brothers for help as loud as she could. Finally, she saw her three brothers riding as fast as they could towards her rescue just before her head was suddenly jerked backwards as Bluebeard grabbed her by the hair. He was just about to plunge his knife into her heart when her three brothers tore their sister from his hands. 

Once their sister was safe, the brothers went back to cut down Bluebeard with their swords. Afterwards, they hung him up next to the women he killed, and took their sister home with them.

Then, all the treasure that was once Bluebeard’s became hers.

The End

A Real Cinderella

To Josephine,

I love you no longer; on the contrary, I detest you. You are a wretch, truly perverse, truly stupid, a real Cinderella. You never write to me at all, you do not love your husband; you know the pleasure that your letters give him yet you cannot even manage to write him half a dozen lines, dashed off in a moment!

What then do you do all day, Madame? What business is so vital that it robs you of the time to write to your faithful lover? What attachment can be stifling and pushing aside the love, the tender and constant love which you promised him? Who can this wonderful new lover be who takes up your every moment, rules your days and prevents you from devoting your attention to your husband? Beware, Josephine; one fine night the doors will be broken down and there I shall be.

In truth, I am worried, my love, to have no news from you; write me a four page letter instantly made up from those delightful words which fill my heart with emotion and joy.

I hope to hold you in my arms before long, when I shall lavish upon you a million kisses, burning as the equatorial sun.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Spring 1797