The Spinning Wheel
by Isabella Bengochea
My kind has had a hard time of late. For people like us, sympathy has run dry. We of the traditional cast, dully perfect girls pressed between the grimy pages of centuries. With hair of spun gold, death-pale skin and eyes so blue you would think them wrung from the summer sky.
That’s how we were written at any rate. Salivated from inflamed lips in the winsome banalities and hackneyed gushes of chivalry-strangled encomia. We are like marble statues in a palace, here a coy Venus, there a gentle Leda. A sightless army moulded by some wishful Pygmalion for senators and wine-bellied emperors.
But as the world has watched me, so I have watched the world. While goddesses and heroines have smashed free of their exquisite chains, here I lie still, forgotten and forsaken. While a new dawn breathes life into their stories, bathing tired muscles and sweating brows, mine is passed over as an icon to an eclipsed faith. Those who look see a beautiful doll, all velvety china and paints and silks – lovely, but little more.
However, those built in the image of humankind will always think themselves people. We are more than some otherworldly Beatrice, emptied from the bowels of old men’s imagination. You think we are weak? We are weak because the poets made us so. Their stifling words travelled the world like plague. They rewrote our histories, and readers nodded their heads. We are weak because you accepted it.
Most think they know my story. Perhaps you have heard it too. That of Zellandine, Talia, the nameless Sor de placer, of Briar Rose – I have gone by many names. Just another shimmering vision where good conquers evil, told to comfort children in the night. Few know the original tale. It is hardly what the world wants to hear. Where violence wears a golden crown and horror dances the halls in silk, pleasant falsehoods are more palatable than ugly truths. The unspeakable and misshapen must give way to the manicured gardens of fairy tale.
My story starts, as so many do, once upon a time, with a king and queen who longed for a child. When their prayers were answered with a daughter, they held a sumptuous celebration at court, swelled with all the luxuries of that age: dainties and sweetmeats, jewel-like fish, dripping meats, barrels of blood-red wine and spiced fruits from faraway lands. Gowns of damask and cloth of gold, boots of unblemished leather, music, dancing, courtesies and wit enlivened the castle, soaring like a bubble from the suds, a fairy waltz in a glade.
All the nobles of the kingdom were invited, including the wise women, the fairies. Except – as you will no doubt be aware – for one. Some versions of the story say one of the thirteen fairies was excluded because there was not sufficient space for them all. Another says three goddesses were invited, but one took umbrage that her cutlery was not as fine as that of the others. If we keep picking through the overboiled stews of myth, we find neither fairy nor goddess, but Odin, ruler of the Norse gods. He favoured one mortal king against another in a great battle, but it was up to the Valkyrie Brynhildr to decide the victor. When she thwarted his will, Odin cursed and imprisoned her in a remote castle where she would sleep in a ring of fire until awakened by the hero Siegfried.
Whoever did the actual cursing, our new princess ended up lashed to an unreasonable fate. Though she would grow in grace, beloved by all, she was destined, in her fifteenth year, to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep like death.
Naturally, the king and queen had all the spinning wheels in the kingdom rounded up and burnt. Punishments were doled out to those who did not surrender their wheels, mainly those whose livelihoods depended on spinning cloth. For years the dungeons rang with screams of peasant women as their bodies broke on crueller, more powerful wheels, and the streets choked with the stench of burning flesh on crackling spindle pyres.
But the castle walls shut out these brutal necessities from all those inside. Here echoed fond words of familial love, the plucking of lutes and minstrel songs of battles and romance. The young princess was brought up like a sacred heifer, dressed in the finest clothes, bathed in intoxicating oils and fiercely shielded from anything that might harm her.
However, she saw the beauty around her and wondered. The fine dresses and bedspreads, the tapestries and carpets. Though she was ignorant of the spinning wheel’s existence, her mother taught her to embroider by hand, all the time keeping a close eye on the needle glinting in the girl’s fingers. Soon the princess surpassed all in skill and flair. She dedicated hours to creating cloths that rippled with the stories she loved, of heroes and heroines: Achilles and Hector, Camilla and Electra, and the fearsome creatures that lurked at the fringes – ogres and witches and harpies. Under her delicate fingers they fought, loved, committed their marvellous or heinous deeds again and again, never meeting their ordained ends.
One day, after she had been sewing all morning, the princess saw a door she had not noticed before. Curious, she opened it and followed a winding passage through the castle’s clammy entrails to a steep, spiral staircase. She climbed the steps, that wavered like water in the candlelight, to a room she had never seen before, where a white-eyed old woman sat, as though she had been expecting her. Beside the woman a wooden purring creature nodded its single glittering horn.
“Do not be afraid child,” said the woman. “It is a spinning wheel”.
“It’s beautiful,” said the girl. “Like a unicorn. What does it do?”
The old woman’s eyes reminded the girl of those dead sailors in the stories, washed against the rocks of the sirens.
“The wheel spins the most exquisite cloth known,” she told the girl. “But,” she leered, “for those destined to master the wheel, it spins more than mere cloth. It has been known to spin dreams more real than life, more beautiful than the finest poems and songs.”
The girl’s heart beat to the rhythm of the wheel and her eyes fixed on the needle. She reached out to it, not noticing the woman’s ravenous eyes. When her finger touched the point, she felt a sudden tiredness driving at the margins of her mind, and before she could steady herself on the wheel, fell to the floor. The last she heard was laughter she did not understand coming from the empty space by the magical wheel.
When the princess was found, her parents called the finest healers in the kingdom, then the religious and wise men, and even the mages and alchemists, but none could wake her. The tower room where she had been found was furnished, and there she was laid to endure her deathly slumber. As the years went by her parents fell into despair and neglected the running of the kingdom. Nobles no longer came to court, tradesmen avoided the towns and the people departed. The castle fell into disrepair and was forgotten, and a forest of brambles grew up around it. The king and queen died, wasted and hopeless, by their daughter’s bedside.
But legends abounded of a fortress hidden amongst an impenetrable forest, where a princess had slept for a hundred years, awaiting true love’s kiss. Young men dared each other to venture into the wood but all fell in their quest, torn apart, went the rumours, not by wild beasts but by the brambles themselves.
Of course, mere nature cannot hope to compete with man’s resolve. In the end, someone was always going to conquer that barbed belt to reach its innermost jewel. For what would a fairy tale be without its noble hero? Tradition steers the scope of possibility. The ritual words must be chanted. You know how the story goes.
So along came a prince, handsome as the heroes of old and full of the fires of youth. Across the land he followed the trail of whispers, breaching the hidden spaces of the words and chivvying out secrets like quarry. It was not for our prince to surrender to this army of spindles shielding their lovely prize for themselves. He plunged his horse inside that viperous foe, forced it through the twisting tree figures, slashing at branches that reached for him like a thousand Daphnes. At last the brambles bent before the trespasser and his bleeding steed, and parted reluctantly before him. The prince’s hands tightened around the reins when he saw the castle atop its great rocky hill, riven by cracks as by the clawings of some giant trying to pull it back into the earth.
The prince crossed the rotting drawbridge, and rode on under the spiked gate, through doorways that sagged like the mouths of dying crones; across the main hall, where two thrones governed their cobwebbed subjects, and fallen goblets glinted beneath their shrouds like bleary eyes; through hallways of ragged tapestries and moth-eaten furniture. He did not pause, sensing the conclusion to his quest, his grail waiting somewhere near.
Finally he found that door, dismounted and, fingering his scabbard, followed the winding passage, the spiral staircase to that tower room. No dragon, no hydra nor hellhound to conquer. Just a bed veiled by bright cloths sewn long ago. Spiders peeked out wonderingly at the rude intruder in this sacred place and a blank-eyed owl gazed from the rafters. On each side of the bed two shrunken figures still held court from threadbare chairs, crowns slumped over their sightless eyes.
The prince looked not at the deathly sentinels, nor heard the mutterings of the room’s affronted animal residents. Beneath his confident step the dropping-strewn rugs exhaled dust like the smoke of burnt offerings. He parted the welcoming lips of the bed’s velvet hangings and gazed at the girl, perfect and pristine as they day she came there, clothed in slumber on her unwilling catafalque.
In some versions of this story, however, the prince found a princess in no clothes at all, exposed as the day she was born. What past purveyors of the scene intended is unknown. Some ludicrous eroticism, perhaps? A sleeping naked girl, laid out like a platter for readers’ delectation? Or a misguided attempt to defend what happened next. The original slut-shaming or victim blaming.
What was she dreaming, the prince wondered? What fantastic worlds held her in their sticky grasp, nuzzling into the gulleys of her mind, filling her with their painted promises. Of a noble prince who would end her dreary solitude with a kiss? Sweet girl. Stupid girl. A happy ending for the young lovers, riding off to wedded bliss? Was that how the story went?
Let this stupid girl take it from here. A kiss? How quaint. The storytellers of old sweetened my pain with syrupy fictions for children. Just like all those other tales of brutality secreted behind altars to greatness. Achilles and Theseus, Heracles and Agamemnon. While piles of broken women, Cassandras and Iphigeneias and Ariadnes, lie twitching and bloodied. A kiss from my noble prince? That was not how it happened.
He tried the kiss, of course. He stroked my cheeks, the rosy skin of my arms, the silk of my dress. But I did not wake.
He climbed onto the bed, pinioning the rich folds of my dress. Gave it another try. Still I did not wake.
He was doing something wrong. Not strong enough for the task at hand. More vigorous, maybe?
Fingers, still scratched and bleeding from the thorns, ran down my lifeless body, circling to the hem of the skirt, kneading it like bees on flower petals. Up they went again, now dragging a confusion of petticoat.
In some versions of the story, authors tried to defend him. One had him rail and refuse – wheeled in an angry goddess to force him to do it – an easy Deus ex machina to slur awkward edges into absolution. The rest omitted it altogether, tried to suck out that splinter, stitch up that wound, make life a little less cruel than it needed to be. But tying up festering sores will not always stop infection. Healing words can spread their own diseases. Can fashion monsters into men.
I slept on, trapped in my treacherous body. Neither parents, castle nor a forest of thorns could protect me from the fairy tale’s inevitable logic. The prince was always going to find the princess. Tradition said it was so. What does it matter what happened when he did?
He left me when he had finished and I still refused to wake. Perhaps he was angry at a quest frustrated, insulted that I resisted the master plan. Perhaps he had bored of me. Or felt some twinge of guilt?
Still I dreamed. But the dreams changed after that. I am not even sure that’s what they were, or whether it was just the real world continuing its assaults. Sometimes I imagined he came back. A few times he brought others for a look: Come see the amazing sleeping princess! I can do anything, she won’t wake! You have a go. Let’s see what else she’ll sleep through. Try what you want, she doesn’t care!
And then, one day, I woke up.
It was not the moment I had dreamed of, no blushing maiden walking hand in hand with her prince, announcing their marriage to joyful parents. My eyes opened to a river of bloody torment, streaming from a body ripped in two. Red and raw and slime-covered came two scrawling things, hairless as newborn rats, heaved from the shell of my body and tied to it by a sneer of gummy flesh. Above me the two sightless sentries leered down. I gnawed the howling things from me like a beast of the forest and crawled in my agony through the empty castle, crying for a familiar face in a dream undreamt even in the depths of my nightmares.
I was not left to gabble alone for long. The brambles shrank back on my waking, and mice and spiders departed as life returned, civilising my castle tomb once more. New unfamiliar attendants accompanied me everywhere: too many steep drops to trust a breakable girl-doll.
They married me to my liberator, celebrating three royal deliveries in one and we all lived ever after. Which is where my story was ended, its sordid messiness tidied, hacked, stuffed and mounted like a head on a wall, a flattering trophy to others’ prowess.
Though spinning wheels turn once more in the kingdom, everyone tries to keep them from me. Perhaps they guess my thoughts when I see one, watch in alarm when I gaze at the proud metal spike, its unicorn horn. But I got hold of one, learnt to use it and now spend my days spinning. I may have neither weapons, magic, nor brute strength. All I can do is use the power I do wield, ever spinning, up in my private tower room, where no one but a curious owl bothers to visit any more. My own art, painted with elegant silver needle, mightier than both sword and pen. Soon my story will be complete, unfurled across the floor in a whirl of mutinous colour and thread. The spindle glints enticingly. Soon, it will be ended. And I will dream again.