The moment before I hadn’t, I wasn’t even a thought. To not exist is a thing to itself, by itself. Not existing isn’t the same as nothingness, it seems as though nothing is still something, if only by the absence of it.
To suddenly be wasn’t all that jarring, but I found my mind (as I now had a mind) already filled with finite things, with just existing. I wasn’t, then I was, and that’s how things were.
I wondered if, from then on, I couldn’t ever not have been.
The first words I heard were that I was so beautiful a painter couldn’t do my face justice. I didn’t know how to respond to that.
Then, the man whose words were the first I heard patted a boy on the head (how did I know they were boy and man, how did I know that was his head? I know what they are now and in this telling I knew then). The boy didn’t look back as the man wandered off.
I wiggled my fingers and toes, not ready to look at them yet. The boy and I stood there a little while, regarding each other. Something friendly broke through the boy like a current spiralling to the surface and he took my hand and began showing me around.
I learned we were children, of approximately the same age. He chattered at me about his life; the man was his captor, the boy a prince stolen from some faraway kingdom, his queen mother framed for beastly negligence and locked away. The castle behind us and grounds before us had been desired by the man and wished into existence by the boy. Like the stones and the hedges, a playmate for the boy had been desired and made to be.
“I’m glad you turned out pretty,” he told me.
We ran time through our fingers like petals, a lazy existence not worthy of itself. We rode horses, walked through the gardens, he would talk to me and I would gather flowers or sit quietly.
I took up needlework to busy my hands. I liked needlework because I could pretend to create things when really I was just transmuting thread into designs, flat fabric into dimensional, purposeful shapes. My work scattered through the house, marking the passing of time. A runner laid itself along the table, a cloth draped over a basket of bread, doilies insinuated themselves underneath vases and knick-knacks.
My own position in the castle was little different than the aprons I made. We were fancy things created to ease the wear of daily life on objects of greater importance. An apron doesn’t ask why the prince never returned to free his mother.
Sometimes he said he missed his father, but I don’t know if he meant it.
There were no servants. Meals appeared, rooms cleaned themselves the instant you looked away and the gardens tended to themselves. The boy and I wandered the castle as alone as he was before me. The man was always out hunting or studying maps of places that, as far as I knew, didn’t exist beyond those rolls of brightly coloured paper.
The library had false shelves lined with sheets of pretty-coloured spines. The images were well done, they looked as though you could pluck them right from between their fellows. Once, the man asked the boy for real books, but when they appeared (perfect to hold and cracking soft as they were opened), the pages lay blank and the prince laughed. Maybe if the man had asked for specific books the boy could have wished them, his wishes seemed to take care of themselves.
I had a heart that beat. I ate and eliminated. My anatomy fit my female form and changed with me as I aged, though the prince, when wishing me, had been fully ignorant of what that might involve. Like the books, I remained empty, existing outside the moon’s cycle. The man once asked me about it, or I’d never had known I was missing anything.
So we lived and existed. The prince told me he loved me and I told him I loved him, though I doubt he meant it any more than I did, even if he believed what he said. He mentioned his father more frequently and the man spent more and more time hunting and away from the castle.
One day the man came upon me alone and told me to kill the prince. I told him I could not, that I saw no reason for it. The man threatened my life (my existence?) and left. When he next returned from hunting and saw the prince and I playing dice, the man held my gaze and mouthed again his threat to my life.
The next day the man repeated his command to me and rode out. Once he was out of sight I asked the boy to wish me a deer. He did it without question. I butchered the animal, cutting out its tongue and heart, setting them on a plate.
“You could have just asked for those,” the prince commented, turning the plate so a ray of sun lit the blood like jewels.
I shrugged and we went about our day as usual (the castle cleaned itself of the deer carcass but kept the plate as we’d left it, flesh cooling). The prince hid when the man was due home and I stood where the deer had been before, watching the man remove his gloves.
“You’ve killed the prince as I asked, then?” The man did not look at the plate. We regarded each other a moment before the prince emerged from his hiding place. He swore at the man.
The man’s face went white and the prince wished his captor into the shape of a dog. He fed the dog coals, but the dog didn’t die. Looking down at the beast sobbing on the tile, the prince told me he was going to return home to his father, the king.
I hesitated, but the prince wanted me, so he wished me into a flower and put me in his pocket. I don’t know what adventures he had in travelling, or what kind of flower I was, or if the castle continued to exist after we left (I found out most things later, but not what happened to the castle).
Being a flower was not like being a human, but it was also not like not existing. There is still an “I”. I was a flower. As flowers measure it, I was a flower for a very long time.
When the prince wished me human again I was standing on a table. The first words I heard were that I was so beautiful a painter couldn’t do my face justice. I looked down at the faces ringing the table and lining the walls. At my feet sat a tired old man with a crown, the prince standing next to him. The dog who’d been a man was not there. All the rest totalled more faces than I’d seen in my existence.
Four more strangers led in a woman whose eyes held nothing behind them (did she exist?). I guessed, from the prince and the king’s conversation to her, that she was the accused queen. The little family talked there at the head of the table while all the court looked on, straining their ears. I remained on the table, but no one seemed to notice.
The queen died some days later and the king soon followed. The prince became king and married himself to me. I accompanied him on walks through the gardens (tended by so many bodies) and stood by his side in court. I grew used to other faces, I went back to my needlework.
I wonder what will happen to me after he dies. Will I keep existing? I have asked but nobody knows if the captor’s castle still exists even though it stands empty and the prince has forgotten it. If I stop existing, will the things I make with my hands still exist? Will the little cloths that cover the chair arms still protect them from dirt, the lace still keep the sharp vases from scratching the woodwork? If the king dies, will the things I’ve done be undone?
Based on The Pink, collected by the Grimm brothers. The original is an Aarne-Thompson type 652, The Boy Whose Wishes Always Come True.