By Anjali Shenai (Downingtown, PA)
Once, there was a Prince who lived in a faraway land that does not exist today. From the time he was born, he had everything a boy and royalty could ask for, and yet, he seemed unhappy. For the years to come, he seemed more distressed still, for he had not yet acquired what he desired the most. He had money, yes, and status, yes, what more could a prince ask for? This question his father had asked him many times and the Prince had always remained in silence, hiding his inner desires.
For the Prince, despite having the riches of the world and near everything a person could wish for, he craved for the freedom to venture out of the castle gates and into the unknown places he had so often fantasized about. And so on his twenty-first birthday he asked his father to join him in the library after everyone else had fallen asleep. For a while they sat in silence, and finally his father spoke. “Well, son,” he said hesitantly, “you did seem disinterested today. For a boy on his birthday, that is quite odd. Would you like to speak your mind? What is it you want?”
At this, the Prince lifted his head and stared at his father for a while, thinking of the best way to ask for a chance to go out in the world. Despite all his thinking, he could not find a way to sugarcoat what he wanted to say. Therefore, abandoning all pretenses, the Prince suddenly blurted out, “Father, I know this sounds ungrateful, but I’d like to go out in the world, for just a little while. I’m tired of staying behind walls, constantly protected. Please let me do this,” he finished, hanging his head down once more, unsure of his father’s coming response. From under his bangs he peeked out at his father. The old King seemed sad, sad that he knew that the one thing his son asked was the thing that took his son away from him. And the fact that made him sadder still was that he had known his son’s wish for years.
The old King sighed, and eased himself out of his chair, then walked towards the dark window. The Prince rose quickly and followed him. His father sensed his presence, and spoke softly. “Well, my son, it pains me to let you go, but if that is what you wish for, you can leave the castle unguarded.” The Prince brightened and went to thank his father, but the King stopped him. “However,” continued the old King, “I have one condition.”
“What is it?” the Prince asked eagerly, elated at his father’s consent.
The King turned towards the Prince, and said,” You may go out only on Saturdays, the day where not much work need be done. You are twenty-one now. You need to understand your responsibility as the future ruler, so one day a week. No more, no less. The entire day will be yours.” The Prince had no words to thank his father, so he just closed the space between them with a big hug.
The next day happened to be a Saturday. The Prince awoke at dawn, eager to leave the castle. He scribbled a quick note to his parents, and taking only an apple and a sword, the Prince left the castle and within a quarter hour, was outside the kingdom gates.
Standing just outside the kingdom, the Prince pondered where to explore. To his right was the forest believed to be unsafe, and to his left were villages along the border of his kingdom and another. The Prince, wanting a sort of adventure, chose the forest.
This forest in which he entered was believed unsafe for a reason. An enchantress was rumored to live in the middle of the forest, and she had many magic powers. This the Prince did not know, and so when he reached a clearing in the heart of the forest, he was surprised to see a tall stone tower looming among the trees. The Prince, thinking he might meet people, searched for a door to enter the tower. He found none, but when he gazed up the tower, he spotted a window without glass, only curtained by thick red velvet.
Suddenly, he heard a twig snap to his right. Startled, he retreated into the dark of the forest, and watched for the being that had made the noise. Out of the trees a tall woman emerged, dressed all in black, with mahogany hair laced with strands of grey. She strode to the tower, looked up to the window, and called, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, I’m home. Let down your braid!” As the enchantress said this, the curtain in the window moved aside by unseen hands and a long, white-blonde braid tumbled down. The enchantress climbed quickly up the rope of hair, and slipped into the room behind the window. The unseen hands pulled the braid up again, and drew the curtain.
Intrigued, the Prince walked toward the tower, but at that moment, the braid fell down once more and the enchantress descended, clutching the braid with one hand and a basket with the other. The Prince dove for the trees and waited until the enchantress had gone far enough as to not notice him. Then, he went towards the tower and called, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, I’m home…let down your braid.” The curtain opened and the hair dropped down at his feet. He held the braid tentatively, and then began to climb up.
When he got to the window ledge, he released his hold on the braid and gripped the window frame. A young woman appeared at the ledge, her eyes downcast, and pulled up the braid, which the Prince realized, was her own hair, long and thick. She cast the braid on the ground near her feet, and looked up at the Prince. The Prince eased himself into the room and looked back at her. Suddenly, the woman began to scream.
Shocked at her outburst, he attempted to calm the girl down. “It’s okay,” he whispered anxiously, scared that the enchantress might have magical ears that would hear the woman’s screams. “I’m not going to hurt you, I’m a Prince, I just happened to pass by here. What’s your name? Why are you here?” he asked. The woman stopped screaming and stared at the Prince curiously with large, green eyes.
“I’m the enchantress’s daughter,” said she, “therefore I live in her tower. The question is, what are you, and why should I answer?” At this, the Prince felt a bit of confusion.
“What am I?” repeated the Prince. “Uh, I’m a man, a human, like you…well, you’re a woman, but still human, I guess.” The woman’s eyes widened even more. She then proceeded to poke the Prince’s face, as if astonished by him.
After she had finished examining him, she spoke once more, this time in wonder. “I never knew men existed!” she exclaimed. “You see, my mother told me I was to be locked up in this tower since she said I was too beautiful, and that some man would want to marry me. I never believed her. But now,” she continued,” I see that she was right…There is such a thing called a man. Amazing. Maybe if I’d been allowed out, I’d have known.”
The Prince just stared at the woman. She was either crazy, he reasoned, or like me, locked up and protected too much. He decided it was the latter. Again, he asked, “What’s your name?”
The woman smiled and said, “Rapunzel. Didn’t you guess? That’s what you called me when you wanted to come up. Mother said it suits me. Do you agree?” The Prince had no choice but to nod his assent. Rapunzel was indeed beautiful, with her green eyes, fair face, and long, blonde hair that seemed to have light of its own. She smiled again, and the two proceeded to ask each other questions about their individual lifestyles, interests, and cultures. The more they talked, the more they realized they had in common.
They were deep in conversation when the enchantress’s voice sounded from below. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, I’m home. Let down your braid!” The Prince gave a start and looked out the window. The sky was a deep orange, signaling sunset. He should have been on his way home by now. Rapunzel looked worried. “If she finds you here,” she whispered, “I don’t know what she’ll do…but you can’t leave, not with the situation being what it it…” She hurried to the window and lowered her braid out the window. Within seconds, the enchantress was in the room, staring in shock at the Prince, who stood in the middle of the room with nothing to hide himself. Rapunzel slunk away into a shadow.
The enchantress strode over to Rapunzel and she asked, “Now, daughter, who is this?” The young woman trembled and replied, “Um, he’s a prince, he came up here to see who was here, I think he heard you call me and figured it out…I’m sorry. And all we did was talk, there’s no harm in that, is there, Mother?” Rapunzel looked fearfully at the Prince, who stared back.
Rapunzel’s mother indicated with a long finger for the Prince to come closer. Hesitantly, he crossed the room to Rapunzel. “Now, boy,” the enchantress began, “you look decent enough for my daughter.” She examined the Prince closely. “You have permission to visit her, though on one condition.” The Prince waited. “You must come at least once a week, and if you don’t I shall punish you.”
The Prince brightened up the same way he had when his father had given him the right of freedom. “Of course,” he replied happily, “I can come only on Saturdays, though. But that’s enough time for us to become friends, I think,” said the Prince, looking at Rapunzel. She smiled with pleasure at him. “And now,” he continued, “I have to go, unfortunately. I’ll be back next week.” The enchantress nodded with a slight smile on her face. Rapunzel bade him farewell and let him climb down her braid towards the ground. He waved once at the window, and soon, the tower disappeared behind him into the forest.
The Prince arrived back at the castle soon after dark. The old King spotted him and asked, “Well, my son, how were your little travels?” The Prince told his father all about the forest and the sights, and after a little hesitation, decided to leave out his meeting with Rapunzel and details of the tower. His father seemed pleased with him, and told him to get rest.
For a year after, the Prince continued to visit Rapunzel and her enchantress mother. Over time, the two fell in love and one Saturday, the Prince decided to ask the enchantress for Rapunzel’s hand in marriage.
At his proposition, Rapunzel was overjoyed and hugged the Prince so much that his sides felt numb. The enchantress, however, lacked expression, though her eyes lit up. She said, “If you’d like to marry my daughter, I have no problems. You seem very much in love with her, and she with you…but only after a month. I need to think about finalizing it. But do visit during that time! If not, I will curse you to never stop loving her; you will need to be with her.” Rapunzel thanked her mother profusely and proceeded to hug her mother in the same fashion as she had hugged the Prince.
When he returned home that night, the Prince decided that he needed to tell his father about Rapunzel. He called his father to the library for a private meeting the following day. His father seemed thrilled for some reason, and continued to be in a good mood as he settled down in a chair. The Prince cleared his throat and said, “Father, I-I’ve met this girl, Rapunzel, in the forest, and I love her a lot. We’re planning to get married. So, with your permission, we’d like to have our wedding in a month.” He finished his statement rather quickly and waited anxiously for his father’s response.
However, the old King’s joyful expression had faded, replaced with one of anger. “Where did you meet this girl and when? Be truthful! Tell no tales.” His voice was deathly serious. Hesitantly, the Prince told his father of his meetings with Rapunzel in the forest, and of the enchantress, and of the tower. When he finished, his father looked angrier still, and yet, he seemed a little sad.
“Forget this forest girl!” said the old King, “I’ve fixed your marriage to the Princess of the neighboring kingdom. You are getting married to her in a week. Now hear me well! From now, you are forbidden to leave this castle till your wedding has taken place!” The Prince, shocked, retreated to his room. That night, he tossed and turned, thinking of the enchantress’s threat, and his father’s anger.
The next morning, the old King called the Prince to his study. “Your wedding is this Saturday,” he said, “and it’s first thing in the morning. Festivities will go on all day and night, so I don’t want any sneaking out to meet that girl. You are a prince. You are to marry someone of your status. A forest girl has nothing to offer to our kingdom. Do you understand?” The Prince nodded, still dejected.
The week went by rather quickly with all the preparations for the wedding. Saturday dawned bright and beautiful, a contradiction to the Prince’s depression. He remained silent and expressionless during the marriage ceremonies, paying no attention to the beautiful Princess who was to be his wife. And as his father had promised, the celebrations went on all day, and all night. The Prince had no moment alone, as his bride had attached herself to him, and they were pursued by relatives and nobility offering congratulations.
After the wedding, the Prince and the Princess moved to a small castle near the enchantress’s forest. Despite his freedom from his father, the Prince could not bring himself to visit Rapunzel and confess what he had done, nor could he bring himself to face the enchantress. And so he remained in a state of confusion for five years, keeping up an act of a happily married man, and pretended to love his wife. This act continued until one day, the Prince could stand the separation from Rapunzel no longer. The feeling, he realized, was brought on by the enchantress’s curse: If he left Rapunzel, he would never stop loving her, and would need to be with her.
That very day, he told his wife that he would be out in a meeting with the ruler of a land just beyond the forest, and told her not to expect him to be back in a hurry. The Princess, unknowing of Rapunzel, bade him a good journey and let him go. As soon as he had left the castle gates, the Prince broke into a run, and did not stop running until he saw the tower.
Gasping for breath, the Prince yelled, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, I’m home. Let down your braid!” There was no response. No hands fluttered the curtain, no hands dropped down a mass of blonde hair. He tried calling her again. This time, the curtain flew open, and the face of the enchantress appeared. Her face was weary, and her dark hair streaked with more grey. Her expression was that of anger and sorrow. “Where is Rapunzel?” called the Prince. The enchantress merely glared down at him.
“She’s gone away. A long time ago, in fact, when you didn’t come meet her.” The enchantress’s voice was heavy with sadness and rage. The Prince hung his head in shame. Noticing this, the enchantress cried, “Look up at me, boy! My curse had taken effect from the time she went away. You have fought it well. But now, “she said with a wicked smile on her face, “you can fight it no longer. Be with her you shall. I will give you a map showing where she is. Find her, and be with her for all eternity.” Saying this, the woman threw down a roll of parchment at the Prince’s feet. He picked it up, slowly.
He unfurled the map, looked at it, then gazed up at Rapunzel’s mother. Then a thought struck him. “Why,” the Prince asked, “would it be a curse for me to be with Rapunzel forever?” The enchantress smiled sadly, and replied, “You’ll find out when you see her.” And she disappeared behind the curtain.
The Prince stared at the curtain, unsure of what she had meant. He took a deep breath and studied the map. The map directed him north, straight from his position now, into the depths of the forest. For hours he went north, and only straight through the trees, until a large boulder blocked his path. The Prince checked the map. A red ‘X’ marked a sketch of a boulder. This must be where Rapunzel is, thought the Prince, and soon he found a small wooden door, with metal hinges fixed to the boulder.
He made to open the door, but stopped. What would she say? The Prince pondered over how to apologize correctly to her, and inhaling deeply, pulled the door open.
What met his gaze disturbed him beyond words. A skeleton lay behind the door, wearing the pink cotton dress Rapunzel so often had worn, and from the skull flowed masses of long, blonde hair.
“Rapunzel,” the Prince whispered, horrified. He reached out to stroke the skull, to touch some part of his love before he left her for good. Suddenly, a bony hand grabbed his wrist. He gasped and looked down at the skeleton.
The skull’s jaw began to move, and Rapunzel’s voice spoke: “Now we’ll be together forever…” Rapunzel’s skeleton pulled him into the small space, and the door shut behind the two lovers, never to be opened again.