Eventually, no matter how long it takes, the wait must end. We receive the hoped for, dreaded news, for better or worse.
The First Ending:
When the knight opened his eyes again he found he was not staring at a beast, but face to face with the princess.
The returned to the castle and went to the king, who was overjoyed to see that the brave knight had returned and overcome with wonder to see his daughter back, safe and sound. He turned the kingdom over, knowing it was in good hands.
The princess told her father that she had been with the army at the ambush all those years ago, but as she lay dying a witch had appeared and asked her if what she would give up to live. The princess had said to give up everything she held dear and the witch saved her life but placed a curse on her in the process. The knight had broken the curse with his kiss.
News spread far and wide that the kingdom was once again safe and the story spread of the princess who had been turned in to a beast and the knight who had, as a little boy, seen through the princess’s masquerade as a knight and many years later seen through the princess’s curse.
The princess and the knight lived long, happy lives and they and all their kingdom lived happily ever after.
When I first told this story I felt it was a great, subversive tale. The damsel in distress was the monster. The brave knight won by not fighting. I had a lot to learn, then. But this ending is still about that thing which we hope for, that thing we should never stop hoping for.
Still, I began to wonder, one day, if the fairy tale ending made sense. If it was even possible.
The Second Ending:
The knight’s eyes never opened again. With a single great swipe of his claw the beast ripped open his chest and stilled his stout heart.
No other champions ever arrived at the border of the kingdom and the king soon died, leaving behind an empty, desolate land that was divided up among his neighbors and forgotten.
Sometimes the end is fast, devastating. Even then, though, the end isn’t really the end. The story continues, just with different borders.
The Third Ending:
The knight and the princess returned to the castle and for a time joy again reigned in the kingdom.
Soon, though, the knight-turned-king began waking up when the moon was at its highest point in the sky and find the princess-turned-queen’s side of the bed cold and empty. When that happened he knew to find her standing atop the railing out on the balcony that overlooked the forest. In her dreams she was tortured by the terrified faces and agonized cries of those she had killed while living as a monster.
One night while the moon was high in the sky he awoke to find the bed was cold and empty. Exhausted by the constant worry he decided that this one night he would not get up, would not go to her, would go back to sleep.
The next morning a servant found her broken body crumpled beneath the balcony at the base of the great keep.
We do horrible things to each other on our way to that elusive happily ever after. Sometimes we don’t survive, but don’t realize that we’ve lost until long after we think we’ve won.
The Fourth Ending:
The knight and princess were made king and queen, but the happy prosperous times did not return with them.
Monster slaying did not translate well in to governance and the new king was soon in far over his head.
The new queen took it upon herself to clean up her parents’ kingdom and cleared out the bandits and ruffians with speed, skill, and more than a little viciousness. As good and decent people returned she enacted tough laws with harsh punishments for even the tiniest infractions.
Many years later a witch moved in to an abandoned hut at the edge of the kingdom and the rumor passed around that it was the very same witch who had placed a curse on the princess all those years ago.
The king traveled to the witch’s hut in secret and asked why breaking the curse hadn’t returned the princess to the way she once was.
The witch laughed at him. All he had done that night in the woods was to return to princess to the way she had once looked, the witch told him. The curse was that the princess’s true inner nature was revealed for all to see.
The fairy tale must follow its own inner logic. We must stop and ask a simple question: “Why did the princess become a vicious monster?” That question takes us to the most terrifying places of all.
The Fifth Ending:
Joy and hope returned to the kingdom, but it took a long time for things to return to normal.
The princess was haunted by her time in the forest for a long time afterwards, but the knight and the old king were there for her when the dreams returned.
The knight found the transition from warrior to administrator hard, but over time learned how to govern.
Nothing was ever the same again and happily ever after often seemed out of reach, but there was happiness to be had in abundance. And it was always more than enough to carry the kingdom through the hardest times.
At the very least everyone lived hopefully ever after.
Sometimes all the best we can hope for is that the scars have sufficient time to fade and we’re given the time we need to learn from our mistakes. In the fairy tale this is a disappointing ending. In real life, though, it’s usually the best one we can hope for.
I apparently wrote these posts on Halloween of 2008.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I did write two posts on Halloween of 2008. The first was the story, right up until the point where the knight kissed the beast. The second was just five endings. It was an early attempt to figure out how to differentiate between the spoken and written word, to say, “We can do this when telling, and we can do that when writing.”
But I never published them. There wasn’t really enough there to make it worthwhile. So they sat there on my old Toshiba laptop. And they moved to my new Asus (nicknamed, coincidentally, “The Beast,” which was also the nickname of my 1984 Chevy Caprice Classic. The story in question still doesn’t have an official title) laptop when I transferred my files over. But that was just a happy accident. I hadn’t meant to do anything with those two posts. Hell, I’d totally forgotten about them.
Then I found myself lying awake at one in the morning, my only company images of a Neil Gaiman story. It’s an interesting story, too. We find that the main characters are a big, strong man and a frail, weak woman.
In the end, though, we find that the woman is not as she appears. And that causes the man’s downfall.
It got me thinking about this old story. The beautiful princess, the terrifying monster. The way they’re one and the same. It had seemed so subversive at the time, a subtly empowering tale of a princess who was, most definitely, not a damsel in distress. A brave knight who could not solve problems with violence, but had to recall the innocence of youth instead.
That’s not, ultimately, what this story is about though, is it? The first time I told it I told it to Her. I was still hoping for that fairy tale ending, but aware of the fact that I would have to figure out a way to get through some dark places to make it.
I wrote the additional endings six months after it all ended. Endings two and four are the most honest assessments I can see of how she responded. Ending three, I think, is how I wanted to respond. Ending five was that Hail Mary that said, “Maybe it can still work.”
To all of those I think I can add another:
The Sixth Ending:
The knight opened his eyes.
Standing before him where there had once been a monster he saw the princess. He smiled, relief and hope filling his soul.
They turned from the clearing and began picking their way through the dark and treacherous woods. At first the knight worked on his plans for the future now that the kingdom was his and the princess he’d dreamed of since that day in the meadow all those years ago walked beside him. It would be wonderful.
But every time he closed his eyes he saw that terrible monster.
As the knight traveled back through the forest he collected the armor he’d left behind. When they reached the edge of the woods and found his horse the knight mounted the steed.
He never returned to the castle, never collected his prize. Instead he rode out of that kingdom.
As the years passed he would occasionally wonder what had happened, what would have been. In the quiet, dark moments of the night he would sometimes wish he had made a different choice. He would fall asleep hoping to dream of the princess.
But he never did. On those nights he dreamed only of monsters.
The biggest thing that surprises me, looking back on this story, is that no matter what ending I write, it’s always about the knight. It’s never about the princess or the monster.
They’re just characters. Props.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s really the outer monsters I should fear.