By ANNIKA BAJAJ
We met that night on a drawbridge, in the rain, sprinting in opposite directions: you with golden hair plastered to your face, tangling up in long eyelashes your mother likes to call ‘ladylike’ and you tend to label as ‘inconvenient.’ Your heels had been kicked off before you’d even started running, down into the darkness of the river waters that protected your castle and the alleged crocodiles they contained. During processions when you were younger, you would drift toward the low barrier on either side of the bridge to search for their reptilian forms slipping into the water, until your mother would drag you back into the center. On this day, you were in a hurry, but you still swerved towards the edge to steal a glance: a kleptomaniac like me.
We almost collided thanks to the inertia of your dress and the layers upon layers of jewels on your neck. Neither of us tried to get out of the way, although, to be fair, we were both in a bit of a difficult situation. The soldiers on my tail marched steadily onward at a pace my ego could only hope to match — it turns out that they don’t take kindly to having their weapons stores broken into for potion ingredients. They’d let me off with a warning last time, and I promptly forgot it. You know how unreliable my memory is. But nonetheless, I recall the first sentence I ever said to you word for word.
“Where the fuck are you going, princess?”
You, folds of fabric clutched in sloppy grips, made the most of the fact that the guards on your end hadn’t yet realized that their princess was a runaway. Months later, you whispered to me that on nights when your mother’s voice pierced your eardrums, you dreamed of making this run. You imagined that when you came back she’d put away her scepter for a moment and run to you, and maybe there would be relief in her eyes when she hugged you. Eventually you stopped imagining and learned to act the part — stay in a straight line.
Throughout our years together, I never stopped marveling at how neutral you can make your expression, no matter how wild your situation or how disheveled your appearance. Weighed down by layers of sodden skirts, makeup leagues away from your mother’s portrait-ready standards, and still your eyes blank as a fresh-cleaned cauldron.
“You would do well to address me in a manner befitting your position… witch.”
You only ever called me that once, but every time you sneak into my dreams I hear the little click of the t that your accent emphasized, like a stab. I like to think that you felt an instant connection, the way I did. As our pursuers (the ones that hoped to put us behind our respective bars, in our proper places) approached us on that rickety bridge, I heard the sharp echo of that witch and felt a twin flame catch.
In a way, I was your prince that day. The dragon of that castle had curled its claws around you, and I burst in, swordless and armored with years of fury, brandishing a broomstick and an unfortunate affinity for kleptomaniac spellcasting, and swept you off your feet. I would say that my charm freed us from our predicament, but I know that really your princess poise (those clean, cauldron-black eyes) saved us as you walked me back through the aisle of pitchforked hands and stares of frustrated violence. Those three words in your authoritative voice, the last time you ever used it, “she’s with me” — their hands trembling with the effort of holding themselves back, stayed by your power.
You and your crown, staying a thousand pitchforks, dousing a thousand torches. We could still see the rising sun’s flame as we chased the path of the water towards the woods. “Another day, another royal guard chase,” I joked — you chuckled, and then you snorted and laughed and fell to the ground in a heap of trembling tears. I let myself join you there on the ground as you sobbed, and my heart leapt at the joy of the sound, like the first chirp of a chick poking its head out of the eggshell. My powers don’t usually extend to magical force fields, so I relished this little bubble we’d created, before the “escaped-princess” alarm could sound and we’d have to run once again. I remember you there when I feel that familiar ache beneath my ribs — in that shining moment, the first time I’d taken a real, full breath in years, gasping for air that tasted sweeter for the effort.
No matter how many times I complained, later, about how you’re all too used to getting what you want, I can’t deny my complicity. By the time the sky had darkened enough to see stars, we’d reached far enough into the woods that we could rest our aching legs. You gave me a pitiful glance as we sat, hands just touching, on an overturned log surrounded by tall trees and moon-speckled moss. I don’t know where I’ll sleep tonight, you began to say, before I offered up the spare bedroom of my cabin in clumsy, stumbling half-sentences. A temporary living situation, I said, until you can find work or lodgings in the town.
Not so temporary, it turned out. The first few nights, you couldn’t sleep from the bugs and the rough mattress, and I called you charming over the smoke of the hodge-podge mushroom soup I’d pieced together from my depleted stores. You rolled your eyes at me and said, I’ve heard that before. You snorted at the way I squatted on the ground by the cauldron to stir the soup with both hands. This isn’t as easy as it looks, I shot through gritted teeth, and you snatched the ladle with one hand and proved me wrong.
After those first few weeks we didn’t get around to sleeping much. We’d wake, first in our separate beds and later (for convenience) tangled in my second-floor bedroom, talk from morning to night as I brewed and sold my potions and you explored the cabin, learning all of the corners of the stacked drawers and cabinets like your own castle bedroom, and chopping vegetables with slow, careful hands. Dipping our toes into the stream behind the cabin we would laugh until our chests ached, sun sparkling on the dew.
But one clouded morning, I laughed too hard, too long. I couldn’t grab your arm in time. Not before you grasped your crown by the largest jewel and threw it headfirst into the swirling water. As you turned back to me, eyes shining, looking inches taller from the lift of the weight from your head, you couldn’t see the question that weighed on my chest. I should have asked, then.
How could you give it up?
I know why, in theory. Rationally, I can see that the kind of freedom that comes with a kingdom’s wars and petty worries on your shoulders doesn’t have the same appeal, not when you’ve never had a taste of anything else. But when you threw that crown into the water, the shimmer of royal diamonds disappearing into the crowds of water droplets, like you always wanted, all I could think was: I could’ve bought a new broomstick with that money.
Maybe that was when we started to fall apart. Not when I spent hours locked in our room, head in my hands, curled up on the bed, after I spilled an entire cabinet of potions — a stupid, stupid, clumsy accident. You couldn’t understand why I couldn’t go down and face the shouting customers at the door or my reflection in the store windows. It’s not a big deal, you cajoled, you’ll just buy some more and delay their orders, and it’ll all be fine. When I shrugged your hand off my shoulder, you frowned and stepped back, as if I owed you something for your efforts to console me. I don’t think you even hesitated before slamming the door on your way out.
Nor was it all the times you poked fun a little too deep, and I cut back a little too harsh, and we both yelled and bled and hid and scarred over until the morning, when we could look each other in the eye again. Not when we scavenged for our dinners and you no longer found it quaint that I couldn’t buy enough bread to feed us for the week, and I no longer felt charmed by your poised posture and snarky comments about how my mattress was a little too solid for your tastes.
It started then, our stockings damp and faces flushed, two eyes shining and two held carefully blank (a skill I learned from you). Your head bare and hands empty like mine.
I like to think that you knew where the drawbridge would lead you when you set out into that rainy night, hell-bent on freedom — that you knew that my distant corner of hell had once again bet on freedom too. I like to think that we held our spark in check for even a moment before it caught on the flimsy unpolished shelves and combustible potions in my hut, the ones you knocked over first by accident and later just to watch them react. I like to imagine you didn’t have to run away in the dark, that night you packed your bags and I told you, you’ll never make it, the night I underestimated you for the last time. I like to think that we could have made it work, if we’d been a little kinder.
As you know, I like to imagine a lot of things. You once loved me for it, until the love curdled from the heat.