The Two Princesses
Once upon a time, in a faraway land, in a middling-poor town, in the middle of a vast desert, two little Princesses were born, not entirely by mistake, into a very poor family. In fact, their mother was a Queen and their father a King, but all were under an enchantment and did not know that they were Royal. So the father toiled for little money, walking miles to his work each day, and the mother went nearly mad with worry for her seven children.
One day a visitor came to the little house in its unkempt, small garden– an old friend of the King’s, from his brief university days. The friend had been to faroff, marvellous lands, and he had brought with him a magic box in which he put small representations of scenes from these lands; which were broadcast by means of a lamp behind, onto the dingy wall.
So all the family gathered and watched, openmouthed, while the wall came alive with strange and marvellous things– bullock carts, and a red castle, and thick jungle coming down to the sea– this was in a place called “India.” And high mountain meadows, and a million flowers, and cows with bells, and wooden houses with peaked roofs and intricately carved decorations. This place was called “Switzerland.”
And the youngest Princess said, all to herself, inside her little tummy – “I am going to India!” And the older Princess said to herself inside, “And I am going to Switzerland!”
The Princesses grew up lithe and graceful, and they danced all the time; until one day, holding hands, they danced right out of that desert town and left forever. Their mother, the Queen who did not know she was a Queen, helped them to catch a ride in a carriage, making sure the driver was not one of the dangerous maniacs so prevalent in that land. They went to seek their fortunes, and to find a better place to be… and to follow those tugging sensations in their bellies which told them in which direction to go. They were seventeen and fifteen, and they were very brave.
Now it must be remembered that this was a strange and marvellous time in the history of the world—a brief time but well-remembered—called “the Sixties”. As if the decade itself were the Pied Piper, it led millions of children out of their houses into the streets to dance and play. A kind of madness had overtaken the young people of the land– divine madness– and they were frolicking in the meadows, decking each other with flowers; playing music, wandering the roads of that large and various country. And everywhere they went they hailed each other as if they were old friends.
After many adventures, including a perilous climb up a wild mountain in a place called “the Rocky Mountains”—the peak itself was called “Storm King”- (they stood at the top at evening, and the rain began to come; they ran down the back of the peak, leaping from boulder to house-sized boulder, as if in a tumbled, tilted landscape of the moon – and found their tarpaulin by its plastic shine in the dark, and crouched there ‘til dawn-)- they came upon a curious sight.
In a wide plain of waving yellow grasses under the lee of mountains, in a place called Colorado, a large wooden stage had been constructed, and upon it a man with very black skin and lips like soft black bananas, was singing. “Young girls they get weary – ooh they do get weary – wearing that same old worn-out dress … “ he sang. The little Princesses looked around, and then looked at each other. All around them young people flitted like so many multicolored butterflies, in tie-dye gauzes, velvet skirts with handkerchief hems, embroidered headbands. The hair on each and every one of them was big and dramatic – fluffed, crinkled, brushed out from their heads and dotted with flowers. They had haughty looks on their faces, as the glorious often do.
The little Princesses could not help but notice that they themselves were wearing only old trousers, much stained with travel, and boots for the mountains; and a little thin blouse without sleeves called a “tank top”, each. For that is all the clothes they had in the world, save for one change each in their rucksacks. So they hastily ducked behind a bush and changed their clothes. The elder Princess wore a white lace dress which the old lady who’d sold it to them for a pittance at a rummage sale had told them was 100 years old; the younger wore a long gown they had made– from a patterned bedspread, from that faraway place called “India”. Their long hair had been braided in dozens of little braids to keep it out of their way while travelling; they now unbraided it and combed it out, and lo! – it stood out around their heads as glorious and manelike as any “hippie”’s from San Francisco – for such were the people of this caravan they had encountered.
As they walked out of the bush a curious thing happened.
A man was walking towards them. He looked exactly like Prince Valiant, except that he was older – and had somewhat lighter hair and rather a different face – and he had a wild light in his eye. He wore only a pair of chamois trousers with wide, belled bottoms in the fashion of the day; and no shirt. He came straight up to the elder sister and, looking her in the eyes said – “you are a devil! And an angel! And a devil! And an angel!”
For he was flying in some inner stratosphere, peopled by his own deities and devils, in the thrall of a certain mushroom the people ate in those days when they could find it.
Well, what with one thing and another, while on the wooden stage the music continued, with wild violins and famous singers of ballads and thin young men with white faces grinding their nether regions about in the air – the fates of the two young Princesses moved to coalesce towards their inevitable directions. They were destined to part for three long years… and to meet again in a faroff miraculous land.
These two Princesses—how shocked and sad they were to say good-bye when they had been each other’s sole support for all their journey! But the elder had been invited by the Chamois Prince, who spoke with the accent of another country, to join the travelling show… where music, made and danced to, was recorded on flat little strips of stuff made from boiled trees , and preserved so that it could be shone large again, with a light behind, in theaters for people to watch. The younger Princess, he said, was too young to go. So she, tearful and fledgling, was left in the care of a group of friendly people called “The Hog Farm”, which was about as elegant, perhaps, as it sounds- their spokesperson, called “Wavy Gravy”, did speak very eloquently though; and I hope that they were kind. And later, the Princess’ mother, the Queen who did not know she was one, hitched rides in many carriages to go and take her to a vast city called “New York”, where the young Princess took work as a governess.
The elder Princess felt very sad about leaving her sister, and guilty, too, for deserting her. Perhaps both Princesses were a little bit in shock. But the opportunity to travel and see strange lands was more temptation than she could resist.
The band of wandering minstrels slept in teepees tie-dyed in many colors; they travelled in large yellow painted vehicles which had been formerly used to take children to school; they dressed themselves very fancily, and read picture-books all day while travelling, about a cat named “Fat Freddy’s Cat”; they ate mushrooms and cactus buds which gave them strange visions, and they were seldom without their handrolled, strange-smelling cigarettes; they looked a bit sleepy all day, and spoke a strange language which has now passed, largely, into history. All this the elder Princess absorbed whilst she rode with the Chamois Prince; who treated her very nicely and with respect for the most part, though when he ate the cactus buttons he behaved a little oddly.
The men who were recording the scene onto the thin flat strips of boiled trees were entirely foreign. They too began to eat of the mushrooms and cactus buttons, and then for hours they would direct their cameras (for that was the name of the strange devices they used to imprint the pictures on the stuff — ) at the sky, and murmur to themselves, “tres bien, tres bien! Tres, tres, tres bien!” This caused the Chamois Prince, who spoke their tongue, to snicker and guffaw.
One day the group, perhaps a hundred of them, reached a vast and dangerous city, at the very edge of the continent; they slept in a large, unfinished hostel there, and many members of the group were accosted by thieves; and one evening while a red sun went down through the poisonous fumes which blew about the city, the Chamois Prince (who had been wont to twirl a rodent’s skull about on a leather thong while intoxicated, and the like -) took the elder Princess – and she was just seventeen, eighteen the next day – up to the room they shared and took out from a small leather case a little, braided whip.
“I weel not hurrrrt you”, he purred, and, commanding her to lie down, raised her dress up and began to stroke the whip over her young backside. He did not hurt her, as he had promised; but she was very much confused. In fact, she was confused mightily, almost all of the time. (The only time she didn’t feel confused was when she rose early one morning, in a place called Iowa, and crept out in the dawn and gathered field-flowers, an armload, and strewed them in the bed so that the Chamois Prince saw them when he awoke; that was a thing she knew about, though she did not know how…. perhaps in the century she came from, these things were done- )
That same evening she discovered that the Chamois Prince was far more than twice her age, and she was shocked. Being so unused to the world, she had not been able to see it.
Next day they all flew in the belly of a big silver bird to an island Kingdom across a great water. The Princess was agog and could barely eat the lunch brought her by smiling attendants.
In the island Kingdom she felt even more strange, for though the people spoke her language, it was not really the same at all, and so many things were different that she felt shocked and very stupid. And she was cold. Oh, she was so cold! Her few clothes were thin, and she was always shivering.
The Chamois Prince had friends in this land, and he compelled her to do such things as sleep in a wide bed with another man—like himself, a college professor—and his wife; the wife turned grumpily away while the two men quickly had their way with the little Princess. The little Princess did not enjoy this at all, and felt deeply embarrassed and ashamed; but, she thought, she herself did not understand the ways of things, and grown men must. So she submitted, not to have them feel that she was not—a high accolade of the day—“groovy”.
Soon the Chamois Prince had to leave that land, and he left the Princess there, at her own request. For she was determined to continue on her travels. There was one last minstrel show, with lights streaming from the stage while trees blew in the wind, and the Princess’ boyscout hat flew off her head to disappear forever into the crowd; the musicians were called “Pink Floyd”, and the mushrooms the Princess had been fed caused her to see an endless procession of twining lovers – real lovers– in the trees and clouds.
Well, after this the Princess had many adventures, and travelled to many lands. She fell tenderly in love with a Prince who did not know he was a Prince, but left him in a land called Provence, because the voice tugging at her belly told her she must go on alone; she fell desperately in love with a Prince who thought he was a Prince but didn’t have it quite right just how; she fell in love with mummers and minstrels and mimes, and she wandered and was sometimes alone, and she wrote and bound and illustrated little books of her poetry, embroidering the covers with her own hair, to amuse herself and to give as gifts; and she was often mightily confused about the ways of the world.
So often did our Princess suffer, wondering who she was.
So many sights she saw – so many moods she felt – so many people she met – but what was she in all this? She felt no center in all this save when she wrote. And even in the flowery meadows and high snows of the land called “Switzerland”, which she did reach, she felt that a veil stood between herself and the world.
One morning quite early in her journey she was adrift in a vegetable market in a great and famous city. She was accompanied by the Prince-who-thought-he-was-one-but-didn’t-have-it-right-just-how; and his brother, who was young and envious. They were in a crush of people all buying and selling cabbages, and skinned hares, and oranges, and pears. All the night long the black-haired minstrel Prince, for it was he whom she thought she loved, had done to her what is called “making love”. And perhaps he was, making love; but the mushrooms he had eaten, and fed to her, had not this time given her any flight into anywhere, but only served to remind her coldly and soberly that “making love” was still unknown to her.
Suddenly out of the crowd there stepped a tiny lady. She was about four-and-a-half feet tall; she had eyes like brown eggyolks; she wore a brown coat buttoned up against the frigid morning. She came right up to the Princess and looked her in the eyes. A great love seemed to flow from her; her eyes had a melted, runny look.
“You!” she said to the Princess. “You’re a beautiful girl. You’re going to have a wonderful life! You’ll have a hard time for awhile yet, but then it’s going to be very, very beautiful.”
The Princess, in her flame-pink satin and net skirt and her witch’s boots and too-thin blouse, gazed at the little lady, heard her thick Cockney brogue, – and looked, questioningly, first at the black-haired Prince on her right side; then at his brother, on her left – as if to say – “but what about them? What about my black-haired Prince, the hippest, the most brilliant, the most groovy in all the land?”
The old woman glanced cursorily at each brother and then back, eyes brimful of love, to the little Princess. “You”, she said. “You are a beautiful girl. You’re going to have a wonderful life. I see these things!” And she melted back into the crowd, gone completely.
One day long after, when many adventures – sad, absurd, tender, bizarre – had proceeded past the Princess’s untutored, often bewildered eyes and heart, she found herself in a pretty, rather anarchic city, back at the very western edge of the continent of her birth. She was with her mother, the ageing Queen-who-didn’t-know-she-was-a-Queen; but who, having finally left the poor, oblivious old King, was just beginning to lay the groundwork to finding it out. The Princess had rescued her mother from the desert town far to the south and they had rented cheap lodgings together on a hill high above the sometimes-foggy, sometimes-sparkling bay.
One foggy day, the postman came and brought them a letter from a faraway land called “India”. For the littlest, youngest Princess, being very brave and having followed the tuggings in her belly , had hitchhiked alone, armed with a knife, her hair in dozens of little braids and wearing the gown made from a bedspread, over the vast and scary continents to get to India. She too had had many adventures, and flown in the belly of a huge silver bird over the water; she too had been in love with a Prince who was definitely a little bit confused about the issue.
In the letter from the littlest Princess there was a miniature portrait, and it fell out and fluttered to the pavement as the elder Princess unfolded the thin blue paper. She picked it up. It was of a man—but was it a man? – No- it was a spirit – but more than a spirit. He was laughing. The elder Princess felt a strange sensation in her stomach. “He’s laughing!”- she thought. “Why—I haven’t laughed in a year!” And she was filled with a
terrible regret. And yet, she was afraid to look at the portrait again; for it seemed to be reminding her of something, deep inside her backbone and deeper, even, than her vitals. Something she already knew, and yet which it would upset her entire life to remember. (And yet, what had she to lose?)
Her mother, the Queen-who-did-not-know-it, took one look at the portrait and said, “I’m going.” For she, too, was brave. And she, too, had nothing to lose. But she was older, and she knew she had nothing to lose. The Princess her daughter still trembled and held back.
But as inevitable as the sunrise, they went. Through a strange and unusual coincidence, they both had exactly enough money to pay the fare in the silver bird; and so it happened that around noon on a day which smelt, as all days smell in India, of frangipani, and spices, and excrement and urine and damp, like an old wet washcloth slapped across the face, they got out of the belly of the silver bird and greeted with glad cries the youngest Princess. But the eldest Princess stood a little aback, for her sister had changed.
Still long-tressed and slender and beautiful of countenance she was, but lit by a flower of passion and inner sustenance… a maturity had settled in her, though she was just eighteen; a beauty and joy glowed out of her and surrounded her as she stood on the warm earth in her orange long skirt and short Indian blouse, and she smelled of spices and oriental musks.
She took them to a dwelling-place she had found for them all, in an ancient wooden house with carved window-shutters, where servants brought strange fruits for them to eat; and there they bathed and changed their garments.
And then she took them to meet the man in the portrait.
First they went in a rickshaw to a large building; climbed many stairs; went into an apartment high up in the plain, flat-faced place; and there, in the hallway,met the fierce gargoyle, which referred to itself in the third person as “Laxmi”, which guarded Him. It gazed at them in ferocity and said a disparaging thing or two, but it let them pass.
They went down another corridor and, knocking first, opened a door. First the youngest Princess, then the Queen who was, just this moment stepping over the threshold into her Queenliness—stepped in; the eldest Princess stepped – and was hit by a wall of bliss so strong she fell to her knees. A perfume enveloped her, as of pines and intimate, primeval forest mysteries; but the intensity of the consciousness in the room was so strong that those primeval smells had been transformed into light. She was blasted by it. She felt like a beetle suddenly transfixed in the vivid daylight of an open door. She could barely breathe, and yet all there was to breathe was ecstasy. She didn’t know what to do.
As she managed to rise and step forward, as if on a stage before a thousand people (but all were light, and only her own fears were played back to her instantaneously) one single thought came in the calm bright empty space, and sat startled in her mind : “Why, he’s not an Indian – He’s an everything!”
And so it started.