So, exactly a week ago, I was on a boat — excuse me, a ship — in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I had an awful lot of fun on this cruise, known as JoCo Cruise, despite the exceptionally weird timing for travel. One of the most exciting things I did is something I started almost by accident. After stumbling back to my room from Goth Prom (yes, you read that right, this really isn’t your grandma’s cruise ship), full of wine and giddiness, I lay in bed perusing the shipboard social media platform “Twitarr” and came upon a plea from someone for a bedtime story.
Drunk me is seldom less than enthusiastic, so my response was “OKAY!” and I launched into a ramble about a princess and a castle. I typed up a few dozen paragraphs through my drunken haze, posted them, and conked out. When I woke up in the morning, I noticed a few notifications from people liking my posts and decided to check out how laughably bad it was. Only, it wasn’t bad. It was actually rather okay, with a clear plot, no spelling mistakes, and one single grammatical error that I fixed whilst drunk. (Because that’s what 10 years of editorial does to your brain, it’s burned in there for life.)
Anyhow, I decided to continue this effort over the remaining nights of the cruise — bar one, which I took off to rest my brainmeats — and wound up writing just shy of 3,000 words of children’s bedtime story. Someone on the cruise was kind enough to grab all of the text for me and send it in a Word Doc, which made assembling the pieces and editing them for full coherency FAR easier. Thank you, Erik Mendoza!
The following is what happens when I am forced through time constraints and circumstance to finish a story in one go.
The Castle Saves the Princess in This One
By Joy Pfeiffer
Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle. She was very sad, for she had never been outside her castle. The castle, as a matter of fact, was sad with her. The castle had lived many years and seen generations grow up and languish inside its walls the way the princess had. The castle wished it, too, could see what was beyond its own gardens. Late at night, as the princess slept and dreamed of freedom, so too did her castle. It was in these dreams that the castle hatched a plan.
“What if,” the castle thought, “I could move myself to another land. The princess could stay safe inside me, but we could leave together and explore the vastness of the world around us.”
And so, that night, the castle began to concentrate as hard as a castle could. Perhaps harder than any castle ever has. The castle squeezed its bricks tight against their mortar, stirring up dust and dirt that had been left to slumber for centuries. The castle put all the might of itself into the hopes and dreams it had for the princess. It wanted nothing more than to give her somewhere else to be – something more to think about when she lay her head down on her pillow.
And, wouldn’t you know it, on the eleventh hour – which we all know is the most magical of them all – that ancient castle began to move. It was slow going, slower than the worms digging their wormy paths through the earth. But the castle was moving, through sheer will, sheer magic, sheer *something *. Hour by hour, minute by minute, it traveled across the earth, slowly trampling grass and pastures, destroying fences at a pace not quite glacial but slow enough to not cause alarm to the farmhands and peasants whose lands was suffering the baffling experience of castle migration.
It stopped just as the first rays of morning light began to play upon the castle’s weathered brick facade. It soaked in the familiar warmth, basking in the sunlight’s serenity while at the same time noticing the subtle differences resulting from its nighttime travel. Strange birds called, and the winds carried new scents and sensations. A bright and brisk breeze brought the tinge of salt and sand. The castle, it seems, had made its way overnight from the middle of nothing to the edge of the world – to the edge of the sea.
As daylight played against the soft curtains framing her bedroom, the princess awoke. Another day of nothing to do, nothing to see, nowhere to be. She sat up and sighed heavily. But then, she sensed it… Something was different. Birds were calling, strange ones that had squawks unnatural to her ears. The wind was scented heavily with something metallic that she couldn’t quite discern. Hurriedly, she threw off her blankets and ran to the window, opening the worn wooden shutter.
The princess gasped. It was like nothing she had ever seen before. The bluest of blue stretched before her, far as her eyes could see. Waves crashed, creating foaming clouds at their peaks and sending soft sprays of mist to lightly drench her face. She could smell the sunshine, taste the sea on her tongue, hear the wind whipping the water into a frenzy. It was magnificent. Best of all, gone were all the people who had stood guard to keep her inside the castle. She could see nothing but the water and the sand. She had the innate sense that she was free.
And so, with a little unconscious urging from the castle that loved her so, the princess walked down the stone steps of her tower and pushed open the wooden door. Once the sturdy guardian of her imprisonment, the door was now her gateway to freedom. As she stepped out into the warm sunshine, the princess blinked back tears and whispered a barely audible, “Thank you.”
The castle, in its own magical way, whispered back, “You’re welcome. Now, go and be free”
You might be wondering what, exactly, does a princess do with freedom? First, she studies it. Freedom feels like pokey sea grass prickling her toes and cinnamon-bun warmth baking into her pale flesh from rays of unfiltered light in a cloudless sky. It feels like gulls calling and the soft thunder of not-so-distant waves. It also feels Scary.
The princess had never been outside, not on her own, and the idea of stepping over the threshold into this new world filled her with trepidation. But she knew, the way children always know, that her castle had gone through so much to get her to this place called freedom. So she put one foot in front of the other and walked down an invisible path from the doorway of the only home she had ever known to the waiting edge of the bluest, most phenomenally vast sight she had ever seen. It was the ocean, and while she knew what it was, she had never seen one outside a drawing in a book.
She stood at the edge, mesmerized by the motion of the waves. The sea foam looked like a delicate, tasty treat, and she giggled and shrieked with delight when the tide rushed up suddenly to soak her up to the ankles. It was the most beautiful experience she had ever had, and she looked back at her castle expectantly, as if it might have something to say. The castle remained stoic as ever, but she thought she sensed it settle and relax into its foundation a bit. The princess smiled and turned back to the ocean.
She was quite surprised, as I’m sure you would be, to see a face looking back at her. Our Princess let out a tiny squawk of surprise at the sight just a couple feet off the shore.
The being was human-shaped but bore features that betrayed its otherworldliness. First, its skin was blue. Not Smurf blue, but a muted shade reminiscent of the eggs she sometimes spied in bird’s nests on the castle’s window ledges. The eyes were startlingly green and far larger and more rounded than human eyes. The hair was more like kelp in texture, and the princess thought perhaps she spied gills at the sides of the creature’s neck. She couldn’t be entirely certain of that fact, for most of the creature was submerged in the water, watching her with a wary curiosity.
“Hello,” the princess said, trying to sound friendly and not at all afraid (even though she was a little).
The creature made no noise in reply, instead moving forward through the water towards her. She spied a brief flash of something metallic but tried to keep her eyes trained squarely on its face. An inkling of what this creature might be stirred at the back of her mind, but she wasn’t sure just how well she could trust memories generated by bedtime stories.
“What’s your name?” The princess asked. More silence.
She couldn’t tell if the creature understood but kept talking anyway. The princess was used to being more-or-less solitary, and she relished the chance to talk to another being – even one that might not be capable of talking back.
“My name is Ara. I live in that castle back there. Well, I used to live a lot farther from here, but this is where I live now, I think.”
The creature rose a little further up from the water, displaying more blue skin – definitely a few gills hiding out in the neck region – and a chest that was smooth and muscled. Ara kept talking.
“I wish I could swim like you, but I’ve never been allowed in the water. I’ve never actually been close to water like this before. I haven’t done very much at all,” she admitted, mournfully.
She saw the creature’s expression shift, then without warning, it leapt gracefully backwards into the surf – a tail coated in shimmering scales flipping up and splashing her with droplets of ice-cold saltwater before disappearing completely. Ara was saddened by her new friend’s sudden departure, but figured it was just as well. What could a seaperson and a human that didn’t know how to swim possibly do together?
Ara watched a flock of birds wheel in the sky above her, calling to one another as they soared. She took in the majesty of the ocean, vast and unending. If she was going to be alone, the sea was a good place to be. Perhaps she could go back to her castle, retrieve one of the many books from her library, and find a nice spot on the sand to read.
She was about to do just that, had half turned back toward the familiar old stone structure, when a series of splashes stopped her. The sight before her eyes was almost too much to believe, but considering she was standing in front of the ocean, steps outside a castle that had somehow magically moved itself overnight, possibly hundreds of miles… Ara knew it could only be real.
Her seaperson had returned, joined by a small blue whale. At least, she thought it was a whale. She mused that whales were usually a bit larger than the friendly looking creature bobbing excitedly in the water, but this certainly looked like what she had seen in her books.
The seaperson raised an arm – scaly, as well, with webbing between the fingers – and motioned between the whale and Ara. Though no words were spoken, Ara realized what her friend wanted to say. The whale was there for her. Ara couldn’t swim, so the creature had brought her a method of transport so they could travel together. She didn’t know whether it would work, but after years of being shut inside the same stone walls, alone and yearning for adventure and friendship, she wasn’t about to turn her back on this.
Gathering her skirts in both hands, Ara stepped into the water and began to wade out toward her new friends. Her clothes were soaked to the waist and her teeth had begun to chatter, but excitement kept her moving forward towards the waiting creatures in front of her. She glanced back once at her castle and felt a sense of calm and peace emanating from the familiar facade.
The merperson smiled with enthusiasm, exposing a row of sharp, jagged teeth. Ara smiled back, then turned toward the dolphin-sized whale that was bobbing in the water in front of her. It seemed to smile back, in its own whaleish way. Unsure of what to do next, Ara stood still in the water, enjoying the gentle rocking sensation the incoming waves provided as they traveled through her location. After a few moments of pleasant silence, the merperson gestured toward the whale, which shifted a bit in the water.
Ara realized that they meant for her to climb onto the sea creature. At first, she could not fathom how it would work, but she took a deep breath and moved toward the whale. Gripping the top of its head, which had a texture less slippery than she would have imagined, she braced herself for a moment then leapt into the air, hoisting one leg high to swing over its flank.
She was astride the whale faster than she imagined possible, buoyed by the sea. Ara wrapped her arms around its neck and leaned forward instinctually, hugging close. Her merfriend smiled widely, then leapt backward in a single graceful motion. The whale turned to follow, and Ara held on tighter.
They were headed out to sea, into the waiting and endless horizon. Ara was terrified to leave her beloved castle, but so excited to see what lay beyond the space where the daylight met the blue of the ocean. She relished the splash of water on her thighs and the wind tossing her hair. It was so liberating to be speeding out into the world with no expectations of what could happen, but every hope of what might come to be.
Beside Ara and her whale, the mercreature swam fast and strong. Somehow, someway, Ara knew that the mercreature was powered by the same magic as her moving castle. She was a girl who was lucky enough to have the love of the walls that had surrounded her since birth, and now that love was transferred to the endless possibility of the never-ending ocean.
Closing her eyes, knowing everything she had ever known was shrinking quickly behind her, Ara risked lifting her arms off the whale’s neck and stretched them out into the air. Her thighs gripped harder, and she felt such an incredible sense of joy and possibility fill her that it was only reasonable to fill her lungs with clean, fresh air and scream out loud – a scream of pure, utter happiness.
From a distance, the castle watched Ara and her new friends grow smaller on the horizon. It filled with a sense of comfort to know that the girl it loved so much, a girl who had been drenched in sadness and lonely for too long, was finally – irrevocably – free. The castle breathed a sigh of true happiness as the sun began to set and the three were but pinpricks in the distance. It could only hope that its princess would find adventures worthy of her wonderfulness wherever she might be headed.
Ara was in utter heaven. She was full of anticipatory excitement, bursting with happiness. Between staring out at the horizon in front of them, she kept glancing sideways at the merperson swimming alongside. The princess envied the easy, fluid movement the creature exhibited. They weren’t merely a human with a tail attached; their entire body rippled with motion, all muscles and scales. It was a joy to behold, just like the myriad of sea creatures in her books – only better, because this creature was right at her side, and they were going on an adventure *together.*
She gripped hard with her legs, her arms wrapped around the silky smooth flank of the whale’s neck. It was not easy to hold on, but somehow, she managed. The princess suspected some form of magic was at play, and why not? Her castle had moved itself across vast distances to deliver her to this dolphin sized whale and its mermaid companion. Nothing was beyond belief for Ara.
Her only regret was their inability to talk to one another. Ara would have given anything to ask her new friend questions – where did they come from? Were they the only one of their kind, or did there exist a whole city of them somewhere under the churning sea? Most pressing, Ara wanted to know where they were going.
As time passed, she began to first shiver, then tremble with cold. The sun was beginning to sink low in the sky, a vibrant fire illuminating a bank of clouds on the distant horizon. Ara was fairly soaked from the water splashing up against her thighs with every dive her steed made. She knew her friend couldn’t talk back, but figured if she spoke to them, it might gain results like before when she admitted her inability to swim.
“I am getting a little cold. Do you know where we are going?” She shouted.
Her merfriend did not answer but slowed pace a bit. They glanced back with those unusual eyes, smiled with a subtle glint of sharp teeth, then turned back to face forward. Ara looked out the way they’d been swimming and blinked a few times, trying to make sense of the shape taking form in the distance. It looked like a… ship?
Having never actually seen one of those in person, Ara couldn’t be certain. This ship also did not resemble any of the ones in her books’ illustrations. It was more solid, with clean lines and a dark blue facade. They drew closer and closer, and the ship towered above them, imposing and inviting at the same time.
She looked up as her companions slowed their pace to bob beside the ship’s hull. Along the side of the boat, she could make out some lettering. It spelled “ms Nieuw Amsterdam.” She didn’t understand what those words meant, but assumed it was the ship’s name. Ara’s mouth dropped open as she spied, amazingly enough, a ladder extending down from one of the lower decks. It was made of rope and wood, and she shuddered at the thought of climbing it. But she could see that her merfriend was looking at her expectantly, and the princess knew this was where their final destination had been all along.
She could hear music and voices drifting down to them, the tinkle of laughter. Ara imagined that she smelled food, and her stomach rumbled in reminder that it had been an awful long time since her dinner the night before.
“What kind of people are up there?” She asked, even though she knew she wouldn’t get an answer. The merperson gestured eagerly at the ladder and smiled wider.
Ara was anxious. How could she just climb aboard a giant, strange boat in the middle of an unfamiliar sea? But how could she ever go back to life the way it was before – when she was sad, lonely, kept under lock and key. She would have to face her fears and take a chance on a new life. And so, the princess who was once so very lonely reached out a trembling hand and gripped the ladder. As she climbed, she imagined that, wherever it was, her castle was smiling in its own magical way.
Ara smiled, too.
If you enjoyed this story, I am attempting to continue the madness on Twitter to pass the time/give my anxiety brain something to focus on in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep because PANDEMIC. Follow me at @joywritesthings.