The Open Window short story: rough draft

 

 

 

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The Shipwreck on the Northern Sea by Ivan Alvazovsky

 

In the midst of the ocean, far away from the continent of any kingdom, there was a very small island of black rocks and on this island was an equally black tower. But inside the tower, living on the very top floor, was the most beautiful maiden, a princess, that mankind could hope to see. Her hair was amber gold, her skin white like marble with a dash of rose-red on her cheeks, and her eyes green like the grass emerging in the spring after a long winter. Her hands were dainty, her feet delicate, and her body petite. But her real beauty didn’t come from the shell that her soul occupied. Rather her beauty was her soul.

Yet many of the suitors failed to see Princess Celeste’s inner beauty. They were too enamored by her physical features. However, there had been one man who had seen past her outer beauty and into the heart that beat within her. This man hadn’t been one of the nobility, but a lowly farmer who had dared to talk with the princess when she had escaped the confines of the castle to stroll out in the countryside in disguise. He had been charming, witty, and eager to hear what Celeste had to say, treating her like an average person.

For his kindness towards her, he would pay with his life.

Celeste’s father had sent the royal guards out to find her. When they saw her mingling with a common farmer they bound him in chains, despite the Princess’s pleading for his life. Reasoning with her father had not worked. The King had the farmer whipped and then beheaded. In anguish and fury, Celeste had told him that because of his cruelty she’d never marry a suitor that he picked for her. Enraged, the king ordered her to be locked away in a tower far out in the ocean, months away from land, until she changed her mind.

Because of this edict, Celeste was confined in this tower, unable to leave it. The sturdy door at the bottom had to be always sealed shut because of the force of the waves that crashed against it, eager to pull a young maiden into their waters and claim her as their own. It was just as well. There was nothing down there except jagged rocks and slimy moss that clung to the lower stones of the tower.  Celeste’s father, out of his supposed love and mercy for her, had decorated her tower chamber with all the trinkets, tapestries, and books from her castle quarters back home. There had been no way for him to move furniture in. The waves were too fierce. But there was furniture, a chest of drawers, a mirror, a table, a few chairs, a rug, and a bed that had been put in the tower years ago. Yet, a prison was a prison, no matter how much like home it was made to feel.

Sometimes Celeste would stare out the window, smelling the sea breeze, a perfume of salty tears, as she looked out into the dark blue hills that were always rolling and crashing over one another. Sometimes this helped, others time it did not. More than once, she considered tossing herself out of the window to land on the rocks below, offering herself as a sacrifice to the fish of the sea. It was her books that preserved her fragile mind. In those slender pages were numerous worlds full of adventure.

Every year her father sent a ship full of sailors, guardsmen, and servants out to the tower to see if she had changed her mind. Celeste’s answer was always the same. She’d rather die alone than succumb to a tyrant’s wishes. “Are you not running low on food and water?” the men would ask. But she would tell him that she would survive. And she had. She had managed to knit herself a net from one of her old dresses, and from the lower windows she would cast it into the sea and haul up fish. She collected rainwater from a bucket she had dangling from a peg hanging out her window. For fruit and vegetables she had smuggled out some berry seeds and roots in a chest of soil that she had been allowed to take with her (her father had thought she was taking some extra clothes). From her bedroom window, she would push the end of a desk out through the window with the plants on top so they could get sunlight.

Still, it was lonely. She had lived in the tower for the last five years. Her misfortunes aside, Celeste felt greater sorrow for the young farmer who had loved her for her. She had often dreamed about him in her sleep, as though they were on some wild adventure from one of her novels. He hadn’t deserved to die. These thoughts were her unpleasant company, day in and day out.

It was the fifth year that her life would change.

It was a day of heavy rain and harsh winds. Celeste was forced to move her potted plants and her pale inside lest they were blown away. Tall waves were slamming up against the tower, working hard to break through the doors. But they held strong. The wind roared like a dragon in flight.

To keep her mind off the storm, Celeste was knitting. She was just finishing up knitting the last thread of wool on a headscarf when a flash of light shot through her window. Initially she thought it was lightening. But it was a wounded bird, an arrow piercing its left side just above the leg, and it had landed on the table. A pool of blood formed under it, dripping in small droplets that ran off the table’s edges. The poor wounded creature moved Celeste’s heart to compassion as she rushed over to the bird.

Cradling the bird in her arms, she was amazed to see that he wasn’t like any other bird she had seen before. It wasn’t a pelican or a stork. He almost looked like a heron. It had a sharp beak and a long neck like one. Its body shape was similar to. However, its body glistened like refined silver. Its talons and beak were like gold. A tuft of furry feathers were like blue diamonds, and its eyes coruscated like green emeralds. The tail feathers were what truly caught her attention. They were as transparent as a wisp in the night. The bird croaked pitifully.

“Be of good comfort,” Celeste soothed the bird. “All will be made right. Now please be still.”

Gritting her teeth, she braced herself to pull the arrow out. The bird squawked as she yanked it free. Her hands moved fast as she wrapped the scarf she had knitted into a bandage for the bird. Her act of kindness had stained her favorite blue dress in dark blood. This hurt her a little because the dress was a gift that her mother had given her before she had passed away. Celeste’s mother had always loved her, unlike her father. Wearing the dress helped Celeste remember her. Nonetheless, a dress could be replaced. A life could not.

Celeste laid the poor bird in a basket with a bundle of clothes. She placed it in a corner of the room, far from the storm, and laid a bowl of water by it. She didn’t know what else she could do for it except to speak soothingly to it, which she did. Celeste’s speaking eventually turned into song. Her song was a clear, spring day, bright sunlight, keeping the roaring and howling of the storm at bay. When she was done singing and night was approaching, she slipped into her gown and made her way to her bed. Pulling the covers over her, she thought she could hear a voice. It was faint. It was “thank you.” Chalking it up to her exhaustion, she thought no more of it and fell asleep.

As the weeks passed, Celeste gave the bird food and water. Each week, the bird looked a bit healthier. Sometimes she would even read to the bird. Though it was only an animal she was tending to, the princess felt like her life had purpose again. Gradually, the bird began to walk. It came to a point that, though still wounded, the bird would follow Celeste around the chamber, and sometimes even down to the kitchen where she would cook a meal.

The emotions that coursed through the princess’s heart were twofold. On one hand her soul was enlivened to see the bird growing well. It was more than the tending of an animal. It was a friendship. They ate together, cuddling up in the blanket together when it was cold, and when she talked to her winged companion she felt like it could understand her; if not her words, the language of her heart and soul. When Celeste was happy, the bird looked happy, when despondent, the bird appeared despondent. It was as if some string had connected the two of them together. And yet gloom hung over her to know that when the fowl was well, she would be alone. That string would break when the bird flew away into the horizon, away from her life.

How Celeste wished she could fly away, especially at this time of year. As the years passed, she had grown accustomed to the change in seasons and what they brought. Without even a calendar to remind her, she knew that in another week her father’s servants and guardsmen would be returning on their ship to inquire her as to whether she would be a dutiful daughter and accept her father’s arranged marriage for her. Every year she told them no, and every year they told her that she’d die here if she didn’t bend to the king’s will. Celeste looked over the bird she had formed a friendship with. That was a free bird, whereas she was a bird trapped in a fancy cage.

When the time was nigh and the night was at its darkest, Celeste lay awake, sobbing on the large cushions of the bed. In another day her father’s ship would be here and she wouldn’t be able to board it. The darkness was heavy, and again thoughts whispered sweet lies, like poison, that it was better that she toss herself out from the tower than live another day in misery as she slowly awaited for death to come naturally.

It was when the shadows were at their deepest, in which she couldn’t hope to resurface from this sea of sorrow, that she heard a gentle voice. “Celeste, mourn not.”

She looked up from the pillows to see the bird, and he was glowing. His silver body and golden beaks and legs shone in the dark, as did the tuft of blue hair on his head. His emerald eyes sparkled like stars. And his tail feather! Feathers, spread out like a fan, which were once transparent were now a translucent cornucopia of shifting colors.

“Why do you cry?” he asked her.

“Do you not know?” she sniffed while wiping the tears from her eyes. “Have I not told you that the time draws near for my father to torment me again by reaching out a hand that I can never take?

“And why can you never take his hand, child?”

“For what he did. A farmer, just barely a young man, deigned to speak with me and to treat me as though I were decent human being and not a prize to be won. I was so infatuated with him, in spite of his rough hands and crude appearance, that I felt a sense of joy. We laughed together, talked together, sang in unison. Then my father cut the cord of his life.”

The bird flapped his wings and landed on the bedside by Celeste. “And you stay away from your father because you don’t want to associate with him?”

“Of course! I won’t give in and marry a suitor to appease him, not after what he did. His heinous sin is unforgivable.”

The bird latched his green eyes onto hers. “Are you sure that he’s the only one you won’t forgive?”

“Whatever do you mean? What sort of riddles do you speak, bird?”

“I speak not in riddles, but plainly so that the mind can comprehend. Do you not forgive yourself? For I see it clearly, the burden that you carry on your back. You blame yourself as much as you blame your father for the young man’s death.”

The truth that the bird proclaimed was an arrow, piercing her heart. It hurt. Celeste had tried to deny that she was punishing herself for so long. “What must I do?” she asked, her voice weak.

“You want to cut associations with your father, do you not?”

“I do,” Celeste said with great conviction.

“Then cast off your burdens. That way your frame will be light and you can fly away with me.”

“How do I cast off” –

“It’s simple,” the bird interjected. “You forgive yourself. However, once you do, there is no looking back. You will cease to be a princess. Does that suite you?”

“Yes,” Celeste’s voice quivered with a hint of sadness. “Yes, it suits me fine.”

“Do you forgive yourself?”

Celeste had to examine herself. Why, oh why, did she ever have to associate with a mere farmhand? If it hadn’t been for her, that poor man would have still been alive. It wasn’t her fault. She herself telling herself again and again. The sin was her father’s and her father’s alone. After some deep introspection, she forgave herself.

“I’m ready,” she told the bird.

“Not yet,” he said to her gently. “You must now forgive your father, just as I forgave some sailors who shot an infernal arrow in me. Until then, you are chained here.”

“Forgive!” fumed Celeste. “He is unforgivable. I shall never crawl back to him.”

“I never asked you to crawl back to him,” the bird corrected her. “I asked you to soar high above him, to reach the heavens that he cannot reach. Do so and you’ll have a freedom that he refuses.” For a moment there was silence. “Unless you’d like to stay trapped in this tower.”

Celeste certainly did not want to live out the rest of her life entrapped in a tower. But could she forgive the man who had harmed her and harmed many others? Why couldn’t he have been the one death had claimed as a prize instead of her fair mother? As she pondered this, not so much with her mind, but through the very depths of her soul, she came to the realization that she could forgive him. He had done so much to hurt himself. Through his cruel actions, he had lost the trust and confidence of many of the lords and ladies. He had made more enemies, instead of allies, that constantly waged war against his kingdom. He had lost her, his daughter and a blood heir to the throne. He had the scorn of the world. He didn’t need hers.

“I forgive him,” said Celeste.

The bird landed on the windowsill, his many colors forming a rainbow against the night sky. “Then fly with me.”

“It’s madness. I’ll hit the rocks below and perish.”

“You shall not. I promise you.” The bird flew out, leaving a trail of silver, gold, emerald, crimson-purple, light blue, bright red, and vibrant yellow.

Celeste did her best to calm the machinations of her mind that warned her against such foolishness, choosing instead to rely on her heart. She leapt out the window, stretched out her arms and took flight. For a few seconds she screamed, certain that the earth was going to pull her down. Instead she was soaring in the night, the waves of the ocean crashing below her and the stars in the sky acting as a map, a compass, above her, pointing her in the direction she should go.

The king’s ship manned by sailors, servants, and guardsmen were being rocked back and forth on the ocean that night, five hours away from the tower. But they wouldn’t see the princess when they arrived. What they did see were two birds in flight, glowing in a myriad of different colors that cut through the darkest of nights.

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