Monsters have absconded with the lifeboats. Their frilled fins ruffle the ocean’s surface as they wheel and tug those punctured rafts into the depths. On the beach, we are a splayed catastrophe of waterlogged slippers and sand-streaked gowns. Nevertheless, we are polite. Pardon me, could I perhaps assist you in removing the seaweed from your hair? It seems your tiara’s gotten washed away—would you like to wear mine for a while? During times of stress it’s easy to fall back on the old finishing school lessons, the memories of governesses tapping our slouched spines straight.
We set out to explore the island. Sand gives way to forest, which gives way to rock, which rises in a towering black cliff that throws a blade-like shadow over the trees. We’re looking for the usual staples: food, fresh water, shade. But being who we are, we’re also on a quest for some stray, beautiful thing. Our young lives have been bound up in beauty. We don’t know ourselves without it. We comb sand and plunge through caverns and climb to the highest, frailest tree branches, leaving shreds of lace that dangle like flags. When the sun flames at the top of the cliff, we return to the beach, rich in palm fruit and hollow shells that brim with cold creek water. Yet we are ugly and defeated.
Night creeps around the bonfire’s circle of light. From the ocean comes the noise of frantic splashing and a fierce, slobbering crunch. Someone begins to weep, and soon we’re all weeping. Our tears make gray freckles in the sand. They sprout no blossoms. They summon no fairy godmothers. Princess tears are just tears. Water and salt. We miss our handsome boyfriends. We miss our talking animal friends. We miss feathered mattresses, cobbled courtyards, silver teaspoons, white horses, banquets, mirrors, music, and magic wands.
We cry until we’re all dried out. Then someone stands. She tosses an armful of driftwood on the dying fire. Her hair is a dark road running out into the beach.
“I’ll tell you what I won’t miss,” she says. “Those high cold tower rooms where there’s nothing to do but stare out the window all day.”
The flames pop. Sparks land on our dresses, flare, and fade. The girl stares brazenly at each of us until a hesitant voice offers, “Stepmothers?”
A murmur of assent.
“Definitely won’t miss them.”
“Seriously unbalanced people.”
The long-haired girl nods encouragingly. Someone tosses more sticks onto the fire. It emits a merry roar as it eats through the brittle, salty wood. We hold out our hands and feel the heat against our palms.
“Well I won’t miss all those enchanted comas,” says a girl in a filthy yellow dress. “Every time you fall asleep, wondering if it’ll be years and years before you wake up.”
“My boyfriend sent out a search party whenever I went for a walk.”
“My talking birds always interrupted me.”
We laugh. We sip creek water from our shells. The long-haired girl stoops and retrieves from her tresses a sand crab that’s come to rest there. In our old lives, it would be the sort of creature that repulsed us. Now we admire the black eyes in the radiant blue face, and the delicate white hairs on its jointed limbs.
“Beautiful,” someone whispers. The crab flexes its legs. We take it up as a chant. “Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.”
The island opens itself to us after that. We revel in its secrets. There are worms with charmed eyes strung from branches like hoop earrings. Sticky purple sap oozes down tree trunks and tastes bittersweet on our tongues. In the boiling springs of green mud deep within the caverns, glowing dragonflies alight on the greasy bubbles, then flit away when they pop.
With our gowns reduced to tatters, we construct skirts out of twigs and leaves, but the kelp we use for thread slides free from its knots, and soon enough we’re naked. Our bellies are bloated from the palm fruit. We play them like drums, slapping out hollow rhythms that echo between trees. Our skin burns and peels. Crabs make off with the dead bits and build miniature castles on the sand. We laugh to see their labors, laugh harder when the tide comes in and drags these fragments of ourselves out to sea. We’ve forgotten our fears and our sadness. We’ve taken new names after what we like to do best.
I am Fisher-woman.
I am Fruit-fetcher.
I am Snake-crusher.
The cliff we name Mother, and nestle in her innumerable caves and folds when the wind drives a warm stinging rain up the beach.
It is to Mother we flee when the sailors come searching. Their grins appear clownish in the moonlight. The sails of their ships blaze like white fire. We run, the dragonflies lighting the way, to the shallow strip of beach beneath Mother’s shadow. We clutch our fishing spears and snake-crushing rocks. The sailors call out names of flowers and precious stones. We try not to think about their big shoe prints in the sand. They’ll be gone soon. They’ll leave without ever seeing a single beautiful thing. We crouch in the darkness, timing slow breaths with the tide’s rolling. Monsters glide from the water and rest their spiked chins at our feet.
Notes from Guest Reader Chauna Craig
Though it’s always a risk to build a story around common cultural icons like princesses, ‘Princess Shipwreck’ avoids crashing on the shore of the accepted and expected. Instead, this delightful story advances with real, evocative detail, and the narrative keeps moving long after the tiaras float away. ‘Princess Shipwreck’ is the remedy to Robinson Crusoe and the antithesis of The Lord of the Flies. I loved everything about it.