At the top of a hill dotted with bluebells, the tiny cages of the Princess Tree flutter in the breeze. By April, the bottom of each cage is a heavy circle. Thin silver bars stretch without a seam to the top, where they bow inward again and meet in the centre. Inside every cage is a furled flower, trembling with promise, blushing petals soft as the thought of a summer cloud. None of the cages have doors.
By May, the petals have spread open to reveal the Princesses inside. Seventeen in total. Like baby snakes, the seedling Princesses have just enough knowledge to keep them alive. They turn their faces to the sun and the rain. They keep themselves clean and sweet-smelling, and practice enticing smiles on each other, through the bars of the cages. Their rosebud lips are ever-moist, and they dream confused dreams of brocaded silk gowns and big bellies. The Princesses begin life with the same small vocabulary, words like obedience and yes and I’m sorry. They are born knowing their fate.
Songbirds swoop around the Tree, but never alight there. There is nothing to eat. Princess Five nibbles her white glove. Princess Fourteen forces her sapphire ring over the joint of her thumb to make herself cry, so she can taste the salt of her tears. Princess Two waits until everyone is asleep and tries to eat a candy-pink petal. It hurts and tastes of blood.
The cages are exactly big enough to hold one Princess in a sitting position. Each Princess hugs her dimpled knees, rests her chin there. Some wear indigo gowns, some pearl-encrusted bodices, some transparent scarves over ornately plaited hair. Some have rings piercing their noses. Some wear tightly fitting lace ruffs, or flowing sleeves so large they use them as blankets at night. One hoop skirt is so enormous that it shuts out the sun and rain until the thing inside withers away and the cage falls to the ground and rots. Flies buzz over the hoop skirt and then inside. No one talks about it.
One fine June day a Prince gallops up the hill, riding a black horse with a cream-coloured mane and tail. Almost every Princess clutches their cage bars, saying, “Pretty horsie! Pretty Prince!” At the top of the tree, the seventeenth Princess stays silent. She is thinking that the horse’s haunches look delicious.
The Prince dismounts in one fluid jump. He is wearing a spotless blouse. Under his doublet, his muscular calves are sheathed in silken hose, moving with ease. Divide his smooth-skinned face into three equal parts, and they measure equally. The length of his ear is equal to the length of his nose. The distance between his eyes is the width of one eye. All of this amounts to such a perfect face it’s impossible for the sighing, swanning Princesses to keep his face clear in their heads. He is exquisite. But blurry.
The horse snuffles at Two’s hands, and she strokes its soft nose. The Prince shades his eyes as he looks from the bottom of the tree to the top, and back again. Whispers begin. “Pick me. Oh, pick me.” Eight reaches her fingers through the silver bars of her cage and pushes on a nearby branch. Her cage rocks like a baby’s cradle, and the Prince looks up at her. “Wide hips. Good,” he says. In the next cage, Nine waves at the Prince. Ten sets her cage rocking too, then Seven and Twelve, and the Prince chuckles to see the cages swaying in charming unison, long Princess fingers laced around the silver bars to brace the ones inside.
Alone at the top of the tree, Seventeen peers down, watching the silver hoop that bites into the top of Ten’s branch. But the hoop never moves; the cage just slides back and forth. She sighs.
The Prince strolls around the tree. He stops in front of Five, hands-on-hips. “Won’t you smile for me?” he says, and if they had heard him crooning to his horse that morning, they would recognize his tone.
Five shines a lighthouse smile on the Prince.
“Strong teeth,” he says and continues walking. When he comes back around to Five, he clicks his tongue and the horse trots over. He mounts, and one of the higher numbered Princesses lets out a cry. But instead of riding away, the Prince rises with grace to stand in the stirrups, his face even with Nine’s cage. Without touching the cage, he teases her lustrous braid between the silver bars and tickles the end of his nose.
Nine says, “Oh, you silly man,” which are four of the small pool of words she was born with.
Above Nine, Fourteen uses her scepter to touch the Prince’s curly hair. “Don’t forget to look up,” she says.
The Prince does look up and, to admiring gasps, grabs hold of the branch that once held a hoop skirt inside a cage and doesn’t anymore. He pulls until he’s sitting on the branch, level with Fourteen. His horse looks up for a moment and ambles off.
Fourteen touches her lips with her fingers. Her sapphire ring flashes in the sun.
“Isn’t that lovely,” says the Prince. “What’s on your other hand, precious thing?”
Fourteen leans forward, meeting his eyes, “Oh, Prince, I am so happy to—“
“Just show me your hand,” says the Prince.
Fourteen drops her eyes and holds up her other hand to show a ring made entirely of diamond. The stone, the band, everything. Now it’s the Prince’s turn to gasp. He reaches forward and runs his palm down the bars of the cage.
When he does, the gusty wails of the Princesses are almost enough to start the cages swinging again. Fourteen’s cage begins to elongate, stretching, dropping at an elegant pace until it touches the ground. By the time it does, it’s tall enough for Fourteen to stand, her beaming searchlight of a smile putting Five’s to shame. The silver bars peel away like petals opening, and Fourteen stretches her long arms and legs. Alone at the top of the tree, Seventeen has never seen her sisters, only the tops of their cages. She leans close to the bars and watches. Fourteen is wearing a plum-coloured dress under a long lilac robe. Her silken hair reaches to her knees.
The Prince jumps from the branch, landing on his feet. He takes Fourteen in his arms and kisses her, burying his hands in her long hair. When he lets her go, her eyes are wide and uncertain. The Prince clicks his tongue, and the horse comes prancing, tail held high. He leaps into the saddle, then sweeps Fourteen up to sit side-saddle in front of him.
Seventeen can hear her say, “Wait, I’m not ready to—“ before the horse gallops away. Seventeen watches the horse move over the meadows for a long time. She tells herself she’s imagining Fourteen’s struggles to get down.
The Princesses gabble almost until dawn. “Did you see?” and “My rings are only copper,” and “What did he mean, good wide hips?” and above, Seventeen touches the bars of her cage in the same place the Prince touched Fourteen’s cage. Nothing happens. She runs her fingers across the bottom and the curved bars at the top. She touches every square inch of silver, but she remains a Princess trapped in a cage exactly big enough to sit inside. It is too small for her fury.
The next day the Princesses are dreamy and slow to speak. It takes Seventeen a long time to explain to the two below her how to touch the neighbouring cage like a Prince. When Fifteen understands she reaches through her own bars, but Sixteen shouts, “Don’t!”
“Don’t touch my cage!” says Sixteen. “What if it works? There’s no Prince here!”
All through the Princess Tree, cages rock as the sisters nod and call to each other, saying don’t touch and don’t ruin and don’t listen.
Seventeen pleads until her voice goes hoarse, but the Princesses have all covered their ears. They all whisper to themselves to drown her out until Seventeen gives up. When it begins to rain, Seventeen puts her hand outside the cage bars. She turns her hand palm up, down, and up again, drips drop into her mouth, and she wonders what it feels like to be not-hungry.
After the first Prince, there is a flood of Princes. Tall and stout, thin and short, in shiny leather boots and shoes that curl at the tip. Barking voices and soft voices and, most memorably, the Prince who never says a word but dances, leaps, twirls when Eight steps out of her cage. Most of the Princes run their hands over a cage before leaving.
With every departure the remaining Princesses are hungrier, they are louder, the lowered eyelashes abandoned for pleas, and shouts, and finally, in Twelve’s case, an outright lie: “I own all the land east of the river!” When Ten is picked she grips her startled Prince’s frilled shirt and says, “I’m hungry, I’m hungry,” over and over, and the Prince takes an apple out of his pocket and holds it out to Ten, who cradles it with both hands, eating fast, not stopping until it’s gone, even the seeds, even the stem. Seventeen touches her own chin and finds it slick with saliva.
Sometimes the Princesses spend their days in silence, breath and birdsong the only sounds. Once, Fifteen is restyling her long black hair and she clicks her mahogany hairpin against the cage bars. Below her, Six asks to hear the sound again. Eleven tries to make the same sound with her mouth, and soon every Princess is playing, is finding a rhythm, a way to a sound. Three contributes a soaring birdsong note that swoops around the rhythms, that captures them all. When Three stops, Two begs her to sing again.
The flood of Princes slows to a river and then a trickle. For the first time, a day goes by with no visits. Then two days. As Four is assuring her sisters that a Prince will come any moment, Seventeen says, “Isn’t it possible that the last Prince has come?”
Four says, “Why are you always trying to spoil things?”
Seventeen is surprised. “I’m not trying to spoil things. But why should there be one Prince for every Princess? What if there isn’t?”
“I wish you would stop talking,” says Eleven, and Seventeen can hear the others saying yes and so do I.
“But listen,” says Seventeen. “What if we’ve gotten to the end of the Princes and tomorrow—think of it! Tomorrow maybe the cages will open all on their own!”
There’s a moment of horrified silence, then Five says, “I can see it now, all of us standing under the Tree for the rest of all time, wishing we were back in our cages! Who would we be then?”
A tide of agreement washes over the tree. Seventeen, dizzy with the gulf she didn’t know existed until this moment, leans her head against the bars. “Free,” she whispers to herself. “We’d be free.”
As the days pass the Princesses begin practising on each other in earnest. Not the coy glances they tried from cage to cage when their petals first opened, but with frenzied, too-bright smiles. After seven days, longer than they’ve ever waited, a Prince arrives in a carriage with three glass windows on each side, drizzled in gold filigree. From high above the others, Seventeen can see inside, can see the walls and seats trimmed with amethyst tapestry.
The horses stand shifting as a footman opens the carriage door. The Prince steps out. Even from the top of the tree, Seventeen can smell a sour, spoiled scent. He is tall and unsmiling. He wears a dark uniform that conforms to his long body and a hat with a feather that flutters in the breeze. His shoulders are iced with epaulettes, and a chain runs from one bright medal to the next. He studies the remaining cages and goes to Three right away. He leans in and whispers in her ear. The others watch Three, their faces pressed up against the bars. At first, she is beaming but soon starts to move away from the Soldier Prince, shaking her head. He grins, and his teeth are white and sharp. He leans in further, hissing his words.
When Three begins to sob, there are murmurs from the others. And when the Soldier Prince reaches out to touch his palm to Three’s cage, the gasps are not envious. But only Seventeen shouts, “Stop! Don’t!”
As Three’s cage elongates, the Soldier Prince looks up at Seventeen. His eyes are so venomous she feels a shameful flush of relief that he did not choose her.
Still sobbing, Three moves toward the Soldier Prince’s carriage with halting steps. He watches her, rubbing his finger over his lower lip.
Three slows to a stop. She looks up, and her face is tear-stained. “What should I do?” she says.
Seventeen opens her mouth to say … to say what? She clutches the bars of her cage, she tries to speak, but in the end, she is silent. Just like everyone else.
It isn’t until dawn, until Seventeen is the only Princess awake, her sisters’ slow breathing a comforting tide, it isn’t until then that Seventeen thinks of the right thing to say. “Stay here,” she should have said. “Stay with us.”
The Princess Tree begins to shiver in breezes that are no longer balmy. The leaves of the Princess Tree begin to turn, from green to apricot and salmon, saffron and banana. After the long drought, Princes begin arriving again, this time in dribs and drabs. As the days inch by, the Princesses are swept away until there are only four left. And then the Princes stop.
Seventeen counts the days gleefully. She is very sure, now, that they have gotten to the end of the Princes, and the end of the Princes means the end of the cages. She is very sure, now, that it is only a matter of time before they are all free. She’s so sure that it takes a long time before she notices that the sunlight, weaker now, only shines on the tree for half the time. That her knees complain of the sitting position she is always, always in.
After fourteen days, Seventeen sees a moving chair in the far distance. She describes it to her sisters. A Prince is sitting on a golden throne. The throne, in turn, sits inside a box, also made of gold. Three sides of the box are open, and thin columns rise from each corner to meet the domed roof, which is covered in intricate carvings. Two servants in tricorn hats carry the golden chair by means of wooden poles, and their progress is slow. As they near, Seventeen can see that the Prince’s eyes are closed and his head is lolling. With every snore his long white beard ripples.
When the procession reaches the top of the hill, the servants set their poles down. One puts his hands on his lower back and stretches his neck. The other taps the Prince’s hand, saying, “Your Highness, we are here,” again and again until he is bawling the words. The Prince’s eyes flutter open.
With his servant’s help, he steps out of the box and shuffles toward the Princess Tree. “What do I do now?” he asks in a high, thin voice.
The servant hollers, “If it pleases Your Highness, choose a Princess!”
“What’s a Princess?” asks the Prince, standing in front of Six.
The servant sighs. He takes one of the Prince’s veined, trembling hands and, without looking at Six, he runs the Prince’s palm over the cage. The cage spreads open and Six stands there, unmoving.
This time Seventeen is ready. “Don’t go! You don’t have to go!” she calls from the top of the tree.
The second servant looks up at her with his hands on his hips. “Shut your mouth,” he says.
Six doesn’t move. “Maybe I …”
The second servant takes a rope out of his leather bag. “Do I use the rope, Your Highness, or will you be a good girl?”
Inside the golden chair, the Prince is asking in his trembling voice, “Are we going to the Princess Tree now?”
“If I could just—“ Six begins, and the servant grabs her arm. He ties one end of the rope around her wrists, then fastens the other side to the chair. Six slumps. She stares at her feet.
Seventeen is shouting, “Stop! Stop!” but she might as well be a leaf or a bird. There is no door to her cage, only waiting. Only watching.
The servants pick up the poles and set off down the hill. Seventeen makes herself watch Six stumbling after them until they are only dots in the distance. Digging her fingernails into her palms until they are bloody.
The lush softness of the leaves is fading. They are drier every day, and Seventeen watches the skies, eager for rain in a way she’s never been before. When it comes, she cups her hands to catch the drops, she feeds her indigo skirt between the bars, and she sucks on it when the rain abates. For a moment the crackling dust of her throat is dampened. Seventeen looks at the dry leaves, at their grey edges, and wonders how long the Princesses can go now without rain.
One day at dusk, a playful wind rocks the cages until the three Princesses drowse, too hungry to really sleep. In the middle of a confused dream of eating an apple and finding a rancid core, there’s a thump and Seventeen hears Nine whimper. She peers down. There’s no Prince in sight, but Nine’s cage is on the ground, on its side. She is looking up at the Princess Tree and her eyes are frantic.
Seventeen can see Nine’s branch below her. The ring is still embedded in the branch, but the bottom looks … her mind supplies rotten, and she tries to discard it.
Four says in a strained voice, “Are you all right?”
Then Seventeen laughs, because Nine is not all right, nothing is all right—nothing. They have been hungry and alone and they have watched their sisters vanish and it is getting colder and Seventeen is terrified that this is all there is to their lives. Just this.
Four is laughing too, skating on the edge of hysteria. When her giggles trail off, Seventeen says, “Four? Can you reach Nine’s cage? Can you open it?”
“Don’t be mad,” says Four, and Seventeen can’t catch her breath. “Don’t be mad, but I won’t. I can’t! What if—“
On the ground, Nine shakes her head and says in a slurred voice, “Did a Prince choose me?” She paws at the silver bars. “Am I free?”
Four says, “No, it’s … your cage. It fell.”
Seventeen is thinking about the cage that fell when they were all brand new, in the spring. Before the Princes. The hoop skirt covering—something—inside. How the flies gathered.
“Am I free?” says Nine again.
Seventeen closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. “No one will choose her now.”
On the ground, Nine stares straight ahead. “Am I free?” she says.
The silence lasts for so long that Seventeen, straining to hear against the cage bars, rears back and hits her head when Nine speaks again.
“What are we for?” she says.
Seventeen feels cold. “What do you mean?” she says, but she knows.
“Were there Princes? Did Princes come to the Tree, or did I dream it?” Nine says.
Four says, “Yes. Yes! Every day a Prince comes to the tree and chooses a Princess. And then, and then the Princess goes with him to his castle, and she is so happy. So happy. And she wears a white dress with a veil as long as the Tree. She eats a feast—she eats so much that she is not hungry and then she sleeps. Lying down on a soft bed.”
The wind picks up and Seventeen watches a leaf shiver, then twirl off the branch and float to the ground beside Nine’s fallen cage.
“I think Princes used to come,” says Nine, and her voice is dreamy. “They used to. But not now.”
Seventeen says, “Maybe tomorrow,” but she doesn’t believe it.
Nine says, “If there are no more Princes, why are we alive?”
Seventeen says, “I don’t know,” and hates that she doesn’t know, hates that the answer might be for no reason at all. The answer might be that they are just … extra. In case of hoop-skirt accidents. Maybe they are only alive to wait in their cages to die.
“Of course, there are more Princes!” says Four. “Of course there are!” and Seventeen thinks that Four is trying to convince herself more than anyone else.
“I watch … I watch birds …” says Nine, and her voice is fading. “I wish …”
“What do you wish?” says Four.
Nine takes a rattling breath. “It must be nice. No cage.” And then the rattling breaths fade too.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” says Four. “She wasn’t supposed to die, she was supposed to be chosen. Aren’t we all supposed to be chosen?” She is crying now. “Are we going to fall too?”
Seventeen thinks that they will fall. She thinks that one of them will fall, and die. And the last one to fall will be so alone.
“I … I should have touched Nine’s cage. I should have let her out, but I was so stupid. I thought—I thought—“ says Four, which is when she falls.
“Oh, Four …” whispers Seventeen.
There is no moonlight, and at first, Seventeen thinks she is seeing fallen stars, whirling around Four’s cage.
Four says, “Do you see them too?”
Seventeen watches the tiny lights blink on and off. “Yes,” she says.
“What should we call them?” Four asks.
“They look like little stars,” says Seventeen, and then, with the force of a blow, she realizes that soon she will be the only one in the world who knows that the blinking lights are called little stars. Soon, Four won’t exist at all.
“Maybe I’ll go with them,” says Four, “When I’m … when I’m not here anymore.”
Seventeen clears her throat. “Yes,” she says because wailing anguish will not help Four.
“Do you remember when Three pretended to be a bird that day?” says Four. “Do you think you could do that?”
Seventeen says, “Yes,” because Four will die, and pretending to be a bird is the only thing Four has ever asked of anyone. Seventeen thinks of that day with Three. When her sisters were full of the joy of Three’s voice. Seventeen sings until her throat is thick with tears, and when she finishes, Four doesn’t say anything. She never says anything again.
And then Seventeen loses days. There are scattered moments. No Princes come. She watches the dry leaves scuttling, but then the leaves are gone. The bluebells are husks. Then, in a blink, they are gone too. No Princes come. The ground turns white. At night the stars are only in the sky, never on the ground. No Princes come. Seventeen is watching a shiny black beetle waddle along the branch, and she has never eaten a beetle but she would like to. She’s reaching through the cage bars for the beetle, straining, when her cage falls. There’s no warning. Her cage is at the top of the tree and then it isn’t. Then her cage is on its side on the ground and she’s lying there, panting. She thinks of Nine saying, “Am I free?” and has a terrible urge to laugh. Parts of Nine were free, later. Parts of her, stuck to fly feet, soared up into the sky.
Seventeen lies on her side. The cage bars dig into her ribs and her neck is forced at an angle against the top of the cage. She shivers. It’s cold now that the sun has gone down, colder than it’s ever been, and she thinks something about the cage falling from the tree has deprived her of some kind of warmth, too.
Seventeen touches her mouth. She can feel her body growing more parched, sunken. Her teeth so big now that her lips can’t properly close over them. Her gums are swollen, and she can taste blood in her mouth. She falls into a fitful doze. She dreams that her cage is rolling down the hill, faster and faster until it smashes into a wall of stone and bursts into a thousand pieces. In the dream, she stands and stretches. In the dream, her sisters dance among the bluebells.
Seventeen traces the cage bars, touches the cold white underneath the cage. She brings her hand to her mouth, tries sucking on her fingers, and the white melts in her mouth. The relief of the water is exquisite.
Seventeen pushes on the bars. Yesterday she could push harder. Nine’s voice echoes in her head. “Why are we alive?” Seventeen wants to be alive for a reason. She wants to be alive for something more than gowns and bellies and feasts. Something more than fatuous Princes. Elegant Princes. Hateful Princes.
She wants to run like a horse. She wants to change Three’s fate. She wants to pull Fourteen from the saddle, cut the rope, and set Six free. She wants Four to touch Nine’s cage, and then she wants the two of them to climb the Tree to the very top. She wants her sisters back. Her fingers and toes start tingling, and then her legs and her scalp, as if her body is buzzing with little stars, and when she can’t bear it anymore she screams without words. She screams until she is howling, until her throat hurts so much she is breathless with the pain. She pushes with her arms, her hands, her legs—and then. And then. She feels a sponginess in the bottom of the cage.
She pushes with her legs again, as hard as she can. She hasn’t imagined it. She pushes harder. She pushes until she feels the bottom begin to move. The cage has never been enough to contain her fury. So she sets her fury free.
The Princess Tree grows on the top of a hill, spotted with bluebells. Seventeen cages are growing on seventeen branches, and the petals have begun to open, revealing the sleepy Princesses inside. They already know their fate.
At the bottom of the hill is a small stone cottage. Three goats are grazing on the grass-covered roof. A stout woman with cropped grey hair comes out of the cottage. She picks up a wooden ladder and walks up the hill. A curious goat trots beside her, and she strokes its head. The woman wears a faded gown that might have been indigo long ago. The skirt is ragged, and the long sleeves are hiked up and pinned back for ease of movement.
The seventeen Princesses blink their new eyes at this apparition. One says in a thin voice, “… Pretty Prince?”
The woman laughs a creaky laugh. “No, honey.”
Another caged creature says, “Princess, then!”
“No. I’m a person. Like you.”
There’s a thoughtful silence.
The woman climbs the ladder. She stops at the lone cage at the top of the tree. “Hello, Seventeen,” she says. The creature inside watches her. The woman runs her palm over the bars of the cage, and it droops and droops until it reaches the ground. When it does, the Princess inside steps out. “Do I go with you?” she calls to the woman at the top of the ladder.
“Stay with me or go. It’s your choice.”
The word choice is whispered from cage to cage until it begins to mutate, to evolve into pick me, and the whispers turn to calls, to joyful shouts. The woman steps down three rungs and runs her hand over Fifteen’s cage, then Sixteen’s and Fourteen’s. She smiles. “I pick you,” she says. “I pick all of you.”