It didn’t take with me, the world and its rules, the things it expected of me. In the end, that’s the only reason why I find myself still here after all these countless years, and still I refuse to leave the scene. If you drop a beat, I’m on it. If I hear the slightest scratch, I’m ready to spin. If my shoes give out, if I split a sole or break a heel, it doesn’t matter. I kick them off and keep on dancing like the music and my body can’t be put on pause.
We have a date—the music, the dance floor, and I. We’re going to move all night long if we have anything to say about it.
If I gave a damn about the world, though, and what it wanted from me, I’d be sitting in a high–backed chair right now with my needlepoint in my lap, collecting a fine layer of dust as I concentrated on a difficult stitch. My father liked seeing us girls do things like that. “Nothing more beautiful than to see a young lady with her head bent over a hoop,” he used to say as he passed through our room, where my sisters would be sitting in that exact position. Then he’d notice me heaped in the corner chair, where I’d pulled my legs under me and sat hunched over the yellowed pages of a novel, and he would tsk. Seriously, he would tsk. Once, he told me, “You are quite fortunate to have been born last of all my daughters.”
“Why is that?” I asked, placing my finger upon the sentence I was just then reading before looking up into his disappointed face, eyes blinking beneath their furry salt and pepper mantle. The gold crown on his head was tilted a little to the side, as if a beggar or a drunkard had just accosted him.
“Because the youngest child always gets away with more than his or her older siblings,” was his answer. Then he turned to walk away.
“Is that luck, Father,” I asked, “or is it just the intelligent observation of others going through life experiences before you have, and then analyzing the results of their conclusions, that leads to smarter decision–making?”
“Tsk–tsk,” said my father. Looking over his shoulder, he shook his head as if I were a bitter pill his advisor forced him to swallow each night for the sake of his health.
The youngest child is also supposedly the one everyone likes (except the older siblings, of course, because they tend to feel jealous of all the attention diverted to the baby). But whether any of that is true or just psychoanalytical bullshit doesn’t really matter. What matters is that, somehow, that psychoanalytical bullshit sometimes maps on to your life in a real way; and at those times, if you’re a person who’s able to be honest with yourself, you have to sit around and think, Well, okay, maybe I should pay attention to what this is telling me?
In my case, yes, almost everyone liked me, except for my sisters, who I always felt either hated or thought little of me, because of both my prolonged innocence and also because of the way I often stupidly pointed out the flaws in their thinking without realizing how embarrassing that might be for them. Really, my pointing out their flaws was a symptom of my innocence — back then I thought it was a good thing to be honest with people, no matter what — but that explanation doesn’t excuse the hurt I must have caused them. In the end, what matters is that I too often told the truth as if it were as ordinary as the air we breathe, and because of that I could sometimes make my sisters feel like the lowest creatures in existence.
“I told you so.” Those were the words I often found myself using with my sisters in the year after my brother–in–law, the soldier who I’m sure has gone on by now to be king in place of my father, discovered our secret. “I told you so, I told you so,” I would tell my sisters in the eleven months that passed during the year after that man brought a halt to our dancing.
I said this so often because I so often realized things that my sisters never noticed, and they always made me feel like a stupid little girl when I said things like, “Shouldn’t we wait to leave until we hear the guard snoring?” or “Shouldn’t we maybe tie him to his chair anyway, just in case he’s fooling? That way, he can’t follow us down into the clubs.”
They laughed at me, my sisters. They said, “Oh child, you are always so afraid.” But I wasn’t afraid. I was never afraid. I was just observant and cautious. I knew that soldier had something on us, I just didn’t know what.
Turns out, he had a cloak that could make him invisible, and he had some wisdom from an old crone he’d met in the woods on his way to our castle to solve the secret of our nightly disappearances for our father. The wisdom the old crone gave him was this: Don’t drink the cup of wine they’ll give you at the end of the night, but make them think that you did.
It was good advice, really. Old crones know a lot. They’ve seen shit go down that most young people only hear about in songs and movies. The wine that we gave to our nightly guards, to our would–be saviors and suitors, was always drugged. It put them dead asleep within minutes of sipping it twice, and while they were nodding off in the corner, their minds growing black as a bog, my sisters and I—well, the twelve of us would go out dancing.
It started when I was sixteen, us all going out in the middle of the night like that, coming home in the wee hours of the morning with our shoes completely in tatters. It started after my oldest sister found the secret passage beneath her bed, while she was looking for an earring she’d dropped as she undressed from a particularly dreadful ball that evening. My father was trying to marry her off that year, as at twenty–eight Sister One was far beyond the age by which most princesses would have already gotten hitched. Sister One didn’t really want to get married, though. She had nightmares about diamond rings and multi–tiered white cakes, and some mornings she’d wake up screaming. But she endured my father’s matchmaking because she had to. She was a dutiful princess, Sister One, even if she hated her duties.
So we were all back in our room, exhausted after a night of “Pleased to make your acquaintance, I’m sure,” and glad–handing every major royal who–de–who and every minor foreign ambassador my father introduced us to, when my oldest sister dropped her left earring and knelt down to look beneath her bed for it, only to alarm the rest of us when she said, “What’s this?” as if she’d found something either terrible or else terribly exciting. All of us stopped fiddling with our laces to look over our shoulders at her where she was crouched on the floor, her head stuffed under the bed. “What’s this then?” Sister One said again, and she scurried under the bed like a common rodent.
She came out a few seconds later, gasping for air like she’d just come up from swimming underwater, and begged us to help her push the bed aside. None of us knew what was going on, but we were sisters—we did things for each other when one of us asked a favor—so we lined up on one side of the bed, all twelve of us, and gave it a good shove.
All of us gasped, too, when we stepped back and saw the glowing silver outline of a door etched into the flagstones before us. “Look here,” Sister One said, and she put her hand upon the center of the outlined door. The floor began to shift, stone grinding on stone, and seemed to lower a little. Sister One looked up with a wicked grin cutting across her face; then she looked down and put her hand on the center of the stone door again, making it grind ever so dully as it moved lower and lower, until we could see nothing but a few of the top steps of a staircase leading down into thick darkness.
“What is it?” one of my other sisters asked.
And Sister One said, “A secret passage, clearly!”
Just then, a soft sound flowed out of the passageway, like dandelion seeds blown upon a current.
“What’s that?” one of my other sisters asked.
And Sister One said, “That? That, my sisters, is music.”
I could tell you about what happened next: the stairwell that led us down to a forest of silver, and a forest of diamonds, and a forest of gold. I could tell you about the strange things we saw there, and how we stumbled in a wondrous unison, somehow balletic, all the way through those well–groomed woods until we reached a shore where twelve boats knocked against a dock that stretched out into the water. But all of that is just precursor to what drew us further into that underground world where, in the distance, a castle stood upon an island, illuminated as if by a self–producing glow. Music poured from its high–arched windows like it was the very water that flowed up to the shore to crash upon the sand before us.
It was only then, when the water–music crashed to foam in front of us, that we noticed the young men—our underground princes—waiting in the boats to ferry us across. They were all decked out in tight pants of dark crimson leather and white shirts that opened all the way down to their navels, with gray cloaks thrown over their shoulders like smoke. Their hair, ashen–colored from this distance, curled around their ears. I couldn’t help myself. The first thing I did when I saw them was to trace the bare skin at their necks down to their waistlines with my eyes and to swallow hard. The music swarmed around their bodies like sparks, bursting, snapping, and my feet began to twitch involuntarily, my hips to sway like the boats on the water.
Each of us climbed aboard one of the twelve boats and sat at the opposite end from our underground princes, our hands folded in our laps like we were going to still make an attempt at a sense of decorum; and though it probably only took a few minutes to cross that narrow strip of water to the island, I thought I might rend my dress from my body in anticipation of our arrival. I was like a vampire, those creatures of myth I’d read about in the novels I’d read in my father’s library. I smelled blood on the air. It was really only the musical notes coming from inside the castle that made me so unnaturally thirsty, but I wanted to lap those notes up like a vampire laps up blood all the same.
Our spooky princes took our hands and walked us away from our boats up the wide stone steps to the front gate of the castle, where the music grew louder and our steps grew lighter, it seemed, the further in we went, as if we had begun to walk on air. We passed through sconce–lit passageways, their fires flickering gold–leaf upon our faces, until suddenly one of the princes stopped at a door that thrummed so hard, it seemed ready to fly off its hinges; and when he opened it, out burst an ear–shattering sound like I had never heard before.
Light—pieces of light—broke into my eyes. On my skin, too, a moment later, light scurried over my flesh as I held my hands out in front of me. When I looked up again, I saw a room full of people, moving to the beat of the music. People of so many different colors wearing so many different strange styles of clothing: silver skirts that hugged their bottoms, earrings that brushed against their collar bones, black lace bras (!), sequined shirts (on men!). They were all dancing, and their movement was as strange as their fashion. They were all either too far apart, throwing their arms into the air or kicking their heels back, or else they were far too close, where no space could be seen between their bodies. Some even pushed their backsides against the waists of their dance partners and, seeing this in particular, I couldn’t help but raise my light–speckled hand to my mouth, which hung open like an untended gate.
I laugh at this memory now. I laugh at how innocent I truly was. How little I knew of what the world had to offer beyond the confines of my father’s kingdom within its place in time and space. What a gas! What a lark! What a blast! What an epic evening! Even that—all of those bits of language—would have been limited to “Quite enjoyable indeed!” prior to my underground dancehall experiences.
Our spooky princes took our hands and drew us out into the crowded dance floor, where all of us began to move in unfamiliar ways. Our hips out, our hands in the air, our hands gripping those warm bare waistlines of our princes even. The song the DJ was playing kept repeating the phrase, Get down like you’re underground, and I backed up against my prince, like I’d seen a woman with pink frizzy hair and a face made up like a geisha do with another woman, who was dressed in a dark pinstriped suit and a bowler hat. My prince put his hands on my waist as I ground against him, slid his fingers down my thighs, and for the rest of the night we did not speak a word. We just danced. As one song slid into another, we just sighed.
At the end of that night, my sisters and I knew we’d return. Despite being covered in a slick of our own sweat, despite our dresses and shoes being hopelessly ruined, we knew we’d go back as soon as we could. So after our underground princes led us back to our boats and poled us across the river to the forests of diamonds and of gold and of silver, Sister One stopped at the bottom of the stone steps that led up to our room and said, “Sisters, if we are to ever visit this place again, we must not speak a word of what we saw and what we did this evening. Understand?”
We all nodded, and one by one we made solemn vows. “I will never ever,” Sister One said, and then Sister Two, and then Sister Three, and then Sister Four, and so on, down the line we pledged, until it came to me, and I completed the previously unspoken end to our sentence: “I will never ever speak a word of this place or what we do within it.”
What happens underground, stays underground.
My sisters all looked at me and grinned. It was one of those moments that, looking back, I can see how I didn’t always frustrate them with my innocence, but could sometimes charm them with it.
Which brings a tear to a girl’s eye, of course, wading around in the warm pool of good memories. They make one nostalgic though, those comforting waters, and there are plenty of memories that are not so pleasant in all of our histories — so let’s move on.
As I recall, our maids and our father were all upset by the state of our dresses and by the ruined remains of our shoes, which we left in a pile in one corner of our room like a heap of garbage. We were questioned over and over, but all of us held fast to our secret. “No, father, I haven’t the faintest clue,” we all said, feigning ignorance. “We were all asleep and dreaming. Surely someone must be attempting to make a joke of us.”
Our father, of course, accepted this excuse. At least he accepted it at first. But as we continued to disappear each night and to return each morning with our new shoes in the same tattered condition as the day before, he grew both wary and weary, and eventually he offered the kingdom one of our hands in marriage to the first man who could uncover the mystery of our shoe–problem.
“Really,” said Sister Three on the afternoon of that public announcement, “why does it have to be a man? Why does the reward have to be marriage to one of us? What a jerk. I’m totally getting my drink on tonight. He can’t stop me.”
“For real,” said Sister Nine, and the two of them high–fived each other.
This is when we began drugging those who came to sit in the antechamber of our room, so that we could continue going down into the castle beneath our father’s castle, where the choice of clubs to visit, we learned soon after returning several times, were infinite.
It was on a night when our spooky princes led us down a different passageway from the one we’d taken on our first few trips that we learned that the underground castle held more rooms to dance in than we’d initially realized, and that each room belonged to a different time and a different space in the world above. Instead of the disco of our first few visits, it was a hip–hop club, and then a country line–dancing bar, and then a death metal hall. Door number one, door number two, door number three, etc. They went on and on down the castle hall, and behind those doors, we could be anyone, we could be anywhere, we could be anywhen.
There was Studio 54, for instance, where our matching sisterly princess dresses made us into immediate stars on the glitter–covered dance floor, and where I discovered the most wonderful substance called angel dust, which I smoked with a beautiful Asian woman whose dyed blond hair surrounded her head like an angel’s halo. That evening, I danced with her instead of with my spooky prince, who had slumped down on a couch with his head in the lap of an artist who had become famous in his own time and place for painting soup cans, my prince told me later, as he poled me back across the river. And when we finally reached the stone stairs that would take us up to our room again, my sisters raised their eyebrows at me and tittered playfully about my naughty choice in dance partner. They had already begun to abandon their princes over the course of our nights out, too, much more quickly than I’d dared to do, but they were surprised, I think, to see that I’d done something outside of my usually cautious procedures.
Then there was the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard (I <3 you Johnny Depp!!), and of course the Copacabana. There was XS in Las Vegas, with that glorious pool in the middle of the floor where we all dove in headfirst and did a tribute to the Busby Berkeley films we’d watched on a dancehall friend’s mobile phone one evening over Bloody Marys at an all–night diner. We touched the bottom of that pool and watched the bubbles of air escape our mouths to rise to the top of the water, which we burst through a moment later, crossing our hands above us, over and over, to the roaring applause of our fellow clubbers.
And there was the Roxy. And — oh my God — the Ministry of Sound in London. Whisky A Go–Go, where I drank far too much whisky and go–goed myself into a silly stupor, was sick all the next day and stayed in bed, nursed by Sister Eight, who had decided not to drink that night and made sure to bring us apple juice for breakfast and chicken broth for lunch and told our father we’d all caught the same illness after drinking water from a brook in a nearby forest.
Womb, in Tokyo. Wow, that night’s a broken mirror. CBGB, when we were feeling punk and wanted to tease our hair up into Frankenstein’s wife’s crazy beehives and wear jeans with holes in our knees. Berghain in Berlin — oh Lord, you don’t even want to know the shit I saw go down in some of the rooms of that former power plant gone fetish leather. They only played techno in there, and the place was nothing but dark room after dark room with strobe lights blinding you momentarily. Luckily Sister Six scored us some ecstasy and all was good after we swallowed those smiley–faced pills.
There was the Paradise Garage, too, of course, which my sisters were fond of because it was located on King Street. They thought it was clever to go dancing at a club that reminded us of our father, who was totally tearing his hair out about our ruined shoes and constant daytime sleeping at that point, not to mention all of the would–be suitors he kept having to behead when they couldn’t discover the mystery of our ruined shoes each morning. We felt bad about our suitors’ deaths, my sisters and I, but honestly, they should have minded their own business and left my father to do his own dirty work. And really, what kind of idiot tries to follow in the footsteps of the multiple men who had tried before him and ended up beheaded? Clearly, they weren’t the brightest of the bulbs in the kingdom.
It was the Limelight, though — this old church turned club in the heart of Manhattan — that stole my heart more than any other club we went to. There, my sisters and I came with our faces painted to look like butterfly wings, or like strange monsters. We wore purple or blue long, stringy wigs, and ripped up our princess dresses so that we looked like down–and–out rich girls who got lost on their way home from the prom and were led astray by big bad wolves instead of knights in shining armor. The music was techno and industrial, the drugs were always upbeat. The mirror ball in the center of the dance floor spun and broke light against our painted faces, like that first night we’d gone dancing in the underground castle, and oh, everyone there was so ready to laugh and twirl and pretend to be somebody that they weren’t in real life.
I understood that, the pretending. Back home in my father’s kingdom, we were quiet and reserved. We bowed and we handed over our hands to men who kissed them, and we batted away compliments as if we were not worthy of praise. We ate only a third of what was put on our plates for dinner, and we drank only one glass of wine in front of anyone. At social occasions, we danced with old men who would slip their hands around our waists like we belonged to them; and when we pulled away, they would raise their brows and question us about whether or not we wanted to upset our father.
Politics. Fuck politics. My sisters and I had found our own kingdom to belong to. And at the Limelight, that Gothic–styled church in the middle of Manhattan, we could feel like we were still in our father’s kingdom but also in our new home, among the party monsters with whom we shared our revels.
The sad thing is, our story is a fairy tale. That can’t be dismissed. And no matter what anyone tells you about fairy tales, most of them don’t really have happy endings. Not the real fairy tales, that is. Not the ones that really happened.
What happened to us was, the old soldier I’ve already mentioned came to my father’s castle and took up the challenge to find out how our shoes would come to be ruined every night like a ritual, and he had a couple of things going for him that the beheaded suitors before him hadn’t. He had that cloak of invisibility the old crone in the woods gave him, for instance, and the advice she’d also given when he told her he was going to take up the king’s challenge: Don’t drink the cup of wine they’ll give you at the end of the night, but make them think that you did.
Old crone, wherever you are, I will totally slap you across the face for this treachery if ever I come across you. What did we ever do to you? Did you hate us because we were happy?
So the soldier found us out. Didn’t drink the drugged wine we gave him. Pretended to fall asleep. Put the cloak of invisibility over his shoulders and followed us down into the forests of silver and gold and diamonds. Slipped onto the boat with my spooky prince and me. Saw us dancing with an array of unseemly characters at the Limelight. Saw me with too much vodka and a little bit of pot in my system, lifting up my dress in the middle of the dance floor. Jesus, that was a great night, regardless of what followed.
The thing was, I knew someone was shadowing us that night, I just couldn’t see him. I knew it and twice I said to my sisters, “Something is wrong here. I feel as though someone unseen is among us.”
And of course my sisters either pursed their lips skeptically or threw their heads back in laughter. “Stop worrying!” they said. “You’re such a downer!”
But he found us out, that soldier, and he explained our secret to our father the very next morning, after we returned, before we could even put ourselves to bed and pretend like we didn’t know what he was talking about.
“My daughters,” our father said when he learned of what we’d been doing. “How dare you sneak about like thieves in the night? How dare you dance with anyone who offers a hand like a common harlot?”
“But father—” Sister Ten said, clasping her hands together as if she were praying.
“Enough!” our father thundered, and we all cringed, wishing our mother had not died in my childbirth, for it would have been nice to have a mother there right then to soften our father in this moment. “Your underground nights have ended,” he told us. “And you will no longer live in this room. It will be sealed off, in fact, and starting tomorrow, one of you will marry each month until a year has passed and all of you are living a proper life. I’ve been too easy on you all. Let you now answer to husbands!”
He let the old soldier pick which of us he wanted to marry, like we were the carcasses of dead chickens hanging up in a shopkeeper’s window. Which one is the plumpest, the juiciest? My oldest sister, of course, Sister One, who he’d been eyeing up the entire time my father scolded us.
Father married her off to the old soldier the next day. The eleven of us were her bridesmaids. Most of us looked down at our feet as Sister One made her vows to the old soldier. We put the tips of our fingers to our eyes to wipe away any tears before they might show.
After that, I watched each of my other sisters married off to dukes and lords and even one was given to a blacksmith whose work my father admired. We were his property, traded and bartered with for political gain and finely crafted weapons. It was as if he were preparing to go to war with an enemy that had not yet revealed its existence. I suppose we were his enemies. Our betrayal of his trust made us disgusting to him.
Each wedding was a brief and sad affair, except for when it came to Sister Eleven’s. By then nearly a year had passed and she had had time to get used to the idea of this inevitability, and had persuaded my father to at least allow her some consideration in the selection of her husband. My father appreciated Sister Eleven’s embrace of her fate, and allowed her to choose between three suitors of his picking. I suppose that was an option of sorts. Sister Eleven knew to accept this and not to dare complain.
They married in the spring, under a blossoming cherry tree.
I was next, of course, but unlike Sister Eleven, I had not become accustomed to the idea of marriage as punishment, even if I could choose between a handful of my father’s selections. All those months barred from the underground castle, I tossed and turned on my bed, thinking of the many people with whom I had danced and the many experiences I had enjoyed (even the bad ones), and burned as if I had a fever. And on the night of Sister Eleven’s wedding, when I cried out in my sleep while I dreamed someone was suffocating me with a pillow, I knew I could not do as my father commanded. I knew I would once again have to betray him.
My father had had the door to our old bedroom barred shut from the outside, and a guard patrolled that hall now more often than they used to. So it would be no use trying to pry the door open. I only had one real option. I would have to climb up the vines that covered the wall on that side of the castle, and flit through our old room’s window like a moth.
I waited until the eve of my wedding, which was to be a marriage with a middle–aged archduke who smelled of horse dung and had brown spots on his teeth, and when the clouds passed over the moon of that early summer night, casting everything in darkness for several minutes, I began my ascent.
Hand over hand, foot braced in the nooks and crannies of the thick vines on the wall, I made my way up to the windowsill within fifteen minutes, just before my arms grew so sore I thought I might fall, and had only enough energy to pull myself over the ledge and drop down into our old bedroom, where the thud of my landing echoed through the lifeless room.
Before me were our empty beds, the covers pulled up and made as if they were waiting for someone to return to them, as if the girls that usually inhabited them were just out for the night, dancing, and any minute now they would come running up the stairs from the underground forest of silver, holding their laughter tighter as they ascended, and would finally put themselves to bed. I nearly cried, remembering how it had been not so long ago, recalling the feeling of freedom.
But I didn’t let myself waste too much time, and quickly went to the stone door and placed my palm upon it, sighed with relief as it began to grind and lower itself to reveal the stone staircase that would lead me back to the underground castle. Back to my spooky prince, who minutes later caught me in his arms as I ran toward him, out of breath, then poled me across the river, where we ran up the stairs of the underground castle, our hands linked between us, and disappeared into the dark of the cavernous entrance.
In a castle underground, in a place where time and space don’t exist in the ways that we’re used to, a person doesn’t age. You just are. You exist, but outside of the laws of nature. I spent the timeless passage of what would have been years for someone locked into a particular world doing nothing but dancing. I went to all of my sisters’ and my favorite clubs, night after endless night, and slept my days away in a room not unlike our old bedroom. A hostel sort of room, it was, where the homeless types like me who had taken up residence in the underground castle would go to sleep when they didn’t go home with a dance partner from another world for the evening. We were fugitives from our own circumstances, fleeing the cage of fate in which our origins would entrap us.
My sisters all got married. That’s the end of their stories, like all the bad punch lines to all the bad knock–knock jokes that somehow still manage to breathe in the world. A typical fairy tale ending, only not so happily after all.
But me? My ending is different. I picked the lock on time and space, and escaped my fate to live outside of the rules of a particular world. I live alone, but at least I’m free.
I’ve seen so many worlds now. I’ve seen so many things since I became a wanderer. And though I often feel the weight of guilt lower upon my shoulders when I think of my poor sisters back in my father’s realm, married off to husbands who are little more than jailors, I can’t say I’d do anything different. I feel the guilt, and then I accept it. I confess this great sin — the fact that there’s no way I could have lived out the ending of their fairy tales, that I abandoned them to the fate I would have been assigned as well—and roll it all up as a message in a bottle.
The river that flows by the underground castle flows through all the worlds in all the times that exist in the universe. I cast the bottle into it and watch my story bob as it floats its way into eternity. And then I turn, called by the music in the castle to return to it.
One day, if you find these words and read them, know that I have quite a different ending than my sisters. Know that I’m happy, despite having to call myself a person who has run away.
And if you ever find your own secret passage into the underground, you can be sure that I’ll be the girl you see in every club you ever visit. The one on the floor with the mirror ball spinning above her, showering light down on her hair and shoulders as she twirls and whirls. I’ll be the one who never stops dancing.
“Sister Twelve” originally appeared in Glitter & Mayhem, edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas (Apex Publications, 2013).