Finally, the beast lets the Princess pass. Beyond the wall, crowds of people are waiting and arguing. Children sell bags of peanuts and fried plantain and families curl like caterpillars together on the ground. Women, tall as giraffes, pile packages on their heads, so high that the Princess is sure they could bump against the moon. Briskly, the King escorts her to a waiting chariot and her guard takes the reins of four winged horses.
“We’ll get fuel away from the border” Uncle decides. “We’ll have trouble if too many people see we’ve found a car”.
As the moon creeps back behind the Earth, the four winged horses carry Princess Aisha away from the Obsidian cliff and the scrappy settlement that has taken root in its shadow. The land before the Princess glows in dusty pre-dawn light. It is a cracked and rutted plain. This land is cursed, confounding any traveller who dares cross it and dooming them to walk in circles for eternity, never reaching their destination.
“When we get to the fuel station, lie down under the seats and put this over your head”, Father says softly.
Princess Aisha rests under a soft cloak as the shadows of ghouls drift around their chariot. Without warning, a ghoul rushes towards them, brandishing a flaming sword.
Glass breaks and I hear Uncle cry out. He’s outside. “Just drive!” he yells “I’ll find you there!”
The King whips the horses into a gallop and Princess Aisha presses her face on her knees and summons all the magic she knows to make the ghouls disappear. It is only as the sun is once again retreating below the horizon that the Princess emerges from under her cloak. The King holds the reins. They are alone.
Strong hands drag the Princess onto a foreign shore. A throng of warriors in sapphire helmets crowd around, but no one recognises her.
“What’s your name little girl?” a man with a clipboard asks. “Is you family with you – where are you from?”
The Princess can’t speak. The seas have stolen her voice, but in her head the Princess shouts for the King, and her guard, and the castle she left behind after the dragons burnt it down. The warriors take her to a forest of lost travelers, where tents and people merge together in a crowded mass that stretches to eternity. Witches steal her blood and challenge her with riddles that she can’t understand. Everyday, she searches for the King, wandering through the crowds and hiding from werewolves and vampires who stalk the forest wearing masks over their faces. At night, the Princess silently counts the stars.
One day, the Princess hears that the forest is being burned. Everyone has to leave. She walks back to the beach to look across the enchanted sea. Maybe the King waits for her beneath the waves and will call out as he dances in the water. The stars appear and soon the vampires and the werewolves will arrive. Princess Aisha turns away from the water and walks though the forest. She comes to a clearing, where a coach awaits and people are lining up to get on. A warrior is at the front of the line, handing out magic charms. “What’s your name little girl”? he asks. For a moment, Princess Aisha’s throat remains frozen – then the spell breaks.
“Aisha”, I say, “I’m 11 years old and I travelled here with my father but now I can’t find him”. The man with the marker looks down at me. He writes my name on a sticker and puts it on my chest. “We will help you look for your father”, he says.
As the coach pulls away from the forest of lost travellers, I whisper to myself. “This is the story of Princess Aisha. She escaped from beasts and Mermen and with the help of the warriors, she will journey to find the King. The story will be long, but I am very brave in the face of danger and it will have a happy ending”. I hope with all my heart that this is true.
Father says; “this is the story of Princess Aisha”. We’re crouched in the basement, hands over our ears. “She is very brave in the face of danger”. There are loud noises overhead and the lights go out. “Aisha’s castle is besieged by dragons and she must escape.” “They set the sky on fire”, I whisper, finding his hand in the dark. Father says, “Get your bag, its nearly time”. It’s already on my back, the straps dig into my shoulders.
Princess Aisha speaks an enchantment, to make her bag as light as a feather.
A shout from outside. “Come on - your uncle’s here”.
As they step into the sun, Princess Aisha looks behind at her kingdom. The charred remains of the royal chambers crumble into pools of toxic mercury, seeping up through cracks in the earth.
“It looks like the sewers have burst” says Uncle, “we’d better get to higher ground”. “How far to the border?” Father asks. “Eight hours if we can find someone to drive us”.
We’d been walking for days.
Princess Aisha could feel the enchantments wearing off. Her back ached and her feet were weary. For safety, she travels in disguise. In tattered robes she moves through the crowds without being recognised. A mass of peasants is gathering at the foot of the most enormous wall that the Princess has ever seen. A sheer obsidian cliff, extending in both directions as far as the eye can see, reaches up into the clouds. Little openings reveal blindingly unnatural light on the other side. She can hear loud shouting and smell smoke.
A hand on my shoulder makes me flinch. “Take this”, Father says. “What is it?” I ask. “It’s a magical key that will let Princess Aisha cross”. “Where did you get those? Are they real?” Uncle whispers. “I have a friend at the Embassy. She said they would be enough to get us through”.
Princess Aisha approaches the wall. A beast guards the crossing point; scaled and spiked, with strong claws instead of hands. It takes the key and looks at it for a long time. It glares at her, and for a moment the Princess is afraid that her disguise is failing. To soothe the beast, she begins to mutter a calming spell.
“Be quiet!” says Father. He grips me so hard on the shoulder that it hurts.
I can smell the sea. I grip Father’s hand as we walk towards the water. “Whatever happens, I’ll be with you”, he says. I see Father weeping as he walks.
A man appears as they approach the beach. Pirates, Princess Aisha thinks. For safe passage, the pirate demands a ransom, and the King hands over all the royal jewels and coin. Three boats are moored off shore. The Princess sees streams of people splashing their way across, with babies and bundles in their arms, or cases balancing on their heads.
“My daughter stays with me” Father tells the man – but he only laughs, and hoists me into the air like another bundle to be packed, placing me down on the smallest boat. I scream for Father and hear his voice, but too far away. The air is thick with fumes, and there are too many people to even sit down. Babies are crying and I smell vomit; I’m taking sharp breaths and trying not to cry as someone plays a prayer from a radio in their pocket.
It’s a prayer for the Princess, as she ventures across untamed seas. It’s said that Mermen rule these parts. To confuse travellers, they weave devilish spells that make the sun burn like fire and time stand still. The pirates and their passengers – packed together like barnacles on a rock - grow tired with thirst and Princess Aisha starts to dream of drinking the water that surrounds them. She leans her face towards the water and as her nose touches the surface she feels watery hands grab her shoulders and pull her below. Sinking, the Princess looks up and sees the ghostly silhouettes of all those who have perished trying to cross the Mermen’s enchanted seas.
This story was written for the 2016 Blank Space Architectural Fairytales Competition and recieved an Honourable Mention.
In 2015, the body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. He was a three year old boy taken on a perilous flight from the existential danger that is life in Syria. He drowned after the small boat he was on capsized in the Meditteranean sea, en route to Greece.
His death humanised - for a time - the unequivocal tragedy that is contemporary refugee journeys, where people who live in failing states make the desperate decision to risk their lives in pursuit of any chance at a longer, safer, more fulfilled life.
We can imagine the human beings who make these journeys. We can attempt to give voice to their humanity.