Like everyone around here, I can’t sleep; I’m drawn to the forest, the brambles and thorns that surround the castle of the sleeping princess. I know in her hands she holds the spindle of sleep – if only I could reach her, I could sleep too.
The moon is full, all of us who cannot sleep are on the road to the castle. A man next to me says, “You have to be careful: if you can’t sleep, and you die, you’ll stay awake forever.”
“How do you know this?” I ask the man. Many around me laugh at my question.
He says, as kindly as possible, “Because I, myself, died a long time ago.”
I look at him more closely; I should know him. I see him all the time. I think he used to live with me, but when he sees me trying to recognize him all he says is “no no no I won’t do that anymore!” and he runs ahead of me. I decide to let him get away.
The forest is full of thorns, long as swords; the brambles are thick as ropes. The forest is crowded with beaks, we hear them trilling as we get closer. There are berries everywhere if you are hungry, and soft spots where you can lie still and pretend to be asleep. The forest will not burn, and all the paths inward always turn around and around until you’re trapped, or they will throw you out if you’re not worthy of dying in there. We leave behind our hair, our clothes; whatever we bring the forest catches: our curses and conversations, the fanciful speculations we foster in place of dreams. The forest cards all these things from us and straightens them for the pleasure of all beaks, and the princess when she awakens from her endless sleep.
Many times I thought I was so close to the castle I could hear snoring, but then I was back on the road to my house, naked and scratched all over, the sun greeting me with its laughter.
“What about the witches?” a woman asks, pulling behind her a cart with three small children, all of them crying. She has been awake so long she has forgotten that we are the witches, that we cursed the castle, planted the forest that guards it, that we poured all of our sleeping into the princess, whose dreams are magic, who holds a spindle that shines like the moon. We love the princess, we always have, and we know that she loved us too. It’s been so long we’ve forgotten why we’d ever do such a thing as this. No one, not even the beaks, will tell us why.
But when the beaks are not busy impaling princes on sword-long thorns, they frolic. They want us to watch them. Everyone knows they gather, straighten and pull what we leave in the forest through the spindle the sleeping princess holds in her hands. Every one of us can see the thread, but no one knows if it’s coarse or fine, whether it washes across all the floors of the castle in waves like the ocean, or if it is neatly wound on spools, row upon row on all the shelves where the royal library used to be.
One of the beaks lands next to me. She sings, “Have you had enough, have you had enough? Shall I wake the princess, or shall I land on the corners of her eyes, and wrinkle them, like I’ve always done?”
Every time, every one of us always says the same thing, “Wrinkle the corners of her eyes.” No matter what anyone wants to say, that’s what we always say. The beaks peck a tiny piece of hatred off of our hearts to sparkle for their lovers and fly away. So like everyone else, that’s what I say.
The dead man I think I know is standing in the same soft spot as me; maybe he’s a prince, but I got to him first, and I killed him. Maybe I killed him here. Or maybe we were lovers and that’s why we always wind up here. He won’t look at me, but he won’t leave either.
“Why are you still here?” I ask him.
“I want to see the spindle,” he says. “I wonder if it’s still in the princess’s hands, on her chest, as she is sleeping, or if it’s beside her, back in its wheel.”
“And I wonder,” the dead man says, “if I was the one who was meant to wake her, and if by staying here with you I am betraying her somehow.”
The forest loves betrayal, almost as much as it loves witches. I’m sure the beaks will tell us that we’re not the first to have this conversation.
“The spindle is plain; it looks exactly like a spindle should look. The point is sharp. It feels like this.” I let my hair down and I prick him on his hand with my pin. He doesn’t make a sound. We’ve done this before.
Later, we get dressed; we wander out of the forest.
Soon, I’m going to break this spell. I will open my chest before a beak, I will ask it, “How much hatred is left in me? How much longer do we have to wait?”
And I won’t be able to tell if the beaks are being kind or wicked, because every time I have done this, they have always said the same thing, “A little bit longer, just a little bit longer, then the curse will lift, and everyone will have more than enough sleep, everyone will dream happy beautiful dreams. When you awaken we will dress you and every copy of you in such beautiful clothes.”
Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found or forthcoming in Gravel, Sand, Psychopomp, Joyland, Vestal Review, Occulum and Pank. His short story "Taylor Swift" won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast. He is a shop steward for the adjunct faculty union at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where for ten years he edited the journal Eleven Eleven.