The Twelve Dancing Princesses

by Diane Fahey

Diane Fahey

In later life, none could recapture
that long season of dancing nights —
the enchanted risk of them:
at twelve, the flight down steps;
silk dresses rustling through groves
of gold, diamond, and silver
to the boat trip on moon-filmed water,
the lake sighing and whispering its secrets
as their perfect princes rowed them
towards the underground castle
then danced the soles out of their shoes
and plied them with wine
and were impeccable
as they rowed them home
silent with ecstasy
over the pear-shaped lake —
princesses with dancing eyes
returning to their locked room.
Only the soldier who'd shadowed them,
who'd stepped on the hem of the youngest
(her half-lit face half-turned)
brought back mementos —
three precious twigs and
the goblet he'd sipped from
while partnering each princess
invisibly, in his magic cloak.
Then the exposé, the opulent evidence…
The eldest was forced to marry him,
the others became royal wives
in far kingdoms where they had
balls and ball gowns to order.
They glittered with riches
and smiled convincingly —
but never again would they
dance their slippers through.
 Strange jewellery they had made —
gold leaves veined with diamonds,
and tiny silver twigs that they wore
like open secrets. Often, too,
they remembered the lantern
that sung across the lake
as if a star were caged in it.
In the cellar of the first castle
were heaped all the dancing shoes
full of centipedes and mice
and ropes of dust and mouldering
wine from a leaky cask. Beside them:
old letters, sere as parchment,
and a book with a rusty lock,
containing stories that sometimes ended,
‘And the mouth of the last person
who told this story is still warm.'

The Sixth Swan

Last updated January 14, 2019