When I was little I watched over and over — really, I truly, truly loved it — a Masterpiece Theater about three sisters who every night would go to a magical ball, only after the castle is completely asleep. To get to the ball, a porthole opened in their room that led to an enchanted, snow-covered wood and a river, which they crossed on rowboats guided by the three male princes. Every morning, their mother would wake them up and groan over how difficult it was to get the girls out of bed, and every week a maid would grimace over how they had worn out their best dancing slippers. Something was afoot, but they could not name it.
I could look up the plot — but it isn’t the truth that matters to me now, it’s the story in my head. Next: the parents suspected the daughters of something terrible, something grave, and so locked them in their room; but of course, the girls could still reach the porthole, which was within it. Held to questioning, one of the sisters told of the magical ball. To prove it, she brought back a branch of silvery pine and held it out to her father saying Look, look, it’s real — the trees, the lake, the dancing, and the princes who take us. Here is a metonymy for you, a length of wood.
But maybe what happened was that walking, she was snagged in the tree, her dress hitched, and they found, entangled in her silks the next day, a branch.
In any case I had not thought of the story for so long. In the end, only the best sister — pure, for some reason that the others are not — marries a magical prince. Perhaps the others are tattle-tales, who give it away. Perhaps they choose the life of reality over the one of fiction.
When I thought of the story today for the first time in years I thought, of course: here is a lesson to parents about raising teenage girls; or here is a lesson to teenage girls about sleeping around, about letting boys into your bedrooms: You will be caught, snagged. You will grasp for him and find only a branch, as evidence. Here is a eulogy for the high schoolers heading out to parties in Potomac, who crash their SUVs on River Road and kill themselves and all their riders — this is the fairy tale for them, who live forever in silent rowboats on dark water, captained by strangers who promise in the distance a glimmering ball.
I think also it is a parable for dreams, which you can never prove with props or worn-out shoes; and of course as well a parable for romance, which comes to us at night, and wears off in the strange light of the morning; or maybe a parable for love — for the sister who found it — for it comes to us at first through a fiction as if of our own making — it’s our thoughts of him, at first, that woo us. And it’s when you’ve got to prove it, you’ve got to find the branch or not find the branch, you may find that you have nothing at all as evidence; or you might find that you are caught there, and can never row back, and that your sisters — beautiful as they had seemed to you, then — are now forever collapsed into their own world and that your father, glaring down at you, holds none of his angry power; the world of the dream has become potent, the daytime world of slippers and lace is stupid, stupid as a fairy tale, stupid as a place you leave. The real is now the dream you thought you had invented, and you see it in all of its crisp textures.
Anyway, now I only pity the maid. Repairer of shoes, commiserator with those whose happiness can be found only in double worlds.