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The Twelve Dancing Princesses

Written by: Anne Sexton | Biography
 | Quotes (127) |
 If you danced from midnight
to six A.
M.
who would understand? The runaway boy who chucks it all to live on the Boston Common on speed and saltines, pissing in the duck pond, rapping with the street priest, trading talk like blows, another missing person, would understand.
The paralytic's wife who takes her love to town, sitting on the bar stool, downing stingers and peanuts, singing "That ole Ace down in the hole," would understand.
The passengers from Boston to Paris watching the movie with dawn coming up like statues of honey, having partaken of champagne and steak while the world turned like a toy globe, those murderers of the nightgown would understand.
The amnesiac who tunes into a new neighborhood, having misplaced the past, having thrown out someone else's credit cards and monogrammed watch, would understand.
The drunken poet (a genius by daylight) who places long-distance calls at three A.
M.
and then lets you sit holding the phone while he vomits (he calls it "The Night of the Long Knives") getting his kicks out of the death call, would understand.
The insomniac listening to his heart thumping like a June bug, listening on his transistor to Long John Nebel arguing from New York, lying on his bed like a stone table, would understand.
The night nurse with her eyes slit like Venetian blinds, she of the tubes and the plasma, listening to the heart monitor, the death cricket bleeping, she who calls you "we" and keeps vigil like a ballistic missile, would understand.
Once this king had twelve daughters, each more beautiful than the other.
They slept together, bed by bed in a kind of girls' dormitory.
At night the king locked and bolted the door .
How could they possibly escape? Yet each morning their shoes were danced to pieces.
Each was as worn as an old jockstrap.
The king sent out a proclamation that anyone who could discover where the princesses did their dancing could take his pick of the litter.
However there was a catch.
If he failed, he would pay with his life.
Well, so it goes.
Many princes tried, each sitting outside the dormitory, the door ajar so he could observe what enchantment came over the shoes.
But each time the twelve dancing princesses gave the snoopy man a Mickey Finn and so he was beheaded.
Poof! Like a basketball.
It so happened that a poor soldier heard about these strange goings on and decided to give it a try.
On his way to the castle he met an old old woman.
Age, for a change, was of some use.
She wasn't stuffed in a nursing home.
She told him not to drink a drop of wine and gave him a cloak that would make him invisible when the right time came.
And thus he sat outside the dorm.
The oldest princess brought him some wine but he fastened a sponge beneath his chin, looking the opposite of Andy Gump.
The sponge soaked up the wine, and thus he stayed awake.
He feigned sleep however and the princesses sprang out of their beds and fussed around like a Miss America Contest.
Then the eldest went to her bed and knocked upon it and it sank into the earth.
They descended down the opening one after the other.
They crafty soldier put on his invisisble cloak and followed.
Yikes, said the youngest daughter, something just stepped on my dress.
But the oldest thought it just a nail.
Next stood an avenue of trees, each leaf make of sterling silver.
The soldier took a leaf for proof.
The youngest heard the branch break and said, Oof! Who goes there? But the oldest said, Those are the royal trumpets playing triumphantly.
The next trees were made of diamonds.
He took one that flickered like Tinkerbell and the youngest said: Wait up! He is here! But the oldest said: Trumpets, my dear.
Next they came to a lake where lay twelve boats with twelve enchanted princes waiting to row them to the underground castle.
The soldier sat in the youngest's boat and the boat was as heavy as if an icebox had been added but the prince did not suspect.
Next came the ball where the shoes did duty.
The princesses danced like taxi girls at Roseland as if those tickets would run right out.
They were painted in kisses with their secret hair and though the soldier drank from their cups they drank down their youth with nary a thought.
Cruets of champagne and cups full of rubies.
They danced until morning and the sun came up naked and angry and so they returned by the same strange route.
The soldier went forward through the dormitory and into his waiting chair to feign his druggy sleep.
That morning the soldier, his eyes fiery like blood in a wound, his purpose brutal as if facing a battle, hurried with his answer as if to the Sphinx.
The shoes! The shoes! The soldier told.
He brought forth the silver leaf, the diamond the size of a plum.
He had won.
The dancing shoes would dance no more.
The princesses were torn from their night life like a baby from its pacifier.
Because he was old he picked the eldest.
At the wedding the princesses averted their eyes and sagged like old sweatshirts.
Now the runaways would run no more and never again would their hair be tangled into diamonds, never again their shoes worn down to a laugh, never the bed falling down into purgatory to let them climb in after with their Lucifer kicking.



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