The castle rose against the night sky like an enormous hilltop of jagged stone, its turrets too high for Anling to make out the tops of them. She had never laid eyes on anything so magnificent before and the experience was altogether too wonderful for words. Perhaps if the events hadn’t unfolded the way they had, she wouldn’t have come, but it was too late for that now; and as the truth sank in she started moving forwards over the grass to the door so that she could enter into the first of the rooms. To her surprise she found herself inside more of a sitting room than an actual one, with chairs and sofas scattered around the place and beautiful flowers arranged in vases sitting on desks and tables. Over by the right wall there stood a magnificent statue of the sorcerer who had built this castle, a fellow by the name of Fabien Mon Cher, who never knew what madness it was that overtook him and made him desire to construct such a holy colossal thing of rock and magnate in the first place. Barring that, there was nothing whatsoever out of the ordinary about the room at all; as far as Anling was concerned this was just the time and place to be for her, otherwise how else would she know how to stand by her own truth wherever life took her?
Other women stood in the room at the walls in differently-coloured dresses and attires, some of them barefoot and pale-faced like her, wearing peasant clothing, others with pinched expressions, worn dresses, and the prideful air of those who had enjoyed wealth and status, but had now fallen into ruin. So far many had tried to get the bag of gold, but none had succeeded, and rumors had it that peculiar secrets lurked within the castle walls, the kind of mysteries that would make your skin curdle and blood writhe in your veins just to think about it. If so, then the world could come crashing to an end, for nothing would stop her from reaching the place where she wanted to be at the end of all the rooms, to receive her grand reward of a bag of gold to feed her family. It was all very well for the rich—they, after all, didn’t have mouths to feed and work tremendously hard for their money, while she, Anling, was well-versed in the intricacies and hardships of life without a roof over one’s head or bread in one’s stomach. Oh yes, the life that the poor lived was a sad and sour one indeed if Anling were honest with herself, and not only did she not want to live it anymore, she didn’t want anyone else in her family and friends to either. Besides, it wasn’t as if she didn’t want to enjoy moving through the rooms as well—that, after all, was an additional pleasure that she was certainly looking forward to. But if she were truly honest with herself, she knew in her heart that when the hours whiled past and the rivers and streams ran dry, the light of the sun would one day rise and bring joy and abundance to all; but until that day happened, the only thing she could do was move through the rooms one at a time and reach the prize at the end. For her family, for her friends. For her people.
A gong sounded, reverberating through the room, and all the women turned as the door that was set into the brickwork to their left slid open by itself to leave the way to the next room clear. Quickly, picking up her skirts with her hands, Anling ran into the room at the heels of the other women, her heart and soul singing inside her chest in a way it had never done before. Excitement was thick in the air, and the women rushed down a corridor and then left into another one, finally arriving at a dining room that had a fine table set out in it with a beautiful feast laid upon it. Apples, apricots, geraniums in vases and bowls filled with seeds, it was a bounty unlike anything Anling had seen before in her life, rich and mouth-watering. She stepped forwards, hands reaching out for the bread that lay on a plate at the edge of the table, picked it up and stuffed it inside her mouth. The sweet doughy softness of it was an elegant song upon her tongue and past her lips, the universe reverberating in single-toned laughter that ran into her veins like stars. Never had she tasted bread as good as this; and all around her the others, hungry and starved, some of them slipping loaves into their pockets, were tucking into the bread as well, taking large bites of it to fill their stomachs and prepare them for the rooms that lay ahead.
Why they should feel so terrible after eating the foods was not something they realised until after the last bites of food had been swallowed, and Anling found herself suddenly starting to expand outwards at her fingers and toes, her legs blowing up like bags of pigs’ blood. She screamed, along with everyone else in the room, the tinkle of cutlery falling like rain through the air as all down the table women dropped the spoons and forks they had been holding to clutch at their legs and arms. Many of them collapsed onto the ground where they stood, writhing in agony. A fire in Anling’s veins started, burning and terrible, scorching through her body from the top of her head to her toes. “Please! Make it stop!” The years that she had spent under the sun toiling in the fields until the skin on her back and her arms turned browned and painful was nothing compared to this, and she wanted nothing more than to douse herself with a bucket of holy water to cleanse herself of the food’s demonic influence. Yesterday’s coins that she had spent on little dolls for her daughter’s funereal, arranging them with the flowers beside her grave, flashed through her mind like sunlight. If only she hadn’t spent that money, then perhaps she wouldn’t have felt compelled to come to this castle in the first place and risk her life like this.
Still, there was nothing to be done about that, not when she was already here, and Anling staggered back onto her feet and over to the table and snatched up a goblet of wine and, throwing back her head, drank its contents in one a single swallow. The effect was instantaneous: all at once, the fire in her veins went out, as if it had been extinguished, and her fingers, arms and legs shrank, returning to their normal sizes. Fortunately there seemed to be plenty of wine to go around, and Anling watched from where she stood at the centre of the table along one of its sides as the other peasant women—well, they weren’t all women of low birth, some looked as though they could be duchesses, and more than a few of them common housemaids and ladies-in-waiting—did the same, picking up goblets and drinking them.
All except one. It was a woman with very long black hair that swept the floor, clad in a dress that looked more like armor than clothing. She alone did not pick up a goblet and drink. Instead, she simply stood there, her eyes shut, a beatific smile on her face, as her body swelled and ballooned, until it suddenly caught fire, and she burned away to ashes where she stood. The entire thing could not have been longer than a few seconds, yet for Anling it felt like a tiny eternity. Dead. Gone. Just like that. But it was the smile on her face that had so disturbed her, gentle and serene, as if she had waited a long time for this to happen. As if she had been receiving a gift instead of a curse. What kind of life must she have led, what deeds had she committed, that would make her happy to die like that? Anling didn’t know, and she didn’t much desire finding out. With the other women she went out of the room into the next one, the door sliding out of the wall from it when they reached it, into the largest place Anling had ever set foot inside in her entire life.
It was all white marble, a blinding white, like snow, with beautiful vines curling about all over the place in the cracks and fissures marring its surface, and at its back wall there sat several bathtubs. They were constructed of porcelain and into different animals, a tortoise, a dog, a pig, a goat, a rooster and a lion, and they sat there, bright and shiny, looking as though they were waiting for someone to climb into them. So Anling did, walking over to the one on the left, the pig, and climbing into it so that she stood inside it. It was very beautiful. In front of her were golden taps, with tiny lettering on their sides, and she bent over and squinted at them to get a better look. BELIEVE. That was what the words were, all down the golden spouts. To think there was nothing else in the world but those words would have been an understatement. Anling felt as if she had not only been stripped of who she was after reading them, but that something had changed inside of her. She would believe. In what, she did not yet know, but the word felt right in a way nothing else had done so before, and when she looked up from them and found the room was filling up with water, great floods of it sweeping through the place to crash against the marble walls, she wasn’t the least bit surprised.
Instead she simply put her hands to the taps and started to steer the bathtub over the waves, turning them to the left and right. It was not difficult, like steering a ship or anything complicated; her fingers seemed to know which way to turn the taps without her even asking them to, and soon she had reached the other side of the room, where the water stopped. She got out of the bathtub and onto the ground at the door. There were other ladies there who had made it across, and they stood there at the edge of the room, facing the wall of water that their bathtubs still floated on. Forever would Anling remember the sight of the last of the bathtubs as it came swimming across the waters towards them, with a woman of pale complexion and yellow ringlets standing inside it. It was the dog, and as it came towards the edge of the water, the bathtub suddenly came to life, and the dog threw back its head, let out a long howl, and thrashing about its legs sank underneath the water. They watched it drown, and the woman with it. It was over in seconds. Anling turned and followed the other women out of the room, her hands trembling and her heart cold inside her chest.
In this next room, plants of all different shapes and sizes sprouted from the white floor, twisted together inside the room, too thickly for Anling to see the brickwork. The other ladies started climbing up the greenery, scaling them as if they were ladders. Anling stared up at the plants; the brickwork was there, at the leafery and stems: the room was a lighthouse, the brickwork glimmering in between the leaves at the walls. Leaves tickled her slippers at the vegetation of the brickwork on the ground and Anling started stepping up the plant, grabbing hold of leaves higher up for balance. It was not hard; the leaves were soft and springy, and simple and light to walk on one after another. In no time at all, Anling got to the highest of the plants and lifted her head into bright sunlight. Looking around, her eyes fell upon a toadstool in the centre of the leafy expanse, its red cap with a little tea party set laid out upon it. Around the table sat the other women, seated on leafy chairs that grew up from the vegetation around the toadstool. It was the neatest and prettiest thing Anling had ever seen. Out her slippers climbed from the last few leaves and onto the leafy ground this high up in the room, and over thick leaf she walked to the toadstool table and sat down in the empty chair that was left.
“What are we meant to do here?” asked the woman in the pink dress with the ruffles. “I don’t see any tea. ”Maybe we’re supposed to make it ourselves, out of the leaves around here.” “You think?” “I don’t know. Perhaps.” “Ah, ladies. So glad you could join me this fine evening.”Anling stared. On the table there suddenly stood a mouse next to the teapot. It had long whiskers, brown fur and sharp yellow teeth, and it wore a black top hat, a black suit and carried a black cane in its gloved left hand that was topped by the tiny carving of a cat. It grinned at them, and swept off its hat in an elegant bow. “Greetings. Mr Zuku by name, teacups are my game. In a little while, each of the teacups sitting before you will fill up with a special, magical brew of astonishing properties. One among them will be poisoned; the others will simply have a few certain nasty side effects. Whoever drinks the poisoned tea will not pass from this room to the next. You are allowed to trade your teacup for another’s if you wish over a certain time period. So, are we clear?”
Without waiting for an answer, the mouse tapped the end of his cane on the spout of the teapot, and all at once, colourful teas filled the teacups before each of them, blue, red, yellow, orange and black. Anling looked inside her teacup, and glimpsed tiny, little droplets leaping up from its blue surface exactly like miniature dolphins. Everyone else was staring intently at their teas as well, their brows furrowed and mouths drawn into lines. “On my watch,” said Mr Zuku, tapping his wrist, and the game began.” “I don’t see the point in trading with anyone,” said a woman with dark skin in a purple dress seated on a leaf opposite Anling. “There’s a one in six chance any of us will have the poisoned cup, so why trade? It’s not as if we can exactly tell which is the tea that will send us straight to heaven or hell in seconds.” “I don’t know,” said another young woman in a pretty ruffled dress with the brown ringlets and ruddy face. “I’ve heard that most poisons tend to be dark in colour, like yours.” The tea sitting before the woman of the dark skin tone was of a vivid purple, the same shade as her dress. “Oh, you think so?” “Oh, to hell with it, I’m just going to trade. Better safe than sorry, and I have a bad feeling about this teacup. Anyone?” The lady in the blue dress and the short golden hair showed her teacup to everyone around the table. “Well, any takers?” “Nope,” said the woman in the ruffled dress. “Not me. I’m keeping mine.” “What about you?” The woman—once a duchess, by the look of her worn finery, though her beautiful face was pinched and starved— stared at Anling from across the table. “Do you want to?” “No thanks,” said Anling, “I’d rather not.” “Fine, then. Can I just ask then is there anyone who wants to trade around here or are we all just going to sit here until this mouse tells us time’s up?”
“Time,” said the mouse in the top hat, who now sat on the spout of the teapot with one leg crossed over another, “is already up. All ready, then? Drink up! If you don’t, you are out of the game and into the loony bin.” Anling put the rim of the teacup to her lips and took a sip. Please don’t be the poisoned one. Please don’t be. The tea tasted of sugar and berries, and as she swallowed her heart beat faster and she waited for what would happen next. All at once, a funny tingling started in her fingers and toes, and looking down at her hands, she saw that green webbing had appeared between her fingers, thin and stretchy, like those of a frog’s. All around the table, the other women were gasping and crying out as magical transformations took place on their bodies, wings sprouting from collarbones, horns from heads, tails from backs that curled through the air at their heads.
It was uncanny. Never had Anling seen anything so strange. But before she could even get a second glance at the others there came a sharp scream that tore through the silence like a knife, and turning to her left, she saw that the woman in the dress with the ruffles and ribbons was screaming her head off like a banshee. “What on earth has gotten into you?” asked the woman sitting next to her, but she went on screaming, too caught up in her own pain to even hear her, and before their eyes she started turning into a rabbit. It was the most astonishing thing. Slowly, as if watching a film being played backwards, her body shrank from that of a woman’s into that of a small, pale animal, and in less than the blink of an eye sitting there before them on the chair was just a little rabbit, its pink nose twitching. There was a long silence, and then the mouse said, “Well, I guess that’s settled, then. The rest of you move on while I stay here and tend to this little one.”
“Let’s go, shall we?” “Alright.” Anling trooped after the other women into the next room through a door on the wall to their right, and they found themselves standing in another room with golden discs floating about inside of it, revolving back and forth in layers up through the room. “Well,” remarked the lady in the red dress, and before any of them could even move she was already running and leaping onto the first of the moving discs and starting to rise upwards into the room like a fairy standing on the moon. Anling had never seen anything more wonderful in her life. It was like a Christmas tree, only better, because it moved and shifted about all over the place like a kaleidoscope. She wanted to run up and jump onto the first of the discs but before she could take a step three of the other women did the same, leaping forwards like gazelles and onto the discs which quickly rose up and took them out of sight. If she had not been so full of nerves about being inside the castle perhaps she would have thoroughly enjoyed this bonanza of a room. Instead all she could do was wait for the disc to come back down again, this time empty of any of the women. With trepidation Anling took a flying leap onto the first of the discs and landed on the golden surface with a hard thwack that shook the entire room.
‘Oops, that wasn’t meant to happen,’ she said to no-one in particular, but there was no-one to hear her and without further ado she lifted her head up towards the next golden disc, which revolved up and down a little above the one she stood on. Oh, it was all very well talking about things, but actually doing them was very hard work—the next jump nearly took all the wind out of her, it was so high. That couldn’t be helped; in life, one must go on with things after all. With that in mind Anling jumped onto the next disc and then the next, until she was two or three discs away from the last one at the very top of the room. Getting there would be an easy matter; that, at least, was what she thought: but in the very next moment something strange and terrible happened. Every disc in the room started to shake and shudder as if they were being banged together like cymbals, and suddenly, figures appeared on the discs like dolls put onto them by a child. They were men and women in beautiful clothes and dresses, wearing masks that covered their faces so tightly that it looked as though they couldn’t breathe. Over to the right of the figures on the disc she was standing on a little keyhole appeared in the brickwork that glinted and sparkled, and at her right elbow one of the dancers took hold of her hand and pulled her against him into a dance.
It was not the most comfortable position to be in, but Anling wasn’t complaining, she had never felt so warm and contented before all of a sudden, as if she were right in front of a fire that toasted her from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. ”Well isn’t this just smashing,” said the man who had her in his embrace, ” aren’t you just having the most marvellous time?” ”Yes, I suppose,’ whispered Anling a little uncertainly, not sure whether she ought to speak up or not. ”I love dancing,” the man continued, ”absolutely love it, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world, wouldn’t you agree?” ”Yes, I think so,”Anling whispered again, dreamily, for she felt herself becoming rather sleepy, her eyelids drooping shut. That was when the first cry went up, and she blinked twice and opened her eyes to find thousands of little stars flittering in the air around her, spinning and twirling. It was the most wonderful thing she had ever seen, and she cried out in delight—only for her shout to turn into a howl of dismay upon finding them transforming into ugly, black beetles that whizzed about the place to sting and bite. Dancers everywhere scurried in all directions with their hands over their heads and faces to protect themselves from the stinging animals while Anling stood in the centre of it all, untouched by any of the bugs.
Feeling a little ill, Anling jumped onto the next disc and then the next, where she discovered the other women huddled in a corner as a swarm of the flying things attacked them. But if they expected them to stop doing it if they just stayed close together in a single spot, then they were sadly mistaken, very mistaken indeed, for the longer they stood there, the more the insects drove at them, until very soon not one of the women was not screaming or howling in pain and terror. ”What a lot of old nonsense this is,” said Anling to herself, and she reached out her hands and started clapping at the beetles, crushing them in mid-air as they were about to fly at the other women. Pretty soon all the bugs lay scattered at their feet, dead and wasted, with not so much as a quiver in their wings or legs. ”Well that’s that,” thought Anling and suddenly hovering by her left ear was a golden key. She took hold of it and went with it over to the keyhole in the brickwork she had spied earlier to the left of the room, and put it inside it and twisted it.
Immediately the most beautiful golden door appeared nestled amongst the bricks like a treasure casket, and with her heart in her throat and wings singing in her ears, Anling grabbed at its handle and pulling it open stepped inside. Perhaps if given the chance to do it again she would have done otherwise and walked back when she had the choice: but instead she went through the door and into the new place without a backward glance, and looking around found herself in a beautiful garden. Trees, flowers, rocks and rivers, glistening fruit hanging from boughs and lovely trellises with vines crawling all over them that seemed to twitch in time to some strange music or beat. What magnificence, what glory! How could she have ever thought entering the castle was a bad idea if her eyes could feast on this?
Well, it wasn’t to last, for in the very next moment there came rattling from the other side of the room, and this time Anling saw four enormous doors, not one, slide open in the brickwork. How strange. Why on earth were there four? Did they need that many for all of them to move through? And that was when she realised, turning back and looking around, that there were only four of the women left, including herself. Just four. How could that possibly be? Surely barely more than a few seconds ago there had been at the very least six of them, or even seven, and now there was so little. Goodness gracious me, the competition was narrowing down fast, wasn’t it? Funny how things worked like that in life; one moment you were there, the next you were not. As for what she would do next, the answer was clear of course—walk through one of the doors before any of the other ladies did.
But when she ran across the grass and came to one of the doorways she found herself unable to cross over its threshold, her body held back by an invisible barrier. Well, this was certainly peculiar, why on earth should there be something blocking the way when there were no bars or chains? In all likelihood the world was coming to an end, for all Anling knew, for she couldn’t get her mind around how exactly she would get past them. Then an idea struck her and she turned around and went over to one of the large vegetables that sat in patches of dirt on the ground at the base of one of the trees. It was a pumpkin, fat and squashy, with little tendrils running up from its head to its base, and beside it sat a watering can of pure gold she had spied earlier. She picked up the watering can, and tilted the spout towards the pumpkin, and at once the miraculous vegetable started to grow, blossoming outwards in a burst of fervor. In moments the pumpkin was as big as a carriage, sitting on the grass before her, and then it really was a carriage, fitted out with wheels and windows, seats and curtains.
How delightful, and now, what else to water, if this magical can made things grow to enormous sizes? Oh, I know, thought Anling, and she started pouring water on a beetle that was crawling over a leaf at her feet, whereupon the little creature sprouted up at once into something as large as a small dog, though much more frightful-looking, with beady little black hairs and antennae that quivered at the air like violin strings. Now if there was one thing Anling detested, it was finding out the thing you wanted the most in the world was out of reach, and so without hesitation she dragged the beetle over to the carriage by its back legs and attached it to the harness at its front. There, perfect; that made the perfect conveyance for her to travel through one of the doors. All that was left was for her to get into it.
However that proved to be no easy feat, for she soon found out the doors in the sides of the carriage did not budge if you pulled on their handles, nor did any of the curtains at the windows move when pushed at with her fingers. Now, thought Anling, what am I meant to do? Just stand here and wait for certain death? Over to her right the other women were doing the same thing, watering vegetables with other golden cans as well as insects of their own, a butterfly getting itself hitched up to an eggplant carriage, a caterpillar to a watermelon the size of a small house with stripes that ran down its sides in big, wide strokes. Interestingly enough, not one of the ladies spoke, as if what they were doing was a sacred act to which they were bound to silence; but then just like that the silence was broken by a sudden fluttering noise at the doors on the other side of the room. Butterflies, blue and wonderful, rose up in flurries and clouds of fluttering wings to the doorways and started gathering into shapes at their thresholds, and it took Anling a moment to figure out what they were making: numbers. She watched, her heart fluttering in her chest, as the number three appeared in each of them, then the number two, the butterflies fluttering and shifting as they moved into the new formation, and at last the number one, and then, with a sound like leaves falling from a tree like rain, they dissipated, and the way past them was left clear. A countdown. The race had begun.
The lady in the red dress was the first to start, and whipping the harness to make the caterpillar it was attached to start to move: and move it did, writhing its way forward over the grass and flowers, an enormous, fleshy mass that made Anling feel sick just to look at, and through the door it went, fast as lightning in the blink of an eye. The other women were not far behind, the insects of carriages scuttling or flying their way forwards too quickly for Anling to make out the occupants inside them except for a blur of reddish hair or green dress. At this rate she would be left behind, and feeling the panic start to well up inside her chest like bad blood, Anling grabbed hold of the reins of her carriage and yanked on them just a little. The effect was instantaneous; at once the beetle started scurrying forwards as if taken hold of by some kind of madness, shooting its way over the other plants and through one of the doorways into the corridor beyond.
Luckily enough the bricks were bright and sparkling, for otherwise it would have been too dark for her to make out a single thing and she wouldn’t have been able to steer straight, let alone manoeuvre around corners. Finally there appeared a bend at the end of the corridor of the door she had gone through and the backsides of the other carriages came into sight, glossy and shiny, bright and beautiful. Gritting her teeth, Anling held onto her reins tightly and silently urged in her mind for the beetle to go faster—and as if by magic, it did, surging its way forwards in an extra burst of speed that nearly took her breath away. My goodness, Anling had never been on such a wild ride in her life, and in moments she was abreast the other women: they were neck-in-neck, all four of them, with none of them looking like they would be stopping anytime soon. Pretty soon there glimmered a light at the end of the corridors far ahead of them, and with a cry of delight, Anling shot into it first, out onto a bridge thin as path just wide enough for one carriage to pass over at a time. To either side of her roared waterfalls that crashed down from stone aqueducts that were shaped like arches, and before long another doorway appeared at the end of the bridge towards which she was hurtling. Marvelous, magnificent, brilliant and exhilirating: it was like nothing Anling had ever done or seen before. But her momentary joy was broken when there came a sudden jolt to her carriage at its left wheel, and turning her head around she found herself looking at the head of the caterpillar, green and monstrous, nosing its head at the spokes of her left wheel. Now that’s enough of that, thought Anling; and with a cry that tore out of her throat she wrenched the reins in her hands to the left so that her back wheels hit the caterpillar right in the face and sent it hurtling off the bridge and down into the waters below, the carriage with it.
Mermaids seemed to scream in a long, high ululation as the carriage went tumbling into the rushing depths of the waves, and onwards Anling went, straight through the doorway at the end of the bridge into a beautiful room filled with dresses. Yes, it was literally full to the brim with gowns of all different shades and colours, blue and green, red and yellow, pink and fuchsia, purple and turquoise, all of them floating in the air close to the high ceiling, while on the ground more dresses were being made, twisting this way and that in mid-air as if invisible women were dancing inside of them. Spools of thread and needles, scissors and tape, twirled around them, tucking in a hem there, pulling in a sleeve here, yanking a frilled collar a little more tightly there. If there ever was a time when Anling wished she could not be in the castle, this was it, because she had never seen anything so eerie before in her life; just the sight of it all made tingles and tickles run up and down her back and arms.
Very soon there was another rattling of wheels behind her, and beautiful sounds of running water filled her ears as a golden spout suddenly appeared in the brickwork beside her head and a golden bucket on the ground beneath it. What was it for? Intrigued, Anling brought herself closer to it and watched, open-mouth, as the most glorious splash of rainbow-coloured paint came pouring out of the tap and into the bucket in a gush of vividly-coloured spray. On instinct Anling picked up the sloshing bucket by its handle and carried it over to where the dresses twisted and turned about like pretty, invisible women, their sleeves trailing the floor in long, beautiful sweeps of frills and dark lace. On arriving at one of the dresses, a bit of ribbon curled out from its waist and dipped itself like an eager snake into it, coming out black instead of blue, before proceeding to slither through the air back over to the red dress and twist itself neatly into a bow around its waist.
Whether or not that was the point didn’t matter; evidently she was meant to go around with this bucket to each of the dresses and find a way to paint each and everyone of them. Perhaps it was the task she was meant to do in this room. Over she went to the next dress, a blue one with lace trim, and before her very eyes its sleeves shot out and into the bucket, splashing some of its contents onto her. Anling cried out as her skin started tingling as if worms crawled beneath it, and in moments the shade of her skin had transformed from a pale brown to a deep indigo at her elbows and wrists. In the next moment, a blizzard of scissors shot out at her like a flock of silver birds, their legs snapping open and shut. Anling screamed and ducked, dropping the bucket in the process so that its contents flung themselves over the floor in a puddle of bright, multi-coloured paint that started seeping into the stonework at once, turning the bricks into all sorts of funny colours, red and greens, purple and oranges, pinks and reds, oranges and blues. However it wasn’t long before another one of them came flying at her again and this time she was not ready for it and there came an almighty crash as several of the buckets that had been floating near the ceiling dropped into the room as well, sending their contents splattering onto the surfaces of the walls and the floor so that wherever she turned or stepped there was some magic paint for her slippers to soak into.
Could this possibly be true? How on earth was this mayhem supposed to make any sense, what wizardry was this? Going backwards was not an option, and afraid and panting, Anling dashed for the door at the other end of the room, so that in mere seconds she was at its threshold and desperately yanking and pulling at its door handle and escape from this horrid, nasty room for good and get leave of this place forever. Just then, two shrill notes pierced the air and a flock of tiny needles jumped against her arms and legs, sticking into her skin like the needles of a porcupine. What pain, agony, blinding—screaming, she turned from the door and tried to get rid of them, hands batting at the places where the needles had gone in and floundering about like a mad woman. If ever there was a time for her to get out of this place, this was it, but she was trapped, stuck, no place to go, just herself and the dresses, and the other women nowhere to be seen. Sitting there in the puddle of paint that had spilled onto the floor at her feet she tried to get her bearings again and return to the world she had felt comfortable in; but she couldn’t and she knew that, deep inside her soul, she would see this through to the end: and with that realisation Anling stood back up and grabbed one of the scissors out of the air when it whizzed at her and, wielding it like a knife, batted the scissors that flew at her next, the sounds of them hitting against each other similar to the tinkling noises of cutlery dropped onto hard floor.
For a second there she thought it was all over; but that, in fact, was not the case: a moment later, the shrillest note yet went through the air and all of a sudden beautiful flowers started sprouting from the ground at her feet in a riot of ecstasy out of the paint that had dropped. Before anything else could happen, Anling stumbled to door and wished she could find a way for her own life to never truly contain terrors such as these ever again for as long as she lived, but still the door would not open. She grew frantic and tried pulling as hard as she could, tugging and yanking and screaming, but it wouldn’t move, not even a little bit. “Help! I need somebody to help me!” “We’re here! We’ll help you!” Out of the carriages at the other side of the room two women hurtled out of it and rushed over to help her pull at the chains. With a creak and groan the door slid open, and with the way through clear and unbarred, they went out of the room into the next. Nothing very much interesting was on the other side of the doorway, just blackness, a pitch-darkness that seemed heavy and deep enough to swallow her right up like the mouth of a whale, and Anling couldn’t help but feel as if she felt as if she couldn’t stand to be inside this castle for another moment longer when the lights blinked on. The world brightened, and finally Anling was able to look around and see where they were. It was a nursery, by the looks of it, neat and tidy, little bed in the corner and lots of little toys, teddy bears and skipping ropes, dolls and blocks, piled up in the corner by the bedside table. Dangling from the ceiling was a little chandelier in the shape of a spider, its little crystal droplets tinkling on its golden, curved legs.
“Ah-ha! I was waiting for you to come see me,” and Anling jumped, as from a box on the bed painted purple and yellow a Jack-In-The-Box leaped out into the air, waving its arms around with a silly, red grin on its face, the bells on the ends of its hat jingling and tingling. “Lookeee! Whoopee! Here we go again! More little girls to play with! What shall we play, what shall we play, what shall we play, what shall we play, oh what shall we play? I want to eat all of you up for breakfast, lunch and dinner, tasty, yummy, yummy, yummmyyy!” Grotesque, thought Anling, but there was something tragic about it; and instinctively she knew that the key to getting out of this room lay within the box itself, the very one the nasty thing bounced up and down out of.
“No, I don’t want to play,” and the lady of the dark skin and purple dress turned to go. Her feet hadn’t taken a step when a shout growled through the room and the Jack-In-The-Box in one enormous bound jumped out of the box, across the room and at the woman. It was all over in a matter of moments: after the thing had finished with her there was nothing left of her except some tatters of violet fabric and bloodstains. “Oh my God!” The other woman covered her face with her hands and started to sob. “This is too much, too much!” She shook her head furiously. “I want to leave!” “But you can’t.” The Jack-In-The-Box smiled at her, bouncing up and down from its little perch on the bed again, happy as could be, the bloodstains around its mouth difficult to discern from the lipstick it had smeared across it. “You’re never leaving this place ever again. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, everrrrr!” Instinctively Anling realised the thing was preparing to jump once more: and with a shout she leaped for it first, knocking it to the ground. They tussled, wrestling over the floor over and under each other: and the thing bit her twice on the cheek and neck. She bit back, hard and ferocious, right onto its face; the shrill sharp note pierced the air that she had heard in the room with the dresses and before her eyes the Jack-In-The-Box died, melting down the way butter will do if it is left out for too long in the sun, oozing in a dark puddle down the sides of the box with the tiniest “yipppeee…” “Okay, that’s enough, let’s get out of here, alright? Let’s go.” Over to the right wall of the room the door started to open by itself, and Anling ran through it at the heels of the other woman, into whatever little, horrible room awaited them next.
It was quiet. Too quiet. None of the other rooms had been this silent before, not even the one with the plants. Heaving and out of breath, Anling tried to take in her surroundings but found herself unable to breathe or focus properly long enough to see anything about her. But exactly where was she? Hard to say, for this room was almost as dark as the one they had just left had been before the lights came on. Just how were they to attack whatever would come at them next in this room if they couldn’t even see anything? Gosh, the wait was getting tedious. On her head she suddenly felt a peculiar tickling sensation; and before her eyes beautiful emeralds shivered through the air in front of her face, swirling after another in the shapes of stars, triangles, umbrellas and story books. Beautiful—but what were they for? She didn’t know. Didn’t have a clue. All answers spurted into life soon afterwards when the lights finally came on and Anling could get a good look at where exactly they were. It was a room, but unlike any of the rooms they had seen before. For one thing it was far larger, a cavern of a place, and for another, the brickwork was green, not black or white; and what was more, interestingly enough, indigo butterflies pirouetted in the air, their little bodies wearing little heads with human faces, noses and cheeks.
Underneath them the brickwork started to tremble and shake and then shift apart into different parts like the sections of a strange and elaborate cake or pie. Knowing the earth might swallow the two of them at any second, Anling and the other woman moved towards each other, onto the biggest of the parts—and just in time too, for at that same instant where they had stood the ground split open into the darkest of chasms. “Yes, this is it! The last room! Going to make it, I am!” No, thought Anling, thinking of her dead daughter, you’re not. I am. Moving closer to the lip of the rock they stood upon, she stared over the edge into blackness—no, not that, it wasn’t that, there was something there, if she could just make it out—-up through the gloom the head of an enormous beast thrust itself, its mouth open wide and roaring, drool spilling out from between its lips in thick sprays. Ugly, emerald, eyeless, like the head of a collosal worm, it threw itself at the edifice she and the princess were standing on, causing it to shudder and shake.
Other things were starting to appear in the room, slowly but surely, before their very eyes: obstacle courses, reaching from the top of one edifice to the next, arranged neatly as furniture in the bedroom of a beloved child. “Hallelujah! I’m so close! I’m almost there!” Eager to be the first to get started, the other woman sprinted for the first of them, at the edge of the edifice they were standing upon, an obstacle course constructed entirely of pink ropes, stretchy and pink, little hummingbird’s bright as gold fluttering all about around it. Screwing her face up tight the other woman started to climb onto it, grabbing the ropes for support; but she hadn’t gotten halfway over it when the first of the birds darted out and pecked at the pink rope, snipping it. If she hadn’t been holding onto one of the ropes so tightly using the fingers of her left hand doubtless she might’ve hurtled into the abyss. But she didn’t, instead the woman went on climbing, her golden dress twisting about her legs, and even though more of the hummingbirds darted out and pecked at the strings, severing them, they didn’t deter her and she managed to arrive at the edifice at the other end of the obstacle course in record time.
“If you just could’ve seen for a second the truth that lay behind this door you might have tried a little harder,” the other woman yelled out over from the edifice she stood on. “What do you mean?” Anling didn’t understand what in the world the woman was talking about. The woman grinned, and somehow her smile was even nastier than that of the mouse’s or the Jack-In-the-Box’s. “You know what I mean. The bag of gold all the peasants want.” “What?” “You can’t even move from where you are standing, can you?” It was true; she had been trying frantically to take a step for the last few seconds, but could not move an inch from where she was standing. What in the world was going on? How could this be possible? “It’s magic, in case you were wondering.” The other woman was climbing onto the next obstacle course, a beautiful swing that carried her up and into the air like a kite each time she swung on it so that her hair flew back and her dress billowed about like a sail. “What do you mean?” “I mean, that this was the way things were meant to be. The way I planned it, all along.” On she went, swinging higher, until, at the highest point of the swing, she let go and flew through the air and landed in a cat’s crouch on the next edifice. “You’re doing this? How?” “Yes, I’ve got a little magic up my sleeve, so what? That’s the name of the game, don’t you see? We’re all here to get the best for ourselves and I was just brave enough to take it.” She was clambering onto the next one now, fast and sure, a series of ladders that ran up against each other in the shape of beautiful hexagons and triangles. “You don’t really believe there is a bag of gold at the end of an enchanted place like this, do you? Because I don’t. Nasty lot of blabber. Way I see it, that’s how things are meant to be. I am the princess of this land, after all, and if there’s anyone who deserves to have any wish she desires granted, it’s me.” Definitely there was a faint mist in the air around them, growing stronger with every passing minute, and Anling couldn’t believe her eyes as the years started to fly off the woman—no, the princess—-like the peeling layers of an onion. It was incredible: she was literally shrinking before her very eyes into that of a child’s body even as she climbed up and down the ladders. Just what exactly was going? Too late the princess seemed to realise what was happening, because the years did not come back no matter how much she climbed or clambered and it was as if they had never been. Now she would forever stay a little child, too afraid to move a single step further. Gosh, thought Anling, and to her surprise she discovered that her feet were no longer stuck on the floor anymore; in fact, they were free to move as she pleased in every and any direction she desired.
But she didn’t move at a first, only stared, flabbergasted, as the little girl who had moments ago been the beautiful tall princess climb up the ladder swift as a little monkey in an attempt to get to the other edifice before anything untoward happened—but she was too late, for at that very moment, all the ladders around her let out a nasty squeak, and without further ado disintegrated into the abyss, taking the princess along with it. It was a long drop, and the princess had a loud and powerful voice, so her scream echoed in Anling’s head for a long while after it had disappeared from the air. There was no time to waste, however, and she started clambering up onto the first of the obstacle courses, which had transformed into a row of bridges tied together by pretty pink bows that made them shift and bob about in the air each time Anling stepped from one to the next.
When she reached the next edifice, she discovered that the obstacle course had been replaced by the tiniest little chicken flapping about in the air who had to be fed lots of seeds that floated around it before it could fly over and carry Anling to the next edifice, where she faced down the monster itself, lunging and leaping up from the abyss as it tried to eat her. All she had to defend herself was a sword that sat on the edifice at her feet and she picked it up and defended herself as valiantly as her entire heart and soul could, finally piercing the creature right in the eye and sending it tumbling into pitch-blackness. Now there was nothing left to do but wait, for no further obstacle courses were left for her to climb onto or cross, just the empty air, the sound of her own breathing, and an acrid smell, like apples that had been left out in the sun for too long and gone black and rotten.
“Hello? Is there anybody there?” No response. Well this was a pretty little piece of work indeed, wasn’t it, to have come all this way and bested all the other women, only to end up at nowhere at all, and Anling was just starting to consider turning around and going back the way she had just come when a loud voice boomed through the silence. “Stop right there.” Anling stopped. “What do you want?” “What?” “What do you want?” “What do you mean?” “I mean exactly what I say, what is it that you want?” What she wanted, more than anything else in the world? To feed her family. And to be loved, Anling supposed, wasn’t that what everyone desired? To be held close and treasured, sacred and divine. But that wasn’t going to happen, was it? No, no-one ever loved her the way they loved other people, it just wasn’t the way things worked. Possibly she knew that there was someone out there who would understand her, but that person wasn’t whoever was talking to her right now. In the deepest, darkest recesses of Anling’s mind there sat the secret wish that one day, if she tried hard enough, worked long enough, someone out there would keep her. Not leave her, as people in her life had done, someone, anyone. Someone other than her family, who she treasured but whom did not understand who she was. But it wasn’t meant to be, that was what she had learned over the years, it wasn’t the way things turned out, not in this world, and likely she would forever be doomed to misery and loneliness.
“No, that is not true.” “What do you mean?” “That is not true.” In that moment, it didn’t matter to Anling who the voice really was, just that it was talking and comforting in a way she had never felt so comfortable about talking to anyone else before. “I love you.” “You do?” “Yes.” “Why?” “Because whatever you believe about yourself is whatever will come true. By believing yourself to be unloveable, you make yourself unloveable. You are the source of your own pain and despair. Everyone is. Do you not see? We’re all perfect, just the way we are, but somehow somewhere along the way we forget that. And in order to return to that state of divine perfection, we must listen to our hearts.” It didn’t really make sense, what he was saying, yet something in his words comforted Anling. “So what do I do now?” “You must prepare yourself. There are great trials ahead of you. The land and the country are in tumoil, and need your salvation. But I will be there for you every step of the way. Do you understand? All you must do is follow what I command you to do.”
The voice stopped then, as if it had never been there at all, and Anling, upon staring around, saw that there now hovered in the air in front of her the most beautiful sceptre, carved of gold and decorated with pearls, and a golden crown. She reached out and grabbed hold of them both, and the objects came away from the air and into her hands, where they sat, heavy and frightening, for they were royal objects, belonging to the king and queen. It wasn’t a bag of gold, that was certain, but it was something better, that would not only save her family but other people who had suffered under the weight of their chains. No matter what happened next, there was no turning back, or choosing a different path; this was her destiny, whether she liked it or not, and she would see it through to the end, just as she had moved through the rooms of this castle. With that, she leaped up onto an edifice that had appeared in the air to the left, through a doorway and into the lands beyond, her hair flying out behind her in the wind and a melody inside her heart that no man or woman alive could stop from playing.