Scissors & Thorns
My brother died when he was twelve, alone and smothered by an endless curling of thorns. His name was Brody, tiny for his age, and the other kids picked on him because he smuggled comic books to school. He even read them at dinner when Grans served us carrot and lentil stew, rubbing soup spots off the pages with his thumb. “I want to be just him,” Brody had said, showing me his favorite hero adorned in silver armor. “I’m going to be a knight.”
“When you’re older,” I said, shaking my head. The soup that night tasted sour.
Brody had been fascinated by the tourist trap that made our town famous. While other places boasted of pincushion museums and industrial parks, we had what we called the Sleeping Princess Pavilion. Her name was lost to time, but everyone knew the legend: the princess cut her finger on the edge of an axe when she was sixteen, lingering too long by herself in the weapons pavilion just stone’s throw from the castle. Thorns sprouted like a nest of snakes, enveloping the once-grand pavilion into what looked like a knot of hair large enough to have belonged to a giant. This had been the working of a spell, though the clumsy fairy who cast it had forgotten to make the rest of the town fall asleep. The princess’s parents lived on and died, years passed, and the castle became our government building.
Brave men tried to break the spell on the princess, traveling by horse, train, and bicycle to take the chance to wake this beauty. No one had succeeded. True love was the key to making the thorns part like the sea – it was the ticket that allowed you safe entry into the pavilion. But if you weren’t her true love, just trying got you killed. And it wasn’t quick.
Death came through strangulation, starvation, or bleeding. The thorns, shaped like the maw of a great beast, sucked men inside. Their cries had filled the air with the melodic sounds of the crickets many a night, softer and softer until their breaths finally leave them.
I wondered if there really was a snoring princess to be found inside the walls of thorns, drool on her lip and her forehead covered in a cobweb veil. But in the end, you couldn’t help but believe. Real thorns didn’t slither and hiss.
Brody and I had walked past the pavilion almost every day; it was impossible to avoid, seeing how everything was built around it. I kept him on the outside and held his hand.
“She must be so tired of sleeping,” Brody had said, squinting through the thorns like he could see inside. “One day, I’m going to be the one who wakes her up.”
I remember squeezing his hand tightly then, catching my breath. “Don’t you dare try,” I said. “Only an idiot would try.”
“Trying to rescue someone isn’t idiotic.”
“It is when you can die.”
Brody frowned at me, disappointment filling his big brown eyes. “I’m not a coward like you, Ruth. I wouldn’t hesitate to help someone.”
The words had cut me, but I tried not to let him see it. I pulled on Brody’s hand, tugging him away from the thorny pavilion. It wasn’t about helping someone or not, I thought angrily. I just didn’t want my little brother to die for a myth. A spell as silvery cold as the moon’s light.
We spent the evening in sullen silence, sipping soup from our bowls while Grans chattered about her stitchery. Brody hid behind his comic books; I saw him read them as carefully as a manual, soaking up the knight’s sword-strokes, panting of the war horses, and the gentle sighs of the maidens sketched at the tops of towers.
“When you’re older,” I told him, tucking him into bed. The sheets were thick under my hands, patterned with castles and clouds. “When you’re older, you can try.”
Brody turned his cheek and whispered goodnight.
I remember feeling relieved that night, thinking that I wouldn’t have to worry about him for a few more years. The Sleeping Princess had been sixteen when she sliced her finger. Brody would have to be that old at least to have a chance. After all, this was about romance.
But I had been wrong. Maybe Brody just wanted to be a hero. He was too young to see princesses as breathing, blushing girls to give flowers to or kiss in hidden corners.
He just wanted to be a hero.
So he woke up in the middle of the night while Grans and I were asleep. He put on his plastic armor, grabbed his wooden sword, and tucked his favorite comic book under his arm. Brody approached the pavilion, I imagine, without fear. He plunged straight in – so deep that it only took ‘till morning for him bleed to death.
We found his armor, mangled like teeth had gotten to it, on the grass the next morning. The sword stuck out of the thorny clump like a grave marker. I guess the thorns let Brody keep his comic book for company. One day, when True Love arrives, perhaps we’ll find the yellowed pages with his bones.
Five years have passed since Brody’s death, but the sword still stands where the thorns hold it.
“There’s a man caught in the thorns,” the librarian says, stopping me in the middle of the path. She holds two non-fiction books in her arms like swaddled babies. Her smirk, along with the glint in her eye, is enough to tell me that she had already been to the pavilion that morning.
I shrug, even though my stomach rolls with the news. There hadn’t been someone stupid enough to try in a few months.
“He’s still alive,” she adds.
I thank her for the details and push past her, almost turning my ankle on the uneven sidewalk. My basket is weighed down by quilts, heavy like iron on my arm as I make my way to center of town. With five households to deliver to before noon, I know I have to move fast to meet that deadline.
After Brody’s death, Grans had started taking her sewing skills seriously. She turned our house into a sewing shop, taking orders for all kinds of clothing and crafts. I work with her, delivering, mostly, because I hadn’t inherited her talent. I can cut, though. Fabric, thread, paper. Grans gives me piles of patterns to cut up, claiming that her hands shake too much to cut straight. I’m happy to oblige, working at the sewing table while she laughs with her customers. The snip snip snip of the scissor relaxes me. When I’m working, I forget about Brody and the other unfortunate boys.
Walking past the library, I spot the pavilion and a crowd gathering around it. People are pointing and laughing at the dying man in the thorns. My cheeks burn with shame. I wish I didn’t have to see this.
“Let me out,” the man says. His voice is hoarse, but strong. He won’t die quickly.
The crowd laughs, pitiful sounds.
“If we could, we would,” someone says. “It’s impossible.”
Someone from the crowd steps forward to tell the poor man a sliver of our history. She raises her voice to that everyone can hear her; she drowns out the aching sobs that fill the man’s throat. Many men came alone to try and break the spell. But some weren’t as brave and took their friends, soldiers, and business partners with them to watch. As each man fell, grabbed by the ankles and ears by the hissing thorns, the other tried to help. Of course they did. They slammed axes into the thicket. Swords broke on the thorns – whether made of plastic or iron. Flames ricocheted. Plant-killer spray ended up poisoning those who breathed it.
The crowd settles as the woman finishes by saying, “Whoever wields a weapon at the thorns will, in the end, be swallowed too.”
Many a family member, seething with rage, had been lost this way. Grans had kept watch over me for two weeks, making sure I didn’t steal her knitting needles to attack the thorns with. I had been tempted.
“But there’s got to be a way,” the man says. “Please, I can’t die here.”
The crowd bubbles with laughter again. They disperse without a second glance, wishing him a swift death in pleasant tones.
I think of my brother again, how he must have yearned for company while he died, and I can’t turn away from this man. My feet take me closer. The thorns are sliding all over him, nicking his tanned skin. He looks to be in his twenties, like me, even though he’s partially obscured within the tangle of thorns. I can see the curve of his chapped lips, the freckles on his broad nose, and his hand, outstretched, almost breaking the surface of the thorny prison.
“Please,” he whispers, licking his lips.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“My name is Roan,” he says. His fingers twitch, as if he wants to reach for me, to keep me with him. “I was just passing through to get to the ocean. I heard that the herring on this side of the world gather in droves near the shoreline.”
Leaning closer, I notice that he’s wearing nylon suspenders. He smells of cypress and sweat. “Where are your fishing traps?”
“Somewhere in here, but I can’t see where. It hurts to turn my head.” Roan demonstrates by looking to his left and cuts open his cheek on a waiting thorn. His hair turns a darker shade of red where the blood pools.
I want to feel sorry for him. I’m almost there, because his voice sounds like the ebbing of waves and he’s trying not to cry. But then I have to ask the prickling question. “Why did you think you could save the princess?”
Roan blinks. “I don’t know anything about her.”
“I tripped over my traps,” he explained, turning red. “I wasn’t paying attention and caught my boot on the wire.”
There’s never been an accident. Any young men foolish enough to approach the pavilion have been well aware of the risk; out town is famous for the Sleeping Beauty, and the pavilion is practically a historical landmark. But anyone living in town stayed clear of it. The less attention we give it, the easier it is to forget. That’s why the mayor issued no guards, or fences, or even a sign to label it. The thorns continue to slither and hiss, hunger for the Wrong Men who think they are True Love, and we keep our heads down and forget the skeletons within.
I try to imagine how it had happened to Roan. It’s hard to picture because I can’t see all of him between the thorns, but I’m sure the fishing traps had caused the trouble. When he tripped over them, his feet tilted the wrong way. He had teetered right into the deadly arms of the pavilion. An innocent this time. Perhaps even more innocent than Brody.
Pushing the quilts aside, I rummage through the basket until I find an old chocolate bar. It’s slightly melted, collapsing between the pressures of my fingers, but I had kept it there in case I had ever gotten hungry while delivering. Grans would be pissed if she knew I mixed chocolate with the quilts, but I’m always careful to make sure my snacks are sealed.
“You can move your hand, right? Please take it,” I say. I tear the wrapper and place in his outstretched hand.
Roan swallows thickly as he stares at the chocolate bar. As he carefully reins his hands in, he narrowly avoids the thorns. The chocolate stains his lower lip, and I notice that he’s trying to eat it slowly. Like he knows it’s his last meal. “Thank you,” he says.
“I’ll bring you something more substantial for dinner.”
He sucks in his breath.
I’m being stupid, I know it. If anyone else had stuck around, had heard me make such a promise, they would have dragged me away. It’s futile, they’d say, shooting me worried looks. Don’t try to save something that’s meant to die.
“I can’t save you,” I tell him. “But I’ll keep bringing you food. Just, in return, tell me stories.”
His eyes widen. “About what?”
“You,” I say. “So I can remember who you are before you’re gone.”
Roan tells me that he grew up in a city with dirty streets and a skyline smothering with smog. He escaped by riding his bike to the ocean, where he wandered up and down the shoreline. At first, he dug up lost pails and children’s toys. Then he moved on to burying the dried husks of sea creatures in the sand dunes. He says that the water was always grey; he sat in the sand and let the waves rush over his thighs and soak his shirt. Roan went home with gritty jeans and sand between his teeth.
“I dropped out of college and decided to become a fisherman. But not in that water. Only boots and soda cans got caught in the nets,” he says.
As he talks, I feed him. Energy bars for breakfast, halves of sandwiches for lunch. I slip him slices of apple, greasy potato chips, sticky raisins. And a lot of water. I hadn’t been sure what Grans would think of me helping Roan, so I tried to be careful about sneaking the extra food out. I saved scraps from our meals to give to him, wrapping pieces of bread, bits of meat, and cold vegetables in my napkins. Doing this had reminded me of when Brody and I briefly had a pet; we fed a stray white cat for about three weeks like I was doing with the napkins, until Grans found out and scared the cat away with her broom.
Despite my efforts to feed Roan, the thorns seem to be catching on. Each day I arrive at the pavilion, I notice that Roan has sunken a little deeper into the thicket. Like quicksand. If he’s noticed, Roan hasn’t mentioned it.
“One more bite,” I say, balancing the last piece of ham sandwich on my fingers. I stand on my toes so that I can slip my hand in gap in the thorns.
Today, Roan’s hands are tied down by the thorns as they swirl around his wrists like snakes. They cut his skin when he leans forward to snatch the bit of sandwich with his mouth. His paper-dry lips brush my skin.
I blush at the contact and wonder why his touch matters so much. Despite feeding him, he’s losing blood at a steady rate and he hasn’t been able to move much for about two weeks. Roan’s life is leaving him, drop by drop, as the blood pools at his feet. I imagine the skeletons buried in the thicket. Their unhinged jaws letting loose endless cries. Roan will become one of them and I can’t do anything about it.
“What are you thinking?” he asks.
I shake my head.
Roan sighs, a weak little puff of air, and the way he looks at me makes me think he’s been waiting to say something to me, these words that will come from his mouth. “It’s only a matter of time, isn’t it? This is my grave.”
I want to deny it. I wish I could.
“You’ve been kind to me and you’re so brave, watching me like this. But it must be hurting you terribly. If you stop coming, I think it may be better for the both of us. It’ll be faster this way.”
Flinching at his words, I reach my hand in to touch the bridge of his nose, thick with sweat and grime. It’s the only part of him I can touch without tipping into the thorns myself. I feel his nose bump against mine and then the flutter of his eyelashes against my fingers.
“Go,” Roan says, voice shaking. “Just go.”
I run home with trembling legs. The grass underfoot makes a squelching sound and the sky burns with midday light. I walk through the playground, getting woodchips caught in my shoes, and the laughter of the children on the swings sounds unreal. I want to ask them why they are laughing, mouths open with baby teeth and candy-dyed tongues.
How can they smile and giggle and play when Roan is dying?
It has been a while since anyone has openly complained about the pavilion. There used to be weekly meetings at the pub were outraged people gathered and hashed their feelings out over beer, salsa, and hot pretzels. I had gone to some of the meetings after Brody died, dipping chips in the spicy salsa and nodding vigorously when someone talked about how unfair all these deaths were, how the boys were innocent and underserving, and that the Princess’s curse was a curse on the town as well. The more cynical members believed that True Love couldn’t exist in such a state. Most of the time, I concentrated on the salsa and nodded. As I dunked my chips, I had thought, time and again, how the salsa reminded me of blood: the same color of the Princess’s kissable lips, dyed that way from the deaths surrounding her.
As I pick woodchips out of my shoes, three little girls with braided hair climb the stairs to the slide. They sing a haunting song, one that I remember learning when I was a girl. Brody used to sing it whenever we talked about the Sleeping Princess, his voice cracking on the words:
Sleeping Princess, will you wake
If I hold my sword high,
If I purse my lips?
Have you caught a fly in your mouth
While dreaming the days away?
How long your nails must be, how sprawling your hair
Like a cape of tangles
Shall we measure your years by the length your hair?
No grey will we find, even with a scissor’s blade,
Always beauty, always grace
Surrounded by weapons and thorns that race
Through your sleeping place,
Keeping you safe.
Oh princess, will you ever wake?
The girls finish with a fit of giggles, sliding down the metal ramp one after the other and tumbling into the woodchips. I watch them with unsteady eyes, thinking about the song. “Do you think,” I blurt, “do you think that the Princess’s hair is really that long?”
They stop to look at me. One girl grins wide enough to show off her missing baby teeth. “Of course,” she says, “It must be out of control!”
Out of control. Just the thought of all that hair tangled and knotted like weeds makes something inside me shiver with recognition. Where would all that hair go after tumbling down her shoulders, over her ankles, out the door of the pavilion? Her hair could have been part of the spell.
Her hair could be the thorns.
Grans has a drawer full of scissors. As soon as I get home, I head straight to her sewing table and sift through the drawer. The scissors come in various colors, some with handles made of transparent plastic and others with blades dull enough for children to use. Most of them can’t cut anything except thread, or maybe paper if you don’t mind the blade losing its edge. The chances of any of these scissors cutting hair – or thorns – are slim.
I find a rather large scissor in the back of the drawer; the blades are sticky, probably from glue, but it looks like a powerful one. If its blades were muscles, this scissor would be the strongman.
My feet can’t carry me fast enough to the pavilion. The sky turns grey and thick with humidity, as if the clouds have all gathered to watch with big frowns etched into their fluff. I bump into a teacher, his arms full of handwritten essays, and he yells at me. When I raise the scissor, he backs off. I feel like Brody must have, wielding a weapon. There’s power in that.
The pavilion is swarming with thorns when I get there, the tendrils slithering against each other like an angry nest of snakes. I can see my brother’s sword still stuck at the top like a hairpin, though it shivers with the constant movement of the thorns. It’s like a forest, I think, as I approach. The scissor is cold and clumsy in my hand.
“Ruth, is that you?” Roan says, his voice muffled from somewhere inside.
I rush to the edge where I had been meeting him for the past two weeks, but I can’t see Roan at all. There’s a wall of thorns where he used to be. “Are you okay?” I ask.
“It’s getting worse.”
“What does that mean?”
Roan’s voice is hollow. “Don’t stay here. Please. Just let it be quick for both of us.”
I want to show him my weapon to prove to him that what I’m about to do will take the hollow right out of his voice, but he can’t see me either. It’s nerve-wracking. I don’t know how much more he’s bled. Townspeople start to gather around me. I hear their breathing and a steady murmur as they watch for my next move. I wonder if the librarian is there, with her hungry smile, waiting to see me swallowed up like the previous young men, like the grieving family members. Thankfully, no one tries to stop me.
“Hang on,” I tell him. “I’ll be right there to get you.”
Before he can respond, I raise the scissor and open the blades as wide as they will go, choosing the thread of thorns slithering right in front of my nose. The thorns twist between the blades, as if goading me to make the first snip.
My heart thumps as I squeeze the handle. These are not hair clippers. These blades are only meant to slice through fabric. But wishful thinking, perhaps, makes them capable in my shaking hands. “Stay still, Princess,” I whisper. “I’m going to give you a trim.”
When I cut through the first piece of thorny bramble, it sounds like bones splitting. The townspeople shudder and clap their hands to their ears as a screech erupts. Sounds like a radio dashed to pieces. The other thorns dance away from my scissors, but I step forward and snip wherever I can. With each cut, the scissors transform; the handle becomes quartz, the blades are dangerously saw-toothed.
As the thorns fall, they turn into pieces of honey-blond hair.
The path I make into the thicket is messy, with jagged twists surrounded by thorns that try to break my skin as I pass through. My shoes are covered in hair and I try not to slip on it. Another snip and I can see Roan’s blue eyes through the thick wall of thorns concealing him.
“Are you really there?” he whispers.
I nod and smile.
This time, the thorns put up a fight as I attempt to free Roan. They nip at my calves as I cut tiny holes in the wall. Blood trickles down my legs. My socks are stained red. Roan’s fingers dig through the holes I made and he pulls at them, making them wider as his hands leak blood. I stumble on something. When I look down, it’s a ribcage. I suck in my breath. I had forgotten about the bones. The ribcage is too big to have been Brody’s.
“Just one more tug,” Roan says.
I angle the scissor so that it’s facing the ground, a mouthful of thorns in its mouth, and Roan and I move at the same time. Snip Snip Tug. The walls come down that separates us. Hair floats in the air like seed spores.
“That’s it,” I say, brushing strands of hair out of my eyes. “We did it.”
Suddenly I feel Roan’s arms around me. I smell the lingering saltiness of the sea on his skin. My hands are snug between us, the scissor closed and pressed against Roan’s heart. He kisses my cheek, then my lips. I taste blood, but it’s not as strong a sensation as the gentleness of his mouth.
We pull back and the scissor catches the weak light streaming through the clouds. It seems to glow and is warm in my hands.
“Follow the path back out,” I say. “I’m sure that once they see you, you’ll get some help.” I know he needs it; Roan’s skin seems to be covered in nicks and cuts, even deep gashes that have left river-marks of blood down the side of his face on his right arm. He’s terribly thin, even though I had been feeding him. I don’t know how long he’ll last if he keeps standing here with me.
But Roan seems to know that I won’t be following him out. He squeezes my hand. “You’re going to keep going, aren’t you?”
Just over his shoulder, I can see the wall of the pavilion. Maybe I’m even close enough to grab Brody’s sword. “I’m still alive,” I say, smiling. “It’s as good a reason as any to find out the truth about the Sleeping Princess.”
Roan nods. His eyes beg a promise from me, that he’ll be expecting me outside the thorns.
“I want to see that ocean,” I say, managing a grin. I lift my scissors in a salute and wait until I’m sure he’s on the right path back before turning my attention back to the thorns. The answering smile he gave me warms my cheeks.
A mess of curling thorns hisses and spits at me, a last defense right outside the pavilion walls. I wonder how dusty and rusted the weapons inside are and if the princess is sleeping on a bed or the cold ground. “Let’s see what kind of princess is here,” I whisper. “Let’s see who she is, this killer of young men, or if she’s a princess at all.”
Kimberly Karalius is an MFA student at the University of South Florida. Her work has been published in journals such as The Medulla Review, Cygnus, Hogglepot, and Pure Francis. Even though she’s old enough to be considered an adult, she still watches cartoons.