When it began properly I cannot say. It is only within my power to tell you what I myself observed. After my thirteenth nameday I was moved from the royal creche to the grand chambers which my seven elder sisters already shared. On the first full moon of my stay I woke to see my sisters dressing as if for a great affair.
“Go back to sleep,” Juliette told me. I wanted to protest, but I had found myself drowsier than I had ever been in my life. Before I sank back into unconsciousness there came the sound of a creak, a scrape, and the pattering of heeled shoes on stone.
A month passed and nothing out of the ordinary happened. I was nearly convinced I had dreamt the entire incident. Until it was the full moon again. Feeling ill at ease I merely drank half my posset. My eyes closed, but I was still aware of what went on around me. My sisters whispered to each other and around the midnight hour they quietly rose and dressed in ballgowns.
As much as I was jealous and wished to be included I feared any inquiry would simply halt their preparations and I would be more overtly snubbed. As one in the middle of a dozen sisters one tries not to be ‘frozen out.’ For the eldest is always the de facto leader and the youngest is the fawned over baby so the rest of us must make do.
“Are you sure Gussie is asleep?” Maia asked suddenly. “It would be dreadful if she woke up and ruined our fun.”
As if I had ever ruined anyone’s fun! I was never as solemn as Valentina or as anxious as Marcia or as fastidious as Juno was wont to be.
Thus you can see I was trapped into being deceitful. I had to lay upon my bed and feign sleep lest my sisters believe I would ruin their revelry. They braided and curled their hair and swapped jewelry with gay abandon. At the time I did not see why they could not have included me. I had just as many frocks and pretty jewels as my sisters even though I was the youngest of them out of the creche.
“And now sisters, we must set off,” Johanna announced as the clock struck the midnight hour. She knocked a funny little rhythm and thereupon came again the creak, the scrape, and the sound of my sisters’ dancing shoes upon stone.
When I cracked my eyes open I saw that the footboard of Johanna’s bed was not simply a footboard, but was in fact a door. The door nearly closed on Juliette’s train. As soon as my sisters were gone through the door I leapt from my mattress and went to inspect that queer portal.
There was no handle or knob visible to the eye, nor any hinge I could detect. I tried to open the door though it did not budge in the slightest. I knocked the little rhythm or at least I thought I knocked it correctly. Nothing happened. I pressed my ear to the door but I could not hear my sisters nor the sound of their heels.
I crawled under Johanna’s bed looking to find some evidence of the door and its passage, but there was nothing but the smooth tile of our marble floor and several pairs of worn out shoes.
There I sat in my nightdress confused and lonesome. How was it that my sisters had vanished without a trace? Moreover why did they not share their secret with me? Was I not of their blood? Was I not worthy? My sole consolation was that our sisters in the nursery had no way of knowing of these midnight voyages so I was not only one left out.
At last I crawled back to my bed, sulky of course. I fell into slumber and did not hear my sisters’ arrival. It was tempting to try and stay awake to catch them returning, but I did not think that was wise.
Six months passed and every full moon my sisters disappeared. I made sure to never sip my posset, instead pouring a little into the pot plants and a little more into wash pitcher. I took note of their comings and goings and tallied up the shoes they wore out.
On the seventh full moon I did not even pretend to drink the posset.
“If you do not take me with you I shall tell Papa of your secret outings,” I declared once all the maids had been dismissed for the night.
Juliette sputtered, “Whatever are you on about, Gussie? Outings indeed!”
Maia went red then white. Juno shrugged. Marcia and Avrila raised their eyebrows simultaneously as only twins can manage. Valentina yawned. Johanna narrowed her eyes, cool and unruffled.
“Then get dressed and quickly,” Johanna gestured to our armoires and trunks of finery. “If we are late the door will not open.”
What I wore I cannot recall, but it was something fine to be sure. My sisters helped me with my hair and at the stroke of midnight we huddled around Johanna’s footboard. The special knock was knocked and the door opened. My giddiness began to sour when I peered through and saw flares of poison green light down the mysterious passage. None of my sisters mentioned the eerie quality of the light or a sense of doom. Indeed they chatted merrily as though we were at a garden party.
I thought then that perhaps I should not go after all. Something or someone had taken all good sense out of my sisters’ heads for them to trust what seemed to be a road to the Underworld. But belonging is a longing like no other. Now that I had been invited it seemed unsisterly to refuse. I reasoned to myself that if what they were doing was dangerous or immoral it was best for me to witness it for myself before I told tales to Papa.
Our pretty chambers rest upon the third floor of the palace. The curved stairs from Johanna’s footboard went down a great deal further than that. Valentina could probably give a fairer estimate than I, but I estimate we descended at least ten storeys beneath the ground. The poison green light betimes flickered to hellfire red and nightmare blue. The steps were steep and narrow, but our skirts were so full that anytime I felt off kilter I was usually cushioned by my own clothing before I could fall.
At the bottom of the stairs was a door so ancient it may have been made at the dawn of time. Johanna said something then, a spell or prayer perhaps, and pushed the door open to reveal a forest of shining silver trees. They were cool to the touch with roots, trunks, and leaves all of the finest sterling. When I turned around the door we had come through was no longer there, the forest stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. A panic overcame me, I feared we might perish in the endless silver woods, but before I could cry Juno took my hand and made sure I kept apace.
Without map or compass Johanna guided us and quite suddenly the silver trees were no more. The wood was golden now. These trees were thicker and more primitive looking. I thought that perhaps this was a place the gods experimented with before making the world green. They were not sculptures any more than the silver trees were. One could tell at a glance that they grown from metallic seeds and grew just as ordinary trees would have for they had those same qualities of imperfection and uniformity that nothing man-made could hope to match.
I was not prepared for what came next: a forest of diamonds. Crystal fruit weighed down every branch and a chill settled around us as though the layer of diamond dust coating everything was this world’s frost. The beauty was unearthly, not meant for mortal eyes. I was more convinced than ever that we ought not be here. Whatever, wherever we were it could not be fit for lowly humans.
At long last there was the lake. Inky and fathomless there were eight little boats waiting with a ferryman each. I would have screamed if not for fear of being rebuked by my sisters. It is a well known fact that the souls of the dead are ferried across the rivers of the Underworld. Were we dead? Had my sisters poisoned me? I squeezed Juno’s hand, but she said nothing to reassure me. She dropped my hand and went to her little boat eagerly.
“Do you require coin, good sir?” I ventured to the ferryman who remained.
“No, milady,” said he. His face was passive, but it did not seem dead, demonic, or disfigured. “I’m to take you to the castle and bring you back again when you want to leave.”
How there was an extra boat, a boat for me, when my sisters had no foreknowledge of my coming this evening, was perturbing. I could have asked the ferryman, but reasoned he would not know either. His master would know, but who that was I did not want to speculate upon. The darkness on the lake was as a fog, so thick that the little lantern affixed to the front of the boat hardly made enough light to cast a shadow.
We came upon a castle perched on the far end of the lake. There were lights from every window and garlands and pennants enough to show it was some cheerful holiday there. One by one we disembarked from our boats and footmen led us from the dock to the great hall of the castle. I cannot rightly recollect the architecture of that place though I had visited it hundreds of times since that first visit. I remember being amused that it was somehow very old and yet also very fashionably appointed. There was a ball that night. There was not always a grand ball every night.
That night and many of those other early nights the guests besides ourselves were very few. Indeed that first night there was exactly one dance partner apiece for us. They were perfectly coiffed fine-featured princely gentlemen. My dance partner seemed my own age though he had little to say for himself. I no longer fretted about being in an underworld or The Underworld, such is the effect of boredom in a young person. Prince Number Eight seemed drowsy in demeanor though his steps were light and quick on the dance floor. I rather envied my sisters who had livelier, more conversant partners.
Upon reflection I now realize how bizarre it all was. That my first ball was in some secret place under the world and I danced with a person I knew nothing about, not name, not family, not country. We danced until I felt my toes make holes in my dancing slippers and was promptly led to a sumptuous feast whereupon I greedily ate and drank as though I were a beggar starved. When I had eaten my fill I felt as drowsy and lack-witted as my dance partner.
“Gussie, it’s time to leave,” Juno tapped me on the shoulder.
I stared at her blankly. I could not recall where we had come from. I felt very keenly that we had always lived in the castle and had always danced there. She led me away from my prince and suddenly I felt rather fond of the dull fellow.
“Gussie, we will come back another time,” Juliette urged me into my boat.
Back we went across the river. Back we went through the forest. But the queerest thing of all was that I do not remember one moment of the return journey. From my mind’s point of view the moment we stepped out of the boats and the moment we were safe inside our own bedchambers seemed instantaneous.
I meant to tell Papa, truly I did. But every time I tried to gather my thoughts on the matter the memories slipped away too fast for any words to be strung together. Before I knew it a year had passed and Vesta had joined us in the chambers. Then we were able to go every two weeks to the underground ball. If she had any misgivings she spoke them not. It was when Vesta attended that I realized there were chairs in the far corner of the ballroom. Three chairs in the corner where a young prince sat stock still on each of them, as if bewitched.
We had three more sisters in the creche.
I idly wondered what would happen when all twelve of us gathered in that infernal place.
Strangely I have little memory of the nights between when I first danced and the present. Once all twelve of us were together we were able to descend to the magical place every night without fail, each of us matched to a handsome prince. There seemed to be no goal or aim: we only danced. It was disappointing as I had thought something interesting might occur when Noelle joined us at last. But we danced and feasted exactly as we had before. Only Johanna would know if there was a change between the first night and the last, but she never spoke a word of her first sojourn to me. A chief disadvantage of dancing all night every night was that we went through dancing shoes at a pace that it was brought to Papa’s attention. He was very cross with us, though the cobblers were well pleased, and wanted to know how the situation came to be.
I wanted to tell him much as before, but my lips would not form the words I composed in my head. Perhaps my sisters were struck dumb by the same enchantment for they too said nothing of our escapades. It was cruel I suppose for us to keep dancing even after Papa decreed any young man sent to investigate would be executed if he did not learn our secret. But those young men seemed just as the blank princes in our netherworld, unreal and of no more significance than a potted plant.
In hindsight I am not proud of our doings. Perhaps we were under a spell.
I’ve rather lost my taste for dancing the night away.