The knight braved many tests and hardships to claim his prize. He vanquished the many-headed giant lizard of Hothe, played dice with Death and won, and escaped the siren singers of Warne. Every night he opened the locket he wore close to his heart and sighed again at the portrait of a raven-haired beauty with lips of pink like the dawn sky.
One last climb, and he stood at last at the top of the highest tower in all the nine kingdoms. He knocked on the balcony window.
“Arla, light of my life, loveliest of all, I have proved myself worthy,” he declared. “Let me in, I beg you.”
She opened the window. “Yes, you are indeed worthy. But soon you will be begging me to let you go.”
The knight jumped inside and shook his head. “Never, for I have travelled far to…”
He trailed off, watching Arla’s smile stretch until it split her face, revealing curved yellow fangs stained with red. Smoke curled from her nostrils and she laughed, her voice turned deep and wrong.
Dark stories are told, but time passes so fast you’ll find that precautions are not built to last.
Watch out little children, you better take care
when those who know better tell you to beware,
when those with long memories shudder and sigh
be sure something fearsome will come by and by.
You might love your fairy tales, sugar and spice
without realising such tales are made twice.
The first is to make trembling humans afraid
of glowering monsters that creep in the shade.
The second, to gloss over, sweeten and soothe
for those without courage, the unvarnished truth.
Just call me Cassandra, who did try to tell
there are many roads to the portals of hell.
Through study and practice I long ago learned
to master the hunger that endlessly burned
in flesh bone and marrow, secreted within
my heart and my essence, the voice of my kin.
Dark, difficult magic. This had to be done
to shackle the devil. There was only one
small gap in my armour, for try as I might
no lore can delay the day’s turn into night,
or heavenly bodies that spin on their track
and one day align. Then the beast will attack.
I swear that I told them they must stay inside.
I hopelessly begged all the children to hide.
No prayer, incantation or druid’s wise rune
will silence the call of a super blood moon.
My wolf broke its bonds, howling vengeance. And here
came answering cries of my clan far and near,
my brothers and sisters all hungry to feast
on flesh of the great, and the bones of the least.
Unfettered by reason and drunk on our might
the slaughter proceeded beneath the red light.
I woke to regret, utter carnage around.
We cannot leave anything here to be found.
There is no escape, chained to life by this curse.
But I would exchange all the gold in my purse
to be once again a mere mortal — to die
and pay for my sins as blood drips from my eye in sad imitation of genuine tears.
I mourn for my victims across countless years.
We buried the last of the bodies this morning.
The foolish and brave, who did not heed my warning.
We all draw different hands in life. It’s easy to envy some people, and feel superior to others, based on your level of opportunity and perceived status. More of that depends on mere chance than we’d like to believe.
We want to believe that we’d do the right thing, cope with that challenge, rise up against that evil tyrant. That’s why we devour movies in which characters challenge oppression, follow their principles and stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellows. Sure, other people lack moral backbone. But I’d give the last seat in the lifeboat to the pregnant woman, the last crust of bread to the starving child. Wouldn’t you?
Well, it depends. And that doesn’t make for thrilling viewing.
Remember Hans Christian Andersen’s original story of the red shoes? The little girl put on the pretty red shoes and forgot her duty to the church and her adoptive mother. She was cursed to dance without end, and eventually asked the executioner to chop off her feet. The shoes danced away on their own. (Original fairy tales are often rather gory.)
Kate Bush sings a softer version, in which she envies a dancer her prowess. The dancer tells her to remove them, and she too could dance like a princess.
“But the moment I put them on, I knew I had done something wrong”
She realises, too late, that she has taken on the dancer’s curse. Now it is her turn to dance away, envied and admired by all, but unable to escape. She is trapped by her own desire and actions, and the only way out is to condemn someone else.
Perhaps to begin with, she swears she would not let another person suffer as she does. But eventually, weary and ground down, she would dream of nothing else.
Would any of us do differently?
The price of fame
As writers, artists, creators, we toil away and dream of success. We look at the shining stars, the Rowlings and Gaimans, the Downey Jrs and Lawrences, the Beyoncés and Biebers. We want a taste of limousines and red carpets, money, fame, privilege. It sounds great, from the viewpoint of impoverished obscurity.
If the mask slips, and a star is revealed as a struggling human resorting to drugs or alcohol, who cannot smile and twirl on command, we tut. Fancy that, forgetting the fans and failing to do their job. How hard can it be? I’d never behave like that.
This is the age of celebrity as never before. Ordinary mortals are thrust into positions of extraordinary scrutiny and rewarded beyond their wildest dreams. The only catch is, they must continue the dance, no matter what. Even at the cost of the very artist that gave them life, the shoes dance on.
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues
Michael Jackson’s last tour would have netted millions. But it is a drop in the ocean compared to his after death earnings. According to Forbes’ list of the top earning dead celebrities in 2016, MJ earned $825m, the largest total of anyone dead or alive. Even Elvis earned $27m and sold over one million (mainly physical) albums. That is some feat, 40 years after his death. There are some very happy lawyers and managers out there.
The art becomes a machine, and the entire entourage is focussed on their own agenda. Keep the gravy train rolling. To achieve it, the machine must keep churning out product. Something new, but also something the same. This is no place for brave creative experiments. A few turn their back and walk away, like Sade or Rick Astley. Others live and die in their silk-lined prisons.
Do you still want it? Public battles with demons both internal and external is standard tabloid fodder.
Do you still want it? The isolation from reality and broken relationships replaced with fawning employees are well documented.
Do you still want it? The obsession with physical appearance, every pound and line and grey hair displayed to the world’s media, reduces humans to meat for consumption.
Do you still want it? We imagine fame buys freedom, but actually it gilds the cage and puts diamonds on the handcuffs.
The red shoes are a trap
These shoes of fame are lined with cruel blades that ravage your flesh every waking moment, but especially when you dance for the audience. You look good and it’s killing you. That gorgeous red is your own blood, trailing behind you with each exquisite, exhausted pirouette. That smile is a grimace of fear and pain without end. Even death is no escape.