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In My Tower

Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but has lived in Pittsburgh for over twenty years. She writes both fiction and poetry, and has won the Rhysling Award and the Elgin Award. Her two latest books are from opposite ends of the poetry spectrum: "Elemental Haiku," containing haiku for each element of the periodic table (Ten Speed Press, 2019) and "The Sign of the Dragon," an epic fantasy with Chinese elements (JABberwocky Literary Agency, 2020). She tweets at @MarySoonLee and reports that her antiquated website (marysoonlee.com) has finally been updated.
Don't believe the songs you've heard. Don't think I'm languishing in this stone tower, combing my golden tresses, waiting for a prince to come. They came. Three princes in all.
The first prince rode up when I was twelve years old, young enough that I still yearned for the world beyond these round walls: for forests and gardens and snow on mountains. For my mother most of all, for the sound of her voice and the long gentle tug of the brush as she did my hair, and the smell and feel of her as she kissed me goodnight. Though that was a barren wish, my mother buried in my seventh year, well before the witch brought me to the tower.
Yes, I'd tried to escape, time after time, to climb out the window so I might lower myself down the length of my own hair. The witch's magic held me within this one round room. I could stretch my hand through the window opening, feel the wind, the rain's wet touch, but no more than that.
The prince rode up on his white horse, calling out as he neared, so that I ran to the window and peered down. He was a handsome figure, but it was his horse that I gazed at, a proud, tall white mare with silvery ribbons braided in her mane.
"Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair," called the prince.
I did as he asked, dropping the black rope of my hair down the tower's height, my heart thumping the way you might imagine as I gazed upon my rescuer. Why I thought he could break the spell that held me captive, I do not know. I was young. I dared to hope.
The prince fingered my hair: my coarse black, braided hair, tough as bristles, so strong that it never broke. "Ummm," was all he managed at first. He squinted up at me. "I thought you had golden hair? No?"
"No. What's your horse called?"
"My horse? Windborn. Ummm. Are you at least intact? Undefiled?"
"What?"
He sighed as if I'd disappointed him, set his hands on my hair, and began to climb.
Which hurt, even though I did my best to anchor the base of my braid so he wouldn't rip off my scalp.
He climbed, muttering complaints under his breath, got within a few feet of me, the closest anyone save the witch had been in years. Still balanced outside against the wall, gripping my hair tight, he stared nearsightedly at my face. "Your features are adequate, but you're dark, darker than copper."
This was hardly news to me, so I didn't bother answering.
He stared a moment longer, then began climbing down.
"Wait--where are you going?"
"Away. You're not what I expected."
The second prince came when I was fifteen. A muscular brute, less fastidious than his predecessor. When I failed to meet his expectations, he nonetheless clambered through my window, leaving my hair still dangling down the tower. Without so much as a word of greeting, he clamped his hands heavy on my shoulders, kissed me, forced his wet tongue into my mouth.
I bit down hard, spat out the warm iron taste of his blood. Kneed him in the groin.
I've had nightmares about that. About what he might have done in revenge. The prince was probably twice my age, twice my weight, and strong enough to strangle me one-handed.
But fortune favored me. The prince yelped like a puppy, scrambled out the window, sped down my hair and away.
Years passed. The witch's visits slowed, then stopped. Did she die? Did she find a younger girl to imprison?
The witch's magic continued in her absence. The bronze jug filled with whatever drink I named. The bronze bowl conjured whatever food I asked--wild honey, duck, apricots in midwinter. The shelf proffered books to match my mood, returning old favorites or answering whatever request I had: books about horses or history, mapmaking or mandolins, poetry or riddles.
When I was thirty-eight, the third prince came. Unlike the other two, he was a kind man, the kind of man my younger self would have welcomed. He stayed from dawn to dusk without accosting me, without ever even raising his voice. He did not come near me, respecting my skittishness, yet his presence filled my tower. An otherness that did not belong. Everything in my round room perfect to my needs. My narrow bed, my single bowl, my single chair, my one window, the single lantern that answered to my commands. The prince threw the room out of balance. Too tall, too solid, an intruder, an intrusion.
He left at dusk, returned briefly, a season later, to check that I was still certain in my wish for solitude.
Don't think I'm languishing in this tower, waiting for a prince to come, or even for a princess. If there was damage done to me, it was done long ago.
Do not presume that what I wish for is what you would wish for in my place.
I am as happy as I will ever be. The books are my companions. My days are fitted to my small domain, predictable as the moving slant of sunlight advancing across the floor from morning to evening.
I do not want a second chair at the table, a second bowl beside my own. The sound of someone else turning the page.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 8th, 2021


I had the idea for this story in the early summer of 2019. But ever since my children were small, I've tried not to write during their school breaks. So I jotted down the idea that Rapunzel might not want to leave her tower, and set it aside. At the end of the summer, on my daughter's first day of ninth grade at a new school, I sat down and wrote the first draft. Maybe because I'd had the summer to mull it over, I remember the writing flowing more easily than usual. (Or maybe I've just forgotten the parts that were difficult.)

- Mary Soon Lee
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