I overheard Mother telling the maid to prepare the yellow room (that’s one of the chambers facing the inner courtyard). “Rowena is an orphan”, Mother said to me later, “she is my late sister’s only daughter and she is coming to live with us”. I had so many questions “So she is my cousin? How come I never heard about her?”, but I knew better than to ask Mother, whose lips were even more firmly pressed together than usual.
My sisters have to be dressed up all the time. But Rowena came to us wearing jeans and flat shoes. She is so weird! When I told her of the party coming up, she said “Yes, for Christmas.” I did not even know the word. When I inquired, Mother said that it was a very, very ancient practice – that had completely disappeared... Where does this amazingly backward damsel come from? And she did not know what a Prince was, either…
In the morning of the big day, a joyful atmosphere of expectation pervaded the whole Castle, with people busting about in a frenzy of last preparations. Walking along the long corridor, I could smell hundreds of delicious fragrances mingling in the air, enticing scents coming from the kitchen as well as the perfume of fresh flowers, and I could hear the musicians practicing. When I called on Rowena, she said she would not come to the dance, for she was feeling unwell. I convinced her that she had to, explaining that otherwise, the maid would be held responsible for her absence and would be punished accordingly. So when it was time, I positioned myself at the bottom of the stairs as required by Custom. When Rowena appeared at last, getting down the stairs seemed to be a major ordeal for her. “I wonder how they manage to walk in those high heels” I heard her grumble to herself.
“Did the maid assist you well?”
“Oh, she was very helpful indeed. At first I thought it strange that anyone should need help to put clothes on. But when I discovered the dress (“really pretty, Miss, and the color will suit you, I’m sure”), I was enlightened. I pretended to agree when the maid – Christine – said that the dress was so becoming, and didn’t I look sweet and wasn’t it a nice change from my usual self (which I could have resented, actually)… but what, with the make-up applied to my face and this outlandish dress, all frills and laces, and this very low neck which uncovered my breasts, and the high heels she insisted I should wear to complete my toilette, as she called it, well, I did not recognize myself; and I did not like what I saw in the mirror: a doll just like any other – certainly not a person.”
I could not believe that she could talk like that. None of my sisters would. Mother would never, never tolerate it. I had assumed that Rowena’s costume would be an improvement indeed. But now, listening to her, seeing that disguised twin sister through her eyes, mine suddenly narrowed in terror and in disbelief: the pearls around her neck had become heavy chains, cutting into the delicate skin. The belt which had been fastened around her waist had turned into a hissing snake. Her feet were bleeding, compressed as they were in tight maiming shoes which looked like fetters. I shuddered and let out an involuntary cry.
“What is the matter?” she asked me. “You look like someone who has seen a ghost.”
“Well, in a way”, I answered. “I had something like a vision.”
“I’m sure you know”, she said – lowering her voice to a whisper – “that this castle is haunted. Every full moon, a white figure can be seen wandering on the tower. At least that’s what Christine told me”.
I did not know and did not care, for I am not superstitious. I was eager to witness her reaction upon discovering the Big Hall, which was magnificent at any time – gold, marble, rose wood panels, immense mirrors, its ceiling higher than those of the other rooms in the Palace – but whose sight tonight would be beyond words. It had been decorated for the occasion with numerous adornments, ivory silk draperies, garlands – more than decorated, enchanted… And it had also been designed to help the sound of the orchestra carry well throughout the whole space.
Rowena stopped, just before entering the Ballroom, looking at people’s reflections in the mirrors. Everybody in the room seemed to be glowing. Strangely, I did not like my appearance any more: it was too shiny, there was something counterfeit, fake about it. It was then that it happened again: I saw myself as a skeleton in the mirror and when I turned round, horrified, the handsome waltzing couples had transformed into vampires and hags… The image vanished almost as soon as it had come into being, leaving me to wonder about this different castle, as grey and threatening as the one I was accustomed to was colorful and welcoming… Which one was an illusion? Or – and this thought was even more terrifying, in a way – were they both real? Was there an evil lurking behind all those magic lights? I shivered, feeling totally powerless. I was seriously beginning to consider that there might be something wrong with me and so I did not say anything about my “vision” this time. We started dancing and I forgot everything else. We paused for cocktails. I then led her to one of the balconies, which I thought was a highly romantic move on my part. The forest was stretching beneath us, deep and mysterious.
I mentioned my hunting, sure to impress her. So I could not believe it when, far from being impressed, she started challenging me about it:
“What pleasure can you find in this barbarian activity?”
“Oh, you are such a moralist! There is nothing wrong with having a little fun now and then.”
“There is something wrong with hurting, with killing for ‘fun’. "
“You are weird, you know… You are the only one to object to hunting. All the other girls find it acceptable. In fact, they admire me for it.”
She gave me a sharp look and I saw that I had made a mistake:
“Well… You should come tomorrow to the Big Hunt and see for yourself: the Ayol is such a repulsive animal! I am sure that even you, for all your compassion,…”
“You pronounce the word as if it were an insult; compassion is strength.”
“…would find it so.”
“Describe this animal to me. In what way is it “repulsive”? Do you mean that it is nasty?”
“Oh, no, the animal is as meek as a woman.”
I saw that I had made another mistake and searched for another way of presenting my case…
“I mean, just horrid-looking… with bits of skin hanging from its wrinkled face; its skin is of a ghastly grey and he has heavy watery eyes. Most women faint when they see one.”
“Are you so afraid of your own ugly aspects that you have to hate and kill those animals? Maybe they are beautiful inside; which is more than can be said about you.”
Anger came in fiery waves. How dare she talk to me like that?
“Look, Rowena…” (this last remark really got to me and I was playing for time), you might have a point here. Sometimes I feel that in my hate for those animals there is something like fear; which is ridiculous, of course.”
I could not believe I had actually said these words. I was very, very young; could not see anything wrong with hunting, with my family’s traditions… Rowena’s presence had changed all this. There was something about her that sent butterflies flying to my stomach. I had fallen, for the first time, hopelessly, foolishly, in love; nay, more than in love – in lust…