For My Sisters / Tonia Markou
CONTENT WARNING: references to sexual harassment & assault.
I should burn the letters—they’re evidence after all—but I can’t. They fuel me when my strength wavers, when my guilty conscience tries to get the best of me. So I keep them in my tower, inside the ivory desk drawer, neatly stacked and held together by coarse twine; the knot as tight as the one in my heart whenever I read the senders’ words.
My dear sister—
Are these blotches on the parchment paper dried tears?
Princess Aurora spoke highly of what you did for her. I hope you can assist me too.
I made a terrible mistake and now I have to suffer the consequences. My father is forcing me to share my hours (and my bed!) with an abhorrent frog just because it returned a favorite toy of mine. Be nice, Father told me. Show respect. You’re a princess after all. The frog won’t leave my side and seems to enjoy my humiliation.
I’m begging you, rid me from this nightmare.
Brielle of the Land of Rivers
Different princess, same story. I don’t have to be clairvoyant to know the frog is a blasted prince. She shouldn’t have to beg for my assistance. I’ve seen it too many times before: the people who are supposed to protect and support the young women are the ones who condemn them to a life of misery.
That’s where my special services come in.
Brielle, long locks and flawless skin, greets me by squeezing both my hands while trying to maintain her composure. So well trained.
“I’m honored to meet you,” she whispers and I acknowledge the spark in her azure-colored eyes.
“I hope you understand that I can’t stay long.”
“Of course. Please come in.”
I’ve been to many palaces—sumptuous, minimalist, rustic. This one falls under the first category with its giant crystal chandeliers and the gold-panelled ceiling.
The checkered marble floor beneath my feet makes me dizzy, so I focus on the princess’s slender back instead, on the click-clack sound of her heels. She leads me past an imperial staircase. “Quick, this way, I don’t want my father to—”
The king struts out of a room to our left, back straight, his velvet tunic bulging slightly over the stomach. By his side squats the miscreant. I had expected something more impressive, but it’s just a tiny, bilious green frog. Its long tongue shoots out to snatch a fly that’s been buzzing around its head.
Brielle scrunches up her button nose.
“What is going on here?” The king’s cheeks shine like red apples. “We have servants for answering the door.”
“I wanted to welcome my guest in person.” She places a delicate hand on my shoulder.
The king turns to me, one bushy eyebrow darting upward. “Who are you?”
I’m the one they don’t write fairy tales about. The sister with the fuzzy black hair, the dark eyes, thick brows; the aquiline nose and the thin lips. The one whose beauty isn’t radiant enough to compete with the sun and whose edges are too sharp to make handsome princes fall over themselves to be my grooms.
I like my spot in the shadows. Too much light can harm you. I’ve seen many of my beautiful sisters—with their fair hair and blue eyes—burn.
I have other talents up my sleeve.
“She’s my friend,” the princess is quick to reply.
“I won’t be taking much of your precious time.” I glance at Brielle. “Why don’t we go for a walk?”
The princess slips her arm through mine.
“Haven’t you forgotten something?” The king nods toward the frog.
With a jump, it lands right in front of Brielle’s feet. “It would be my pleasure to accompany you outside, Princess.”
What a clingy creature. This is not how you win a princess’s affection.
“Don’t be too long,” the king says as he stares at me.
I follow Brielle to the garden. The hems of our dresses rustle over the grass and my nose fills with the scents of lavender and roses.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” Brielle is still holding my hand. Her touch is soft and warm; a sensation long-forgotten.
The frog has difficulties keeping up with us, but he won’t stop. His green skin disappears between the blades of grass. Seconds later, he leaps back into existence. He hasn’t spoken a word to me.
Am I not princesslike enough for you, little frog?
A golden ball sits abandoned on the edge of the well, glinting for attention. “I assume this is the toy you mentioned in your letter.”
“Precisely.” Brielle leans into me, her breath tickling my ear. “I wish I had never played with it. It used to bring me joy, but now all I feel is disgust when I look at it.”
“Princess Brielle,” the frog says and he sounds like my younger brother when his voice started to break. “Would you please hold me? I long to feel your sweet caress. You don’t want me to tell your father how poorly you are treating me, do you?”
I clench my fists and turn to Brielle. “You should go inside now. The less you know, the better. Farewell.”
She tears up. “Thank you.”
“Princess, where are you going?”
“I will be back in a minute.” She turns around and waves at us.
She’s a good liar.
I crouch and pick up the amphibian. Its body feels slick and cold in my hands.
“What are you doing?” The frog’s protruding eyes twitch inside their sockets as I purse my lips and move closer, closer to its mouth.
I grin. “You’d love that, wouldn’t you? Today’s not your lucky day.” I grab it and squeeze it into my leather pouch.
The frog bounces and shrieks inside its temporary prison.
I hurry back the way we came, careful to remain unnoticed this time. As I pass what looks like a dining room, I here the king’s voice from within.
“I don’t like that smug look on her face. You better keep an eye on her.”
A short pause. “Isn’t the frog with you?”
“No, Father. I looked everywhere. It must’ve returned to the well.”
Back at my castle, I carefully open the wobbling pouch.
“Where have you taken me?” The frog’s horizontal pupils dart back and forth.
With the enchanted prince cupped in my hands, I take the steps to the dungeon. The air is cool but musty down here. In the dim light, my shadow is thrown on the stone wall like a galanty show. I stop in front of a cell made of glass, or as I like to call it, a giant display case.
I even added a little fake pond inside to ease him into his new home.
“No.” The frog tries to leap out of my hands, clearly underestimating my own speed.
“Let me go.” Such a slippery little thing. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
“Oh but I do. I’ll take good care of you, little frog prince. Besides, look around. You have company.” I snap my fingers and one by one, the torches next to the other cells light up. What can I say? I love theatrics.
The frog prince whimpers when he sees the occupant of the first cell. The short man is split in the middle, both his equal halves jumping on one leg like a malfunctioning toy. He mumbles of firstborns and deceit.
“Did you do this to him?”
“What do you take me for? He ripped himself in two. Anger management issues over a kidnapping gone wrong.”
In the cell next door, my first catch bangs against the glass, his once so noble clothes reduced to rags. “You witch, you will pay for this.”
I pause, tapping my chin. “Still waiting for that bill.”
He snarls, his hands glued to the glass.
“That’ll teach you to kiss sleeping girls.”
“When I get out of here, I’m going to rip your rotten heart out.”
I meet his hateful glare. “Be my guest. Oh wait, you already are.” A soft snort escapes my mouth.
With the frog firmly pressed between my hands, I proceed to the next display. “How are we doing today, Hansel?”
Anger turns his boyish features into those of a snarling wolf. “My sister will never cease looking for me. You doomed her, for she cannot survive without her dearest brother.”
I stifle a laugh. Telling him Gretel’s the one who wrote to me would shatter his little world, so I remain silent. After all, these girls are my sisters, and I would never betray their trust.
“What in God’s name is this?”
The frog is too chatty for my taste, but maybe his sticky tongue tends to loosen at the prospect of imprisonment.
“Oh that?” I ask. “Haven’t you heard of the iron stove?”
The frog wiggles in my grip. “Can’t say that I have.”
“Didn’t think so.”
Muffled sounds escape from the metal monstrosity.
“Is someone … in there?” the frog asks.
“Merely another presumptuous prince. Probably has a cramp or something. As you can see, it’s not the most spacious place. Now, time to make yourself comfortable.”
I carry the fidgeting frog back to the empty cell and place him gently on the ground next to the makeshift pond. As soon as I leave, the door locks.
“Why are you doing this to us?” The frog gawps at me through the glass.
“Because she’s evil,” shouts riches-to-rags prince.
There is so much I want to counter about chains and shackles, the hurt, the unjust cards fate has dealt out to us, but I settle for “You wouldn’t understand.”
With my head held high, I walk down the aisle between the illuminated cells, back to the stone steps that will take me upstairs to my study.
Alive, the princes are much more work than I’d imagined. I don’t have the heart to kill them though. And so they remain specimens in my very own royal collection, reminding me of why I do what I do, why my actions matter. Imprisoned, caged, like my sisters’ minds and bodies.
Another flick of my fingers and the dungeon goes dark.
I sit down at my desk. From the panorama window, my eyes suck in the luscious green forest, the clear blue lake. For a moment, I’m at peace.
Soon, the next letter will arrive. And when it does, I will be ready.
Tonia Markou is a Greek-German writer and university teacher. She holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Lit Up, P.S. I Love You, 50-Word Stories and Dime Show Review. You can find more of her work on Medium.com.