Voice of a Princess
by Richard Ong
The sweet scent of perfume lures me to her side. My hand feels the familiar touch of the bench underneath the glass shelter.
“Excuse me, have you been waiting long?”
I hear the rustle of clothes and the soft tap of heels on the ground. “I’m sorry. Did you say something?” A pleasant voice and perhaps, a pleasant smile. I hope to play my cards right.
“I’m so sorry to have bothered you, miss. I didn’t realize you were busy. By the way, how long have you been waiting for the bus?”
A pause. Have I startled her?
“Not long,” she replies.
When no other words are forthcoming, I try a different tack.
“Sure is warm this afternoon. I think I’m a bit overdressed for the weather.” I laugh but she offers no opinion of her own.
“Hey, listen,” trying to raise the tone of my voice with an upbeat note. “Can I ask you a favor?”
“What is it?” she asks. There is a slight edge on her voice.
“Well, I happen to be a writer and I just came upon this wonderful idea that I’d like to run by you to get your opinion. Interested?”
“Fine. What is your idea?”
Now that I have her attention, I regain my self-confidence and plow headlong onto the attack. I wait until the sound of a heavy vehicle and the rush of diesel choking the air around us passes by. I cough and clear my throat. She remains silent, seemingly unaffected by this brief interlude.
“This story is about a princess who lived within a tall, enchanted tower waiting for a prince to set her free. Years pass and many stalwart princes have tried and failed, to her dismay. The enchantment is simply too strong to break.”
I pause for a short while to listen to her breathing.
“One day, a poor farmer passing by happens to look up and is immediately smitten by the beautiful princess in the tower. He calls out and asks for her name. After learning of her predicament, the farmer scratches his head and sits at the base of the tower to think things through.
“Weeks pass and the farmer suddenly rises from his position and shouts at the top of his lungs, ‘Would you like to come downstairs this afternoon and have a spot of tea with me?’ The princess smiles and agrees to come down to have tea with the poor farmer.”
“What? What kind of a story is that?” she asks.
“It’s a children’s tale with a moral twist,” I reply.
“And what is the moral twist in that, may I ask?”
“What do you think it is, Miss... I don’t even know your name?”
“You never gave yours,” she says.
“Touché. My name’s Bryan. What’s yours?”
“A beautiful name and a lovely voice.”
“I’m so sorry, Elizabeth. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“No need. You haven’t embarrassed me. I’m simply immune to such compliments.”
“You are? Why is that?”
“It’s just... no, never mind.”
“No, tell me. I don’t mind listening. I’m rather good at it. Unless of course you don’t want to share your story.” I am pushing. I must back-pedal lest I risk being a turn-off, if I haven’t become one already.
Silence marks the passing of the long minute. Not a single vehicle can be heard on the road. I hold my breath, afraid to be the first to break the moment.
“Do you know that I’m blind?” she asks.
I must admit to being taken aback by this revelation. My voice catches in my throat as I search for words to comfort her.
She continues. “I lost my sight three months ago when I was caught in an explosion in our house. I was alone at the time when it happened. A leaky gas main, I was told. They said I was lucky to be alive. I’m not so sure I share that sentiment.” With an understanding borne of experience, I regain my courage to speak. The words flow with practiced ease. This is a situation that I’m all too familiar with. “I too have lived in the dark, for almost ten years.”
“Don’t. Please don’t patronize me, Bryan. I do not need your sympathy. You don’t have to pretend.” Her voice, however, betrays her need. It makes me want to reach out and touch her.
“Elizabeth. I have something in my bag I want you to feel. May I... sit down for a second? Please don’t be afraid. I swear that I am just like you.”
I hear the sound of a zipper opening or closing.
“If you try anything or take advantage of me, I am prepared to defend myself.”
I hold my breath as I wait for her to continue.
“You may sit down, slowly, here on my right.” I hear the tap on the wooden plank of the bench next to her.
I slowly release my breath. I strike the leg and the side of the bench with my walking stick to gain my bearings. I imagine its shape and distance from where I stand and slowly lower myself onto the seat next to her.
“Okay, Elizabeth. I’m going to reach into my bag and pull out a book for you to touch. Just a book. So please, don’t be alarmed.”
I set my stick to rest on my right against the armrest of the bench and unclasp the straps of my briefcase on my lap. I pull out a heavy book and open it at random to a page in the middle. I reach over to my left towards Elizabeth. “I’m now holding the book in front of you. Now reach down and feel the bindings. Go on. Try to touch the top of the page with your fingers.”
“Do you feel the soft indentations? It’s written in Braille. Are you able to read it?”
“I can’t. I haven’t learned how...” I hear her voice break and a sob.
I know exactly how she feels. Three months is such a short time to adjust. “Sshh. It’s okay. I can teach you.”
Without warning, she swipes the book from my hands and it tumbles down on my feet. I reach over to pick it up.
“I don’t need anyone’s help, okay? Who asked you anyway? Just leave me alone!” she cries, her breath catching with each sob.
I slowly take off my dark glasses and tilt my head up. The sun feels warm and comforting on my face. A soft breeze blows and I feel the wisp of her hair next to my cheek. I hear her blow her nose and clear her throat.
I remain motionless on the bench next to her with the book once again on my lap. I sit in silence, while I wait for Elizabeth to regain her composure.
“Do you want to know what the moral is behind my fairy tale?”
“W-What did you say?” She sounds confused.
“The princess in the tall tower.”
“I-I suppose that you’re going to tell me anyway.” She blows her nose.
“You got that right, Lizzie. Do you mind me calling you Lizzie?”
She says nothing and so I continue. I put on my best cheery voice.
“The tower is not really enchanted and it does not hold her prisoner. Oh no, she could’ve come down anytime she wanted to. But she didn’t. Do you know why?”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me too.” Her voice has regained some of its clarity.
“Right you are, Lizzie! You see, the poor princess made a prisoner of herself. She lost her self-confidence long ago and created an imaginary tower no prince could hope to scale. That is, until she meets a poor lonesome farmer who sees her for what she is and not her impediments. Then poof! The enchantment breaks. And do you know what happens next?”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me that they both lived happily ever after?” Elizabeth said.
“Good heavens, no! Nothing so cliché as that.”
“What then?” she asks.
“I’ll make you a deal, Lizzie.” I lean over to reach out and touch her arm. I make contact. She doesn’t flinch. The softness of her skin completes the image of the princess in my story.
“Let me teach you how to read this book and I’ll tell you how the story ends.”
That afternoon, we decide not to board the bus. We begin the first of her many lessons — and mine — for the rest of our lives.
Copyright © 2012 by Richard Ong