"So once upon a time, there lived a princess in a far away land."
"Was she beautiful?"
"Of course she was, sweetheart."
Jessica smiled up in delight at her father as he lowered her onto her bed. The heavy snow falling outside was barely visible in the small amount of light coming from the lone night lamp in the room. Oliver began to tuck his daughter in carefully, but Jessica was too eager to listen to the story to lie still.
"Tell me more about the princess." she said excitedly, wriggling out of the bed. Oliver pushed her gently back down.
"Be patient, Jessie. You have to be tucked in properly, or you'll catch a cold." he told her warningly as he began to tuck her in again.
"I'm fine. What happened to the princess?" Jessica demanded, wriggling again, but this time deeper inside her bed covers. She had great expectations from the stories her father told her. Oliver was a writer, and he generally found it easy to make up something simple to tell her at night. This time, however, he was going to have to be much more cautious, and pick his words with care.
Oliver brought the stool closer to the bed and sat down. His daughter's blue eyes and large smile were focussed on him, the genetic traits that she had inherited from him. Her blonde hair shone slightly in the light coming from the lamp. Her mother's hair.
"The princess was born into a magical kingdom where forest elves and unicorns lived in peace with dinosaurs and giants." Jessica wriggled again in excitement. This was one of her favourite settings. "The land was lush and vibrant, with sunflowers that grew as tall as trees, and waterfalls that were so tall you couldn't see their beginning. The forests were alive with every sort of animal you could imagine, and the children of the magic kingdom played with them all day long."
"One day, the king and queen of the magic kingdom had a daughter. She was the most beautiful little girl in the world."
"Wait!" Jessica said, bounding out of bed before Oliver could protest. She rummaged impatiently through her toy chest and finally drew out one of her favourite dolls. She jumped back into bed, clutching the doll to her chest as she wriggled under the covers again. Oliver saw that it was a Barbie doll dressed as a princess. "Shall we continue?" he asked patiently, and she nodded.
"So the king and queen had a daughter." Oliver resumed. "And the whole kingdom rejoiced. People from every corner of the world came to see the princess, and they all declared she was the most beautiful creature they had ever seen. The king and queen decided to call their daughter Mary."
"Like mom?" Jessica broke in happily.
Oliver was silent for several seconds before speaking. "Yes, like your mom. But honey, you have to be patient and listen to the whole story, and not interrupt. Otherwise you won't understand it."
"Sorry." Jessica said, lying perfectly still and looking up at him raptly. The bright, eager face of his seven year old daughter suddenly made him feel much older than he was.
"So Princess Mary grew up in her magic kingdom." Oliver resumed the narrative once again. "And she grew more beautiful with every passing day. Her hair was bright yellow, and sparkled like gold in the sun. Her eyes were green like the sea, and filled with merriment. Her laugh was famous throughout the land, and it was said that no one who heard it could resist joining in."
"All the people of the kingdom loved her. She spent the days playing with the children in the forest. She could walk up to a giant without fear, and the unicorns would give her rides on their backs whenever she wanted."
"It was around that time that an old woman came to stay in the village of the magic kingdom. She kept a potions shop, and very strange things went on behind closed doors at night at the shop. Strange smells would come from her chimney, weird machines would clink and clank all night long, and her pet warthog would prowl the village after dark, looking for anything to steal and eat."
"She was an evil witch, wasn't she?" Jessica burst out, unable to contain herself any longer. "She did all those things because she was evil, right?"
"Yes, she was an evil witch." Oliver smiled at the excitement in her voice. If only his adult readers could be satisfied so easily.
"Soon her neighbours found her society intolerable. They asked her repeatedly to clean up the street in front of her house and keep her pet under control. But she ignored all their pleas and was very rude to them."
"So one day she was brought up before the king. They investigated her house, and found she was making all kinds of dangerous potions with a very nasty kind of magic. The king also found out that she was a refugee from a foreign land, from where she had been cast out because of some very wicked things she had done. The king ordered her to close up her shop and leave his kingdom immediately, in case she were to start something similar there as well. The woman did not go quietly. She stamped and she screamed. And even as the guards led her out, she swore she would someday have revenge on the king as well as the entire land." Jessica's smile was wider than ever. The plot had begun to thicken.
"Meanwhile, the princess was leaving her childhood behind and becoming a young woman. Her beauty grew with each passing day, and news of her loveliness flew around the world. Kings and princes from every corner came to win her hand in marriage. But none could satisfy the king, who wanted the very best for his daughter."
"One day the princess was roaming through the forests and singing to herself when she saw a young man binding the foot of a unicorn which had run through some thorny bushes. The princess loved the unicorns and ran to help the man. Together, the two nursed the magic beast, and the princess saw that the man she had taken to be a goatherd was in fact an extremely handsome young man with the manners of someone born to a very high class. The man in turn fell head over heels in love with the young princess, and was soon telling her about the quest he been away on, on behalf of his kingdom, that had ended mere days ago, and he was now returning to his land, when he had decided to take a shortcut through the forest."
"The princess took the man to see her father, who recognised him as the heir to one of the greatest empires in the world. The young prince confessed his love for the king's daughter, and the princess did the same. The king was very happy with the match, and sent the prince to his kingdom with promises of a speedy union. The marriage was announced all through the land, and the whole kingdom rejoiced."
"The princess was beside herself with happiness, and that day roamed deeper into the woods than she had ever done before. She did not know she was being followed. The evil old witch whom the king had banished had been watching her for a long time." Jessica's eyes grew wide. "She wanted revenge against the king and his kingdom, and now she saw a way to get it."
"She uncorked one of her magic potions and fed its fumes to a dinosaur that was sleeping nearby. The dinosaur woke up in a fit of madness, and started destroying everything around it. The entire forest began to shake and tremble. The princess was caught by surprise from the resulting earthquakes while climbing a hill, and a large boulder from the top of the hill tumbled down and collapsed on top of her. By the time the guards heard her cries and found her, her injury had worsened greatly. The witch had also infused the whole forest with a brew that contained a serious disease."
Jessica was staring her father in surprise. The tale seemed to have taken an unexpectedly dark turn. Oliver braced himself with an effort to tell the rest of the story.
"The princess was very badly hurt, and couldn't walk. She had also caught the disease the witch had spread through the forest. Everyday her health became worse, and even though the king brought in the finest healers in the lands, none could help her."
"She is going to walk again, isn't she?" Jessica said in a small voice.
"Just listen." Oliver said, clearing his throat to remove the slight hoarseness from his voice. "It was at that time that the old witch returned to the castle. She made an offer to the king. She would give him a tonic to give to the princess. It would not cure her, but it would prevent her health getting worse. In return she would get half of the gold stored in the Kingdom and the royal horse and carriage. The king and queen debated over what to do, but in the end they had no choice. They agreed, and the woman went away with half their gold, and the princess was given the tonic."
"The princess's health stopped becoming worse, and the kingdom was glad. The woman had left her a barrelful of the potion, and it would keep her living for years."
"But then the king noticed something strange. The land of the magic kingdom was growing sick and diseased. Trees stopped growing, flowers stopped blooming, animals stopped grazing, and a blight seemed to have descended on the soil."
"And it was then that the king and the queen and the princess realised the truth. The potion was keeping the princess alive, but it was feeding directly on the land. As long as the princess kept drinking the potion, the land of the magic kingdom would continue to become sicker and weaker."
"It was a horrible situation to be in, and no one knew what to do. The princess could not even get married because her health had begun to fail again. The potion had only slowed her disease, not cured it. Slowly, she became weaker. Her beautiful hair began to fall out. She would sleep all day long. The prince and the king and queen were beside themselves with grief. But there was nothing they could do." Oliver was silent for several moments as he tried to collect his strength.
"And so the princess knew she had to make the decision. It was a very difficult choice, and she knew she had to make it on her own. With her last strength, she made her way to the barrel of the potion that was kept in the room next to hers. The old witch knew the princess was close to the end of her strength, and had flown into the castle to watch the final days of despair for the king's family."
"And then..." Oliver paused, and Jessica leaned in closer, hardly daring to breathe, as she waited for the dramatic denouement, when the princess would make a triumphant comeback and defeat the evil witch's plans. "The princess tipped over the barrel of potion, spilling it all onto the floor just as her family entered the room... and then she died in the arms of her prince."
Blank shock met the last statement. Jessica did not seem to have understood him. Oliver leaned in and watched her expression as he began to carefully explain the ending to her. "It was her sacrifice, you see, sweetheart? She loved her family and her kingdom. So she allowed the witch to take her life so that the curse would be lifted and her people would be happy."
"She died?" Jessica's mouth had opened in horror. "She can't die. She's the princess."
"I know, honey. But this time-"
"Why didn't the prince rescue her?"
"He couldn't." Oliver almost choked on the words. He fought back the tears fiercely from his eyes. "This time he couldn't, no matter how much he wanted to. It was the princess's battle to fight, and she had to make the choice on her own."
"I don't like this story." Jessica declared indignantly. "I hate it. Change it and make her live again!"
"I can't do that." Oliver said. "You have to understand this, Jessie. Death is a part of life. We all have to die someday and-"
"Change it back!"
"And sometimes people die young. It's just how it is and that's what happened to the princess. You have to understand this. You're not a little girl anymore, and it's time to grow up." He caught her wrist as she attempted to move away. It was too late to back off from this conversation now. "Please, for both our sakes, you have to grow up."
"I hate this story." Jessica said, trying to wriggle out of his grip. "I don't want to hear it."
"No, Jessie, listen to me." Oliver said, his voice becoming urgent as he bent closer. "I'm trying to tell you something important. I'm trying to tell you something about real life, and I need you to listen to me carefully."
"No, she doesn't die!" Jessica insisted, clutching her doll tightly. Her voice had begun to tremble. The shocking end of the story and the strange way her father was behaving was scaring her. "She can't die. She's a princess!"
"Princesses die too, sweetheart, just like everyone else." Oliver's hand reached out to grasp his daughter's. "Please, you have to understand this, Jessie. Dying is a part of life, and-"
"But I don't want her to die." She was crying now.
"That doesn't matter." Oliver's voice was raised now. His own frustration was beginning to seep through. "We can't always have what we want. Sometimes people die, and we have to accept it and move on."
Suddenly she turned away from him and curled herself into a ball, hiding her face inside her blanket. Oliver watched her in a daze. He could not believe how badly this whole attempt had turned out.
"Jessie?" He reached out to touch her shoulder. It was shaking. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart." He climbed slowly onto the bed and placed an arm around her shoulder. "Daddy was feeling tired, baby. That's why he yelled. And he wasn't thinking clearly. Of course the princess didn't really die. Would you like to know what really happened?" She did not respond, but her shoulders stopped shaking so badly.
"So the old witch was watching the princess tip the barrel over." Oliver said in a low voice. "The prince came in at that moment, along with the king and the queen. They saw the princess faint and fall to the ground, and then the evil witch began to laugh."
"But then... then the handsome prince drew out his sword and slayed the witch and woke up the princess with a kiss." Oliver finished.
There was a silence in the room for a long moment. Then Jessica's head slowly appeared from underneath her blanket as she turned towards him. Her tears had stopped. "So then they live together in the castle?"
"Yes, they got married and lived happily ever after." Oliver said in a toneless voice.
Jessica did not note the lack of enthusiasm in his voice. She was beaming now. "I like this story much better." He wiped the tears from her eyes as he smiled in return. "I knew the princess couldn't die." Oliver did not say anything, but merely nodded as he rose from her bed.
"Goodnight, sweetheart. I love you so much. And I'm sorry I yelled." He kissed her forehead and gave her a hug. She mumbled something sleepily; suddenly feeling tired, and snuggled deeper under the covers, the doll still pressed tightly to her chest.
Oliver sighed as he turned off the lamp and made his way out of the room. His hand was trembling. It took him a moment to regain his composure, and then he made his way downstairs. The mobile rang, and he saw it was Doctor Patel.
"Hello, doctor." he said tiredly as he sank into the armchair.
"Hello, Oliver." Doctor Patel said gravely. "I'm sorry if I caught you at a bad time. How are you feeling?"
"Reasonably well." Oliver mumbled, rubbing his eyes.
"There are some papers related to the accident that you have yet to sign." The doctor paused, then added gently, "I realise how difficult this is, so there's no need to rush, but I would advise you to get it out of the way now to avoid unnecessary complications."
"Thank you, I'll be there tomorrow." Oliver was silent for a moment, but then the urge to confide in someone, even a comparative stranger, overcame him. "I was trying to break the news to my daughter just now."
"Oh." The doctor paused. "How did she handle it?"
"I didn't tell her." Oliver said quietly. "I couldn't... I chickened out. After making a monumental fool of myself." The doctor was silent again.
"It was the only option, Oliver." he spoke at last in a low voice. "The accident created very serious complications for your wife. Even if we had used the most radical procedures she would never have been able to walk again. Her body would inevitably have shut down in a few months time while prolonging her sufferings. And the resulting economic strain on your family would have placed you on the verge of bankruptcy. Mary made a very brave choice when she opted to quit life support on her own. She was a remarkable woman."
Oliver tried to speak, but the lump in his throat was too big. He nodded, though knowing the doctor couldn't see him, and let out a low breath as the tears gathered in his eyes.
"If you would like some help," the doctor continued. "We have some child therapists who specialise in trauma counselling for children. They can help you explain the matter to your daughter. I can introduce you to them tomorrow."
"That'd be great, thanks." Oliver managed finally to speak in a low voice. "I'll see you tomorrow, then."
"Good night, Oliver. And take care."
He placed the mobile slowly on the table next to him and stared ahead at the mantelpiece. Outside, the snow continued to fall thickly. The darkened house seemed oddly muffled and deadened. Finally, Oliver could not hold back the tears, and they fell freely down his face as he continued to stare at the picture on the mantelpiece of a laughing young woman with bright green eyes and shiny golden hair.