The prince, silent in his nobility, had led Utena across green hills. The tiny lavender flowers studding the hill were crushed under his step.
Utena was older than she’d been the first time she’d discovered the prince--the time he’d discovered her. Now she held his gloved hand. She wasn’t sure where they were walking to, and an uneasiness as slight as the hill flowers unfolded in her.
“Where’s the white horse?” she asked, trying to break the silence nonchalantly.
The prince turned back to look at her, his eyes gentle and sad. “We’re going to it now,” he said reassuringly, his grip on her hand growing more firm. They tread the grass and blossoms of another low hill, and, cresting it, Utena saw a carousel below. The prince let go of her hand. “You’ve done very well, living your life nobly. Follow me.”
Rosevines of deep red and green clambered over the unblemished white roof of the merry-go-round. Gold and silver trim curlicued the horses’ poles. The horses pranced frozen and perfect in triple rows, trapisoned in meticulously decorated saddles and bridles. All the horses were white.
The prince smiled at her and swung himself up on a horse slightly larger than the others. He looked small up there, diminished compared to the large-as-life memory from when Utena had been a little girl. He’d seemed so tall then, hadn’t he? Though she could remember the prince vividly, the events surrounding the time he’d saved her were vague, unformed. Utena frowned, trying to remember, but it was like trying to remember a dream. The prince gestured for her to mount, interrupting Utena’s reverie. She climbed onto the white horse, frozen in mid-charge, next to the prince’s. He smiled at her, benevolent. “Let’s start our journey, then.”
With a only the barest of whispers, the merry-go-round slowly began to turn. Utena gripped the spiraled pole that stuck through the horse’s neck. She was nervous even on the back of an artificial horse, but the merry-go-round settled into a languid, steady pace. Her white-lacquered horse and the prince’s rose and fell in constant counterpoint to each other.
Utena watched the scenery go by, green hills and green hills and green hills and the same green hills again.
She wondered how long it would take them to reach their destination.
Utena glanced sidelong at the prince, almost shy to think that he might see her watching him. She loved him (didn‘t she?), had loved him since he saved her. But she’d loved him as a dream-figure, half-remembered, not of her everyday world. She strove to become like him. She followed the sound of his footsteps in the hope that this would bring her closer to him. She’d always followed him, in her mind always seen him in front of her, leading her out of a vast darkness. But what had been in that darkness, and where had he led her to, that time when she was a child?
Had they ever walked out of the darkness?
The prince had returned for her. He’d told her that she’d lived nobly, had done well. Then why was her uneasiness growing?
The carousel turned circles in the center of repeated scenery.
The prince hadn’t appeared to notice Utena’s gaze, and continued to look ahead, sitting still and serious on his merry-go-round horse. Utena turned her attention to her horse’s neck. Red roses spotted its frozen lavender mane, and golden reins were plastered to its neck. The horse had its head thrown back and its teeth bared. Utena stroked its pretend mane.
Once she grew bored with the horse and the monotonous view of hills, she looked towards the center of the merry-go-round. Covering the central support were alternating panels and mirrors. The panels had triptych bas-relief carvings, rosevines bordering each scene. In contrast to the unblemished brightness of the mirrors, the bas-relief panels were dusty and worn. After looking at them for two cycles, Utena had determined that they showed sequential scenes, a story. She leaned closer, trying to make out the details.
The prince was there. So was another girl, the fine, voluminous garb of a princess covering everything but her face. Utena fancied for a moment that the princess resembled her, but in fact the girl’s face had been worn almost featureless. In what appeared to be the first triptych, the prince seemed to be rescuing the princess from something like a dark cave, carrying her in his arms in the second panel. The carousel horses swept past before Utena could catch more than a general impression.
There was another person in the story--at first Utena had mistaken her for the first princess, but the details of her clothes were different and her hair was unbound, flowing out around her like waves. A tiny X marked her chest in every picture. Utena couldn’t tell from her distance whether this was an intentional part of the original picture or a later, thorough defacing.
Utena had trouble making sense of the final story panel, but she recognized that this third figure was the object of some act of violence.
The constant motion of the merry-go-round and the innermost row of bobbing horses prevented her from concentrating on a single picture for long. Utena was tempted to get off and look closely at the panels. Would the prince consider that rude? She glanced furtively at him; he still stared intently ahead. Would it interrupt their “journey,” would the horses prance past Utena and the prince have vanished by the next revolution?
When the merry-go-round passed the last of the central panels, Utena quickly turned her head to catch sight of it again.
The long-haired girl was lying with her arms outspread, stabbed with a forest of swords.
Utena became aware of the wind whispering around the moving carousel.
The prince said her name, and Utena, with a start, met his eyes. She felt guilty, though she didn‘t know why. “Look only at me,” the prince said. This lover’s phrase he said with a hint of sadness, a tinge of caution.
Like plucking thorny roses in the dark, Utena slowly gathered the courage to speak up. “Why?”
“That way you’ll be safe,” he replied.
There was a sword in the X on the girl’s breast.
Utena considered this as the wind blew with a lonely sound, like wind heard while sitting inside a room with a tightly closed window. It was becoming harder and harder to ask her questions. “Safe from what?” Besides, her questions sounded childish to her.
“Everything,” said the prince, gravely.
The girl’s eyes, upturned towards the sky, were empty.
Utena had only clearly seen the last panel, The End, one time, but it was now vivid in her mind. The wind howled around the carousel ever louder. Tears pricked Utena’s eyes as she reflected on the prince’s words and the stabbed girl. She was grateful, of course, to the prince for saving her from the coffin (but what had happened after that?), but why wouldn’t he explain what he was protecting her from now? Or where they were going? Surely she deserved to know, to fully share this journey with him, instead of just trusting that he was acting in her best interest. Instead of just trusting…
(But he had to be acting in her best interest. He was a prince; he protected her.)
There were swords piercing the girl’s wrists. Her arms were outflung and her fingers splayed.
Utena faced towards the center of the carousel so the prince wouldn’t see her expression and rested her head on the cold mane of the pretend horse. Passively, she watched her face in the mirrors as they passed, and closed her eyes to the carved panels, even though the image now lived on the backs of her eyelids.
A scuffed look in the wood above one mirror caught Utena’s eye. Letters, she realized. She had to wait another cycle to look more closely. It was one word, barely visible, in angular letters: W I T C H. It was crude, not matching the fine detail of the carvings--rather it resembled the X scratched over the stabbed girl’s breast.
Utena half-closed her eyes, trying to make sense of the word. Her mind stayed blank as she watched a series of her reflections parallel her journey.
But there was something else in the mirrors. A shadow that wasn’t hers--at least, she didn’t recognize it as hers. It was a dark underlay sunk under the clear surface of the mirror, like a hole in otherwise shallow water. The longer that Utena watched herself circle in the mirrors, the less ephemeral the shadow became. The whirlwind was a scream now, but Utena still heard the prince sigh once, a very soft breath.
The shadow in the mirror had green eyes wide and watching, brown arms outstretched and supplicating, dark hair curling and wild. Her dress was red.
The girl in the mirror who wasn’t Utena was screaming.
Utena yelled and jerked away from the mirrors, almost falling from her motionless horse.
“Please be careful!” said the prince in concerned alarm. “You have to stay on your horse.”
“Why is there a girl in the mirrors!?” Utena screamed at him. She clutched the whorled pole as tears overflowed from her eyes, tiny warm springs. There had been a girl in the dark of her past, that time, a girl in red. But while the prince she remembered seemed larger-than-life, the girl had been a spot of red in the dark. She’d fallen out of Utena’s memory, that witch. If only I hadn’t let her fall, Utena thought helplessly. I could have acted, if only I’d remembered.
She hung her head for a second over the horse’s, and once she’d suppressed the tears enough to speak, cried to the prince in a raw voice “Get her out of there!”
“I wish I could,” he whispered. His eyes were dark with sorrow. Utena imagined that he was thinking, If only you had remembered her, too.
“Save her!” she demanded of him, angry now and wishing she didn’t sound like a petulant princess now, when the one in the mirror was writhing there trapped.
The prince spoke further, hesitantly. Utena could barely hear him over the roar of sound. “You see…the only reason the merry-go-round moves is because she’s at its center. You can’t save her, because then everything would stop turning.”
Utena stared at the prince in disbelief. From her perspective where she sat astride her own pretend horse, he wasn’t moving; only the scenery was moving and repeating and the center with its mirrors and panels and prisoner was moving and repeating. Utena felt the witch press sweaty palms to the opposite surface of the mirror.
The prince told her, “Nor can you go to the other side of the mirror, naturally. You can only be reflected. Besides…”
He trailed off, or else the creaking scream of wind drowned him out, but Utena had stopped listening already. She swung her left leg to sit facing the carousel’s core. There were swords tormenting the witch girl as the carousel spun. For an instant their eyes met, and a sensation of being tugged towards two places at once jolted Utena. She had to save the witch, to stop the carousel at least, but had no idea how. She dropped from her mount, disregarding her prince’s warning cry, and pressed herself to the mirror. Disorientation made her head spin drunkenly, even though she was now on a narrow, centermost section of floor that didn‘t turn. Her need to save the dark girl was like trying to claw through an immovable wall overgrown with thorns.
Utena’s hands left smeared fingerprints on the formerly pristine mirrors. Unable to reach the prisoner, she started crying again. Tears streamed from the other’s eyes.
Are you trying to free me?
I’m so sorry, if only I could, Utena replied with all her heart, pressing her head hard to the face of the mirror as if she could melt through that way. But the mirror was adamant and didn’t yield.
Despite her suffering, the witch’s voice was dispassionate. Utena wanted to tell her, don’t leave--I have to save you from this. I’m sorry I forgot you were in that dark space that I walked through, following the prince.
However, for a short time, Utena had stayed by the trapped girl, neither of them moving, while the carousel turned around them and the sea-green hills stood still.
Now the merry-go-round was slowing, the gale around it winding down to a breeze. Utena, her vision blurred, watched the witch sink away into the depths of the carousel’s core. She faded just as she had from Utena’s childhood memories. Utena was staring at herself.
A gentle hand rested on her shoulder as the horses creaked to a crawl. “You can’t be with me if you don’t want to continue on our journey,” said the prince.
Utena looked up at him, wiping at her tear-streaked cheeks with one sleeve. She shook her head, and despite her horror at what the carousel was built around it broke her heart to part from her prince. But it was because he was her prince that she had to decline.
“Then please leave,” he said, in his tone of resigned sorrow. He held her hand with the rose ring for a moment as she stared into her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she told him and the departed girl in the barest whisper, and he led her to the edge of the carousel, which had stopped turning for them. Utena clutched her left hand to her heart and told herself not to forget this time. She had to remember the girl.
Utena ran as fast as she could through ripe grasses and lavender flowers, not looking back at the carousel.