Three (Dancing Princes)
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The orphanage was going to be demolished on the morning of May 5. Igor wore his best black suit for the occasion, dressing for a funeral, because it was. The funeral of his past, or so he thought, sitting on the bench in front of the old building. Most people believed the construction to be the two-storey house of a middle class family, not an abandoned casa-lar; a small legal institution with the capacity of sheltering up to ten children, like the kid he once had been.
He arrived earlier than the demolition team, but he didn’t have the courage to explore inside or say goodbye. Instead, he bough himself breakfast and a pack of cigarettes, and waited until a single yellow excavator appeared in the street.
Well, this is it, Igor thought. Blurred images of tunnels and masquerades crossed the back of his head, but only two other men would understand the meaning of that.
It’s finally the end.
Igor was not an orphan when he was first taken to casa-lar. He was part of a large number of children unfit for adoption since he had a living mother, but he was sent to live there until she was able to improve her financial situation. At eight, he didn’t understand that very well, but she asked him to be brave and he was.
Nine children were enrolled in the house at the time, seven girls and two boys, including himself and Douglas, who never said a word. They slept in the four bedrooms upstairs while their foster mother, a sixty-year-old woman named Janete, slept downstairs.
“We’re the only boys here, so we should be friends!”
Igor stared at the kid who smiled at them. He did want a friend, as Douglas could barely be called a roommate, but he was also sure that one slept in the extreme opposite of the second floor, along with two older girls.
“The name’s Maicon, before you ask.”
“If you’re a boy, why aren’t you in our room?” Igor frowned behind his square glasses. Maicon burst into laughter, sounding too effusive for a situation that was not funny at all.
“Oh, that! That was a miscalculation,” Maicon assured, sitting with them on the carpet of the living room. “I told Aunt Janete, but she’s too stubborn to accept her mistakes. Authority figures, you know?”
“Don’t I look like a boy to you?” Maicon asked gravely. He did, in fact, look like any other boy. He had short curly hair, reddish brown skin tanned after too many hours under the sun, and a large scar going from his jaw to the middle of his cheek.
“Isn’t your name Maísa?” Douglas said for the first time. He was shorter than both of them, and his voice sounded raspy, like he had not used it for years.
Maicon widened his big black eyes for a second, and Igor could almost swear he blushed, but then he smiled again.
“That was my dad, can you believe it? Doing everything all wrong! I mean, he also did this.” Maicon pointed at his own face, touching the scar with his thumb. “So it’s not a big surprise he would mess up in other ways, right?”
“You can try talk to her, then,” Igor said.
“Great! Now that it’s settled that you two are okay with it, I just need to convince Aunt Janete.” Maicon sighed, gesturing dramatically. “She needs to understand that the girls don’t want me there either. Too much of a Don Juan, you know.”
Aunt Janete had already agreed to use Maicon’s new name, but she was resolute in the idea that he couldn’t move dormitories. That only changed one evening, after the girls started to yell in the corridor, and the old woman appeared in their room, red in the face and dragging Maicon by the ear:
“Bring your other things here!” She ordered, and Maicon smiled with a backpack over his shoulder and a pillow under his armpit. “Listen, you. This is just a trial, but if you act like a pest again, I’ll make you sleep in the living room—Alone!”
Maicon looked very full of himself, and hummed while the others brought a third bed to the boy’s room.
“How did you do it?” Igor asked, closing the door after she left. “And what was the screaming all about?”
“Oh, nothing too serious!” Maicon threw himself on the mattress, and his legs went up in the air. “They don’t know how to take a joke, that’s what it was!”
“That doesn’t explain how she let you come here.”
“Well, she said I was causing too much trouble around the girls,” Maicon snickered.
Douglas snuck his head out of the upper bunk bed he shared with Igor, his pale skin looking pink and sunburnt around his nose and cheekbones.
“They probably can’t stand you anymore,” Douglas snapped, and Igor was more surprised that Maicon had been able to make Douglas talk than that the two were bickering again. “You’re so annoying.”
“You only open your mouth to talk shit, huh!” Maicon hopped to the floor, and walked around the bunk bed, pointing furiously at Douglas. “Don’t you know how to make friends?”
“Maicon,” Igor said. “If you keep fighting, Ms. Janete will make you sleep downstairs, remember?”
“Oops,” Maicon laughed as he sat on Igor’s pillow. “Forgot about that.”
“Let’s all treat each other well, okay?”
Douglas huffed, but Maicon wasn’t paying attention anymore, caught up by something in the wall.
“Hey, Igor,” he said, crawling to reach the wall near the bunk bed. He touched the light green wallpaper. “Check this out.”
Igor squinted his round eyes, holding the lenses of his glasses close to his face like that could improve his sight, seeing a slight prominence underneath.
“There is something, that’s true…”
There, behind the wall, under Maicon’s open palm, was a thin line. He tapped the wood, and the wall sounded like a door had just been knocked.
“What are you two doing?” Douglas climbed down the ladder. “What’s that?”
“I think it’s a door,” Igor whispered, looking at them.
“That’s stupid.” Douglas’ upturned nose wrinkled in disgust. “Why would someone put a door in there?”
“Guys.” Maicon ignored Douglas, making a sign for Igor to get up and help him push the bed aside. Then, he took a box cutter out of the pocket of his shorts.
“Why do you have that with you, you delinquent?” Douglas asked in a low voice, sounding unsettled.
“You never know when you’re gonna need one.” Maicon grinned, and began to slice the wallpaper. “If I do it carefully, we’ll be able to glue it back later.”
“Maicon.” Igor knelt to help him. “It’s…”
“It’s a trapdoor,” Douglas finished his sentence, his head in the middle of theirs.
The three stared at the hole in disbelief. Igor grabbed the old flashlight in the drawer, Douglas turned off the lights, and Maicon crawled into the trapdoor, disappearing from sight as soon as he had his two feet in.
The machine was not as quick as Igor had expected it to be. He had never witnessed the destruction of a house before, but he imagined it to be swift and brutal, just as he wished the end of his memories to be. Instead, the excavator looked like an immense gray hand scraping casa-lar, making small chunks of brick fall slowly to the pavement.
“Pretty ugly, huh?”
Igor turned around to see a familiar face. A man his age, of average size, sat on the same bench to watch. He had dark curly hair shaved on the sides, a five o’clock shadow, and a thin white scar covering part of his cheek and the left jaw.
“Who else?” Maicon smiled, flattening his dress shirt.
Igor sighed, massaging his forehead. Despite wearing contacts for years, he still had the habit of touching his broad nose, trying to fix the phantom glasses he would never find again.
“If you want my honest opinion, I expected you to be dead by now.”
Maicon smirked, looking at the house with the corner of his eye.
“You think too little of me! You probably also thought I would turn into a drug dealer or something like that, right?” He joked, what seemed like an engagement ring shining in his hand. “I’m not proud of everything I did in the past, but I’m not that bad.”
Igor smiled, his shoulders relaxing, and passed him a paper bag full of pão-de-queijo.
“So, what are you doing now?”
“I sell air conditioners. Nothing too wild,” Maicon added, biting off a piece of the bread. “And I’m gonna marry next year. She’s pretty nice.”
“That’s good,” Igor said, but he couldn’t help thinking of Maicon’s first love, the girl behind the porcelain mask. Did he still remember her? Did he still remember the trapdoor behind the wall?
“What about you? You’re looking all fancy, can’t deny that.”
“Wait, don’t say anything!” Maicon continued, leaving as little space for Igor to answer as he had in the past. “You’re a doctor, right? You always said you wanted to become a doctor.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
A particularly violent crash made them stop talking and focus on the house.
“We’ll never see it again, huh.”
“Never,” Igor agreed, watching as the ceiling of the second story fell entirely to the ground.
The hole in the wall took the three of them to a small passage where only one person could walk at once, and then to several sets of stairs leading downwards. When they reached what should have been the basement, another entrance opened to show a wide tunnel whose floor was an ornate mosaic of colored glass.
“Do you think Aunt Janete knows about this place?”
“I don’t think so…”
“Are you guys hearing this?”
This was a sound they would recognize for many years to come as the music of their dreams: the distant waltz, the ghostly orchestra, the clinking of crystal glasses along with merry laughter. The children kept going, curious, their journey illuminated by the faint flashlight, following the labyrinthine lines drawn on the ground.
At last, they found another door. Behind it were wonders they had never seen before: avenues of trees with leaves made of silver, golden vines climbing painted walls, a ceiling with encrusted diamonds glittering like stars. A great lake waited ahead, along with three small boats.
“The music is louder now,” one pointed out to the other. The oars moved on their own, taking them to the other side.
Igor, Maicon and Douglas did not know this yet, but they would return to the underground palace for as many nights as they could in the following years. They would arrive at the same ballroom to be greeted by the same princesses, and marvel as their polyester shorts and old shirts turn into fine silk, taffeta, velvet and brocades. Only the flip-flops remained the same, but their hosts didn’t seem to care, dancing with them until dawn.
“I don’t know what’s happening, but I’m going to find out,” Aunt Janete said one day. She was holding their shoes, scrunching up her eyes at the thinness of the rubber soles. “Most of the donations we receive go to you three because your flip-flops go to the thrash every two weeks.”
“Maybe it’s because the shoes we have are of low quality,” answered a thirteen year old Maicon with a knowing look. “In the end, poor people have to renew their clothes way more times than the rich. Isn’t that tragic?”
“Tragic…” The woman put a bag full of clothes in front of them. “Is what your chores will be if you keep being a smartass, Maicon.”
Douglas sneered and Maicon elbowed him before running to see what was inside.
“I’m gonna call Child Services, that’s what I’m gonna do,” Maicon warned her, trying to contain his own smile. He chose a pair of black Havaianas that were a little too big for his feet. “I’m being threatened here.”
“We’ll take more care in school, Ms. Janete.” Igor covered his mouth with his hand in order not to laugh. “We promise.”
When she left, the boys stared at each other. Maicon put a cigarette in his mouth, and Douglas threw a lighter to his lap.
“It’s gonna be a problem if we keep ruining our shoes.”
“It’s already bad enough that we don’t get proper sleep,” Igor agreed, and opened his hand, gesturing for a cigarette. “We can only go down there in the weekends now, or I’ll never graduate.”
“If we stayed down there, we would never have to,” Maicon muttered, rubbing his scar. “I wouldn’t mind being rich for the rest of my life. Besides…”
“There’s no woman like her.” Smoke slipped from the corners of his wide mouth, and Maicon laughed alone, as if he was picturing her in his mind. “Girls in here are just not the same.”
Igor knew exactly which one of the many underground princesses Maicon was dreaming of. There were twelve of them, but only one that Maicon danced with, the same one that had greeted him when they first stepped out of the boat, years ago. She was graceful and tall, wearing a white gown made of countless pearls that made her obsidian skin shimmer dark blue under the lights.
However, like all the men and women of the ball besides them, she hid her face behind a mask, and not even Maicon knew what she truly looked like.
“As if you understood much about that,” Douglas made a face at him, and Maicon raised an eyebrow.
“More than you for sure.”
“He is quite popular in school,” Igor agreed. “Don’t ask me why.”
“Why are you defending Maicon now?”
“Some people can’t handle the truth. Not that it matters,” Maicon said, taking a last draw before putting out the cigarette. “Other women can’t compare. They’re just games. She’s the real deal.”
“Well, excuse me if I matured before you.” Maicon turned to Igor, ignoring Douglas’ reddish dismay. “Tell Douglas that we can’t help being the best of the bunch. It’s in our nature.”
Igor laughed but gestured for Douglas to calm down.
“It’s just a joke.”
Joke or not, Douglas and Maicon spent the rest of the day discussing about it, and only forgot the subject when it was night. They started to count the minutes, waiting for the moment they would go through the trapdoor in the wall.
“What do you think of this?” Maicon asked, looking at a small mirror glued to the door. He had brushed his curls into a small pompadour, and used the free cologne samples he collected from different stores to perfume himself.
“Gimme a bit of that,” Douglas said, pulling the small plastic flask from Maicon’s hand.
“Ooh, trying to look a bit better for the princesses? You surely need it.”
“Don’t start fighting.” Igor applied two drops of the cologne to his neck, and gelled his trimmed coils. “It gives me a headache.”
“You say that, but everything’s easier for you.” Maicon stuck his tongue out. “I’ve been trying to make myself presentable for three hours.”
Like all the times they went down, Maicon had spent a good while in the bathroom trying to bind with any fabric he could find until he was pleased with his chest, then attempted at least ten different hairstyles with Douglas’ help. Ms. Janete thought all the beauty products meant the three were growing up, and asked Igor frequently if all of this was for a girlfriend, to which he could only smile.
“Okay. Let’s turn the lights off.”
At that point, they knew the path like the back of their hands. They crossed the avenues of silver, gold and diamonds until they reached the lake, and entered the three boats. Igor admired the slow movement of the water, as it guided them to the ball. How did such wonders existed under the house? How did the underground court hide all this time? Those were questions he needed answers for, but he was never able to ask, not when they arrived.
“Look at him go,” Igor whispered to Douglas. The princess of the pearl dress had offered her hand to Maicon, who held it and kissed it before leaving for a dance. “Maicon really likes her, don’t you think?”
“Huh.” Douglas curled his narrow lips. “Maybe.”
A finely dressed woman appeared in front of Igor, and he forgot all about their bickering and fights.
“It will be a pleasure,” he said, holding her thin fingers. His pajama had already changed into a vest, and the ivory collar of the shirt hugged the black skin of his neck.
They danced and drank like they never would above the ground. The long blonde hair of his partner swirled as she seemed to float over the dancefloor and between his arms. Her pleasant voice sounded like she was hiding a smile beneath the mask. Igor saw Douglas change from princess to princess several times, but he soon stopped, sitting at the long table and stayed there for the rest of the night.
“Don’t worry about him,” the princess murmured near Igor’s ear, and he wondered what her breath would feel like. She looked sparkly white and cream under the candlelight. “Keep dancing with me.”
“Are we all gathered here to party or what?” A third person caught their attention, forcing their eyes away from the crumbling walls.
Douglas was still the shortest of them, and his straight brown hair was slicked back, showing the beginning of a receding hairline. For a moment, Igor couldn’t understand it was really him; their shared memories were foggy now, like a distant picture he could not reach. Maicon had always been in his mind to give a name to his concerns, but Douglas’ image was stuck at the age of sixteen.
“It’s been a while.” Igor shook his hand, but Maicon didn’t move a muscle, not even turning around.
Douglas looked at Maicon, first in what seemed to be confusion, then he attempted a shy smile.
“Things didn’t really end up nicely between us, so it’s no surprise. But I guess we’re all here for the same reason. Do you mind if I stay?”
“I think you should ask him that.”
Ahead, the excavator carried pieces of what might have been their old bedroom; a spectacle passers-by paid little to no attention, appreciated only by the three of them. Maicon stared at his own nails, bitten to the quick.
“Don’t mind me,” Maicon said, going as far as he could in the bench to leave space for Douglas to sit by Igor’s side. “The street’s not mine.”
Maicon only told him once about his scar. He said his dad had broken a bottle of cachaça against the wall, and that’s how it happened: a hand clenching his childish neck, shattered glass burying into his face, smelling strongly of cheap alcohol, splashing blood and leaving a cut shaped like an S.
Sometimes Igor thought of how Maicon would probably never see his family again: his other siblings all went to different houses, his father had been arrested, and he had no idea where his mother was. Douglas was similar, in this sense: his parents had died in a car crash, and while he had living grandparents, they chose to give him away. Those scenarios were hard for Igor to comprehend. Every day, he imagined how it would be to go back to his house, into the arms of his mother, who not only lived but loved him. She visited him sometimes, and asked him to wait just a little more.
Although only he and Maicon were unfit for adoption, Douglas was also a lost case. At sixteen, he was too old to be noticed by willing parents, as others used to say.
At least here we have the princesses, Igor thought. And I guess I like the two of them.
“Ready?” Maicon whispered, running to their bunk bed.
“I’m not feeling like going today,” Douglas yawned. He was still lying on the mattress, glaring at the ceiling. “I’m tired.”
“Let us past, then,” Igor answered.
Maicon nodded, frowning, and didn’t wait for Douglas’ response before he dragged him out of bed by the neck, almost throwing him down the ladder.
“What are you, an animal?” Douglas screeched, hitting Maicon to escape his grip.
“There. Let’s go, Igor,” Maicon said, and the two pushed the bed away.
When they knelt to open the trapdoor, it wasn’t there.
“Where is it?” Maicon asked, agitated. “Where?”
“Maybe they locked you out of it,” Douglas suggested.
“I’m gonna punch your fucking face.”
“Wait,” Igor said, holding Maicon’s wrist. “Douglas, come here.”
“I told you I’m not going today.”
“I just want to check something.”
Douglas walked heavily toward them, and sat on the floor, dusting the bottom of his pajama. When he did, a small protuberance began to appear, and the door was visible again.
“I think it only works when we’re together.”
“Well, then no one’s going today.”
“Why are you being like this?” Maicon shook Douglas by the shoulder, taking him by surprise.
“Because I don’t want to go!”
“We can’t force him, Maicon.”
Maicon looked at both of them, his chin trembling, and went back to his own bed. That night, they didn’t go downstairs, and the same thing happened again and again the following nights. When Douglas finally agreed to go, he said nothing as they walked through the avenues, and only looked at the water the entire boat ride.
The three were met with the same warm reception, as if not a day had passed since they were little boys in awe. Igor smiled as one of the princesses offered him a glass of pink sparkly wine, guiding him by the hand, and he forgot all about Douglas’ odd behavior.
Above them, an enormous tree descended from the dirt ceiling, its twisted branches holding hundreds of candles like a monstrous chandelier. The fire never seemed to burn the wood, and night blooming jasmines sprouted from the trunk like twirling vines.
“Come here,” Maicon said in a low voice to the princess in the pearl gown, as if he thought no one could hear. He was almost as tall as her, and his forehead touched the upper part of her sculpted mask.
Her giggle was a lovely, melodious sound, and she nodded, letting him take her elsewhere.
“What are you thinking of?” The princess in front of Igor asked, raising her face to look at him through her sapphire mask.
“Nothing,” Igor lied. The mask had almond shaped holes where her eyes must have been, but he couldn’t see anything, just a shadow, like there was only emptiness behind. He caressed her waist-long locks, holding her daffodil colored hair. “I wish I could see your face.”
“Perhaps when the sun rises,” she said, and he felt somewhat ill. Igor searched for his friends with his eyes, but Maicon had disappeared with the other princess and Douglas was nowhere to be seen. “Would you stay until then?”
Her hand, that once seemed so fragile, felt like a glass claw entwined to his, and Igor remembered Maicon’s words: If we stayed down there, we would never have to…
Igor wanted to say yes, I will stay, and watch as the party came to an end. He wanted to know all of their faces, and pretend he never had to worry about the world upstairs: no family, no studies, no future to think of, no money to be earned.
“Maybe one day,” he told her, and raised her by the waist to spin her in the air.
But the next day, Douglas said he would not go again.
“What is it, now?” Maicon asked, obvious irritation leaking through his voice.
“I have things to do,” Douglas went to the old wardrobe, and started to take his clothes out of the drawer.
“He’s just trying to invent another excuse.” Igor crossed his arms. “Typical.”
“You’re gonna have to get used to not going. That’s all I’m gonna say.” Douglas stuffed his school uniform into the backpack, and avoided to look at them. Maicon ran to him, and pulled the clothes out of his hand:
“We’re not going anymore, you idiot! I’m leaving!”
Silence followed his words, and the t-shirt Maicon held with both hands fell to the wooden floor.
“What do you mean?” Igor asked, feeling like someone had poured ice cold water over his head. “You can’t mean…”
“I do.” Douglas continue to pack his things. “What, just because you two are going to stay here until the end of your lives, that doesn’t mean I should!”
“Are you getting adopted?” Maicon’s voice was low, and his nostrils flared. “That’s what you’re trying to say?”
“What if I am?”
“Since when? Why didn’t you tell us before?” Igor scowled.
“Didn’t think it was relevant,” Douglas said, but he didn’t look at them again. “But they’re nice people. It’s gonna be good for me.”
“How dare you?” Maicon roared, dark hair covering his eyes. His mouth was curled up into a snarl, and his clenched fists started to shake. “How dare you ruin things for us? This—Our magic, the only magic I ever had—How could you take this away from us?”
Igor believed that Douglas had the right to leave, if he had the chance, but he couldn’t stop himself from feeling as betrayed by the news as Maicon felt. How could he? He wanted to shout, but instead, his mind kept telling him they would never feast like that again, they would never dance until their feet were sore, they would never see the mysterious faces of the princesses who had waited for them for almost ten years.
“You’re a child,” Douglas snapped, and Maicon pushed him to the ground.
“This is why your family abandoned you,” Maicon hissed, his teeth appearing like a dog about to bite. “You’re unbearable.”
“You’re hopeless, Maicon! There’s no salvation for you!” Douglas jumped back to his feet, and shoved Maicon against the wardrobe. “Instead of accepting reality, you’re just dreaming about things you can’t have. Wake up! There’s no trapdoor in the wall anymore, there’s no princess that loves you, and you’ll never, ever be a boy!”
Igor couldn’t track what happened after that. He saw Maicon punching Dougla’s face and slamming him against the floor again. There were screams, and insults, but he couldn’t listen or move. He felt his world crumbling, and he wanted it back—he wanted to be with them while they joked and fought, he wanted to close his eyes and pretend he wasn’t there, he wanted to run to the underground…
“What’s going on here?”
“Maicon, stop!” One of the girls yelled, covering her mouth. “Maicon!”
“Igor,” another said, jerking him by the arm. “Igor, do something! You’re bigger than them!”
It was only when he saw the blood that he ran toward them, holding Maicon while two girls pulled Douglas away.
“You’re right,” Maicon spat red, with a couple of bruises blooming on his face. “I’m not a boy. Unlike you, I’m already a man.”
What was once casa-lar was now dust and crumbles, piles of broken cement, and shattered, rotten wood. If he tried hard enough, Igor could see where the kitchen had been, or the space that belonged to the bathroom of the first floor. He could see them running down the stairs, wearing their white and blue uniforms, snickering behind Ms. Janete while she talked to the girls.
Closing his eyes, he could be back in the old dormitory, the last one of the corridor, see the holes in the wallpaper and the bunk bed covering the door in the wall… And yet he wasn’t there. Ms. Janete was dead, he had his own home, and they would never cross the little trapdoor again.
“Ha…” Douglas said, wiping the sweat off his forehead. “Remember that we used to believe that there was this magic kingdom under the basement, and we would go every night to dance in there?”
Igor looked down his chest, his dress shirt too different from the court coats made of embroidered velvet and satin, his shoes too comfortable compared to the battered flip-flops that used to hurt his feet.
“Always the sunshine, aren’t you?” Maicon answered, forcing eye contact between them for the first time. Douglas flushed, pink covering his light cheeks. “One would have thought you’d be a bit less of a negative fuck nowadays.”
Douglas opened his mouth, staring at his own shoes, like he was trying to find the correct words.
“I’m sorry, man.”
There was something in his tone, and the way he couldn’t keep his head high that made Igor wish it was more than just apologizing for this specific day, like he was making things right at last.
“I mean it, Maicon.” Douglas made a small pause, touching his shoulder. “Besides, if they’re still somewhere down there, I’m sure your princess will be just fine, forever waiting for you and dancing until her feet break…”
Maicon smiled like he hadn’t in more than a decade, looking as bright as he did in the first day.
“I still hear it,” Igor said, and both of them looked at him. “The music.”
“Now more than ever.” Maicon closed his eyes. “It’s the orchestra, I’m sure.”
Indeed, a faint melody seemed to come from the debris, playing the waltz they knew by heart. The sound was muffled, covered by layers of trash and earth, coming from the path to the underground palace. Igor also closed his eyes, allowing himself to be there for the last time, singing their songs, dancing their dances, swirling their princesses across the remains. For now, he believed—only for now—it was farewell.1 Comment
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About the Author
H. Pueyo (@argiopidae on Twitter) is a Brazilian writer and translator, currently working with comics and short fiction. Her publications include Mad Scientist Journal, Bourbon Penn and Luna Station Quarterly, as well as several comic anthologies.