He can never be still. Corridor to corridor, feet on stone, room to room, tripping on carpet. His mother brushes his fly-away hair with the resigned look of a woman whose life was defined by her womanhood, who was trying very hard to define her child into a shape that could not be harmed.
He tore the dresses.
It was never deliberate, or almost never. He moved too quick, danced too passionate, didn’t ride side-saddle into the forest, no matter how his father reprimanded him, slapped him over rosy pink cheeks.
He tore his dresses in the forest. On roots and on vines, on the poison ivy and the bonds of the willow tree. He lost his attendants and spun with his arms at his side, looking up at the dappling light of the Sun or the beauty of the Night.
His breasts ache as they grow. He will place his hands flat over them, try to push them down, wince as the linen scratches him or skin-on-skin is too hard. Still, he learns to breathe steady when speaking to a crowd, to look at a map and know its rivers, to respond to ‘Princess’ and ‘My Lady’. He learns the names of the trees, and rests his forehead against their trunks to hear the water and breath within them.
He wears his mother’s diadem and tries not to feel like a liar in his body, in the eyes of his people.
He never learns to breathe in a corset. Breathe, breathe, breathe, he will tell himself, but the air becomes locked under his collarbones, trapped in his sternum, just as his waist becomes smaller, his chest draws more eyes. He asks his lady in waiting to tighten the corset. To make it as tight is at can be. He feels all the breath leave him, thinking he can not crave it if he forgets how it once felt.
He tore the dresses. Tore the corsets. The petticoats. His feet, clad in leather on too-high heels, stumbled from the cobblestone straight to the forest floor – or so it felt. His forehead on the cool earth, his hands knotted in the roots and the flowers. He forced himself to let go. Not to pull. Not to hurt. Pressed his ear to the trunk of the chestnut tree, felt its sap, its bark. Felt the bark cut him.
Went home. Put on a new slip, pulled the corset up as high as he could, and pulled tight. Pulled tight. Pulled tight. Pulling tighter, tighter, tighter.
He looks at maps, knows their rivers and mountains, forests and deserts. He can not breathe and he aches for it. He is stiff and jolted, he is angry and calm and kind and soft and laughing and sobbing without air in his lungs. The forest breathes for him. Enveloped in the night, drinking in the rain and the sun and dancing with the wind.
He strips himself of his riding gloves. Leather heels. Garters. Stockings. Pockets. Gown stomacher apron stays corset skirt shift bloomers, all neatly folded, put aside on a rock. He is gasping in desperation, arms at his sides. Naked under the setting sun. The diadem is balanced in his hair. It is true red in the dying light, a flyaway halo around him. The trees breathe far better than he, he thinks, and doesn’t care as they scratch him.
There is a diamond on the ground, shimmering lilac and gold. He does not think on the strangeness, the wrongness of it, as he presses it to the diadem, and the diadem takes it in. Knots the stone into its metal.
He breathes in time with the trees.
He dresses himself as the stars bite at him with cold, and he sees the mountains, the forests, the rivers, with no map before him. His feet fall slow and steady on the cobblestone and his father’s hands do not hit him for a torn dress or a too-late hour, as neither occurred.
He drifted through days and waltzed through nights just waiting for a moment in the forest. Free of riding gloves. Leather heels. Garters. Stockings. Pockets. Gown stomacher apron stays corset skirt shift bloomers. Naked. Arms at his sides and chest moving so freely.
“Who are you?” He does not panic at the sight of the woman. She seems in place, up on the branches of the elm tree, golden dress falling far below her. He did his best to cover his nakedness, dropped into a crouch, but the woman was barely looking at him. “A princess?” The word cut him like it had not in years. “A prince?” It stung his open wounds. “A poor person from the country?” He tried to nod, looking up at her from his knees, but she cackled and he knew she knew. She knew him.
He struggled to stand, but his breathing had stopped once more, his legs felt sewn into the Earth. “Can you help me, please?” She said nothing. “Please?”
“Do you want to go home, little prince?” the woman asked. She was slow, contemplative. He did not have the strength to ask her how she drifted without aide, from the branch to the ground.
“No,” he said. He pushed his hair back behind the diadem, the warm, constant weight of metal.
“Don’t you like it there?”
“No,” he said. He couldn’t lie to her. He knew he could not. She was right in front of him, though he could not recall how she came to be there. “I like it best here,” he said, because somehow he knew it was what she wanted to know.
The woman nodded, her grey eyes expressionless. “Do you like being a person?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you breathe?”
“The trees breathe. You like the trees. They breathe more than you ever have.”
He tried to get to his feet, nakedness be damned. He must have been taller than her. He could not. His legs were locked together. “Yes,” he whispered.
“Would you like to be a tree?” she asked. She touched the diamond, the diamond that the forest had given him. “I thought you might, I thought the diamond might help.” He shuddered as her hand trailed down from his forehead to his lips to his chin, lifting his head to see her. “Do you want to be a tree?”
“I don’t know,” he said, because it was the only thing he knew how to say. He couldn’t dig his toes into the Earth. “I want to do the right thing.”
“Do you want to be a tree?” she repeated, and he knew – though he didn’t know how, as she was the same as she always had been – that he was getting angry.
“I don’t know!”
She turned away from him, the dress shifting from golden to red as she moved. “Which is your favourite tree?” She had shouted, and the words bounced back between the trees and nooks and crannies of the forest, his beloved trees. She was too loud. “Which is your favourite--?”
“The Oak Tree!” he yelled back. “Please help me up!” His legs were no longer legs, but flesh, veins not so much transparent blue as deep brown cracks, skin peeling. “Please, help me stand!”
“You are standing!” the woman snarled. He could only see the back of her dress, deep, angry red, like pouring blood. He clutched his hand to the diadem, over the diamond. The world around him was shifting, trees becoming human – or were they always human? - humans becoming trees, colours brighter darker, shining and falling. “Look after them, Oak Tree, they’re yours now,” the woman said. She was gone. His ribs felt like they were fluttering, lungs coming back to life. Perhaps they were. He felt the breath of the forest flowing through him, and felt the diamond bury itself into his trunk. Into his heart. He looked around to the trees, his beautiful trees, and somehow knew that they looked back. They knew him.