Dama Bianca by Urška Vidoni

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who lived in a beautiful castle. And all she ever wanted was for a noble prince to come and sweep her off her feet. After some trials the young prince finally found the princess and they lived happily ever after with their beautiful children in his castle in a far-off land.

This is how fairy tales usually go, right? Well, this is not a fairy tale after all. The beginning doesn’t change, but there won’t be an ‘and they lived happily ever after’ at the end.

There was indeed a beautiful young woman and there was a noble knight. And all she wanted was to have a husband and child. And all he wanted was to have a wife to fill his big old castle. When the young lady first laid her eyes on the knight at one of the balls in the neighbourhood, she thought him to be the most elegant and handsome man she’d ever seen. He noticed her noticing him, and the deal was sealed – that was to be his future wife. A dance, a laugh and a walk later they were engaged, married and settled in the castle.

The lady had everything she’d ever hoped for: a loving husband who doted on her, a huge home, which had a mesmerizing view of the vast sea and the land beyond, and a few months later a beautiful baby boy graced their lives. She thought she might burst with joy.

Every second Friday of every month the two hosted a ball; they were both so fond of dancing. All the noble families of the area were invited, elegant women in colourful gowns were swinging around accompanied by their men, dressed in their best frocks. The hall was decorated, flowers were hanging from the pillars, white, pink and blue ones – always the same colours; candles were lit and everything was sparkling bright.

In the ballroom the orchestra was playing upbeat melodies, while numerous couples were dancing in the middle of the room, young ones and old ones alike, swinging to the rhythm of the music, jumping, twirling, turning, but always laughing. Everyone was jubilant, the atmosphere one of festivities.

But something is missing from this joyful picture in the ballroom. Where is our hostess?

Oh, there she is…

The hostess was floating around the main hall, talking to one group then the next, keeping her guests entertained. “How are you, ma’am?” “Are you enjoying yourself, sir?” “So good of you to come!” “So good of you to come!” Everyone loved her, they all had a smile spared only for her, a kind word, a “you look gorgeous tonight”. And this attention energised her, she fed on it, and it added an extra spring to her step, made her turning around the room seem like she was floating on air.

Why wasn’t she dancing tonight, madam? they would ask. Oh, not tonight. But that was what she said every night. So why wasn’t our madam dancing?

Occasionally she would meet the eye of her husband standing with his friends, seeming to have a good time, but always on the fringes of the room, never venturing too much into the heart of the celebrations. She would only glance at him occasionally, but she knew his eyes were on her all the time, they followed her turns, her springs, her twirls around the room. A smile was plastered on his face. “Are you having a good time, my dear?” she would ask her husband when drifting past his group. “Oh yes, darling, an excellent time!” And she was gone, on to the next group.

But the merriment, the dancing, the music, the laughing had to end at some time, it couldn’t be eternal. And even though, unlike for Cinderella, the party for our lady didn’t finish until the early hours of the morning, the carriage still had to turn back into a pumpkin.

When all the flowers were taken off the pillars, the candles extinguished, the once-bright hallways became quite dull. And the happy, smiling lady, was just a lady. What we weren’t allowed to see before, what the guests were too busy to notice, were the shadows hiding in the corners where the light of the party couldn’t reach.

And this is the real story…

The first year or so of their marriage was idyllic, our young lady couldn’t believe how lucky she was. Her baby boy was born a year in and every day she would spend as much time as she could with him – the little man filled her heart with love and pride and she couldn’t get enough of him. Her husband demanded all of the hours that she didn’t dedicate to her boy, but she didn’t mind really. When the weather was nice, they would take long walks on the paths along the cliffs and she could admire the beautiful sea, she never tired of that view no matter how much time she spent there. The sea was never the same; it didn’t just change from season to season, no it was faster than that – it changed day to day, hour to hour. One time it was calm and turquoise, the next green and wavy, then thundery and grey when a storm was approaching, pink, red, orange, yellow at sunsets. The colours were all mirrored in the cliff rocks as well, which were ordinarily so white, that the light reflecting off them was almost blinding; but then they caught fire in the evening hours or darkened to a menacing grey in storms. Oh, what a scene. A gentle breeze would accompany her along the cliff edge, bringing the scent of the salty water with it. On rainy days, when they couldn’t venture outside her husband asked her to the library, and he would read to her by the fire, read of heroic knights that slayed the dragons and saved the princesses, of wars raging in far-off lands, wars being won, wars being lost, wars never ending.

In the end, it was one such war that broke this idealness. The noble knight was called to arms, and he answered the call. A kiss for his son, and one for his wife, and he rode away on his horse, dressed in his best suit of armour.

Being without her husband for the first time in their marriage felt strange for our young lady. She wasn’t used to being alone in such a vast castle. At night the shadows started to terrify her, the howling of the wind became an unwanted sound. The rooms seemed colder and monotonous without him. How happy she was when he finally came back. And the presents he brought! For her and for their son… so many presents! We must throw a ball to celebrate, they agreed.

And so it was for years to come: leave – war; return – presents, ball. The pattern kept repeating itself with one exception. After the third time he returned from the war, still full of new riches, the lady noticed a looming shadow over the knight’s face, a darkness meant exclusively for her. After a kiss on his son’s cheek (he doted on his heir) he turned to her, eyes blazing with fire, a rage she’d never seen before. “I’ve heard what you’ve been doing in my absence!”

“I don’t understand, my dear,” she said, her voice calm (in appearance), soothing.

“You’ve been throwing balls in my absence!”

She couldn’t quite understand what upset him, was it the throwing balls part, or the in my absence one? “I have.” Careful. “The castle is so big and empty, my dear, when you’re gone that I needed the company to liven these dull days.” Her explanation didn’t abate his anger, but only made it worse. Flares were now sparking from his eyes, hitting her with full force.

“So, you’ve been entertaining gentlemen to fill you days.” Closer and closer was he to our lady, an overbearing figure that appeared enlarged in his anger, and made her cower.

“And their ladies, my dear, gentlemen from the surrounding lands and their—”

First blow.

“No balls in my absence.” A simple statement, delivered with coolness and sternness; then he turned and walked out of the room – just like that.

That slap had stunned her so much that she couldn’t move for some minutes. Mind blank, muscles paralysed. Only the crying of her son, which resonated through the room, brought her back to reality. She forgot the little boy was even there and worried that he had witnessed what had just happened. She hurried to him and tried to soothe him. As she picked him up, his small hand reached up and gently touched her still-stinging, bright-red cheek.

“It’s all right, my little man.”

Despite that episode the couple hosted a ball while the knight was home.

All the noble families of the area were invited, elegant women in colourful gowns were swinging around accompanied by their men, dressed in their best frocks. The hall was decorated, flowers were hanging from the pillars, white, pink and blue ones – always the same colours; candles were lit and everything was sparkling bright.

In the ballroom the orchestra was playing upbeat melodies, while numerous couples were dancing in the middle of the room, young ones and old ones alike, swinging to the rhythm of the music, jumping, twirling, turning, but always laughing. Everyone was jubilant, the atmosphere one of festivities.

However, this time it was different for our young lady. She twisted and turned around the room but her manners were not as carefree as they used to be. She didn’t bestow as many smiles or pleasant words as she was used to do. The spring in her step was gone, her gait was heavier, grounded to the floor. Of course no-one noticed, everyone was busy talking, dancing, having a good time. Not even her husband could see the change, her husband, for whom this whole charade was intended.

Earlier that evening, aiming to please him and trying to avoid another scene as the one we had before, the young lady set upon herself that she’ll keep a distance from her guests so that the knight wouldn’t misunderstand her pleasantries for flirtation. But in vain. After all the guests have left and the candles were extinguished…

Second blow.

This one came almost as more of a surprise than the first one. After all she hadn’t done anything wrong!

“I’m not blind, my dear. You’ve been making eye contact with quite a few gentlemen tonight. Don’t try to deny it, I was there.”

And she didn’t. She could see the effort would be futile. Her husband was too far gone in his conviction for anything to change his mind, least of all something she herself would say. This episode scared our young lady so much, not just because of the pain it had caused her, but because of the changed features on her husband’s face that delivered it. So frightened was she for herself, and even more for her child that in the long months the knight was kept at war in far-off lands, she holed herself and the child up in the castle, not ever taking any visitors, not leaving the fortress but for her daily walks.

No, she couldn’t deny herself that little pleasure of walking along the cliff edge gazing out at sea. Every day, at exactly the same time, she would spot two white swans gliding on the surface of the water, so elegant, so graceful. She envied them with all her heart – they were free. And yet, despite this, they chose to share their freedom with her, allowing her a glimpse of beauty in the dark days.

The vast blue plain took her mind wandering to what-could-have-beens and what-will-be’s. She tried to predict the future, her future, their future as a family, but as much as she focused on this, strong gusts of wind would sweep the images away, abandoning her in the present. “Nothing for you to see,” the wind seemed to whisper.

The past, that was even trickier. While what was to come didn’t want to reveal itself, what had been was too painful for her to dwell on. A number of questions piercing through her mind: when did she go wrong? Could she have done anything differently during her marriage to prevent this? Or were the issues anchored much further than this, in her younger years, when her vanity and desire led her to choose the knight with the prettiest and richest castle?

When her husband was at home, she tried to be the best wife she could, and when he wasn’t, she tried to be the best mother she could. But all was in vain; the knight couldn’t, or maybe didn’t want to, see the effort she was making for the family. The balls at the castle became less and less frequent, and her husband sought the company of the bottle instead.

The one constant in their life became his jealousy. Even though she turned herself into a recluse, nothing could have abated her husband’s accusations. The fights between the two became more and more regular, increasing proportionally in frequency to the knight’s drinking. She even gave up on her walks – “I know you’re meeting your gentlemen out there!”

There was nothing left for our lady but her young boy, to whom she dedicated all her time and loved with all her heart, making it her purpose to protect him from his volatile father.

Then, one evening, after dinner, the knight’s bad temper reached a new pinnacle. He was shouting with all his might at anyone and no one; blinded by the wine and his ire, he was throwing around anything that happened to be underneath his hands. The noises were heard throughout the castle, and quite likely well beyond its walls, rivalling the storm that was raging outside. A chain reaction of events followed: the little one started sobbing uncontrollably; the mother tried to soothe him; the father got angrier and angrier still (“Why won’t the child shut up!”); the mother got more and more frightened.

The need to protect her son above all else took over our lady. Her body and mind acted without any conscious thoughts behind them. She entrusted the boy to the nearest servant and ran outside. As she hoped, her husband followed her. She was running and running with all the strength she had in her, but even in his current state the knight was faster.

Even though it was pitch dark and the gushing rain obstructed her sight, she recognised where she ended up, her beloved spot at the cliff edge, her sanctuary. At that moment though, it didn’t bring her any peace, she only felt trapped. Her husband was ten metres away – weighing her options: go left, go right, behind only void.

Five metres away – panic, fear pressing down on her chest, her shoulders, pushing her to the ground.

Two metres away – nowhere left to go.

One metre…

Zero – push, falling, void.

As she was floating in the air, her thoughts went only to her son. Oh please, someone protect him.

Little did she know that her prayers were being heard, heard by the raging sea and the wild wind. In a mighty effort, just before she would have hit the water, the gusts of wind lifted her up, placing her on the lowest stone perched out from the cliff; a wave rose high up above the surface and washed over her inert body. Together the two elements cemented her there in perpetuity.

It is rumoured that every night our lady rose from her sleep and roamed the castle, haunting her husband, driving him to insanity, pushing him out of his home and out of her son’s life.

Every morning then she returned to her rock, protected by the elements and guarded by the two swans.

Now she still stands there, a white rock, a white lady, eternally falling, eternally looking out at the sea, so close to the freedom she so longed for.

About The Author

Urška comes from a small village near Trieste, Italy, where she has returned to after living for a number of years in Oxford, UK. She graduated in English Literature and Publishing from Oxford Brookes University and worked in an independent publishing house, Fairlight Books. Urška has only recently started writing short stories. This is her second short story to be published, following her first with Storgy in September 2020.

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