I hear myself breathing. My inhaling comes slow and steady, as does my exhaling. Each breath is perfectly paced, never coming too early or too late. I can tell just by watching my diaphragm rise and fall.
As I turn my head, I see Mother and Father huddled together on the settee. Father tries to wrap his arms around her, but each time he does, she pushes him away. Tears pour down my mother’s face. The handkerchief she wipes her eyes with only spreads her wet tears over her face. She has her hands clasped over her heart, like she is ready to catch it in case her violent wails dislodge it from her chest.
Father too has tears rolling down his cheeks, but he tries to stifle his sobs. He shakes each time he sucks in a breath, but he still attempts to comfort Mother. Even the staff have to turn away from me to wipe their eyes. Everyone in the room has matching red, swollen eyes. Everyone, except my sister, Aella.
“You truly know how to dampen everyone’s spirits, don’t you?” Aella says as she hoists herself to sit on my bed. “You’d think that they’re the ones who are dying.” She gestures toward everyone dressed in mourning attire.
“Ahem.” I muster a small amount of strength and jab her with my elbow. “Aella, we talked about this. Remember?”
“I know,” she interrupts. “You’re not dying today, just . . .”
“Slipping into a catatonic state in which I will lose all consciousness,” I finish for her.
“How is that different from dying?” Aella asks. “You won’t be able to move. You won’t know what’s happening around you. You won’t be able to talk to anyone. You won’t be able to talk to me.” Her cheeks grow flushed, and she leans closer to my face. Her next words come out in a pain-filled whisper. “Adira, is that what you want?”
No words come. My lips part, but no words come out. This is a new sensation. I always have a perfect response to any question asked of me. Still, my sister’s question leaves me at a loss for words.
Is this what I want?
Today’s the big banquet event that Mom and Dad have been preparing me for over the past few months. I’ve memorized the complete family history of every dignitary that will attend tonight. And Dad says that since Mom and Aella are still recovering, it’s up to him and me to represent the family.
Aella is my baby sister. She’s almost five now. She’s a little mad that she’s sick since it means she can’t come to the banquet. I wouldn’t be surprised if she tried to sneak in. She doesn’t give up easily on the things that she wants.
A knock on my door caused me to look up from my diary.
“Your Highness.” Sasha’s voice sounded muffled on the other side of my bedroom door. “It’s time to start getting ready.” I heard her twist my door handle, but I could barely see Sasha enter as she carried in an armload of puffy tulle dresses.
“Are those for me?” I shoved my notebook under my pillow. In one motion, I swung my legs over the side of my bed and planted them on the floor.
“Yes, Miss Adira,” she answered. “Your parents want you to look perfect tonight!”
The next couple of hours flew by as I tried on dress after dress. Then, Sasha helped me fix my hair. I wanted my hair down and curled, but Sasha insisted on slicking my hair back into an updo. She said that curls were for little girls, and tonight I was supposed to look like a princess. Not a little girl.
The sound of my small heels clicking echoed through the halls as Sasha escorted me to Dad. I held my head high and made my back straight like Mom always reminded me.
“There she is,” Dad’s voice bellowed. “Why, don’t you look all grown up!”
“Do you like my dress?” My excitement caused my words to bubble out and blend together. “It puffs out when I twirl, look!” I started to spin, when I felt his hand on my arm.
“Adira,” he said as he knelt to meet my eye level. “Your mother is not here, so I need you to act like a grown-up tonight. I need you to behave perfectly. Can you do that?” A sharp pain shot through my head at that very moment. I squinted and tried to blink away the sensation.
“Yes,” I replied hurriedly. “I promise that I will be perfect.” The pain still echoed in my temples, but still I fixed my posture and looked up at Dad for his approval.
“That’s my girl.” A grin spread across his face. “Oh, I almost forgot.” He turned and beckoned a servant forward. The man opened a wooden case to reveal a small tiara sitting on a cushion. “This is for you, Adira.”
He carefully picked up the tiara and placed it atop my head. But as soon as he did, the pain reignited. I forced a smile as Sasha finished fastening it to my hair with multiple pins.
Then we entered the banquet hall, together. The perfect picture of royalty. Dad wore his crown, and I wore mine. People let out “oohs” and “aahs” as we passed them. On the outside, I kept a pleasant smile on my face, but it was all I could do to keep from ripping the crown from my head. The pins dug further into my scalp, as if they were staking their claim on me.
Still, I managed to entertain the dignitaries and nobility with relative ease. My preparation proved to be useful, and there was hardly ever a lull in any of my conversations. In fact, I did an excellent job at managing the flow of each conversation. Sometimes, it felt like my words were coming at such a fast pace that my mind could not keep up.
But all the attendees seemed pleased with me. They even remarked on how eloquent and well-spoken I was despite my age. Even more, Dad practically beamed with pride after the banquet concluded. He said that I was amazing and that I had done perfectly. My feelings of elation at his validating words were quickly overtaken by the building pressure in my head.
My headaches continued into the next three years. Sometimes it was only a distracting but dull ache in the back of my head. But other times the headaches kept me bedbound for days. Still, no one could figure out the cause.
Two more years passed. And after a particularly harrowing episode in which guards had to carry me back to my chambers, a small, cloaked figure scurried into my room. He drew in panting breaths, and his cheeks appeared flushed. Whatever information he had was important enough for him to run through the palace.
“Princess Adira,” he exhaled. “I think I’ve discovered the cause of your ailment.”
I forced my eyes open despite the bright light which brought more pain. My eyes searched for Sasha’s. All it took was a small nod from me to send her racing out of the room in search of my parents. She returned with Mom, Dad, and Aella after a few moments.
The man explained that after going over the official records in the royal archives, he came across multiple mentions of a cursed artifact called Desdemona’s Crown. When a person wore this crown three times, it turned every one of his or her qualities and abilities into perfection. But such power came at a cost. Since perfection is so taxing on a person’s humanity, any individual who wore Desdemona’s Crown fell into a coma by age twenty and never woke up.
In that moment it felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. My parents clutched each other. And the other staff in the room let out gasps in response to the news. My sister, Aella, immediately crossed the room to reach me.
“It’s going to be okay, Adira,” she said. Tears were gathering in her eyes. “I promise, it’s going to be okay.” Her small hand gripped mine and gave me a reassuring squeeze.
Everyone kept waiting for me to break down. They waited for an outburst over my life’s approaching expiration date. I was rarely left alone. And everyone seemed on edge at my very presence, as if they expected me to start smashing flower vases at any moment.
To their surprise, I was the picture of grace after the revelation. They praised me for how well I was dealing with the situation. I readily welcomed their praise until I realized what they truly meant.
Pieces of my humanity were already being replaced by perfection. Instead of lashing out after finding out that I would die in five years, I comforted others about my impending death. Parts of me had already been chipped away, and I did not even notice.
Soon enough, the perfectionism invaded other areas of my life besides my speech. It took control over my writing. I quit writing in my diary since the perfectionism would only allow me to write positive things.
It took control of my actions. Friends and acquaintances drifted away. It seemed that being around someone with the perfect reaction to every situation proved difficult for most people. My perfection acted like a mirror, exposing every flaw no matter how large or small. Not exactly a company that people seek out.
The hardest part, however, was when the perfectionism infiltrated my feelings. Suddenly, I was only capable of one emotion, contentment. Rage, sadness, fear, and any other emotion fell out of reach. I felt hollow; even my feelings were not my own.
Aella stayed with me throughout the whole process, though. She became my constant. Our parents consulted with royal archivists, natural healers. They searched for anyone who they thought may help them find answers. What they truly yearned for was a reversal of the curse. But as time passed, their hope grew weaker and weaker. I had a suspicion that they worked so fervently because they felt partly responsible for giving me the crown.
But despite everyone’s efforts, time went on, and no cure was found. My headaches increased and intensified until I became bedbound. My time was running out.
Is this what I want?
Aella’s question echoes in my mind. For once, my perfection does not flood my head with multiple ideal answers. I am left to form my own answer for the first time in a long time. But I do not get a chance to do so before Aella starts speaking again.
“Adira,” she starts. “You haven’t lived. Not truly. You’ve never even been outside the walls of this palace. You’ve—you’ve never loved or been loved. How can you die without getting that chance? Everyone deserves that chance.” Aella whispers her words, but her tone weighs heavy with pleading desperation.
I lift my hand to her face and wipe away the tears falling from her eyes. I know what she wants me to say. I know that she wants me to fight to stay here with her. But just like I know what she wants to hear, she knows what my answer will be.
“Aella,” I say as I reach for the end of her hair, “I have lived. I accomplished duties to my family and to my kingdom. And I have loved. I love you, Mother, and Father. And you love me, as do Father and Mother. So I have been loved too.” A content smile appears on my face, but I can tell that pains Aella even more.
“Okay,” she chokes out. “I understand.” She takes my hand in hers and holds it to her cheek. In her eyes, I can see that she truly does understand. She can see that her sister, Adira, is not here anymore. She was replaced piece by piece until she disappeared.
Suddenly, I am struggling to keep my eyes open. The sleep is starting to overtake me. Aella, with her free arm, waves my parents over.
My whole family surrounds me now. I feel myself getting sleepier and sleepier. I know what will happen when I close my eyes for the last time. They will mourn me. Then my body will be placed in a glass viewing case, so that no one will ever forget the curse of Desdemona’s Crown.
And though the thought of my body being on display unsettles me greatly, I sincerely wish for my end to draw to a close. I cannot wait to be free of the constraints of my cursed perfection—to not have my very being bound to something.
Finally, the time comes, and I cannot hold my eyes open any longer. I steal one last glance at Aella. Then my eyes close. I feel my hand drop from Aella’s as a reflexive smile spreads across my face.
And at last, I feel at peace.
Author’s Note: In writing this story my underlying message is that when the pressure and obligation of perfection are put on a mortal human being (without help from a righteous and perfect God), such a situation can only end in failure and disaster.