The Empty Castle
By Taylor Brown
Far away from here a castle overlooks the sea. It’s very tall and very thin, taller and thinner than any castle has a right to be, as if it were built according to the mad physics of the builder’s dreams. The chambers are heaped on at awkward angles, the stone bends around strange corners our eyes can’t follow, and the very top is so high and so narrow that it presses a dimple into the sky.
No one lives there now, but right at the top there once lived a princeling. It was very long ago, when everything was a lot scarier than it is now. In his bedchamber he had a little bed, a chamber pot, and nothing else. Not even a window. Well, he had a window, but it was boarded up.
For you see, in those days, the Pinchers could be seen. They’re still about the place today: dark gods leaning over us, their hands held high above our heads, their forefingers rubbing against their thumbs. Most of us can’t see them, and so they’re not much of a bother. However, in the princeling’s time, everyone could see them. Although they still weren’t much of a bother, because there was nothing to be done about them. But that wasn’t any comfort to people like the princeling, who never, ever left his chamber.
At the very bottom lived his sister: the princess. Every day she crossed the twisting passages and climbed the leaning stairways to bring her brother food and—it must be said—to empty his chamber pot. And every day she begged him to take down the boards across his window. She told him that he’d never know how scary it was outside if he never even looked. But every day he said with resignation:
‘If I look, they’ll Pinch me.’
And his sister said: ‘I promise you they won’t. They hardly ever go for me, and I walk underneath their rubbing fingers every single day!’
But the princeling felt their eyes on the castle, watching, waiting for him to finally show his face.
His sister tried almost everything. She tried comforting him, encouraging him, incentivising him, but nothing ever worked. Then one day she tried something she’d never tried before. She tried to frighten him.
‘The Pinchers—do you remember what they look like?’
‘Oh yes,’ he whispered. ‘Too many eyes, dead and staring, like fish’s eyes. Too many limbs, long and knobbly, like spider’s limbs. Too many fingers, pale and strong, like nothing else in nature!’
‘Yes,’ spoke his sister. ‘And with all their eyes, they could find you, wheresoever you were hiding.’
‘And with all their limbs, they could climb to you, howsoever high you’re hiding.’
‘And with all their fingers, they could Pinch you, even if you barred the window with stone and metal.’
‘Yes, yes, yes!’ he cried, cringing under imaginary fingers.
‘If all that’s true, then why’s it safer in here than out there?’
A look of horrible hopelessness came into the princeling’s eyes. And here the princess saw the peril of her gambit. She wished at once to take back what she’d said. But then the princeling frowned. And thoughtfully he asked:
‘So everywhere is scary—even here?’
The princess didn’t dare to speak a single word. But she gave a little nod.
With uncertain steps the princeling came to his window. He gripped the edge of a wooden board and—before he could talk himself out of it—he pulled with all his might. The nails came loose with little popping sounds and the board came away.
And they gasped.
There on the other side was a great, staring eye. The princeling and the princess sat in silent terror. But then the eye dropped out of view. They rushed to the windowsill and watched the Pincher clamber down, stopping here and there to peek into other windows.
The princeling screamed, half with terror, half with excitement. He hurried down the leaning stairways and across the twisting passages, and came through fear to the other side.
Before him loomed silent horrors. Over his head dangled ready fingers.
And he was afraid. But suddenly he didn’t mind that he was afraid.
His sister stood beside him. She grabbed his hand. And together they walked, across hopeless hills, through wicked woods. The view was not bad.
And the princeling never once returned to the chamber at the top of the castle.