Once upon a time, there lived a king and a queen, both young and beautiful, but heartbroken because they couldn’t have children. They had tried everything, they went to doctors and philosophers, astrologers and soothsayers—all for nothing. They had lost hope when, one day, they heard of an old medicine man from a village not far from the castle, so they went to see him.
“Whatever you’re looking for,” the medicine man told the king and the queen, “it will only bring you sorrow.”
“We didn’t come here to ask you about sorrow,” the king said, “but to ask you if you have medicine that could help us have a child.”
“That, I have,” the old man said, “but you will only have one child, a boy. He will be handsome and brave, but you won’t have him around in old age.”
The queen and the king took the medicine that the old man gave them and returned to their palace full of hope. Not long after, the queen was with child. The kingdom, the court and the servants all celebrated the news. When the time came, the unborn baby started crying from his mother’s womb and refused to be born. The doctors tried everything to make the baby stop crying and be born, but nothing helped.
“Hush, my son, hush,” the king said, “and I’ll give you a great kingdom to rule when you grow up.”
The baby kept crying.
“Hush, my son, hush,” the king said, “and I’ll give you a beautiful princess to marry when you grow up.”
The baby kept crying.
“Hush, my son, hush, and I’ll give you ageless youth and deathless life…”
The baby stopped crying and was born. The whole kingdom celebrated for a week the news of an heir to the throne.
The baby grew into a smart and brave little prince. The king and the queen sent him to school and philosophers, and everything that an ordinary child learned in a year, the prince learned in a month’s time instead. The king and the queen were proud of him, and the people in the kingdom were glad that they were getting a king as wise as King Solomon, but, the prince grew thoughtful and sad as the years went by. At his fifteenth birthday’s feast, while his parents celebrated together with their merry courtiers, the prince rose from his seat and spoke.
“Father, it’s time for you to give me what you promised me when I was born.”
“My son,” the king said, “how can I give you such an impossible gift? What I said back then was only to make you stop crying.”
“If you, my father, can’t give me what you promised me,” the prince said, “then I have to search the world for the thing I was born for.”
The king and the queen begged him to stay. The courtiers fell on their knees.
“Your father is growing old,” they said. “Soon we will make you our king…”
Nothing could change the prince’s mind, so the king gave him his blessing. The queen saw to the journey preparations. The prince went to the royal stables, where the king kept the strongest and the fastest horses in the entire country. The prince grabbed each stallion by the tail and wrestled it down on its knees until none was standing. The prince looked around once more and saw an old, plagued and wretched horse in the back of the stable. The prince went to it and grabbed its tail, but the horse turned its head and spoke in the human tongue.
“At last, a prince worthy of serving! What are you wishes, master?”
The horse stood firm on his feet while the prince tried to force him down on his knees.
“If you want to find ageless youth and deathless life,” the horse said, “you must ask your father to give you his sword, his spear, his bow, quiver and arrows, and his clothes from when he was your age. And you must take care of me yourself for six weeks, and feed me my barley boiled in sweet milk.”
After days of searching, the prince found his father’s old things inside a dusty coffer in the castle’s cellar. They were all rusty and broken, but the prince mended them himself and after six weeks he had the clothes and weapons looking all new and shiny. And after six weeks of grooming, the horse shook his mane and turned into a beautiful stallion with four wings on his back, ready to leave whenever his young master commanded.
The court and the whole kingdom were in mourning. The prince, on his winged horse, with his shiny sword in his hand, said goodbye to the queen and the king, to the courtiers, the servants and the people. One more time they begged him to stay, but the prince opened the way for the convoy of carriages and soldiers that his parents were sending along for the journey. When he reached the border, the prince stopped the procession, divided the gold and the food among the soldiers, and sent them back home. He only saved for himself what his horse could carry, and headed east. After three days and three nights, they arrived at the edge of a field sprinkled with white human bones.
“We’re now on Gheonoaia’s land,” the horse said. “Gheonoaia (The Termagant) used to be a woman, but the curse of the parents she disrespected had reached her, and she turned into a monster. No one who ventured on these lands made it out alive. Right now, Gheonoaia is with her children, but tomorrow, she will catch up with us in that forest on the horizon, and she will try to kill us. She is huge and fast, but you should not be afraid. Be ready with your bow and arrows, keep your sword and spear handy, and we will prevail.”
They journeyed into the forest and rested there, taking turns on the watch. The next day at dawn, they started crossing the forest when they heard a roar and a howl behind them like nothing they had ever heard before.
“Hold on to me,” the horse said. “Gheonoaia is coming.”
And coming she was, knocking down trees in her path. The horse flapped his wings and rose above the forest, above Gheonoaia and, from up there, the prince shot an arrow that cut off her left leg. He picked up the leg and put it in his bag. He pulled a second arrow from his quiver and fit it in his bow.
“Stop, prince,” Gheonoaia said. “I promise I won’t hurt you.”
The prince didn’t believe her, so she wrote it down in her own blood.
“Great horse you have there, prince,” Gheonoaia said. “If it weren’t for him, I would’ve eaten you alive. Instead, you defeated me. Until today, no mortal crossed my forest. The fools who tried didn’t get farther than the field where you saw their sun-bleached bones scattered.”
She invited them to her house where she lived with her three daughters, all beautiful as angels. She gave them the best food she had, but while the prince and the horse ate and rested, Gheonoaia moaned in pain from her severed leg. The prince took pity on her and pulled the leg out of his bag. Gheonoaia took it and put it back in its place where it healed in an instant. Gheonoaia was so happy that she asked the prince to pick one of her daughters as his bride.
“I’m not looking for a wife,” the prince said, “but for ageless youth and deathless life.”
“With your horse and your courage,” Gheonoaia said, “I’m sure you’ll find it.”
Three days later, the prince mounted and headed east. The horse took him beyond Gheonoaia’s lands, to where they found a field half covered in colorful flowers, half covered in tar and ashes.
“Why is the grass burnt over there?” the prince said.
“We’re now on Scorpia’s land,” the horse said. “Scorpia (The Shrew) is Gheonoaia’s sister, but meaner and stronger, and she has three heads instead of one. She too disrespected her parents and their curse had reached her too. Scorpia and Gheonoaia hate each other and try to steal each other’s land. When Scorpia is angry, she spouts hot tar and burns down everything in her path. It seems like they’ve had a quarrel not long ago. Let’s rest now and be ready tomorrow at dawn.”
The next morning, they got up and started crossing Scorpia’s land when they heard an even louder roar and howl than ever.
“Hold on to me,” the horse said. “Scorpia is coming.”
And coming she was, biting earth and sky in her way, pouring fire and tar on every living thing in her path. The horse let her get close, then flapped his wings and rose in the sky above. The prince pulled out his sword and slashed off one of Scorpia’s heads and put it in his bag. As he readied his sword again, Scorpia asked him to forgive her and promised not to harm him or his horse. The prince didn’t trust her, so Scorpia wrote it down in her own blood.
The prince went to Scorpia’s house, where they feasted together with Scorpia’s beautiful daughters, and the prince took pity on her and gave her back her head. Scorpia put it back on its neck and it healed right away. Three days later, the prince and the horse left again, heading east.
After they crossed Scorpia’s lands, they found themselves in a field covered in flowers, where there was always springtime, and sweet springtime smells wafted about in the cool breeze.
“We’ve made it here,” the horse said, “but we have one more trial before the end of our journey. Beyond this field, there stands the palace of ageless youth and deathless life. But the palace is surrounded by a large forest, tall and thick, where savage beasts dwell. They never sleep at night and they never tire of watching the palace. There’s no way of defeating them, so we won’t even try. Instead, we’ll fly over the forest and I hope my wings will take us all the way there.”
They rested for three days and the horse built up his strength.
“This is the time of day when the fairies feed the beasts,” the horse said, “and they’re all gathered in the palace’s courtyard. This is when we should fly over the forest. Hold on to my saddle and pull in my reins. Don’t hinder me! Here we go!”
The horse flapped his wings and rose into the sky and from up there they saw the palace of ageless youth and deathless life. It was shining in the morning sun and neither the prince nor the horse had ever seen anything as beautiful in their entire lives. The horse flew over the forest, and he almost made it to the edge, but he was so tired. As he descended onto the front steps of the palace, his back hoof touched the top of a tree and the entire forest erupted with howls and the raging beats joined in the clamor.
The lady of the palace rushed out and calmed down her babies, as she called them. She was a beautiful fairy, slender and sweet, and the prince couldn’t utter a word when he first saw her. The fairy looked at him with tenderness and asked him why he came.
“I’m looking for ageless youth and deathless life,” the prince said when he found his voice.
“If that’s what you’re looking for,” the fairy said, “you’ve found it.”
The prince left the horse to rest in the garden and he followed the fairy into the palace where he met her two older sisters, who were just as beautiful and welcoming. He thanked them for saving him and his horse from the beasts, and the fairies prepared a wonderful dinner served on golden plates. Then they took the prince and the horse and introduced them to the beasts of the forest so they could wander safely about from then on.
The fairies took the prince into their home so they wouldn’t be alone anymore. The prince didn’t need to be asked twice to make the palace of ageless youth and deathless life his home. On the day of his wedding with the youngest fairy, the three sisters told the prince that he was free to wander wherever he wants inside the borders of their kingdom, but they showed him a valley behind the palace called the Vale of Tears where he was not allowed to go because a terrible thing would happen to him if he did.
They all lived happily without knowing time. The prince stayed young as he had been on the day he had arrived at the palace. Each day was bliss for him. He would walk through the forest, stroll through the golden corridors of the palace, spend time with his beautiful wife and his sisters-in-law, breathe in the perfume of flowers and rest under the mild sun and the gentle breeze. Sometimes he went hunting for rabbits and little birds, and one day, as he was following a white rabbit, he shot an arrow and missed, he shot another and missed again. Annoyed, the prince followed the rabbit and, with his third arrow, he hit it. He walked to the rabbit, picked it up by the ears and put it in his bag. And that was when he realized that he had set foot into the Vale of Tears.
On his way home, the prince felt, for the first time, a painful longing for his mother and his father and for his kingdom and the people and places he had left behind. He didn’t dare tell the fairies, but they soon noticed the sadness in his eyes and his restlessness.
“Oh, my poor husband, have you stepped into the Vale of Tears?” the youngest fairy said.
“I did, but without my knowing,” the prince said. “And now I’m wasting away with longing for my parents and my country, but I don’t want to leave you. We’ve been so happy here. I think I should go home one more time, to visit, and then I’ll be back, and I’ll never leave again.”
“Don’t even think about it,” the fairies said. “Your parents have been dead for centuries. If you leave this place, you’ll never come back. Please stay with us because you’ll perish if you leave.”
All their pleading and all their tears couldn’t change the prince’s mind. Not even the horse could quench the prince’s longing for his parents and his country.
“Whatever happens to you,” the horse said, “it will be your fault and your fault alone. But you are my master, and I’ll take you back if that’s what you wish. But on one condition, that when we get there, if you want to stay for even an hour, you must set me free.”
“I will,” the prince said.
They got ready for their journey back. On the front steps of the palace, the prince hugged his sisters-in-law and kissed his wife and left the three fairies sobbing and wiping their tears. They traveled westward and, after a while, they reached the field where Scorpia used to dwell and they found towns and roads instead. The forests were now fields of wheat. The prince asked the people there if they knew what had happened to Scorpia and her daughters. The people laughed at him and told him that their grandfathers had heard stories about Scorpia from their grandfathers, but those were just bedtime stories for little children. Their laughter angered the prince, and he spurred his horse, but didn’t notice that his hair and beard had turned gray.
He asked the same questions when he reached Gheonoaia’s lands and he got the same answers and the same scorn. He couldn’t understand how so many things had changed in only a few years he had been gone. He spurred his horse, but now he noticed that his legs were weak and his white beard reached down to his waist.
After he crossed the border of his father’s kingdom, the prince found more towns, more roads, but nothing he remembered from before. Where the palace of his childhood had stood, now there were ruins overgrown with weeds where spiders dwelled. He dismounted. The horse asked him if he was going to stay a while.
“Not for long…” the old prince said.
“Then I must say goodbye to you, my dear master. If you want to go back to the fairies, I can take you there, but we must leave right now.”
“You go…” the price said, “and I’ll follow you… Soon.”
The horse flapped his wings and flew away. The prince stayed behind and worked his way through the ruins, shuffling his feet from roofless room to crumbled hallway, around thick trees that grew out of broken flagstone and he sighed and cried as he remembered the proud and beautiful castle that used to stand there. He tried to remember his parents’ faces, but couldn’t.
His white beard now reached down to his knees. His eyelids were heavy and he was tired. He found the ruins of the stable where he had first met his horse. He found the stairs to the cellar from where he had got his father’s old weapons and clothes. He climbed down the stairs holding onto the walls and at the bottom he sat on a coffer to catch his breath and wipe his tears.
He stood up again. He had nowhere to go but back to the fairies’ palace. The coffer he had sat on looked familiar, so he lifted its lid. The rusty hinges creaked.
“You’re here, at last,” a weak voice said from the bottom of the coffer. “Had you been any longer, I would have died waiting for you.”
The prince’s Death rose from the coffer, thin and famished, and she slapped him, and he fell, dead, and turned to dust.
I took these pictures in my hometown of Galaţi, Romania in the summer of 2010, when, after almost a decade of living in America, I went back to visit. I had to. For the previous couple of years, random smells and colors and sounds triggered, again and again, flashbacks from my childhood. Images, no more than fleeting images: a corner of my street, the entrance of my high school building, the thickets on the shores of the Danube. My parents had visited me in Seattle a few times, once in a while I talked over the phone with uncles and aunts and cousins, and I had a busy life in Seattle, but I just had to go back. So I packed my one-year old daughter and got on a plane. The people I found in Galaţi were older and the streets were cleaner and the trees were thicker, with bigger branches that reached higher and wider than I remembered. My extended family welcomed me and I had a great time, but the images I had been searching for were gone, hidden, overgrown with new vegetation, new buildings, new faces. There was no place for me to sit down and feel at home.
When I was a kid, I disliked Ageless Youth and Deathless Life, with its unhappy, weird ending. A few years after I arrived in the US, I translated it into English for the first time, from a collection of Romanian folktales by Petre Ispirescu published in Bucharest in 1882. Now that I’m older, this is my favorite fairytale and the one story I know that captures the essence of an immigrant’s sense of not belonging. Not really. Not anywhere.
Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.