Forgetful princess confuses past, present and future.
* * *
Last summer I became obsessed with an old mobile game called Monument Valley. Released in 2014, it’s a puzzle game that involves manipulating the landscape for the protagonist, the princess Ida, to move through. This is done via mechanisms both apparent and hidden. I found its Escher-esque design beautifully compelling, its music soothing, and its puzzles gently challenging. I spent hours playing it and its sequels—on the toilet, in bed, on the plane.
What I found most intriguing about the game was its narrative: Ida seeks forgiveness for stealing sacred monuments from the valley. She scurries through the changing landscape, navigating dips and turns, trying to dodge the bothersome crow people who block her path. We learn that they were once Ida’s subjects, cursed to walk the earth as punishment for her crimes. At times, a one-eyed yellow totem appears; it allows her to stand on it, to slide parts of its body around to where they might create a new pathway for the lost princess to walk through.
At the end of each level, Ida encounters the storyteller, the only character in the game who speaks. She bows her head as cryptic words of wisdom are bestowed upon her, and then a door opens. Beyond it the world is new and wild again, ready for her to discover.
I longed to know what Ida was looking for as she hurried through these colourful, mysterious lands. As I pressed my finger to the screen and slid blocks around, turned cogs and watched the world rearrange itself, I ached for her. I wondered what was going through her head, who she’d be at the end of the world.
* * *
Long have these old bones waited in darkness.
How far have you wandered, silent princess?
Why are you here?
* * *
She sits inside of me like a stone. She is always there, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. She’s there when I work, when I cry in great heaving sobs, when I sleep; she is there when I’m wide-eyed and happy, contorting my body into impossible shapes on a sticky dance floor. She is so intrinsically, naturally there that most of the time I don’t even notice her. She is like the freckle on my left breast, or the walnut-shaped scar on my left foot I got from tripping over at Parramatta pool when I was nine.
I fall in love for the first time in years. It’s soft and mutual, not the kind of love that avoids, cuts or bruises. The first time we meet, we drink electric-pink sparkling wine in a bar, walk his housemate’s dog through scrublands, hold hands above a blanket in his sprawling share-house living room, find each other over and over. Through the time that follows, we become entangled: an extra toothbrush and towel, new contours on the pillows and sheets. He whispers that he loves me one night and, scared, I pretend at first that I don’t understand, that I’ve misheard. I tell him that I can’t say it, not yet, but when daylight cracks I do too and I murmur it back, half-asleep in the dewy light of a Melbourne spring morning.
And she wakes, too, at first slowly and then all at once. We become the same person, me and her. We yell at him drunk at 3am, we pick fights about nothing, we cry on a bush walk. I retreat. She eats me whole, and I try to extend my arm from her mouth to reach his hand, but I am too far down.
Soon there is barely any of me, and so much of her, and the fractures are everywhere, and on a Sunday I let her win and we walk back through the scrublands with the shards of everything.
* * *
Those who stole our sacred geometry have forgotten their true selves.
Cursed to walk those monuments are they.
Foolish princess, have you forgotten too?
* * *
When the doctor writes the word trauma on my referral letter, I let out a long, low breath. For the first time, it feels as though someone sees me—sees her, us.
I always thought that word had caveats, that I was selfish or dramatic to even consider it in the context of my own life. I had not suffered as much as others, or experienced physical violence. But there is violence, too, in the constant work of betrayal.
I have seen the insides of many therapists’ offices since I was very small, but there’s a different feeling about it this time. The new therapist unwinds me like a spool, and I see the threads like I haven’t before. I am hot with shame as I confront what has happened, what is happening. I’m so sorry, I keep thinking, so, so sorry. As much as I want to blame her for everything that happened, I know that I am culpable, too. We pray for a dual forgiveness.
My therapist talks about attachment and avoidance, about defences and barriers. She talks about schemas and maladaptive coping, about modes and models.
I tell her about my childhood diagnoses, the pills, the dreams, the nightmares. I tell her about all the ways I have been hurt before—how I flinch, now, even to be touched tenderly; how my anxiety stacks like a Jenga tower and I frantically knock it over, anticipating its fall. I tell her about how I become what I fear, what has hurt me, when intimacy finds me; about how I think I know what I want, but run as soon as it comes near.
I self-flagellate, sometimes; I ask if she thinks I can ever make amends. There is so much shame in me.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she says plainly. ‘You’ve said it many times—you are ready. Your healing journey begins now.’
* * *
Playing Monument Valley I often grew frustrated at levels I just couldn’t beat. I would fixate heavily on one element that I couldn’t understand—which way was I supposed to spin that wheel? Which direction was I supposed to walk in? Sometimes I would stare at the screen for what felt like hours, turning my head this way and that, trying to see things differently, but it remained a maddening mystery.
We were still together then. He would glance over and see that I was struggling. Having played the game years earlier and excelling at problems of logic, he could always see the solution. Occasionally he would reach over, flick his finger and solve the puzzle, but more often he would give me hints: have you tried this, or have you looked at it like that?
Totems come in many forms: lovers, therapists, friends, family. Patience has never found me easily, but I saw the way it paid off when I felt the satisfaction of that glow, that space-orb sound that told me that I had figured it out at last.
* * *
Long ages lie heavy on old bones in these buried halls.
Sacred geometry was our pride, our downfall.
But forever will our monuments stand in this valley.
* * *
Now the world feels like it is ending, as we sit inside our homes and wait for seasons to pass, for sickness to fade and for some kind of normalcy to return.
Inside my apartment, things are the same as they ever were, as though nothing ever happened: one toothbrush, one towel, one body imprinted on the sheets. I ruminate on my mistakes, and swear silently to be better.
The days all bleed into one, but I try to work to a routine, and mix in new and old things that bring comfort and joy: reading childhood favourites, recreating songs I love on various instruments, playing a video game where I live on a sunny island dense with fruit and spend my days building things from found materials.
I see my therapist now via a screen, once a week or fortnight: an odd, pixelated intimacy. We navigate this strange new world together, adjusting to change, not rejecting the past but accepting it as a necessary ingredient for the present and future. I only am what I am because I was what I was.
We search together for a door. What lies beyond is uncertain, but there is only now.
* * *
When the last puzzle is solved in Monument Valley, the crow people are beamed up by a glowing orb. There, they are transformed back into birds, and one by one, they are freed.
The orb floats down to touch Ida, and she, too, becomes a bird. She is white, with a crown atop her head. Ida flies through the centre of the flock, and all of the birds travel together into the unknown.
Self-forgiveness is not an ending so much as a beginning. The door opens, the universe expands, and we find a new place, a new way, to be.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian writer and bookseller based in Melbourne. Her work has been featured in publications including Meanjin, The Saturday Paper, Kill Your Darlings, SBS Voices, Rookie and frankie. She was an inaugural recipient of The Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter fellowship in 2018.