Among the many residents of the Green Gardens Living Center, there are twelve silver-haired ladies, each one older and more apple-faced than the next. Their rooms are all in a row.
They do not go in for water aerobics or bus outings to the casino. They keep among themselves, playing bridge or canasta with ornate decks, crafting impossibly delicate needlework and whispering over mail-order catalogs. Each week, they order new satin bedroom slippers with suede soles. This is one of their two indulgences, being on fixed incomes. The other is having their hair set at the center’s small salon.
The ladies are never in the dining hall for breakfast. In fact, they all sleep until nearly noon. And they retire early each night. This makes them subject to the gossip of the other residents and precludes them from socializing with the many silver-haired widowers over morning coffee and bi-weekly bingo. They don’t pay it no never mind.
When the sun sets in South Florida, the ladies pull down their blinds, put on their slippers and travel to the Silver Kingdom.
It was Pearl, the oldest, who discovered the passageway one evening after having dropped her knitting. With some effort, she’d pushed the bed on its casters and revealed the stone staircase. Hers was one of twelve.
Nightly they have been descending, a synchronized dance from separate rooms. Slowly, they descend each stair as age and ailment will allow. And then, after the final step, the light of a second, secret moon beckons. The twelve staircases lead to the same glimmering meadow where the ladies walk together and metamorphose as they go. Their bodies tighten and lean, their complexions become peaches and cream, and their silver tresses burnish into rich gold.
They have been unlocking the secrets of the Silver Kingdom: a needle in a haystack, a moth to a flame, a castle in the air.
At the edge of the meadow, there is a stable. Rose, the wisest, has found that by setting a bale of hay on fire, she can find a hidden needle. The flames draw a silkworm who threads it in the hand of Olivine, the bravest. And, with the aid of other woodland creatures, the silkworm transforms the ladies’ nightdresses into incandescent gowns.
Violet, the kindest, whistles to summon twelve magnificent swans. The ladies ride them away from the meadow, up over the silver lake and toward the second moon. Lily, the second-oldest, counts the stars. The twelfth to the right of the moon is not a star at all, but the seat of the Silver Kingdom and the castle of twelve princes.
It is there, every night, that the twelve ladies revel and whirl. Opal, the most patient, hands them each a delicate mask she’s tatted from fine black thread. For hours they dance, in lace masks and spellbound gowns and bedroom slippers. In the arms of princes, they are spinning and laughing and drinking champagne. Birdie, the most spry, can balance twelve glasses at once. Ida, the quietest at home, can sing like a lark. Vera, the second-youngest, is the most graceful among them, though they all dance very well.
It is never less magical, never grows tiresome, never could compare to any dance far back home.
They dance until the ballroom candles melt into pools of wax. And Ruby, the best canasta player, is the one who watches for the flame to flicker and signals to the ladies when it’s time to leave. There are entreaties and kisses and promises to dance again the next night. Violet summons the swans. Myrtle, three times widowed, cries a little each time, fearing that each goodbye could somehow be the last.
They fly to the meadow. There, Beryl, the youngest, calls the stable mice to nibble at the silken threads of their gowns until the fabric unfurls into modest nightdresses again. The ladies walk together. Their bodies soften and wrinkle like apricots, their complexions pale, and golden tresses fade to silver-grey.
They slowly ascend their separate staircases and, as they fall into simultaneous slumber, kick off the slippers that are tattered and worn. Mabel, the most practical, will coordinate more slipper orders over lunch. Until then, they sleep a deep and dreamless sleep.
And while they are dozing, the other residents of Green Gardens are breakfasting and gossiping, playing shuffleboard and puzzling over crosswords. At the same time, twelve silver-haired gentlemen are emerging from their own separate rooms in a row.
For while the twelve ladies could not dream for more than dancing through the soles of their slippers each night, the twelve princes could not dream for more than the serenity of old age. Each morning, the men ascend twelve stairways in the castle keep to arrive in twelve other rooms in the retirement home. With each step away from the Silver Kingdom’s starlight, the princes become more wrinkled, pale and grey.
They live for hot coffee and Sunday papers, for pinochle and peanut brittle, for the soft hands of kind old ladies as they deal out the cards.
Listen to Silver Kingdoms on The Story Coterie podcast.