A Fairy’s Tale

If I tell you a story, will you go to sleep after? No more snacks or trips to the bathroom. You have to promise. Crossed fingers don’t count, it’s a promise anyway. You can’t fool me.

Okay, listen. Sorry, yes. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, up in the mountains lived a fairy. She wasn’t the kind of fairy that sits around on mushrooms or swoops in to sew for a god-daughter. She’d always been a fairy. You could tell by the wings that rose like stiff lace from her shoulders, and the fact that she was four inches tall. Most fairies lived in forests, not up mountains, and that was exactly the problem for this fairy.

Hush, darling, I’m getting to the important part. Don’t you know that in order to learn the heart of a story, you need patience? You must be able to hear your own breaths if you ever want to find the pulse of a tale. Listen.

And the fairy was very lonely, for she had no friends. She had lived with her mother and father on the mountain, but they had gone and she had lived for a long time by herself. She was still almost a child, because fairies live so very much longer than we do, but for us her lonely childhood would have seemed a very long time. The mountain was cold for a little fairy by herself, and when it snowed she huddled in a crevice between her favorite stones and imagined that the flurries of white were warm. She had no friends, and so she had a very good imagination instead.

Of course, you can have both imagination and friends. It’s just much harder to live if you haven’t got either.

The fairy had enough one day. She was tired of wedging herself in a crack in the rocks and pretending she wasn’t shaking with cold. Living alone and lonely was exhausting, and she wasn’t going to do it anymore. The mountain was very tall and very steep, but the fairy was determined to start flying. Her little lace wings held her up as she hopped and skipped from one crag to another cliff. She took a leap off an edge and beat her wings until they blurred in the thin air, and she drifted until she settled on her tiptoes and jumped off again. Finally, after long days and long nights, the fairy reached the bottom of the mountain.

I don’t know what country the mountain was in. Sweetheart, it’s a story, so probably it’s in a country that doesn’t exist on this planet. While I’m telling the story it exists in your head, and that’s the place you should look to find it.

The fairy was so glad to feel the crunch of gravel and the satiny shush of dust on her feet that she walked after she left the mountain. She walked through a valley and a plain, and she swam across the river. The water was cold and bright against her skin, and she thought in a lovely delirious blur that she’d never felt anything so beautiful and pure. Once across the river she was in a field. She walked through the field and found herself in a meadow. At the edge of the meadow—her breath caught—she saw the furry edges of trees bristling on the horizon. The fairy loved walking. The grasses brushed against her feet like friendly cats. But now she was impatient, for she knew that fairies live in the forest. So what do you think she did next?

No, even if you could guess the answer would be the same. Some stories change shape to fit around you, but this one has its shape already. If you close your eyes you’ll be able to see it better.

She tried to fly. Running wasn’t fast enough. Only wings could take her to where she knew friends were waiting. The fairy leaped upward and felt the air catch under her wings, and then she sank back down to the ground again. Her knees folded under her, and the little fairy crumpled on the grass. She didn’t understand. What was wrong with her wings? Stumbling, she pushed herself to her feet again, and she walked across the meadow. She almost didn’t notice the grass brushing against her feet, because she was so worried about her flying. She entered the forehead with a creased forehead and an anxious stare. She almost tripped over someone, who let out a cry and asked who she was.

“I’m a fairy,” said the fairy.

“Yes,” said the stranger, unfolding wings from her shoulders. “I can see that. In fact, I’m a fairy too. My name is Lianet. You look upset. What’s your name?”

“I don’t know,” said the fairy. “I never needed one before. I used to live on the mountain alone, but now my wings don’t work.”

“Ah,” the stranger smiled. “Wings only work on the mountain, in the cold. When you hop down from on high you have more space to fly in, and the frozen air can keep you aloft. Lacy wings like yours won’t work in the forests or the meadows, the fields or the valleys, over the river or through the plains. Sometimes to fly for a minute you just have to climb a tree and jump.”

I know you’re very tired, and so we’re almost at the end. Do you think our fairy will give up the glory of flight to live in the forest, where the trees crowd one another and the squirrels chatter at everything that moves? Yes, I think so too.

The fairy thought about it for a while, and then she shrugged. Her lacy wings rippled in the air with the movement. There are worse things, she thought, than jumping out of trees with new friends. She could be flying alone. And so the fairy lives in the forest now, with a new name and a new friend. Sometimes she climbs to the very top of the tallest tall tree, and while she’s there she can see the very tip of the mountain where she used to live. Then she jumps into the air and lets her wings carry her down. She knows that there will be somebody to meet her at the bottom.

Good night, love.

Tell Me A Story

Okay, honey, one. I’m tired and it’s been a long day. You have to go to sleep after that, promise?

Once upon a time in a faraway forest there was a fairy named Erstenpraktertolanima. She was a very lonely fairy, because she had no friends. This is because all of the other fairies who tried to befriend her could never pronounce her name, and so they gave up. One day Erstenetc. walked away and climbed up a mountain and then she met the trolls. She met a lovely (though ugly) troll named Prince Lumpy, and he told her, “Ersten… um, Fairy, you should go visit the goblin-people of Shhhhton. They are exactly what you need.”

Don’t you remember Prince Lumpy from the other story? Well here he is. He’s doing fine, happily ever after. Are you feeling sleepy yet?

So Erstenetc. walked and walked and walked, and just when her feet were so blistered that they had polka dots and her body slumped so that her fingers nearly dragged on the ground and her wings were folded like a moth’s to her body, she came across the goblin-town.

Well, it looks just like our town except that all the houses are green and there are signs everywhere. Like there’s a sign outside the first house that says, ‘House Number One! The Collinses!’ and the second one says ‘The Post Office!’ and the third one says ‘The Bennets! Also The Bakery!’ You see, goblins really like signs, and they are often excited about everything.

She walked in and tried to introduce herself to the little old goblin-lady selling doughnuts, but the lady shook her head helplessly. She waved her hands in the air and looked at Erstenetc. with a look of expectation on her goblin-face. After several failed attempts at conversation, Erstenetc. realized that the goblin-people of Shhhhton did not speak with voices. They spoke with the quick-sharp-graceful-soft fluttering of their long-fingered goblin-hands, and they shaped words and sentences and whole stories with those drawings in the air. Erstenpraktertolanima learned the sign-language of the goblin-people and made wonderful friends who never had to pronounce her name at all, and she lived with them happily for ever after.

There, sweetheart, there’s a story. Did you like it? Oh, you’re half-asleep already. Good night, darling, see you in the morning. Sweet dreams.

 

Nicole and the Pumpkins

Once Nicole used to watch the pumpkins bloom on their vines, swelling and blushing like so many bee stings. She used to run her fingers along the smoothness of their skins, fingertips in the beginning ridges. She used to dream with those pumpkins, in the musty damp air of her pumpkin patch with the moisture in the soil soaking through the knees of her jeans.

Now she’s too old for that sort of thing, even though she’s not that old. If you look close in the mirror you can see the parentheses etched into her skin around her lips, so faintly, as if her mouth was an afterthought and the proof was showing too late. Nicole is sure that soon other lines would make their way onto her face as well, commas and apostrophes spiking out around the edges and quotation marks outside her eyes. There will be punctuation engraved into her face, pauses and stops with nothing to say.

For now she is still mostly young-looking, plain as she’d always been. She never had expected much, really, and her skin will crinkle until she is caressing the new pumpkins with creased hands, bent fingers, reaching them after a stiff lunge toward the ground because her back is aching and her arthritis acting up.

Sometimes she still wishes that she didn’t live alone. She has a decent job and lives in her parents’ old house. The pumpkin patch is still outside, and she still visits it. Now, though, Nicole really just hacks at the soil and rips out weeds, cursing when they leave shiny pink weals striping her palms. The pumpkins are big these days. She plants them carefully, watching the new ones take root and balloon out.

When she was a little girl playing outside, she thought that she might find a pumpkin in the patch and coax it to grow so big that she could sit inside it. She would have been a tattered sort of Cinderella, the kind without a fairy godmother, but she might have met a prince anyway. She had hoped. A prince never came along though, and the pumpkins only got to a normal kind of big. She lives alone and doesn’t visit her pumpkins, because they could never really take her anywhere. Sometimes she sits on the porch with her laptop and scares off the birds with the sound of her fingers on the keyboard. She always typed loudly, angrily, as though she had to get the words out in a hurry or she’d forget them entirely.

The air doesn’t smell damp and musty anymore, even when she pats down the soil around the pumpkins. It just smells like dirt now, and she puts down a towel so that the soil won’t dampen her knees. When she brushes a pumpkin with a knuckle she stiffens, surprised, because its skin is smooth and cold against her warmth. She wins a prize for her pie every year now at the fair. It brings her a brief flush of pride, silly really. She knows it doesn’t mean anything, but she always makes an extra or two. She lives off that pie for a week, letting it melt on her tongue and debating whether she ought to have added more cinnamon.

She gets a grim pleasure from hewing into the pumpkin and watching it spill its slime and seeds onto her counter. Her kitchen smells like the distinct sour tang of cold pumpkin flesh for days. The little air freshener plugin that she buys at the drugstore never really helps. Most of the pumpkins stay on the vine until the cold bites, and then she chops them off and throws them into the woods. One of these days, she really has got to start selling them. In October they would make her a mint, to be turned into jack-o-lanterns and all that. Her backyard would be mostly empty, just the bare vines and the scatter of autumn-colored leaves.

For now, Nicole lives alone in her too-big too-empty house with a pumpkin vine out back. She has a decent job and she wins the prize at the fair every year for her pie. It’s good enough, for now. She tells herself that and is reassured. Someday perhaps things will change. Her job will get better, or she’ll get promoted. A prince will come along with a perfectly sized glass shoe and a glint in his eye. The soil will smell like must and damp again, and she can be a child without lines starting on her skin. One of her pumpkins will grow big enough for her to ride away in, and she’ll never have to look back or be in that house again or go to work or make pie or wish for anything else ever after.

Ever After, Anyway

In the land of make-believe:

Gabe’s hair gleams golden in the sunlight, and his eyes just seem to snag the light and spin it until you’re dizzy and blinded and stumbling. Goddamned goody-two-shoes. Though, of course, he’s rather more godblessed and, being an angel and all, I don’t think he wears shoes. Wings are always like that, though. Even Pegasus has a stick up his ass. Figuratively speaking again, of course. They get flying and feathers and suddenly they think they’re above you. That one literally too, I guess, since they are. I haven’t even seen Gabe for maybe a century, but I know that he’s friends with Rose. She talks about him every once in a while, and now of course they’re getting on great.

I don’t, of course, know why she even hangs out with him. He’s bloody boring from what I can tell, bland as the healthiest of foods. Good, of course, just uninteresting. Rose has a thing for the perfect ones though – that’s why she even fell for the prince in the first place, naturally. Chiseled jaw and a sword, skin scratched by the thorns and breathing heavy. It took her a while to figure out the rest of it – not that I’m complaining. Being perfect suits me when I have the inclination to be charming. To be Charming, that is.

Gabe is still talking to Rose, and she’s listening all aglow. She is awfully beautiful. Hence the nickname, though nowadays she doesn’t need a whole lot of sleep. She gets by on five, six hours a night. I figure she got it all out of her system at once and now she’s impatient just dreaming. The wing’s telling her something about Red and the wolf boy, or at least that’s what it seems. He just said, “No, now they’re back together.” Rose is all agape, making those concerned clucking noises that need to accompany love conversations.

“But I thought they were done for good,” she says. Gabe shakes his head, shrugging. “Oh well,” says Rose. “I guess they’re well suited. But honestly, she should either give up the business with her grandmother or give him up. I mean, if she keeps nagging him about it they’re only going to do the same thing over and over again.”

“Well,” Gabe says, “that’s what they’ve been doing so far. They’ve broken up, I think, sixty-three times now? Someone’s counting and that’s the tally I heard. In my opinion that’s why they even work together at all.”

Rose frowns, skin creasing in a familiar scowl. “You think? Red always seems so innocent to me. Like Cindy, really. They both seem to think that everything’s going to be just fine all the time, no problems anywhere. Nothing ever goes wrong for them, and when it does they forgive. Look at Cindy’s godawful family, and how Red keeps taking the wolf back. They want it all to end up okay.”

The angel bursts out into laughter, golden peals of it chiming and drifting through the summer air. “You tales and your happily ever after. Of course they think it’ll all be okay. So it is written, no?”

Rose is glaring now. She’s touchy on the storybook stuff. I tune out again, threading my fingers through her hair and tangling my hand in the ringlets. They’re only going to have the same argument again. I swear, it’s like listening to the mice squeak all indignantly about the farmer’s wife. They can’t get over the grievances that happened hundreds of years ago. I try to avoid such things.

Anyway, I have other stuff to do this afternoon. I’m still supposed to show up at Cindy’s tonight, and apparently Baba Yaga’s cooking again. That, and the gingerbread witch is bringing dessert, and I do love Gretel-flavored cookies. Okay, so that’s a bad joke, but it always gets a laugh anyway. I think if it weren’t for her baking nobody would even talk to the old hag. At least there will be some good people, though. The Minotaur will be bumbling about, crashing into things – he has trouble finding his way anywhere, mostly. And Br’er and Loki always make for an entertaining time.

Maybe Rose just spends time with Gabe for the gossip. I stand up, my hand still cupped around her head. It does help to have an omniscient pal in the sky, I suppose. There’s something funny outside the window, and I walk over to look. The light’s all blue and shadowy, though it’s still early. Look at that, Thumbelina’s sitting right on my windowsill. Tom’s with her, not sure why – they broke up forever ago. Something about size not mattering. She’s beckoning though, so I lean my head down to hear her squeaky little voice.

“Hey,” she calls. “You’d better come help. Rip’s asleep in Sher’s house, she’s telling stories, and that moron giant is angry at Jack again. Nothing too serious, maybe, but it’s sort of chaos there. Want to come sort it out?”

Finally, I think, something useful to do with my day. I grab my bag of tricks – I borrowed it from Jack and “forgot” to give it back – and kiss Rose goodbye, startling her out of an impassioned speech about something or other. I wave to Gabe and dash out. I do love a good thorny problem to hack through, every once in a while. Just like old days.

A (modern) Cinderella

The air is damp and clean when she steps outside, balancing on the balls of her feet and making no sound at all. The sky is just changing from blue to black and it’s so dark and deep that it goes on forever, stars dangling so high they’re barely there at all. Ella closes the door slowly, inching it closer until the latch has clicked silently.

She doesn’t throw a second glance at her parents and brother, eating quietly in the dining room. Their heads are faintly visible through the curtain, bent over their food, not speaking. She tucks her chin down and dodges toward the street, where her friends are waiting.

They have big plans tonight. When she swings into the car and slams the door, Teddy pushes the gas so hard that the car screeches and zooms ahead. The car in the road – now behind them – jerks to a sudden stop, and they laugh. Ella nestles against Linnie, who puts an arm around her. The car is crowded, and they’re all pressed flesh to flesh, breathing like one big organism crammed into a car and panting for air. They’re all happy to see Ella, reaching to bump her shoulder or turning to smile at her. They asked earlier if she could come. If I can escape my parents, she said, my mom’s wicked strict lately. They all nodded, solemn, in sympathy. Now everyone is smiling.

When they get there the party’s already in full swing. The strobe light is flashing, the music thrumming deep in their throats, and a scattering of red plastic cups already abandoned on chairs and tables. Ella throws herself into the room, pulling her friends after her. They wave their arms, flail, spin, clasp hands and lean and fall in circles until they’re dizzy and breathless. Time stops existing.

The light catches the moments one at a time and fling them at her. Movements jerk through the air, dancers thrashing like they’re drowning. She has a twelve-o-clock curfew but she ignores it, until she thinks she might fall instead of dance more. Then she stays for only another half hour.

She walks home at four in the morning, creeping under the dull flat sky, slipping sideways through the front door and padding silently up the stairs to her room. The others were all splayed unconscious on chairs and carpets or too drunk for anything, jaws hanging open, staring at her stupidly, so nobody could drive her back. In her room she collapses, still in her heels and glittery top, sprawling on her bed with her hair spread across the mattress and dripping off the edge.

She’s so tired that she can feel each breath wheeze in and out of her, whooshing through her chest as though it’s trying to snuff out a flickering flame. She’s shriveled from the heat and left in the dying ashes now, burnt to a crisp.

A Bedtime Story

When his dad told him a story the whole world disappeared. It faded into the background and a new one took its place. The empty spaces were filled and the ceiling became sky. Alex liked to sit and watch as the ground grew green and grass sprouted from his carpet. The walls were gone and he could see to a horizon, far off and dimly red with the sunset over the water.

Tonight the story was an old favorite – the shining white castle, the prince and princess, and the angry dragon. He’d heard it so many times already that he already knew to turn left and look at the castle there as the story started. Its walls were tall and beaming, bright against the lengthening shadows of the night. The princess was just coming in, head bent and horse plodding after a long day of riding.

“Daddy, you forgot reckless.”

“Right,” his dad smiled at him, “sorry. After a long day of reckless riding.”

Alex settled back against the pillow. The princess was racing through the forest on her horse, hair streaming behind her and a wild grin stretched across her face – eventually her horse slowed and she sighed, until they were trudging together over the moat to slip under the portcullis. The prince was waiting for her inside. He’d asked the kitchen to keep dinner warm. When the princess left for the day she usually came home too late to eat with everyone else.

Alex suspected that this was a hint – a dig or an apology, he wasn’t sure – to his mother, who sometimes listened. She complained sometimes that Daddy would leave her cooking dinner but never get home in time to eat it when everyone else was hungry.

While the princess was eating the reheated leftovers with her princes, they had a murmured conversation. In an instant, though, everything changed. Their words were drowned out by a roar, the view through the window was suddenly blotted black, and the air filled with filth. The ashes were swirling into the room, and the prince and princess huddled together with their hands clasped over their eyes. Straining, they could see outside the window and through the billowing smoke. The faint outline of a dragon was looming over the castle, massive wings flapping to keep it hovering in midair. Alex always gasped when he saw the dragon for the first time. He hugged close that feeling of fear and delight that made his heart flutter and pound.

The prince and princess ran, until they were hiding in a hallway with no windows and the doors were bolted on either side. They curled up there together and waited for the noise and the choking smoke to go away. There on the cold stone corner of the hallway, they fell asleep. The servants found them the next day as they spread through the castle with mops and brooms and as much medieval-style cleaning solution as could be found on short notice.

Alex loved that part. He didn’t really know what it meant, but he could tell his dad was being funny. His dad made a lot of people laugh, and especially Alex.

His eyelids were sinking shut, and he slid a little further down on his pillows. The prince and princess were tottering out the door now, looking aghast at the smeared black walls of their castle. Those stones had been so pure and lovely, only yesterday.

“Hey buddy, you look pretty sleepy. Do you want me to finish the story tomorrow?”

Alex mumbled, “S’ok,” and felt his dad’s kiss press onto his forehead and the covers settle around him. The light flicked off, but he could still see the castle. Now there was spidery scaffolding climbing up its walls, and the prince and princess were clambering up its walls along with the servants, all with sponges and rags in hand. Alex watched them through half-closed eyes, and fell asleep as they all scrubbed and sprayed and set everything to rights.

Snow (last bit)

The prince wanted to marry the girl from the forest. He was a dreamy type, but practically too he must wed, and she was certainly a suitable bride. Forest notwithstanding, she was of noble stock – of some sort or other, probably middling well – and she was such a shy sweet little thing, she’d do very nicely. He did rather love her, and that was rare enough. He’d loved several women by then, quite fiercely, and he thought himself perfectly lucky that this one might hold, being well-bred and beautiful as she was. He could imagine spending time with her – as much as he would have, being king – and loving her, and growing old with her.

The queen started out from the castle, innocent of the huntsman trailing her with worry creasing his brow and muffling his footsteps. She hurried into the forest, feet uncertain over the uneven snowy ground and eyes searching the darkness between the trees. The huntsman had told her where to go, and she set her course – she’d brought a compass, for she was nothing if not practical – and began bravely through the thicket, away from the glimpse of her castle.

The princess was sitting with her prince, close together on the bench just inside the door, her sewing forgotten on the ground. He was sitting very near to her, his hand resting on her side. It was clasped at the base of her spine as he gazed ardently into her eyes, and she looked back at him without taking her mind from the uneasy awareness of his fingers low on her back.

He was talking – she struggled to hear him, for he often talked for a long while before she heard anything she wanted to answer. It worked, usually, for he didn’t often seem to expect an answer, talking to her about whatever it was and stroking her cheek. She smiled at him, and let her mind wander. He was so very handsome, quite a perfect prince, and his conversation – the discussion he was having now – showed him to be such an intelligent young man. Of course, he was absolutely wrong about many things, but he was young and that could change. So thought the princess, forgetting that she at fifteen was several years younger than this crown prince. Still, she watched him talk affectionately, and listened to his enthusiastic plans and ideas. He really was very dear.

The queen saw the cottage in the distance after two hours. Her thighs were sore from walking, and her back ached. The sun was beating through the trees to sink slow and painful into her skin, while her skirts dragged upon the ground still damp with melting snow. The light was bright and fierce on the drifts of white along the forest floor, and the drooping branches coated in snow and ice. Still, she kept on, and her heart sped when she saw the outline of a small house, just as the huntsman had described it to her.

In another half-hour she was there. Her pulse was thumping in her throat, and the sound of a crackle to her left made her start. A young man was riding away; he paused, and looked quizzically at her, before continuing. The prince dismounted, not far from the cottage, suspicious of this strange nervous woman. There was a route he’d often taken, and he did now. It was useful, as he could double back to the cottage and watch the princess against the side of the house from a cluster of trees nearby, unseen. He leaned against the crook of a branch, and waited.

The princess at the window knew that her time had come. The queen was coming for her, and her stepmother would try – she didn’t know what, but she was afraid. She had been found.

The queen knocked on the door, lightly, her hand almost afraid to hit the wood, as if hovering in the air before it would preserve that moment, and prevent any misfortune. The princess heard the tapping, as she’d heard the huntsman, through a blur. She was still sitting on the bench, her skirts still spread around her in the sunlight, the warmth of the prince’s presence still slowly fading. She stood, stiff, and started to the front of the house to meet the queen.

The queen didn’t hear her until she wheeled, frightened, to the princess standing before her. The girl was taller, her eyes large and shadowy dark, her hair long and black and flowing around her shoulders, and her skin deathly white as always. Her face seemed to gleam in the sunlight of the forest, as if her skin was translucent and there was nothing but bleached bone beneath. She was nearly as pale as the snow behind her spotting the forest, shining blue-white in the sun.

The queen took a breath, and let it out slowly, and composed her face. The princess was still, a carven statue of the winter.

After a moment, the girl said, “Why are you here?” – as if she didn’t know.
The queen looked at her, eyes wide, as if she were surprised. Her voice was scratchy when she answered, “I needed to know you were safe. Needed to bring you home – if you wanted to come.”

The princess’s shoulders tensed at once, lines sharp in her neck. “If I don’t?”

“Then I’ll know you’re safe.”

The princess looked at her stepmother in wonderment, and slowly, steps precarious and tentative, she stepped forward. The queen almost flinched, but her stepdaughter turned and opened the door to the cottage. It swung open, to the inside dim and warmly lit. The princess stepped through the door, and still facing away from the queen she said, “I suppose you want to come in?”

The queen stepped in after the princess, and shut the door behind her. At the thud, the princess walked forward, and the queen followed her into the kitchen. They sat at the rough-hewn wooden table, the queen stiff and the princess faint with bewilderment.

Outside, the prince crept closer, secreted near the window and peering in at his love and this strange intruder. The huntsman watched him warily, and kept a worried eye on his queen.

The two women sat in silence for a time. Finally, the princess interrupted the quiet to say, “Have you eaten?”
The queen shrugged, and pulled out the food she’d brought. It lay on the table, meager, but her stomach grumbled. She was polite, though; she picked up a piece of bread, but before eating it she asked the princess if she wanted anything.

The princess tilted her head, without speaking, and the queen plucked the apple off the table and offered it to the princess. The girl held it up, and nodded, and the queen bit into her bread.

The apple glistened red, stark against the princess’s face, like the curve of her dark lips on her pale skin. She bit into the apple, and the sound was loud in the silence of the house.

The queen’s eyes were dark and deep, and she looked at the princess full of longing and ill-gotten love. The princess turned her eyes to the queen, and her eyebrows drew together. Her mouth was still closed on the bite of apple, crisp and fresh. She could not understand the queen’s expression, serious and sad. In a moment, the meaning of it shifted and for one heartbeat she understood, and she gasped.

Then she was gasping, heaving for air, her eyes round and panicked and her hands fluttering, clutching her throat. The apple fell from her fingers, and bounced off the table, and rolled across the floor to rest against the wall. The princess tried to cough, and gagged, and hacked against the fruit lodged in her throat. She turned her wide eyes on the queen, frozen with the bread in one hand and the other reaching out, helpless. The princess glared, choking, angry eyes full of betrayal and her gasping mouth trying to scowl, or to cry. The queen’s heart beat fast in her chest but she could do nothing. The princess’s eyes accused her, even as she struggled to breathe. She gagged one more time, and fell from her chair just as the prince burst into the room.
The princess was stretched across the floor. The queen thought she might have struck her head, and she was lying, so still, her arm reaching over her head and her face tipped up. The prince bent over her. He had no time for this stranger, evil as she may be, unmoving and staring though she was. He bent close to the princess, kissed her slack lips desperately, clutched her shoulders. She was breathing, but barely, and the air came shallow and labored from her lungs, as if her body fought against its life.

The prince shook her, and held her, and called her name, to no avail. The queen sat with tears streaming down her face, watching this strange man love her dying stepdaughter. She almost couldn’t feel when the huntsman’s arms gathered around her shoulders, and drew her slowly up and out of the room. She only tried to stay with the princess, a strangled sound escaping her, incapable of words.

He pulled her, gently and insistently, out of the cottage door and into the forest, where the afternoon light was dying and the snow glowed unearthly blue in the shadows.

She walked, numb, over the forest floor. She tripped and stumbled, but he caught her. The huntsman kept the queen close, and she walked in the warmth against his shoulder through the darkening forest, over the shadowy snow, while the light vanished and the cold crept in.

When they reached the castle, the huntsman let go of her. She felt the chill of the snow rise up and cover his absence, like a cold shawl around her shoulders. They walked through the hall, through the rooms of the court, and up the spiraling stairs. The huntsman fended off the maidservants, the ladies, the courtiers. He was quiet, and firm, and once or twice he was very angry. He brought the queen to her chambers, still blank with horror and distant. He sat with her there, while she shuddered and wept against his chest, and he stroked her hair.
In the cottage, the princess was lying pale and still on the floor, spread across the wood planks while her prince clasped her to him and sobbed. When he heard the footsteps outside, he thought the huntsman had come back, or the queen, and he gathered his love into his arms. He carried the princess, head cradled on his shoulder and limbs hanging limply, and staggered from the kitchen, past the small men filing in through the door, and outside. There he set the princess very carefully on his horse, and vaulted up behind her. She was barely moving with the wisps of breath that escaped her lungs. He leaned her body back, heavy in his arms, and gently he pressed his lips to hers before clutching her to him, and beginning to ride.

The queen, in the castle, shaking and weeping, saw none of this. She knew none of it, and barely guessed. She wondered, and her throat was raw and sore with grief. She struggled against the huntsman, in spates, but he held her firm, and finally she calmed. She was too far, and she would not see the princess. So she leaned against his shoulder, and let her eyes close so that she saw not at all.

The queen learned to hope that the prince saved her stepdaughter. It was possible that he’d kissed her, and that he’d shaken her, and that eventually he’d knocked loose the apple, or blown air into her lungs. He could have brought her back to his kingdom, and married her. Perhaps the queen herself could believe that, and be happy in her own castle – eventually – despite everything. Perhaps the princess was safe, and well. Perhaps she had a happily ever after.