A fractured fairytale
Carefully marking another notch in the back of the mirror’s frame, where it would not be seen, the girl sighed, and stepped back, regarding herself gravely in the calm pooling reflection of the silvered glass.
Ten years, it had been, since she had paid the price for the hubris of others’ actions, which she had then been too young to even comprehend, let alone be made responsible for.
And yet here she was. Still. Behind the heavy walls of this thorny prison, buried amidst prickles of both nature and a bitter psyche. Why it should be that her name was Rue, and not that of her keeper she had yet to determine, for if ever there was a personality more suited to that dry, dust-figured, nasty herb than Mistress Belladonna, she should yet call the sky green, but there. It was her own, and as she did rue the day her parents chose to insult her now gaoler, leading to these particular circumstances, then perhaps it was fitting, after all.
With another sigh, Rue shook herself, and stepped back from the mirror. She picked up her hairbrush, and began, as she did every morning, as she did every evening, to draw the first of one hundred strokes through her long, long, corn-yellow hair, knowing if she failed to fulfil this task, it would not go easy for her.
Despite the barrier of good solid bricks and mortar, of plaster and whitewashed wall, that lay between herself and the mistress, Rue could, as always, sense the eyes on her. With each stroke of the brush through the lustrous fall of shining silk, hanging to her knees and beyond, she sensed the hot, avid breath of avarice panting at her neck, wanting, needing what it saw as rightfully owned.
This was not just a summer madness on Rue’s part, the result of too much time in captivity. Belladonna’s laser-sharp lust for the younger woman’s beauty, her freshness – for everything she had once held and was resident no longer – had developed, as a result of her magic, into a dark and careworn physicality. A pairing of shadowed nightmares, her desires flapped dustily around the tower, dense as black-winged crows, snickering in the dark bones of the stairwell, nipping and pinching at the girl Rue’s rose-petal sweet skin.
Oh, how she longed for that hair, above all else!
When Rue’s parents, in their boldness, had openly declared at the harvest celebrations that their daughter would become more beautiful in her majority than the Lady Belladonna, a shudder of foreboding had run through all assembled. They had waited, uneasy, as an hour passed; waiting for the thunderclap of the witch’s arrival, hearing her perfection maligned. Then, as nothing happened, all relaxed into the merry maudlin of a waxing moon, and seemingly it was forgotten.
The next day, Belladonna appeared of a suddenness at the castle, and took the ten year old Rue by the hair, which even then was a shimmering sheet of gold. The witch twisted it in her hands, said to the girl’s open-mouthed parents “we shall see, shan’t we?” and was gone, leaving a shrieking lady and a defeated lord behind her in the silence; and a squirming ten year old in her grasp, demanding to know what was going on.
It was the last time Rue ever squirmed, and the second last time she spoke.
For ten years, she had served as a rough skivvy to Belladonna, no better than the lowest kitchen hand in her own parents’ demesne. She chopped, scrubbed, cleaned, prepared ingredients for both meals and magics – although never allowed near the spell casting for the latter – and tended the animals that made up the same.
The only time she spoke was to request two boons. This was after a year in the tower.
That she be allowed a book a week. And that she never, apart from brushing it, have to wear her hair unbound.
Belladonna had looked at the eleven year old standing there, pale, so still and quiet. And that hair… oh, that hair. Like fields of corn in twilight, it was. The chittering of envy buzzed, softly, in her head. She brushed it aside, angrily.
“What will you do”, she asked idly, “if I do not grant these two boons?”
Rue looked at her.
“I shall pull my hair from its roots.”
The books were found, each week, at the foot of her bed, along with a pile of ribbons.
As the years passed, and Belladonna’s lustre faded, Rue only became more and more beautiful. Despite the work, despite rough hands, chapped and reddened, despite no light other than that of the stable and the kitchen garden, despite the close-braided and bound hair, she shone bright. And Belladonna watched, and yearned, and longed for her untouched spring beauty, her pure spirit and heart…
…and above all, for that sea of golden, liquid hair.
One night, not long after notching the tenth mark on the mirror, Rue woke, heart beating. She had felt – what? A scrabbling, perhaps; not the cruel nibbling of the senses and skin that came with the witch Belladonna’s unconscious desires, but a scrape against the door of her room. There. There it went again. It wasn’t against the door, it was against the outer wall.
It was against the window. But how? The thorns – they were everywhere!
She looked around, eyes narrowed against the grainy darkness, trying to find something, anything to protect herself with. She finally gripped her hairbrush, which was the only thing Belladonna allowed of any worth. Solid silver, heavy, intricate and lovely, it had become in its own way a talisman. Proof positive that she, Rue, was in fact not a slave, but a lady of value and lineage.
The scrabbling stopped. Rue gripped the brush. Then suddenly, the wooden shutters’ latches snick-snacked open, and a leg eased cautiously over the sill, followed by another leg, and then a body.
Holding the hairbrush at the ready, Rue waited.
The body turned to the window, re-latched the shutters, and carefully, in the near darkness, kindled a flint, lit a candle in its hands, and finally faced Rue, breathing hard and shallow. It raised its head, and she saw two familiar dark blue shining eyes amid a thousand thorn-cut bleeds.
The next morning, Belladonna noticed, from her usual preoccupation with both Rue’s growing beauty and her own waning power, that her captive was glowing even more strongly than before. She looked – what was it – awake. Yes. Awakened. What had happened? Why was the girl so serene, so shiningly happy? The chittering, the chatter of ugliness grew loud, too loud. She strode towards Rue, and grabbed her.
“Enough” she hissed. “Your majority is close enough. This will be done now. Enough”, and Rue, knowing her happiness had leached from her skin and bones, shuddered and fought against the dark strength of Belladonna, who slapped her soundly and dragged her by her long, long braided hair towards the stairs, where the dark wings folded her in to their chittering, chattering, embrace.
She woke to find herself before her own mirror, Belladonna seemingly not to be found. Then she almost shrieked, as out of nowhere came the witch’s cold voice.
“Brush your hair, for you forgot this morning, I believe.” Rue shuddered.
“Brush it, or I slit his throat where he stands.”
Rue looked in the mirror, and saw, reflected – not behind her, but within it – Belladonna, with an iron knife to the throat of her childhood’s heart, her soul. The one person who had risked ten years of thorns to find her. And she knew true fear, and felt true anger rise in her chest.
“Brush it. Or he dies where he stands.”
Rue untwisted her plaits and started to brush, methodically, and carefully. She brushed, and brushed; slow, smooth strokes. Hypnotic in her actions, like a snake’s winding hiss, she never wavered, her eyes on the witch; not on the hand holding her life’s blood, but on the darkness around her.
And as she brushed, and brushed, she saw the darkness whip out towards her, and she struck, the snake’s fangs a quicksilver dart, as she smashed the hairbrush into the mirror’s surface, and watched as the darkness writhed in agony, and wailed a howl of frustrated defeat, before it disappeared.
There, on the floor before her, was her young prince, none the worse for wear, and Belladonna, silvered shards of mirror through her bloodied throat.
The witch turned dying eyes on her erstwhile apprentice.
“Rapunzel” she sighed.
“Yes?” said the lady Rapunzel, known lifelong as Rue, not without gentleness.
There was such longing in the death rattle answer, that the girl, now a woman, could never unhear it.
“Please… I beg you. Please. Just this once.
“Let down your hair.”
Images © K Stone Matheson 2016