snow white, blood red
(scroll down for part 2)
the first baby is born in may, and dies in his sleep. the second does not make it to term. the third lives for a year before an unknown illness claims him. the queen pricks her finger on a needle: old magic. blood on snow on an ebony windowsill. the wind carries the contract, and the woods accept.
blood now must be repaid with blood later, but the fourth baby is a girl, and she lives.
she grows slowly, and out of order. first her hands, long and bony; then her arms, thin, hollow-looking. she never looks quite like a child: no chubby cheeks, no skinned knees, no missing teeth. her hair is thick and so black it sometimes seems viscous. her skin is so thin you should be able to see the blood running through it.
they name her snow white, for the fairness of her skin. so fair that she cries when left in the light too long.
the queen dies when snow white is four, still small, and beloved. she is not beautiful, her mouth too painfully red, her eyes too liquid dark, her teeth too pointedly sharp. but only those who do not live in the castle think this. to know the child is to love her. to know the child is to want to please her. to know the child is to know that she is precious.
that she must be protected. that she must be obeyed.
“it is not your fault,” the king whispers to the child on his hip, petting her head. “she was not strong enough. i will make sure you never go hungry.”
the child presses her tiny hand against his cheek. “i know you will,” snow white says.
peasants begin to go missing. young boys are snatched from the fields. women are summoned to the castle and never seen again.
“gifts,” her father calls them. “eat. you are too thin.”
the girls are always silent, and the boys always scream. snow white hates it. she wishes they would stop, but she is hungry. she is so hungry. and doesn’t she have the right to survive? isn’t she a child, too?
but her mother’s blood is the only food that ever made her feel full. now she can eat and eat and eat and never feel like she has taken a single bite.
she grows thin. the sun becomes too strong for her to go outside.
“a mother’s blood,” the king muses, and sends his advisors out to find snow white a new one.
the kingdom has six queens in six years, but no more peasants go missing. it must be something in the castle, they say. some mold. some terrible illness. something that lingers, and kills you slowly.
but snow white grows healthy regardless. she can be seen, sometimes, on the parapets: in the early years she wears a heavy cloak but as she grows it gets thinner, and then disappears entirely.
she is small, and delicate. her laughter, floating down into the village, is silver and gold and painted in eighth notes. it is said that if you look into her eyes you can see your deepest desire. it is said that she will give it to you. it is said that every time a queen dies it breaks snow white’s gentle heart. she shrinks. she hides away indoors. she becomes frail and cannot leave her bed.
so many queens in so many years. eventually, somebody will notice.
eventually, somebody does.
“mirror, mirror, on the wall: who’s the fairest of them all?”
you, my queen.
“there are no others?”
there is one other. but she is young. she was made by the forrest. she doesn’t know what she is.
“another? after all this time? where?”
the kingdom of six queens.
“how strong is her heart?”
she is too young to know for certain. but she when she is hungry, she has always been fed.
snow white’s new mother arrives on horseback. her lips are red as blood, her hair as black as ebony, her skin as fair as--snow’s.
she marries the king and they spend the night in his chamber. this has never happened before. snow white does not understand. she is hungry. she always gets fed, the very first night. she always gets blood on her gown.
but her father stays in his chamber and does not come out. in the morning, his eyes are hazy and he does nothing but smile. her new mother’s teeth are red.
snow white waits. she isn’t starving yet. surely her father will snap out of it and feed her.
“today?” snow white asks, and her father pats her head.
“i will find you a peasant boy,” he says. “a strong one. your favorite kind.”
“that is not my favorite,” snow white tells him. she frowns. he has never told her no before. he, and everyone else, has always done exactly what she wanted. “father, i am hungry. you promised i would never be hungry again.”
she begins to cry, and the hazy look leaves him. he falls to his knees, her face between his hands. “of course,” he murmurs, “of course, tonight, i’ll send her. i don’t know why i didn’t before. i don’t know what i was thinking. tonight.”
snow white kisses his cheek. her red lips leave a print.
her new mother does not come. in the morning, her father’s eyes are hazy once again.
“father,” snow white begs.
“i promise,” he answers, but he is weak, every night he gives in to weakness because her new mother does not come. snow white is hungry. snow white grows thin. snow white cannot go out into the sun.
at last, her new mother comes. she has a plate of food: vegetables, fruit, and a slab of meat.
“eat,” her new mother murmurs. she perches on the edge of the bed.
snow white shuffles away from the sunlight coming through the window. “i’m not hungry,” she says.
“but you must be hungry,” her new mother says, smiling. she reaches out to trace the edge of snow white’s jaw. “you haven’t eaten in weeks. not even a peasant boy.”
snow white looks up, startled. “they aren’t filling,” she complains.
“no,” agrees her new mother. “i agree. i prefer kings, when i can get them.”
“i prefer mothers.”
“i am not your mother.”
“then what are you?”
her smile is slow and bitter red. “my mother made the woods a promise, and the promise was me. she did not know that promises must be paid in blood, and sustained in blood, and that the blood was also me. she got what she wanted, and i ate until i was as full as a human could make me.”
“are there others? like you? .... like me?”
“there were,” the queen says. “once, there were many of us, and all of us were starving.”
snow white does not yet understand. “then what happened? where did they go? how did you survive?”
the queen runs a finger along the fabric of snow white’s blanket. her nail rips a line through the thread. “humans are weak, snow white. a thousand of them would not be enough to fill us up. but we are strong. our hearts can sustain a body for a lifetime.”
her teeth grow long. “i have been hungry for such a long time,” she says.
snow white understands.
it hurts: her skin is so hot it is nearly on fire. her feet blister as she runs. she has never been outside of the castle grounds, but the woods are dark and shaded. the shade is like jumping into a pool of water. the red bleeds from her skin, leaving her fair and white once more.
she hides inside the hollow of a tree (the woods created her and the woods will keep her safe until her mother's debt is paid). she sleeps while the hunting parties pass her by, all but one. he knows the woods. he knows the woods have favorites, and protect them; but the woods are old and can be tricked.
when she emerges, it is dark. her skin is so white he almost wants to drink it. she is small, her hair so black he thinks she has woven the night sky into it. as he notches his bow he thinks it seems a shame to kill something so beautiful, something so beloved by the woods. the huntsman is loved by the woods, too. he knows how its favorites suffer.
she turns to look at him. when their eyes meet he sees his deepest desires. her eyes promise to give it to him. we are the chosen, her eyes promise, as she approaches and he does not shoot. cannot shoot. cannot look away.
"i am so hungry," she whispers, reaching out to touch his face. "my father hasn't fed me."
"she wants your heart," the huntsman confesses.
snow white knows that already. snow white is beginning to understand the bargain that her mother made.
"she cannot have it," snow white says, and her teeth get long, and she eats.
"mirror mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?"
you, my queen. but not for long.
snow white walks. the desperate sting of hunger has been satiated by the huntsman's heart. it was not enough, but he was a favorite of the woods, and his mother too had made a bargain. he was slightly more than human. it is more than she has had in weeks.
she finds the hut as deep in the woods as you can be. its heart, you might say. thatched and hot with a fire in the fireplace, snow white can see a bed. she gets beneath the covers. she sleeps.
it is dwarf custom to kill intruders, especially if the intruder is human. humanity has never been a friend to dwarves. they are too weak and can be swayed too easily.
"please," snow white begs, holding their gazes, hands raised in open surrender. her eyelashes are dark against her cheek. she is small enough to fit in their beds. dwarves are unimpeachable in the face of human beauty, but snow white is not human. in snow white's eyes are their deepest desires. the woods have brought her to them and the dwarves belong to the mountain but they are the keepers of the woods.
"very well," says huckepack, hanging up his axe. he can feel her dark eyes on him. he wants to pet her head. he wants to keep her safe. "you can stay. we need someone to do the chores while we are in the mountain."
"i will do what you need done," snow white promises. "but i will need to eat."
naseweis takes her hand. he is known for strangling his enemies with his hands, but with snow white he is gentle. "what do you eat?" he asks.
snow white brings his hand to her cheek. "queens," she says, "but if none are available, huntsmen will do."
"huntsmen," purzelbaum spits. "they think they belong to the woods. they think they are owed."
"they are not owed." snow white smiles. she dabs at the corner of her mouth and her hand comes away with a smear of blood. "their mothers made a bargain and they are the debt. they must be paid. i will help them."
rumpelbold is the youngest. he has always wanted to go to war.
"we will make sure you never go hungry," he promises, and snow white smiles.
she kisses his cheek and leaves a red print. "i know you will," she says.
"i do not like hurting them," snow white says, her mouth red and dripping more. rumpelbold cleans his axe with a rag. "but i have to eat."
"don't pity deer because humans hunt them," he murmurs, voice soothing. "no creature has more right to live than any other. eat and be eaten. that's all life is."
snow white laughs. rumpelbold is the youngest, and her favorite. "but not you," she points out.
"well, dwarves are different," he said. "we have no debts."
"i would like to have no debt," snow white sighs. she licks blood from her fingers. "i would like to not be hungry, just once."
rumpelbold hums thoughtfully. "if someone else took it on instead," he muses, "knowingly, willingly, and without a debt of their own--it would set you free."
"no," she commands him, as firmly as she knows how. she kneels down so that he has to meet her eyes. "it is mine. my mother gave it to me. i must carry it."
"very well," rumpelbold says, and finishes cleaning off his axe.
the queen sends huntsmen and they do not come back. she sends soldiers and they do not come back. she sends witches and the witches do not come back.
after the first witch, a corset arrives at the palace door, drenched in blood.
it was too tight, says the note. i almost fainted when she put it on me, but my friends were strong, and i ate her heart and now i am strong, too.
after the second, a poisoned comb appears on her pillow. it is in a box made out of bones. the note says: i ran this comb through my hair and almost killed me. but my friends knew its magic and i ate her heart and now i know its magic, too.
for the third, the queen learns her lesson. she does not send a witch. she waits. she sends nothing. she feeds on the king until he is so weak he cannot leave his bed. she waits. time stretches on. snow white must be hungry. there are no debts to be paid.
after two months, the queen kills a wild boar and cuts out its heart. she dips the heart in poison and puts it into a huntsman and sends him, stumbling, into the woods.
"she is too smart. it will never work," the king says, his eyes closed.
but the king has never been hungry like snow white and the queen have been hungry. he does not know how your bones feel hollow, how the sun burns holes in your skin. he does not know the weight of the primitive thing that lives inside a bargain-child, always prodding at her ribs. always begging for blood. it is the contract that their mothers made.
"it will work," the queen says.
snow white eats the heart; she must. she knows that it is poisoned but the hunger is too strong. the primitive thing beneath her ribs takes control of her hand and reaches out for the heart in the huntsman's chest, red as an apple and twice as juicy.
she can feel the poison after the first bite, but she does not stop, she cannot stop. her kind is always hungry. it is the one true thing about them.
she is still awake when her dwarves get home, swinging their axes, but barely. there is blood on her hands but the heart is gone.
rumpelbold holds out his wrist. "eat," he offers, tears in his eyes. "i am not human. it will make you strong."
snow white shakes her head. dwarves are not bargain-children; dwarves were made in the mountains, by the mountains, for the mountains. dwarves have no debts.
"don't let her get my heart," snow whispers. her eyes close. "if i cannot have hers, she cannot have mine."
they bring her to the mountain. she will be safe in the mountain, because the mountain loves the dwarves and the dwarves love snow white.
a hundred princes on horseback pass below but the dwarves do not call to them. princes are human. they cannot sustain her.
instead, they wait for winter. at first frost, the dwarves prick their fingers on their axes: old magic. blood on snow on an ebony blade. the wind carries the contract, and the mountain accepts--a bargain-child twice over.
rumpelbold presses the blade to his mouth and his mouth to her lips.
she wakes. in his eyes she sees his deepest desire. "i told you not to," she weeps, realizing. "it was not your blood debt that i wanted."
"dwarves are not human," he reminds her, smiling. "we are not so easily swayed by what you want."
he holds out his wrist, and she drinks.
"mirror mirror, on the wall: who's the fairest of them all?"
snow white, my queen.
"she is awake? where?"
the dwarves woke her. she is coming from the mountains.
"and her heart? is it strong?"
it is as strong as yours.
snow white does not bring an army. she does not need one. when she passes through the villages, the people look into her eyes and see their deepest desires. her skin is fair as snow, but no longer burns in the sunlight.
six dwarves carry a coffin behind her, made of glass. there is a body in it, covered with a sheet. ask if she is hungry and she will smile, sad: no, she will say. i am quite full.
a dwarf's heart is strong. it is built to last. it could keep you full for a hundred lifetimes.
they march behind her with pitchforks, with torches. they call their queen evil and wicked. they call her a witch. she watches from her keep and can hear snow white's heart beating. it does not sound the way it used to, the way it should. it beats slower, stronger. it beats like the sound of an axe in the mountain. it beats like a work song: hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-ho.
snow white moves through the fight like a bird above it, unstained. the huntsmen guarding the door do not stop her; they do not try. they look into her eyes and see that she is not what she was. they see that she can give them their deepest desires--or she can eat their hearts with her hands.
they step aside.
"mother," snow white says.
"i am not your mother," the queen answers.
snow white smiles. "are you hungry?" she asks. "it must have been such a very long time since you've had a good meal."
"your father held me over for a while," the queen tells her. "but humans are weak. he did not last."
"they never do," snow white agrees. she pricks her finger on a needle and lets the blood drip onto the floor. the queen can smell it. she is so hungry. it has been so long since she last had a heart to eat that was strong as her own.
the primitive thing inside her ribs reaches out.
"yes," snow white says. "drink. go on."
"this is a trick," the queen replies, but cannot let go. the smell is so strong and so good. she is so hungry. her debt is not yet paid.
"yes," snow white says again. "but you must drink. it is the contract that our mother's made. then we will both be free."
this is the debt that they both owe: that blood must be paid with blood. their mothers paid it, first with a prick and then with their life. there were more like them, once. their debts were consumed when their hearts were eaten, but still they must be paid, and only a strong heart can pay them.
"i am hungry," the queen whispers, and snow white says, "then drink."
the blood is clean, debt-free. it is strong, and filling, and tastes sweet. she drinks. she keeps drinking. she cannot stop.
"are you full?" snow white asks, gentle, her hand on the queen's hair.
the queen takes a breath. "yes," she murmurs, hazy. she feels drunk. she cannot see straight. she cannot stand.
snow white kisses her forehead. "good," she whispers, and then cuts the queen's heart from her chest.
she brings the coffin to the keep, the queen's heart in her hand. she is tired of old magic. she is tired of debt. she pricks her finger on a needle and lets it fall onto the heart: new magic. new promise. the wind carries the contract, and the woods accept.
blood now must be repaid with life later, and rumpelbold opens his eyes.