I was happy growing up. I never had any human playmates, but I was never lonesome. When Auntie Magda wanted to brew spells and potions in her workroom, which was nearly every day, she sent me out into the garden until dark. I had the whole garden as my kingdom, complete with butterflies as gaudy courtiers, always showing off their fine clothes. I would play hide and seek with the stray kittens that wandered in through the rusty back gate, and jump with the green grasshoppers. I was the princess of my own private country. Even when it was raining, Auntie Magda still sent me outside. I'd learned very early on never, ever to argue with her, so out I'd go, into my wild, wet garden kingdom, dripping with diamond drops for a grand ball with the toads. My earliest memories are of taking naps among the roses at perhaps three years old, worn out after a few hours of romping wildly among the tall red hollyhocks. I could never remember a time when Magda had not simply placed me in the garden and left me to my own devices. And besides, I had my fairy family.
I was nearing six when I encountered my first garden fairy. I remember sitting with my back against my favorite oak tree after a spring rain, with the whole world wet and shining, feeling a little lonely, when I heard a whisper in my ear.
"Rapunzel…" I looked around, and there, hovering near my head, was a fairy. She was thin and delicate, wearing a dress that seemed to be made of the lightest rose petals. Her shining wings glittered as she fluttered near my nose.
"Who are you? And how did you know my name my name is Rapunzel?" I asked, enthralled by this tiny person's perfection.
"I am Appleblossom the garden fairy," she said, her voice as musical as the wind in the trees. "We have cared for you ever since you were a little babe, left out in the garden alone with no one to watch you or tend to your needs."
"Who's 'we'?" I asked, but I was fairly sure I knew the answer.
"The fairies of this garden," she replied, "And now that you are old enough, you may see us as we are and not merely as flowers swaying in the wind." The tiny woman turned towards the tangled bushes that lined the overgrown path. "Come out, my brethren, and meet our human child. She can see us now, and there is no need to hide!" From the garden rose many, many fairies, too many to count, swirling around me like tiny fireflies. Each wore a delicate outfit made from flower petals, or dewdrops strung together, or bright green leaves. One fairy boy, who looked to be about my age, flew up and landed on my palm. He was thin, with dark, curly hair and a sweet smile, and he wore a carefully tailored suit of leaves that looked as fine as velvet. His eyes were a deep, ocean-blue that would have been piercing if they had not been crinkled anxiously.
"I'm Oakleaf," he said with a shy grin.
"Oakleaf is our prince," explained Appleblossom, who had fluttered around to hover near my ear, "His father is the King of this garden. He has been hoping for a friend for many years, for there are no young fairies in our tribe. You and he are exactly the same age, Rapunzel."
"I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, your highness," I told the fairy boy on my nose. Auntie Magda had taught me the proper way to address royalty when we'd visited the King's palace the previous year.
He scowled at Appleblossom. "I would prefer it if you would call me Oakleaf," he muttered, clearly uncomfortable at being called 'Your Highness'.
I laughed. It seemed as if my longing for companions had been answered. Over the next few years, the fairies looked out for me in every way possible. I learned that not only could the vegetables in the kitchen garden be eaten, but wild herbs that grew by the back fence could also be used for flavor. I learned to cook apples in hollows, and to braid grasses into delicate bracelets for my wrists. Appleblossom soon became a foster-mother. I discovered that she was well respected among the fairies not only for her vast knowledge of natural medicine, but also for her beautiful singing and kind heart. It was she who had found me wailing on the back step, only a month old, and had persuaded the other fairies to care for me. She taught me to sing almost as sweetly as she did, though my voice could not call a butterfly or entice a flower to grow as hers could.
And Oakleaf. How shall I describe the wonderful days we spent together, rambling in the garden? We explored the vegetable patch, learning the ways of the worms as they dug in the soil, romped through the rose arbors in search of ladybugs, and danced in the orchards as the peaches grew ripe overhead. It did not matter that he flew and I ran, for we were the best of friends. We could not imagine a time when we would not had each other to laugh with.
Our favorite place to explore was the haunted house next door. Or at least, we called it haunted. We loved to slip out of Magda's garden and poke around in its gloomy, dusty corridors. It had been abandoned since long before either of us could remember, so it only fit that we should call it haunted. All the furniture was still there, but the drawers hung open as if things had been taken hastily out of them. It was always great fun with Oakleaf to make up stories about why it had been abandoned. Perhaps the people had set sail for a magnificent voyage to the new world, or were desperate criminals who had had to escape from the law in the nick of time. I asked Appleblossom about the house once, when I was about eight years old.
"What happened to the people who lived in house next door? You know, the empty one." She got a peculiar look on her face.
"Why?" she asked suspiciously, her eyes narrowed.
"Oh, no reason," I said, surprised at her reaction. She looked as if she knew something, but did not want to tell me. "I just…never see anyone looking out the windows, like in the house on the other side."
"Did anyone tell you about that house?" she pursued, "Did she say something about it?" (None of the fairies would say Magda's name. They just referred to her as 'she' or 'her' when they spoke of her at all.)
"No, really. I promise. I was just wondering," I replied, still confused.
"Good," was all Appleblossom said, and then she flew away without answering my question. I was much puzzled by this strange reaction to what I supposed was a perfectly innocent question.
"I bet the people who lived there hated fairies," reasoned Oakleaf when I told him of this strange conversation. He shuddered. Fairy-hating humans were the most dangerous kind, and a constant threat to fairies that wandered too far from their home gardens. There was an old fairy that lived in the hollow of one of the oak trees who had his wings torn off long ago by a fairy-hating human. He'd barely made it back alive, and the pain of seeing fairies in flight kept him hidden inside the oak tree forever. I shuddered, too. It seemed a terrible fate to live without wings.
More years passed. I began growing like a weed at about ten, and showed no signs of slowing down. My golden hair, which Auntie Magda never let me cut, grew just as swiftly, longer and longer. When I was twelve years old my hair trailed nearly six feet behind me when I let it down, even though I was five and a half feet tall. Mostly I kept it in a long, thick braid wound around and around my head and then hanging to my waist. It was a nuisance to keep clean, but Auntie Magda insisted on unbinding and washing it every night.
"There's magic in clean hair," she'd say when I complained, "It keeps you honest. You wouldn't want your lovely hair to betray you, now would you?" And I never lied to her, in childish fear that my hair would come alive and choke me, or worse.
The year I turned twelve also changed my life forever. It was all because of a grievous mistake that I made. I was singing a song that Appleblossom had taught me as I came in for dinner one afternoon. Auntie Magda was waiting at the door for me, as always, but her eyes narrowed as she heard my song. I stopped abruptly, checked by the look on her face.
"Rapunzel, dear, who taught you to sing so well?" she asked in a sweetly honeyed voice that I'd never heard her use before.
"Appleblossom," I replied without thinking.
"Oh? And who is Appleblossom?" Still in that honey-sweet voice, sticky with suspicion. It was then that I realized my error.
"Oh! Ah, the…um…I mean the apple blossoms-the ones in orchard. I was adding words to the song they were whistling to the wind this afternoon," I stuttered hastily, hoping that my hair wouldn't betray me, as she had often claimed it would.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. Auntie Magda reached out, snakelike, and grabbed my braid in her gnarled hand. She twisted painfully and I gasped. She tugged so hard my whole head ached and I was nearly pitched backwards.
"Foolish girl! Don't lie to me again!" she snarled as I whimpered in pain, "Do you think I don't know the tongue of the fairies?" I could only moan, tears leaking from my eyes. She did not relax her fearful grip on my hair. "So they're back," she muttered to herself, "I don't know how they dared. How long, Rapunzel? How long have they been back?"
"I d-don't know," I stammered through my tears, and truthfully, I did not. At least as long as I'd been there, for Appleblossom herself told me the fairies had cared for me when I was barely a month old.
"Hmm. I chased those little fiends out of my garden years ago. I made a charm so they'd never come back. They must have found a way to break it. Well! I'll fix them good this time!" Magda was in a towering rage. "You, girl, shall not get another chance to associate with the likes of them. Go straight upstairs and pack your clothes. You're going away from here, and you're never coming back!" She let go of my hair and thrust me towards the stairs that led to my bedroom. I was sobbing in earnest as I staggered up the narrow steps. I did not want to leave the only home I'd ever known, and certainly did not want my fairy family to be murdered by Auntie Magda. As I packed my clothes into a small bag, I opened my window slightly. Carefully puckering my lips, I blew a whistle that Appleblossom had taught me. It was a fairy distress call, and she claimed that only fairies could hear it.
Immediately Appleblossom was at my window, shining in the dying light.
"Rapunzel, what is it?"
"She knows about you," I said, and she gasped, her normally pale face going dead white, "She knows you all are out there. You'll have to leave, immediately."
"Thank you, child. But, why are you packing your things? You're not thinking of coming with us, are you?"
"No. I can't. Oh, Appleblossom, she's taking me someplace else. Someplace where you can't find me. I'm never coming back here, ever! I'll never see you or Oakleaf or anyone again!"
"There's not a place in the world that fairies can't find, dearest. We'll find you, even if it takes months," she promised, her wings already fluttering.
Something made me say, "Please…if it takes more than five years and you still haven't found me…give up. I'll probably be dead, wherever I am, after five years."
"Very well." Appleblossom looked graver than I'd ever seen her. "I promise."
"And tell Oakleaf…" I struggled to find words to tell my best friend. "Tell him I… tell him that I think of him, always. Tell him that, for me."
"I will. Goodbye, Rapunzel. You've been like a daughter to all of us. Be well, until we see you again." She was gone.
As soon as I appeared downstairs with my bag, Auntie Magda seized my arm. Not hard enough to hurt, but just hard enough that I could not get away. She paused and studied me for a moment, carefully taking in my budding chest and widening hips.
"I would have taken you soon anyway. You are getting too close to womanhood for me to keep safe from those who would seduce you from me," she muttered, half to herself. Then we set off into the dark.
We walked all night. I had no idea how Magda knew where she was going, but I knew we were in a forest from the number of branches I stumbled over. As night turned to dawn and then to day, we still kept walking. We did not stop until we had reached a tall tower, made of smooth, pale white marble that climbed vertically towards the clouds. At the top was a single window.
"Now, Rapunzel, I'm going to do a bit of magic to get you to into the tower and make sure no one else can get in. This tower is too high for fairies to fly up to. There is a room at the top, and another under it for you to sleep in. The only way to get in is through the window. When I call "Rapunzel, let down your hair!" You're to unbind your braids and hang them around that hook near the window," She indicated an iron hook protruding near the window, "And let your hair fall. Your hair will magically grow to reach the bottom of this tower, but only with that exact password. And only I know the password, so you'll be seeing no one else. When I'm up, your hair will return to its former length. You see," she leered at me, "your hair will keep you honest." I flushed and looked down. "Do you understand all that?"
"Yes," I whispered, my throat tight with misery. I would never see Appleblossom or Oakleaf again. Magda snapped her fingers and the base of the tower dissolved around me. When my eyes cleared, I was seated in front of the window of the tower, looking down at the tiny figure below.
"Rapunzel, let down your hair!" the figure called. I obediently undid my braid and wound it around the iron hook, letting it drop. Before my eyes the hair lengthened, twining around itself to form a thirty-foot braid reaching to the ground. Up climbed Auntie Magda, moving nimbly despite her age. Once at the top she leered at me again.
"That's how it works. You'll see me every few days with food. And we'll wash your hair, too. It's much better up here, isn't it? No nasty fairies to bother you." She vanished back out the window. I watched her slide down my braid and disappear into the forest. Back home. Where I should be. Where I would be if my foolish tongue had not slipped. I pulled up my braid, now back to its original length of about nine feet, and coiled it about my head again. Only when I could see the source of my imprisonment no more did I give myself up to choking tears of despair.
When the sobs had ceased, somewhat, I set out to explore my new home. The two rooms in the top of the tower were fairly comfortable, if a bit cramped. Both were circular, about ten feet in diameter with white painted walls. The lower room was a bedroom, with a single narrow bed in it; and a chest of drawers made of plain unfinished oak. An unframed oval mirror hung over the chest. Upstairs was little better. A square table for two, finished but unadorned, a large cupboard that held plates, spoons, knives, cups, and a few other necessities, and a large circular rug worked in curious patterns that took up most of the floor space were the only furnishings. I could live here, but it was the plain cramped-ness that irked me. I was used to roaming as I pleased in the garden, laughing and talking with the fairies. Here, there was nothing to do but sit at the table and look out the window into the endless treetops and wish for home.
I wept, mostly, those first few days, but after about a week my tears ceased, leaving behind a kind of miserable calm. True to her promise, Auntie Magda came every few days with food, and she'd unbind and wash my hair. For many weeks I begged her to let me have some paints, that I might relieve the plainness of my dwelling. Finally, she relented and allowed me a few colors. Upstairs, where she might see, I painted careful designs on the walls and furniture that matched the rug on the floor exactly, and she seemed pleased. Downstairs, however, I painted scenes from the garden I so longed to wander, with fairies peeking here and there from behind flowers and trees. I even painted the old, wingless fairy in his oak tree, but he had wings again and was smiling. I painted Appleblossom perched on a delicate pink rose, singing to a jeweled butterfly, and Oakleaf on the wall leading into the haunted house, beckoning mischievously. I had him wearing his leafy green outfit, and a delicate gold circlet perched on his head, even though I knew he hated to be reminded that he was a prince.
And so the years passed on dully. I was thirteen, and then fourteen, and then fifteen, and still the fairies had not found me. I feared that Magda had caught and killed them all, but I dared not mention it to Magda on her visits. She would only have leered at me. My golden hair grew longer and longer and harder and harder to manage. I hated it and what it represented, but I had no way to get rid of it save tearing it out of my head. Magda allowed me nothing sharp. Even the knives in the cupboard were hardly keen enough to be given the name. Once I reached six feet, I stopped growing, which was fortunate, because if I had been any taller I would have bumped my head on the ceiling of my prison.
Slowly but surely I became a young woman. The mirror downstairs told me that I was growing more and more beautiful, the kind of woman men fall in love with instantly: slender, with large gray eyes, rosy lips, and a short, straight nose. My skin grew milky pale, though it had always been brown as a child from so much time in the sun. The only sun I saw in the tower was the sunrise over the trees in the early morning, as I put my head out of the narrow window.
Besides painting the walls of my prison, my only other pastime was singing. I carefully sang all the songs Appleblossom had taught me, my voice drifting over the trees in mournful echoes. I made up new songs, nonsense words that seemed to match the notes of the song. But there was no one to hear. Not even birds fluttered in the trees of that forsaken forest.
Six years had passed since I had made the fateful slip of tongue. I was now eighteen, lonely and quiet. I rarely spoke, even with Auntie Magda. The sound of my own voice speaking only increased my longing for company. The only time I enjoyed my voice was when I leaned out of the window, letting the sun warm my face and singing. And it was early one morning, soon after my eighteenth birthday, that I was leaning half out of my window as usual, when someone came striding out of the forest.
I was so surprised; I nearly fell out of the window. The only other living creature I had ever seen since coming here was Auntie Magda, and she had left yesterday evening. She never came immediately the morning after she'd just left. Squinting down, I could see that the figure was definitely not Magda. It was far too tall, and walked with a straight back, not Magda's hunched stance.
The figure strode right to the base of the tower and called, in an unfamiliar male voice, "Rapunzel, let down your hair!" It was fortunate I had pulled most of my body away from the window, or I would have fallen out of the tower. Hadn't Auntie Magda told me that only she knew the password? Who was this person?
My braid, still bound to my head, twitched. I realized that it had grown to its thirty-foot ladder-length at the sound of the password, even though I had not unbound it. It now trailed around the room like a docile golden snake. Obediently I gathered it up, wound it around the iron hook and let it drop, though why I did so immediately and without question I am not sure. I was curious about this young man, true, but it was mostly that I was so starved for company I would have let in the Devil himself, and all his legions, if they had come calling. Or perhaps I was just so accustomed to the ritual that I did it without thinking.
I watched as the man climbed my hair. He was tall and strong-looking, and, from the way my braid strained a little around the hook, much heavier than Magda. He was, however, as nimble as she, climbing gracefully up the slippery marble tower. As he got closer, I saw that he had a head of curly black hair, though no beard. He reminded me of someone, but whom, I had no idea. I backed away from the window as he neared the top. A few seconds later, he swung into the room, bringing my braid (back to its normal size) in with him. In two giant strides, he'd crossed the room, his head brushing the ceiling, and suddenly I was in his arms, he was hugging me fiercely. I gasped with shock and shoved back, away from him, nearly falling over the table in my haste to escape.
"Who are you?" I managed finally.
He grinned. "Am I so different, Rapunzel? By the wind's breath, you've certainly changed. You're even more beautiful now than when you left."
"I…" I started to protest that I had no idea what he was talking about, but at that instant I saw his eyes. They were a bright, ocean blue. I knew those eyes; I had seen them nearly every day of my life as a child; I'd longed for them in the years of my exile. "Oak…Oakleaf?" He nodded, still grinning. I began to stammer, "I…what happened …you're…huge…you're, you're human…" It was at this point that I slid to the floor in a faint. I felt strong arms catch me and hold me tightly, just before the world went black.
I woke up in my narrow bed in the tower. Perched comfortably on the chest of drawers, his back to the mirror was the huge figure of Oakleaf. Beside him, painted on the wall, waving mischievously, was the likeness of him that I'd painted nearly five years before, its delicate wings spread wide. Seeing that I was awake, Oakleaf got up and came over to the bed. He helped me sit up as my head rang and the world spun for a moment, but then everything came back into focus abruptly.
"Oakleaf, it is you. What are you doing here? And…what happened?" I indicated his height and lack of wings with a gesture.
"That's the Rapunzel I know," he said, smiling and returning to his seat on the chest of drawers, "Well, Magda chased us out of the garden as soon as she got back from wherever she'd taken you. Fortunately, thanks to your timely warning, we were able to move all of our things to the garden next door-the haunted house's garden-and then come back and let her think she'd caught us unawares. She put up a pathetic charm to keep us away that even clumsy old Bluebell could have broken. But we decided that it was better to stay where we were, especially since you weren't there any more. I hope you never thought we forgot you."
"I never did," I replied softly, "But I gave up hope of your finding me after the five years were up. Appleblossom swore..."
"I know. And everyone at home kept her promise-except me. I never stopped looking for you. Finally I declared that if I couldn't find you as a fairy, I'd look for you as a human. I got Appleblossom to do it for me. As it turns out-"
"Wait a minute," I interrupted, "I didn't know Appleblossom had the power to turn fairies into humans. And how did you get her to do it, if she was keeping her promise?"
"I persuaded her by saying that she might have promised to stop looking after five years, but I'd made no such promise. I wasn't ready to give up on you."
"And this human-spell she did? How does it work? And when does it end?" I asked. Fairy-charms had always come with time limits, though Appleblossom's usually lasted longer than a normal fairy's.
"Well…" he suddenly looked uncomfortable. "It's permanent."
"WHAT!" I practically screamed, "You gave up being a fairy FOREVER just to find me?! You gave up your wings? And your crown?"
He looked me right in the eye. "I'll tell you what I told her: that a life as a human with you was better than a thousand years as a fairy without you."
That stopped me cold. The furious shouting that had about to come out of my mouth died instantly. I buried my head in my hands and a few tears leaked between them. All the loneliness of the past six years suddenly built and I was sobbing with all the pent-up misery. I felt two arms go around me and hold me tightly, and though I did not stop crying, I was grateful. I don't know how long it went on, but when I finally stopped it was with an odd kind of relief.
I looked up to see him watching me gently through those bright blue eyes.
"For me?" I whispered.
"For you," he replied. Suddenly he leaned down scarcely an inch and his lips were pressed on mine in a long, tender kiss.
It was he who pulled away first. "I love you. I've loved you for years, even before you left."
"I know," I answered, "I love you, too. Thank you…for everything. And I'm s-sorry. It's all my fault."
"No, it isn't. You were bound to make a mistake sometime, and you had no idea that she hated fairies. What's done is done, and we can't change it. But we still have each other. And we have the future."
"What future?" I demanded, pulling away suddenly. "I'm stuck in this tower with no way to get in and out but my own hair. You can get out, at least. Maybe you can go home and try to get Appleblossom to reverse her spell, now that you know where I am. I'm safe, and I suppose I can go on living as I have. At least I'll know that my fairy family has survived. And I'll know you're well. I can live on that."
"No. Do you think I'll abandon you so easily?" he replied, "We'll both get out of here, and find someplace else. Someplace where Magda the Enchantress can't find us."
"You're saying her name," I whispered suddenly, "You never-"
"I'm human now; I don't have to be scared of her. Now, all I have to do is get some scissors that can cut your hair. Then we tie the hair to the iron bar, climb down, and we'll both be free. I'm not sure where to find scissors, but Appleblossom will know. It may take a while, because scissors are hard to come by, even at home. I promise I'll visit you every day that Magda isn't here. That's how I learned the password, by the way. I was in the woods yesterday, when I saw her. I followed her all the way out here, watched her call out "Rapunzel, let down your hair," at the base of this tower, and climb up. I watched to see when she went away, and then waited until morning in case she was hanging around. I hope I didn't scare you too badly, but I thought you'd recognize me. It didn't occur to me that it might startle you to see me as a human, and I was so happy to have found you at last that I didn't think of anything else."
"That's all right, but you'd better leave soon. She's very unpredictable about when she shows up." This was true, Magda liked to surprise me with erratic visits, although she always turned up within two days of the last one. I was never sure of the time she would appear. Every once in awhile she'd come the next evening, and I was suddenly afraid that this might be one of those times. As if to confirm my fears, I heard a shout from outside the tower.
"Quick! Under the bed!" I hissed, shoving Oakleaf towards it, "And don't come out until I say so!" As soon as he was hidden, went to the window upstairs. There was Magda, with a basket under her arm as usual.
"Good evening, Auntie Magda," I called to her, "You're back early." I always commented when she made an unusually timed visit because it broke the monotony of my days.
"Thought I'd surprise you with a few fresh peaches from the orchard this evening, dearie. I know how much you like them," she called up.
"How kind of you," I called back, for in truth I loved any fruit from the garden at home. It reminded me of my childhood.
I held the end of my braid loosely in one hand, knowing what was coming next.
"Rapunzel, let down your hair!" she called up to me, her crow-like voice so different from the one that had called this morning. Obligingly, my braid grew to its climbing length and I let it drop with practiced ease. As soon as Magda was safely in the tower I pulled in my braid and helped her set out the meal she'd brought, putting away the rest of the provisions in the cupboard. I was silent as we ate, though that was not unusual. Magda rarely spoke, either, but this time as we finished the meal she turned to me.
"I've heard tell in the village that the house next door has been sold."
"The Riavelli's house?" I asked indifferently, naming the family who owned the house to one side of hers.
"No, the empty one on the other side. No one's lived in it for years. Some of the villagers claim it's haunted. Nonsense! As if peasants knew about any such thing!" she snorted.
I felt my eyebrows rise. So others in the village had come to the same conclusion as Oakleaf and I about the house's unnatural emptiness!
"Surely it is not haunted. Perhaps the last family who lived there…moved out because they did not like the view of your vegetable patch," I suggested, in the usual indifferent tone I used when she told me bits of gossip from home.
To my intense surprise she exploded from her seat in a fury. "Who told you that? Who told you about that house? Was it the fairies?"
"No. No one's ever told me about that house," I replied truthfully, startled by her reaction, so like Appleblossom's when I'd asked about that house.
She settled down, still watching me suspiciously. "Very well," she said after a moment, "I'll assume for the moment that you're telling the truth. But take care that you do not say such things in the future. I will leave you now." And with that, she carefully slid down my braid and was gone. I stared after her as her hunched form vanished into the trees. What was it about that house that got both Auntie Magda and Appleblossom so upset when I asked?
I stared off into the forest for a few moments more before I remembered that poor Oakleaf had crammed his large frame under my narrow bed, a position that could not be comfortable. I hurried downstairs.
It took some time to extricate Oakleaf from beneath my bed, mainly because he had pushed himself so far in that short of lifting the bed it was impossible to get him out.
"However did you get yourself in there?" I demanded after twenty minutes of hard work had finally yielded the desired result.
"I'm not really sure," he replied, still out of breath and checking himself for bruises. "I heard that old witch talking upstairs and wanted to be as far out of sight as possible in case she came down here. You never said whether she came downstairs or not."
"I'm sorry, I'm so used to our routine that it never occurred to me that you might not know. I should have warned you; she never comes into my bedroom. That's why I put the garden mural down here and not up there. I spend most of my time up there, because it gets so stuffy in here. There are no windows but the one upstairs."
"I noticed," he answered dryly.
"I'm glad," I replied just as sarcastically, "So, what are we going to do now? You have to get out of here as soon as possible, but what about the future?"
"Haven't we already been through that? Oh, I forgot the mention; I purchased the haunted house, the one that we used to play in. So I can live there while we hunt for scissors, and the fairies will be safe at the same time," he explained.
"Magda told me it was sold, but she did not know who bought it. Or she didn't say," I added as an afterthought, "And how did you buy anything? You haven't any money."
"The fairies have resources for obtaining human goods, including money, when they want it. Even if I'm not a fairy in form anymore, I'm still their prince by blood. Besides, they felt it was the least they could do, when the purchase of the house provided them with the most safety they've had in nearly twenty years. Satisfied, Rapunzel?"
"Not yet. What name did you give when you purchased the house? I hope you didn't give Oakleaf. That would be an invitation for your charming next-door neighbor to start nosing around."
"I'm not so foolish. I've given myself a human name. I won't tell you now, that way if you happen to slip she won't suspect me. It happens," he added, as I looked hurt. He'd reminded me of my fatal slip of the tongue six years earlier that had landed me in the tower in the first place. "Anyway, I'll let you hear it from Magda. She is still a gossip, isn't she? I'll "introduce" myself to her once I've properly moved in, just to stay on her good side. I'm sure you'll hear my new name from her. You can still use Oakleaf in private, though. I won't mind." He smiled and tilted my chin up to look into his eyes. "I'll be back soon, Rapunzel. Living next door to Magda is a great advantage: it will let me keep tabs on when she's visiting you and when it's safe to come myself. You'll see me often, I promise. You won't be lonely anymore." He leaned down and kissed me gently, first on one cheek and then on the other. I wound my hair around the hook for him to climb down, and he slid carefully out the window. Once he was completely outside, he leaned back in and kissed me tenderly on the lips. He went sliding down the tower and vanished into the dark woods as soon as we broke our kiss. I watched the point where he'd disappeared for a long, long time.
During the months following Oakleaf's sudden return into my life, I was happier than I had been in a long, long time. Oakleaf visited every day that Magda did not, and though there were a few close calls, he always managed to slip away in time. I guarded my tongue and manner so carefully that Auntie Magda never suspected a thing. I was proud of myself, for I felt that I was no longer a foolish girl who could easily betray her friends, that I had redeemed my earlier mistake. His human name, as I heard soon enough from Magda, was Umberto Maravello. Not very creative, perhaps, but better than nothing. I had to suppress a laugh when I heard it.
I wish I could say that neither of us slipped; that Oakleaf's original plan had worked perfectly and we lived happily ever after, but unfortunately things did not turn out as such. Magda found out about Oakleaf about five months or so after he first arrived at the base of my tower. Like my original blunder that had led to the situation in the first place, this mistake cost us both long suffering.
It was Oakleaf who made the mistake this time. He arrived at the tower when Magda and I were just sitting down to dinner one evening. I heard him call, and I know I turned dead white. Auntie Magda went stiff as a board for a moment, and then addressed herself to me.
"Rapunzel, dearest, who is that?" she asked in her most honeyed voice. Either I had forgotten just how poison-sweet her voice could become, or she was even more furious than she had been on the day I had come in from the garden singing Appleblossom's song. I did not answer her at all, for I did not want to tell her the truth, nor did I relish the though of her grabbing my hair again.
"That sounds like Umberto from next door," she muttered to herself as he called again.
"Who?" I asked, puzzled, for in my fright I had forgotten that she knew Oakleaf as Umberto.
"Umberto, the boy next door to me, you foolish girl!" she snapped "Surely you remember me speaking of him, if your brain has not left you entirely. He must have followed me here. I'll soon settle him." She rose and started for the window.
And then Oakleaf shouted the kiss of death: "I have the scissors at last, Rapunzel! Let me up and I'll show them to you!"
Magda stopped halfway to the window. She stood as if frozen to the spot, but only for a moment. Then she whirled and grabbed me by the hair, which was draped around the room in its ladder-length.
"You little fiend! He's been here before, hasn't he? How long have you known him? How long has he been coming here? Answer me!"
I shook my head, causing some of my hair to pull from my head, but I did not cry out. I did not even allow tears to gather in my eyes. I simply refused to answer, and in that moment she lost her power over me forever. She knew it, too.
"Very well," she hissed, spit spraying from her mouth in her fury, "Since your hair cannot keep you honest with me, I rid myself of your ungratefulness forever!" She reached into her pocket, at the same time yanking my braid so that it came loose from its anchorage around my head. It one deft movement she snipped the whole braid from my head from the sharp pair of scissors she'd pulled from her pocket. My long hair fell to the floor with a thump, and I stared at it, half expecting it to twitch like a live creature. It had been so much a part of my life that it seemed to me that it should live on for a few moments once it and I were separate at last. Magda did not give me much time to gape. As soon as the braid fell to the floor she'd started muttering a spell under her breath, and within a few seconds I felt it take hold.
I simply and suddenly ceased to exist. I could still see everything around me, but I was invisible, glued to the floor, and voiceless. I tried to run to the window. I tried to yell to Oakleaf. But I could do nothing. I was helpless to prevent the horror that began to unfold before my eyes.
First, Auntie Magda picked up my severed braid from the floor and tied off the end that she had just cut. Then she reached out of the widow and wrapped it around the iron hook, keeping one end to hold and letting the other drop. This she did so deftly that not even a finger of her gnarled old hands showed out of the window. Those moments while Oakleaf was climbing the braid were the longest of my life. At last he reached the top-and gasped with surprise to find Magda gripping the end of the braid. He froze.
He recovered remarkably quickly. "What have you done with Rapunzel?" he demanded boldly.
"Rapunzel's gone, you foolish boy. You'll never see her again," she replied, giving him the sneer that she'd once reserved for me. Then she let go of the braid. With awful slowness it unraveled from the hook. Oakleaf had time for one terrified look before he plummeted to earth with a scream. I never heard him hit, for Magda the Enchantress turned back to me and snapped her fingers. The tower scene faded and vanished around me. The last thing I saw of my old life was Magda's wrinkled face leering at me.
I awoke sprawled on damp pine needles. For a moment I was confused. Why was I all wet? I sat up with a gasp as memory returned suddenly. Magda's face, leering cruelly. Oakleaf falling from the tower. I glanced around quickly and confirmed my fear: I was in a dark forest that I'd never seen before. The forest around my tower was full of leafy trees, and it never rained there. Ever. This forest was all tall pines, and a light mist was falling. I guessed that I was far from the tower and everything else that was familiar.
I stood carefully and took inventory. My legs supported me, though they were a bit shaky. The rest of me worked all right. I sat back down on the pine needle carpet with a thump and began to cry. Oakleaf was probably dead. Who could survive a fall from that height? And even if he had survived, but was badly hurt, Magda certainly would not help him. She would just leave him there beside the tower to die slowly. Slowly and painfully.
After a time my tears ceased as suddenly as they had come. I began to think very rapidly, before I panicked. I was probably never going to find my way back to the tower, or the town where I grew up, even if I tried. I had no idea where I was, after all. I decided that it would be best to simply wander and hope to come upon a place where I could live. If not, I would just die alone, lost in the forest. I welcomed even that, for then I would see Oakleaf again. A few tears squeezed themselves out of my eyes at the thought of him. I brushed them away and started off.
I wandered all day, looking for the berries and nuts I had learned about as a child with the garden fairies. When it grew dark, I found a little hollow with a wild raspberry bush growing in front of it. A good place to spend the night, I decided, but definitely not to stay permanently. I ate some berries and fell asleep in the hollow, feeling more alone now that I had left the tower than I had felt while living in it.
I continued wandering for two weeks, across meadows and through forests, seeing no one, finding food and places to sleep as I came across them. My fair skin burned in the hot sun, but slowly began to develop the deep tan that I had had as a child. At last I came to a narrow dirt track. The way it was worn in the middle indicated that it was still in use by humans. Perhaps I would find some generous people who would let me stay with them for a few days. If not, they could surely direct me to someone who would take pity on a poor, wandering girl.
The house I came to was small, though well built. An older woman knelt in a tiny garden outside the front door. She looked up as I approached, clearly puzzled by the arrival of a strange girl walking alone up to their isolated cottage. Her worn face shone with kindness and generosity, but it held certain sadness too, of an old wound that had never healed.
"Welcome, child," she said, standing up to greet me, "What is a pretty young thing like you doing wandering in these woods alone?"
"I…I'm lost. My…my aunt turned me out of her home and I have wandered for weeks. I have no other kin but her, and she took me in when I was a baby."
"Did you never know your parents, child? Did your aunt never tell you of them?" the woman asked. Strange, to ask that without even asking my name first.
"She never mentioned them. I really don't even know why she took me in the first place. I always assumed that my parents had died," I replied frankly.
"Why did your aunt turn you out?" I examined her face, but found nothing more than gentle curiosity.
"She was holding me against my will. I was making plans to escape her, and she found out about them, so she turned me out and killed the man who was trying to help me. I know it sounds strange that she turned me out because I tried to escape her, but it's true," I said, looking at the ground between my bare toes. What if she didn't believe me?
"I believe you, child," the woman said, is she'd read my mind, "You may stay with us, if you wish. We are a childless couple whose only chance at happiness was snatched away many years ago. Your presence will be welcome. What is your name?"
"Thank you for your generosity," I replied sincerely. "My name is Rapunzel."
The woman stared at me, going white under her weathered tan. Her knees suddenly buckled and she knelt in the dirt. At that moment a man strode around the house, carrying a spade. He was of an age with the woman, but he moved with the suppleness of someone much younger. He took in the scene immediately through large grey eyes: me standing in the lane and his wife on her knees in the dirt, looking as though she were about to faint. He peered at my face for a moment, and then went as pale as his wife.
"What's going on? Are you all right?" I was puzzled, now, and a bit frightened. What had made this friendly old couple act so oddly?
The man helped his wife to stand. "Come into the house, please, and sit down," he said to me as he half-carried the woman into the house. I obeyed, following him into the cozy kitchen, where his wife sat down at the table. I perched carefully across from her and the man took a position behind his wife's seat, standing with his hands on her shoulders.
"All our married life we have longed for a child" the man began, "About 18 years ago, just when we were giving up hope, Beatrice finally conceived. We were overjoyed at the thought of having a child to raise at last. But, she looked out the window one day and happened to spy our next door neighbor's fine patch of lettuce."
"I could think of nothing else the moment I laid eyes on it," the woman looked at me ruefully, "If you ever carry a child, you'll understand what it is like to have your body take you over like that."
"Finally I decided to sneak into the garden next door and take some," the man continued, "Now this woman who lived next to us was a witch, and she was famous in our village for never letting anyone but herself taste the food of her garden. I knew that I would never get some by asking, so in my desperation I snuck into the garden and cut a few plants. As soon as I had pulled a bit from the ground, the old witch stood beside me. 'How dare you sneak into my garden and steal my rapunzel!' she shrieked. I fell to my knees and explained that my wife was carrying our first child, and that she had a craving for it. I feared that it would hurt the child if she did not at least taste the lettuce. The witch seemed to soften for a moment, and we made a bargain. I would be allowed to take as much rapunzel as my wife needed for as long as she carried the child, and she, the witch, would name her price for it once the baby was born. Unfortunately, the price was the child, our only child. The baby was a beautiful girl with grey eyes and golden hair. We only had her for a month, before the witch took her. We could not bear to see our beloved child through the window every day, no longer belonging to us, so we left our house and moved here, far away from the memories."
I sat in the chair, listening to this tale, and growing colder and colder with every word. It was too similar to be a coincidence: a baby girl named Rapunzel, found on the back doorstep by fairies when she was a month old, raised by a witch. A deserted house next door. Strange reactions when the child asked about the house. Golden hair and grey eyes…I looked at these people and saw features I recognized from my own face. The man had large grey eyes and was very tall. The woman had a short, straight nose, and was thin and willowy. I was willing to bet her hair had been golden before it turned white as snow. I reached across the table to hug my parents, and they reached for me. We stood there, hugging across the table, for a long, long time. It barely made up for the eighteen years lost, but it was a start.
I looked up from my careful weeding of the vegetable patch and smiled to myself. I had been living with my parents in their cottage for three months now, and I already felt more at home there than I had ever felt in the tower, more even than when I lived with Auntie Magda in her house in town. The only thing that I still missed was the presence of Oakleaf, Appleblossom, and the other fairies. I wished there were a way to bring Appleblossom and the others here, to the small flower garden that I had planted at the foot of the woods. I had begun it with the vague idea of the fairies somehow finding me and coming to live here, and though it seemed unlikely the dream refused to die.
My eyes found my father as he chopped down a tree for firewood nearby. His quiet enthusiasm in all he did reminded me of Oakleaf, sometimes. Oakleaf. How I wished I could talk to him. Tell him that even though his scheme had not worked out in the way he planned, I was free of Magda, and happy. And most of all, I wished I could tell him that I was carrying his child.
I had noticed in my last month or so in the tower that my dresses had been getting tighter around the waist. And sometimes I felt sick to my stomach in the mornings, too. But I had not realized what it meant until one morning soon after I arrived at my parents', when I awoke to feel a faint fluttering in my stomach. I'd hurried into the kitchen where my mother was making bread. When I told her my symptoms her eyes clouded for a moment, but then she'd smiled. She took one of my hands in hers and gently placed it on the flutter. There was a small bulge right on top of where it was.
"What do you feel?" she asked.
"I must have eaten too much for dinner last night. My stomach is just a little upset. It's a bit swollen, too," I added as an afterthought.
"No, my darling. You are not ill. You are with child."
I stepped back a pace. "With child?"
"Yes. I assume the child must be your Prince Oakleaf's, from what you've told me." I had given them my whole story over breakfast the day after I'd arrived, from being found and raised by the fairies to the last moments in Magda's tower. Speaking of Oakleaf's death had been one of the most painful things I'd ever experienced, but it had also brought a sense of closure. He was gone from my life forever now, and slowly I'd begun to accept it.
I looked back down into the dark earth of the vegetable patch and pulled a last stubborn weed out of the ground. A few tears dripped from my eyes. Most fell on my belly, which seemed to grow larger and more ungainly every day, but a few fell on the weeds in my hand, watering the tender pulled-up plants beneath them with a salty rain.
The twins were born in May, six months after my sudden arrival at the house of my parents. The boy I named Umberto, in memory of Oakleaf's misbegotten human name, and the girl I called Katriona. Both resembled their father and me, but they could not have looked more different from one another. Katriona had dark hair, like Oakleaf, but hers was straight like mine, and she had my father's clear grey eyes. Little Umberto had Oakleaf's piercing ocean blue eyes and curly hair, but his was sandy blond. Just to look at the pair of them comforted me. I still had a bit of Oakleaf wherever I went, in these two precious little children.
My parents, too, were overjoyed in the bounty of twins, and despite the reality of their age seemed to grow younger whenever the children were around. And so a year passed on peacefully. One day, when I was carefully working in the flower garden with Katriona strapped to my back, sound asleep, my eye caught sight of a familiar glimmer. I looked up sharply, and there in front of me was Appleblossom, fluttering near my nose as if I were six again!
"Appleblossom!" I cried out and held out a finger for her to perch on. She was older, true, and looked worn, but she was still as delicately beautiful as ever. She kissed my thumb gently.
"So we meet again, child. But you are not a child anymore, are you? You have a baby of your own," she gestured to Katriona, who watching her with wide eyes.
"Pre'ty fla'ar," mumbled Katriona, resting her head back down and falling asleep again.
"She cannot see us until she is ready," Appleblossom pointed out, noting my confusion, "She will see fairies only as flowers and plants until then. I assume she is Oakleaf's, then?" I nodded. "But where is he? Is he here?"
"I'll…explain later," I said hastily, not wanting to re-open a healing wound at the moment, "How did you find me? And where are the others?"
"I told you once that there is nothing fairies can't find. We could not find you while you were in the tower because she put a spell around it so that no one but a human would be able to get close, but when you came here we had only to start looking for you. And as for the others, they're making themselves comfortable in your garden now." She gestured behind her, and sure enough there were hundreds of little glimmers as the fairies moved in.
Just then my parents came around the corner of the house. Their eyes went wide with wonder when they saw what I was talking to, but they must have guessed immediately whom it was.
"You are Appleblossom the fairy, I assume?" said my mother after a moment.
"Indeed. You know me?" Appleblossom seemed puzzled by my parents' casual attitude at meeting a fairy.
"We owe you a great debt for raising our daughter," Father replied calmly.
Appleblossom's eyes flicked over the two of them, back to me, and to them again. "Ah. Then I will ask no more questions. I am pleased to meet the parents of Rapunzel at last. She was like a daughter to me when she was growing up."
"We owe you more than we can ever repay. If there is anything that we might do for you, only name it," Mother replied formally.
"Grant me only one thing," said Appleblossom with a deep curtsy, "permit my clan to live in your beautiful garden. We have recently left our former home, and would welcome the chance to live near our dear friend Rapunzel once again."
"With pleasure. I have heard of the wonders that may be grown in a garden where fairies reside," answered my father. So it was that the fairies of my childhood came to live with me again. The only stain on my happiness was the retelling of Oakleaf's death to Appleblossom. Appleblossom did not say anything throughout the entire story, and when it was finished she looked away from me, out the window. Only by looking carefully was I able to catch the pearly glimmer of tears in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," was all I could say. There was silence for a long time.
At last Appleblossom spoke. "It might not be much of a comfort to you to say it, but I will do so anyway. He loved you, Rapunzel, more than I can tell you. He loved you as a child growing up, and he loved you as a man. You meant more to him than being a fairy, more than being a prince, more than life itself. He would have wanted to give his life for your freedom, had he chosen his death." She fluttered out the window. A few minutes later I heard a beautiful fairy voice raised in a song choked with tears echoing among the trees. Once again, I found that I could not restrain my own sobs.
The years continued on. My father died two years after the fairies arrived, my mother a year after that. They both went peacefully, with little pain. Both remained cheerful right up until their last hours. My mother was still doing the laundry the day before she died. I missed them terribly, as much as I still missed Oakleaf, but I still had the twins. They were the bright point in my life, and whatever did not go into running the household went into spending as much time with them as possible. The fairies watched them when I was too busy, which was rare, but it was nice to have a few hours to myself now and then. I had decided that I would not raise the twins like Magda had raised me, leaving me out in the garden to the fairies and threatening me when I displeased her. I was as kind and loving to them as I knew how, trying to be the mother Appleblossom had been to me.
The twins began seeing the fairies when they were around six; about the same age I'd been when I first met Appleblossom. Katriona frightened me the first time by rushing into the kitchen screaming.
"What is it, my darling?" I gasped, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, Mama," she grinned, as Umberto, the quieter of the two, came trotting inside and stood silently watching, also grinning from ear to ear. Katriona began to bounce with excitement. "Guess what we saw in the garden?"
It was at this point that I realized what was going on, but I decided to play along. "What did you see, Katriona?"
"Umberto and me were playing, out by the roses, and a little lady flew up to us! She was really pretty. She said she was a fairy! I saw a fairy in our garden, Mama!" she squealed.
"That fairy is a special friend of mine. Her name is Appleblossom. Go outside with Umberto and see if you can find some more," I said, smiling to myself. My children could see my friends at last.
Another year passed uneventfully. The twins turned seven and began helping out with smaller tasks around the house, which was a big help and took some of the workload off of me. Katriona was doing one of her chores one morning, weeding the front garden, when she came inside and told me someone was coming down the road. We rarely had visitors, the nearest town being ten miles away, and when we did we would invite them in and offer them a meal. Mostly they were homeless wanderers who had no place else to go, and this one looked to be no different. The bent figure was dressed in tattered rags and carried a thin pole that it poked out in front of itself weakly, tapping the ground as if it were testing the firmness of the earth with every step. Whoever it was, the stranger was clearly blind.
"Hello? My we help you?" I called out. I felt Katriona come up behind me and take hold of my skirt, hiding herself from the man, not knowing that he couldn't see her anyway.
The stranger stopped at the sound of my voice.
"Is…is someone there? Please, don't hurt me!" he called in a quavering male voice that spoke of long years of abuse. Playing cruel tricks on the blind, I knew, was a favorite pastime of many who had nothing better to do. This man obviously had no idea where he was. I felt my heart stir with pity for the frightened figure that cowered in the road, expecting an attack at any moment.
"Don't worry," I called back to him, trying to sound reassuring, "We won't hurt you. I promise. Stay here, Katriona," I added to my little girl, who would have clung to me as I started towards the man. She let go of my dress and stepped backward. Umberto had heard the voices and come into the front garden, and he stood beside his twin as if to reassure her. Satisfied that they were not going to follow me unless I called, I began walking towards the man, talking the whole way to let him know where I was.
"Welcome to our home, sir. I live here with my children in the middle of this forest. We won't harm you in any way. We can give you food, warm clothes, and a place to sleep for as long as you need it."
"Who are you?" the man gasped, groping around until his found my hand. Up close, I saw that he was quite tall despite his hunched appearance. His long, curly black hair and beard hid most of his face, and he kept his head down as if expecting a blow. Suddenly he jerked up, his sightless eyes straining to see my face, and I felt myself grow cold. His pupils were the empty white of blindness, but the irises were a bright ocean blue, the exact color of my little boy Umberto's eyes. And Oakleaf's.
I was hugging him before I even knew what I was doing. "Oakleaf! Oakleaf!" I cried joyously, but he was shoving me away, backing up just as I had done years ago.
"Who are you?' he demanded fiercely, "My name is not Oakleaf. My name is Umberto, a poor homeless beggar who has nothing in this world but pain and despair. And…and," he hesitated. "Your…your voice," he whispered, "I know your voice, I think. Someone who cared about me…long ago."
He did not remember me. My beloved Oakleaf, my friend, my love…he didn't know me. He reached up to touch my face; puzzlement etched on every line of his familiar, aged, pained face. My tears, falling from my eyes like ice chips, dripped onto his face, rolling down and mingling with those running from his sightless eyes. They fell into his eyes, and he blinked. He straightened abruptly, and I found myself being hugged as hard as I had the day Oakleaf had surprised me in the tower.
"Rapunzel! Dear Rapunzel!" he repeated over and over again, his tears wet on my shoulder. I hugged him back. After a few moments of confusion, we found ourselves facing each other, my hands on his shoulders and his around my waist. I looked into his eyes again, and realized that the pupils were no longer milky white, but clear and black. He could see. Miraculously, he could see. His eyes blinked rapidly and were watering against the light that they were unaccustomed to, but they could see.
He looked past me to the twins, standing side by side together, watching this scene gravely. He looked at them carefully, noting the features of each.
"Ours?" he whispered to me, and I nodded. "They're beautiful."
"Yes," I agreed, "They are my joy."
Just then Appleblossom floated around the corner, calling for Umberto to come and finish weeding the back garden. She and Oakleaf caught sight of each other at the same moment. He simply stared, stunned. She gave a soft little cry and fell to the ground, forgetting in her shock even the use of her wings. Then came another round of tears and gentle hugs. Then came the task of introducing the twins to their father, and bringing him in to sit down and tell his story.
His fall from the tower had not killed him, as I had assumed, nor, amazingly, had he been too seriously injured. He had struck his head on the side of the tower just as he had been about to hit the ground which had knocked him out. When he'd awoken, the tower had vanished. Furthermore, he was blind and his memory was gone. He remembered only a few scraps of information from the time before his fall, like the false name he'd given to Magda to conceal his identity. He'd wandered for nearly eight years, tormented by all who met him, scavenging for food in people's leftovers before they drove him away. Somehow he had wandered right up to our cottage, home after years of being lost.
When the story was over, Oakleaf sat back as if relieved of a burden.
"You, know, Rapunzel, all these years I have longed only to find someone who would not drive me away. When my memory came back this morning, the first thing I remembered was all those good times with you, when we were children. I knew that there was someone out there who would never drive me away. It was worth more to me at that moment than sight. Now we can do what we always planned. Live happily ever after."