This is good soup. Really. I mean, cabbage isn't usually top of my list of things to go into soup, but warm, on a night like this, certainly is. What is this? Meat? Really? Looks like it came from some - oh don't take it away! Please give it back – look, I'm amusing your customers, they all thought the same. That's what you're feeding me to do. Amuse you. Any chance of a drink? No, I don't think I'm pushing my luck – a man's got to have a drink to tell a story. Yes, I am a man. No, I'm not an – en elf? Really? That's the best you've got?
Give me a minute to think.
Can someone shut the window? It's cold, and I can hear those bloody wedding bells. Yes, I'm glad for our beloved queen - don't accuse me of being a traitor! Though now the old queen's dead, that shouldn't be a capital offence any more. Though I don't know about the prince, personally. Maybe he'll bring back the secret police.
I suppose I ought to tell you that story – though it won't be all that funny. But it's one of those odd events which, as soon as they've happened, start to try to force themselves out of your mouth, twisting your tongue, almost against your will. Yes. In honour of our princess's wedding day, I will tell you a story about her.
It's an odd tale as things go – so give me a minute to get comfortable. It's an odd tale because it consists of three women, three sheets of silica sand, and three bone breaking, heart bruising wishes, longed for so much that they called blood to the snow.
I'm going to start with the first woman. The first wish. She stared through panels of glass, making a window to a snow sunk world. And this woman, who was frail and lovely as a snow drop, wished, for all her thin hips and trembling hands, for a child. The consumptive weakness, as she sat there sewing, caused her finger to slip, the needle to rip, and her pale flesh was torn. It fell upon the window pane – and thus she longed for a child of blood and snow and ebony. Or so the fairytale goes. The foetus grew within her, and it joined the ever-hungry disease, a tumour in itself. They devoured her together, and with the heave of blood and tissue and life onto the silken sheets of the palace, the queen's pale eyes rolled back in her head. Touch, the first and last twist in consciousness, allowed her the feel of her infant's damp, mewling head. The baby lay, blood red and raw, upon the pure white sheets, it glancing eyes not blue, but so dark they seemed almost black.
The second woman gives the second wish. She is colder, stronger than the first- but weaker, too, brittle and lovely as a pane of ice. Inheriting a grieving father and a girl child of eight, she wishes, not for power, but for beauty. She loves her grieving husband with a strength so brutal that it robs her of all breath. It is for him that she sings the princess through her nightmares, for him she takes over the running of the kingdom, for him she pours over the portraits of the late queen. She dresses herself on those same modest styles, fashions her hair in the same way, takes to sewing and to looking out of windows, in the vain, vague hope he will look at her with love (and not as though he wants to see another there). But he never does. Instead, he grows weaker, until he merely keels over one day, his overtaxed heart bursting within him. Pop!
Yes, it is tasteless. I'm afraid I don't think much of the old king – weak man. See what he left his daughter with?
See the way the queen turns inwards, searching, scouring away at her soul for that defect, that blight that stopped him loving her? See the mirror, always plucking out the imperfections, magnifying, making her so different, so awful, so monstrous. He married her for his daughter. She married him for love. Let his daughter rot – run barefoot in the grass for all she cares. Such an odd thing – neither here nor there. She grieves for her father? Let her grieve. Let her refuse to eat and scream hysterically and dream eight year old dreams of watching her father die. She at least was loved by him. The queen had no such privilege.
The people are close to revolting. The villagers are rising. Have the ringleaders killed.
They refuse the pay their taxes – they say the winter is too strong. Burn their stores of grains.
They whisper in the streets – ah. Here are the secret police, coming to squish and squash all words of rebellion.
As though her quest for her own imperfection has grown, find all those who deface this kingdom. Find those who worship different Gods, the homosexuals and the prostitutes and those with seeds of madness in their minds. Find those who dare to think, to reason, to question. Find those unfit of body. Those tainted from birth. Expel them. In this mirror world of ice and snow, there must be perfection.
And the princess – how she's grown. Do they really grow so fast? Bring her to look at me – oh God (oh that shattering, that scorching down of self control, that violent tear of all that weeping, aching grief) oh – why. My my. She really is the picture of her mother.
But look at those eyes – those wandering, restless eyes. What's wrong with those hands? – she's rubbed them red raw. Lips anxiously cannibalised. Neuroticism. Madness. Take this girl, with her black hair and pale skin and lips bitten so they are always bleeding. So much the image of her mother – take this mad child out into the forest. Straightjacket her and carry out the policy of perfection that this kingdom has already undergone. Take her away. Throw her in one of the unclosed pits – tell the people it saddened me to do it. But it was the only way – madness is contagious. Is contagious. We must be perfect, for the late king's sake (and then the queen went away and looked at herself in her mirror and wept her eyes out, the blue eyes the only thing she shared with the real queen, the blue eyes she is certain the king married her for, the blue eyes she sometimes wishes to dig her nails into because they are not enough!)
So the princess was taken into the woods, screaming and kicking, blood running from her mouth from where the soldiers hit her. Taken to the edge of one of the mass graves, where all were equalised.
And here's my story.
Oh yes, I knew her. I knew her very well – coined that affectionate nickname everyone uses to refer to her with. Taught her confidence and strength and – enough. That will emerge soon enough.
This is the third woman. The glass – the wish – they will come later. For now, she stands barefoot in the snow, eighteen years of age, screaming, shaking, heaving at her bound arms.
'Please, please let me go. I'll run away – I swear-'
'You're unstable madam-'
'Unstable? I'm not unstable, I'll give you bloody unstable-' They smack her twice around the face.
'Can't we just kill her here?'
'What, you want to drag her body all the way to the pit?'
'God's sake, It'll be a damn sight easier than hauling her like this.'
'Fine. You want to do it?'
'My pleasure. Where's your dagger?'
The pits (in case any of you don't know, in case you're one of those who've blocked their ears) were on the edges of the kingdom. That was where me and my brothers found her. We weren't really brothers, of course. But just as birth is bloody, we felt tied together by the purges that had almost left us dead. Myself (as you can probably see) and five others had the bad luck to have been born...let's say short. The last was fully grown, but in his head he always seemed a child – he didn't ever give us his name, so we called him Paul. He seemed to like it. We were those who had escaped from the pits, myself by the fortune to have had a drunken, arrogant executioner, Paul through his great strength – he was built like an ox. He was the only fully grown man who chose to join me; the other ones wandered away, for all I saved their lives (Yes, you can laugh. But it was true – a slingshot and good aim can be a great deal of use to any man, no matter what size). We of the half size, the overlooked, we seemed to gravitate towards one another and – well. I've always had a rather business-like frame of mind. You see, there was a pass through the mountains, leading to another king's domain (the father of the prince who, by the sound of the bells, is leaving a moon-lit church and taking his bride's hand. Hip hip hooray) where there were villages and towns and waiting audiences. It took time to make a large enough spectacle of ourselves. Most of us weren't used to making ourselves foolish – but one had been a performer, and taught us on my request. Myself? I had been a doctor. Don't laugh – I've saved more men with medicine and pit work combined than you have spoken to.
So we made a circus of ourselves, poor, dumb Paul as the strong man, and lived on the other side of the mountains, in an always moving caravan. Except, sometimes, we'd go back to the pits. Just to check. Just to see if anyone needed any help.
She trembled in the snow. It was hard to tell her apart from the world around her – if not for her tomato smeared lips I think she would have been completely camouflaged. But the men on either side of her, and the dagger raised above her – those I could see.
A singing stone – and down one fell. And the other. And she was turning around, blinking large black eyes, blood dribbling down her chin, pooling on the ground.
'Oh.' She said, looking at us. She peered closer. 'Are you real?'
'No. We're products of your imagination.' (Sam, who was far too cynical to be a clown)
'Oh. I'm going to faint. Can I have some imaginary food?'
With that, she keeled over.
So, we cut her from the jacket, and Paul carried her into the warmth, looking at her in a mixture of wonder and fear.
'We're not keeping her. Do you see that hair? She's clearly the princess – I heard she was mad.'
'Shut up Sam. She's not a stray dog. We've got to help her.'
'If we're caught we're dead! This is treason!'
'Us being alive is treason…' and so the conversation went on.
I'll never forget the moment she woke up, though. With a panicked, half flutter of her eyes, a half scream in her throat. I had to leap forwards (I was the one beside her at that point) and take her pale face between my hands and say 'It's alright. You're safe.' But she just kept saying no no no over and over again and putting her hands over her ears and crying silent tears. So I wrapped my arms around her.
I would later find out that this was the reaction she always had to sleep. Because she always had the same dream- her father, with his bursting heart. Then being buried. Suffocation and sleep going hand in hand.
But then I didn't know. I just stood next to her, rocking her backwards and forwards, until she stopped her weeping.
I am going to say something dangerous now. She was a little mad. Not very though – no more than one could expect. She wasn't just neglected as a child – shards of mirror and needles wielded by such a step mother leave awful scars, on her arms and the bottom of her feet.
Her feet. They were not very long nor very small. But they were oddly thin, and far too finely boned, as thought hey were not meant to be walked on – but she did. And she walked, and ran when she could, beside the caravan.
We couldn't let her leave after that. So she joined us – us refugees, aborted from our motherland. She couldn't sing, as some had hoped she would. But she learnt magic tricks from Simon, and did them with stars of spangles in her dark hair, glittering before the crowds. Collecting extra money afterwards. For all she was a princess, she cleaned the horse – and the caravan. She liked things to be clean. Soap every morning. Personally, I always wash, but some of my brothers were less keen on the idea. Especially Paul. Until she asked him nicely, and he looked at her with love struck eyes, and joined her, every morning, when she washed her face and hands.
So she worked with us, and laughed, and joked, and we all forget that we were not fully human.
But in the morning, when she woke from dreaming that was in itself nightmare, I would be there to rock her back and forwards, s though I could save her.
But only princes save princesses.
We gave her a stage name – Snow White. Snow White and the seven dwarfs! (six dwarfs and one giant, but that does't have as much flare as a stage name, does it?).
She could talk about politics, too. And history. It had been so long since I had had such a conversation. She taught me French, and I taught her how to wrap a wound, to restart a heart.
She looked so old, though she was just five years my junior, when she asked me if it were possible to make hers beat again.
But I have no cure for living death.
Was the mirror magic? Did it take on power from those obsessive thoughts and inadequacies, gain power from the lunacy of the queen, whisper to her that snow white lived? There must have been some power in her.
How else do you explain the apple?
At the end of each performance, we would ask for food. On this night, this cold, winter night, the third winter she had been with us, an old woman came to the stage.
What were we doing? Yes – I had stolen the princesses' – Snow White's – biscuit, and she was grabbing for it. Then the woman had muttered some compliment (and how Snow's eyes had glowed, anxiety gone, reassured) and offered her an apple. So bright – so red. It leached all colour from the world. It burned. Swelled. Swallowed.
As soon as she took a bite, I knew it was the end. Her dark eyes rolled back in her head, and I was screaming Snow! Snow! And the woman was gone and she was cold and dead as dreams.
There was a prop we used in one of the acts. A glass box on wheels. We put her in it, because Paul could not carry her, for his sobs were so large they would have stopped him holding her. We dragged her into the inn – but they would not have us. They had heard that the king was seeking an alliance with the queen, and thus we were untouchable. To the caravan, then, and through the snow. It was cold inside, so we kept her in the glass, heaping pillows within it. I tried everything I could think of – wracked my brains for knowledge – but there was nothing. After doing everything.
She was dead.
So I did not make a noise. None of us did, as Sam drove the caravan onwards, through the snow storm. The blinding snow.
We surrounded the coffin with candles in the woods. They took shift to sit besides it – I never left her side. They wept or were silent. Paul touched the glass above her face, large tears rolling down his cheeks.
I didn't leave her.
I slept in a tent beside her. We removed the wheels from the caravan – I would not leave her, and they would not leave me.
But she did not rot.
I had been willing to see her decompose. I had been ready to stay beside a stinking corpse, and then bleached bones, so that she would not be alone, in this eternal sleep. I would have crawled in there beside the maggot ridden body, if I could have fit in next to her, and held her till I died, too.
But she did not rot.
So Sam took the horse and risked his life to seek an audience with the court sorcerer. He came back, bringing the woman with him. And the prince. Whilst the wise-woman knelt by the coffin, uncovered the girl, touched her flesh, smelt her, whispered incantations over her, even licked her hair, the prince merely stared. Hungrily. As though she was made of sugar, and not gentle snow and burning blood and ebony depth, as I knew her to be.
'A kiss!' (the conclusion) 'A kiss!' (the answer to all) 'A kiss!' (to wake her in timeless fairy-tale fashion). The prince of gold volunteered, presses his famished lips to hers, bruising them.
(she was so scared of sleep. So frightened.)
Leave it, leave it, the enchantress cried. You must give it time.
They went to the caravan, to warm, for the spring was cold and there was still a suggestion of ice.
Wake up, Snow. Wake up. I know how you hate sleep.
Wake up. I've been with you all this time. Now I am waiting to hold you when you wake. Here, I shall put my hand on yours. I can feel your heart – so brave, so bright, when you flirted with the audience, winked at them, danced your way with magic tricks. Here, I shall even press my lips to yours – in the off chance. In the hope.
And her eyes – fluttered – open.
The prince came out.
'She's awake!' he cried. 'She's awake!'
'Sleep is a kind of death.' She told me as she held me, for I was the one who cried. 'But neither is to be feared.'
Then Snow White took on a business contract, in the way an intelligent girl ought to. Yes, I shall marry you – oh my darling prince! But – and I ask this for your sake, for our future children's sake, darling, not for mine – I want my kingdom back.
I want to make up for the cruelties my step-mother caused my people.
I want to rule my land as it ought to be ruled.
My mother looked outwards. My stepmother looks inwards. But I, in my meditating, chrysalis sleep, have done both. I shall nether give nor take too much.
I am ready.
The queen's mirror heart broke, shattered, as the living image of the women she wanted to be walked to the palace, and placed the diamond crown upon her own head.
The MirrorQueen set fire to her bedroom. She burned herself to death.
The coronation. We were all made Dukes.
Now the wedding.
Bet you didn't know I was a Duke, did you? Well, there's lots you don't know. Like how she met me, on the day she was made queen. The day before her wedding. She wore blue.
I… I will not tell you what she said.
Thank you for the meal. I ought to go.
Where? I don't know.
I was foolish to think that the prince will make this kingdom corrupt – she'll not let him do that. The snow queen, strong and beautiful, with the glitter of drawn steel in her eyes, will make this kingdom better for us all.
You all. Me, I must be going.
Why? Because she will be good and kind. She will have children, and be the best mother to them that could be wished for. She will be so brave, so bright. She will melt through ice and mirrors. Melt a thousand eyes and hearts.
So bright that I cannot bear to look upon her. Bright as fresh snow, so pure it burns the iris out.
What was her wish?
Her bone breaking wish?
The wish that goes with womanhood and glass?
She told it to me. Yesterday, in fact. It was the same as the want I carry in my heart, that digs its fingers into always beating muscle, that latches itself, refuses to let go.
The wish that sinks into our dreams. And, when we are dead, lies with us, tattooed onto our bones.
Whilst the winter wind blows snow across our graves.