After marrying the prince and having her own child, Snow White visits her stepmother—promising to kill her in ever more horrible ways, at the same time attempting to stay away from the mirror that started it all.
I shall drown you in the river where the willows grow. Their branches will reach for you and in desperation you will grasp for them but they will break between your fingers like the bones of small birds. As the water fills your throat, the last thing you shall know will be my two hands holding you down.
I only visit my stepmother during the time of the new moon. Although she hasn’t been given access to so much as a herb garden since she came to stay in my husband’s castle, I don’t trust the magic to lie completely fallow in her breast, and would not dare step foot in her rooms when the moon rides full and high in the sky. But now it’s noon and I balance the round silver tray on one hand as I rap three times on her door with the other. This is a courtesy only; the door is kept locked and the key, when not borrowed by our housekeeper at mealtimes, dangles from a blood-red ribbon on my belt.
A voice bids me enter and I do so, closing the door gently behind me. For a moment, I hesitate, struck to find the woman standing by the window, staring out at the snow-covered trees.
She turns to face me, hobbling on her birchwood canes. My stepmother is a vain woman still; normally she likes to be seated when I arrive, skirts neatly arranged to hide her feet. “Sit down, Fairest.” She gestures towards the small, round table where we customarily take our wine.
Setting down the tray, I inquire as to her well-being and she replies, as she usually does, that she is no better, no worse, before plonking herself down with all the grace of a mill-woman. “They’re no better either,” she says, catching me looking at her feet.
I avert my eyes and pour the wine into our goblets. Thick and sweet, my husband has it brought in barrels from the south, and I’ve developed quite a fondness for it of late. Lastly, I take up the apple along with the sharp little paring knife and begin to slice it down the middle. The flesh is whiter, crisper, than it has any natural right to be this deep into winter. But the tree behind the stables has borne such fruit, month after month, since my wedding night. One single apple each time, ripening to a bright and glossy red, and no one can pluck it but myself. Which I do, each new moon—pluck it and place it upon my silver tray, and bring it to my stepmother to share.
She takes a slice now, holds it to her nose a moment as she always does, then pops it whole into her mouth. I can hear the crunch as she bites down and my own mouth waters. She always takes the first taste of the fruit. We eat in silence, my stepmother and I, until the apple is gone. She spits the seeds into her hand, arranges them in a circle on the tray, then moves her hand over them in a quick, sharp movement. Does she think I do not notice? Later, I will burn them in the fire. Whatever pitiful magic she attempts, it will be reduced to nothing but ash.
I do this every month.
We do this every month.
“What are your intentions, Fairest?” My stepmother sits back in her chair, fixing me with her gaze. Her eyes are brown and glossy as apple seeds.
“Regarding your daughter.” She leans forward. “And your husband.”
Some wine splashes onto my wrist as I return my goblet to the table, and I wipe it hastily on my skirts. “My daughter is happy and healthy,” I tell her. “And my husband is travelling on matters of business. You have no need to ask after either of them.”
“But that is why I ask, Fairest. The time to close the barn door is now, before the horse is stolen away.”
“Bolted. Before the horse has bolted.”
“I know precisely what I said.”
I gather the goblets onto the tray, still half-full the both of them, and make to rise. The woman grabs my wrist, quicker than a hare before hounds. “Do not close your eyes to this, Fairest. You of all people know his proclivities. You know his heart.”
I wrench myself free. It’s not her place to speak to me so, I stammer. If it were not for me, she would have no visitors at all. If it were not for me, she would likely be dead, long dead and rotted in the ground. If it were not for me—
“I would still walk with ease,” she says, sticking out a foot from beneath her skirts. Although she wears her customary fur slippers, the scars are still visible around her ankles—red and ropy welts where the skin melted as candle wax does. I don’t need to see more than that. I know her feet too well. All those months tending to her horrendous wounds, cleaning away the foul-smelling pus and infection as she screamed her agony into my ears, forcing tonics down her throat to break her fevers, allowing her to clutch my hand so tightly that her nails left crescents that did not heal for days. We both bear the scars from those times; she has no cause to remind me.
“I was a child,” I whispered.
“And that child chose my punishment.”
“He asked me—”
“Make her dance in iron shoes, you said. Make her dance until she falls down dead.”
“A child’s wish. I—I had no idea of what it meant. I was only seven!”
“Seven,” she echoes. “The age he made you his bride.”
“The age your mirror condemned me.”
“The age your daughter is now.”
My lips ache, I’m pressing them so hard together. Standing, I pick up the tray. It’s all I can do not to throw it into her face, goblets and all.
“He thought you were the most beautiful creature in the world when he saw you in that coffin,” my stepmother continues. “When you were seven.”
“What does he think of you now, I wonder? Those broad hips of yours, that bosom which has nursed a babe? Not much girl left to you, is there? Not much to catch his wandering eye.”
I am half out of the door before she calls out again. “Fairest?” The edge has been shaved from her voice; she sounds almost plaintive now, and I pause, tilt my ear in her direction.
“How?” she asks. “How will it be?”
Without turning around, I tell my stepmother how I will kill her the next time we meet. My tone is clipped; there’s no joy in it for me now, despite the many nights I spent concocting my method, choosing just the right words—and the many more nights I lay awake in anticipation of delivering them. It was particularly vicious this month. My stepmother waits until I am done before telling me of my own murder. I can hear the smile in her voice, the satisfaction, and in any other month I would have been pleased by her inventiveness.
But not now, not after what she has already said to me.
“Next moon, then,” I say and step through the door. As I lock it behind me, her voice seeps through the wood.
“Sooner than that, Fairest. For your daughter’s sake.”
I make no reply. I have no reply to make. But I will send word to the kitchen about her supper. My stepmother shall have boiled liver tonight, taken from an old sow. I count my footsteps as I return to my parlour, hoping to distract myself from their cold and empty echoes. The sound reminds me too well of a clock, counting down its minutes until midnight. There are two hundred and forty-eight steps in all, though admittedly, I made my final three small and tidy to avoid crossing the threshold on two hundred and forty-six.
I dislike figures with sixes in them; they do little to comfort me.
I will lay you naked upon the snow, stretched between four iron stakes. Before your skin can chap too badly, I will take a keen-edged blade and peel it from you as someone might peel an apple. Blood will pool rich and red around your body. I will leave your fingernails until last and spit them into the snow when I am done.
My daughter’s hair is like fine-spun gold. She has her father’s hair, and his envy-green eyes. But she has my lips, plump and red as blood, and my fine, snow-white skin.
I watch through the window for a minute or two, not wishing to disturb whatever game she’s playing in the little courtyard outside the stables. The building is empty now that my husband is away with his horses and the others—including my daughter’s beloved pony—have all been sold to repay some debt or another. He has assured me that he’ll replace them when this current venture reaches fruition, but such words would be no comfort to my daughter. It won’t be her pony that comes trotting back to the stables, if indeed any pony comes at all. These days, my husband’s promises run thin as melt-water. She cried herself to sleep the night I had to tell her little Klaus was gone, and for days afterwards, when she remembered his absence, her lips would tremble.
Yet here she is, building a snowman outside his very stable, her small face tight with concentration, her nose nipped red by the cold. Children can be so resilient. How astonishing that they are able to bear the very worst of losses and still step forth into each new day as though some fresh delight awaits them there. If I could spare my daughter anything worse than the loss of a favourite animal, I should count myself among the best of mothers.
We must find a match for her soon, my husband told me the evening before he left.
When I protested that she was still a child, he merely glared at me and shook his head. His eyes these days are red-veined and yellowing from the amount of wine he consumes. I couldn’t bring myself to meet them, and instead bowed my head over my supper. I loved him more than I feared him once, thought him brave and wondrous and strong. How naive I was: a child with no knowledge of the world.
She is the granddaughter of the king, he reminded me. There will be a wealth of eager suitors, eager enough to plump the coffers of this pauper province I’ve been saddled with.
It’s a complaint I’ve heard so often, I could recite it word for bitter word. His two older brothers were given the best lands in the kingdom to govern, my husband insists, while he is forced to preside over lazy peasants and all manner of useless men. Though I’ve heard it said that these lands where we make our home were prosperous before he took governance of them, that it has been his taxes and sporadic, unannounced levies that have brought poverty among its people and made them fear what each new season might bring. What value is there in the daughter of such a man? Short of a plague running through the rest of the royal line, she will never wear the crown of a queen—I should not even think such things, though I am certain my husband would rejoice in such a tragedy.
She’s too young to be married, I told him. She’s too young to leave us.
He laughed. I would only see her pledged, not handed over. She is unripe fruit; it would not do to have her plucked too early in her season. He smiled, more to himself than to me, before stuffing a whole rasher of bacon into his mouth. I could see the soft meat being rent between his teeth as he spoke. Worry not, dear wife. Our daughter will remain under my protection for some years yet. But this is how the world works—not all brides are stumbled upon as fortuitously as you were, arrayed so prettily under glass.
How I wish it were so. I would rather see my daughter sleeping safe in a glass coffin for a thousand years than have her hurt by the waking world and those who walk within it.
Five times I tap on the window, although my daughter looks up at the first knock, grinning to see me standing there. “Mama!” she cries, and pushes herself to her feet. As she runs over to the courtyard door, I can better see the creature she has been building. Not a snowman, but some lumpish thing, hunched over and seeming ready to collapse at a breath. It makes my skin prickle with gooseflesh to look upon it.
“What have you been making, my pet?” I ask as she comes charging through the door to hug me. I crouch and fold her gloved hands within my own. Her cheeks are pink. Her teeth chatter.
“Mama, it is Klaus!”
“Klaus?” I stare again at the poor, misshapen thing outside. It could be thought a pony, I suppose, if one squinted hard enough, or viewed it with a mother’s eye.
“The fairy told me to make him out of snow and he would come alive and I could ride him again.”
“What fairy, my pet?”
“The fairy who came last night.”
Sighing, I smooth her hair back from her eyes. “That was only a dream.”
“No, Mama, look!” She points beyond the window and I follow the angle of her finger to spy a large black bird perched in one of the leafless trees overlooking the courtyard. Its silhouette, dark against the wintry grey sky, is distinctive. “See, the fairy!”
“That’s only a raven, my pet, a feckless bird come to see if we have kitchen scraps to scavenge.” I’ve never liked those birds, with their ink-black plumage and cryptic, guttural croaks. There’s often one flitting about the castle grounds, and I never count it as a good day when I happen to spy it. Softly, I kiss my daughter’s brow. “Now, remember what I told you? Little Klaus has grown up and gone away to be with all the big horses.”
She swallows and her eyes glisten. “When I grow up, will I go away too? Will I get to see him again, when I grow up?”
“I don’t know, my pet. Klaus has very many important things to do now. As will you, when you grow up.” She doesn’t say anything to that, merely hugs me tight and presses her face into my shoulder. I know that she is crying and doesn’t want me to see. I rub her back until her small frame ceases to shake. Outside, the tree where the raven perched is empty. Foolish as such feelings might be, I’m relieved to see it gone.
Unbidden, my husband’s face swims into my mind. His golden hair, once so glorious, now lank and greasy against his neck. The burst veins in his cheeks spreading like the webs of tiny spiders. Is it memory or imagination, the way his tongue darted across his lips as he spoke of auctioning my daughter to the highest bidder? As he spoke of how young she was, and how fair?
You know his heart, my stepmother said, and she is right.
His heart, and every other dark part of him.
I will keep my daughter safe. I must, I must. But I need to know what threatens her, and there is one thing in this castle that will tell me the truth of it.
I shall feed you honey, spoon after golden spoonful of it. I shall pour it down your throat until you can swallow no more, until it soaks every organ and your veins are stopped with the cloying thickness of it. Then I shall cleave open your breast and catch the gleaming nectar as it drips from your ribs onto my outstretched tongue.
I’ve never once spoken to the mirror. My stepmother brought it with her when she came to my wedding, so little could she bear being apart from the monstrosity even for the span of a week, and it’s been kept in a small, windowless chamber ever since. I know the sly deeds of which it’s capable, how it sniffs out a crack in a person’s heart and prises it open. Until now, I’ve never wanted to seek its counsel—or, at least, not enough to risk its manipulations. But I need to know about my husband. I need to be certain.
The mirror never lies, my stepmother told me once, when I pressed her on the subject. The trick is to know whose truth it is speaking.
There’s a woman standing outside the mirror’s chamber as I approach. Tall and thin and wrapped in dove grey, I recognise the arrogant set of her shoulders even before she turns to greet me.
The woman sniffs, her lips a taut line. “I have been waiting for one half hour. More!”
“I—I’m sorry. I had—I was unavoidably detained.” In truth, I’d forgotten utterly about her appointment, a fact she has no doubt surmised.
She smiles with all the grace of a blade and nods towards the narrow wooden door behind which the mirror awaits. “Shall we?”
I would like to ask her to leave, to return at a later hour or even another day, but there is the matter of the small linen bag that she clutches. I need the coins it contains; they will pay for good meat for our table and perhaps a warm winter cloak for my daughter. After all, the women come more seldom these days; the mirror seems to have exhausted them.
“Of course, Lady Heron.” I hold out my hand and she deposits the bag in my palm. It feels lighter than I’d hoped, but perhaps the coins inside are silver. After unlocking the door, I step aside and gesture for the woman to enter. She hesitates a moment, visibly steeling herself, before sniffing once more and marching past me.
Quietly, I close the door and move to the other side of the hall to wait.
She won’t be very long. They never are.
Scarce six minutes pass by my reckoning before she emerges once more, shaken and trembling, a handkerchief pressed to her mouth.
The woman waves me away. “I shall see myself from the castle.” Her eyes are red-rimmed and she refuses to meet my gaze. As she walks, her skirts rustle on the tiles in whispered accusation. But how is it my fault? I don’t make them come here, these women with their coins and haggard hearts. I don’t even know how they learn of the mirror’s existence—a network of gossip and half-truth, I suspect. Whatever they expect, whatever they are told, most do not visit more than once.
This has been Lady Heron’s fourth visit. Is her heart that ravenous?
I hesitate with my hand on the doorknob. One turn and I can be in the room with it. Three steps to place me before its glassy face. A handful of words in return for… what? I scarce know what I need to ask, let alone how to phrase it.
(Don’t I know? Oh, don’t I?)
Another day, then. When I have had more time to ponder my question.
Carefully, I insert the key into the lock and turn it. The weighty clatter of the tumblers brings me more comfort, I am sure, than the words of the mirror ever would. But do I imagine it? That barely heard sigh from the chamber beyond, so heavy with disappointment and with desire? Before leaving, I tap my toe three times and brush the tip of my nose.
Am I mad to have even considered such a diabolic audience? My stepmother has twisted my thoughts, most like for her sport. My husband is not a good man but he is not—
He is her father. He would not—
(you know his heart)
I need to occupy myself with practical matters and stop this foolishness. The snow has stopped and I have coins that need to be spent before my husband’s return, lest he find a more worthwhile cause for their use. I will take my daughter down to the village and buy her that winter cloak. Already, I can picture her wearing it, a scarlet weave folding soft and billowy around her slight frame, all that golden hair kept safe beneath the hood.
Oh, I know that I won’t be able to find such a thing as that. It will be lucky enough if the village seamstress has one of sparrow-egg blue or the bright green of ferns, anything other than muddy hues of brown or grey. If it be trimmed with rabbit fur, then we shall be luckier still. For red, I would have to place an order, and all of that would take too long.
My husband returns in a fortnight. The coins will need to be spent by then.
I will hunt you down with dogs. Hungry, vicious hounds that have been starved for days before being given your scent. You will beg for your life when finally they bail you up, circle you with their jaws snapping and slavering, but I will let them have you. I will let them tear you to pieces. I will let them take their fill of your flesh. All that will be forbidden them is your heart. That I shall bring home with me, safe in a locked, lightless box.
The gatekeep steps into our path as we approach, my daughter’s mittened hand clutched tight in my own. It takes four more steps to reach him. I do not like four as a number—it is slippery and too easily split in twain—but I dare not take a fifth.
“Weather’s closing in, Your Highness,” the gatekeep says, his shoulders squared.
My daughter squeezes my hand. Mama, she starts to say, but I shush her quickly. The sky above us is a weak blue and utterly clear of clouds.
“We are only going down to the village,” I tell the man. “We will not tarry long.”
“The little one will catch a chill.” He does not move, though his fingers tighten their grip about his staff. “Best get her back inside.”
“Thank you for concern, but we—we are warmly dressed, the both of us.” As I tug my daughter forward, the gatekeep too takes a step closer. So close that his broad, leather-clad chest almost bumps my own. His breath fogs as he speaks and I can smell the warmth of it.
“You may go to the village if you wish it,” he says. “But the little one should go back inside.”
For a moment, I’m too flustered for words. Then I picture my stepmother and the manner in which she used to conduct herself when I was a child. How imperiously she would speak to everyone, even my father himself. I draw myself upright. “Do you propose to tell your mistress what she might do with her day?”
The words taste flat as failed bread in my mouth and the gatekeep doesn’t so much as flinch. “On instructions from His Grace, your master and mine both. He did not wish the princess away from the castle in his absence. The winter is foul and the woods are wild and he would not have his only daughter come to any harm.”
He smiles now, a genuine smile, yet my daughter hides her face in my skirts. Part of me wishes to push past him regardless, to see if he will truly dare to lay a hand on his royal mistress. But another, more certain part burns with the humiliating knowledge that he would not hesitate to do so. My jaw begins to ache, so hard are my teeth clenched together.
“Mama? Are we not going to the village today?”
I forced a smile to my lips. “No, my pet. This kind gentleman thinks that it will storm, so we had best stay warm and dry by the fire.”
She kicks at the dirty snow that lies piled at the side of the path. “I wanted to see Klaus.”
“Silly poppet, Klaus is not in the village. I told you, he’s with all the big horses now.”
The gatekeep laughs, a far from pleasant sound. “You’d be best served looking for that old nag in the knackery.”
My daughter stares up at me, confused. I glare at the gatekeep but the man merely winks. “That’s—that’s a place where the big horses live,” I tell her quickly. “Come, my pet. We shall go down to the kitchen and have Cook warm you a mug of honey-milk.”
“I’m not cold, Mama,” she replies, her words frosting in the air. “I want to see the knackery. Please can we visit the knackery?”
The gatekeep’s rough laughter follows us up the path as I drag my protesting daughter back to the castle, and I curse him beneath my breath. High in the sky above, a raven flies in a slow circle. I curse it as well, wishing for its feathers to turn to stone, for its abruptly heavy body to fall to the ground and shatter like so many thwarted dreams.
It takes one hundred and nineteen steps before we are inside once more. I don’t care for that number, either. It has sharp edges and seems keen to draw blood.
I shall bind you with silken threads, wrapping them around and around your body until every inch of skin is cocooned. Only your eyes shall remain uncovered, so that I might peer into them over the days and weeks it will take for you to wither and waste and starve, stoically, silently, to your death.
My husband doesn’t care for the stories of my childhood, of the times before he jolted me from my poisoned sleep and lifted me boldly from the coffin, but my daughter loves to hear them. Each night, I sit by her bedside and tell her tales of the kindly little men who took me into their mountain home when I was lost, and for whom I kept house for several months. I tell her how I would make their beds and darn their socks and prepare their dinner the way they taught me. I do not tell her about poisoned combs or apples, nor about coffins made from glass; she is too young for such horrors.
Neither do I mention my stepmother. My daughter will have too many questions that I’m still unready to answer.
Instead, I relay happier stories of happier days—for there were many happy days betwixt the huntsman and the coffin—as well as the stories that the dwarves used to tell to me. Tales of crafty foxes and wise, well-born hares; dancing princesses and frogs with jewels hidden deep in their bellies; mighty frost giants who once lumbered through the mountains, and mischievous pixies with a taste for stolen sweets.
“Can we leave a cake out for the pixies?” my daughter asks me tonight.
“There are no pixies in our part of the world, my pet. It would only be a family of rats who come to nibble on your cake.”
“Talking rats?” she asks hopefully. “Magic rats?”
Smiling, I set aside the nightgown I’m hemming. My daughter grows so fast; this is the second time I’ve let it down and there won’t be fabric left for a third. “No,” I say. “Fierce and hungry rats who will gobble up their cake and then creep under the blankets to nibble on your toes!” I grab her foot and tickle it until she shrieks.
“Stop it, Mama! Stop it!” She’s almost breathless as she struggles to pull away.
Laughing, I release her and begin to straighten the bedclothes. “Come now, fidget. It’s past time you were asleep.”
She wriggles beneath the quilt. “Can we visit the pixies, Mama?”
“One day, perhaps.”
“They live very far away from here.”
“But we can use magic and fly to see them, quick as blinking.”
“Hush now.” I pull the covers up to her chin.
“But Mama, we can—”
“Hush!” Though her talk is fanciful, I don’t like to hear my daughter speak of magic. “It’s no small thing, my pet, to use magic. There is always a cost.” I kiss her three times, once on the forehead and again on each cheek, before gathering my sewing together. The candle flickers as I pick it up, casting moving shadows on the walls. My daughter cringes to see them.
“Surely you’re not still afraid of the dark?” When much younger, she cried whenever her candle was taken away, but many years have passed since then.
“No, Mama,” she whispers, her gaze flitting to the corner of the room. “But sometimes he is there when I wake up.”
“Who? Who is there?”
“The Night Man. He watches me in the shadows. I don’t like him, Mama. I don’t like his watching.”
“Is he here now?”
“No, Mama. You have the candle. He does not like the light.”
“It is a dream, my pet. A nightmare and nothing to fear.”
She frowns, doubtful, and I lean over to kiss her again. Forehead, cheek, cheek. “I shall leave the candle then, shall I? Just for tonight?”
I find my way back to my own bedroom by moonlight and memory, keeping one hand on the wall as I creep along the corridors. It’s a luxury to leave a whole candle to burn while my daughter sleeps, but the way she spoke of the Night Man chilled me.
I don’t like his watching.
Has he visited her, this Night Man, while her father has been away? I hadn’t thought to ask it and, surely, it is a foolish question. It’s only a nightmare. It must be a nightmare.
You know his heart.