The woods woman hated winter. Game was scarce and shy. Chill winds skittered beneath the door and seeped between the windowpanes. And though she cherished her solitude, weeks cooped up in a tiny cottage as blizzard after blizzard howled outside could drive anyone a little around the bend.
There was another reason she despised the season, buried so deep in her psyche she scarcely thought about it anymore. Three drops of blood fallen in the snow and a mother’s heartfelt wish. Would that my little daughter may be as white as that snow, as red as the blood, and as black as the ebony window-frame!
However well-intentioned, that wish brought the woman’s daughter no end of trouble over the years. For the mother died young and the beautiful stepmother who took her place brooked no competition, not even from a little girl. And so it was abandonment in the wilds, and stumbling across a cottage just as nightfall and wild beasts might have sealed her fate, and endless cooking and cleaning and darning for the well-meaning but rather tiresome little men who talked of nothing but rubies and gold during their nightly visits home. Still, it was better than being eaten by a bear.
The dwarves persisted in calling her Snow White even as her delicate hands roughened from scrubbing the clothes and the floors and her nose and cheeks grew as comically red as theirs from long hours standing over the stew pots. And theirs were not the only minds in which her old name lingered.
She had lived a sheltered life at court and aside from the manual labor not much changed in a year with the dwarves, so when an arthritic peddler woman trudged to the lonely cottage on the forest’s edge she was not as suspicious as a more worldly girl might have been. “Fine wares for sale!” the old woman jiggled her heavy sack as she called out in a thin, quavering voice.
“I don’t have any money,” Snow White said. The dwarves kept a locked strongbox full of gems and gold in the cottage, and though they told her where they hid the key and bid her take whatever she liked her desires fixed in that perversely human way on things she couldn’t have: fresh air, romps in the forest, a spring afternoon picking wildflowers. For the dwarves fretted that whoever so cruelly abandoned her might return if he realized the forest’s ferocity hadn’t finished its job and so they discouraged her stepping outside the cottage when they were away or even very much when they weren’t.
“Then might I have a cup of tea to warm these old bones before I carry my burden back to my village?” The peddler smiled, showing crooked, blackened teeth.
She wasn’t accustomed to company and didn’t particularly want it, but politeness won out and she invited the old woman inside. “Would you like some bread and honey with your tea?”
“Thank you, dearie.” The peddler scrutinized her with unnerving intensity before bending down and rummaging through her sack. “Such a lovely figure you have, but the laces on your bodice are worn. Wouldn’t you like a pretty new one? You mustn’t let yourself go – your husband’s gaze might start wandering.”
“I don’t have any money,” Snow White repeated a little wearily, beginning to regret her generosity. “And I don’t have a husband.”
“No husband? Why that’s impossible, such a precious little slip of a thing like you.” She pulled a length of bright green ribbon from her pack. “This will help you attract one. No charge,” she added as Snow White opened her mouth. “A gift for your generosity and kindness.”
Snow White sighed. The ribbon would be stained with tomato sauce and soap before the week was out, but if it made the old woman happy she supposed she could tolerate it. She held out her hand to accept it but the woman rose on creaking joints. “It would give me so much pleasure to lace it for you, dearie. I used to tie them for my little girl, before she went away.”
“All right.” At the peddler’s direction she held her arms up as gnarled fingers unlaced the worn cord and threaded the bright ribbon in its place. “That’s really too tight,” she gasped.
“She didn’t get far enough away though.” The hands grew inexorably strong, the bitter voice unpleasantly familiar. “Tell me, glass, tell me true! Of all the ladies in the land, Who is fairest? tell me who? Snow White! it says. Snow White! You were – ” tug “supposed to be – “ tug “dead! And now – ” a final tug and the cleverly disguised queen released her grip as Snow White fell to the floor, consciousness ebbing, “at last you will be.”
And she might have been, if the dwarves had gone to the mines as usual. But they had journeyed no farther than the nearby hillside to gather lupine and poppies and other wildflowers, which they bore back by the armload to cheer Snow White on the first day of spring. Through a black haze she heard singing, the swearing queen and a slamming door and the miners’ cries of dismay; spring never smelled so sweet as they cut the deadly green ribbon and she gulped down violet-scented air.
After that they wanted to restrict her access to the outside world even more tightly, but she was having none of it. “How did it help this time?” she pointed out a little waspishly. “What I need,” she insisted as she gathered up the blossoms tossed aside in panic and sorted them into vases, “is to learn how to use my eyes and ears to detect danger. And how to defend myself.”
They reluctantly agreed. In addition to the cooking and the cleaning she learned to chop wood and shoot a bow and set out traps and snares, and these things made her strong. When the dwarves returned from trading journeys she plied them with questions about the people they encountered, from the well-fed burghers who bought their ore and gems to the desperate ruffians who set upon their wagons, and these things made her clever and quick to spy deception.
And so on a warm mid-summer morning when she came upon a silver hair comb sparkling with inlaid onyx and amethyst dropped in a clearing near her snares she was immediately on her guard. Picnickers sometimes visited here but no peasant would own such an ornate trinket, and it was as much as a servant’s life was worth to leave such a bauble carelessly lying about. She let out a feigned exclamation of delight but her senses were alert as she bent down. An intake of breath behind a broad-trunked oak on the right. A hint of musky perfume unnatural in origin. And a sheen of something more viscous than silver along the tines of the comb.
Careful to keep an expression of bemused pleasure on her face she picked up the poisoned trinket. Feinting as if to put it in her hair, with a flip of her wrist she spun it across the clearing, smiling in grim satisfaction as it embedded itself in the oak not two inches from the cheek of the malicious, watching queen. “Leave me alone!” she shouted as rustling skirts hastily receded, followed by the pounding of hooves.
She knew then that if she wanted any chance of peace she would have to go away. The saddened dwarves took the news as well as could be expected, even offering to leave such necessities as she couldn’t procure herself well-hidden in a neutral place agreed on in advance. When she left she walked for nearly a week, plunging into deep thickets to hide from prying eyes and wading in streams to confuse trackers, before she found a secluded spot by a small pond to call home.
The first year was hard, both the weary physical labor of building shelter and setting aside stores of food and fuel for the winter and the uneasy adjustment to total solitude. But chirping birds and cheeky squirrels and shy foxes made for a kind of companionship, and though after a few encounters with her bow the wolves and the bears learned to give her a wider berth knowing they were out there living their lives just as she did made her feel a little less alone.
By her second summer in the forest she felt settled into the rhythms of her new life. The faithful dwarves left useful items and little gifts every month or two in the hidden cache, and sometimes she left them small tokens as well – walking sticks topped with cunningly carved animal heads, or comfortable boots sewn from elk hide and lined with rabbit fur. And as the months passed without incident she dared to hope that she had journeyed beyond the mirror’s range, or that perhaps against all odds the fires of the queen’s obsession had at last burned low.
She lived quietly and peacefully for three years, until the winter she turned twenty. It was the longest, most bitter winter anyone alive could remember, and if it had been her first alone in the woods she might very well have died of the cold. Now, however, her shelter was snug and waterproof, she had warm furs to wrap herself in, and the too-frequent storms at least brought enough deadfall for her to supplement her store of wood.
But by the third month of the new year food was becoming an ever more pressing problem, and she was grateful when the first crocus pushed its way through the hard, cold earth and a robin flitted through the trees. On an early March morning she ate her meager breakfast of dried apples and the least moldy of the remaining cheese and resolved, if the morrow dawned clear, to risk the three day journey to the cache and hope the weather held. Her dreams of late had been entirely too full of the smell of hot bread and the sweetness of honey on her tongue. “In the meantime,” she said aloud to herself as she pushed back from the table, “time to split some wood for baking when I return.”
An hour later she had propped her axe against her chopping stump and was stacking the wood on her porch when she heard the shushing sound of an approaching sleigh. Her first instinct was to dash into the cottage and bar the door behind her, but she fought the impulse down. No more hiding, no more running. So she stood with a booted foot resting on the stump and leaned her forearm on her thigh as a horseless carriage emerged into the clearing, propelled as by magic atop the drifts of snow.
It bore, as she expected, the queen. A drawstring had slipped on one of several large canvas sacks behind her, and Snow White could see the extravagant redness of apples – fresh, not dried – peeping out. The royal ordered the carriage to a stop a non-threatening distance away and though her smile appeared friendly beneath it the woods woman sensed a coldness to rival the icicles hanging from the eves. “Snow White!” she exclaimed. “The mirror said, hope against hope, that you had survived this evil winter thus far.”
Although it had been hers once the name sounded unfathomably alien to her ears. “More’s the pity, I’m sure. How did you find me?”
“The day you tried ice fishing. I recognized the pond.”
“And I didn’t even get any fish.”
“I know that my actions over the years have been inexcusable.” The queen’s pale, smooth features arranged themselves into an almost convincing parody of sorrow. She was, in truth, still beautiful, if admittedly in the way that women of a certain age are referred to as ‘well-preserved.’ “But when the mirror warned me that without aid you might yet starve I was consumed by guilt and remorse.” She fished around in the open sack and drew forth a particularly large apple, bright red with a pale green corona near the stem that promised firm, crisp flesh beneath the peel. “This is my small, inadequate effort to make amends.”
For a moment the woods woman was tempted. Jerky, dried fruit and hard cheese had sustained her body for the past month, but she wouldn’t call it eating well. But her stepmother having a change of heart? That was difficult to believe. “This really has become personal, hasn’t it?” she laughed bitterly. “You can’t even just let the weather finish me off.”
“You must believe me, Snow White!” she pleaded, raising the apple to her lips. “Look, I will eat of it first – ”
Now she was sure it was a trick. “Don’t start.” She swung the axe over her shoulder in a meaningful way and stood with a gloved hand on her hip. “Anyway, I prefer a good venison stew, dressed with savory herbs.”
Undeterred, the queen bit into the apple, chewed and swallowed. She held it out to Snow White, who made no move to accept it. “What more must I do to convince you?”
The woods woman narrowed her eyes. “Take a bite out of the other side.”
With the suddenness of a hawk striking at a mouse the remorseful veneer gave way. “I will be rid of you!” she raged. “I will be the fairest woman in all the land again!”
“What on earth is that mirror showing you?” She tugged her glove off with her teeth and spat it on the ground. “Look at me! My nails are cracked. My skin is dried like an old potato from sun and wind. My hair is tangled with twigs and leaves.”
“The mirror – ”
“Your mirror is broken, lady.”
“Liar!” In a fit of fury she drew a dagger from her cloak and rushed her nemesis.
Reflexively, the woods woman swung her axe as if felling a sapling. The queen crumpled to the ground, her skin as white as snow, hair as black as an ebony window frame, the blood pooling around her as red as her ruby lips.
For a moment Snow White felt nothing but relief. Then she realized that she had just committed regicide. Cool-witted she made her plans. She would gather up the corpse, bundle it back into the sleigh and steer it into some ravine. In this lean winter, scavengers would quickly muddy the cause of death and only a lunatic would brave the forest before spring.
But while she was still figuring out how to operate the arcane device she heard the shushing of a pair of horseless carriages through the snow. The king and his prime minister slid into view, the monarch accompanied by a young man she didn’t recognize and the minister bearing a long, bulky object wrapped in burlap behind him. Snow White sighed and took up her axe. There was going to be hell to pay.