I wrote this piece in honour of Angela Carter, something of a literary heroin of mine. Turning the fairy tale genre on its head, I ask the question: what defines good and evil? Nobody writes themselves as a villain in their own story, however tragic these stories are and however twisted their views are. In times like this, it’s important to look at the villain and ask what allows them to justify the wrong they do, and whether they’ll truly be happy when they finally get what they want. Grim imagery and metaphor were my friends in this dark, dark tale, I hope you enjoy.
Please leave a comment at the bottom with your thoughts. I’m always looking for feedback, and would love to share thoughts on the subject with you!
Who says a Queen can’t rule an empty city? Why, she is the fairest of them all, for she suffers no comparison.
A pearl-white castle rests atop a hill. The drawbridge lies open. A low wolf-like wind howls through the courtyards and fills the inner halls with a drone, a hum of isolation, an ambient, solitary soundscape for this glorious, solitary space.
Winged gargoyles admire their stone garden from atop the tower roofs. They have grown ugly and sardonic with age; their open-mouthed grins laugh at the gnaw of time as it corrupts these cupids into demons of malice.
The great halls and smaller rooms swell with the living breath of abandonment, and that breath is cold, frost-bitten, harsh to the stone floors, plush armchairs, and ornate hand-woven tapestries. The cloths tell stories of lavish parties, princesses in voluminous pink ballgowns, and dark-red battles with gouged-out eyes and gashed necks. What lies they tell! crow the bitter hearths. When has a party graced these halls? When have we entertained the brass-buckled shoe, the gold-hemmed skirt, the cocktails or the canapes? These are the fantasies of some dreaming weaver. What good those dreams did him, mortal unlike his cloth, buried six feet under without a single spectator to share his name.
Small shacks and shanties surround the castle like a dried-up moat. Pots of rice and beans are half-full (or half-empty, depending on your disposition), and pans of dried chicken undulate under a fiesta of maggots squirming and writhing for a nibble. Straw dolls lie buried beneath tattered sheets on the raked earthen carpet; their funerals unattended, their graves flowerless. Cups of nettle tea lie cold. Soups are sealed beneath a thin film of mould. An oil painting of a riverbank remains half-drawn, the paints dry, the brush dropped. A talent unfulfilled.
The markets sell rotten fruit to the ghosts of abandoned promises. The baker’s once-famed fresh bread has dried into dust. The silk weaver’s cloths are picked apart by ravens. The rain beats a funereal march on the drummer’s abandoned drum as the sky weeps for this lost civilisation, the town that had enough, the people who decided no more, the hopes left to die a slow, unyielding death.
Hungry luminescent eyes reflect the moonlight: the silver leash to the lycanthropic. They would climb the hill to search the castle – the Queen would prove a hearty meal – but animals have heightened senses compared to you and I and know to steer clear of fouler things. No creature but the snake and spider tolerate such unnatural wrongdoings. The black cat is curious, but arches its back on discovery. The raven bluffs, then cowers. The newt hides and covers its eye in fear of cliché.
Cirrocumuli swirl about the highest tower and encircle the balcony. There, the lady of the land admires her kingdom and reminisces. Once upon a time, she could execute with a dismissive wave of her finger, and chop: Blood-jam tarts for supper. The lowly peasant could not do such a thing, but she, she was chosen by god, she was born into this world with an evil-smiting axe. The world commanded it so. She cannot be evil. She could feast on a thousand babies and still the crown atop her head would govern her choice as divine. The highest towers govern what is good and what is not, but who can question her when all the other rooms are dark? The lords, ladies, maids and footmen left long ago when the city was deemed nonsensical to inhabit. Pfft, she grunts as she turns from her view, who needs them?
The shrill tune of a songbird, the friend of mankind, titters up the brickwork and coos in her ear. She peers over the balcony again, scours the desolation. There, on another balcony, high above the wolves’ domain yet low below the Queen’s: The source of the song. She knows its verse better than any. She taught its melody; its queer inflections and celebrated rhythms are a reflection of her own, back when she cared for such melodies, when she combed her long black hair and sang such songs. Now the tune rings sharp and makes her blood run cold. She listens with distaste. She sees much of herself in that little bird. Its white frills, cream beak and raven-black crown were hand-me-downs from herself and her dear departed king.
Thank you, husband dearest, for gifting me your lands. A pity you had to leave so soon. Whatever was in that drink?
Roaming hands slide over her shoulders; she swoons. My, huntsman, what big hands you have.
All the better to feel you with.
She turns to see her lover: The third inhabitant of this lonely land. He stands tall, muscular, bare-chested, his great endowment covered only by a loincloth; nobody nears to warrant decency. Indeed, she only wears her long black cloak to maintain her own illusion of importance and to shroud her fragile frame from the cold. Beneath, she is naked.
He fetches her food; he fends off the hounds; he brings home the bacon; he is under no enchantment but the captivating twinkle in her eye. He thinks so, anyway. He knows nothing of the powers in her basement.
‘Your brow furrows, my Queen. What troubles you so?’
‘The bird, my love, the bird. She fills our desolation with disillusion. She is my mirror, and it ages slower than I.’
‘What would you have me do?’
She considers his request, the reason for her fleeted flock. Before plastic cleansed rich skin, the dark arts kept us young. Neither show lasting effects, but tell that to the spellweaver.
‘My little bird fetches flowers before supper. Go to the field and fetch me her heart. I will eat well tonight, and bathe in youthful oils.’
‘But, my lady, would you not miss her songs?’
She would, of course, and the fantasy of the empty cage weighs heavily on her heart. But she cannot bear to watch her reflection outlive her. Not when the powers at her disposal promise otherwise. O, Mirror, I will be the fairest. Just you wait. You will see.
‘Needs must. I cannot be the fairest in the kingdom while my mirror image wears black better than I.’
Hours later, the sun lowered to slumber behind the distant mountains and the huntsman set out with spear in hand. He draped his vascular shoulders in cloth – the cold bites at dusk – and ventured forth. His queen awaited supper.
He hid in a shrub of rhododendron, the pink bush of caution, and spied his prey. But wait! here she comes. The bird fluttered near, flowers in her delicate grip. She jumped excitedly from sprig to bush, smelling the sweet fresh scents of possibility, dropping one as she picked another.
What a sweet bird, mourned the huntsman, it breaks my heart to ready my spear. He observed her fawn over nature: What could be purer than this? She fluttered unfettered, singing her winsome song. The spear loosened in his hand. Her gentle titter made him smile. It had been long since he’d felt such happiness; the queen does not inspire gentility, rather primitive passion followed by hours of silence. She fights her reflection much of the day, his cock by night. He had never minded before, but he had not felt such soft affection since his mother passed washing linen.
‘Enough!’ he cried. The weapon fell into the grass with a muffled thud. He straightened his back, his spine popped and cracked, and he stepped amidst the clearing. I will make amends with the kind bird. I will tell her to flee into the woods. There she may make a new life, she may find friends. My lover will not harm her this night.
But the bird saw a great monster, of frightening stature and mammoth breadth, rise from the shrubbery and screamed.
‘No, little bird, be not afraid!’
It flew backward, running from harm, and turned beak-first into a tree. A great oak held out its root and sneered. Trip. Fall. Snap went her avian neck. Nine months to start a life, half a second to end it.
The huntsman wept. He fell on his knees and wailed for the dainty, affectionate thing, the little one he’d melted for. Salty tears rolled down his cheek. His strong hands held the pure vessel gently, and he showed his love in the only way he knew: with primitive passion.
Good conquers evil. Now the queen wore the girl on her arm as a trophy. The moral of her story is sometimes dreams do come true.
Now the bird aged faster than she, for it dried and fell under the ravenous nibble of blowflies. The queen of the empty lands lived happily ever after, forever laughing triumphantly at her magic mirror, the rotting corpse, the reflection she’d conquered, as the huntsman stood aside and watched the regression of her disposition. My, is that a grey hair I see?