Once upon a time, there stood a forest where fairies nested and ghosts wandered. In the forest resided a small cottage, and in this cottage no one lived nine months of the year. But in the summer, when the villages sweltered and the forests could provide, a mother and her two daughters called the cottage home. The girls were named now White and Rose Red, and they loved one another more than life itself.
One fine afternoon Rose Red said to her sister, ‘Won’t you come forage for blackberries with me? I’m always so lonely without you.’
‘Of course; I’d grow bored here by myself,’ Snow White replied. The two little girls held hands and skipped into the forest, comforted by the heat of the other’s palm pressed against theirs.
While they foraged, Rose Red felt the prickle of a pair of eyes on her back, but she said nothing to keep from scaring her sister. She gathered berries as quickly as she could and hurried Snow White home. When they had walked through the door she spun around and cried, ‘Who’s there?’
A large brown bear, standing on his hind legs, flinched away in surprise. Rose Red screamed and slammed the door, and Snow White hid behind their mother’s bed. ‘I mean you no harm!’ the bear cried through the wood. ‘I am wet from a romp in the stream, and only want to dry myself by your fire.’
‘My, a bear that can talk!’ marvelled the girls’ mother, impressed. ‘Poor dear, lie down by the fire. Girls, come out of your hiding and invite him in.’ Cautiously, both little girls obeyed, and when they saw the bear roll happily in front of the fire they forgot their fear and began to stroke him.
‘You’re so warm and cuddly!’ Rose Red exclaimed, hugging the bear and rolling on top of him. He tickled her and she fell to the ground, laughing.
‘Not nice!’ Snow White giggled, and she began to tug the bear’s coat. Rose Red joined in, rolling him back and forth with her feet and beating him all over with a hazel stick, both girls laughing hysterically as the bear faked horror and writhed in exaggerated pain.
Finally the bear cried, ‘Leave me alive, children!’ and the fun ended for the night. The little girls cuddled up against the bear and fell asleep in front of the fire. The following day he left in the morning but returned when the sun set, played with the girls as before, and fell asleep by the fire. Night after night the pattern continued, until the leaves grew gold and the mother began packing for their trip back to the village. One evening there was a knock at the door, and the mother opened it to reveal a boy with blood dripping from one hand, although he did not seem to be injured. He fell against the woman as though he knew her and hugged her tight. ‘Thank you madam, thank you for your summer of generosity,’ he said. ‘I am Florian, the son of a sorceress, cursed to remain in bear form until I killed my enchanter. Now that he is dead, I am free to return to my family, but first I wish to thank you for your kindness.’ He beckoned for the shocked girls to follow him and walked outside. There he pulled two roses from the two trees that stood before the cottage, one white and one red, and onto the white rose he squeezed the
juice of a handful of blackberries. He handed the white rose to Snow White and the red rose to Rose Red, and held their forearms together.
‘Now, whatever you do, don’t cry out,’ he said. And then he took a vine of briars and wrapped it around their wrists, binding them together, and the thorns pierced their skin and let loose little rivulets of blood. The girls’ eyes rolled back in their heads, and they fell to the ground, unconscious.
When they opened their eyes, Florian was gone. Rose Red gingerly sat up and unwound the vine. Snow White grabbed her injuries, blood leaking from between her fingers. ‘Is this the gift we were given?’ she asked. ‘For I could ask for nothing more than to stop the bleeding from my arm.’ And no more had the words escaped her lips that a tendril of blackberry vine pushed its way from the ground and grew a single fruit, which burst when it touched Snow White’s arm. The juices ran down her skin, and as they flowed over her cuts, her flesh regrew. Within seconds her arm was healed.
Snow White stared, mouth agape, but Rose Red cried, ‘Do me, do me!’ and Snow White concentrated on the ground once more. This time two vines emerged from the ground, ladened with fruit. They doused her arm with juice and healed her just as they had her sister.
‘What can you do?’ Snow White asked.
Rose Red concentrated on the ground, and out popped a lone rose briar. She gave it small pink flowers and little leaves, and ordered the thorns to fall from the vine. They obeyed her every word. ‘We didn’t do anything truly laudable; I feel like we don’t deserve these gifts,’ she said. She caught the rose’s scent, sweet and musty, and felt the shame melt from her heart. ‘Oh, what am I saying? Florian decided we earned them, and that’s enough for me.’
‘Why do you say that?’ Snow White asked.
She smelled the flower again and felt all the more certain. ‘I don’t know. I just don’t feel undeserving anymore.’
Their mother made them swear not to tell a soul about their strange powers, and they soon returned to the village. Rose Red loved nothing more than socialising but Snow White was more solitary, so while Rose Red went to school and ran errands with her mother, Snow White stayed home and spun. Both were careful to hide their gifts, but every new moon, when one could hardly see their hands in front of their faces, the girls would kneel in the dirt and practise growing vines. Snow White’s blackberries left one satiated after only a bite and fulfilled all their nutritional needs, quenched thirst and defeated illness, and could cool one down as quickly as it would warm one up. Her sister’s roses, not to be outdone, could cure a breaking heart or a bout of depression, could strengthen one’s resolve to do good or fix one’s self-image. The family could want for nothing.
When the girls were adults, their mother began to seek a husband for Rose Red. She proposed match after match with handsome men from distant villages, but each time Rose Red refused. ‘They don’t know me, and I don’t know them,’ Rose Red protested. ‘What could they want from me but a beautiful face, a fertile womb, or homemaking hands? I want a husband who loves me for me!’
Weary of her complaining, their mother arranged for seven brothers to visit the house, so Rose Red could make their acquaintance before their parents tried to arrange a match. They arrived to a cottage decked in the family’s finest lace and satins, and a magnificent feast made by Snow White’s hand. While Rose Red entertained, her sister led the men out, one by one, and asked them why they wished to wed her sister.
Said the first, ‘I’d like to be a father, and she seems like she’d make a kind mother.’
Said the second, ‘I’m at the stage of my life where I’d like to settle down, and she’s a brilliant cook.’
Said the third, ‘Living alone has gotten ever so lonely, and your sister seems kind.’
Said the fourth, ‘I want to feel loved by someone other than my family, and your sister seems like a caring woman.’
Said the fifth, ‘I’m tired of going to events alone, and your sister would look beautiful on my arm.’
Said the sixth, ‘My business has become too popular, and I’d like a partner to share in the work and rewards.’
Said the seventh, ‘Life has become too dull, and your sister seems fun.’
When the men had left, the three women gathered together. ‘They were all lovely,’ said Rose Red, ‘but all seemed taken by me before they’d gotten to know me.’
‘Of course they were,’ Snow White said. ‘They were all seeking someone to fill a role for them, to solve a problem or fulfil a desire. They weren’t in love with you, they just wanted something from you.’
Their mother put her head in her hands. ‘Endlessly tiresome girls! I should have accepted the sorceress’ son’s offer.’
‘What offer?’ Snow White asked.
‘When Florian enchanted you, he offered to marry you, Snow, and arrange a marriage between his brother and Rose Red. I thought you were all too young at the time.’ Snow White leapt to her feet. ‘This is perfect! I already know and trust him, so I couldn’t be happier being his wife. And we know that he already cares about us for who we are. Oh mother, please arrange the marriage as quickly as possible!’ She obeyed, and the two sisters married the two brothers in the church not a month later. The men built a pair of houses in the centre of the village, and the girls left the comfort of their mother’s home.
Rose Red wasted no time getting to know her neighbours. She invited the blacksmith and his wife to supper, and then the butcher and his wife to dinner, and soon she was having tea with half the women in the town. One fine afternoon she was sitting in a clearing spotted with wild strawberries, sipping tea and eating little cakes, when the blacksmith’s wife said, ‘I’m so jealous of your marriage, Rose Red. Why, Karl and I have barely been speaking beyond the bare minimum needed for cohabiting. I’d give anything for him to waltz me around the square like
your Lothar does.’
‘Tell me,’ said Rose Red, ‘what is the source of your marital struggles?’
‘We simply want different things,’ the blacksmith’s wife said. ‘He wants to partake in excitements with me, go on wild adventures and the like, while I want to cuddle and just talk with him for hours a day.’
‘I can save your marriage,’ Rose Red said, ‘but you all need to promise not to spread word of what you see.’ The women agreed, and Rose Red brought forth a tendril of vine. It grew taller, sprouted soft leaves, and unfurled two pink roses. The women gasped at the sight. Rose Red cut the flowers from the plant and passed them to the blacksmith’s wife, saying, ‘Scatter the petals of this one on your husband’s pillow and the petals of that one on yours, and in the morning your problems will be solved.’ Speechless, the woman accepted the flowers. The rest of the tea party was short and stunted as the women, unsettled, tried to ignore the peculiarity they’d witnessed.
But the next morning, the town was awoken by the blacksmith’s wife tearing through the streets, bare hair flying in the wind. ‘It worked!’ she cried, pounding on Rose Red’s door. ‘It worked, oh thank you!’ Her husband arrived just as Rose Red opened the door and swept the much smaller woman into a bearhug. ‘This morning, when I woke, I wanted nothing more than to go on a small adventure with him,’ the blacksmith’s wife said, giddy with glee.
‘And I felt the strongest urge to spend some quality time with my wife,’ said the blacksmith. ‘Today we’ll climb up the mountain and picnic on the peak. Thank you, Rose Red. You must come to dinner tomorrow night.’
‘I’m glad I could help,’ she said, smiling. At the next tea time two more of her friends approached her, one wanting to mend a wound in her relationship with her child, one wanting to worry less about her finances. The group gathering for tea was slightly larger the next week, and bit by bit Rose Red and Lothar began to be invited to more and more events. They dined with the mayor and helped his son find love; they travelled with the fishermen and helped them strengthen their friendships; they hunted with the tailor and helped him worry less. Not an evening passed when they weren’t in the pleasant company of some villager or another. The loneliness and boredom Rose Red had feared she’d feel after moving out of her mother’s home rarely had a chance to rear their heads.
‘If they love me, they’ll love you too,’ Rose Red promised Snow White on the rare occasion she had to grab something from her sister’s house. ‘You don’t need to hide your powers anymore.’ But Snow White would always shake her head, eyes wide with apprehension.
Until the day came that a horrid snow storm descended on the village in late spring, freezing the boisterous crops poking from the ground. Animals died in their pens and humans huddled in their shacks, thin blankets pulled around bony shoulders, shivering in the wind that snuck through their straw roofs. In the depth of the night, a little girl was awoken when she felt something brush her foot. She sat up and felt it in the dark; it was a vine, smooth and thick, and forking from the vine were smaller branches crowded with leaves and juicy berries. She popped one into her mouth and almost felt a small fire light in her stomach, warming the blood in her veins. Stomach full and flesh thawed, she squealed, ‘Mommy, daddy, wake up! We’re saved!’ And indeed they were. For when the snow melted and the villagers finally ventured outside, they saw their village fractured by a spider web of thornless blackberry vines centred on Snow White’s cottage.
A crowd gathered at the base of the house, chanting and calling out in confused appreciation. Finally, Florian led his wife outside by the hand. She shied away from the crowd, but Florian raised his wife’s hand high and exclaimed, ‘This is the enchantress that saved you during the snowstorm!’ Snow White blushed a deep crimson; the people cheered. Women bowed at her feet and children kissed her hands, professing their thanks. The enchantress burst into tears.
In the months that followed, the villagers struggled to plant late-season crops and breed their remaining livestock, but they didn’t fret over their predicament. When their wheat moulded over or their chickens laid no eggs, they could simply knock on the door of Snow White’s cottage and she’d bring forth blackberries from their vines. In turn, Snow White found herself elevated to the status of her sister. She was invited to every hunt, every supper, every party and wedding. Whenever she or Rose Red sat down, people would scurry to sit next to them, to strike up conversation or offer them a gift. They and their husbands basked in their glory for a year.
But then spring came and the land thawed. Little lambs tripped over the blackberries vines running down the paths, and the fields burst with vegetables. Bit by bit the knocks at Snow White’s door ceased, and bit by bit the invitations to dinners and parties slowed. She was still near the centre of village life, but she was no longer the centre itself.
The correlation was not lost on Snow White, and she knocked on the door of Rose Red’s cottage. ‘Sister, whatever is the matter?’ she asked.
Snow White took her sister’s hand. ‘Oh Rosie, it’s terrible. The people here pretend to care about me, but all they want is my power. When they need me to feed and warm them, they invite me to all their celebrations and dinners, but when they can feed and warm themselves, their invitations slow. Take this as a warning: the people you consider your countrymen don’t love you, they just love the roses you bloom. As soon as the roses shrivel up and die, so do your relationships.’
‘This is very tragic indeed,’ Rose Red said. ‘Thank you for your warning. My husband and I will have to ponder the matter.’ And so Snow White returned to Florian in a foul mood.
‘My darling Snow,’ her husband said, ‘I’m so sorry this has happened to you. Know that there is at least one person who loves you for who you are.’ He extended his arms to her and hugged her close, stroking her long black braid. ‘You’re my world, I promise you that.’ And so Snow White felt comforted and returned his kisses, and fell asleep in a much better mood.
The following morning, a farmer’s wife knocked on Rose Red’s door and asked if Rose Red would like to pick wildflowers with her. ‘You have a choice,’ Rose Red replied. ‘I can serve you with my magic in whatever way you desire, or we can pick wildflowers like friends. I won’t do both.’ Surprised, the farmer’s wife stammered that her life had become grey and tiresome, and wouldn’t Rose Red bring a morsel of happiness into her existence once again? The enchantress snapped her fingers and a rosebush burst from the ground, wrapping around the woman’s wrist and piercing her flesh with thorns. A large speckled rose unfolded from the tip and hovered under the woman’s nose as she squealed in pain. ‘Here!’ Rose Red snapped. ‘Bathe in the petals of this, and you’ll never feel apathy towards your own life again. Now get out of my sight!’ Mumbling thanks and apologies, the farmer’s wife scampered away.
Over the course of the next few days, the town was divided between those who chose Rose Red’s company and those who chose her gifts. Most chose the latter, but a few professed their desire for closeness with the enchantress and remained her friends. She took frequent excursions with her small cliche, visiting Burd Ellen’s church and Cenerentola’s palace, and the friends would watch out for and unburden themselves on one another. The butcher would complain of his marital difficulties and the tailor’s daughter would gossip about the village’s young men, but neither would ask Rose Red for anything but advice.
Snow White, meanwhile, gave up on socialising entirely. She’d serve her community insomuch as they needed her, but the offers to christenings and suppers she ignored. Bored and alone, she fell into a depression, and finally asked her husband, ‘Why am I even here? The village loves me, but they don’t care about me. Is my entire purpose to serve as the village’s insurance?’
‘You could serve someone else, you know,’ Florian said, kneeling before his wife and kissing her fingers. ‘A little someone who will love you more than life itself. Snow White, I want to be a father.’
Snow White blinked in surprise, and then a slow smile spread over her rose-red lips. She took Florian’s face in her hands and kissed him. And he scooped her into his arms and carried her into their bedroom.
Nine months later she lay panting in bed, legs splayed, a long vine dropping blackberries in her mouth to keep the pain at bay. The midwife stood, a screaming little boy in her arms, and passed the unhappy bundle to Snow White. She cradled him to her breast, kissed his head, and for the first time in her life felt at peace. Florian knelt beside her. ‘Thank you, my love,’ he whispered.
She threw herself into her housework, keeping an orderly cottage for Florian and doting on their son. All she could have wanted from friends, she tried to receive from her family. Even once little Fredrick could sleep through the night, she’d stay up deep into the dark in Florian’s arms, whispering sweet nothing to him while he stroked her hair and made her feel as warm and safe as a caterpillar in a cocoon. She wrote him little love notes and danced with him in their small cottage, reminding him every day that he was precious and lovely and worthy of every good thing that had happened to him. Frederick, meanwhile, grew into a rambunctious little boy. He’d run away from his mother in the square, giggling and squealing ‘You can’t catch me!’ before returning a second later to ask his Mommy to buy him some trinket he’d spotted. He was assertive in demanding his favourite meals and activities; he never loved his mother more than when she took him boating in the nearby lake and let him try to catch fish in his little pail.
But family can’t truly replace friends, and the lonely Snow White turned to her sister for support. Rose Red invited her to her cottage, and they sipped tea from little painted cups in front of a fire one cold winter evening. ‘You could cut the people off from your gifts as well. Then maybe you could make a true friend,’ she suggested.
‘Won’t people reproach me? I can cure any illness or injury; I save lives every month. People will blame me for letting people die.’
‘So let them. Those that blame you aren’t worth their weight in dirt. If all they see in you is a woman to serve them, they don’t deserve you in their lives.’ Rose Red took her sister’s hand and squeezed. ‘It takes bravery to assert your own worth, I know. In all honesty, I’ve begun to wonder if I should cut off some of my own friends for that reason.’
‘But you don’t share your gifts with your friends,’ Snow White said.
‘I’m more than a source of magic. I have one friend, the butcher, who always wants to talk to me about his family dramatics, and another, a farmer’s wife, who’s always approaching me for advice about whatever idiotic problem she has. I feel like I’m simply used for emotional support.’
‘Let me accompany you when you see your friends next. Perhaps I can give some feedback,’ said Snow White, imagining that, if her sister was incorrect, she might be able to socialise with some selfless villagers.
The following day, the sisters and a gaggle of Rose Red’s friends walked to the nearby Cliffs of Emalia. The farmer’s wife strolled arm-in-arm with Rose Red, Snow White to her right, and chatted about her pregnant cat. A laundress appeared on Snow White’s other side and said, ‘I never got the chance to thank you for saving my brother’s life when that demon bee stung him and he swelled up. You’re an angel.’
Snow White smiled. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘It startled me, since bees are usually so sweet. I own a number of hives, you know. Just this weekend I bought another queen, but I had trouble integrating her into the hive. She and the original queen nearly had a fight! I had to build a whole second hive, but we didn’t have any wood, so Florian….’ After she’d explained the beekeeping saga for a few minutes, the laundress stifled a yawn. Snow White’s eyes narrowed, and she said, ‘Do you keep any livestock?’
‘Oh yes! I’ve been trying to buy a couple more goats, but…’ and she launched into an equally dull story. Finally, she said ‘well, I’ve bored you long enough. Tell me, what is the funniest mistake you’ve ever made?’ Snow White indulged her, and the laundress giggled at the punchline. ‘Oh, that’s grand! Do you have any other such stories?’
‘I’m afraid I have none,’ Snow White said hastily.
‘Well, I have one. Just two months ago…’ Snow White tuned her out and turned her attention back to the farmer’s wife just in time to hear her ask Rose Red’s advice on solving her sons’ rivalry. When they arrived at the cliffs, Snow White pulled Rose Red to the side and whispered, ‘You’re right. They just want to talk about themselves, be entertained, or in some other way be served. She didn’t care one bit to hear about me unless she found it entertaining.’
‘I know, it’s–’ Rose Red was cut off by a scream from the cliffs. They ran over to see the women gathered at the edge, squealing and wringing their hands, looking downwards. On a ledge about four metres below lay the laundress, the moss under her head growing thick with blood.
‘There was a rock!’ the tailor’s daughter cried. ‘There was a rock in the moss! Oh, beautiful enchantresses, save her!’ Rose Red sighed so quietly that only her sister could hear, and extended an arm. A thornless rosebush erupted from the cliff’s edge and snaked downwards, vines wrapping around the laundress’ limbs and torso, and began to pull her upwards. Finally the woman’s body appeared at the cliff’s edge, and the vines laid her on the ground. The laundress moaned and shuddered, bloody hair clinging to her scalp.
Snow White pretended to faint.
She waited until the wailing had died down before ‘waking up.’ ‘W…what happened?’ she asked, looking around with wide eyes. Rose Red smirked.
‘She died, all the blood drained from her and she died,’ the farmer’s wife sobbed. ‘Oh, if only you hadn’t fainted.’ Snow White crawled to the laundress, her black braid trailing behind her, and stroked the corpse’s cheek with cold satisfaction. ‘You can bring her home, can’t you?’ the farmer’s wife added.
Snow White’s hand tightened. ‘Of course I can,’ she said, forcing a smile.
A week after the snaking vines had delivered the laundress to her grave, Rose Red invited herself into Snow White’s home and asked Florian to leave. ‘Oh Snow,’ she said, ‘ever since you revealed the truth to me about my friends, I’ve been so lonely. How do you live, friendless?’
‘Well, I have my husband. He’s my greatest confidant, the one person I can bare my soul to. And I have my son,’ Snow White said. ‘True, he would rather be with his friends than with me, but when I’m taking care of him he’s usually very loving towards me, except when he’s in a bad mood.’ Rose Red cocked an eyebrow. ‘I mean,’ Snow White stuttered, ‘like all children he sometimes grows tired of me, but at night when I play with him and tell him a story before bed, he cuddles up to me and says ‘I love you Mommy’ and is very caring towards me.’
‘You mean,’ Rose Red said, ‘he loves you when you’re serving him, entertaining him or whatnot, but does he bear no love for you as his mother?’
‘Every young child loves their mother,’ Snow White protested. ‘And who are you to insult my relationship with my family? What about Lothar?’
‘He showers you with affection when you make love to him, right? And when you tell him how beautiful he looks and how much you care for him?’
‘Well yes, but don’t all husbands–’
‘All friends are selfish harpies too, apparently, but that doesn’t make it right. Think, truly–if your husband had his heart’s desire of entertainment and interpersonal connection from his friends, and sex from a woman of pleasure, and affection from his mother, would he still want you just as much as he does now?’
‘Of course he would!’ Rose Red cried, cheeks burning. ‘Then give it to him! Shower him with roses that completely fulfil his every desire for human connection, for entertainment and sex. Don’t let him come to you out of boredom, either; tempt him with crafts or whatnot. See if he still chooses you when he no longer needs you.’
‘Alright, I will!’ Rose Red snapped. She stood, and with a flip of her golden curls she was gone.
That evening she prepared for herself and her husband a warm bath, lit by candles and scattered with every colour of rose petals. Decreeing under her breath that their scent should only work on him, she eased the clothes from his back and stepped into the water with him. Pushing aside rose petals, she straddled his lap and began to gently wash his face with her rose-scented soap. ‘You’ll love me no matter what, right?’ she whispered as she caressed his cheeks.
He kissed her. ‘Of course, my sweet Rose. Nothing will weaken the bond that holds us tight.’ And so saying he lifted her and turned her around on his lap, and began to brush her long, golden hair.
But when the morning came he spoke little to her at breakfast, preferring instead to gaze at the birds out the window with a small smile on his lips. And after he returned from the field, he held her tight and kissed her, but spoke only briefly before she offered him a new canvas and he happily sat down to paint.
Rose Red loitered in the doorway, biting her lip. ‘I had an interesting day today,’ she lied.
‘Oh? Tell me about it,’ he said, squinting to paint a minuscule cat’s whiskers.
‘I…’ she faltered. ‘I ignored all my friends in the marketplace. They chased after me and asked me whatever the matter was, but I told them to leave me be.’
He cast her a confused glance. ‘And why did you ignore them?’
‘They were too selfish for me.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. I never would have imagined, knowing them. Good for you for setting your boundaries, though.’ A moment passed in silence, then two. He painted the cat’s paws. With nothing more to say, Rose Red left to work on her knitting.
As the couple got into bed, Lothar began to chat about his hopes for life after death, and Rose Red eagerly joined in. But he blew out the candle soon, far sooner than usual. In the dark, Rose Red clasped his hand, tears in her eyes, and refused to let them fall.
The following morning she made his favourite breakfast, and he thanked her and promptly ignored her, choosing instead to do a bit of painting before he left for the fields. Unable to contain her dread once he’d left, she packed a picnic of sandwiches and salad, and brought them to the fields in a little basket. When he saw the treat he thanked her profusely and sat down to eat with her, chatting aimlessly between bites.
‘Would you like me to stay and keep you company?’ Rose Red asked, hopeful, once they’d finished eating.
He shrugged. ‘If you’d like.’ She left.
That evening he gave her only a brief kiss before sitting down to paint for hours and hours. When the sun had long since set, Rose Red entered, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed his cheek. ‘Would you like to sit outside with me and talk? The moon is lovely.’
‘I’m ambivalent,’ she lied. ‘I’ll happily do it if you want to, however.’
‘I think not, but thank you for the offer.’ He painted another stroke. She sat at his feet for a few minutes, then wiped a tear from her eyes and walked to their bedroom.
When he finally turned in for the night, he found Rose Red reclining naked on the bed, rose petals scattered across her body. He smiled and kissed her hand. ‘You look absolutely beautiful tonight.’
She grinned, hopeful, and guided him into bed. But they’d only been making love for ten minutes before he signed in contentment and pulled on his nightclothes. ‘Thank you, my love,’ he said.
‘You want nothing more?’ she asked.
She pulled a nightdress over her head and began to plait her hair for bed. ‘Very well, then, what should we talk about? I do say our best conversations are after dark.’
‘I just want to sleep,’ he responded, crawling into bed next to her. Within minutes he was snoring. In the darkness beside him, Rose Red sobbed.
‘You said nothing would weaken our bond. You said nothing would weaken our bond,’ she whispered, rocking back and forth, knees pulled close to her chest and tears streaming down each cheek.
Besides her, Lothar stirred. ‘Did you say something?’
‘You said that nothing would weaken our bond!’ she screamed, and rose vines erupted from the bed. Lothar’s eyes widened and he tried to sit up, but the vines wrapped around his body and pinned him to the bed, long thorns piercing his flesh. He screeched. She covered his mouth with her hand.
And the vines grew tighter, and the branches more numerous, and the thorns longer, until she lifted her hand and no sound came from his lips at all.
Roses couldn’t dig a hole, so Rose Red rushed to her sister’s cottage and awoke her with a tap at the window. Together they buried Lothar in a shallow grave under a linden tree, and returned home before the sun rose.
The absence of Lothar did not go unnoticed, and Rose Red had the task of playing the grief-stricken wife. ‘He must have left me,’ she sobbed to anyone who would listen. ‘Oh, what have I done to deserve this abandonment? How could I have been a better wife?’ The people tried to sooth her, but she brushed them off and shut herself in her home again, and the people sighed and said what a horrible tragedy it was that such a good woman should be so badly treated.
But poor Florian couldn’t bear to think that his brother, whom he held in such high regard, would abandon his wife, nor that he would abandon his brother without even saying goodbye. And the more he contemplated this inconceivable betrayal, the more a flame of suspicion was fed in his chest. For he’d been his wife’s closest confidant; he knew the hatred that she and her sister held for those they thought used them. And he’d woken up in the middle of the night to find his bed empty. And so, when the trees were lit by nothing but starlight, he slipped out of his house and into the woods. Closing his eyes, he conjured up his brother in his mind and whispered, ‘Oh Lothar, my first friend, call me to you.’ When he opened his eyes, a small blue light floated before him, solitary in the dark. The blue fairy beaconed to him, and he followed her through bushes and brambles until she came to rest underneath a linden tree. Florian fell to his knees and dug through loose soil, dirt caking under his fingernails and roots scratching his hands. When his fingers brushed his brother’s cool flesh, he sank to the ground and didn’t move for several hours.
But as the sky began to lighten in the east, the thought of his son shot through his mind, and after hastily re-burying his brother he sprinted home, cleaned himself off at the well, and woke Snow White. ‘My dear,’ he said, ‘My mother sent me an enchanted message, asking me to visit and give her strength in light of her son’s betrayal. She wants me to bring Fredrick. We two must leave at once.’
‘Would you like me to come with you?’ she asked, her voice too soft.
‘Of course I would,’ he said hastily, ‘but I wouldn’t want to pull you from your sister when you two need each other most.’ She conceded, and as soon as she was out of sight he reverted to his bear form, threw Frederick on his back, and galloped to his mother’s house.
The next few days the women were hard at work, scrubbing blood from Rose Red’s cottage and repairing shredded bed linens, and as they worked they raved about the selfishness of the villagers. ‘I dare say, is there anyone in this village that loves us for who we are?’ Rose Red cried.
‘Only my family,’ Snow White said, ‘and they’ve left me.’
Rose Red scoffed. ‘Oh yes, your perfect husband and son that loves you unconditionally…so long as you’re taking care of his every need. Why, with his father and grandmother caring for him, I bet he doesn’t even find it in his heart to miss you.’
‘Before today, not a single night passed when we weren’t under the same roof,’ Snow White countered. ‘I fed him every meal, sang to him every night, held his little hand whenever we left the house. Of course he misses me; I’m the central figure in his life, the pillar that supports him.’
‘Then assure my doubt,’ Rose Red said. ‘Take the blacksmith’s horse–he can’t refuse you after you saved his son from the rusting disease–and serve as witness to your son’s misery.’
And so Snow White went tearing through the forest, her black braid flying behind her and branches scratching her face. As the sun began to set, she arrived at her mother-in-law’s cottage and lay down beside a crack in the stones, eyes pressed against the opening.
A fire crackled in the hearth, laying a wavering light on the dinner table where the sorceress, Florian, and Frederick sat eating chocolates. Though the sorceress’ eyes were wet with tears and Florian held a painting of Lothar in his lap, they laughed as they retold stories of Lothar’s life, and little Frederick sat on the edge of his seat crying ‘More, more!’ every time a story concluded.
After dinner, the sorceress picked up her fiddle and played Lothar’s favourite tune as Florian whirled Frederick around on his hip. They jumped and skipped to the beat, father lifting son off the ground with ease, and little Frederick laughed so hard he began to choke. Finally darkness truly fell, and the sorceress sat in her rocking chair and pulled Frederick into her lap, saying, ‘Have you ever heard the tale of the Rose-Elf?’ He eagerly listened, and when she was done she tucked him into bed and kissed his head. By the time he was asleep, Snow White had made up her mind.
She threw open the door and stormed inside, hand outstretched. ‘You,’ she snarled, and a rosebush erupted at the base of her son’s bed, wrapping around the legs and snaking up towards the screaming child.
Whack! The bear’s paw threw Snow White against the cottage’s wall, blood streaming down her face as she slumped to the ground. She stumbled to her feet, blood dripping from her eyelashes, blinding her. Florian, now a bear, shoved his mother and screaming son behind him and roared.
Snow White lunged to her feet and ran from the cottage. Throwing herself onto her horse, she rode home, letting blackberries burst against her face to stop the flow of blood from her forehead. When she arrived she leapt from the horse and ran to Rose Red’s house, banging on the door.
‘You were right,’ she sobbed, throwing herself into her sister’s arms. Rose Red kissed her forehead and stroked her hair. ‘Is there anyone selfless in this entire world?’
‘Let’s sift them and separate the fine from the wretched,’ Rose Red whispered. ‘Let’s give them everything they ever wanted. If anyone is left still hugging their mothers or dancing with their husbands, they alone we’ll spare.’ Snow White lifted her head from her sister’s chest, and Rose Red wiped away her tears. A smile spread across Snow’s rose-red lips.
‘We’ll bury the poor souls in briars and thorns.’
And so the women ran to the church and rang the bell, and when the town had assembled below, Rose Red cried, ‘In light of my wicked husband’s abandonment, I feel nothing but goodwill to my dear neighbours, who have supported me when he has not. In the past we were reserved in sharing our gifts, but I promise you, that era is coming to an end. Let us flood your houses with roses and blackberries. Anything you want, you need only ask.’ And so saying she raised her hands, and rose vines snaked from the ground at every post and wall. They wrapped around stone and unfurled rose rosebuds, shoved through glass panes and knotted across fences. Red and white, yellow and pink, large and small, speckled and plain, every type of rose blossomed among paths and rooftops, drowning the town in sweet scent. The crowd gasped and cheered.
Snow White stepped forward and lazily waved her arm, and blackberry vines burst from every crack and crevice, wrapping around logs and signposts, hanging over arches and doorways. Clusters of berries as large as plums fell from the vines, and the people squealed and ran to pluck the fruits, to cure any and every ailment they may have.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were berries. Doors were left open to the cold of the night and people ran about laughing in the heat of the day; a single bite of the blackberries brought their skin to the temperature they desired. All throughout the day and night, people napped in the sun and danced in the square and swam in the river, sometimes together, usually solitary. When they reclined on the sweet-smelling grass after a dip in the river, the smell of roses reminded them that they were loved, that they were held, that they were of interest and didn’t need anyone to validate them.
‘Protect them,’ the sisters whispered, and when a child played with a knife while her mother’s back was turned or an elderly man fell, thornless vines cocooned them and delivered them to safety. Soon, parents too could participate in the play without dragging their children along; the children could go off to entertain themselves, and the parents could cartwheel down the hill or wrestle in the mud without worrying about their safety.
Before long, the sisters grew a new crop. There was no more space on the peripheries of the town and houses, so the new vines snaked through cottages and lined both sides of the paths, arching over bridges and slowly darkening the sky. People had to run through the growing maze to find each other, and many simply gave up and went to enjoy time by themselves, and why wouldn’t they? In their hearts of hearts they felt a connection deeper and purer than the connection between friends around a fire in the wee hours or siblings sharing a decades-old inside joke. The scent of the roses filled them, satisfied them, held them safe and protected in their petals.
‘We should give them entertainment,’ Snow White proposed. And so one day a little girl, running by a rose, could have sworn she heard a whisper. Holding it to her ear, she listened for a few seconds and then loudly proclaimed to anyone in the vicinity that the roses could talk. People everywhere dropped what they were doing and knelt by the closest rose. The flowers couldn’t actually talk, of course, but everyone heard what they wanted to hear: stories of romance or gore, tales of the past or tales of the future, comedy or tragedy.
The sun rose and set, and still the people stayed sitting by their roses. When their stomachs growled with hunger they grabbed a blackberry; when they began to feel bored or lonely the whiff of a rose chased the feeling away.
At last Snow White found Rose Red and hugged her sister tight. ‘They all failed,’ she said. ‘Oh, let’s kill them together, like we’ve done everything together.’
Rose Red was stiff against her chest. ‘Not always,’ she said slowly. ‘Snow White, after all those years together, how could we ever have lived apart?’
Snow White pulled away, brow furrowed. ‘But we were married,’ she said. ‘I had a family, you had friends–’
‘But why should that have made a difference?’ Rose Red asked. ‘We were the best of friends; we barely left the house without the other’s hand in ours. We’d spend months with no one else’s company but our mother’s and one another’s. And yet we went from seeing one another every moment to seeing one another perhaps once a week without a second thought!’ She held Snow White at arm’s length. ‘Tell me, truly: did you miss me?’
‘Rarely,’ Snow White whispered. ‘Did you?’
‘Only when I was lonely.’ Rose Red couldn’t meet her sister’s eyes.
‘So that’s all I was to you? Someone to soothe your heart when you were lonely and help you bury bodies?’
‘And what about you? Was I nothing more than a source of advice and entertainment when you had few else to turn to?’ Her voice was little more than a murmur in the wind.
They stared at the ground for a few seconds. Then Snow White lifted her gaze and said, with tears in her eyes, ‘I still love you.’
Rose Red turned and sank to the ground, her head in her hands. Around her the rose vines grew tighter, and people began to squeal as the first of the thorns pierced their bodies. Snow White kneeled behind Rose Red, wrapped her arms around her, and rested her chin on her sister’s shoulder. ‘I still love you,’ she whispered again. And though no one has managed to tear through the sea of briars to confirm, legend says she’s still waiting for her sister to respond