In Defense of a Queen by Donna Quattrone

Fire makes its own kind of music.

My toes start to tingle as the strains of a nearby waltz mix with the crackle of the flames. Warmth. Music. Joy. I’ve known them all. Indeed, I’ve known many pleasures, though I’ve never felt the quickening of conception. I’ve seen sweet loving under soft, thick quilts drain the tension from the face of the most important man in the kingdom and I’ve witnessed the burden that returns there each dawn. I’ve seen these things because I am queen to that king. When I married my husband, I also adopted his daughter, Snow, and I vowed to love her as if she were my own. What I will be remembered for is the gifts that I gave this child. A woman’s simple things, they were: a carved bone comb and some ribbons. The gifts were meant to be reminders, tokens of the feminine that I’d feared she forgotten. The apple… well, that was something else entirely; an indulgence of an old woman’s nostalgia and nostalgia, as they say, is lost on the young. But that, my friend, comes at the end of the story, not the beginning.

In the beginning, there was a child; red of cheek and black of hair. The day I met her, she curtseyed before me and gifted me with an apple so fresh from the orchard that it still smelled of sunshine. When she rose to her feet, I took her hand in mine and thought, “This will be an easy child to love.” And, in the beginning, she was.

The King and I were still enjoying the first threads of our courtship. It would have been easy to shut the world out at that time and revel in our love for one another, but we took pains to include the young girl in as many activities as possible. The three of us shared picnics by the lake, rode through the countryside on horseback, and spent evenings in front of the fire sharing stories. When it was warm, I took Snow out into the gardens and showed her the herbs I planted that would heal almost anything. We’d have leisurely afternoon teas together; sweet concoctions, iced or steamed, that we harvested and brewed ourselves. During the colder months, we would sit by the windows and make beautifully thick scarves or paint pictures of the things we loved most. Sometimes we would sing together; Snow had a delightful voice that was always a pleasure to hear. Regardless of the season, I would brush the child’s hair, hundreds of loving strokes, before I sent her off to bed. At night my husband and I would retire to our rooms and renew the passion that continued to grow between us.

For quite some time, our lives followed a simple, pleasant pattern. Love was abundant and light and easily shared. It was only when Snow crossed into her teenage years that the shadows crept out from the corners. They colored our world darker; my bright, like-mine daughter grew sullen, withdrawn and self-absorbed. And she developed a rather unhealthy fascination with her mirror.

I’d find her in front of it often, coyly batting her eyelashes, smoothing back her hair, or practicing her newfound, hip-shifting walk. During meals, her gestures would be languid and suggestive, her eyes sly. She became adept at avoiding my company and chose, instead, to trail after her father. Both day and night she lay claim to his attention, distracting him from his duties with sweet-voiced trivialities. My husband spoke of the matter late one evening, in the golden afterglow of spent desire.

“I suspect it’s just a phase,” I told him lightly, remembering my own adolescence. “Perhaps it will pass.”

But it didn’t. The king, concerned by the discomforting turn of events, asked that I speak with the young princess. When I sought her out the very next day, I found her once again in front of the mirror. Our eyes met over the two reflections that hovered there and it soon became clear that the beautiful little girl was gone. The eyes that met mine were defiant and cold. When I began to speak, Snow turned stubbornly away from me, refusing to see, refusing to hear. I didn’t expect her to be all smiles. I wouldn’t have been surprised at tears. But her rigidity horrified me, so I decided to keep things simple. “Both of us love you so very much,” I said, stressing the both. The girl pulled back abruptly as I reached out to hug her, so I stepped away and tried to wrap her up in words instead. “Please know that there will always be enough love to go around.”

What does one do when words fall upon deaf ears? When there are no teas to cure the ill? When even love is not enough? I would have liked to usher my daughter into womanhood with pretty dresses and shared secrets and a healthy anticipation of good things to come, but it was not to be. Snow had shut me out.

She continued to ceaselessly track down her father. The king, who deftly handled the crises of a kingdom, was at his wit’s end, distraught and disturbed by his daughter’s confusing behavior. One night, after the dinner plates had been cleared away and the chairs pushed back, Snow crawled into her father’s lap and wrapped her arms around his neck. He looked at the awkward bundle of his newly grown daughter with horror in his eyes. As she pressed up against him and put her lips to his ear, he gently but firmly set her on her feet and off to her room. That evening, while Snow sat pouting in front of her mirror, the king came up with a plan.

Shortly thereafter, when the flowers had just begun raising their heads through the newly warmed soil, Snow was sent off with a trusted woodsman. His orders were simple; leave her to her own devices, but stay close enough to clandestinely keep watch over her. It wasn’t difficult, really; the woodsman knew all the paths that wound through the trees, knew the rhythm of the winds and the loving brush of bush and branches. Snow knew soft dresses and neatly trimmed gardens; she knew nothing of the woods. I moved the girl’s mirror into my own chambers, whispered several words, and was able to view Snow’s movement through the forest. The mirror, after all, had a strongly developed sense of Snow’s image within it already. No, it wasn’t difficult at all.

Through the glass, I watched as realization dawned on the child’s face. She was abandoned in foreign territory, hungry and hopelessly lost. I saw young Snow huddle down, shivering, as darkness approached. I quelled my maternal instincts with the knowledge that the huntsman was still nearby, ready to protect the child from predators, both animal and human.

Eventually, with the covert guidance of the woodman’s wolf barks and bird cries, Snow found the cottage. It was home, I knew, to seven little men whose preoccupation with working the land led to much domestic havoc. Snow’s initial relief at finding refuge quickly turned to disgust when she saw the state of the house. When its occupants came home shortly after twilight, her revulsion grew even stronger. The dwarves, on their return from a long day in the mines, were a decidedly unattractive lot.

They looked at the girl who stood just inside the door of their cottage and quickly took charge of the situation. “Well now,” one called out, “Can you cook?” Snow shook her head and answered in a word. “No,” she replied. “Can you clean?” asked another of the dwarves. He got the same response. “What it is that you can do?” came the third question. The look on the princess’ face told the dwarves all they needed to know. They shook their heads, tucked their dinner of bread and cheese under their arms and headed for the stairs. The last little man lagged a bit behind. When the others had disappeared from view, he tossed his loaf to the girl and asked in an almost gentle voice, “Can you learn?”

Snow considered this question as she slowly ate her bread. She didn’t relish the thought of wandering aimlessly around the woods, and she was smart enough to know that she was no match for the forest predators. She reviewed her limited options and pondered her choices until, finally, exhaustion set in and her head dropped to the table. And that is how Snow spent the first night in her new home.

In the morning the men came down and invited Snow to join in their simple breakfast. She soon learned that the dwarves weren’t much for conversation and, as they headed out the door, they silently handed her a variety of items: a broom, a rag, a harsh-smelling lump of soap, a scrub brush.

I watched through the mirror as Snow contemplated her lot. She moved toward the sinkful of dishes and stood there staring. The confrontation with a simple chore brought tears to the girl’s eyes. When she finally started scraping the plates, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I pulled a cloth over the mirror and walked away.

Snow quickly discovered that she had neither the time nor the leisure to continue her practice of coy glances or fancy walks. The miners, lost in their own gruff world of work from dusk to dawn, had little energy for affection and less of an idea about how to show it, though they did praise Snow as she learned to cook their meals and keep their home neat and clean. From my seat in front of the mirror, I would keep track of Snow’s progress. With the burden of duty came the recognition of responsibility to others as well as an appreciation of her own quiet company. And, despite the rough hands, her growing-threadbare garb and the mats that tangled her hair, Snow was finding her way back to being beautiful.

For my own part, I missed the young girl more than I thought possible. Her father and I spoke of her daily; he knew that I was able to watch her through the mirror. One sunny afternoon, I caught Snow staring pensively out of the cottage window. It was unusual to see her pause from her chores at such length and, for the first time since she became lost in the woods, the girl opened her mouth and sang. It wasn’t just the poignant words that called to me, the aching melody also pulled at my heartstrings and I knew then that I would go to her.

I packed a small bag, lingered over parting kisses with my king, and then set out. My traipse through the woods was uneventful and at last I came to the cottage. Snow answered the door with a blank face. Had she shut me out for so long that she no longer recognized me? Or was it I who had changed during our time spent apart? My mind screamed the words Don’t you know who I am? but my question came out gently. “You remind me of a girl I used to know. Do I look at all familiar to you?”

“Well,” began the princess, haltingly, “I think you might. But those gray hairs…”

“Ah,” I replied, disappointment fighting with determination. “And your hair looks as if it could use a good brushing. Perhaps you will let me smooth out those knots for you?” I led the princess to a chair, where she sat quietly while I did a mother’s work. I continued brushing her hair long after the tangles were gone. It shone with a rich, deep luster; swept across cheek and shoulder in a soft and charming wave. Sometime during my ministrations, Snow had fallen asleep. I gathered the longest strands of her ebony hair and pinned them to the crown of her head with the carved bone comb. Then, after gentle kisses to each closed eyelid, I left to return to my king.

The dwarves came home and found a slumbering princess with shiny hair. “What is this?” they chorused as they looked around at the disheveled cottage. “And where is dinner?” Their shouting woke the girl and she sat up slowly, reluctant to arise from the first peaceful sleep that she’d had in ages. The men found the comb within her locks and held it up accusingly. “How did this get here?”

When Snow finished her tale of the old woman’s visit, the dwarves shook their heads and firmly reminded the girl of her duties. “The sweeping,” said one, rubbing the dust from his socks. “The cooking,” said another, patting his belly. There was a round of groans as the little men headed for the stairs, where they shot out their parting words in angry tones, “You get a nap and we get to go to bed hungry.” “A long day’s work and no supper on the table.” “I hope that this won’t happen again!”

And it didn’t. At least not until I came for my second visit.

The next time I brought a basket full of bright ribbons. When Snow opened the door, I thought I caught a hint of sparkle in her eyes. She offered me tea and we sat at the table, hands dancing together in the basket, picking out our favorite colors. I braided three of them into a bracelet and tied it around the princess’ wrist. I put matching ribbons in her hair and bid her to stand up so that I could replace the worn-out laces of her dress. When I finished she twirled happily; a beautiful almost-grown woman. A prince’s dream. I brought out my hand mirror to show her how lovely she looked. Snow held it to her face, entranced. Was she remembering her fascination with her old mirror at home? Had she forgotten what her own image looked like? Was she swayed by the power of the beauty that she found there? I left her, a thoroughly dazed princess, chores forgotten, and went back to my place with the king.

Of course there was trouble again when the dwarves returned home. This time, the little men blamed Snow’s negligence on me. The hungry, disgruntled dwarves headed for bed after a single, stern warning to the princess; “You are never, ever to let that woman in our house again.”

For some time after that, I limited my participation in the princess’ life to viewing it through the mirror. Things returned to normal at the dwarves’ cottage and, if Snow was caught with a dreamy expression on her face every now and again, none was worse the wear for it.

As the harvest season approached, I prepared for my next visit. The leaves did their autumnal dance, the wind became chill and I spent long precious nights under the quilts with my husband, sharing love and discussing destiny. I sent a letter to my sister with a simple request: “It is time,” I wrote, “Please send forth the prince.” One blustery day, shortly before the winter winds settled in for good, I packed my basket, kissed my king long and deeply, and then followed the swirling leaves through the forest.

The third time I came to the cottage, the girl reached out to touch my hand before she let me in. Snow’s eyes lit up when I pulled the cover back from my basket and she saw the apples, fresh from her father’s orchard. She came to my side and pressed her cheek close to mine for a long moment before she took the apple from my hand. “Mother,” she whispered, right before she took the first bite. I watched her savor the juices, eyes closed. Before she had even swallowed her first mouthful, the princess swooned. Tears slid noiselessly down my face as I watched my daughter slip into dreams. I could almost see them behind her closed lids. She was at the cottage no longer. Instead, she was in a place where she could paint and laugh, wear pretty dresses and sing, and be loved every day. Would I be able to help make those dreams come true?

I retreated back to the woods and waited for the dwarves to return home. They soon discovered Snow motionless on the floor of their cottage. Their response was immediate; panic mixed with grief mixed with anger. When the little men discovered that their attempts to revive the young girl remained fruitless, they began to mourn the loss of their housekeeper, cook and friend. In the end, they decided to place Snow in a coffin of glass, so that they could admire her beauty, always.

I kept my vigil in the woods, a solitary look-out for wandering princes. No amount of furs could keep the chill from setting into my bones and I thought longingly of the warm covers of my bed and of my husband. I almost regretted my parting words, “Do not count the days, my love, this might take some time.” Meanwhile, I ate what I could find on the fringes of the forest. It was enough, though it was never hot and it never made me feel full. As time passed slowly by, my face became wind burnt and my hair grew thin. Still I waited. Still Snow slept.

Appropriately enough, the prince arrived the day the first snowflakes fell to the ground. I did not recognize his face; he must have been sent from one of the countries neighboring my sister’s land. But he looked strong and handsome and kind. As he approached, I stumbled out to the road and raised my hand. My knees threatened to give out, but I stood tall and spoke a single word as I pointed in the direction of the sleeping princess. It came out as a raspy cough: “Snow.”

The prince rode up to the glass coffin and I watched his face as he gazed upon my daughter. The look in his eyes was enough to convince me that both of their lives would be changed on this day. He had his men remove the glass that divided him from the princess. As he reached in to draw her body closer to his, I crept up behind him. I wanted to witness this meeting, to welcome my daughter back. Was it the anticipation that made my head spin? Dizzy, I leaned in closer, and then crumpled, unconscious, to the ground.

I missed their first kiss, the kiss that dislodged the apple from my daughter’s throat. I missed the commotion that ensued when the dwarves came out to find the prince and the uncovered coffin. I missed the beginning of the procession that was to take the newly engaged couple back to the kingdom that they would soon rule together.

When I finally awoke, I found my legs bound and my wrists tied to the rail of a covered wagon at the back of the entourage. The ropes allowed for little movement, had I been strong enough to make any. Stiff and sore, I listened to the chatter around me and found out all I needed to know. Snow was as smitten with the prince as he was with her. His people were joyfully preparing for the happy event of the wedding. Preparations were also being made to dispose of the crazed old woman who came out of the woods on the day that the prince found his beloved. The dwarves had made certain that the prince was informed of her repeated attempts to harm the young princess, so care was taken to keep the soon-to-be-bride as far away from the covered wagon as possible.

My aching bones cried out against the cold and the jostling movement, but it was not the hurts of my body that I felt the most. Worse still was the pain that weighed down my heart: I knew I would never be able to see my daughter again, nor would I ever have the chance to live out my days with my husband and king.

But my daughter was on her way to the destiny of her dreams.

And that, my friend, is how I came to be here, watching the flames that heat the irons. From where I sit, I can hear the music; a wedding song, a waltz for my daughter and her new husband. In my mind’s eye I see him rise and lovingly take her hand in his.

It is time to dance.

Donna Quattrone writes mythic fiction and poetry, does Celtic artwork and is currently discovering that there is life after grad school. (UPENN) She is a native of Bucks County, PA and lives with two feline affection junkies and a multitude of books.

Image: Snowwhite by John Dickson Batten (1860-1932).