Click the following to read part 1, part 2 or part 3
The apples tumbled through the snow melt, rolling elegantly pale along the white slush. I opened the door, a woman stooped, not seeing me come out the door to help, or Donar’s watchful visage in the doorway, and began frantically pattering after them. Suddenly, we were face to face.
“Apple for your trouble, my lady,” she said demurely, dropping to a shallow curtsy.
“No thank you,” I said firmly. I’d had quite enough of strange women and their strange gifts. “I wished to but see you caught them all before they bruised.”
“Are you sure?”
“Wherever did you get apples, this time of year?” I asked her.
“Oh, if you please, my lady, these are special apples. Apples of winter, which grow white and blush red…just like your pretty cheeks.” Smiling, an apple appeared at my right cheek. I could only just make out the crimson blush that graced one side.
“I’ll fetch you a knapsack, and then you can be on your way.” Donor’s voice was stern as he retreated into the cottage depths.
“Have you not heard of the Winter Apple, my lady?” I wished she would not refer to me as her lady, not here, not in the open wood.
“No, madam, I have not.”
“No? But it is the sweetest of all apples! They are tricksy to grow, you see, they hide while others bloom. But once the snow hits, there is no mistaking them, and their flesh is better to the senses than any I’ve ever encountered. Please, you must try a bite.”
I pressed my lips together slightly.
“Never fear,” she laughed, and for the first time I wondered if I knew her. “I will show you they have no worms,” and she bit the apple she’d held to my face, then turned it to me. Her cheeks were chunky with it as she smiled and chewed, eyes merry.
“Alright,” I said. “Just a little bite.”
“Just a little bite,” she agreed.
Such a stupid thing to choke on, a bit of poisoned apple. I think I fell, but I have no way of knowing.
The man who is not an apprentice cobbler is vigilant. He wakes when the forest fog is still thick about the pine-needled ground and about his body, for he sleeps alone and on his own cloak. When he stands, his eyes remain shut until he is straight and strong before the glass coffin. Only then does he allow his eyelids to flutter open. She is the silhouette of his dreams, painted into hair and flesh and bone. Not dead. Yet still not alive.
He stares down at her until time no longer exists for him. Days are marked by the comings and goings of others. The clearing feels sacred, now. He stares, and he worries, and he loves.
And he thinks.
“I’ve got it,” the man who might be a long lost prince says this morning to the group of dwarves marching solemnly into the clearing, bright hats held at their chests.
The mean dark one glares at him.
“Well then? Out with it, you! We’ve no ideas left to contribute.”
The man who might be a long lost prince swallows, for he thinks he might be her long lost love, if you can be one when you’re not really who you say you are, because of evil magic working, and the other person isn’t either, because of their own ordeal with evil magic. He just might be her long lost love, and he never told her, never held her, never kissed her, never spent the day or the night or a life with her. He swallows again.
“I shall kiss her.”
It must be said that the mean dark one is not the only one who snuffs at this. But the dwarves do not argue.
There must be some kind of mechanism to open the coffin. Cool glass, warm wood edges. Edges, edges, and no gaps. Slowly, the one dwarf who still smiles, walks forward. Takes the man’s hand, runs it down the ebony frame. Pop!
The exchange of stale air for fresh is a noticeable one. Even the birds still themselves. Perhaps they crane over the edges of their nests to peek.
He kisses her lips, so red with life but cool as snow. They—the dwarves—are sniffling now, crying. Astonishing how sentimental those creatures became over her. Then again, perhaps not.
The lips do not move. He pulls back. A bit of her lip skin clings to his own, desperate to stay in contact as long as possible. Now upright, the man who desperately wishes he is her one true love draws a deep and shuddering breath.
So does she.
The young woman—fairest in all that gentle, sorrowing land—smiles up at him. Stirs her shoulders from side to side. Sits upright. He lifts her from the coffin, and she looks about her, laughing softly, kindly at the dwarves.
“Did you know?” she asks them sweetly, refreshed as if from a long and dreamless sleep. “Did you know he was my one true love?”
“I think we’ve ha about enough of that, Princess,” grumps the mean dark one. But he doesn’t really mean it. The poor thing couldn’t even look at flowers the whole time she was in her glassy sleep. He’s really beside himself, and she knows it. She grins, and suddenly the whole forest is smiling and singing, and they race through the slats of lights made by the tall trees until they come to the hillside before her castle.
“First my stepmother, then yours.”
“My fair Fraulein,” he laughs. “I fear my evil was not a wicked stepmother but a wicked kingdom.”
“No matter; we’ll fix it. I’ve had a great deal of time to think how,” she states, grinning. Her voice is gay. “And call me Rosa, won’t you please, darling?”
The dwarves wave wide side-to-side waves as the two run down the hill to face the Queen.