Snow White Speaks by Beate Sigriddaughter
Well, here I lie in my glass coffin, not entirely alive, but not entirely dead either, like a frozen soul waiting to thaw out, waiting to be seen, watching the world pass me by at a bewildering distance. Better that than from the midst of it all, you ask? Or maybe better from heaven or any other detached distance than not at all?
Why is there such opposition in the world to women who really live? Only in the glass casket do we seem to be entirely acceptable. Once the first excitement, the first sigh of relief of being alive—actually alive and in front of the prince!—has been sighed, everything becomes a matter of great anxiety. What should you do with this precious life? And often the anxiety gets compounded with questions like, are you good enough? Pleasing enough? Pretty enough? Sometimes it seems easier to just stay frozen under glass.
But of course I’m not in heaven. I didn’t properly die. I’m merely a matter of arrested development, or arrested enjoyment of life, if you will. Sometimes this makes me cynical, and sometimes not.
Which does make me a kind of, “I’m every woman,” doesn’t it? Except, of course, that I’m mostly still girl.
There’s one thing you can practically count on, though: there is always an apple somewhere. If there’s an apple involved, it’s always a given that something of significance is going on. If you don’t want to take my word for it, ask Eve, ask Helen of Troy.
How did I ever end up in this glass coffin?
How do I hope to get out of here?
Well, let me tell you.
They told me one wintry day my real mother was in one of her most dreamy states, sewing by herself in her room. She stepped to the window with her sewing in her hand, drawn by the beauty of the snowy world outside, dazzled by the gently falling sparkles. The window frame was ebony wood, rich black. She stood in the frame of the black wood in front of the snowflakes drifting down like a glittering curtain of peace. It was so heartrendingly beautiful that, for a moment, she stopped paying attention to what she was doing, and she inadvertently pricked her finger with her sewing needle. Three drops of her blood fell into the pristine snow on the window sill with its biting scent of winter. Three drops of blood falling on snow is usually another sign, much like the ubiquitous apple, that something significant is going on.
They tell me she wished for a daughter then, a girl with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as the ebony wood. In other words, she wished for me.
I’ve often wondered, though, if she was all by herself, how did anybody know all this to tell me about it later?
Anyway, I like to imagine that she was already pregnant with me. Maybe she was feeling sad that day. Why sad? Well, I figure she must have been. I never met her, obviously, but from the stories I’ve been told, she had a fairly melancholy nature, and sad was probably how she felt most of the time. Those who aren’t always sad are more likely to go to a party or a ball than sewing by themselves in their room. After all, she was the queen and sewing for her was pretty much optional. She could easily have asked one of her servants to do the sewing for her.
What I suspect happened was that my father was already carrying on with my stepmother. Maybe I was even my own mother’s last ditch effort at something, though I don’t know what exactly she might have been hoping for. At any rate, by the time I was born, her trust in the benefits of living must have faded and so she opted for the face-saving way out. She died in childbirth.
Nobody ever questioned that my father remarried, and so quickly at that. It was how things were done in the world.
If I ever get out of here and get married, I sure hope my marriage will be different. Don’t we all, though? One thing’s for sure: Daddy’s remarriage had nothing to do with getting a new mommy for me.
In the first place, my stepmother was almost still a child herself when Daddy married her, and then counting back even more so, of course, when he carried on with her before my real mother even died. All in all, my stepmother probably already disliked me before I was ever conceived and born.
I can just see her begging Daddy to marry her, pouting, and maybe kneeling in front of him, kissing his hand. Actually, that last scenario, hand-kissing and all, is a picture I find a bit hard to image. Could have happened, though. In any event, Daddy would have told her, no, he couldn’t possibly divorce my mother. Not even for her. It just wasn’t done. Besides, my mother was pregnant with me. Protecting unborn children was always of the highest priority. There was even a chance I could have come out as the boy child Daddy coveted, though in the end it turned out otherwise.
So for Q’An I was a dreadful inconvenience, growing into a baby in my gentle and long-suffering mother’s body and providing my mother with marriage insurance and maternal respectability while she, Q’An, was obviously providing my dad with far more entertaining companionship than puking from morning sickness and sitting in her room and sewing by herself.
Meanwhile of course my mother had already given up her spirit long before she gave up her ghost, if you know what I mean. Eventually, however, she did give up her ghost, too, and now the coast was clear for a new queen.
Q’An glittered and glided right into place with her exotic beauty. There was nothing, but nothing, maternal about her. Ever since I’ve known her, her name was Q’An, which, she insisted, had to be spelled exactly that way, “Q‑‘‑A‑n,” but it had to be pronounced “queen.” Whatever, right? She sparkled like a ballroom dance professional. There were always tons of rhinestones sculpted all over her dresses in the most fascinating patterns. Her favorite colors were greens and blues. On her fingers and at her throat she wore her real diamonds. And she usually had rhinestones or diamonds, or both, somewhere in her hair. When I was little, I loved to play with lost rhinestones that lay scattered on the castle ballroom floor. I don’t recall her ever losing a diamond.
All of which goes to show that my real mother was simply a retiring, shy lady, because there definitely was a ballroom in the castle, and there was lots of entertainment to be had, including a huge collection of music from Vivaldi to Julio Iglesias. Truly.
Well, Q’An was clearly not retiring. Not she. We had ball after ball, and afterwards I was allowed to play with the lost rhinestones I would find on the ballroom floor. There was no need for Q’An, or her servants, to find them and glue them back on, for naturally she never wore the same ball gown twice. Just as there had never really been any need for my mother to sit around in the corner or by the window and do her own sewing.
My own favorite rhinestone colors were ruby, translucent, and jet black.
Meanwhile Q’An had a fabulous mirror, flattering like a gay ballroom teacher just before he is about to sell you an expensive program. She would admire herself in front of her mirror and chant to it:
“Mirror, mirror on the wall,
who’s the most beautiful of all?”
The mirror always said, “You are, Q’An.” I only got to see her do this a few times, because she really didn’t like to have me hang around her all that much, although I loved to watch her. She was so graceful. The few times I did watch her with her mirror, she’d have this gorgeous smile on her face. I loved that smile. It was the warmest and fuzziest smile you can imagine, warmer and gentler than any smile I ever saw her give another human being. Pure bliss.
I didn’t know any of this then, of course, but you can well imagine that, with all her beauty and her status as the new queen, she had a lot to lose. Having been diddled by my Daddy while my real mother was still alive, she now experienced two things at the same time. Triumph. And fear, which is probably the hallmark of all competition. Unlike a ballroom dancer, she couldn’t rely on practice and expertise or talent to further her cause. No, she had only her beauty, which was neither earned, nor deserved, and she couldn’t actively use it to compete at all. All she could do was eliminate any and all potential competition.
In the oldest tales they claim that she was just plain vain. Well, from what I learned by lying around here in my glass confinement is that no woman is really just plain vain. We all typically end up preening for our dinner one way or another. Unless of course we’re particularly good at sewing or doing hair, in which case we can possibly earn our keep by helping someone else preen for her dinner. I can’t really see much advantage in that either.
Well, for Q’An a fate of sewing or doing other people’s hair would definitely not have been appealing. She would probably have said, “No way,” which happened to be one of her favorite expressions. But it’s never that clear cut either, because she could well have changed her mind. It’s amazing how quickly you can change your tune when you fall on hard times. Believe me, I know. I would never have dreamt I would one day be doing dishes for dwarfs.
For a good while things were okay at the castle. I grew up playing with lost rhinestones and pieces of scrap velvet, and I ardently admired Q’An. I do want to mention that playing with rhinestones was not exactly my life’s ambition, but there wasn’t much else to do, and I had to play with something. As most children are, I was bored to tears by having nothing to do except devise sparkling ways of entertaining myself.
Naturally I also learned a lot by watching Q’An. How to lift up my ribcage to good effect, how to let my head float on my neck just so. I never cared to imitate her manners, though. For one thing, she complained too much, and she accused too much. Everything was always someone else’s fault. Everybody was always ruining her stuff, from handkerchiefs to vegetables served and tea water not caught at the precisely correct moment to make her tea palatable. But I did learn to imitate her way of physically carrying herself through the world, head held high, the distance between ears and shoulders as wide as possible, shoulders back, and moving through any space as though she owned it. I’ve never worn a crown in my hair, not yet anyway, unless you count wearing little circlets of daisies, buttercups, and cornflowers. But one day I will no doubt wear a real crown. If I ever get out of this coffin, that is.
There are no guarantees, especially if you’re not quite sure if this experience is in fact life. Or is it death instead? Or is it simply being on hold, stalled in some potentially magnificent development?
When I was seven years old, the tragedy happened. Q’An stepped in front of her mirror and her mirror told her faithfully,
“You’re very beautiful, that’s true,
but Snow White is now more beautiful than you.”
I ask you, how could I not be? I never had any worries, never anything to complain about. Unless I was dreadfully bored, I was enthusiastic about almost everything in life. I welcomed whatever came my way, rhinestones, hamsters, butterflies—I loved them all. I was happy in a way she had long forgotten how to be, if she had ever known such sunny happiness in the first place.
The mirror’s judgment was unacceptable to her, of course. Not that she suspected Daddy of any leanings toward incest. After all, she was then still practically a child herself and could take care of all his needs, whatever they might turn out to be. But in a life-long practice of competing, sometimes the goal of the competition gets lost in the process, and then suddenly competition itself becomes the goal. It’s like politicians vying for power until at some point nobody even thinks to ask anymore: So then, when you have all that coveted power, what will you do with it? That’s how it was with Q’An and beauty. She needed to be the most beautiful. She needed to be the best. She needed to be every superlative possible, without ever asking why and what for. And so my own developing beauty was definitely a threat to her pie. She couldn’t possibly eat the whole pie all by herself, but she would be damned before she was going to share a piece of it. After all, she might have use for dried-out pie crumbs in some nebulous future.
She decided to get rid of me, so that I would not ever threaten her peace of mind—and her piece of the pie—again.
At first she couldn’t conceive of doing away with me herself. Like a nature lover faced with the hygienic necessity of killing a mouse in a small baby’s bedroom, it just didn’t appeal to her.
Let me jump ahead to a later time here. Time floats for me in this strange oneness of being on hold in my glass coffin.
I can understand her, you see. After all, among other things, Daddy definitely required her to be his pretty trophy, his arm candy that earned him the admiration of his fellow men for having snagged her. Which isn’t too far afield from this prince of mine. He, too, fell in love with me while I was preserved in glass, where nothing ever changes and I remain an adorable and possibly adoring child. The ultimate question is, will my prince be content once I revive and become real? Or will he regret then that I haven’t remained frozen in convenient and unforgettable immobility? Will he be able to live with the reality of me being something besides a cherished trophy?
I hope he stumbles. Or if not he, then one of his servants, please God.
I’ve been known to sing, “One day my prince will come,” but I think perhaps the truer lyrics would be, “One day my prince will stumble.” That is my wish.
I hope the glass breaks, the poisoned apple falls out of my mouth, and I will have a chance to live again.
I know it’s risky. I don’t even know what life is like for a woman. No one has taught me much. Do I sit in the corner by the window like my mother and sew? Or do I strut around in party dresses like Q’An and say yes and amen to everything that Daddy might require?
Then again, a man, no matter how princely he might be, probably doesn’t know what life with a woman entails either. No one teaches men what to expect any more than they teach women. Let’s hope for the best. Oh, come on, stumble already. Stumble, my love, so that this prison shatters. For life is better than death.
But back to the story now. The hunter was the next to come on the scene.
I was quietly playing in the garden, the way I had been taught. Be seen at most; never be heard. Best not to be in evidence at all.
I was playing with the roses. My favorite game was counting their heads, their blossoms, rather, but in my game the blossoms became heads of people. I played an elaborate elimination game with them. I counted off blossom after blossom and eliminated ones with a certain number, and the very last rose left would be my special friend and protector for that day, or for that hour if I was particularly bored and felt like playing again. At least all those numbers that I had to count and keep track off kept my brain busy.
One of Q’An’s hunters suddenly stood next to me. I never saw or heard him until his shadow fell over the roses.
“Come,” he said. “We’re going on an adventure in the forest.”
I was a little frightened of him. For one thing he was so big; or else I was just very small compared to him. He was meaty, a bit like the older Marlon Brando. For another thing, I’d never been on an adventure in the forest before, especially not with a man. He smelled funny, too, like old butter, and also a little like dog, and I’d always been afraid of dogs anyway, especially their teeth.
I went along, because I always did what I was told to do. Generally I didn’t have much choice in the matter, so I just did it out of habit.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Into the forest.”
Than what? But he didn’t seem to be in the mood for conversation. So I started signing. La-la-la-la.
It was beautiful in the forest. Some chickadees were singing. Deet-deet. Deet-deet. We walked for a very long time.
I always walked a step or so behind him. That wasn’t because I couldn’t keep up with him, but more because he obviously didn’t want to talk, so I didn’t. With most other adults I would have reached for one of their hands, which oftentimes they seemed to like also, and it usually made me feel good and safe.
But he wasn’t that kind of an adult. He was like the one thing that was completely out of place in this forest, this green magic world with sun-drenched trees and light trembling in the wind like whispers.
Suddenly he turned around.
“Come here,” he said. He held a large spotty knife in his right hand. He rubbed it on his leather apron as though to clean it. I stepped back.
“Don’t hurt me,” I whimpered. He lifted his knife. “Don’t kill me,” I begged, even before I quite realized consciously what he was planning to do.
“I have to,” he said. “It’s what she wants. She’s the boss. I have to obey.”
“Why?” I asked. Then I fell on my knees, preparing to seriously beg. It had worked for me on the few occasions when I had fallen on my knees in front of Q’An. Maybe it would with her henchman as well. He looked uncomfortable; his face was still like a poker player’s, ruddy, fleshy, and sullen. His eyes did not meet mine.
“Please let me live,” I begged. I believed that I had the power to stop him. Nobody would kill a pretty little girl like me, would they? “I’ll go away,” I said. “I promise you, I’ll go far away.”
A boar came crashing through the underbrush toward us, grunting, and the hunter threw his knife at the running, snuffling shape in a skilled arc. The boar squealed, went silent, squealed once more, a long, high sound of complaint. Then the beast gave a few muffled grunts and its massive shape shuddered. Finally it lay still on the ground.
“Run,” the hunter yelled at me.
I stood frozen in panic.
“Run!” he bellowed.
So I ran. And I never looked back.
As I ran and stumbled over roots and scratched my hands on brambles and scraped my knees on knobby wood to catch myself from falling, I imagined him cutting open the boar and taking out its liver and its lungs as proof of my demise. My stepmom had been very specific in that regard.
I imagined him arriving back in the castle, all bloody, handing over the two tokens of my death. I imagined Q’An being a little surprised that he was not greener in the face, and she probably immediately earmarked him for future difficult assignments, as he seemed to be able to move swiftly and untouched by fastidious emotion. But it never came to that, for he left her employ that same day. Nobody ever got to ask him any questions or give him further assignments. Nor could Q’An take revenge on him once she discovered that she had been deceived.
You bet I was frightened! I’m one, or was one, who was frightened to reach for matches in the dark in case a spider had settled on the match box. I was frightened to walk anywhere at night in the castle unless the whole place was lit up. With so many corners and shadows everywhere, a single candle was hardly ever enough for comfort. So suddenly I am here in this forest among all these crawling, cawing, hissing, chirping things—and the wind whipping small branches into my face. I lived because after a while you simply do. Berries, nuts, acorns. I figured if a squirrel could eat it, so could I. Fortunately it was fall.
Speaking of food, Q’An promptly had the lungs and liver boiled and salted—an interestingly plain way of having me prepared, compared with the more elaborate ways in which she was in the habit of having her other meals served. But this time, plain and simple was what she wanted. Then she sat down to eat my lungs and my liver. Or so she thought.
How fascinating she was. Even in her failure. A tragic figure, really.