And as her curse grew louder, booming through the cottage, the terrible shirts tightened on the young boys, pulled and tightened like skin around them, shredding and squeezing, ripping into tatters. They looked at themselves in terror, fearful of the Witch, her cruel voice winding round them, pulling. What was happening to them? Their shirts hurt, their arms felt like wings, stinging them, their eyes blinked back tears; and from their own mouths came shrieks. Awful, swirling in the room, blind, panicked. Out they flew, out, out, away from the Witch's triumphant screams.
The Princess saw them as she returned toward the cottage, her basket full of flowers. The Ravens circled over her, shrieking and shrieking, terrified. She dropped her backet and ran toward the open door of the cottage, then stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the Witch at the window, staring, willing her in. The Princess turned and fled for her life, losing shoe and shawl, the Witch pursuing her, a black bat with arms outstretched, possessed. Ravens above her, shrieking.
At the very instant his daughter disappeared into the forest's embrace, the King finally found his way out of its labyrinth. There was the Queen, his wife, the Witch, hurtling from the house, wild in her triumph, the path strewn with flowers and discarded garments, feathers everywhere, anguished cries of "Father! Father!" ringing in his ears. "What have you done?" he roared at the Witch. "Me?" she replied, pulling up and oozing honey. "I've done nothing."
But the King would have none of it. His voice was stern. "I ask you again, what have you done with my children?" His wife was all innocence, amazed. "Are the children here?" As she spoke, her face melted into the features of the dead Queen. The King covered his eyes with his hands, trying not to look at her. She willed him to, willed him to, but he would not. "My boys!" he cried, desperate. The three Ravens circled above them. "My boys! My daughter! Where are they? I heard my daugher cry out to me!"
The Witch's face relaxed, returned, her smile a curved sneer of ice. She whispered, she cooed. "I think you must be unwell. Are you sickening or something? Let me see. Let me soothe you." But the spell on the King was broken and he pulled her roughly to the ground. A hiss came from her lips. She looked up at him, her cruelty plain and unmasked. "Yes, you're upset," she hissed ominously. "I'll have to think about this. About what we can do with you." Then she picked up one of the lilies the Princess had gathered and fixed on it. The King stared, astounded, as the flower drooped in her grip and wound itself round her fist as a spitting, evil snake. It was the last thing he saw before the snake leapt onto his neck and began its bitter caress.
For a day and a night the Princess ran, stumbled, fled until she dropped into a dead sleep, and when she woke, she saw three Ravens before her, or perhaps she dreamed it, because they spoke to her. "Sister," they seemed to say. "Listen to us. We are your brothers. She did this to us. We are trapped. Help us. Help us. You must keep silent. You must not speak to a single soul for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days. Only then can the spell be broken." Their sister listened. "Then I shall not speak," she promised solemnly. "Please," urged the Ravens. "Please keep your word. The shirts hurt, the wings sting, the beaks shriek, the eyes cry."
And with that the Princess nodded and put her finger to her lips as a sign that she would not utter a word to a single soul for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days, until the wicked Witch's spell was broken.
And so the Princess made her home high in the hollow of an old dead tree and was silent while the weeks and weeks went by. Then, one day, a young Prince, far from home and wandering in the forest, stumbled acroess a stream. He bent down into the flowing brook to quench his thirst, and as he cupped his hands in the sparkling water, a delicate handkerchief of finest lace swept past him. The Prince reached and caught it, then craned his head upstream to seek its owner. He could see no one from where he was and, curious, he set off following the sinuous course. Eventually, he came to a place where the stream widened into a small pond, and there, washing her clothes, was the Princess. The Prince called out to her, waving her handkerchief. At this the Princess, startled and confused, hurried away into the thick of the forest. The Prince pursued her until he came to the tree into which she had disappeared. He thought she must be a Spirit or a fairy or enchanted. Her bright eyes flashed at him, but she would not reply as he questioned her.
At length, settling on the ground besides her, he took out his food and offered it to her and she was famished and had some, and soon he set off talking again: of his past, his present, and his plans; and all the while he was thinking, What eyes! All the while he was thinking, To kiss the mouth! So taken was he that he quite forgot what he was saying and blushed and laughed and blushed, and the Princess smiled, her first smile in months, a smile that wrapped all the way around her heart and his heart and squeezed them tight together. And the handsome young Prince came back every day for a week and she practiced the smile until it was ready for him before he arrived, and soon he gave up speaking too and they were content to simply sit and hug on that smile. Until one day he could not contain his thoughts and said them all. "Love," he said, and "marriage" and "always" and "ever," and the Princess came away from the tree and they kissed and that was that. But the Princess, though captivated, though thrilled, though tingling, would not speak, not a whisper.
The Prince set her up on his horse and they rode the long ride to his kingdom, and on the way he told her of his father, the King. And of his beloved mother who had died. And the Princess wanted to say "I know," she wanted to say "Mine too," but she could not, so she did not. And, at length, they were there at the gates of the palace, and-proud as you please-the Prince took the arm of his beloved and led her to meet his father and his new stepmother. King and Queen were on the balcony when the young couple arrived. The Prince embraced them, then fetched his shy sweetheart from where she lingered close by, nervous and unsure.
She could barely raise her eyes as he brought her to where they sat, smiling their greeting. The Princess curtsied shyly, then looked up and saw a kindly old King, white-bearded and twinkling. Her eyes traveled to the Queen. Her heart stopped. Her breath caught. There before her was her stepmother, the Witch. The Princess stumbled, fell on the ground, swooning.
When she came to, she was in a room of blue and beauty. The Prince sat by her, holding her hand. She told herself she'd had a nightmare, now she was dreaming. The King entered and smiled at her recovery. She'd been tired, he told her, overwhelmed. How touching, he said, how charming, and yes, she was every bit as delightful as his son had told him. The Princess fell back onto the feather pillows, relieved and relaxing for a second-yes, of course it was a nightmare!-but at that very instant the Witch appeared, carrying a tray of broth and bread and remedies, her entrance a sharp chill. The Princess could not speak, although her heart howled, but she could stare. No, she could not say, but she accused her with looks. "Killer of my father, bewitcher of my brothers," she accused, for she knew her father must be dead.
But for all her smiles of welcome, the Witch was as shocked as the Princess at their reunion. Here was a thorn come back to prick at her ambitions. And the Witch knew she must have done with her. Witch looked at Princess, Princess looked at Witch, and their purpose hardened. So the battle began. And all the while the Princess kept faith with her promise and she did not speak, and every day was a day nearer to the time when she could say all that she knew.
The days went by and the Princess married the Prince. The moon was honey for them! Never was a couple more suited, more in love. Their hearts blossomed and were full and not a minute, it seemed, before a child was coming to bless them. All night the Prince lay with his head on his wife's round belly, a hand in her hand, listening to the child growing, kicking, wriggling. The spring came and there he was: a son! A boy! Eyes like jewels, a sweet precious bundle. And the young mother would have given anything, everything, to say his name, sing to him, whisper. But she couldn't, so she didn't.
Even the Witch seemed happy. She visited the young parents and their treasure, sweeping up the baby in her arms and billing and cooing. "He has his mother's eyes," cooed the Witch. "Lovely." Then she turned and smiled at her stepson. "Let's hope he has your voice, me dear." Then, returning the infant to its mother, she made to go, leaving the Princess with an ominous farewell.
"Look after him, won't you?" she said, all sweetness. "Hug him all up, little man."
And the Princess did, of course she did. She hugged him all up. All night he lay in her arms, a warm perfect parcel. Next morning, the Princess woke with her son still tight in her embrace, shawl wrapped round him, covering his head. She gently pulled it back to kiss his tiny cheek, but what she found instead was the cold white china of a doll's face, it lips grotesquely red, its painted black eyes staring at her. The Princess opened her mouth to scream, then bit back the noise and let out gasps, long silent howls that racked her poor body. Desperately she pulled on the bell rope by her bed, its vilent clangs crying her anguish. The Prince came running to her, bursting into the room: "What? What is it?" Then he saw the doll unraveling from the shawl, the hallow fixed smile. "Where's the baby?" he asked, his heart thumping. "Darling, where is he? Where is our son?"
But the Princess didn't know, and couldn't speak, and their baby was nowhere to be found. The Palace was scoured from top to bottom, day and night, the grounds searched, the forests combed. Nothing. No sign of the tiny child. And the pain of it, the pain, intolerable. The Princess could not be comforted, was inconsolable, simply sobbed silently, covering her head with the sheets. Until, one night, she slipped from her bad and went to the garden and, with her hands, bug a small hole in the ground and, bending to the earth, screamed with all her heart. Screamed and screamed her pain into the hole until morning. And it was better. And, looking up to the sky, she saw her brothers, the Ravens, circling above her.
While the Princess was in the garden, the Witch found the Prince sitting at the window, lost in his sorrow. She comforted him, massaging his shoulders. "Your father and I are so sad for you both," she sighed, kissing his head. The Prince nodded sadly. The Witch continued to rub his shoulders, her beesting smile ugly but unseen to the Prince. "Darling," she began, but then hesitated. "Yes?" asked the Prince. But the Witch seemed reluctant to continue. "What?" he insisted. "Please. Say what it is." The Witch shrugged, then went on. "You don't think-no, this is absurd; it couldn't be-you don't think the Princess didn't...want...the little baby, perhaps, and perhaps...No, impossible." The Price was overcome with indignation. "She loved him!" he cried, wounded. "Of course she did," the Witch answered. "Stupid. Forget I said anything, please."
At that moment, the Princess returned, her cloak pulled about her, hood covering her wretchedness. The Prince went to her, drawing her to him, clutching her hands. "Dearest," he whispered as the Witch looked on. "Where have you been? I've looked everywhere." Then he noticed her hands, smudged with soil. He frowned. "What have you got on your hands?" he asked. "What's this? Is this earth?" The Princess said nothing, torn apart by her vow, bridling at the Witch's smirk. "Perhaps she's been digging a little hole," suggested the Witch. "No? Then what have you been digging?" she asked, raising an eyebrow at the confused Prince. But the Princess wouldn't not reply, though she had so much to say. The Witch shared a quizzical look with the Prince, making of the silence a terrible confession. "It must pain you so much she is dumb," said the Queen carefully.
Two years and two months after the Princess took her vow of silence, another boy was born to her. And she would not let this precious son from her sight. Not for an instant. Night after night, while all slept, she watched over him and would not sleep, until one moring exhaustion overcame her and her eyes stopped fighting and closed and the Princess sank into fitful dreams. When she woke, she feared the child stolen and clutched the tiny bundle to her, felt its warm wriggling. Relieved, she bent to kiss his sweet cheek, her own eyes barely open. Suddenly a shrill squeak sounded, and staring, incredulous, horrified, the Princess saw that in place of her son, a piglet, pink eyes glazed with fear, struggled from the shawl the bound it. Again the silent screams, the gasps, the frenzy, the despair. For neither could this second son be found.
And now whispers were whispered in the corridors of the palace. Two babies disappeared. "what kind of mother," the whispers asked, "who loses babies, who will not speak?" "Cursed," they said, these gossips. "Bewitched."
It was several weeks later that the Prince, confused, miserable, went to see his stepmother, high in her tower. As he entered her room, she slammed shut a huge book covered with strange signs and inscriptions. Dust flew from it. She smiled at him, unclipping her hair, which fell gray and white to her shoulders. Cats ran under her table, and other creatures the Prince could not have named had he seen them, which he hadn't. A pot steamed on the fire and gave off a sweet smell like incense, which made the Prince's eyes, still stinging from his tears, weep all over again.
He said nothing, but went to her, and they embaced, his tears, her soothing and syrup. The Prince stared ahead as he braced himself to confide his worse fears. "You know, before, when my first son-" He stopped. "You know you asked...and I said, I said impossible...but now, now I don't know and I'm frightened." The Witch nodded, holding him close, nodding, murming. "Now she is with child again," the Prince continued, "I could not bear..." His voice trailed away, tears consuming him. The Witch sighed his support. "Sh-h-h," she whispered. "I know. When the time comes, we must watch closely. We must love her very much but watch her closely. Don't worry. I'm here. Sh-h-h." She mothered him, wrapping him in her web.
The time came and the Princess gave birth to a third son, more exquisite still, delicate, perfect. the Prince was with her, and together they were torn between joy and terror as they gazed on their little miracle. In the palace, in the kingdom, celebrations were muted. No one dared risk a raised glass, a toast, a clap on the back. The whole world seemed to hold its breath. The Prince suggested to his wife that he should take his son away, somewhere secret, at least for a while. This echo of her husband's solution and its fatal results served only to unsettle the Princess more, and she could not keep her hands from trembling. She shook her head violently, rejecting the Prince's suggestion, she lying in her bed, the baby in her arms, the Prince sitting beside her. At her refusal, the Prince stood up and walked up to the door, and the Princess could just see the shadowy presence of the Witch standing in the doorway, could just pick out a few of the words that passed between her husband and his malevolent stepmother.
"I told you she wouldn't agree to it," she heard the Prince say. "Of couse," said the Witch, smiling. "Well, stay beside her until the morning and watch close." Then the Witch walked confidently into the bedchamber and leaned over the bed. "Little lamb," she addressed the baby, "don't you worry. Your father will watch over you." As she picked up the baby to hold, the Princess snatched him away, clutching him for dear life. "Ah," sighed the Witch, frowning at the Prince. "Never mind." She left them there in the failing light, the flame from her torch dancing and guttering down the long passages to her tower.
And so the young couple sat, silent, their hearts full to bursting, each feeling alone, frightened, watching their tiny child, his fingers like stars. Both mother prayed and father prayed, crouched like sentries over the cradle. I will not sleep, they said to themselves; I will never close my eyes until the child is safe. And for hours they sat in grim resolve, lighting candle after candle, reciting their prayers, heads reeling...but the strain-the tiredness of the birth-washed over them, huge waves washing over them, lulling them to sleep, and for a minute, two minutes, three, they slept. And then the Prince woke.
At his side his wife lay, eyes closed. Her hair was gray; her face was gray. In her arms the shawl had unraveled. The Prince began to wail, an inhumane sound, which shocked the Princess awake. As she started, sitting bolt upright, the shawl fell away from her and ashes floated up from it, ashes everywhere, filling the room. "What have you done?" cried the husband in a voice that snapped from suspicion to hatred, his rage welling up in huge sobs. "What have you done with my children?" She could not answer him and she wanted, had she wished to break her promise, for her own voice was lost in her private nightmare. Tears ran through the gray dust on her face as the Prince, wild, tormented, railed at her for the murder of his sons.
The King charged in, the Witch at his heels, and there they all were, surrounding the paralyzed Princess, horrified at the scene. The Witch swept up the shawl and let the ashes slide from it. "Oh dear," she whispered in a voice heavy with shock. The Prince, maddened, spat out his accusation: "She's a Witch. You were right all along. She is a Witch." He covered his face with his hands. "My poor babies!" came his despairing cry. "My poor sons." His stepmother, the real Witch, nodded, sighed, spoke into her husband's ear. The King listened, choking his own hot rage. "Yes," he agreed. "Yes, she must be burned as a Witch." And the Witch, hardly able to suppress her triumph, glowing with it, added but a single word: "Tomorrow."
And so it was ordered that three years, three months, three weeks and three days after she had taken her vow of silence, the poor innocent Princess would be burned at the stake as a Witch.
As they prepared the bonfire, she stared from her window at the sundial in the courtyard, still far from the midday when the fire was to be lit. And she hardly cared, with all that was lost: a father, a mother, her brothers, her babies, the love of a husband. She hardly cared for her own poor body. She was glad to be silent. She had nothing more to say to the cruel world. And at last they came for her and they took her to the place and they tied her to the stake. As the sundial neared the line of twelve, it was the Witch herself who lit the torch and carried it toward the bundles of hay and twigs, the flame aloft.
And then three ravens flew above, wheeling and diving and crashing into the Witch, pecking at her eyes, screeching the while, "The wings sting, the shirts hurt, the beaks shriek, the eyes cry!" And she dropped the torch on herself, screaming as its fire enveloped her. In a second she was nothing but ashes and dust and fragments. A silence fell on the crowd as they looked on, aghast, as the Ravens circled. A silence so profound that nothing could be heard but the flapping of their wings in the sharp sunlight. Until a strange and sudden sudden sound shocked the crowd from their trance. A voice was crying out, in release. A voice locked in, volcanic, suddenly erupting into the air: "My brothers! My brothers!"
It was the Princess, free at last to speak and tell all. "My brothers! My brothers!" she cried, and with that the three Ravens fell from the sky, their wings dropping, feathers falling, and by the time they landed, they were birds no longer and there before the loyal sister Princess were her three brothers.
They ran to her and pulled her from the bonfire and hugged and kissed her, and now she could not speak for crying, and the Prince, her husband, came to her and wept with her, understanding nothing until the brothers pulled them both to a place nearby where three other brothers played: a boy, a toddler, and a tiny infant. For, of course, it was the Witch who had stolen the children away. She had cast them, newborn down a deep, dark well. But the Ravens, who watched everything, had caught them up and cared for them safe for this very moment when they might reunited with their parents. Oh, for every tear they wept before, Prince and Princess now shed a thousand, clutching their children whom they had supposed lost, hearts full to breaking. They fell to their knees and praised Heaven. For all was restored. And good held sway. The girl who had kept faith and had but one face for everyone was rewarded with sons and brothers and a sweetheart and a crown. And she practiced her smile until it was perfect.
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