This story is paired with “Snow White” from Children’s and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
The house seemed smaller. Not so, she thought. It’s that I grew. The trees crowded just as close to the clearing, and the brook across one corner of the field was unchanged. The house simply seemed smaller than her memory of it.
Gathered just outside the front door, fidgeting in their waiting, the old men seemed no smaller. But, then, they had always been small. Even in her early adolescence, she had towered above them. Out of old habit, she counted them, then counted again. Only six. Where’s . . . No, there are only six now. She stepped down from the carriage, the footman taking her hand as she alighted ahead of her husband. Arranged her skirts. Combed the simply ringed left hand through her hair to smooth away the long journey. Set aside propriety and status to run across the lawn and bring the old friends close in her embrace.
Their greetings came in a tumble of loud, deep voices. “Good morning, dear.” (It was by now mid-afternoon.) “You look like a queen or something!” “Uh, hello, Your Majesty.” “Don’t squeeze so hard!” (And of course she squeezed harder in reply.) “You look fit as ever. When’s the baby due?” “Bless me!”
“It’s so good to see you again,” she replied. I almost said ‘all of you,’ but there’ll never really be an ‘all’ again, will there? “It’s been too long since you came to the castle. Still four months to go, dear doctor. And, yes, I guess I do look like a queen or something, but don’t you dare call me ‘your Majesty’ again, or I’ll force you to eat my cooking.” They all laughed at that, except the dullard (who looked puzzled) and the shy one (who looked, well, shy). Her cooking had been the high point of each day together. Since she left, the oldest and crankiest of them all had gone back to complaining about every morsel he fed his ample stomach.
Standing, she took her husband’s hand in hers. “You remember my prince, of course.” The old men bowed to the king, who bowed deeply in return, and the rumble-tumble of voices came again as the seven men embraced. Snow White stepped back to watch and smile. No bigger than children, but their voices are as old and deep as the mines.
The physician gently shooed away a number of rabbits and bluebirds that had come to watch the reunion. “The great-grandchildren of the grandchildren of the ones you knew,” he explained to her. “I think you’re a tale handed down by each generation.” Always the mannered one, he opened the door and gestured for the visitors to enter first. The once-prince, never having been inside, bumped his head on the low lintel. The once-girl ducked her head on crossing the threshold, another habit undulled by time.
* * *
Queen and husband settled on the window seat, where she had always rested after her chores were done in the evening and before the honest fatigue of the day forced them all to their beds. Wine and glasses were passed; pipes were packed and lit. Their hosts settled in six small armchairs, leaving the empty seventh at the apex of the rough semi-circle they formed.
The eight talked until the afternoon sun drew close to the horizon. Birds watched them from the outside sills of the windows, chirping a translation of human words to the squirrels, rabbits, and lately arrived opossum family who sat nearby in the grass. Rustling canvas and muffled hammers, the sounds of tents and a pavilion being raised for the guests and their attendants, briefly provided background music. The gathered friends spoke of earlier days, of yesterday and the day before, of the years between them. Although it was present in every word and look, they did not speak of the death that brought them together again.
Over their objections (which were half-hearted at most, if truth be known), Snow White prepared and served supper for the men who had once taken her in and tried to protect her. It was simple fare: cold soup, thick sandwiches of barley bread and goat’s cheese, rough-blown bottles of shed ale pulled from the brook where they had chilled since morning. Rice pudding with thickened cream and freshly ground cinnamon provided a dessert treat. Simple, but there was never such feasting and joy of company in any sovereign’s hall. “Love makes any the fairest of them all,” said the dullard, unexpectedly and to everyone’s delight.
The lanterns and fire were lit against the darkness. Peach brandy, more pipes, more talk. At last the party retired, the old men to their small beds, the queen and king to their pavilion. Snores and whispers passed each other on the lawn, and settled into sleepers’ deep dreams.
* * *
She stood before the morning-lit mirror and absent-mindedly brushed her hair. The glass was set above a window. One of the men had put it there as a gift to Snow White when she lived there, seeing that she was too tall to comfortably use a mirror set for his slight height. That was in the past, before she learned the danger of some mirrors. In the present, she was unexpectedly caught in reflections on that other mirror.
It never told a lie, and she never knew how to tell the truth. Father certainly made the old witch dance when I came home. Her iron shoes were heated red, and then she burned for the hatred she burned with. It was only a moment before she let go her skirts with the pain, and they caught fire to consume her.
A frown formed. It spread until it became her whole face.
What else was there to do? My stepmother broke the holiest of laws when she tried to kill me, even if I wasn’t her birth-daughter. It was something that couldn’t be forgiven her. Not even as wife to a king. “For the encouragement of others,” as they say.
The brush fell to the floor, unnoticed. Her hands rested limply on the edge of the sink.
Should we have enjoyed her dance so much?
* * *
The eight gathered on the front lawn. A pair of simple, wooden sawhorses had been set near the path leading into the forest, and on it rested the coffin of their friend. This was the first Snow White had seen of the body, and she found it harder than anticipated to remember him as he had been in life. I know you’re not there. It’s just the shell you used, and you’re someplace else. But the sight hurts my heart so much. Please move. Please tell me the reality is different. She wiped tears away with the back of her hands, blew her nose on a proffered handkerchief without thinking of the use it had already seen. That done, she smiled and joined the others in their circle around the coffin.
They linked hands. There would be time for other words at the grave. Now, they would dance and sing for his memory and spirit:
Around the ring with rosies,
And baskets full of posies,
Lilacs, and lilies.
We all fall down.
Moo-cows in the meadows.
Chipmunks in the trees.
We jump back up
With a one, two, three!
They laughed and circled, sprawled and leapt, until breathless. When they recovered, the glass coffin was carefully lifted from the cross-bucks and placed on a simple, hand-drawn cart. That was me, once, dead and displayed. The king had offered the use of his finest horses and a royal caisson as carriage, but the men and Snow White had politely and firmly been of one mind on the matter. With Snow White and her husband behind, a miner pulling at either shaft, and the other four striking a tune on horns and snare, the procession began.
* * *
And, oh, what a procession it was! Their ranks grew again, and yet again, as people stepped onto the trail and joined them. It seemed to her, as the morning passed, that all who lived in the woods were come, score upon score, to be part of this day. The butcher, the baker. The rich couple, the money-poor workers, the beggar, the thief. The candlestick maker. The smithy and her apprentice, the animal healer, the lawyer. As the music sounded light against the dark forest, Snow White danced along the path, first to this group, then to that solitary walker, and off to another. Flirting, consoling, singing. Trading memories, creating new ones. She wore a rough-made peasant dress, and went bare-footed in the short grass of the trail. Her raven hair hung loose over her shoulders, swung across her face as she twirled. “Every inch a queen,” the forest folk would tell their grandchildren. By contrast, her husband projected a different sort of regal air, dressed in his station’s red tunic and trousers; his boots shone like mirrors in the sun. As much as they loved him for loving her, he would figure little in their tales of the funeral.
The king caught Snow White’s attention at one point, and asked. “Who are all these folk? I thought your woods were nearly empty and trackless.”
“They were, once upon a time. Only miners and woodsmen lived here. Now they’re home to the dispossessed. When my stepmother wed my father, she held him in thrall, and convinced him to raise taxes and tariffs. So many lost all they had, or became traitors when they stood against the wrongs, and were forced to move away from the city and towns.”
“But you’re queen now. All that has changed. Why don’t they come back to their old homes?”
“Because they’ve learned to love their lives here far better than those they left. And they know that, even here, far removed from so much, I still love them.” She skipped ahead, stopped, and when he’d caught up continued, “It seems so odd at times. You’re the king of another realm, and there I’m just your wife, while I’m queen here, and you’re merely my consort.” Kissing him quickly on the cheek, then sticking out her tongue and making a face to tease him, she danced away again.
A short while later, as they walked hand-in-hand again, her husband exclaimed, “Good heavens! That man just took the baker’s purse!” The king moved to intervene, but Snow White restrained him with a smile.
“Of course he did. Picking pockets is what a thief does on his day off. He’ll return it by and by. Always does. The baker will thank him, and give him a small reward. They always do.”
“But, then, why? I mean, why does he do it, and why do they let him?” The king was obviously confused and dismayed.
“He does it for the challenge, and they accept it as a reminder that the things we hold are only temporary.” Like the lives we think so dear. She sighed. “Do you know what the thief says he’ll do first when he gets to Heaven? Steal the dullard’s wits back from God.” Another sigh became a rich laugh, and the tuba player echoed the music.
The assembly broke fast as they walked, adding berries from the bushes they passed to sweet bread, new cheese, and skins of dandelion wine. Some of the smaller animals followed at a distance, giving quiet thanks to their gods for the crumbs that marked the trail. Above them all, the sun led the coffin’s way to the mountains.
* * *
It was early afternoon when they arrived.
The miners’ cemetery sat on a small rise overlooking the base of the central mountain and the timber-shored entrance to the tunnels that wove within its weight. While the majority of the procession continued to the foot of the mountain, others broke off and entered the graveyard. Some stood for a moment at the graves of friends and relatives before rejoining the main group. Others tended to the grass at a significant plot, or placed tokens. A few sat in the shade of a favorite tree while conversing with their departed. Children ran among the markers, playing tag and run-goose-run; nobody thought it necessary to silence them. The dead don’t mind, she thought, except that it might make them jealous for what they had.
A dais stood atop a wooden platform near the shaft entrance. In front of the stage were placed cross-bucks, and here the glass coffin was laid with care. As the pallbearers stepped away, people settled themselves on the grass and dirt of the field that fronted the platform. They slowly fell silent, concluding conversations and then waiting for the eulogies to begin.
Out of deference to the king as guest, he had the honor of speaking first. Surrounded by strangers, uncomfortable in his uniform under the afternoon sun, he appeared somewhat stiff and uncertain as he mounted the stage and stood behind the coffin. His few words, however, belied any unease he might have felt.
“I only met Harry a few times. I know little about him. Knowing that he loved my wife, and what he did for her, I’m sure that his being among us was for good purpose. May our mourners be able to say that of us when the time comes.
“I’m humbled that you let me join you today, to remember and honor our friend.”
There was no applause as he stepped down, merely a scattered murmur of approval. The raucous celebration of the trip to the mines might be repeated on the return journey, but for now the day had turned solemn and subdued.
* * *
Each took their turn before the crowd. They spoke of what the dead man had meant to them, done for them, and left as his legacy. It seemed that the occasion brought out something long-hidden in each of the speakers. The doctor stammered and repeated himself in the face of something he could not cure or mend. The shy one stood straight and was eloquent. The dullard recalled early days as if they had just passed. Not a sneeze sounded or a yawn interrupted. Most surprising to all, though, was the curmudgeon’s eulogy.
“You don’t know this. And if I find out you’ve told anybody, I’ll be sure it goes hard for you.” He smiled, an event so rare that many stared in wonder before smiling cautiously in return. “Harry was my brother. I don’t mean he was my friend, or a fellow miner, or any of that. He was all of that, and more. Harry was my brother. We were twins.”
“If I was a grumpy young man, which seems likely since I’m now a very grumpy old man, it was because of him. The more cheerful he became, the more it seemed I had to balance the scales. A lot of distance built between us, and everybody figured we must hate each other. We even thought so at times.
“Harry bridged that distance at the end. You’ve all heard the story of the collapse down in Number Three, and you all know Harry died there. He didn’t have to. When the wall slid, he was closest to daylight. Instead of leading the retreat, he went farther in, to make sure all of us could get out.” Massive, callused hands wiped at tear-filled eyes. “My brother saved all of us, and I was the last one he shoved out of the way before the slide covered him. I know he loved life and wasn’t in a hurry to die, but he was willing to for us.
“God love you, Harry, as we do and better. I hope Heaven’s ready for your sense of life. We could sure use it down here again.”
Even the babies stopped their fussing. And, if there were still some dry eyes when the speaker stepped down, there were no hearts that weren’t filled with tears.
* * *
What do I say after that? I could see in their faces, when they thought none were looking, that there was a bond. But even I couldn’t see just how strong it was. Ah, Harry. You proved yourself one last time. Can any of us even start to imagine what you were thinking as the darkness came?
She stepped to her place on the platform. All eyes were on her, all ears ready for her. And then she stepped down. Placed one hand atop the glass coffin, the other on the swelling belly that held her future. Drew a breath deeper than any since her first.
“None of us will live ever-after. Perhaps we can help each other live happily.”
* * *
The body was taken from the glass coffin and placed gently atop a firewood stack. Snow White lit a torch from the lantern burning at the entrance to the mines. Touched hers to that held by each of the companions. By turns, the eight dipped their flames against the bier. As the wood caught, flamed and crackled merrily, the old men and the royal couple led the assembly’s way to the wooded path and the joyous walk home.