Snow White Learns Witchcraft
by Theodora Goss
One day she looked into her mother’s mirror.
The face looking back was unavoidably old,
with wrinkles around the eyes and mouth. I’ve smiled
a lot, she thought. Laughed less, and cried a little.
A decent life, considered altogether.
She’d never asked it the fatal question that leads
to a murderous heart and red-hot iron shoes.
But now, being curious, when it scarcely mattered,
she recited Mirror, mirror, and asked the question:
Who is the fairest? Would it be her daughter?
No, the mirror told her. Some peasant girl
in a mountain village she’d never even heard of.
Well, let her be fairest. It wasn’t so wonderful
being fairest. Sure, you got to marry the prince,
at least if you were royal, or become his mistress
if you weren’t, because princes don’t marry commoners,
whatever the stories tell you. It meant your mother,
whose skin was soft and smelled of parma violets,
who watched your father with a jealous eye,
might try to eat your heart, metaphorically —
or not. It meant the huntsman sent to kill you
would try to grab and kiss you before you ran
into the darkness of the sheltering forest.
How comfortable it was to live with dwarves
who didn’t find her particularly attractive.
Seven brothers to whom she was just a child, and then,
once she grew tall, an ungainly adolescent,
unlike the shy, delicate dwarf women
who lived deep in the forest. She was constantly tripping
over the child-sized furniture they carved
with patterns of hearts and flowers on winter evenings.
She remembers when the peddler woman came
to her door with laces, a comb, and then an apple.
How pretty you are, my dear, the peddler told her.
It was the first time anyone had said
that she was pretty since she left the castle.
She didn’t recognize her. And if she had?
Mother? She would have said. Mother, is that you?
How would her mother have answered? Sometimes she wishes
the prince had left her sleeping in the coffin.
He claimed he woke her up with true love’s kiss.
The dwarves said actually his footman tripped
and jogged the apple out. She prefers that version.
It feels less burdensome, less like she owes him.
Because she never forgave him for the shoes,
red-hot iron, and her mother dancing in them,
the smell of burning flesh. She still has nightmares.
It wasn’t supposed to be fatal, he insisted.
Just teach her a lesson. Give her blisters or boils,
make her repent her actions. No one dies
from dancing in iron shoes. She must have had
some sort of heart condition. And after all,
the woman did try to kill you. She didn’t answer.
And so she inherited her mother’s mirror,
but never consulted it, knowing too well
the price of coveting beauty. She watched her daughter
grow up, made sure the girl could run and fight,
because princesses need protecting, and sometimes princes
are worse than useless. When her husband died,
she went into mourning, secretly relieved
that it was over: a woman’s useful life,
nurturing, procreative. Now, she thinks,
I’ll go to the house by the seashore where in summer
we would take the children (really a small castle),
with maybe one servant. There, I will grow old,
wrinkled and whiskered. My hair as white as snow,
my lips thin and bloodless, my skin mottled.
I’ll walk along the shore collecting shells,
read all the books I’ve never had the time for,
and study witchcraft. What should women do
when they grow old and useless? Become witches.
It’s the only role you get to write yourself.
I’ll learn the words to spells out of old books,
grow poisonous herbs and practice curdling milk,
cast evil eyes. I’ll summon a familiar:
black cat or toad. I’ll tell my grandchildren
fairy tales in which princesses slay dragons
or wicked fairies live happily ever after.
I’ll talk to birds, and they’ll talk back to me.
Or snakes — the snakes might be more interesting.
This is the way the story ends, she thinks.
It ends. And then you get to write your own story.
(The image is The Enchanted Wood by Helen Jacobs.)