This story is a re-imagining of Rapunzel, as told by the Brothers Grimm (Canterbury Classics edition)
It began with a peculiar blossom. The winter had been long and frigid and barren, but for a tiny blossoming plant outside her window. The plant belonged to the woman across the way, Lady Gothella; but once it caught Alexandria’s eye, it was all she could bare to look away for brief moments at a time. Its evergreen leaves poked through the whiteness of the land; the red of its berries a stark contrast that drew her in. The days passed slowly and Alexandria found herself losing interest in all of her activities and chores — entirely consumed by the task of staring hungrily out her window.
John grew fearful as he watched his wife slip away. Everything that made her who she was seemed to exist only as a shadow behind her eyes. Her obsession with the plant had swallowed her whole, and he wondered what would become of the child that grew inside of her.
“What can I do?” he asked, a crack as thin as a strand of silk cutting through his voice.
“But how does it survive the ice and the cold out there? I don’t understand,” was all she replied. Her eyes did not meet is. Her voice was not familiar. “If I consume it, will it save me?”
The question could have been mistaken for nonsense, but instead, it thrust through John’s heart with such clarity he thought his chest might shatter.
“It just might, my love. It just might.” A hopeful smile crept over him as he made up his mind about how he would fix his beloved.
That night, John wrapped his fist around a pair of shiny, silver shears, and set out to collect his wife some holly.
Now, Lady Gothella was not a friendly woman. This was well known to John. He had no qualms with stealing from her, though his desire was not to be caught. But, as he stalked across his own yard into hers, each footstep calculated and patient, he was unaware that her eyes had already been locked on him. A quiver of excitement crawled up Lady Gothella’s spine and a cackle brewed in her guts. Her plan had worked, the foolish man was sneaking right into her trap. She had planted the holly with a powerful enchantment that would capture the heart of an unhappy soul. Alexandria was a perfect target. Her longing for the plant would become insatiable, until she was all but hollow. Until she, and the one who loved her most, would be willing to do anything for it.
“There is a thief in my midst, he will pay dearly.”
John swung around, jolted by the woman’s voice which creaked like an old, lonely rocking chair.
He froze, first from shock, and then from a sudden paralysis that gripped his ankles, holding him deep in the snow.
“La-Lady Gothella, please. I apologize for my intrusion. I only —”
“You only thought you were entitled to take what you desire. To steal from my precious garden. A garden that I have slaved over, not for the likes of you.”
Heat washed over John, sweat pooling at his brow and frosting over in the cold winter night’s wind. The woman’s smile sent fear rushing through his blood. Something about it was unnatural.
“I’m sorry. It was for my wife. She wishes to consume the plant. She believes it can save her.”
“It can.” Her whisper was hoarse and layered with secrets John could not discern.
“But — But how?” he stammered.
“Do you want to save your wife?”
John realized then that he had been brought to his knees, though he wasn’t sure when. The snow held him tight, squeezing and gripping and urging him to comply.
Lady Gothella was now on her knees as well, though John could see this was completely of her own will. She wanted to look deep into his eyes. And when she did, she offered him a deal.
“Your wife may have a basket full of my holly. And it will save her life. And as repayment, you will give me the child she grows.”
John could feel his eyes darken. His ears plugged with disbelief. He felt faint. And terrified. He wanted to ask her why. He wanted to beg of her no. But all he could manage was a shaky promise in the form of a nod.
The rest of the winter whisked by. Alexandria spent her days in bed, happily gobbling boughs of holly. Her appetite was voracious and in the spring, when she gave birth to a baby girl, she could not even find it in herself to weep. The price to pay seemed so small for the happiness and warmth the holly had provided. John could not understand it, but found that he was only glad to have the whole ordeal behind them.
“Holly. Yes, Holly. That is your name,” Lady Gothella said into the child’s ear. Little Holly looked up at her, taking in the thick and viscous tone of her voice. And then she reached up, and locked her five fingers around a single one of Lady Gothella’s. From that moment on, it would be just this mother and just this child, forever. But forever, it seemed, only lasted twelve winters.
For on the eve of her thirteenth year, Holly made a discovery. Eyes. Piercing, voyeuristic eyes, peering through her window.
“Someone is watching me,” she thought to herself.
Holly was all alone, deep in her underground labyrinth, as she often was. The moon was high, casting a splash of silvery light that spilled through the sky and fell on the shimmering snow-covered earth. There was just enough light for Holly to see that the snow had been disturbed. Prying eyes and shuffling feet. Someone was out there. Curious, as any girl of captivity might be, Holly did the unthinkable. Armed with only a glowing torch, she opened the door to the maze and began the journey through to the other side. An unknown side she had never seen, but knew too well existed. It was from where Mother emerged each morning, each afternoon, and each night. On this particular night, though, Holly knew Mother was not home. She had taken a trip “out there,” as they called it. The outside world to which Holly was not allowed to belong.
Holly listened to the quiet echoes of her feet slapping against the concrete floor. She listened to the sound of her steady breath. She felt the light thump of her heart. The maze was long and dark and damp. But Holly had no complaints. She found it was enjoyable to know she was doing a thing she had never done before. Though she could not explain it, the small act of defiance felt entirely natural.
When she emerged out of the labyrinth and into the other side she was surprised to find it so dark. Her little lantern was suddenly of little consequence. She looked around and spotted a glowing light in the distance. She followed this light and was taken to a smaller room, brightened by a roaring fire. And at the front of this room was a door. A big door. A big door that Holly knew led to the out there.
Without hesitance, she pulled it open, letting in the abrasively crisp air.
“Hello?” she called into the night. “You are watching me. I want to know why.”
A moment later, she could hear a rustling of wet evergreen leaves and out popped a strange sight. A tall and scraggly man unfolded nervously before her. Holly squinted to get a better sight of him. She had never laid her eyes upon a man, and did not know what to expect.
“Hello,” the man replied. He kept his distance, fiddling with the brim of a hat he removed in her presence. “My name is John. You are my daughter.”
Holly cocked her eye suspiciously, and tried to understand what such a statement would mean.
“Come in,” she finally said.
John followed her into the foyer and his breath caught in his throat when he saw her face in the light. Having never seen a mirror, Holly did not know that she shared his eyes. But she did. She also did not know that she shared Alexandria’s nose, but that was so, as well.
“If you are my father, who is my mother?”
This question was not a test, nor a trick. Holly knew Lady Gothella to be her Mother. But she also knew she had not grown inside of her. She asked out of genuine desire to know. When John parted his lips to reply, he felt the sting of tears clawing their way up his throat.
“The woman you call your mother killed her. She ate the holly I exchanged you for, and then the holly ate her from the inside out. She died only days after you were born and taken so far away from us.”
Holly thought on this for a moment, and then spoke: “It seems to me, then, that you killed her.” She spoke with a calm voice and a straight-face; so matter-of-factly. “If, as you say, you made the exchange.”
John dipped his head in shame. “You are right. Perhaps more than one party is to blame. For that, I am so sorry. But I have come to undo my mistakes. To take you home. To save you.”
Holly let her eyes wander over him, head to toe and back to head. She did not feel she needed saving. Though, she did feel an opportunity was in her midst.
“You would take me away? To the out there?”
“Yes,” he nodded ferociously. His eagerness was intriguing to the girl he called his daughter.
“Return in three nights, just when the moon begins to drop. Mother will be away again. Bring me boots and a cloak, for I have no way to stay warm out there.” She glanced behind him, back through the open doorway. All she could see was a never-ending blackness. It called to her. “I will leave with you then, of my own will.”
John dropped to his knees and wept tears of joy. He vowed to return in three nights.
On the night John was to arrive, Mother visited the labyrinth.
“I have to go on another special trip, out there. I will be back by daybreak.”
Lady Gothella kissed Holly goodbye, and disappeared again. Holly counted to one hundred, and then followed in Mother’s footsteps. When she wandered out of the labyrinth’s mouth, she called to Mother, who had not yet left. Lady Gothella whirled around, eyes a fury.
“What are you doing in here?”
“I’ve come to wait for my father.”
Lady Gothella’s eyes burned a scornful red.
“What did you say?”
“He’s coming to take me to the out there.” She spoke with a casual ease that confused Lady Gothella.
“However would you get such a wretched idea?”
“I made her a promise.”
The voice was John’s, of course. He had entered just then, holding small boots and a small heavy cloak. Holly smiled, a peculiar smile that made Lady Gothella grow nervous.
“You!” she spat, turning to face John. “You forget we had a deal? The girl is mine. Fair and square.”
“I don’t forget. Only, you did not hold up your end. Your holly did not save my wife. It killed her. The girl is mine.”
John’s voice quaked, though he tried to remain strong in front of his dear child. Lady Gothella saw straight through to his weakness. That horrible cackle from deep inside of her ignited. Its high pitch broke through the room and rained over them like a nightmare.
“The girl will never be yours.” She faced Holly. “You betray me. Now, you will watch your father die and know it is you who have killed him.”
Holly did not blink nor fret. She watched as Mother put John in an invisible grip that proceeded to squeeze the life out of him. As he squealed and squirmed, his arms went limp, and her precious boots and cloak fell to the floor. She walked over to his side and bent down to scoop them up. As she rose, she caught his eyes. Desperate, peering eyes. They begged her for something, though he did not care to know what. She pulled on the boots, and draped herself in her cloak. She looked at Mother, who was blinded by rage and violence. She sighed, wishing furtively that she could give her a proper goodbye. Alas, that could not be.
She stepped into the out there. The cold skittered into her bones, awaking them for the first time. Holly took a deep breath in through her nose, and watched almost gleefully as the stream of fog released through her lips. Beside her doorstep was a large bush blanketed in fresh snow. But through the snow poked two boughs of holly. She plucked them and gently twisted them into her twinned braids. And then, Holly walked out into the snow and never looked back.
© Shyla Fairfax-Owen
Thanks for reading! I have been wanting to write a collection of Grimm re-tellings for quite some time now. I always gravitate more towards faiytales in the winter; something about the cold, gothic tone of the originals draws me in this time of year. This story marks the first of what I hope is many in what I am affectionately calling my Grimm Project. I plan to share a few, and I hope you enjoy them.
All the best this holiday season!