Once upon a time fairy-tale weddings heralded happy ever afters. For the little flower girl the wedding
trumpeted the dawn of a happy never after.
It had been such a beautiful day and Mummy, Queen for
the day, had been very excited. At least, Mariel had interpreted the higher pitched snappishness as such.
no! Something blue! Something small! Not your cardigan, that’s just stup- sorry! I – there’s a lot to do
today, sweetie, I know you want to help, but – I know, go in my lingerie drawer and get me a garter. Remember what one
of them is? That’s right, a crown for your leg. You do have a funny way of categorizing things. Look for a blue one.’
The blue lingerie had made its way into her dressing-up box. Mummy said she looked like a princess in
sapphire-satin. Mariel emerged from her rootling wearing a lace tiara in sky-blue. ‘Ta dah!’
of course. Your crown. Well remembered. Pass it here, darling. Oh, oh shit! Buttons. I forgot we gave it jewels. Run and get
me the tiny scissors I use for sewing. Don’t run back with them! Got to get rid of these buttons. Dennis is phobic about
buttons. He’d be so mad if I showed up on my wedding day flaunting buttons at him. Hey, while you’re at it, take
that tin of buttons up to your room. Hide them under the bed or somewhere he’ll never find them. And don’t play
with them when he’s in the house. They make him mental.’
Lots of things made Dennis
mental, Mariel and Mummy had discovered after the wedding flowers withered.
Mummy wanted to keep
Dennis from being angry with them. It turned her into a wicked stepmother. Not to the fat baby Jack of Hearts, but to the
decomposing floral bouquet that had been her princess.
She was rather proud of that phrase. In
the dark of the wardrobe, by the light of the torch, she scribbled it down in her scraps-book. It was mostly receipts from
supermarkets. They were long enough to get whole stories on the back. Diaries, stories, writing stuff down, going to school
– all made Dennis mental. At least when Mariel did it. Since Dennis had made her his living doll.
hadn’t wanted to go to work in the evenings, but Dennis had lost his job again, so he said he’d be king of the
house. Baby Jack’s lonely screams stole into the neighbour’s ears so they couldn’t hear the crying doll
bleeding the princess dry.
King Dennis said it was their secret. She mustn’t tell Mummy. Mummy
would be jealous. That night he put her in Mummy’s closet. The one with the slats to peep through. He had tied her up,
with silk scarves gently, but gagged so she wouldn’t cry out. On a half-shelf so she mustn’t move and fall. He
wanted to show her how much Mummy wanted him. He wanted her to learn how to please him better than Mummy. That would take
the pain away.
She could never please him enough. And when Mummy asked her about the pain, she
had told her the too-many-sweets story. Mummy was crying. She cried a lot now. But she put Mariel in a bath and scrubbed her
roughly and never looked her in the eye again and never asked about the pains ever after, so Mariel knew Dennis was king because
he was right and Mummy was jealous.
The front door slammed, rebounded and was thumped shut. The
pubs must have shut. Mariel stuffed her scribbling into the forbidden dressing-up box and crawled out of the wardrobe as quietly
as a mouse. The king was already calling for his supper. Not four-and-twenty blackbird pie, but steak-and-kidney was in the
fridge. Mariel ran to put it in the microwave, to pour the beer, to open the crisps, to present the tray. She hadn’t
got ready for bed. The babydoll nighties he bought for her were like a red rag to a bull. Even though his hand on her neck,
forcing her to kneel and lick his icecream cone, was angry, pinching, vicious, to remind her that she should have got ready
for him, head-banging was better than sword-ripping.
He ate his dinner while
she worked. He was very angry tonight. Some man in the pub had said something about Mummy. He was watching the clock for Mummy.
She was like Cinderella, except she had to come home from work by 11.45pm, not midnight, and if she was late, there were no
pumpkins, just hidden aubergines. At 11.40pm he grabbed Mariel and, like some wild animal, tore her clothes
off. She began to panic. They were still in the living room. Mummy would come back any minute.
Dennis instructed. ‘Want me! Now!’
She knew what that meant. It meant she had to act
like Mummy for him. Mostly, he didn’t care if she cried or was silent, but sometimes, usually when he’d had a
row with Mummy, he reminded her of her first lesson. She was supposed to be in training to replace Mummy, by becoming better
at pleasing him than Mummy, by wanting him more than Mummy. It mostly meant wriggling around under him as if she wasn’t
being crushed and speared or turning her moans of pain into hums of pleasure. When she had realized he couldn’t tell
the difference between pretend to want and really wanting him, she had wondered if Mummy really wanted him either. She seemed
frightened of him, never jolly, always running and tense. Mariel tried very hard to please him thereafter so Mummy didn’t
have to and could have the rest she was always bemoaning.
Mummy did not seem grateful for her daughter’s
sacrifice that night. Her screams woke Jack who Mariel had put to bed hours ago. Dennis was laughing, sitting up now, gripping
Mariel in place astride his knee. Mummy was a banshee with claws, tearing at her, pulling her off, beating Dennis with closed
fists on his chest, dropping under his single blow, silent under his penetrative wrath. Jack just stood in the doorway, thumb
in mouth, blanky trailing. Dennis was slapping his wife across the face now. Finally spent. Finally aware of finality.
The wicked witch was dead, but the king turned into the knave of hearts and ran away, not with the pies
but the children. They lived in a tent and now the little prince needed Mariel to keep the knave happy ever after, otherwise
the aubergine tarts would hit his fragile bones.
They had lived in an ivory-tower block in a town.
The tent had to be moved a lot, around the wood, deep in the country. Dennis had always been a fisherman, sitting quietly
by a river suited him. He never caught enough for them not to be hungry, and he couldn’t catch beer that way, so he
had to leave them and go on the hunt for supplies. Jack ran around like a baby rabbit when the big bad wolf left them. Mariel
was more scared, because she was old enough to worry, about his safety, about what would happen when Dennis returned, about
what would happen if he didn’t.
One day he rolled back with three other men, all as drunk
as he. Dirty stinky tramps. She saw them coming and was shocked to realize that Dennis was one of them too. And her brother,
and her. Dennis was loud tonight. Unlike his cardboard-city fellows he had a tent. He was king of the castle.
‘Mi casa su casa!’ was his largesse. He couldn’t lay out a banquet for his guests, so he gave presents instead.
It was a game of pass-the-parcel. Mariel was unwrapped to her very soul.
It didn’t even please
him. Afterwards he spat on her, said his doll was broken, threw her bodily across the glade, twisted his arm until her brother
was broken too, told them to get out of his sight, took the tent and stuff and walked off into the night and left them alone
in the darkness, left them to the other monsters.
Mariel could barely stagger, Jack had gone dumb
in shock. The other men were sleeping. She dragged them both away. In the other direction. Away from the way Dennis had gone,
from which the tramps had come, deeper into the wood.
It was an old wood. Huge contorted old oakmen,
silvery fairy birchgirls, tall grey beechqueens, blooded hollypricks, draping ivycurtains, hazelthicket nests, brambletearing
furnishings, soft mossy dells, and all aglow with tiny whitecloud groundlights, the slow chatter of fungi in the dark. They
found a hedged dell, swathed in honeysuckle still scenting the air, and snuggled together, orphaned baby animals escaping
The sun couldn’t reach warming fingers into their nest to wake them but Mariel
woke anyway, cold to the bone. Jack was still sleeping. He was a pretty puppy, all tufty white and tan fur, with crooked ears,
and a silly upturned nose. He still had a broken front leg. She’d have to carry him. Dogs can just about manage to limp
on with a hurt back leg, but front paw damage was crippling. She sighed. He needed to go to a vet. So she’d just have
to learn how to be one in a wood.
He was awake and whimpering when she returned with a hollow stick.
He yelped and howled and screeched when she cradled it with thin strings of honeysuckle and packed it with
moss and slid it into the stick and bound the whole to his body. His front right paw was now disguised as a branch and he
was as hard to carry as a young tree. Especially since Mariel had no idea where she was going. She knew they needed food,
but without weapons or traps fauna were unapproachable, and without fire would remain inedible even if scavenged dead. So
she headed downhill on the basis that the river was probably that way and she knew how to fish.
was a cave in a willowcopse on a slope above a drop to the rapids. The sun-drenched opening was sheer but warm and fruiting
brambles dangled handfuls of berries right into their haven. Jack could (continue to) rest and Mariel, once she’d brought
them some bracken for bedding and mushrooms to pad out the blackberries, and had constructed a twisted hazel rod with a hairgrip
hook and a worm bait, could sit and let fish find her.
Only one came. It put its mouth on her hook
and then let it go. ‘You can’t hook a big fish like me with that pathetic rod.’ it said. ‘Even if
your hook was barbed, the line’s too thin. It’d just break under my weight.’ Then it climbed up the cliff,
waddling using its four fins, but they stuck like velcro and it was soon panting at her feet. ‘I notice you haven’t
got a knife to gut me either. Not even a rock to bash my head in with. And no fire to cook me if you had. No, it’s not
me that’s dinner. You’re the fish out of water. You’d better come with me.’
had been lying with his head in her lap, so Mariel was able to grab him tightly under his left shoulder as the sticky fins
reached out and pulled her into his huge gaping mouth and dived over the lip of the cave and into the waters below. The fish
didn’t let them go and it went deeper and deeper, into green velvet warmth wrapping wavy arms around them.
Mariel, it could talk with its mouth full. ‘You’ll make an excellent gift for King Pike. He won’t eat me
if I give him you.’
Mariel knew all about kings and gifts. She might be enjoying the free
ride, certainly Jack was less heavy to hold, and she hadn’t known she could breathe under water before, a new talent
she would like to explore, not least because there were a lot of little fish, tasty mouthfuls, in easy reach and she wasn’t
thirsty any more, but she didn’t want to meet any more kings.
She pretended to be choking.
‘I’m running out of air. You have to take us to the surface. You want your gifts to be fresh, don’t you?’
As they rose into the brightness of airy day, Mariel’s eyes, which could look up better than the
fish’s, scanned for a handhold on the steep-sided river edge. ‘Oh look! What’s that? It’s a giant
worm! Can you see it?’
The fish turned to look. It didn’t see the hook and line Mariel
had. It jumped on instinct, spitting out Mariel, as she had hoped. In the same instant, she jumped upward and yanked on the
line. Somewhere above the fisherman reacted and started to reel them in.
the cat, licking its lips. ‘You brought me a fine dinner, young lady. I owe you my thanks. But you keep that puppy under
control or I’ll scratch his eyes out.’
It was a big black cat. As big as she was, and
a lot bigger than Jack, so she hugged him close. To be fair to him, Jack was wide-eyed and frozen with terror. He wasn’t
going to take on those claws.
‘Do you know the way to a vet?’ she asked.
Fur bloated until the cat was a ball twice its size. Animals fear vets. Mariel had forgotten.
paw is broken. I don’t know how to mend it. I’m just a kid.’
‘Oh, you need
a grown-up? I know one of them. She feeds me and keeps a warm fire. I owe you, so I’ll take you to her. Come on.’
The wood thinned ahead of them. A glade, dappled with emerald glints, watery waves of golden light shimmered
and danced with gold and green lacewings. A cottage, growing like a tree itself, its thatch alive with young holly and ivy
and nesting birds, its walls bowed as if boughs held them up, its portals dark knots of hollowed trunks. But not gingerbread.
So Mariel wasn’t expecting the witch who opened the door.
Jack didn’t mind the fattening
up stage. Mariel thought she had better refuel too. The old woman probably wouldn’t poison any meat she wanted to eat.
She was disturbed though when she was given a different drink to Jack. But the crooked dirty teeth kept grinning at her, nodding
whenever she swallowed a reluctant mouthful, so she smiled back as gratefully as she could. She kept trying to peep round
the kitchen for the big oven and the cages, but all there was was a normal country-stove and a big soft cat bed. After dinner,
since the cat had prowled off into the night, the old crone, who hadn’t said a single word, but gestured kindly, indicated
that Mariel should hold Jack tightly on the cleared table. She nodded enthusiastically as she removed each piece of Mariel’s
splint, approving her work. Then Jack’s drink worked and he nodded off and the bone was set and bandages replaced and
plaster applied before he stirred once.
Mariel didn’t think anyone would repair the bones
of meat, so, when the old woman went up the rickety stairs to bed, she was able to snuggle into the cat bed with Jack and
sleep soundly until morning.
She woke to a paw in the face and a furious miaouing. ‘This
isn’t the 3 bears’ house, y’know! And you, grubby little mouse, are not Goldilocks. Get out of my bed and
take that mutt with you!’
The old woman came running downstairs, clogs a-clatter on spiralling
wood. She shook her bony finger at Cat and hustled Mariel up to the table and pressed Jack back in the box.
they’d both been fed and watered, the still silent witch went out into a back plot and started weeding. Her stance and
frequent sighs told their own tale of age’s pain.
‘Shall I go and help her?’
Mariel asked Cat, suddenly worried again at having taken food and drink for only thanks from a witch. But witch or not, she
was in pain, and Mariel could understand that.
Cat wiped his ears thoughtfully. ‘Gratitude?
Or sympathy? Young humans do not display either attitude over much. Well, if you really want to help her, I can show you the
way. You’ll have to leave that damn puppy, so you’d better come back quickly, or else the old woman will want
to keep him, and that’ll put my nose out of joint.’
‘What do I have to do?’
The cat strolled through the forest with its tail held high. It got higher and thicker as they went deeper
into the gloom. Mariel knew that meant he was scared. So far all she’d been scared about was that she had abandoned
her puppy brother to be eaten by a witch. She hadn’t had time to get really frightened for herself when Cat stopped
at a a huge oak with an opening into a hollow as big as a window.
‘In there. Bring back what
the witch needs.’ and he nudged her with his head in her back, so jerkily that she fell forward into the darkness, and
she didn’t even have the chance to ask him what that was.
From this side the window framed
a meadow, waves of grass green as Cat’s eyes, foam of flowers sunshine yellow and frost white for springtime, clouds
of butterflies winged in red and brown and white, silver linings of faeries herding the insect puffs to the richest nectar
crests. Mariel had never seen a sight as beautiful since the wedding day, when petals had been at hand, in hair, falling from
above, guarding the aisles, perfuming the floor. She ran forward, clapping her hands, laughing, calling to the faeries to
play. Her mother said she never should play with the faeries in the wood, but Mummy was dead and the faeries were here.
Faeries don’t play nicely, though. Mariel startled them and they flocked up in a tornadotwist with
the butterflies, a cylindrical rainbow, that surrounded her, emitting unmistakably angry bat-pitched screeches, battering
her with whipping wings and poking her with invisible needles. She froze, escape was impossible, so she endured.
The stormcloud withdrew, hovering around her. Occasionally one of them would dart in and prick her, as if waiting to
see if she would swat it back. When they’d finally decided she was harmless, the cloud descended again, but this time
tiny mouths kissed every pinprick better. Then they caught up her hair and played with it strand by strand, until all the
dirt and mud of the past weeks dusted off and soft brown curls were the shining twirled ringlets of a flower girl.
Then, abruptly, with a single shrieking trumpeting alarmcall, the entire flock burst apart and disappeared.
But she saw them all, fairies and butterflies alike, crouching and skulking amid the meadowgrasses’ roots. And
the creature that was flying low across the field was obviously what they were frightened of. A dragonknight,
helmeted in silver, armoured in emerald, wielding a tailsword that was swashing back and forth savagely, beheading every flower
as methodically as a combine harvester. It was collecting the falling blossoms too, its cathedral-arch wings wafting the light
petals into a net below its blue belly. And it was coming towards Mariel.
She had been stilled by
bliss, now her stalk remained upright, her head surrounded by other upturned flowerfaces, not daring to stir for fear of attracting
the dragon’s attention. He flew on and on and his basket bulged but kept growing bigger, a baby for his belly. He didn’t
even seem to notice that one of the flowers was a girl, he just uncrowned her with the others and popped her head into his
net. When the meadow was shorn completely, he suddenly turned, rose high into the air and swooped above field and wood until
he came to the estuary of the river, where between mudflats and thick reeds, he dived into a glorious green castle with purple-feathered
A bed that took up a whole room had only one occupant. It was a cocoon. Something without
form squirmed inside. The dragonknight flew over the twisting shroud and emptied his net. Mariel’s head bounced as she
rolled over the cocoon and the shower of petals melted above her and added another papery wrapping to the parcel. The knight
grinned as the inner tearing stopped, escape defeated by another layer of perfumed bandages, then he flew away again.
Mariel didn’t know what to do. The wormy coffin might hold monsters worse than the flowerkilling
dragonknight. But she was all alone and just a head and so she used what she’d still got and reasoned that the thing
inside was trapped so couldn’t hurt her.
‘Hello? Is there anybody in there?’
The sound that replied was a gurgling sinkhole speaking. ‘No. No body.’
talking, though. Why are you in the cocoon?’
‘The dragonfly stole me from the witch.’
‘Because the witch moved the river to feed her garden.
The dragonfly needs the river to attract a mate and to float her babies in. This is the last bit of the river suitable for
dragoncastles. It’s too small a reedbed for proper jousting for queens or to build enough dragoncastles, and the others
all left. Taking me was revenge.’
Mariel didn’t know who to be sorrier for, the dragonfly
or the captive. ‘What will you do if I let you out?’
‘Can you really free me?
I had stopped believing that was possible. I had given up. I’m not even angry at the knight, you know. She was just
protecting her future. And it was my fault that the witch moved the river, really. Because its original path was too far,
or so I thought, when I had strong legs and arms but wanted to play not work, too lazy to use them, especially to help my
mother. I wish now that she hadn’t spoiled me so. I’d have grown into a man, not dissolved in my slothful bed.
She shouldn’t have changed the world for me. She should have made me help her. But I was wilful and she was loving.
But that’s all the dragon wants to be, too. I hope her children treat her better.’
thinks she will take my puppybrother to help her feed herself in her old age if I don’t rescue you.’
be better off. There’s nothing I can do for her now. I’m a mess. I’m just jelly. She’ll be nice to
him, as long as he’s good at hunting rabbits, she’ll be happy.’
not true. Her old bones hurt her just weeding the vegetable patch. And he’s got a broken leg. If I let you out, are
you going to come back and help her?’
‘If I had legs and arms, I’d dig her garden,
I’d divert the river again, I’d fetch and carry and I’d treat her like a queen. I hadn’t realized
she was old. I didn’t notice the years passing.’
Mariel made her decision. She chewed
and chewed and chewed on the petal-soft wrappers. A long time later she realized something was dripping onto her face, trickling
honey into her hair, caramel-twisting around her until she began to choke under the thick suffocating goo.
then the dragonknight came back, trailing clouds of petals. It saw the witch’s child was oozing out, it saw the little
girl’s head was wrapped, and it screamed with wrath and speared her through the mouth and lifted her out of the chamber
and flew back to the meadow and flicked her off its swordtail and left her rolling in the dirt.
it wasn’t a very clever knight, because it hadn’t seemed to notice that the treacle that was all that was left
of the witch’s son was so thick and sticky that, once attached to Mariel’s head, it had flown with them, a green-brown
river swooping through the skies, now draping over the fallen stalk that was her decapitated body. The glue on her neck rejoined
her head to her shoulders, then it slid off, clumped around a tall grass, stretched out and flexed and
was a beefy man again.
The witch’s son was muscular and hairy and naked and Mariel cowered
at the unwrapped gift and whimpered when he picked her up and ran off with her. But very soon he was emerging
from the tree, soon after he was opening the garden gate, and a moment later he was hugging his mother and the old lady who
hadn’t spoken since his capture was chattering away and crying with delight and kissing them both and bustling to bring
them food and drink.
Jack was barking with excitement and wearing a nice pair of dungarees with
helpful flap, a look no self-respecting dog should have to endure, even if he was playing the role of substitute
son. But Mariel was more relieved when the witch removed these and gave them to her real son to cover his
nakedness. They were more like shorts than trousers, because he’d been younger when he’d left and he could barely
get them on, but at least his dangerousness was hidden.
She was even more relieved
to see that Jack’s paw seemed completely healed. Apparently it was true that dancing with faeries
wasted time, she’d been away time enough for bone and flesh to heal.
Later, when she was sitting
on a log outside nodding sleepily in the sunshine to the rhythmic beat of the son chopping firewood for his old mum, who was
baking up a feast for the prodigal return, watching Jack snuffling in the late autumn’s leaflitter, Cat came out and
‘I’m going to see my lady-friend. Our kittens are due any time. It’s
just a short walk to the village. Fancy a stroll?’
A cat stroll meanders about like a lowland
river, which just suited gambolling Jack, but Mariel was still astonished when, it seemed a long time later, they emerged
from the forest, ducked through a hedge and found themselves in the prettiest garden of the sweetest little cottage she had
ever seen. The place was very homely and Jack made himself at home straight away by wriggling through the catflap on the back
door. There was a moment of hissing and spitting, then he shot back out and hid behind Cat, as the door opened and both ladies
of the house stepped out.
On instinct, Mariel melted back into the cover of the hedge, pulling Jack
with her. The huge white cat was fluffed with anger, but her sleek black mate rubbed his head against hers, reassuring her,
and a flick of his tail and the tall woman’s ‘Oh, what a sweet puppy! Come here, little one!’ called Jack
from his spot, despite her frantic grab at his disappearing tail.
She watched the woman welcome
the puppy with the open arms of yearning bred of prior loss. They both recognized eachother, she could see. Lost and found.
A match made in heaven. Over his head, the woman whose bearing was infused with a queenliness Mariel had forgotten, her beauty
crowned by a terrible scar through her hair, brow and eye, but pale now, no longer gaping to the old blow, kept looking around,
eagerly scanning the hedge for a flower to put in her pale hair. The flower shrivelled in the thicket. The woman could have
a puppy called Prince, she was better again, able to look after his needs without Mariel’s help. Jack was home.
Mariel ached to be the puppy in those arms, but she didn’t run forward. Oh, she wasn’t worried
the queen would revert to the wicked stepmother again. Her own mirror would remind her of the ugly sister she’d been,
every day. What she mustn’t be allowed to forget, though, were the scars she couldn’t see.
Invisible Mariel. Not playing at being the little princess, pretty flower-maiden, Mummy’s girl. Lost and never
to be found. The mirror of memory kept shiny. The guilt well polished.
It took her a long time to
go. She had to be sure. Of Jack’s well-being, of the illusion she could make real if she chose. Then she walked back
into the forest , tracked old paths and swam with messenger Fish across the river, hunting like the wolf in a red riding hood.
It tooked like a living doll to the troll living under the bridge. The gross gnome barred her way.
But she’d already paid time’s toll for passage.
‘King Dennis.’ she
nodded to him, regally, as to a minion, with sarcasm. ‘Meet King Pike.’ And she rushed at him, helmeted not hooded,
rodding into his stomach, taking his breath away, rocking his unbalanced drunken world, tossing him off. He
fell down into the chasm of the river, into the crunching knifed jaws of waiting predators, felt his package being unwrapped
as his parcel was passed from mouth to gut to fuel.
When he was all gone, Mariel looked up. Cat
was fishing on the other side of the whirlpool. ‘No more kings.’ he agreed. ‘They’ll feed both our
families tonight.’ And he hauled on his rod and up came Pike, greed beyond satiety their undoing. Cat took the flopping
fish in his mouth and said out of the corner of his cheshire grin, ‘No more princesses either, eh? What now, then? Mirror,
mirror, not on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?’
Mariel looked down but the
water still shimmered and she could see the flowergirl waving beneath the princessrags whisking over the knightly armour stirring
with ridingblood. ‘She’s not fixed in any old reflection. She’s invisible because she’s not shone
out yet. But she’s in here’ hand on heart ‘and out there’ eyes on horizon ‘and I’ve got
far to go but I’m going to find her.’
So she went and she did.
handsome is as handsome does, as any fair mirror will warn you. Every happy and every sad day ever after.