First Chapter of The Fairytale Keeper
Fat snowflakes fall lazily to the ground. The streets of Cologne are dusted like sugared gingerbread. The row houses look like the newest gingerbread church confections I had just seen weeks ago at the Christmas market. I open the shutters. An icy wind blows through the window, through the thin wool of my tattered nightshift, through my fair skin, deep to the bone. I shiver violently and dive quickly under the blanket.
“Are you mad Adelaide?” Mother asks with a shiver. “Close the shutters or you’ll catch cold.”
“But Mama, look. It’s snowing.”
“Is it, now?” She smiles warmly. “First snow of the year.”
I move over quickly. Mother sets down the candle by my bedside and slides in next to me. I press my frigid toes against her warm legs. We smile at each other and reach our palms out the window, side by side. Flakes fall and melt quickly against the heat of our palms. I look at her ruddy skin, wondering how mine is dreadfully fair. I pull my hand back into the room.
“You have such pretty skin, my little Snow White,” Mama says, reassuringly, as she closes the shutters for the night. I recoil from the name I used to love. The cruel urchins of the market overheard Mother call me this once. Now they tease me for my pale skin and dark hair by shouting, “Snow White!” as they throw rocks or rotten fruit at me.
I slip deeper into the covers and rest my head on her soft lap. She runs her fingers through the tangles of my black hair though she never pulls. My limbs unhinge as I sink closer to a deep childlike sleep.
“Tell me my story. Tell me Snow White.” I say, slipping deeper into the blankets, shifting until I am most comfortable.
“You always hate it when I tell your story, Adelaide.” She sighs as her finger is caught on a tangle which she abandons for a neater section of my hair.
“That’s because you haven’t added to it since I was born. I am thirteen winters now. Surely there is more to tell.” I say with a yawn.
“A baby in my eyes still.” She coos, and I roll my eyes. “How can I know the story of your life when your life has barely begun?”
I huff in protest.
“I cannot write your story, Snow White. Only you can write your story.”
“Then, tell me another story.” I resign.
Two years later…
11 March, 1247 Afternoon
Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, would that I had a child as white as snow, with lips as red as blood, and hair as black as the wood of the window frame.
…she had a little daughter, whose skin was as white as snow with lips as red as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony, and she was therefore called little Snow White. And fifteen winters after the child was born, the queen died.
I place my hand on the nose of the brown workhorse as Father and Johan remove her dead body from its carriage. He shakes his head and snorts, the steam of his breath floating into the cold March fog.
I am not supposed to be motherless. That happens to other children. Yet here I am, watching Mama being placed on a pyre. My legs shake as I approach her for the last time. I haven’t slept in days.
A loosely-knit ivory shroud is tightly wound around her lifeless skin. Her once pink lips are violet and flattened. Mama is dead, I think. Seeing her again makes it all dreadfully real and blows the breath from my chest.
I brush my fingers along the waves of her clay-colored hair and trace her high cheek bones, resting them on her cold, hard hands folded gently across the waist of the cream-colored tunic she was wearing when she died.
The bouquet of wild flowers I had plucked for the funeral is now wilting in my iron grip, and the leaves have browned. She is too good for wilted flowers, I think, and toss the bouquet to the ground. I return to Father’s side where he stands with Mama’s cousin, Galadriel.
The dead flowers begin to roll away with an icy gust of wind, but Father kneels quickly to collect them. He pushes them against my stomach and muffles a cough. Men do not cry in Cologne, at least not outside the walls of their homes, so he stares straight ahead stoically with his jaw tightly clenched.
Father Soren moves hurriedly through the funeral rites. His face twists with disgust and I imagine he fears contracting the great fever that has killed so many in Cologne. His callous eyes stare through us, devoid of compassion.
He speaks faster as the heavy clouds darken and the roar of thunder builds. I despise him and his church. In this, I know I am not alone. These vile men hide in their churches as the people of Cologne succumb to the fever without last rites. They are the ones who order the bodies of our family and friends to be dumped like refuse into an enormous pit far outside the city walls.
Yesterday, Father sent friends to find a priest who could serve Mother her last rites. St. Severin, St. Kunibert, St. Gereon… even the cathedral’s priests refused us and stated that, as it was Sunday, they were busy preparing for Mass, but I know better. No priest would come to our home for fear of catching the fever. I pray Saint Peter shall pardon this missing sacrament and grant Mama entry to Heaven.
I hope these men all perish without their last rites. I hope they are placed on that horrid cart destined for the pit outside the city, their crooked bodies hanging from the edge of the cart with the poorest and most decayed victims, mouths agape, surrounded by flies.
Father says we are lucky to have a funeral at all. We are lucky that 1247 has been a fruitful year for us. We are lucky to live in a city where a cobbler can earn enough to bribe a priest into giving a funeral service. We are lucky Father comes from a long line of cobblers, and that the wealthiest families of Cologne purchase his shoes. We are lucky the fever hasn’t stopped pilgrims from coming to Cologne and buying from our booth in the market.
But I do not feel lucky today.
Father Soren quickly bows his head in silence. Then, with a snap of his chubby fingers, he summons his dark-haired associate, Johan, to light the pyre. The straw below Mama ignites and flames lap at her like the devil’s tongue. An anxious twitch possesses my leg. She cannot be dead, I think. She would never leave me.
I run to the pyre and pet her hair, but she does not wake. I kiss her cold hard face and plea for her to rise, but she does not hear. I beg louder, choking on sobs.
Father Soren gasps with disgust.
“Stupid urchin!” He hisses. “She’s infected herself now!” He backs farther from the smoking pyre and points a shaking finger toward me. “She’ll give us all the fever.”
I shake Mother’s shoulders and cry for her to wake. My flowers fall and are swallowed by the growing flames as unbridled sobs burst from my throat. I embrace her body tightly, knowing now she shall not rise.
Smoke stings my lungs and fire smarts my skin like hundreds of tiny whips, but the burns are nothing compared to the wicked pains of grief that wring my stomach like a wet rag, that smite the breath from my lungs, and put a hardened lump at the back of my throat.
Father pries my arms loose and pulls me backward. I fall to the ground coughing. A rim of ambers glows along the hems of my chainse and surcote which I smother in the cold, soggy ground.
“Take your coins and go, you coward,” Father spits as he pitches a small bag to the ground by the growing flames in disgust.
Johan retrieves the bag before it catches fire.
“I should have had your wench placed on the cart and disposed of properly, shoe-maker,” the priest declares. He stares straight into Father’s eyes and spits on Mama’s corpse.
Father roars, his face flashing a violent scarlet as he charges. Johan stands reluctantly between them as Galadriel grabs Father’s shoulders.
“No, Ansel! Katrina would not want this!” she reasons and steps in front of him.
Galadriel’s eyes widen as she attempts to calm Father with her striking gaze, but he looks past her to Soren. Galadriel is right. Mama would not want this, but Father’s rages rarely wane with reason.
“Ansel, please.” Galadriel pleas once more.
A long moment passes, and I feel torn between siding with Galadriel and urging Father on. The rogue spat on my mother and deserves to be punished. I should like to see Father give him a thrashing he shan’t soon forget.
The priest weasels his way to the carriage and Father lets him go. I bend down, pick up a cobblestone, and charge at him. Johan grabs me by the cloak, but I undo the clasp and escape. I pitch the stone, aiming for the back of Soren’s bald head. He yelps as it strikes his shoulder. He turns and narrows his eyes at me.
“You little witch!”
I run back to Father, narrowly escaping Johan’s grip.
“You shall pay for this,” Father promises, pointing a finger over Galadriel’s shoulder toward the carriage. Galadriel removes her hands from Father’s shoulders and steps away, sighing with relief.
“It looks as though my pay has already been secured, shoe-maker,” the priest shouts with a grin. He tosses the bag of coins in the air and Johan laughs. “Saint Laurentius thanks you for your generous gift. May your wife fare well in Heaven.”
He motions to the burning pyre and his man-servant kicks it over. Mother’s burning remains tumble to the ground. Johan races to the carriage and jumps aboard. The priest whips the horses and they charge toward the city walls. Father races after them in vain.
I drop to my knees, wailing in anguish. I cry as the dark, moaning clouds pour down upon us, rain sizzling in the flames. Mama’s charred remains extinguish under the cold deluge.
Father runs to me and falls to his knees. He turns me away from the defiled corpse. “Do not look,” his voice cracks, and he embraces me tightly. He cries violently, angrily, as I sob into his shoulder. I had never heard my Father cry like that before and I hope I never have to hear it again.
Father stands, and pulls me with him. He urges me forward, forcing my gaze on the long road ahead of us back to the city. “Night approaches.”
“We cannot leave her here like this,” I cry in protest as Galadriel hands me the cloak which Johan had tossed into the mud. But Father does not reply and continues to push me forward. I know now he shall return to bury her.
“I hope you do not intend to do this alone.” I say quietly, fastening my cloak. “There are wolves and thieves outside the gates at night.” He does not answer. I fight the urge to beg him to reconsider, for I know my protests shall fall on deaf ears.
My crying ebbs and flows from violent bawling to whimpers. I cannot fathom ever being happy again after this day. The tears still pool and flow down my face which is raw from the water, the wind, and whips from the long black strands of my hair that cannot be tamed in this weather. My throat grows painful and tired and my cries slowly abate. My anguish is locked away, and I feel nothing, not even the sting of the cold March rain.
The sky slowly darkens from grey to black as we approach Severin’s gate, which, like all the gates, is closed every night. Father knocks on the heavy wood. The window slides open and a one-eyed, old man appears from behind it. “State yer business,” he says matter-of-factly. His long, wet, silver hair blows out from the window.
“Gregor, it’s us,” Father says.
“Ansel?” The man squints with his one good eye.
“I’m sorry about yer missus,” Gregor says gently. He continues with his condolences as he jumps from his stand. I wonder if he knows we can no longer hear him. The chains crank as the massive gate rises, revealing Gregor, a sweet old man barely as tall as my shoulder.
He and my grandfather, whom I never met, were childhood friends. Plagued with rheumatism, Gregor was forced to give up masonry long ago. He now mans the gate for little pay. When Father noticed Gregor’s toes poking out from beneath his shoes a fortnight ago, he made him a new pair without charge.
“Do the shoes fit well?” Father asks, looking down at his work. Gregor does not answer, but looks past Father to Galadriel, staring at her with a nearly religious captivation. It is the way men have stared at her since she arrived, as though they would either like to eat her whole or revere her for an eternity.
Even in her soaked, drab, grey tunic and cloak, Galadriel is beautiful. Her blonde hair shimmers even on a stormy day like this. She has skin as fair and clear as fresh cream. Her light blue eyes are wide, and I can imagine jongleurs composing songs in her name.
“Gregor? Are you all right?” I ask to snap him from his awkward stare.
“Oh, yes!” Gregor finally answers. “Oh! My feet are as warm an’ dry as the Holy Land itself, Ansel!” Gregor’s pointed nose passes his lips, bobbing up and down when he talks. He parades his footwear, and then looks up at Father with concern. “I’m really sorry ’bout Katrina, Ansel. She was a queen among women.”
“She shall be missed,” Father sighs, casting his gaze downward again. “Is there a carriage that can take them back? I would not want them to walk alone in the rain.”
“Oh, yes. Of course, Ansel. Ivan! Get one of the carriages over ’ere and take these girls back to the cobbler’s!” Gregor shouts at a tall, young, blonde man whose pale skin makes me look Arabian. “Shouldn’t ya accompany the ladies back ’ome, Ansel? ‘Tis a cold night ta be out.”
“No, Gregor. I have business to attend to.”
“Anythin’ I can be a ’elp with?” Gregor asks with deep sincerity.
“Have you got any shovels?”
“Course, but what would ya be needing ’em for?”
“Our funeral did not go as planned. I need a pick, as well.” Father coughs to cover the crack in his voice.
Ivan ambles over, pulling the horses and carriage behind him. He straightens at the sight of Galadriel and stares for several moments, though she does not seem to notice.
“It’s not safe ta be outside ’a the gates after dark, Ansel. Oh, a drunkard was cut through outside the Weier gate on ’is way ’ome last week,” Gregor says.
Father opens his mouth to argue, but Gregor continues, shrugging his shoulders. “But if it’s a shovel and a pick ya want, we ’ave ’alf a dozen back in the stables. I could send Ivan with ya if ya like.”
Ivan appears angered and shakes his head slowly and sternly. It is difficult to believe anyone of his impressive stature would be afraid of anything. He is taller than my father by a head.
“Thank you for getting them home and for the shovel.”
“I wish I could do more. Are ya sure you shan’t accept any ’elp?” Gregor asks.
“Yes,” Father sighs as he walks toward the stables to get the shovel and pick.
Ivan opens the carriage door, but I am planted where I stand.
“I shall see you both soon.” Father says.
My heart pounds and the air thins. If I go home without Father, I might never see him again. I cannot lose him, too. Not now. I imagine him being overcome by a large band of thieves or a pack of ravenous wolves. I must make him stay, even at the risk of scavengers getting to Mother before she can be buried.
I barrel into him and squeeze him hard. “Please, do not go,” I cry into his wet cloak. “We can all go in the morning,” I plead, looking into his eyes.
“Get in the carriage, Adelaide,” he replies somberly and pushes me backward. “I have fought much worse than vagabonds and wolves alone and survived.”
Gregor hobbles to the stables and returns with a crossbow. Father straps it to his arm.
Father turns toward the gate and I dive to the ground, squeezing his legs in an effort to keep him there. “Don’t go!” I cry.
“Adelaide! That is enough!” he scolds and shakes me from his leg. “Get in the carriage!”
Father has made his choice and there is nothing I can do to change it. I stand and stare at his face for a moment, trying to memorize it in case he never returns. I hug him tightly, sobbing again.
“I love you, Papa,” I whimper into his cloak.
“And I love you,” he whispers so quietly no one could possibly hear.
I look at his face once more, turn, and step into the carriage. He stands and watches as we ride away down Severin’s Strasse. I do not even bother to keep my composure in front of Galadriel, giving in to tears and sobs, which, I fear, shall never end. I can feel her piteous stares. I am anguished with memories stirred by the places we pass on our way home and terribly worried for Father’s safety.
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The Fairytale Keeper: Avenging the Queen was released June 1, 2012. For information of where to buy it, click here: https://andreacefalo.com/buythefairytalekeeper/