The witch's skin gleams pale by starlight. She sheds her heavy robes beside the open window, slides the concealing layers back and aside so that they pool around her feet. A gauzy shift reveals wiry arms, gaunt legs, the sagging chest of a woman decades past childbearing. The wind presses light cloth against the body it barely covers.
Rapunzel watches because the witch expects her to.
The witch walks forward into the shadows, toward Rapunzel. After darkness enfolds the witch's body, the image of her translucent skin will stay in Rapunzel's eye for many hours. The witch sits down, her thin leg brushing Rapunzel's plump one, and takes Rapunzel's hand. She begins to speak and does not stop until dawn chases the starlight away. She speaks of secret desires and secret hate. She speaks of distant lands, distant times, of people high and low. Sometimes Rapunzel does not like what the witch says, but she always, always believes her.
Finally the witch stands, her body diminishing as the light rises; she draws her robes around herself.
"Let me down," the witch requires.
Rapunzel always wonders how such a gaunt person could be so very heavy.
Instructions on How to Raise Your Captor, Jailor, and Negative Mother Figure up into a Tower by Your Hair
1. First, braiding helps.
2. In fact, braiding is imperative.
3. Two braids may seem like a good idea, but don't try it. Trust me on this.
4. Install a sturdy hook a little higher than the windowsill on the inside of the window frame. Wrap your hair around the hook at least twice. No hauling the bitch up, it's bad enough as it is. Let her do the work if she wants up so bad.
5. Split ends? Honey, don't talk to me about split ends.
6. No matter how much you dread her arrival, no matter how relieved you are at her departure, you will always do and say what you think she wants. This is not a command. It is a fact.
Rapunzel has woven fine, strong ropes and hung her bed from the ceiling. Four years of sleeping on a bed prone to wandering around the tower room at night has worn her out. The bed moans in its slow, heavy voice that Rapunzel has hung it.
The table is unsympathetic. "You make it sound like a death sentence, you dumb oaf. It's just to keep you from bothering us all night."
"It's not my fault I sleepwalk," the bed protests.
Rapunzel ignores the discussion and weaves. She has just enough left to make a narrow bracelet. The witch allowed her to weave this once, but only with the shortest pieces of rough twine.
Rapunzel is the most beautiful girl in the land. The witch tells her this more and more often. Rapunzel's hair falls from the tower window to the ground, a thick braid the color of freshly turned earth, with hints of copper and gold.
The tower holds no object sharper than a wooden spoon. At night, Rapunzel dreams of knives.
A young woman wanders the forest. She sleeps, hunts, dreams. When she sleeps, her brow softens out of its habitual furrow and becomes meditative. When she hunts, she consumes the entire animal and makes use of its hide; she is both an unapologetic huntress and a respectful one. When she dreams, she dreams of heights, and depths, and expanses, and dark, secret places. She wears orange and pink striped socks and climbs trees at every opportunity.
A long time ago—well, not quite ten years ago; it's a long time to some—the witch came around to a small cottage to collect on an agreement she'd made years before. She came away with a six-year-old girl and a lot more happiness than she'd had for a long, long time.
The witch thought "Rapunzel" sounded better than "Rampion," which was what had started the whole affair, and both sounded better than "Sort of Like Parsnips," which was what rampion was. So she renamed the girl "Rapunzel" and took her away. She only ever wanted the best for her girl.
The best and the brightest. It's been said that the witch kept everyone away from Rapunzel, but no. Oh no. She brought suitors, beginning in the girl's twelfth year, the same year she locked her in the tower.
The witch prefaced every prince's visit with a lush description of the suitor's merits: his wit, strength, wealth, appearance, charm. She sat in the next room while Rapunzel received her visitor, out of sight but never out of Rapunzel's mind.
Stilted, awkward conversations, every single one of them. The only visits Rapunzel liked less than the boring ones were the ones with princes she quite liked.
When a prince left, the witch asked Rapunzel about every detail of the visit. Every nuance and tone of the conversation. She dissected Rapunzel's every soft and hesitant emotion.
(Had the witch heard the conversation while it happened? Had she left the door ajar and listened to everything Rapunzel and the prince had said? Surely not, surely not, but Rapunzel always sensed the witch knew when she hid or changed anything in her retellings.)
When Rapunzel had revealed all—what a relief, she told herself; how loving of the witch to take interest in all my thoughts and emotions—only then did the witch speak.
She was always gracious, always considered all the possibilities, always measured fairly. She rarely insulted or mocked. She always used proper language, never said "cock" or "dick" or "tits" or "ass" (but the way she pitched her voice and rolled her chest forward when she said "penis" made the word into the vilest of crudities).
And late in the night, when the long discussion of the day's suitor had finally closed, after Rapunzel had become convinced in her own mind that this suitor simply was not the one for her, the way the witch kissed Rapunzel good night—on the cheek, yes, on the edge of the cheek where the skin softened toward neck—made Rapunzel's breath shallow and her heart slow.
EXT. TOWER -- DAY
The WITCH stands at the bottom of a stone tower, looks up at the lone window at the tower's top.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!
Good gracious, Mother, you're getting thinner. You're not eating well.
Oh, stop worrying. I'm fine.
(beat) Am I really getting too skinny?
No, no, no! I didn't mean it like that, you look fine. I'm just worried.
Stop worrying. That face is too beautiful to mar it with worry lines so young.
I'm allowed to say when I'm worried.
Of course you are. I'm just worried about you. Almost sixteen, and what am I going to do with you if you don't find a husband soon?
Oh, Mother, none of those silly boys interests me.
Really? I would have said otherwise, the way you were blushing when that Scandinavian prince was flirting with you last week.
Come on, admit it! You liked him, didn't you!
And he liked you. He sent a messenger today, asking you to come visit. I think he'll propose if you go.
Propose? But I'm--
Do you want to go? His country is beautiful, truly beautiful. Though it's awfully cold and the men are said to be unusually brutish. Your boyfriend seemed civil though. No doubt he's the exception that proves the rule.
Mother, he's not my boyfriend.
Do you want to go?
Rapunzel turns away.
Well, do you?
I'm not ready for that. I'm not . . . I don't . . . I just . . . I don't want to go!
I'd rather be with you, Mother.
Oh, Rapunzel, what will I ever do without you?
The two embrace tearfully.
Rapunzel watches the creature in the tree for the entire morning. Not a word is spoken by either party; they merely consider each other in companionable if not entirely comfortable silence. Rapunzel's rational mind identifies the creature as a Girl—human, female, probably not far advanced from her own age. But the sheer marvel of such a phenomenon—a Girl, here, in this forest—defies immediate comprehension.
Rapunzel is loath to break the silence. Silence can be a spell, and broken spells so often banish glamour. But curiosity has its own power, so Rapunzel says, "Are you quite human?"
"Quite. Although there are days when I'd really rather not admit it. You?"
The companionable silence resumes until Treetop Girl (for so Rapunzel has dubbed her in her mind) says, "It's a lovely tower you've got there."
"Oh, it's not my tower." Rapunzel looks around at her room. "I just live in it."
Treetop Girl nods wisely. "Trapped?"
The simple conversation initiates a tectonic shift in Rapunzel's will.
The witch does not come that night. Rapunzel asks the cupboard for some paper and ink. She sits by the window and dips her nib in the ink, taps the nib against the inkwell, stares at the moon. She repeats this process for two hours without the nib once touching paper.
Treetop Girl sounds incredulous. "'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair'?"
"Well, how else do you expect her to get up?"
"Stairs are the traditional method, I believe."
"There aren't any."
"Honey, if you can build a tower, you can sure as hell build a staircase. It's customary, in fact. But okay, no stairs. What about levitation? Some kind of witch she is if she can't even lift herself up a few feet."
"I'm sure she could if she wanted to. . . ."
"Oh, so she climbs your hair just for kicks? That's some kind of sicko."
Rapunzel shifts uncomfortably. "Why are you in this forest alone? Don't you know there are robbers and bandits?"
Treetop Girl grins and leans back. She's found a spot that lets her lounge in the tree rather than perch. Rapunzel thinks she looks entirely too comfortable for someone at the top of a fifty-foot drop.
"Bandits, yeah, sure. Some of them are buddies of mine. As for the rest, I keep a low profile and use a few good jabs and kicks to discourage anyone else from sticking around long. I do okay."
"Don't you get lonely?"
Treetop Girl shrugs. "Sure, sometimes. But there's worse things than lonely. What about you? You must be awful lonesome."
"No, the witch visits pretty often. We talk a lot."
"Ha. That must be quite a comfort."
Rapunzel does not answer.
That night the witch comes. She comes at sundown. She comes when the red light sears the treetops, she comes and pollutes the dusk with her power.
"Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair."
The silky waterfall tumbles down, unfurls down the tower's side; the mass of Rapunzel's hair reaches down from window to ground, and the witch climbs up, she climbs hand over bony hand. When she reaches the window, Rapunzel watches those hands, those bony hands, watches those hands washed crimson by the dying sun, watches those skin-and-bone hands clutch the window frame. "Come help me," the witch commands, and those bony hands reach for Rapunzel, those hands clutch and cling. Rapunzel feels the palms, the soft smooth skin of those palms, she feels the satin-smooth palms slide over her own skin. She helps the witch crawl inside the tower room, she helps the witch stand, she walks away from the witch on a pretense—"Let me get you tea"—she moves away from those smooth, bony hands, and Rapunzel is awake. She is utterly awake.
Rapunzel is awake and she dreams of knives.
Treetop Girl returns the next morning, and Rapunzel is waiting. Rapunzel has only one question.
"Do you have a knife I can borrow?"
Treetop Girl frowns. "What do you want a knife for?"
"Does it matter?"
Treetop Girl sits in the swaying branches, silent for a while. Then she unhooks something from her belt. "If you catch this, you can have it." She tosses a sheathed knife toward the tower window. Rapunzel leans out and plucks the knife out of the air.
Treetop Girl climbs down and drops to the ground. She looks up at Rapunzel, shielding her eyes from the sun. "I'll be here a few more days. If you want to find me, I'll be around. Be careful. But not too careful."
Rapunzel's fingers fly along the length of her hair. She ties off the braid at the bottom and the top. She pulls the knife from its sheath and watches light glint across the metal.
She has locked the broomstick in the wardrobe in case it tries to fly after her.
The blade slides through her hair; the feeling of the hairs separating is what she imagines boats feel when they are untied from their moorings. It seems she feels every individual hair snap away from her head.
At last a heavy braid lies in her hand.
She ties it to the hook in the window frame, tests it. Will it hold? She does not know. She climbs over the sill.
"Goodbye, child," the cupboard says. She looks up, surprised. The cupboard has never said much. Its drawers rattle open and closed. "If I were a prince instead of a wooden box I'd have whisked you away from that demented woman years ago."
She feels dizzy for a moment, almost lighter than air. "Thank you, Cupboard."
Then Rapunzel disappears.
I won't call you Mother again.
I locked Broom away so he couldn't chase after me. Don't blame him.
I'm going to find my parents. I don't remember them well, but I remember loving them. I want to feel that again.
You won't get me back. Even if you follow me, even if you find me, you won't get me back. I have allies now. And I have myself.
When a person stops being afraid of you, it's time to be very, very careful.
Treetop Girl is not in a treetop, but stoking a low fire in a clearing. Rapunzel calls out and limps toward her.
"What happened to you?" She rushes to help Rapunzel to a seat by the fire. "Did you have to fight your way free?"
"No." She presses her rib, winces. "The braid untied before I reached the ground."
"The braid—" Treetop Girl rocks back on her heels and whistles. "Clever girl. I'm going to like traveling with you. That is, if you don't mind traveling with me. I can at least get you to the nearest village." She pulls out a flask and hands it over.
"Raspberry margarita. It'll make you feel better, I promise."
Rapunzel takes a quick sip, puckers her lips, takes a big gulp. "Wow."
"Yeah, I know. Great stuff."
Rapunzel takes another drink. Her head moves in unfamiliar ways; it has no weight. The drink makes it worse, or better. Her body feels unnaturally solid while her head feels like a kite tugging against its string, begging to be unleashed into the unknown. Uneven ends of hair keep fluttering against her neck, tickling and making her shiver. She hands the flask back to Treetop Girl and says, "Can I get some of those to wear?"
"What, pants? Of course."
"And a belt like yours, for my knife." She touches the knife—back in its sheath—and hesitates. "That is, if I can, if I can still keep it?"
"Are you kidding? You caught it, it's yours. You better not try giving it back. I'll be insulted."
They trade the flask back and forth in silence. Then Rapunzel says, "What's your name?"
"Call me Cat for now. What should I call you?"
Damp earth cradles her, pressing its moisture through her clothes to her skin. The fire snaps, rises, throws out sparks. High above, the treetops discuss the world, every leaf and needle rushing to whisper its news. Her eyes follow a tree trunk up, up to its distant crown outlined against the blue. The treetops are high, so far above her, and she is sitting on the moist ground by a roaring fire with the world and all its danger surrounding her.
"I don't know yet." She puts her hands close to the fire until they itch from the heat. "I'll let you know."
"Rapunzel Dreams of Knives," by Beth Adele Long, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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