Iron Henry


Henry swigged a melting mouthful of the hearth witch’s tea and clutched his chest. Eyes bulging, beet face glistening, he waited on the precipice. A grand suck of air. A glimmer of gritted teeth. The medicine took. After his affliction smoothed its feathers and he could breath again, Henry slid down the wall of the well and grated a coarse hand across his shining brow.

A bit of cold water would have gone a long way, but Henry knew better than to stick his hand into the iris of the well to freshen his face. And yet…Henry peered down into its mirthless depths for one look, but the frog was gone again. Plucked. Stolen. The well witch’s pincers had dragged him back down to her breathless underworld. Was his prince happier with that sea serpent? He couldn’t be. What a silly idea. Henry repeated these mantras as uncertainty sickened his mind with hypothesis and jealousy. He rapped on his chest three times with four knuckles like knots in birch and lumbered up from his seat wondering when his prince would appear again.

“Fool,” Henry said, the word lush with longing.

The next day Henry again squished through the rank marsh to the green-furred well and called down into the water, watching his pleas ripple across its glutinous surface.

“Prince! My prince! Your man calls you,” he sobbed. The forest responded first, laughing at poor Henry. Birds shrieking slurs, dripping hot white fervor to the forest floor. But a pale specter grew out of the well’s thunderhead. An emerald body rose. A horror. An extraterrestrial sun in the familiar night sky.

“My prince! Ah,” Henry said, doubling over as his heart swelled against its cage. His cry held the power of resurrection. A hand shot up thin and bare as a wintered branch to pull the frog down, down, down to the bottom of the well.

Henry slid to the damp grass and nestled his head against the mildewed stone, salting it with fresh loss. When a long time later he lifted his face to the darkening day, Henry found himself staring at the witch, her arms hooked over the sill of the well to pillow her brown, waterlogged cheek as she looked sidelong at the man and clucked.

“Poor Henry,” said the witch. “I am sorry.”

“You aren’t though,” Henry said, too weary to brew stronger poison. “You have him and you couldn’t be happier.”

“Oh Henry, it’s not that simple,” the witch said as she brushed a water moccasin away from her face to peer at the man with avian ferocity.

“I’m confined here. You’ve known love while I’ve known nothing so deep as my own well. My heart will never find home with another, but at least I’ll have a companion now.”

“So you have spoken. Now leave me be,” said Henry, clutching his heart.

“It was unfortunate that you and your prince came along, but that can’t be helped. I’ll not spend my centuries alone,” the witch said, trailing off. She studied Henry. “What have you done to yourself, Henry?” she said. “Something in you has changed.”

Henry grimaced. “I had the blacksmith cage my heart in iron,” he said. “To keep it from bursting.”

The witch sighed as Henry rallied. “What if I offered you a deal?” the witch said. “A chance to regain your beloved’s life.”

Henry’s spine snapped into place. “I dare not believe–” but the witch stopped him with one uplifted hand.

“Even if you succeed, you won’t get all that you want. But your prince will be free. He will recover his true shape and a life outside my well.”

Henry stood. “Tell me then. I have nothing to lose and my true love’s freedom to gain.”

The witch, leaning too far over her well, cringed back. Henry drew close to hear.

“There is a princess in the next kingdom. It was her ancestors who banished me to this well. If I find her a prince to marry, my spell will be lifted. Should you convince her to take the prince for a husband as he is, his spell too will be lifted. But you must not tell her his true identity and they must remain husband and wife or he will be called back to me. And if that should happen, your prince will turn frog again, never surfacing to see you.”

Henry said nothing for a long time. “It will be done,” he decided at last. “My prince will see the sun again, if not his faithful Henry.”


The princess was out walking in a brightly scented meadow. Every now and then she slowed her step to toss a ball into the air. High above her the golden orb gleamed, dazzling the sky as its gems caught the sun’s fire. It would have put the queen into a spin to see the princess toss her hard-won golden egg, but the young woman knew her mother wouldn’t notice if it went missing for an hour or so each day, and she took wicked pleasure in using the priceless treasure as a plaything.

With a thrill of jubilation and daring, the princess flung the egg as hard as she could up to the sky and as she did a shadow fell over her. Before she could even sound her alarm a fury of feathers swooped down from the sky taking hold of the egg with precise talons.

“Oh no,” the princess cried, chasing the bird through the woods. She barely looked down from the hunt until something heavy fell on her shoulder and pulled her back.

“No, princess,” warned a low voice.

“How dare you,” the princess spat at the man who had clapped his hand on her shoulder.

“The well,” he said, and the princess looked back and saw it then. The chase had so consumed her, she had almost tumbled heel over head into the black pool.

“You saved my life,” she breathed. “But, oh, my egg,” she wailed.

“Your egg?”

“A golden egg all crusted with jewels. Like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“But I think I have seen it,” he said, holding out his palm. The other hand held hawking gloves, but that was behind his back.

“Ah,” the princess gasped. It was the egg, as perfect as ever and even more so for having been found. As the princess reached for her prize the man pulled back.

“I will return your egg to you on one condition,” he said.

“I’ll give you my pearls and my jewels,” the princess huffed. “I’ll even give you the clothes on my back–just give me my egg.”

“I don’t want your pearls or your jewels. And I’d ask that you keep your clothes on. All I want is the promise that you will accept my prince as your companion. Let him sit beside you at your golden table and eat from your golden plate and sleep in your golden bed and promise to love and cherish him.”

“A prince,” the princess said, disguising her interest with coyness but too late. “Is he as beautiful as you?” asked the pouting coquette.

“He is,” said the man, and there was such sorrow in his voice, it drove the princess ravenous.

“I’ll have him,” she said and snatched up her egg. But when the prince, all green and gray brindled, rose to the water’s surface the princess shrieked her disgust and fled into the woods.

“Wait, princess! Your promise,” Henry called after her  gauntlets pressed to his heart. But she was gone.


The princess was dining on pheasant with the king and queen when a knock traveled to them from the castle door. The king left their table to discover the meaning of the interruption and returned with a young beauty and a frog.

“This man says you broke a promise made to him,” the king said to the princess. “Is this true?”

“He tricked me into promising my companionship, my plate, my bed, and love to that creature,” she said and scowled at the intruders.

“What trick was this?” the king asked the young man.

“No trick,” said Henry. “I only recovered the princess’s golden egg when she lost it.”

“Golden egg?” said the queen. “Excuse me.” She left the table and returned with the golden egg. “This golden egg?” she said.

“The very same,” said Henry. And the queen gave the princess such a look as would make any daughter or son wish for the earth to gobble them up.

“And did you agree to the promise?” the queen continued.

“I did, but that was before I knew his prince was a frog,” the princess insisted.

“It matters not,” said the queen. “You have made a promise and you will keep it.”

“Father,” the princess wailed.

“Listen to your mother,” the king said, tucking back into his plate. “You will not besmirch our name with your dishonesty.”

The princess opened her mouth but one look from the queen snapped it shut. Henry felt the cord pressing the frog against his hand, pulling him back toward the well, snap beneath the princess’s surrender. He gingerly placed his prince near the princess’s plate and left their company gasping at the pain housed within the iron cage.

“Push the plate close to your companion so that he may share your meal,” the queen said with a tidy, icy smile.

Empty stomach and barren of appetite, the princess took the frog to her room under her parents’ orders. But when she felt the slimy skin against her own and heard the rusty croak of her bedfellow she cried out and flung the frog against the wall. So great was collision that the witch’s enchantment smacked clean off the prince and he was freed from his froggy form.

Eyeing the prince in true flesh, the princess flew to his aid, her heart pounding with new love. The prince, seeing himself in her looking glass, pushed the princess aside and escaped the castle in search of Henry. He found him pale and clutching his heart by the well, the witch stroking his auburn hair. They started at the sight of the prince.

“My prince! You’re whole again,” Henry said embracing his other half.

“The spell was lifted when the princess threw me against the wall,” said the prince.

“Threw you,” Henry raged.

“Ah,” said the witch. “Tricky business, spells. I’m sorry to say that you’re still tied to me, frog or not. Even now the enchantment pulls you back to my well.” And the prince had moved incrementally closer to the witch and the water.

“Wait,” cried Henry. “I have a proposal.”


The princess heard a knock on the castle door and flew to the window. Just as she’d hoped, it was him. She flung the door wide and embraced her prince on the doorstep.

“You have returned. I knew you would. There is no princess–or otherwise–fairer in the land and now you know and I forgive you,” she said, pulling him in.

“Wait, princess. First you must sever my ties to the well witch. I cannot be yours until you do.”

The princess squared her shoulders. “Then sever your ties I will,” she said. “I have no fear of well witches. Let us go directly.”

They found the witch waiting, hooked to the ledge of the well by her chin, which rested on a soft bed of moss.

“What do we have here?” the witch said through her teeth.

“The princess has come of her own volition to sever my ties,” said the prince.

“Then so shall it be,” said the witch. “Come closer, my dear, and let me tell you how it’s done.”

The princess looked at her prince who nodded encouragement. She lifted her chin, strode to the witch, leaned over the well and splash! In went the princess and off went Henry and his prince to live happily ever after.


Chapter 6: Bears to War

Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.

Ghost-C6-Spies-webCrows burst into the air like fireworks and disappeared as quickly, finding distant stations on the fringes of the town where they ruffled their feathers in baffled misery. The feathered, fluttering slips of gold that had driven them off now cooed as a hulking pile of patchwork fabric lifted his hands skyward with offerings of sweat-salted seeds and black breadcrumbs.

“Hey. Hey d’you know it’s called a murder of crows?” Parker rasped.

“Everybody knows that, Parker, so shut up,” Darla hissed.

Ghost curled her fingers around the crumbling edge of the brick building and held her breath. She smelled the corn chips on Darla’s breath before she felt her lean in.

“Move back a little,” Ghost whispered. Heat radiated from the buildings sandwiching them; the pavement exhaled the oily spirit of a merciless noon.

“I wanna see,” Darla complained.

“Well here then,” said Ghost. She moved to let Darla take her place, attempting cat-like stealth only to trip over her feet. She had to grab onto Parker’s hair to avoid a noisy fall and thought he’d squeal. But Parker brayed mutely, too surprised to find his voice.

Now Ghost leaned over Darla’s shoulder. “What’s he doing?” she asked, blowing brush-ravaged curls out of her nostrils.

“I dunno. He’s swaying or something. Wait. He’s singing–no! He’s humming.”

“Humming?” Parker crinkled his nose in offense.

Ghost and Darla shushed him. Parker didn’t seem capable of dropping below a nasal shriek most of the time and whispering was against his beliefs. As they feared, the man’s head jerked up. Everyone froze except Jo-Jo who continued to read his book, leaning back against the molten building.

The man’s back faced them. His nose was a brindled sliver. His hair was a matted pile stacked atop his head. Gray, red, brown, white, black, every color shot out from his scalp and mushroomed around him with great violence. That hum Darla had caught in the momentary breeze–that low, throaty chant like something Ghost had heard before–stopped suddenly as he stared at the dusty red wall three, maybe four feet from where the Conundrum Council hid in the alley. The buildings surrounding the small square where the man roosted with his birds were windowless. Their ivy-covered faces saw no one, but Ghost, Darla, Parker, and Jo-Jo had found the man.

The Council had schemed to leave Pip behind. “Official business,” Darla had told her mother with grave bureaucracy. Mrs. Pumpernickel had peered at the Council dubiously, but then she said, “Have it your own way this time, girl. But don’t get used to it.”

Darla could be pretty clever sometimes. She was the one who had come up with a possible solution to their first conundrum. And so Ghost’s proposal to figure out who had lived in the shack that now served as their clubhouse had turned into the mystery of the bird man.

“I’m sure he used to live here,” Darla had said. “He arrived with a traveling circus. Or, wait wait! He used to work at the arcade.”

“Yeah, uh-huh,” Parker had chimed in through a mouthful of candy as he hopped a hydrantGhost-C6-BirdMan-web outside of Mr. Coffee’s Toffees. “I think I saw him at the arcade too. Nah, hold on–it was at Lumberg’s Fine China Depot with my granny. That’s where I saw him.”

Jo-Jo lifted an eyebrow, frowned, and said nothing. Ghost shot him a knowing glance. “A minute ago, you said he could control birds,” she argued. “What would someone with that sort of power be doing at an arcade or a china depot? Maybe a circus,” she trailed off.

“What are you some expert on the subject?” Darla asked, lifting her nose even higher.

“What if I am?” Ghost said.

“Look there,” stuttered Parker. Four chins lifted as the first round of crows evacuated the alley.

Now, almost half an hour later, the bird man resumed his feathered lullaby.

“I don’t think he saw us,” Ghost said.

“Let’s go,” Darla whispered. “I’m over it.” Ghost heard the tiny crack in Darla’s voice and decided to keep her mouth shut and make for the exit.

“You shouldn’t spy on people like that.”

Ghost had been excited to tell her mother about the Conundrum Council’s first mystery but now she felt deflated and shame-faced.

“People aren’t mysteries for you to solve–they’re people,” her mother continued. “And people have complicated backgrounds that land them in circumstances you may not understand. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings. I hope you’ll keep that in mind when you’re looking for entertainment. You and your new friends.”

Ghost’s mom paused and turned around with an apologetic smile. Ghost had decided to look out of the window, keeping her face turned as far from her mother as she could without spraining something. But she listened as her mother continued.

Ghost-C6-ChitChat-web“I am happy that you’ve found friends, sweetie. I know you understand that I’m not trying to discourage you.”

Ghost did know. But why did it always seem like she was doing something wrong? It was like her parents were sifting through her chatter for anything to criticize these days.

“You look nice,” Ghost said, ready to change the subject.

Her mother kissed her on the cheek. “Thanks, sweetie. You’ll be alright at Matilda’s? Dad and I should only be a couple hours.”

Ghost’s father was downstairs, playing music, getting into the spirit of going out on the town for an evening. Her parents explored every town they had ever lived in through its culinary scene. It was easy to find new places to try as much as they moved around.

“I’ll be fine,” Ghost promised.

“Okay. Well, now that I’ve got your vote, I think we’re ready to go.”

Ghost’s parents walked her next door and rang the doorbell. Matilda’s door swung open venting a haze of sage and cat litter into the cool evening.

“Thank you so much,” Ghost’s parents said until she grew cross.

When they were gone, at last, Matilda shut the door and clapped her hands. “Well. I hope you like bolognese,” she said.

“Does it have bologna in it?” Ghost asked, knowing the answer.

“No–it’s just pasta with meat sauce. Ground beef,” Matilda shrugged. “But really good pasta with meat sauce,” she added with gravitas.

Ghost eyed her suspiciously, wondering if Matilda thought she ate spaghetti from the can. “I like pasta,” she said.

“Good. I just need to hover over it awhile. Would you like to keep me company in the kitchen?”

Ghost followed Matilda into a warm kitchen of saffron walls and pleasing clutter. The smell of oregano made her mouth water. Matilda looked a bit lost flitting from her cookbook to her pot and back to her cookbook. She frowned.

“I live off of takeout,” Matilda admitted.

“I would’ve eaten takeout,” said Ghost.

“No way,” Matilda shouted. “This is my first babysitting gig–I need to impress.”

“I don’t know, babysitters always order pizza in horror movies. And then they invite their friends over to do stupid things.”

“Your parents let you watch that stuff?”

“Sure,” said Ghost.

“It’s a long time since I was seventeen and my cats aren’t keen on large parties, so there will be none of that.”

One of Matilda’s cats was lying on her side under the table, trying to shred Ghost’s boot.

“Good because it usually leads to bad times,” Ghost said, smiling down at the cat. It gave her one look and darted away.

“So your mom said you made some friends.”

“Yeah, I’ve been hanging out with some kids from the neighborhood. They’re cool. We have this sort of secret society.”

“Tell me all about it,” Matilda said, shutting the cookbook and tossing hot peppers into the pot.

“It’s secret,” Ghost said snottily, and then, “It’s called the Conundrum Council and we solve the town’s mysteries.”

“Ooh, that does sound exciting. What mysteries have you solved?”

Ghost cradled her chin in her palm. “None.” Matilda lifted one sharp eyebrow. “I mean, not yet,” Ghost added. “Actually . . . ” she considered a moment. “Have you ever met someone who could control animals?”

Matilda’s spoon stopped stirring. “Hmm, you mean commanding a dog to sit or a cat to use the toilet? Or more like leading your bear minions to war?”

“Bears to war,” said Ghost.

“I’ve known of that sort of thing.” She said nothing more for a while. “I mean, there’s that guy on TV with the dogs. I always thought he might be secretly training everyone’s pets to eventually overthrow their owners and join him in some unholy battle.”

Ghost snorted. “Never mind. Silly question.”

“What makes you ask?” said Matilda.

“Just Council business.”

Matilda nodded sagely. “Council business. Right. Well, my mysterious friend, I hope you’re ready to eat, and I hope you like heat because I think those were habaneros and not mini heirloom tomatoes.”

“I’m ready to suffer. Can I use your restroom first?”

“Go on then. Down the hall and to your right.”

Ghost wandered down the hall. Embarrassing family photos decorated the walls of Ghost’s home but at Matilda’s it was cat photos. Here was the tabby wearing a cowboy hat and a scowl; here was the butterscotch ball of fluff wearing a top hat, bow, and scowl; here was the rotund, immobile Scottish Fold wearing a tiny elf’s hat and a lolling tongue. Ghost preferred these photos to her own wrinkled infant face nailed to the wall like evil eyes warding off spirits.

She stopped in the middle of the hallway. Matilda had said, “down the hall and to your right,” but she counted three doors along the hall to her right. Ghost didn’t want to be caught looking like a snoop. She decided to try the first door. Matilda would have told her which one if she didn’t mean the first.

Proud of her ability to sift logic from the vague, Ghost turned the door handle, opened the door, opened her mouth, and screamed.

Chapter 5: The Tale of Minoned

Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.

Tale of Minoned 1On a warm island all furred with olive trees lived a farmer, a shepherdess, and their daughter. The three led a mostly placid life, but one day The Blight crawled up from the Underground full of boredom and ill intent and threatened to squander their crops and the feed for their sheep. The farmer and the shepherdess begged for mercy. The warm season was ending and they would not survive winter without olives and sheep to trade the sea merchants for salted kraken and the whale fat that kept their hearth lit all the months long.

But The Blight would only agree to keep his nubby fingers off the crops if the farmer and the shepherdess gave him their daughter to take as his wife. As the couple thought their daughter terribly dull and without aspiration, and as the task of making a baby would curtail the boredom of the lengthening nights, husband and wifey quickly-quietly made the exchange.

The girl—

“What was her name?”

Nix pursed his lips. “Harbo, not that it matters. Anyway—“

Harbo found herself in the Underground with The Blight who, as it turns out, had one million bartered wives. One of many, Harbo moldered for near a century within the smelly caverns of The Blight’s home. The Underground isn’t a place for mortals. It’s lousy with monsters and angry gods—not that there aren’t some good ones. Harbo could safely go no farther than the river that sloshed past The Blight’s caverns and throughout the Underground, and it was there that she came across the goddess Minoned while throwing rocks into the frothing waters.

“You shouldn’t do that.”

Harbo looked up from the dark water to find a young woman watching her from an idling boat.

“Do what?” asked Harbo.

“My sea serpents swim in there. I imagine they don’t enjoy taking rocks to the head, though I can’t be certain since they’ve never said as much.”

Giving the woman a once-over, Harbo asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m the goddess Minoned. I tend to the beasts of the Underground,” Minoned shrugged. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you around.”

“I’m Harbo of the Olive Isle, wife of The Blight. Well, one of them. And I don’t get out much.”

Minoned made a face. “The Blight? He smells like thousand year-old unwashed underpants.”

Harbo couldn’t disagree.

“Want to paddle downriver with me?” asked Minoned. “You’ll be safe on my boat.”

Harbo gladly accepted the opportunity for a break from the caverns and the nonsense chatter of the million wives. She’d spent half a century in their company and she still had no idea what any of them were saying.

“Half a century?” said Ghost. “Harbo must’ve been ancient by then.”

“Aside from the fact that at sixty-seven one is not ancient, everyone knows that all living mortals who enter the Underground stop aging,” said Nix. “The entrapped don’t die either, much as they wish it.”

“If they don’t die, why would they worry about monsters and mean gods?”

“I said they don’t die of old age,” Nix snapped.

“No you didn’t.”

Nix gave Ghost a long, but weary, stare. “Alright, a mortal can die of unnatural causes, which may include being swallowed whole or having her atoms dispersed by a god. But if that happens, her soul doesn’t get to slum the world sniffing freshly baked bread or scaring children or whatever it is the departed enjoy doing. She gets to wander the Underground eternally, except it’s like one of those bad dreams where your body can only float a millimeter above the ground–where you move at such a crawl even a squashed snail would beat you in a race. Now,” Nix cleared his throat.

Minoned 3Minoned and Harbo had a grand time herding the colossal lantern fish, scattering them all through the river system. They lit the dark spaces so that the gods wouldn’t bark their shins on stalagmites or fall into one of the bottomless holes that pocked the stony floor.

“It must be thrilling to go where you please and ride giant cave spiders up the walls,” said Harbo as she touched a fingertip to a fish’s lantern.

Minoned dipped a lazy oar into the water and considered Harbo’s words. “It’s alright,” she said. “It’s been my life for all of time. But this is fun. I don’t get much company down here. Sometimes, I have to chatter to my beasts because I forget the sound of my own voice.”

“I get lonely too,” confessed Harbo.

“You have the other wives.”

Harbo explained how the million wives all came from different places and times and how they struggled to understand each other.

“I’m kind of, sort of getting the hang of one of the languages, but the wife who speaks it is covered from head to toe in hair and throws sticks at me sometimes. I always end up fleeing before I can get to the bottom of her hooting and hollering.”

“Just say it. I can see that you have something to say. Just say it now before I—“

“I was going to ask how Minoned could understand Harbo if they weren’t from the same place. But let me guess: gods can speak all languages.”

“Good. I’m glad we’re making progress here. I should say that fluent as the gods are in the languages of the universe, they can’t seem to make heads or tails of body language.”

Ghost feigned shock. “Are you admitting to ignorance?”

“I am a demigod and a master of body language.”

When time came for Harbo to return to The Blight and the million wives and the caverns, she pleaded her case to Minoned.

“Don’t make me go back there,” said Harbo. “I can help you with the beasts. I can be your apprentice.”

“I’m not hiring,” said Minoned. But Harbo looked so unhappy, Minoned agreed to let her stay a little while longer.

She brought Harbo back to her temple and fed the fell dogs standing guard outside while Harbo wondered at the glowing structure of flickering candles and dripping wax.

“Minoned,” someone snarled.

Minoned turned from her task to find The Blight striding toward her, tracking a foul cloud behind him. She lit a stick of incense and stood her ground.

“Where is my wife?” he growled. “The Damp said he saw you with her on the river.”

Minoned took one look at the green thread of spit dangling from The Blight’s cracked lower lip and knew she couldn’t return Harbo to him. She glanced behind her to find the fell dogs dividing. Harbo stood on the other side of them. If the dogs continued to wander, the girl would be exposed and dragged back to the caverns never to be allowed out again.

Minoned sighed and did what she had to do. The Blight pushed past her, calling out for Harbo. A dog snapped at him as he passed.

“Where is she?” he demanded again.

The impassive Minoned watched The Blight glare beneath the surrounding rocks as if expecting to find his wife under one. “Who knows?” she said.

When it became apparent to The Blight that he had somehow been tricked, he left at last, still shouting Harbo’s name into the tunnels, pausing often to curse and kick stone rats.

“I’m a dog,” Harbo barked, wagging her black tail.

“Yes, you are and a dog you’ll have to stay if you don’t want The Blight to come back for you,” sighed Minoned.

“Why are you sad?” asked Harbo. “I can stay with you now, and we can be friends always.”

“Soon you will forget all words and all memory of your former life. You will be a beast.”

Harbo was quiet awhile, then said, “I think I’m okay with that. I’d much rather lead a dog’s life and go where I please.”

And Harbo did have a mostly happy existence running with her pack, tearing other beasts apart. Harbo also forgot her words and her old life and Minoned’s friendship, just as the goddess said she would. And that is the tale of Minoned and how she lost the only friend she’d have for a long, long time.

“What?” asked Nix.

But Ghost, having by now made it across the neighborhood to her own front stoop, could only continue shaking her head at Nix in disbelief. “That was your story? She lived miserably ever after? You know, if you were sent here to make me feel worse, I don’t actually need help with that. I’m doing fine on my own.”

“It’s just a story,” Nix called out. But he couldn’t be sure she’d heard past the sound of the door slamming in his face.

Minoned 4

[Fairy Tale] East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)

retelling and pictures by S. Zainab Williams

art by S. Zainab WilliamsHis hair was thick and white as the pure snow that frosted the ice kingdom. His mouth was a slick black line opening to reveal white fangs and pant smoke into the frozen air. But it was his eyes the king saw; the half-lidded gaze of wan defeat that gave the king hope enough to cry out.

“Mercy! Please!”

Somewhere in the distance his black mare cantered through the powder white-eyed and homeward-bound. Somewhere much farther off, deep in the cloud bank, his hunting party gave off chasing the white buck to search for their king. The bear grunted and sloped his thick skull to sniff the air around the king. Was it defeat, the king now wondered, or dire hunger that dulled the bear’s eyes?

“I have three daughters, and a queen, and this kingdom to protect. Spare me and I will give you what I can,” he cried.

The bear rose up on his hind legs and unhinged his massive jaws and the king’s hand flew to his ears to protect them from what would surely be the last sound he heard—a deafening roar that would shatter his icy stronghold.

“A bed.”

The king unscrewed his eyes to peer up at the bear.

“A bed,” the bear said again. “And a roaring fire. And a seat at your table. This is what I want.”

When her father broke free of the forest and the clouds borne on the back of a great white bear, the youngest princess left her sisters’ and her mother’s company to race across the packed white earth stretching out from the castle to embrace her broken father. The middle and eldest princesses and the queen held back, uncertain and afraid.

When the king recounted the story of how he had been lost to the cloud, how his mare had startled and thrown him off, and how the bear had saved him, the youngest princess thanked the bear.

“You are a welcome guest in our home. You will have your bed, and your fire, and a seat at our table, and we will be joyous in your company,” said the youngest princess.

But the middle and eldest princesses were not joyous in the bear’s company and the king was only anxious. The six sat around the great table by the roaring hearth. The red and orange light colored the castle walls made brick by brick of ice, but the waterstone neither melted nor wept so cold was the ice kingdom. The six ate in silence, swaddled in thick fur cloaks, a company of bears.

The youngest princess lifted her eyes from her plate to watch the bear eat with knife and drink from a goblet, but looked away again when he caught her gaze.

That night as the house slept, the bear pulled the curtains around his bed and lay back on the feather mattress. But the door creaked and pale yellow light spilled through a gap in his bed curtains. The bear feigned sleep and when the light washed over his face, illuminating his eyelids, he opened his eyes to find the sleepy face of the youngest princess.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I cannot sleep. I never can sleep. The castle is too cold and my fire never warm enough. The halls are too still and lonely always. The peasants keep to their cottages where they are safe from snow and ice, never braving the frozen climb for balls and banquets. So I shiver alone,” said the youngest princess.

The bear stared up at her with his wet sad eyes and the youngest princess stared back with curiosity.

“How is it that you eat and drink and sleep like man? How is it that you speak?” asked the youngest princess.

“That is a long tale and the moon will rise soon. My coat is warm and soft. You may stay and take comfort, but only if you promise to be asleep before the moon rises above the mountain peak.”

The youngest princess promised. She curled beside the bear and fell into a long deep sleep before the moon rose above the mountain peak. And when it did, the bear snuck a slender arm around the youngest princess and pulled her close to keep her warm.

This continued for many more nights. The youngest princess crept into the bear’s bed and slept before the moon rose above the mountain peak.

But one night the queen spied the youngest princess slipping into the bear’s room and put her ear to the door. She heard the youngest princess tell the bear stories about her childhood in the ice kingdom and she heard the bear tell the youngest princess about his childhood in the forests of a faraway sunlit kingdom. When their voices faded, replaced by long, deep breaths, the queen snuck into the room and pulled back the curtains.

As the moon rose above the mountain peak, the queen leaned over the sleeping pair and jumped to see that a young man had replaced the bear. And as the queen jumped, three drops of melted tallow fell from the three candles on her candelabra, dripping onto the young man’s bare arm.

The young man awoke as did the youngest princess. Seeing what had happened, the young man rose and pulled a great white fur around him.

“I must leave,” he said.

“But why?” the youngest princess cried.

“I have been seen by the light of the moon and so the troll princess now knows where I am. She will find your kingdom, gobble your family, and steal me back,” said the young man.

“We will fight her,” said the youngest princess.

The young man smiled with great sadness in his eyes.

“I was once a young prince in my sunlit kingdom east of the sun and west of the moon. But the troll princess and her mother came in the night to kill my father and mother. I tried to fight them but they stole my kingdom and the troll princess claimed me for herself. She cursed me so that I would turn into a bear by day if ever I fled the kingdom. By the light of the moon, I would become man again, but if anyone spied me in my true form, the troll princess would find me through their eyes.”

“So now you must go,” whispered the young princess.

And the young prince smiled sadly again, flung the white fur over his head, and disappeared out the tall open window as a great gust of wind drove a flurry of snowflakes past the castle.

Gray smoke and white clouds curled around the youngest princess’s brindled mare. She pulled the thick gray fur hood over her head to protect her ears from the swirling snow. Her sisters called out in the distance, but she moved deeper into the forest, deeper into the clouds.

As their voices faded, new sounds came to replace them: the howling wind, snow shifting on tree limbs, a wood fire crackling in someone’s yard, small feet crunching the white floor cover—wolves, deer, or maybe even the boar she and her sisters had been hunting in place of their father, still bedridden by the injuries from his fall.

And then other sounds still: water gurgling, birds chirping, the swoosh of a warm breeze melting the clouds away. The youngest princess emerged from the forest into a springtime town dotted with windmills and tulips. A smokehouse branded with silver crescent moons blew fragrant smoke from its chimney and someone beat on its door from within.

“Help me,” cried someone from within. “I have been trapped in my smokehouse by two plump children!”

The youngest princess gathered all of her strength to break the door down, freeing a gray crone all red from the smokehouse. The youngest princess peered through smoke fragrant from timber and flesh for a glimpse of plump limbs red as the crone’s face. The crone invited her to step into the smokehouse and take a haunch of her own choosing, but the youngest princess could see what she was up to and took up her reins.

“You have saved my life and for that I owe you a gift,” said the crone.

“Do you know how to reach the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I do not, but I will give you a bag of golden baby teeth and a boat to cross the fjord,” said the crone.

The youngest princess accepted these gifts and stroked across the glassy blue waters of the springtime fjord. A fiddle all lacquered and fretted with silver stars swept down a channel of rapids near the shore. The youngest princess gathered all of her nimbleness to navigate the rapids and rescued the fiddle from the river. Near a white-bearded waterfall, the youngest princess came upon a comely fossegrimen weeping into the foaming waters. His pale yellow hair pooled around him and curled around the kelp.

“Why do you weep?” asked the youngest princess.

“I have lost my fiddle to the rapids,” said the fossegrimen.

“Well here it is,” said the youngest princess and presented him with the lacquered fiddle.

The fossegrimen took up the fiddle and played a tune so sweet and haunting, the youngest princess was almost moved to slip out of the boat and remain in the pools forever. But the youngest princess could see what he was up to and took up her paddles.

“You have saved my fiddle and for that I owe you a gift,” said the fossegrimen.

“Do you know how to reach the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I do not, but I will give you a golden fiddle string and a strong stick to hike the mountain,” said the fossegrimen.

The youngest princess accepted these gifts and hiked up the tulip-speckled climbs of the springtime mountain. A young goat-herd dragged from a mountain cave a beautiful huldra dressed only in irons chased with silver comets.

“Free me,” cried the huldra, her cow’s switch twitching behind her. “He will take me to the church and chasten me. And I will grow old and ugly.”

The youngest princess gathered all of her courage and drove the young goat-herd away with her stick. Free of her chains, the huldra pet the youngest princess and entreated her to a glass of akvavit in her cave. But the youngest princess could see what she was up to and took up her hiking stick.

“You have saved my fiddle and for that I owe you a gift,” said the huldra.

“Do you know how to reach the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but the East Wind may know,” said the huldra. “I will give you a sturdy kite to catch the wind and a golden vial filled with a golden potion to cure any curse.”

The youngest princess accepted these gifts and scaled the mountain peak. She let out her kite and caught the East Wind as he drove the springtime breeze.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but my brother the West Wind might,” howled the East Wind.

So the youngest princess let the East Wind carry her across the sky until they met the West Wind.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but my brother the South Wind might,” howled the West Wind.

So the youngest princess let the West Wind carry her across the sky until they met the South Wind.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but my brother the North Wind might,” howled the South Wind.

So the youngest princess let the South Wind carry her across the sky until they met the North Wind.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I blew a flurry of snowflakes there from the ice kingdom once. I will take you to the castle,” howled the North Wind.

So the youngest princess let the North Wind carry her across the sky, beyond the springtime into summer, east of the sun and west of the moon.

art by S. Zainab Williams

A towering castle of stone and glass formed the peak of a forested mountain Goliath. Standing on the warm, cobbled stone of the castle courtyard, the youngest princess knocked thrice on a heavy oak door with its hooped brass knocker.

“Who knocks at the door of the troll princess?” called a voice from within.

“Only a girl come from a land of ice far away to behold the wonder of the troll princess and her kingdom,” said the youngest princess.

The door creaked open and a piggish eye the color of a dead toad stared down at the youngest princess from a great height. And when the door swung wide, there stood the troll princess, a massive beast formed of rock and algae and meanness.

“What would you have with me?” the troll princess frowned. “Tell me now or I’ll spit you, and roast you, and eat you whole.” Her voice boomed down the empty halls of the castle.

When the troll princess smiled a wicked smile, the youngest princess said, “I come with a gift of golden teeth. Take me in as your guest and I will set them in your mouth.”

The troll princess’s horny hand flew up to cover a mouth filled with rotten teeth. She looked to eat the youngest princess right there and then, but the youngest princess opened the crone’s bag of golden baby teeth and presented them to the troll princess on her palm.

“Come in, come in,” crooned the troll princess then. “You are welcome here.”

The youngest princess could see what the troll princess was up to, but she followed the troll princess into a large room with tall, open windows from wall to wall. The troll princess lay back in a chair that creaked and groaned beneath her weight and let the youngest princess pluck tooth after tooth from her rotten mouth.

The troll princess raised a looking-glass to see her golden smile and pulled the mirror’s handle away to reveal a cruel knife. But the youngest princess had moved behind the creaking chair to grab the two ends of the golden fiddle string she had laid across the gray-green neck while she worked. The youngest princess pulled back with all her weight until the string jerked back. The troll princess’s head rolled across the warm stone floor. Two dead toad eyes gaped at the youngest princess.

The troll queen swung the door open to see why her daughter screamed so. When she saw what had been done, she flew at the youngest princess. But the North Wind had been watching from the tall windows and he called for lightning to scare the troll queen away. And the troll queen did flee, and such a mighty and thunderous storm did the North Wind inspire that all the trolls in all the world fled and were never seen from again.

The North Wind carried the youngest princess up, up to the highest room in the tallest tower where she found the young prince asleep under a deep spell. The youngest princess poured the huldra’s golden potion down the young prince’s throat and he awoke from the spell, no longer a beast.

And they lived together in the summer castle until the sun and the moon fell from the sky.


[Poem] icy HUGH

icy Hugh

words and pictures by S. Zainab Williams

i see dead things all around,
from the blackened red stain on the frozen ground
to the campfire badge all charred and browned.

i see tires on the jagged stone row,
them frayed, ragged feathers like a broken crow,
the gutted parcels and the little pink bow.

i–i see rags ‘mongst the salt and rust,
about the glistening innards of a decayed sea bust
what cracked its belly open, paid the fathomless trust.

i see no one in the cooling beds,
here the presents stay wrapped; there white snow, motley red,
ho! deep troughs, not of sleds.

my dead eye sniffs them out
what my shorn tongue never will shout.

Once I saw
A moon maiden’s grove
Where the silvered oaks shimmered and no man would rove,
Where the stars swayed, bright flowers in the quake
Of fine-boned feet skimming, scattering the lake.
Toward me, toward me, ah the lovestruck fool
Wrapped warm and unaware in summered tulle.
She reached out her hands to beckon me in

then i saw the hook took my dazzled eye
oh i saw my tongue from its home she did pry.

i see dead things all around,
from the blue-black temple tween the mother crowned
to my own black hole where i make no sound.