[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.

☽☾

Six of Fiction’s Most Inspiring Paracosms

I’m not ashamed to admit that paracosm is a word I learned and heard for the first time only last month. In fact, the running list of “Words to Use” I keep in my iPhone notepad is speckled with words I should have learned long ago.

But now that I know this word–paracosm–I’m obsessed.

A paracosm is a detailed imaginary world created inside one’s mind. This fantasy world may involve humans, animals, and things that exist in reality; or it may also contain entities that are entirely imaginary, alien, and otherwordly. Commonly having its own geography, history, and language, the experience of such a paracosm is often developed during childhood and continues over a long period of time: months or even years.

I’m a fantasy writer. One of the things I look forward to most when I begin is new story is world-building. The likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and C.S. Lewis are gods of paracosms–Middle Earth, the wizarding world, Narnia. While I’m not at the level of the gods that be, the YA fantasy novel I’ve been slaving over is all about the paracosm.

I’ve been inspired by a number of my favorite fictional paracosms, and was so in writing Aurelia and the House of Dire. While not all of these alternate worlds influenced my book, they certainly stoked the creative fires. Don’t get uppity about the fact that these are all movies; most are based on books. In no particular order…

munchkinland oz 1. Oz – The Wizard of Oz

I was never as enamored with the Emerald City as I was with Munchkinland. For the record.

But it’s hard to beat any city or province in Oz when it comes to imaginary places. IN TECHNICOLOR NO LESS. Nappy-time fields, a plasticky sort of Shire bursting with themed troupes who sing their greeting, green horses, cranky apple trees. Oh my!

I have no qualms about the book-to-movie translation of Baum’s world (maybe because I never read the book), but I think it’s safe to say Victor Fleming made some decent decisions there.

Fantasia Neverending Story2. Fantasia – The NeverEnding Story

Fantasia was breathtaking even as a crumb of its former self floating out in desolate space and let’s just pretend the sequels never happened.

We had to fall in love with Fantasia in order for The Nothing to send us into despair with Bastian. One of my favorite places and home to my favorite characters in the movie was Engywook and Urgl’s scientific, witchy-poo dwelling. I’m a sucker for manifestations of science+magic in world building.

I’ve never stopped wanting to live in the palace and stand around looking doe-eyed and near-tears in my blinding white gown (when I needed a break from flying through space on Falkor’s back).

Illustration by Shinigami Rukia

Illustration by Shinigami Rukia

3. The Spirit World – Spirited Away

But wait, now I want to be a radish spirit and stew in a giant vat of personally-concocted bathwater at the onsen in Spirited Away! And then there was the train that drove across the sea on unseen tracks and the market where heaps of spirit food were served out of stalls. It’s all so rich and clean and magical. Can I vacation in Miyazaki’s mind?

While I can understand Chihiro’s desire to return home and find her family, I might have taken a few extra days off in the spirit world. Maybe hung out with Kamajii and those cute dust balls in the boiler room.

adventures_of_baron_munchausen_moon4. The Imagined(?) World of Baron Munchausen – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Baron Munchausen is a man after my own imagination and the world he spun in his big fish tales is everything I want in life. Except maybe the moon, which reminded me of the Small World ride at Disneyland but with lusty and vindictive floating heads. But let’s get serious–who wouldn’t want to eat petit fours with Vulcan and Venus in their decadent Rococo home or play cards with Death in the belly of a fish?

Alice in Wonderland Bread and Butterflies5. Wonderland – Alice in Wonderland

Obviously, I can’t get away with talking about paracosms without mention of the Lewis Carroll fan favorite. While I have found myself Wonderland-fatigued at various points in my life, thanks in large part to goth culture, I can’t help but smile every time I read “The Walrus and the Carpenter” or watch the classic Disney movie while under the influence of illness and NyQuil.

Mermaid Cove Neverland 6. Neverland – Peter Pan

But only if I get to be a mermaid. Or Smee. I seriously thought I might one day find the map to Neverland and join the Lost Boys for an adventure. I would’ve been way more fun to hang out with than prim Wendy. In Neverland, I’d find the tropical destination of my dreams with underground tree homes, lagoons, and pirate ships. Sure, the locals might be somewhat obnoxious or prone to violence, but what’s an exotic vacation without a little danger.

Pray the Red Sea [Short Story]

written by S. Zainab Williams
art by Robert Burrows

Pray the red sea art burrows

I watch the dragon larvae gyre in the salted earth, their pale bodies fat, submerged rings. I think about Nu’ala’s obsidian hands at the spinning wheel, working the worms’ silvery fibers into spun silk. I remember those same hands at her swan’s throat, blood molten jasper. Red as the sea closing in on the sect’s island. Pouring over her fingers and down her citrine robes. Disfiguring the pattern of flickering fans.

It was in Nu’ala that I chose to bury my secret. She pried it but tenderly, unwittingly from my gated heart. It was the High Minister who bled it out of her.

Nu’ala and I joined the sect in the same class of recruits, enlisted for our empty throats and still tongues. The voices of God are born without a voice of their own, so said the High Minister. Most in our class wrung their hands, smiling their excitement, but with eyes where fear gathered.

Our families raised us to expect the day of our enlistment after our thirteenth cycle. They taught us to meet this day with gratitude. The sect’s prayers called the water for the dragons, feeding them, encouraging the cycle of reproduction. Bringing about the larvae that webbed our desert with fibers during harvesting season. This was Sulta’s famed silk–supple star of the trade routes; our main export besides the red salt and dried eel meat that fetched small coin.

Mothers and fathers and grandparents repeated the story of the dry times when dragon scales rained down from the sky as the creatures grew sick and the exposed seabed crackled beneath the radiant planets. This was before the High Minister arrived from a faraway place with his wagons bursting with rolled parchment all blotted and inked by great plans.

He had heard of Sulta’s struggles and had traveled far to beckon God into our barren firmament. He unraveled his plans and formed the first sect with the blessing of our desperate mayor. God found his voice in the members of the sect. His song activated the High Minister’s secret machines running on holy ground in the caverns below the temple.

The people of Sulta felt the thrum of the otherwise obscure God machines deep below their feet. And then the miracle. Water flowed up from the depths. By the third day, the sea was full. Over time, the eel eggs seeded in mud cakes split open to unleash a new generation. The dragons ate and grew strong again. Once more, the desert teemed with their larvae.

While we understood our importance as members of the sect, we also understood the price of our faith. Separation from family and friends, hard work, chastity, a lifestyle founded on needs, barren of wants.

On the first day of my induction into the sect, as I and the other new recruits disembarked from the painted longboat to mark the sacred banks of our new island home, the High Minister reminded us that the world exists in a state of impermanence. The sea would disappear; the city would fall to dust without the sect. We were the strings that held our world together. And when the High Minister deemed us individually ready to command God’s voice, we would be allowed access to the holy ground and the God machines. We would leave the fold forever to join in God’s song and raise the sea from the land.

I looked at the faces of my adopted sisters and brothers to check their faith. I found the strength of my own convictions mirrored, glittering in another girl’s eyes. Nu’ala’s. That moment of shared ecstasy tethered our souls to a common anchor. We became friends and remained so even after accepting our oath to be as islands in the sea–a company of recluses living only to sleep, eat, work, and, above all, serve.

Without the secretive nature of my friendship with Nu’ala, I may not have entrusted her with my truth, but we became sisters of the shadow and night, drawing our thoughts into the twilight sand glowing white-hot beneath the jewels hanging low off evening’s neck. While our family slept, we gave darkness a home in the lines of our picture-words.

Through our silent language, Nu’ala told me she was born of privilege to a family of trade magnates. I knew of them from conversations between my father and grandmother, spoken low into the steam snaking from the thick, black khave they sipped as darkness warmed to day. I had also seen Nu’ala with her family before we joined the sect. The light caught in the stones encrusting their fingers and dripping from their ears as they walked the market and bazaar. But this was a rare sight. They had muslin-wrapped servants to buy their salted fish and flatbread, their peppery herbs and browned spices.

Traders visited their sprawling earthen home to deal in the finest spun silk. From the stout wooden box where grandmother stored the dried herbs and grains–where I hid to fill the cool, dry space with my dreams and silence during these infrequent conclaves effected by my father’s brief homecomings from the trade routes–I overheard him describe the lush oasis blooming in the family’s plaza. There, guests sipped cold, honeyed mint tea with polished gold straws while discussing business and sharing news from the outer lands.

My father claimed that, so immense was their house, a dragon once stretched herself out, snout to tail-tip, across the warm, clay shingled spine of the family’s northeast rooftop to enjoy the breeze from their garden, and had room to spare.

Nu’ala confirmed all of these tales but claimed not to miss the luxuries of her past life. She had led the lonely existence of an only child. She lacked an Anan’kin as sister and friend. I wanted to tell her the same was true for me, but some words existed without need for expression, and Nu’ala had eyes that searched out souls. Eyes so black, they could not help but take in more than you gave. They showed me then that she knew my feelings already. She had seen love lying in wait when our eyes tugged toward each other to meet above the heads of our siblings that first day on the island.

Nu’ala’s eyes learned the truth about the High Minister while I and the others blindly trailed after him.

**

Read the rest of the story at my new site, szainabwilliams.com.

I Heart Tyrion Lannister, or Why Wit Wins the Panties


tyrion_game_of_thrones_pimp

Jon: Why do you read so much?

Tyrion: Look at me and tell me what you see.

Jon: Is this a trick?

Tyrion: What you see is a dwarf. If I had been born a peasant, they might have left me out in the woods to die. Alas, I was born a Lannister of Casterly Rock. Things are expected of me. My father was the Hand of the King for 20 years.

Jon: Until your brother killed that [k]ing.

Tyrion: Yes, until my brother killed him. Life is full of these little ironies. My sister married the new [k]ing, and my repulsive nephew will be king after him. I must do my part for the honor of my house, wouldn’t you agree? But how? Well, my brother has a sword, and I have my mind. And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone. That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow.

Source: tvfanatic.com

That was the moment I fell for Tyrion Lannister/Peter Dinklage and he became one of my favorite Game of Thrones characters, alongside Arya Stark. Although I’ve been given “the look” when admitting to my crush, I’m not alone in it.

On April Fools Day, HBO posted a fake announcement that Dinklage wasn’t returning to GoT; that he would effectively be replaced by Warwick Davis who would bring more comedic elements to the Tyrion character. The article was studded with clues that gave it away as an April Fools joke (the first clue being that it was April Fools Day), but my rage momentarily blinded me and I came to only when my computer screen was millimeters from my knee. At least I wasn’t numbered among the many outraged fans who memorialized their rage-ignorance in the comments thread.

What is it about that diabolical combination of wit and sarcasm that makes a character so desirable and worthy of fandom? Are smart-ass underdogs the champions of our generation?

Well, Daria was my and many other girls’ role model throughout those awkward change-y pubescent years, and angst and introspection hung over the 90’s like a soupy Seattle fog, so I’d say there’s a good chance a chunk of us in our late twenties and early thirties were suckled at sarcasm’s teat.

Daria_Logo

Daria is a good example of why deliciously sassy sarcasm can be so valuable in a character. While she often spoke harsh truths about youth culture, parenting, etc., the commentary had a dry comedic finish. And Tyrion’s baldfaced, often insulting honesty breaks up what could otherwise be an oppressively heavy drama. I wouldn’t call Tyrion comedic relief but he does have the ability to present us with the worst kinds of truths, and those truths that must be exposed in order to aid story development, in a palatable form that provides relief from the ungodly horrors taking place or building up around almost every other character.

It’s a promising sign that so many frothed at the mouth at the idea of turning an intelligent (yes, also lascivious and foul-mouthed) character into the court jester. Sarcasm and wit require intelligence and an analytical mind. If we are a generation that throws its panties at sarcasm and raises high the smart-ass, we’re also a generation that values smarts. So, I’ll say it again: I Tyrion. (Have you seen that jawline?)

P.S. And while Olenna Tyrell may not have my panties, she certainly has my vote for best new character of the season.

Olenna_game of thrones_gif