Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback (4 page)

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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The empress said, “According to the records, she disappeared

after a sixty-year reign, leaving only a note that said, ‘I’m looking for another coin.’ ”

The empress was looking wistfully at a particularly lovely beryl set in silver filigree. Eventually she returned her attention to Tern, but she kept glancing back at it. The woman’s face looked oddly familiar, but Tern couldn’t place it. Probably a trick of her imagination.

The rest of the conversation was fairly predictable, but Tern

contemplated the dragon’s sense of justice once the empress had

gone. Time moved differently underwater, after all. She could wait.

for New Orleans


Yoon Ha Lee
’s first collection of short fiction,
Conservation of
, was published earlier this year. She lives in Louisiana with her family and has not yet been eaten by gators. She has been

fortunate enough to avoid entanglements with dragons. It’s the tigers you really have to watch out for. Or maybe the foxes.


• 30 •

Fairy tales and folk tales have always been important—as a

blueprint for expecting the worst, or as a suggestion that you

might make it after all; some wolves can be killed. To look at a tale is to look at the story itself, the hidden stories behind it, the world in which it was written, the ways it’s changed and why. One of the

reasons that fairy tales continue to fascinate us is because to examine any aspect of that story is to be retelling it already—asking questions, looking for more.

“The Lenten Rose” is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The

Snow Queen,” which has always been a favorite of mine, largely for

the things it doesn’t tell us, the little dark places waiting for a light.

Particularly, it leaves Kay and Gerda sitting on the balcony as their journey vanishes from their minds, leaving them, the story suggests, essentially unchanged from the children they were when they began

it. But of course that’s not how journeys go; that’s where my story


Genevieve Valentine

• 33 •

• 34 •

The Lenten Rose

Genevieve Valentine

The roses out on the roof were in full bloom . . . and Kay and

Gerda seated themselves each on their own chair, and held each

other by the hand, while the cold empty grandeur of the Snow

Queen’s palace vanished from their memories like a painful

dream . . . And they both sat there, grown up, yet children at
heart; and it was summer—warm, beautiful summer.

—“The Snow Queen,” Hans Christian Andersen

Two strangers are living in a house.

It’s summer; warm, beautiful summer.

The house is choked by roses—white, always white, nothing must be

red any more.

Every window has heavy curtains. He closes the curtains at the

first frost, every year, and doesn’t open them again until the roses bloom.

She’s tried to kill the roses, a hundred times.

When Ensio found Gerda, back on the day when Kay went missing,

she was walking home from the shop, across the bridge toward the

other side of the river, where her grandmother’s house was pressed

in the center of a little row of houses (from her garret window she

could see the water until the bend, where the trees closed over it).

• 35 •

• The Lenten Rose •

He reached her at the very center of the bridge.

“Kay’s mother’s had a telegram,” he said.

She sat on the wall, and when Ensio tried to hold her she turned

so her legs dangled off the edge, and when he asked, “Gerda, what

can I do?” she said, “Find my grandmother, she’ll know,” and he set

off running like he loved her.

She cried until her jacket split up the back; she cried until her new red shoes fell one by one into the water.

A pair of crows was circling.

She thought, like a dreamer thinks, I can find him if they can’t.

When she dropped, there was an empty boat waiting, pointed


In school, when Kay was still a little boy, the teacher showed that

Finland was shaped like a woman, arms reaching upward.

She’s beautiful, the teacher promised, the most beautiful woman

of all; the guardian of a nation.

It was good to know. Gerda was lovely sometimes, when they were

playing in the snow and she looked at him and laughed, but now Kay

knew it wasn’t serious.

There was real beauty, somewhere far away. It felt like a brave

thing to think.

If Kay saw a face sometimes, when he looked out the window in

winter—two lines of frost shining off her high wide cheekbones, lips the color of milk ice, sharp black eyes rimmed just at the edge of the iris with blue—wasn’t it just the Finnish Maiden?

(It was a lie, of course, the sort of lie children tell themselves when they’re trying to be patriots.

Some stories are older than others; those your grandmother tells

before any school can reach you.

It was the Snow Queen.

Once, she smiled at him.

He pressed his hands to the glass. Around her white hair,

everything was winter and dark.)

• 36 •

• Genevieve Valentine •


At home, Gerda tended the roses that grew along the garret and the

balcony rail. The winters turned them into witch’s fingers, but every spring they bloomed thicker, and by summer they were all awake,

deep red, with burn-black centers.

The roses spanned both garret windows together, and on summer

nights they sat among the thorns and watched the river, and when

Kay asked, “Shall we be always together?” Gerda said, “I promise.”

(He was hers when things were warm and green; why he changed

in the cold, she never knew.)

He saw the Snow Queen everywhere, in winter.

The dry flakes blowing across the cobbles got caught in the wind

and became her slim, welcoming hands. Frost against the branches

in the shadowed forest was the Queen in glittering robes, turning to greet him.

When he saw her, his heart beat faster; when water moved under

the ice, it sounded like she was calling him.

He remembers the shards of mirror that entered his heart and his


He thinks that even without them, he would have gone with the


They were racing home across the bridge, when the mirror shards

struck Kay.

It was after school; they always started from the fountain at the

square, and ran all the way home.

(That year, the boys had started to tease him about losing to

Gerda. Sometimes he started before time, so if they were watching,

they’d see him ahead.)

She remembers that as they crossed the bridge he stumbled (he

never stumbled), and when she turned back to help him he shoved

her hand away, snapped, “I’m fine—my feet got heavy, that’s all. Took you long enough. Trying to win by cheating?”

• 37 •

• The Lenten Rose •

“Kay, that’s mean.”

“Stop sniveling,” he said, picking up his schoolbooks. “It doesn’t do you any favors.”

She walked home behind him, watching his back.

She didn’t think that anything was wrong. Boys got this way

eventually. His child’s face was gone. He had cheekbones, now, and

deep blue eyes, a down-turned mouth the girls in school said marked

him as romantic.

The other romantic boys were awful, too.

(She had waited, though, before she doubled back; for those five

breaths, she had been running free of him, and her feet had dug

sprays of snow from the ground.)

At seventeen, she worked in Mr. Vatanen’s curio shop.

Sometimes Kay waited for her, walked her home.

They took the bridge quietly, moving closer to the tangle of empty

thorns around their windows.

One day he said, “I’m too smart to grow old here. I’m joining the

army. We’re fighting the Reds, you know.”

As they walked across the open field, dry snow scudded across the

path; he looked at it like a man in love.

The walls of the house are painted blue-green.

It’s safest. White’s too like winter; yellow too like spring.

It drains you—he’s looked sick in it, ever since he came back—but

you live with your choices.

She has a red dress. She puts it on (only ever in the house) when

she needs to feel color. When she’s alone.

She never wears it long; red makes you remember things.

The first days she was adrift, she fell ill.

The pair of crows had called out when it wasn’t safe to land, and

at last Gerda had come ashore where the Lady of Spring kept a

greenhouse more than a mile by a mile.

• 38 •

• Genevieve Valentine •

As she rested from her fever, the lady taught her to garden; to coax a flower from a seed; to make remedies and poisons.

“You never know what you need,” said the Lady of Spring. “War’s

everywhere, and a woman has reasons.”

(She had forgotten some of home, in the fever. But she must have

studied, once; she listened to the remedies, and memorized the


“Is there a red flower missing?” she asked once. She was picking

blooms from a patch of the Lenten rose—its true name was hellebore,

she knew now, and it could poison you through.

The Lady said, “A flower missing! Well, I never. What’s one flower

in a gardenful? Come inside, and I’ll teach you another trick with


“All right,” said Gerda, so bright the Lady laughed.

It was weeks before Gerda was well enough to walk the greenhouse

alone, all the way to the far wall, a footstep from the bank of the river where a little boat was.

That was when she found the barren ground, and overturned the

earth, and found the rose.

He was on watch, when the Snow Queen came.

His fellows were asleep, huddled trying not to freeze to death

before morning, and Kay had been staring at the snow and thinking

how it could bury a man so you would never find him again.

(When the Snow Queen came, he thought for a moment that the

dead were rising.)

The white reindeer that drew her sledge were quiet as dreams,

and inside she was sitting with the same cloak drawn about her he

remembered from a dozen winters.

She wore a diadem of ice, end to end across her white brow.

When she turned to look at him, her face was like the frost in the

shadowed trees, her eyes deep as the water under the river ice.

She held out her hand to him.

• 39 •

• The Lenten Rose •

“A boy as clever as you shouldn’t be here,” she said, in a voice like the wind through silver bells.

She was right—clever boys had fallen by the hundreds and the

hundreds as they all fought for nothing in the wild, but the shard

of mirror had poisoned his heart to hope, and he only called, “And

where should I be, then?”

“Beside me,” said the queen, “and a prince in my palace of ice.”

It had been a long war, and an awful war; he was doomed to die,

and it’s easy to be poison-hearted when your stomach’s empty.

And though he didn’t love the Snow Queen (he didn’t love anyone,

his heart had frozen through), he walked out to meet her, and when

she drew him into her arms and pressed her lips to his lips, he hardly felt the cold.

Well past the towering trees, when the river grew too fast and Gerda clung to the boat prepared to drown, a Laplander woman on a

reindeer crashed through the water and pulled her to shore.

Gerda was brought near the fire and wrapped up warm in a red

jacket, and a cap was put onto her head. Someone was taking her book of poisons from her hands; the Laplander woman’s face appeared as

she knelt and said, “What dragged you so far, Southlander?”

Not a woman, Gerda thought, a girl, a girl my age. Am I still a girl?

I’ve been on this river so long.

“I’m looking for Kay,” she said. “He got lost in the snow, away from his soldiers. Crows have been calling. They told me he passed this way.”

And the little robber girl said, after too long, “You had best rest

here a while, then. The north is no place for the weary.”

They sleep on opposite sides of the bed.

They try, sometimes, to rest in one another’s arms, but it never

lasts (there’s not much rest to go around).

She sleeps turned to the window, looking out at the bend in the

river. He sleeps nearer the fire, under extra quilts; he’s never been warm, since they came home.

• 40 •

• Genevieve Valentine •

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
11.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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