Here are some excerpts from Jocelyn Koehler's first collection of fairy tales, titled The Way Through the Woods. What I really like about fairy tales is how they focus so closely on people and their relationships with one another. Even though they are often set in fantastic places, those settings can, from scene to scene, melt away revealing the barest of emotional connections among the characters. These four stories all share the common magic of character.
The stories in The Way Through the Woods are:
She arrived at the grove as the sun was setting, even as the other ladies were preparing to leave for the palace in all their finery. Her stepmother had high hopes that one of her daughters would catch the eye of the prince, and each daughter prayed silently that she would be the lucky girl.
“Dear mother, I have brought you flowers,” said Cindrelle, laying a wreath of late autumn blooms on the grave of her mother. A hazel tree rose above the headstone, where Cindrelle and her father had planted it. She had cared for it as the years passed, and when her father joined his wife, she planted a yew over his grave. Now, though, it was to her mother’s grave that she spoke, for balls and gowns were never her father’s interest.
“I have asked leave, and been denied, to go with my stepsisters to the harvest ball. I wish to go more than anything I can recall wanting in my life! Is it vain? Why should I not go? All were invited...”
Cindrelle continued to pour her heart out over her mother’s grave, for it was her habit to tell everything in her heart to her family, silent as they were.
As she spoke, Cindrelle felt a gentle touch on her head. The hazel tree had bent in the breeze and a branch now brushed her hair. She lifted a hand to push it away, but was amazed when the leafless branch withdrew on its own. “Rise, my daughter,” she heard a voice on the wind. “Rise, and watch your wish be granted.”
Cindrelle gaped in awe at the hazel tree, whose very limbs now twisted into a semblance of human shape, the limbs too long but still quivering with life. The knotted trunk seemed to form eyes and mouth, and a hollow voice echoed out, “Fair daughter, all that is within my power to give you, I shall. Wait now, as I gather a forest to attend you.”
With a groaning sound, the hazel tree ripped free of the mossy soil, its great roots stomping like giant’s feet. The tree stalked around the clearing, casting about, searching, smelling. For what? Cindrelle, huddled by the grave of her mother, dared not say a word. Though the day was almost gone, she could see every detail of the hazel, and it seemed every branch was outlined by some fey light.
“Here, may all be found,” the tree pronounced confidently in its hollow, whistling voice. “First, the gown. Stand up, child.” Fallen leaves began to swirl in the wind, circling the maiden. Red, orange, gold, they swirled and settled in a perfect pattern of autumn, like a fire encircling Cindrelle.
“Leaves of silk for the skirt,” the tree muttered. “Moss for the bodice, soft as velvet. Bring me boning for the corset!” And slender branches of a birch appeared, caught in the whirlwind. All coalesced around Cindrelle, settling into a fine gown of silk and velvet, a marvelous confection singing of fall itself. Cindrelle whirled joyously about the glade in bare feet.
“You must have slippers for the dance,” the tree mused. “But of what? Fur? Leather? Too common...”
The tree swayed, considering. Cindrelle, laughing, continued to dance—here, there, around the forgotten chapel, now falling into ruin. “Ah,” said the tree. “Of course.”
Cindrelle heard the sound of tinkling glass, almost like rain. The old windows of the chapel, once resplendent with stained glass, now lay open to the world. The broken glass was rising from the ground, all in a whirlwind of shards. As Cindrelle watched, the glass and leaded seams formed a puzzle unlike any other, shaped by the whim of the hazel tree. Two fine slippers, wrought in glass and lead, glowed like a jeweled tapestry. Colors burned: ruby, orange, umber, amber, all rising above an iron heel.
“Take them, my daughter. Can you dance still?”
Cindrelle put on the strange shoes, finding that they fit perfectly, the glass as smooth as satin. She stepped among the graves, saying “Truly, they were made for me, mother.”
The hazel tree was not yet finished. Six stags now leapt into the clearing, proud and wild, but still obeying the summons of the hazel. “Your steeds for the ball, my daughter.”
“Surely I cannot ride all six?” Cindrelle laughed.
“A carriage is required,” the tree replied gravely, and as it spoke, a massive white pumpkin rolled into the glade. Cindrelle watched in amazement as it grew larger still at the behest of the hazel. It swelled, hollow and pale, its vines curling into great coils for wheels, until it was a chore for all six stags to lead it. The girl shook a little, for this seemed even greater magic than before.
“A carriage fit for a daughter of mine. Enter then, my dear. It is your wish to attend the most magnificent ball this night, and so you shall.” Cindrelle climbed into the carriage, which glowed from within.
It seems forever since I began this weaving. I do not remember a time when my hands did not feel as though they caught fire. No, that is a lie. I remember such a time, but as if it were a dream. I was young and with my seven brothers, and our mother was alive.
It was the new queen, our new mother, who brought this all upon us. She was beautiful as our dear mother never was, and I suppose that was why our father, still sick with grief, overlooked her inner nature.
I remember the first time I saw her. She was as beautiful as a snowfall, taller than my father, and possessed skin the color of milk. Her mahogany hair was always twisted in elaborate loops and curls, each polished as a jewel. I later learned that she had a staff of maids just to attend her hair. They looked at her other maids down their noses and looked at my father’s servants not at all.
She despised us, me and my brothers. She took some care to hide her feelings from our father, but it was no secret.
But we were young, and we did our best to ignore the unhappiness she brought. We played together and dreamed of future days, when Eben, the oldest, would gain the throne and rule. Eben was nearing his eighteenth birthday, and soon those future dreams hovered tantalizingly close.
The queen planned a present for my brothers. While they were still all together, she said, they must have an adventure, before time and duty would inevitably pull them apart. She even offered the use of her own ship for the excursion––a journey across the sea, to a fair kingdom where they could hunt, swim, climb mountains, or devise any manner of boyish amusements for the whole of the Spring. But I, the only princess, was not to accompany them. This was the only aspect that saddened us.
My brothers set off on a late winter day, with fair winds that teased of spring. I stood on the shore, waving to them till the ship disappeared under the horizon.
That night, I had a dream, when the moon was full in the clear sky, shining through my window and bringing nightmares with its light. The ship my brothers sailed in was now empty, cruising drunkenly in the wine dark sea. Seven boys gathered on the shore of a tiny island, hardly more than a rock, confused and disturbed by this reversal of fortune. They had been forced off by the crew, who now stood encircling them, knives out and ready. They had been given their orders, and they did not dare disobey their mistress. As the full moon reached its zenith, it blazed down on the scene. I heard a mad chanting in the air, and as I watched, invisible, a horrible change came over my dear brothers. They twisted in pain, falling to the ground. Necks elongated, arms stretched and writhed. A veil of white seemed to cover them all, and when I could see again, seven swans stood where they had been.
The crew panicked. They clearly had no notion of what was to happen. The swans, furious and strong, attacked as one, and scattered the men. Then, amid squawks and wild calls, they rose into the air and flew away toward the mainland, toward home. “Come to me,” I called, even though I knew they could not hear me. “Come back home!”
Below the swans, the crew called out desperately, realizing that the ship was gone and the hostages flown. They were stranded on the rock, and the tide was rising.
I awoke in a sweat, my throat as raw as if my desperate call were real.
Not long after, the call went out through every street and town: “Sad tidings!” The ship had been found, or rather, its remains had. On the shore of the kingdom across the sea, they had found the wreckage, but no bodies. All hands had gone down, all the sons of our kingdom felled in one cruel stroke of fate. No witnesses lived to tell the tale, and no one but me saw the gleam in the queen’s eye.
My father was destroyed. On the morning the news came, he let out a howl heard throughout the castle. My mother’s death had been agonizing, but expected. This was lightning from a clear sky, and no man could be ready for such a strike. It was an omen, the common folk later said––an omen that seven snow white swans circled the castle on the very day the king’s sons were lost. As soon as I heard of this phenomenon, I ran down to the pond where they had been sighted, and sure enough, there were the swans of my dream. Softly, softly, I called my brothers’ names. Eben, Ethan, Edmund, Eion, Elias, Everard, Erling. The birds never behaved differently than common birds, but they also never took fright at my approach. That was proof enough for me.
As the days passed, I kept my eyes on them, but silently. No one would ever believe my tale. But the queen suspected. She watched with cool eyes when I tended the swans, and later in the hall where my grieving father held court. I think she would have killed me if she could have managed it quietly. And she was curious, too. She did not know how I knew the swans to be the lost princes. She wanted to ask, but could not, not without admitting that she also knew the true state of my brothers.
“Mad Elise,” said the queen. “Let her play goosegirl if she likes. Feed them well, girl, and take good care of them. We’ll slaughter them for the Midwinter feast.” She smiled then, just for me, the coldest smile I had ever seen.
So I played goosegirl. Abandoning all other duties, I stayed outside with my brothers every day, and in the evenings I prayed for an answer to their curse. The moon waned and waxed and waned again. One day, in late spring, I realized that I could no longer wait, could no longer hope my brothers might recover without help.
So I gathered a few days’ worth of food, saddled a horse from the stable, and rode into the great forest that marked the border of my country. Once the trees overtook the fields, it was useless to claim the land, for no crops would grow there, and few folk would stay for long. The forest reeked of faerie, and they held their own.
I hoped that I might find one and offer a boon in exchange for any spell that might help my brothers. But the fae are not easy to find, and I rode toward a faerie mound I knew of with little hope that I would find a way in.
The fae were even trickier than usual. The sun disappeared from my sight, lost behind the velvet green of the trees. I was soon led astray on false paths, deer trails that ended in dense thickets. I could not find the faerie mound, nor could I find my way home. I had ridden all day, and hardly noticed the light failing. It was not until my horse stumbled in the gloaming that I realized my predicament.
There was nothing for it. I dismounted and led the horse to a clearing, tethering her to a tree. Then I spread out my cloak and lay down, gazing up at the star-laden sky. My eyes drooped soon, and I seemed to hear music on the air, so faint as to be almost imaginary. As sleep took over, I glimpsed a shape out of the corner of my eye. The faerie mound! I swear I had not seen it before, yet there it was, and the door stood open.
As the winter night fell, a young man approached the cottage. He knew a treasure lay within. He had chased rumors as diligently as a dog on the scent of a fox. The wind grew colder. He adjusted his cloak—a velvet too fine for winter wear—then stepped to the door. Even as he reached up to knock, the door opened, spilling fire out onto the blue twilight of the snow-covered ground.
A veiled woman beckoned him to enter. He did so, a smile spreading across his face. As he came closer to the fire, he saw that another veiled woman was sitting there. He stepped back in confusion, not knowing why there should be two. “My lady, that is, good women, I am lost in the woods and seek only shelter for the night…”
“Lies. You seek gold, or flesh!” The veiled woman by the door was the one who spoke. The man jumped back in revulsion, for it seemed a toad, then another, and then a snake, had slithered from beneath the veil, hitting the floor with a sick sound. They made their way toward him. “We saw you this morning, hiding in the woods. Did you think we would not watch, In Shadow and I?” More slimy things fell to the floor at her words, and the false messenger felt chased by them.
“I don’t know what you mean, good lad-” But she moved inexorably toward him, using her wicked tongue freely. She ripped the veil from her face now, and the boy recoiled at what he saw. Reduced to whimpering in fear and loathing, he had no strength to defend himself.
“We’re not fools. We know the stories that followed us through the kingdoms. A girl out of gold, ripe for the taking. Well, she is not alone. And she is not for the taking.” The other woman stood then, moving her arm from the shadows to reveal a long dagger, seemingly crafted of gold, though its edge was sharp as steel. From the way she held it, the boy knew she could use it.
“Do you want the gold on offer now?” The woman went on, even as the one with the weapon moved closer. Another snake fell to the ground, hissing at the boy.
He backed up another step, shaking his head. One, he might fight off. Not two. And certainly not these two.
“Run from here, you fool, and never think of us again! We have been a long time in the forest, long enough to have seen dozens of scavengers like yourself, looking for an easy path to riches, or for a slave to sell! You shall not touch my sister, nor shall you ever find your way here again. Each word I speak is a ward against you, and they shall follow you till you give up your plot!” Indeed, a host of hideous creature––toads and snakes, each disgusting in its own way––now stalked him with dreadful intent. The boy turned and ran into the frozen woods, fear and snakes following on his heels. The virago slammed the door then, after the last creature had leapt out. She was shaking with anger.
“Enough, In Silence,” said the other by the fire, and as she spoke a small gold glint dropped to the floor with a clinking sound. “He’ll not return.” Two more coins fell, followed by a wild rose, which fluttered slowly down. She spoke no more, but drew her veil aside, revealing a face that men had died for.
The other one nodded. They were alone again. The beautiful one stooped to gather the few coins at her feet. With no other word, she handed them to her sister, who placed them in a box by the door, where they joined the previous fruits of the beauty’s speech.
The two women looked at each other for a long moment. “Almost a year, since the last. I had hoped they would stop coming,” the ugly one said. A long, thin snake slithered onto the floor.
The other one only shook her head, already falling back into the silence that normally surrounded them. They would never stop coming. She closed her eyes in despair.
Far away from the silent, snowbound cottage, a man lurches through the forest. He stumbles like a drunk, but to anyone watching, it is his speech that would chill them. He mutters constantly, a lunatic set free. “Where are you, where are you? I can’t see you, my heart. They stabbed me. Felt my eyes die. She was there, she was waiting…where are you?”
Hands out, he runs into trees, but never stops walking. He only spins about when he hits an obstruction, and sets off in a new direction, as if pure chance is the only thing guiding him. The snow cover is thinner here, but his once-fine boots are still soaked through, and frostbite renders his toes numb. Still, he stalks on, small creatures scattering before him, unwilling to remain near such a dangerous thing.
I never dreamed that I would be here, lost and alone in this wilderness of trees, devoid of all my earthly splendor, and with only a hideous frog for company. And all for a toy!
I am, or I was, the princess Una, only daughter to the greatest king who ever lived. Or so he seemed to me. My father doted upon me, and gave me so many gifts that I didn’t know what to do with them all. Often, I would play with a new toy or wear a new jewel only once. By the end of the day, it was usually lost or forgotten altogether. And truly it didn’t seem to matter, since I could expect a new gift the next morning anyway.
One day, the king, always looking for something to please me, gave me a very special gift. It was a sphere that gold by day and silver by night—magic, of course. I never saw it change size, but sometimes it seemed to fit in my hand, and sometimes it was much larger. I was delighted by it, and soon forgot everything else. I took the ball out to play in the royal forest. It bounced along and even floated beside me. I soon grew tired, however, and sat down by a stream, rolling the golden ball between my feet. However, once I rolled it too far and it splashed into the water, where it sank like a stone to the depths.
I promptly burst into tears. “My ball! My beautiful ball! How can I ever get it out?”
“You seem distressed,” said a voice beside me, low to the ground. “I can recover your toy for a small boon.” I shuddered in revulsion, seeing a large, ugly green frog. But I recognized that I was in no position to refuse the creature’s aid.
“And what is this boon?” I asked cautiously.
“Merely that you will let me eat from your plate, drink from your glass, and sleep in your bed with you.”
I closed my eyes and tried to keep my stomach steady. “You’re asking a lot.”
“Do you agree?”
“If that is your price, I suppose I must pay it,” I said, secretly doubting that a promise to an amphibian was legally binding.
“I will take that as your word, princess.” The frog dove down into the deep pool, down into the greenest depths where the golden sphere lay glinting. He swallowed the thing whole and swam back up to the surface. At the shore, he croaked once and spat the ball back onto the ground.
Ew, I thought, but as a princess I had been trained to hold my tongue. “Thank you, gentle creature.” I snatched up the ball and hurried back to the palace.
“Wait!” croaked the frog, behind me. “Remember your promise!”
I fled back to the safety of my home as fast as I could. I shut the door behind me, and ran to my rooms. “Rinse this thing!” I demanded of my maid, handing her the golden ball. “It fell into the pond.”
The maid took the priceless toy, bewildered that I had let it go. “Ugh,” I said. “I feel filthy. I must wash and change.”
I washed all possible filth from my body. From that day on, however, my life changed. I could no longer go outside without fear, for I saw the frog every time I walked past the pond, or wandered in the gardens, or even stepped out onto the drive. Once, when I took my horse from the stables for a morning ride, I came upon the nasty green thing in the courtyard. It croaked hideously, a tone that to my ears sounded like “Your promise! Your promise!” I mounted my horse and rode directly over the frog, which leaped out of the way as a massive hoof came down. The frog croaked once more, but I was already away.
After weeks of this, I decided that this madness must end. At my direction, the groundskeepers prepared a poison to dump in the pond, for I had a tantrum that frogs were overrunning it, ruining my enjoyment. The poison worked swiftly, and soon the pond was clear as glass and devoid of life. I breathed easy at last, for surely the frog was either dead or driven away, and I could be free to roam the castle grounds again.
Considerably cheered, I went down to the great hall that evening to join my father for an early supper. It was one of the few times in the day we had to ourselves. No sooner had I seated myself though, than I heard a croaking noise in the outside hall.
“Father!” I said, alarmed. “Did you clear your throat?”
“No, darling. What was that sound?”
“I’m sure it was nothing,” I said hurriedly. “Let us eat.” But no sooner had we picked up our forks than I heard a horrible squelching noise in the outside hall.
“Father! Did you spill some wine?”
“No, darling. What was that sound?”
“I’m sure it was nothing. Let us dine.” But I had barely picked up my glass when a knock sounded on the door.
“Father! Did you rap on the table?”
“No, darling. It was the door,” and he signaled the guard to open the door.
The frog sat there, proper as a courtier. “Good evening, your majesty. Good evening, your highness,” the frog said to me. “Did you forget your promise?”
“What’s this?” the king asked curiously, staring at the green creature.
And in the end I had to tell my father the story of my promise to the frog.
“What you have promised you must perform,” he said simply.
“Father, surely you wouldn’t force me to do that! The frog wants to eat and drink with me, and sleep with me.”
“You should have thought of that before you made your promise.”
“I wish the horse had stepped on you,” I muttered to the frog, but the king heard my comment. Under his black look, I reluctantly explained the number of times the frog had managed to evade my attempts to eradicate it.
Upon learning all that I had done to avoid fulfilling my stupid vow, the king’s rage knew no bounds.
“You made a promise, Una! And even if you had not, your behavior was still shameful. The frog aided you, and you did nothing in return. In fact, you even tried to kill the one who helped you.”
“It’s only a frog,” I said, sullenly.
“And next will you say, ‘only a peasant’ or ‘only a duke’? You serve a different role in this kingdom, Una, not a higher one.” With that statement, the king ordered me to my room.
The next day was the worst of my life. Somehow, the whole palace knew I was in disgrace, even though the frog had disappeared and the king hadn’t so much as spoken to me all morning. I tried to talk to him, but he had been closeted with his advisors since dawn.
In the afternoon, however, the king summoned me before him in the throne room. With eyes as cold as ice, he looked at me and pronounced that I was his child no longer. With the advisors hovering behind him, endorsing his edict, he banished me from the kingdom with nothing more than the clothes on my back, and the golden ball, which cost us both more than either had anticipated. “Go now, and never return. I am done with you, and from this moment, I have no heir.”
Still disbelieving, I fled the castle, pursued by the guards like a common criminal until I reached the edge of the great forest. There they left me to live in fear and hunger, in payment for a broken promise.