In “A Spell for Twelve Brothers”, Erzebet Yellowboy shows us new territory within a well-known fairy tale.
“Give me a girl,” the king said to me the night he caught me, the wizard-woman of the wood, by trickery and might.
I said no, I mustn’t.
He said, “Oh, but you will.”
He pinned me down and stripped my feathers one by one, leaving only the bare bones of my knuckles where once wings had grown.
“Do it now,” he said as I struggled, and he thrust his will into me and I gave.
I gave him his desire as he took all of mine away. I made it so that his seed would sprout within the queen’s good womb and bring him forth a girl at harvest, just as he demanded.
He shared his thoughts as I lay dripping on the floor. “When my daughter is born to me, I’ll have no need of sons.”
I thought to myself in my blood-red haze that he must be mad, but I was broken and could do nothing then. Instead, when I made my way back into my warm green wood and waited.
I do not think the queen wanted to send her sons away, but it was the better choice. She loved her twelve boys, every one, and had never worried for them. Yet when the king allowed that they would die and had their coffins made, all because she would next bear a girl, the queen came to know that thing called fear.
She could not stand to lose her fine young men. She knew why the king wanted them gone. She knew as well as I did of his appetites. No young girl was safe in his domain. She knew that he would tolerate no interference, as sons who did not share his lusts might give. She bid them leave the castle, flee into the forest and there to watch for her flag. If I bear a son, she said, you may return.
The princes loved their mother, but not the thing inside her belly, for they knew it was that thing that drove them away. When they left they took their anger with them. I know, because I was watching from my home in the wood, as I always did. Once gone, the king thought no more of them. They were no more than a problem out of the way.
They found the cottage in which I dwelled and I let them have it. I watched them as they made themselves at home as best they could, those twelve, spoiled princes. They knew to fear the king as well, though for other reasons than we did. I saw them turn their heads away from the blood-red flag their mother finally raised, her signal that all was not well. I saw their hearts go bitter and I felt their anger bleed into my forest. During the darkest night, I planted twelve seeds in their sour soil and cast another spell.
It seemed to do no good. They swore among themselves that any girl to cross their paths must die, all because of a sister they’d never seen. Too much like their father, the oldest were, in some regards. It was the youngest who gave me hope, for while he agreed with the others, I saw him turn his head away and a tear fall from his eye.
I had to see her for myself, this new-made princess. I went by my ways into the castle and stole a glance at the infant’s face. I drew back in shock. On her forehead, as though burned there by a brother’s rage, was a golden star. As though sensing my stare, she turned her face away into her mother’s breast. The queen shushed the child and peered down the corridor, listening for her husband’s step. I flew back into my forest where I kept my counsel.
The brothers did what men will do and left the youngest at the hearth. No matter how brave or gallant, they always need a woman, or if no woman can be had, the weakest boy will do. They hunted; he cleaned the game. They held games; he prepared the weapons. They spoke among themselves of how they’d do the deed, should a female appear. The youngest did not share their joy in this. I began to think that only his spell caught.
Every now and then I crept back to that dreary castle, stark stone standing in a field all kept around by a great wall. The cattle bellowed, the horses danced and the king went out to war in the summer season. I watched their sister grow from year to year. I watched her limbs stretch, like the branches of my trees, reaching for the sun. I was there the day she found their shirts and took them to the queen.
I could not hear their words, but I could smell the fear. Its pungent scent encased me as the queen opened a rusted door and showed the girl the coffins kept within.
And then it happened. I should have seen her coming; it was one of my paths she took. As it was, I was wide awake and yet she slipped right underneath me and made it to the door before I realized she was there. She had those twelve shirts with her, all tucked into a sack. On her feet were embroidered shoes that offered no protection from the thorny floor of the forest in which we lived. She had come in search of her twelve brothers.