The first time I ever saw this story I was maybe nine and it was in a collection called, I think, Classic Bedtime Stories. Or maybe The Best Bedtime Stories. I forget. But that adaptation was written by Patricia C. Wrede of Talking with Dragons and Mairelon the Magician fame, which are two young adult fantasy series that every person should read at some point in their lives, whatever their age. These books are timeless! Much to my father’s (who had to read the latter out loud to me about 17 times) chagrin. Fair warning to anyone out there thinking of beginning a bedtime story-telling tradition with their own children.
Anyway, I rewrote this for my original fairy tale project a few years back and but the style I wrote it in was archaic and it never sat well with me. So, tonight, instead of doing my readings, I’ve dusted it off, re-set it in the 20s (because that’s when I set everything these days, apparently) and added in a bit of back story for our bear-prince.
One last note about the dwarf: he has quite the potty mouth in this version but, when I read the original Grimms’ version, I was actually pretty shocked at the language he was using – especially in an edition that had already been highly edited in order to make it suitable for a child audience. But that’s the Grimms for you. So for once I’m sticking (sort of) close to the “canon”.
Also, in my defence, I’ve been reading a lot of Gunter Grass lately. My sentences may wander as a result.
Snow White and Rose Red
Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived in the woods.
She hadn’t always lived in the woods, of course. Once, she had been someone’s daughter in a sleepy little town far to the west. But, one day, she fell in love with a dark and handsome stranger in a travelling show, as daughters in sleepy towns are wont to do. He juggled scimitars and flaming torches under the big top between the lion tamer and the trapeze acts. His dark hair flashed red in the dim lights of the tent. One night she lay down with him in the straw above the tiger’s cage and he had whispered to her in a language she didn’t understand as he undid her dress. His hands had been so warm.
She had woken up to find herself alone in an empty, muddy field. In the dirt next to her lay a tattered flier advertising “The Death Defying Leap of Maximilian Von Aderkas”. She got shakily to her feet and the wind blew the flier away from her; it scudded and snapped along the trampled ground like a lame bird still valiantly trying for flight. Above her, a cold sun rose in a white winter sky.
Spring came slowly, but inevitably, to that sleepy town (in much the same way everything else did) and with it came, slowly but inevitably, the inescapable truth of her situation. Men crave to be remembered and her lover was no exception. Early one morning, when her secret had become impossible to hide and she found herself unable to meet her neighbours’ eyes, she slipped her sewing things, some bread and cheese, and tight roll of money into her jacket pockets and went out the back door just as the sky began to pale. She took the road east, towards the woods.
The road didn’t run through the woods then, as it does now, for the people were afraid of the trees in those days. In those days the century was still young, roads were untrustworthy, impermanent ventures, and trees cast longer shadows and kept darker secrets. But she was tired of averting her eyes and quickly left the company of the road in favour of the solitude of the forest.
She was soon hopelessly lost.
She didn’t mind; under the shuffling evergreens the light was soft and grey and everything was quiet. The muted sounds and heavy air soothed her. She followed narrow animal trails and watched the deer watch her. Their big eyes between the leaves were dark, like her lover’s had been.
Deeper into the woods she went, where the trees were grizzled and knobby with age, all hung about with long drips of grey moss like the natty beards of old men. Blackberries twice her height curved overhead, offering her their elegant barbed branches, heavy with the creamy green buds that would one day be fruit, like ladies offering gloved hands covered in jewels. Birds darted and flit between the brambles, peeping, chirping, twittering, whistling, as their clever bright eyes followed her through the leaves. She wondered if they were laughing at her. She would be, if she were them.
The first night she slept in the hollow base of an old tree; the second in a sandy, shallow cave. On the third night, as she began to tire, tripping more often on roots and rocks, doubt and hunger fighting for dominance in her empty stomach, she came to a clearing. There in the middle of it, in the last rays of a misty sun, sat a sagging cottage.
The stone walls were overgrown with some thorny vine and the roof had holes, but the well still had water, which she drank from the half-rotten bucket without a second thought, and the two windows, one on either side of the door, still had glass in their frames; the old fashioned kind with diamond-shaped panes kept in place by heavy lines of lead. Wiping water from her chin, she went inside and lit herself a little fire to toast the last of her bread. As the embers burned down she curled up in a corner and went to sleep as if she’d always lived there.
By the time summer came the roof was solid, though not particularly straight, and the thorny vines had been trimmed and trellised, because they’d turned out to be roses. And, as August yawned its hot, humid way to September, she gave birth to twins: two little girls who came out with surprisingly little trouble. She cut them from with her sewing shears, washed them in well water, tucked one into the crook of each arm and fell asleep as they fed, utterly spent.
When she woke up the girls were sleeping and the roses had bloomed. Their heavy flowers nodded against the window panes, sending shadows blossoming across the stone floor. On the right of the door they were creamy white and so fragile they fell apart with a delicate sigh in your hands if you tried to pick them. On the left the roses grew up velvety red. Cut early, their tightly wound petals would take days to unfurl; their heady perfume lingered for weeks, long after the flowers themselves had faded.
She named her daughters for the roses, it seemed fitting, and the girls grew quickly, their long limbs uncurling like the petals they were named for. They loved their mother nearly as much as they loved each other and the first time she watched them run off, hand in hand, into the woods, she found she didn’t miss her other life at all. The girls were bright, and clever with their hands, and always brought her food from the forest. She thought back to what her own mother, long dead, an obsessive canner, jammer, and preserver of all things, had taught her, and did her best to make the food last. In this willy-nilly, trial-and-error way they lived happily enough in their little cottage and only rarely bothered to make the trip south to the nearest town; a town where no one knew their mother.
In the spring and summer, Rose Red, the first one to have come out, took care of the house. She flung herself out of bed long before the others, usually hitting her shin on the bed post as she went, lit the fire, swept the floor and cut roses for the bowl on the table. It was the smell of the roses that woke her sister and mother. But, by the time they were up, Rose Red would be long gone, having left the door wide open to let in the sun. In the winter months, when the sun was rare and the world all crystalline and white, Snow White, who had waited for her sister to brazen her way out of the womb before her, rose first. She set the porridge to bubbling and polished the kettle till it reflected the blue of her eyes back to her. At night she read to her mother by the fire while Rose lay on the ground, listening and snacking and spinning wool, patterning the floor with the discarded skins of her roast chestnuts.
Rose Red grew more and more like her father with every year. Her thick hair would flash red in the light and her long, dark, curling lips were always quick to laugh. Blood rose in her cheeks at the slightest excuse, blooming until she glowed with life. Snow White, on the other hand, was a wisp of a thing; as delicate as a swan’s feather in the wind. Her hair fell fine and white like raw silk and never tangled like Rose’s. With her pale skin she was as beautiful as the moon but, like the moon, she didn’t produce light, she only reflected it.
One night, a long night in mid-winter, when the windows were doubled paned – once with glass and once with ice – and even the snow was blue with cold, someone knocked on the cottage door. The girls and their mother were toasting buns on the fire and all three looked up together. No-one had ever come to visit before.
The knock came again and Rose Red stood.
“Rose,” whispered Snow White.
“They’re probably only lost, Snow,” said her sister. “A night like this could swallow you up whole and spit your bones out frozen solid.” But she took the iron poker out of the fire and brought it with her.
At first, when she opened the door, she thought it was a tall man in a heavy coat. As her eyes grew accustomed to the blue-ish gloom, she realised it was an enormous black bear sitting on his haunches. Black like his fur, his eyes met hers and they were tired.
“Good evening,” said the bear.
“Good evening,” said Rose. She didn’t put down the poker.
“I’m so sorry for intruding but it’s a bitter night and I’m half frozen. I saw the light of your fire through the trees and I wondered if I couldn’t maybe join you for a moment?”
From her chair by the fire, Rose’s mother called, “Oh, let the poor man in, Rose. He’s right. The night is far too cold for anyone to go without shelter.”
“Of course,” said Rose, and stepped aside to let in the bear. She still had the poker in one hand.
Snow White and her mother screamed when the bear stuck his great shaggy head through the door. His fur was thick and silky and it tickled Rose’s face as he froze in the doorway, undecided. The blood rose in her cheeks.
“You shouldn’t scream like that,” she chided her family. “He’s a guest.”
“Rose Red, he is a bear,” her mother replied.
“A cold bear,” said Rose. “What harm will it do to let him sleep by the fire tonight? He could have eaten us already if he’d wanted.”
Snow White rose from her pillows and came slowly closer. “He has such tired eyes, Mother.” She stretched out her hand and brushed snow from his ears.
Their mother sighed. “And I had so hoped you would grow up to be more practical girls than your mother was. Come in then, Bear, if you’re going to, and lie down by the fire. Careful not to burn your fur, now.”
The bear stayed with them through the rest of the winter. He kept away the wolves that sometimes prowled the dark edges of the clearing in the hopes that the girls would wander out unawares one night, and brought home snow white rabbits for Snow White to cook. Rose Red always skinned them before she let him give them to Snow White and eventually made a hat for her sister out their glossy fur.
“Aren’t you going to make one for yourself?” the bear asked as he and Rose Red sat by the fire late one night.
“Oh,” Rose shrugged carelessly, “I would only get it dirty or lose it in the snow somewhere. Besides, it suits Snow.” She had a bowl of roasted chestnuts in her lap and she peeled them one by one, offering the meat to the bear in the palm of her hand. His cold nose snuffled the sensitive skin of her wrist when he took them, as delicately as possible, in his massive teeth. The blood rose in her cheeks. She leaned back against him, watching the fire as she separated the nuts from their hard, crackling skin; her dark head was nearly invisible in his beautiful fur.
One evening, just as the sun was setting fire to the tops of the trees, the bear found Rose tending her trap line. She heard the soft crunch of his paws on the snow and straightened, her hand going to the knife in her belt. When she saw it was only the bear, she bent again to her work.
“Did you do all the hunting before I came?” the bear asked, watching her deft fingers free the frozen body of a squirrel from the snare.
“Yes.” She focussed on the squirrel, “I’m the best at it. Mother never learnt how and Snow White is too gentle. She cries whenever she catches something. She hasn’t got the heart for it and why should she? I can do it.”
The bear watched her gently lay the squirrel aside to reset the trap.
“You don’t like it either,” he said.
“Oh,” she shrugged as she often did, “I don’t mind. I’d rather do it than leave it for Snow.” She stroked the squirrel’s head with one finger.
“Because you don’t cry?”
Rose Red nodded. “Because I don’t cry.” She wiped sweat from her face with her arm. “I still have a few left to check. Care to join me?”
“It would be my pleasure,” said the bear.
She picked up her string of prizes and led the way, her snowshoes leaving hardly a trace on the snow.
When the bear left it was still early in the spring. The thaw had come but the sun still shied away. Snow White hummed softly under her breath; the dim light of the predawn was her favourite part of the day.
The bear raised his head from his bed by the hearth when she began to make the fire.
“Would you like help?” he offered. He always asked, she always said yes.
“As always,” she said, laughing a little. “These logs are so heavy.” Her smile was silvery and quick, elusive in the half-light.
“Would you like porridge?” she asked, as she began measuring oats into the kettle.
He shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t stay for breakfast today, Snow White,” he said. “I’ve got business in the forest. With the thaw come the dwarfs and I have business with them.”
“Oh.” Snow White’s pretty face fell. “I take it you won’t be back for dinner then, either?”
“I’m afraid not,” said the bear. “Perhaps next winter, if you’ll still have me.”
“Gladly.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his dark cheek. “We’ll miss you, Bear.”
“Will you say goodbye to your Mother and Rose Red for me, dear? I can’t thank you enough for the kindness your family has shown me.” He pried open the door as delicately as was possible with claws.
“If only you could stay. Rose will miss you. You always make her laugh.” Snow White leaned on the open door.
“She laughs easily,” said the bear with a smile and a shrug that was not unlike Rose’s. “Take care, dear.”
“You as well, Bear,” said Snow White.
As he slunk out into the melting snow, his fur snagged on the latch and a bit of it came off, caught on the metal. Snow White thought she saw a glimmer of gold where it ripped away but, before she could say anything, the bear had disappeared into the trees.
When Rose sat down to breakfast, she found a tuft of black fur next to her bowl. She picked it up and rolled it between her fingers, the blood rising in her cheeks.
“Bear had to go, Rose,” her sister told her softly, ladling porridge into her bowl. “Apparently he has business with the dwarfs now that the thaw has set in. But he said he’d be back next winter.”
“I see,” said Rose.
“He left a piece of himself behind,” Snow White gestured to the fur. “I’ll put it on a string for you so you can wear it. Like a lucky charm.”
Rose Red looked down at the fur. “I suppose this is the last bit of our bear then,” she murmured, twirling it between her fingers.
“I’m sorry, Rose.”
But Rose just laughed and shrugged. She tucked the memento away into the folds of her dress and reached for the sugar. “We should go out later,” she said. “We can take a picnic down to the pond.”
“That would be lovely,” Snow White smiled, shining her sister’s happiness back to her. It’s difficult to tell, sometimes, if what you’re looking at is the genuine article or just a very good fake. When all you can see is a reflection, it’s nearly impossible.
One morning, long after the bear had left them, Snow White and Rose Red went out to collect firewood. They scampered through the woods, darting back and forth, laughing and throwing pine cones at each other. Occasionally, they would also pick up fallen branches; Snow White tied these into bundles and Rose Red carried those on her back, a leather strap looped around her forehead holding them in place.
Near midday they stopped to eat lunch on a fallen tree. Snow White was unwrapping their baked potatoes when something caught her eye. A little man with a wizened face was jumping up and down at the base of the tree.
“Rose, look! What a strange man. Why on earth is he hopping around like that?” Snow White pointed down the length of the trunk.
“Let’s go and find out, shall we?” Rose Red took her sister by the hand. Her other lay on the hilt of her knife.
As they drew nearer they saw that the man was a dwarf with a long white beard that had got caught in the cleft of the tree. He was tugging at his beard, swearing and spitting like a rabid dog on a chain. When he saw them approach, he glared at them. “What are you doing just standing there? Aren’t you going to help me?” he screeched.
A family of birds burst from the trees and shuddered across the sky, startled by his scream.
“What exactly are you trying to do?” asked Rose Red, her hand still on her knife.
“You stupid bitch,” he cried. “I was trying to split the tree into kindling for our kitchen fire! We can’t use thick logs like the ones fat cows like you do. They would burn up our delicate meals in three seconds! And I’d just driven in the wedge, and everything was going swimmingly, but the bloody wood was so slippery that suddenly hop! the wedge sprang back out again, and quick as you like the tree snapped shut on my beautiful white beard. So here I am, stuck tight, unable to get away, and you silly, empty-eyed, moon-faced girls just stand there laughing at me! Ugh! What wretched little cunts you are!
Rose Red was inclined to leave him there to stew in his own profanity-laced juices but Snow White took pity on him and persuaded her sister to help her pull. But they pulled as hard as they could and the dwarf’s beard never moved an inch.
“Well, I can’t say I blame the beard,” Rose said wiping her sweaty hands on her skirt as the dwarf cursed and stamped his feet and waved his arms. “I wouldn’t want to be so close to such a foul mouth either.”
“Why don’t I run and get Mother,” suggested Snow White. “She might know what to do.”
“Idiots!” screamed the dwarf. “That is the last thing I need! You two are two too many already! Can’t you think of something useful to do?”
“You are the rudest man I’ve ever met,” snapped Rose Red. “Including that drunk we met in town last fall. Hold onto your hat, you little horror. I’ve thought of something useful to do.” And her hunting knife flickered, slicing through his thick beard as though it were silk.
Keening at his loss and tottering back on his heels, the dwarf snatched up a bag of gold that had been hidden in grass at his feet. He flung it over his shoulder while, with his other hand, he took hold of his newly-trimmed beard and shook it at the girls in accusation. “Insolent sluts,” he muttered, turning on his heel and storming off into the undergrowth, “cutting off the end of my wonderful beard!”
“It must have been very uncomfortable being stuck in that tree for so long,” said Snow White. “I’m sure that is why he’s in such a bad mood.”
Rose Red laughed, sloughing off the memory angry little man with one of her careless shrugs. “You are too nice for your own good, Snow.”
And, hand in hand, she and Snow White went back to the cottage.
At the height of summer, July swanning about in all its sweaty, heaving, indigo-and-gold thunderstorm glory, Snow White and Rose Red went down to the lake where Rose Red liked to fish and Snow White liked to darn and patch and keep her company. They put bread and onions in their pockets to eat.
“A feast!” said Rose, flinging her arm around her sister’s shoulders.
“Fit for a king,” agreed Snow White, laughing.
As they approached the water, they saw something that looked like a giant grasshopper springing up and down at the water’s edge as though it meant to jump in.
The girls ran down to see what was going on and quickly recognised their belligerent dwarf.
“What on earth are you doing?” asked Rose Red when they reached him. She didn’t bother to hide her scorn. “Surely you’re not going to jump in.”
“Do I look like an imbecile?” screamed the dwarf. “Can’t you harpies see that monstrous fish trying to drag me in?” His beard was once again hopelessly tangled, this time in his fishing line and, just below the water’s surface, the girls could make out an enormous pike, the dwarf’s hook caught between its teeth.
Snow White and Rose Red looked at each other. Rose Red sighed. Her hunting knife flickered and, once more, the dwarf’s beard was free, if somewhat altered but the experience.
“Curse you to hell and back, you witless whores!” the dwarf wailed when he was a few feet back from the bank and thoroughly safe from harm. “Wasn’t last time enough? Soon I’ll be too ashamed to show my face in public! My poor, ruined beard!” And with that he grabbed a bag of pearls that had been lying next to him in the rushes and stormed away through the grass.
“Before you say anything, Snow, my darling, I am sure nearly being eaten by a pike is an exceptionally trying experience and it’s no wonder he was, yet again, in a terrible mood.” Rose Red smiled at her sister.
Snow White dimpled. “Pikes are terrifying fish, Rose. We can’t all be as brave as you are.”
Rose threw her head back and laughed and laughed as the pike sank back into the murky waters of the pond. “Oh, Snow, you’re too much some times. Come on, if we’re lucky I’ll catch a fish as big as his and we’ll eat like kings.”
The bear came back in the autumn, like he’d said, when the last of the wild crab-apples hung loose and wrinkled on wizened branches, like old, rotted teeth on wizened gums. As he came closer to the cottage he heard someone singing; it was a rough, low voice that echoed against the still air of the forest. He saw a flash of red through the trees and, suddenly, there was Rose in her favourite dress. Snow White had bought the fabric as a gift for her – the colour was deep and bloody; a rarity, it had cost Snow White all she’d earned from selling that winter’s embroidery – and Rose had asked her to make it modern, loose-flowing and straight, like the dresses they saw in town. When she ran the hem snapped like the wind around her knees.
She was barefoot in the moss, though the air was all pins and needles, reminding them of the coming winter. Her long brown legs swished and bent, appearing and disappearing between the folds of her dress as she picked sticks off the forest floor. The bear smiled as he watched her tie them into bundles.
“Good evening, Rose,” said the bear.
“Bear! Oh, you scared me!” She already had her knife in her hand. But she tucked it away and came to him, wrapping her arms around his broad, black neck, and resting her cheek on his. When she broke away, the blood had risen in her cheeks. It matched her dress. “Are you back to stay?” She moved away, crouching down to collect her firewood. Her hair fell forward, hiding her face.
“If there’s still room for me,” said the bear. “But not quite yet, I’m afraid. Winter is still coming. In a few weeks, I’ll come, when the dwarves are back below the ice again.”
Rose nodded as she hefted the wood onto her back, pulling the tumpline onto her forehead to balance the load.
The bear watched her, his dark eyes unreadable. “Would you like help?” he asked.
“No,” she said, “I can do it. But if you aren’t here to stay, will you at least keep me company for a while?”
“Of course,” said the bear, falling into step beside her.
“You and your dwarves and your secrets under the snow. Is it treasure you’re hiding from us, Bear?” She smiled at him as they walked.
“Beyond your wildest dreams, Rose,” he told her because he knew it would make her laugh. She gave him what he wanted.
The few days later Snow White and Rose Red were sent to town to buy sewing supplies. There are some things you just can’t get in a forest. To get there, the girls had to cross a heath. No matter how many times they crossed it, they always found the open air of the heath strange after the canopy of their forest.
To distract them from the imposing expanse of sky, Rose whistled as they wound their way through the rocks and scrubby heather, trying to recall the catchy trumpet line of a jazz song they’d heard last time they went to town. Snow White did a nameless dance step in time to her sister’s melody, laughing whenever she tripped up. They went along like this for quite some time before Snow White stopped dancing and grabbed her sister’s sleeve.
“Look, Rose! An eagle!”
Rose’s whistling faded as she craned her neck to follow the enormous bird as it swooped and dove, the thud of its wings still faintly audible even from where they stood.
“He’s flying awfully low,” she said.
“Perhaps he’s seen something?” offered Snow.
And so he had. The girls heard a piercing scream and, recognising those particularly shrill tones, they rushed over the rocks to find the eagle attempting to fly away with their dwarf in his talons. The girls threw themselves on the dwarf and held on so tightly, and for so long, that, at last, the eagle got bored and let the dwarf fall, flying away in search of less troublesome – and hopefully less deafening – prey.
“Dwarf!” cried Snow White. “Are you all right? Did it hurt you?”
“Hurt!” the dwarf bawled. “Just look at my lovely new coat! Torn to rags! Shreds! Smithereens! Could you miserable hussies not have been more careful?” And, without another word, he picked up a bag of precious gems that had been hidden in the heather and vanished under the rocks and into a little cave.
Rose threw up her hands, “Next time we simply won’t bother, you ungrateful toad!” But the dwarf, if he could still hear her, made no reply.
Snow White took her sister’s hand in her own and began to whistle the trumpet line again. But she had terrible pitch and, after a few bars, Rose shrugged, laughed, and joined her sister.
That evening, when the girls were coming home from town, their bags full, they found the dwarf sitting on a flat boulder at the edge of the forest. Thinking no one would be passing so late, he had emptied his bag of precious jewels onto the stone. The setting sun shone on the stones and they glimmered and shone so beautifully that the girls stopped to look at them.
It took the dwarf a moment to notice them but, when he did, his reaction was entirely to be expected. “What are you doing, standing there, gaping like fools?” he hissed at them, his sallow face flushing scarlet. “Nosy bloody cows!” He scooped his stones back into their bag and stood to leave, his face a knot that grew tighter and tighter the angrier he got.
He had turned to go but a low growl came rumbling out from the dark beneath the trees. In horror, the dwarf watched as an enormous bear come lumbering out of the strengthening shadows. Snow White screamed softly and hid her face in Rose’s shoulder.
“Oh! B-bear!” stammered the dwarf. “Oh my! Oh dear! No, no, my dear Mr. Bear, you don’t want me! No, not all! I have no meat on me! Not even a nibble! Take these wicked girls instead, they would be much tastier! Much more tender and juicy! Look, here,” he held handfuls of jewels, “you can even take my treasure!”
But the bear ignored him. The dwarf managed one last indignant “But—” and the bear struck him down with one massive paw. The dwarf’s head came clean off his shoulders and rolled away across the flat boulder and into the heather, smearing blood on the stone.
Rose Red, her arms around her sister, watched the bear. His dark eyes met hers and she did not look away. The blood rose in her cheeks. “Bear,” she said, recognising their friend at last. “You killed him, Bear.”
“Rose,” began the bear. But, before he could continue, his body began to shake and quiver. As Rose watched his bear skin fell away and there, where a bear had been only a moment before, stood a handsome man. The sinking sun made his blonde hair gleam like the gold of his many rings. He smiled at her.
“Snow,” said Rose a little weakly, “Snow, look.”
“It’s just me, Snow White,” he spoke softly. “Just your bear.”
Timidly, Snow White raised her pale, luminous head. When she saw the prince her eyes grew wide. “Bear?” she asked, disbelieving.
The prince spread his arms wide. “I’m afraid so. I met that awful dwarf in the trenches during the war. He cursed me to live as a bear until he himself died. All so that he could run off with my family’s money! But now he’s got his just desserts and I’m free again!” He held out his hands to the girls.
Snow White dimpled and took his hand in hers. “This is wonderful, isn’t it Rose?”
Rose nodded. “Wonderful,” she said, playing with something in her pocket. “Just wonderful.” She did not take the golden man’s hand but walked next to Snow White instead.
In the cottage their mother cried with joy to see their bear so changed.
“A miracle!” she said, hugging her girls to her, one after the other.
“Yes,” agreed the golden man, “a miracle.”
Flustered, she put the kettle on the fire to make tea, and give herself something to do. “And just think of your poor parents! Surely you’ll be heading straight home?”
“My parents are long dead,” he told her. “But my brother will be glad to see me safe and whole again. Even if it does mean he’ll have to share the inheritance.”
“Of course, of course,” their mother flapped away the thought with a dismissive hand. “What’s money when you have family?”
The man who used to be a bear smiled but didn’t comment. “There was something I was hoping to do before I went, actually…”
“Gather up your things from the dwarf’s hide-away, I suppose,” the woman nodded sagely.
“That too,” he said. “But mostly I would like to be granted permission to marry your daughter.”
“My daughter?” their mother repeated, dumbfounded. Her eyes went to Rose Red.
“Yes — Snow White,” said the man. He smiled at the girl and she beamed, reflecting his happiness back to him.
“Of course!” cried their mother. “Of course! Oh, this is wonderful!” And she threw her arms around her fair daughter and the golden man.
Over their heads, the man who used to be a bear could see Rose Red. She was sitting at the table, rolling a piece of black fur between her thumb and forefinger. There was no blood in her cheeks now. In fact, beneath her wild tangle of hair, her face was nearly as pale as Snow White’s. Her dark eyes met his and they did not waver. Her red lips curled, but not in a smile, and then she shrugged, as she was so often did. Feeling somehow ashamed, he looked away. When he turned back, she was gone.
Later, when the moon had risen and the north wind blew in huffy and demanding, shaking the stars in their far-off homes, he found her standing in the shallows of the lake.
“Rose,” he called.
She raised one hand in a wave, but didn’t turn around.
“Rose,” he called again, coming to stand in the rushes along the shore. “Rose, you’ll catch your death.”
She did turn then. Her skirt was tucked into her belt to keep it dry, though water didn’t reach her knees. “Don’t patronize me, Bear, just because you’re a man now.”
“Oh, Rose.” The man sighed, running a hand through his golden hair. “Please, just come out of the water.”
“Why did the dwarf change you into a bear?”
“I told you, he cursed me.”
“That’s how, not why.”
The golden man, now tinted green by the watery light, shifted in rushes. “I asked him to,” he said at last.
“Why? Why do you think, Rose? So that I could escape. You have no idea what it was like. The trenches – they were hell on earth. The priests say it’s fire and brimstone down there but I can tell you it isn’t. It’s mud and lice and rats and shit and bile and rot. We were rotting to death in those trenches and for what? For a few more metres of mud.”
“So you ran away.”
“Yes! Yes, I ran away. I paid that angry little mongrel to transform me into a bear and I ran away. I didn’t realise I would stay a bear forever.”
“And now you’ve got what you paid him back as well.”
The man hesitated. “Yes, I suppose I have. Are you happy now?”
“Not particularly,” she replied.
“Oh, just come out of the water, Rose. Please, for heaven’s sake.”
“Will you promise to tell me something if I do?”
“I just did, Rose.” But he could see the stubborn, set line of her face and sighed. “Whatever you like, Rose.”
She came back towards the shore, but didn’t leave the water. “It isn’t a hard question,” she said, and a smile played in the corners of her lips. “Why her and not me?”
His shoulders drooped. “Because you don’t need me, Rose,” he said softly, “but Snow White does.”
Rose cocked her head to one side. “I suppose that’s true, isn’t it? I’d never thought of it that way.” Absently, she ran her fingers along the spiny leaves of the rushes. “But there is such aching difference between need and want, Bear. Does she want you?”
“I assume so,” he said. “She said yes, after all.”
“Snow White always says yes,” whispered Rose. “It’s part of her charm.”
“Rose, look, I’m sorry,” said the man.
“There’s no reason to be,” she replied, shrugging. “Like you said, I don’t need you.”
“But if only you had stayed a beast,” she mused, looking out over the water, “and not become a man again. What on earth am to I do with a man?”
She came out of the water then, though it still clung to her. Her laughing mouth was still for once. She had picked a rush and turned it between her fingers, as she’d once turned a tuft of black fur. “Don’t you see, Bear? A man wants to be needed but a beast is happy just to be wanted.”
He took her by the arms, wanting her to look at him, wanting her to stop saying things he didn’t want to hear. “Don’t talk nonsense, Rose,” he said. “It is so childish.”
She didn’t pull away. “Is it?” she asked. “I suppose that’s another problem with men: they want everything to be so profound. They think that the better it sounds, the cleverer it is. And then the simple things baffle them completely. Oh, Bear,” she said, looking up at him. Her voice cracked on the name. She swallowed and put a hand up to cover her mouth, which trembled, unsure of how to form its grief. At last she’d come undone. “Your eyes are still the same,” she whispered. Like her legs, her cheeks were wet.
He kissed her then, surprising them both, still gripping her arms as though she might run off into the forest like the wild creature she longed for. It was a fierce kiss: her fingers caught too tightly in his hair; his hands left bruises on her skin. The marks he made would last for days. He would never kiss her sister like that.
When they broke apart, her face was dry. “Goodbye, Bear,” she said, and twisted out of his embrace like a fish from a child’s hand.
But she was running.
“Rose, I have a brother!”
Running fast and sure, like the wild creature she longed for.
“Rose, he will love you in my place!”
Like the wild creature she longed to be.
“Rose, I’m sorry!”
When the golden man who used to be a bear came home to his large manor house in the country, he was greeted with a celebration. His brother hugged him and cried, having believed him to be dead. When he saw Rose Red, with her dark hair and red lips, he said that the temporary loss of his brother may have been worth it after all. They all laughed, some more loudly than others. The wedding was held a week later.
The two sisters wore gold and in the afternoon sun they were blinding in their beauty. Their mother cried into a lace handkerchief embroidered with her initials. Snow White smiled and smiled and smiled, her lovely hair, fine and white like raw silk, was full of roses. Rose Red’s dark curls had been tied up in gold filigree to make them behave. They’d been washed and brushed and dressed, but their red shine had dulled, overpowered by all the gold. Luckily, no one noticed.
As they said their vows and Snow White and her golden man kissed, Rose Red’s lips curled, laughing, but not smiling.
Their mother brought cuttings of both rose bushes with her when her family moved up into the grand old manor house. She planted them in lovely oriental pots and tended them as carefully as she had her daughters. The white rose flourished and soon needed a trellis, its delicate vines bowing under the weight of so many roses. But, try as she might, their mother could not make the red rose grow. It sat, small and stunted in its enormous gilded pot, as its leaves grew dull and thin. Once a bud formed, a perfect, rich, dark red twist of life. But it withered on the stem before it had even begun to blossom and its perfume was weak, and soon faded away entirely.